Thursday, March 29, 2012

No Rest for the Weary

After the last repeat, following the final click on my watch, when I stopped long enough for the humidity to cling to me and the sweat to raise on my slick skin, I could call it finished.
But, oh, how it seemed like this moment might never come! I toiled around the oval in an endless limbo of ragged breaths, straining muscles, and negotiations. Going to the edge, peering over it, pulling back.

I put my hands on my hips and took one final deep breath and walked back to my things, a haphazard pile of clothes, keys, and water bottles. I swapped out my racers for sandals and in the background, baseball fans murmured at the clink! of a pitch being swatted into the outfield. I sat for a moment and thought about how rare these moments can be, the ones after a good, hard run where the tingle of adrenaline lingers, the colors in the sky appear sharper, and you feel delightfully empty.

Of course, you usually have to crawl through hell to get there.

Thirty minutes earlier, I cinched the laces tight on my racers and tossed my t-shirt over the sandals. I began a slow trot around the track doing math in my head and trying to spot any deer grazing along the edge of the woods. A light rain fell over the field, and though the eastern sky looked ominous, the sun peeked through in the west.

After my fourth lap, steam rose from the track and I walked over to lane four to do some drills before committing to the workout. I recently read an article in Running Times about doing “floating” workouts on the track. In other words, there’s a short recovery between intervals where you float, say, 100 meters. It’s not a traditional recovery jog, but rather a slightly faster spell at about half marathon-marathon pace. My dad used to tell me about running 30/40s, or a 30 second 200 followed by a “floating” 200 at 40 seconds.

The workout today was 3-4 sets of 1200m-400m- @10K/5K pace where the hyphens are 100m floats at half marathon pace. After each set, you do a 200m jog…then start all over again. I decided 10K pace would be 5:45 so a 1200 comes out to 4:18, while 5K pace would be 5:35 or about a 1:23, 400.

With nothing left to do, I took one more shot of water, lined up, and clicked the watch. On the first lap, the pace was controlled, the motions fluid. I came through the first lap in 1:24...too fast, but comfortable and decided to lock into that pace. When the third lap came around, I went about preparing myself to not come to a screeching halt when I crossed the line but to, well, float through and keep the momentum going. I barreled down the last stretch, clicked my watch, saw the “4:08” shrugged and kept moving…there was more work to be done. The final 400m proved slightly crueler mentally because where I normally would only have 200m to go, I had 300 to cover. I concentrated on slingshotting around the curve and keeping my feet under me. When I finished the 400, I slipped into half marathon pace for that final 100m float and smiled at the “1:19” on my watch.

Consistency, I preached on those merciful yet too quick 200m. Don’t blow up the workout.

But on the final lap of the second interval, I had 10 seconds to spare and continued to push the pace. The afternoon sun was naked in the sky and bore down upon me. I cleared the wads of spit from my throat as I blasted around the final curve of that 400. The second set read: 4:07/1:20. I grabbed a swig of water to wash my mouth out then set about tackling the third set.

The sun cooked the track into a humid soup. I had the sense on the backstretch of every lap that the finish line seemed so far and I was incredibly lonely back there. I pushed on and felt a quivering in my hamstrings. A foot would scrape its partner’s calf and I’d curse to get myself under control. Be still, I thought trying to quiet the noise in my head. I fought for a 4:06/1:20 third set. The negotiation began on the 200m recovery.

The schedule called for 3-4 sets. You could call it here…or you could forge on and know you’ll be stronger for it… And on it went until about 20m left. I clicked reset...then start and took off behind the goal posts.

The effort felt harder, but the pace was even, and in fact, it felt smoother than number three. The sun disappeared for a moment bringing a merciful reprieve. I’m going to hate the summer, I thought before refocusing.

After my final 100m float, I did come to that screeching halt I tried to avoid on set one so many laps and minutes ago. I sucked in the thick afternoon air and waited for my breathing to return to normal to really appreciate it. Set four: 4:06/1:19.

I swung the backpack over my shoulders and sipped liberally from my water bottle. I could feel the coolish liquid running down my stomach. It felt good.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Backyard Burn Trail Series, Prince William Forest - Redux (A Win!)

The 30-39 Leader Board after three races.
A couple days before I left to go to college, I remember chatting with one of my best friends before we said good bye for the summer. Because I took a year off of school to play hockey up north, he already had a year under his belt and offered the following one word of advice to take with me: “Confidence.”

Uttering this word silently to myself over the years has gotten me through some otherwise daunting situations. When I toed the line in the third of four races at Sunday’s Backyard Burn Trail Race Series, I burnished this word into the back of my eyes. I had let the idea of "running to race, racing to win" marinate in my head since I captured my first win in this series two weeks ago. Ultimately, I knew I could run in fear, that I might not win again, intimidated by those I looked upon prior to the race, or I could bury those lingering doubts and believe in the many hard miles that led me here.

“Ten seconds,” the starter, called out. My fingers fluttered at my side. Confidence, I repeated. The bullhorn blared and we took off down the road in a flash of adrenaline. The course wound down along the park road. I decided here that I needed to use this portion of the course to do any passing and try to establish my position in the pack to avoid any potentially nasty encounters when the course switched to single track.

I noticed right away that there was a familiar zip to my legs, almost an invincible feeling that surfaces on rare occasions, always unannounced but certainly welcome. I allowed myself a smile and surged forward. This could be a good day. The road took a sharp decline and I decided that on the return side, I would charge up this hill to put some distance between me and the hunters.

The out and back on the road wasn’t as far as I thought it might be and we slammed into the turnaround in a tangle of arms and legs. I lost a few positions in the traffic but regained my composure and went about the business of reeling in the leaders. We crested the hill and returned to the start line where a clump of six emerged. We strung out singlefile as the road turned to grass, turned to gravel, and finally to trail.

My shoes slid through the slick mud, courtesy of nearly 24 hours of saturating rain. If I couldn’t win or place, I told my wife the day would be a victory if I came away without spraining my ankle.

Splashing in front of me, sloshing behind me. I alternated looks at the shirts in front of me and the roots and rocks below me. The trail pitched steeply toward a rushing stream and before I could think about it, I went barreling down the slope, eyes wide like a madman trying to feel the trail and pick my next spots. There. There! Shit! Catch it. There! My mind reeled as my legs wind-milled. I shot arms and hands to the side for balance, hooked a sharp left over the bridge, and merged onto the wider carriage road as the voice quieted in my head. I gave a quick glance over my shoulder to see the white shirt chasing me fade.

We came through the first water station at 1.4 miles in just under 7:30. Yeeeow! I thought, trying to make the quick pace conversion, then giving up and focusing on the task at hand: reeling in the blue shirt in front of me. The wide carriage trails made it easy to find a flow and I rode their steady rises and falls, making subtle course adjustments to find the smoothest lanes and avoid the puddles. I pulled even to the blue shirt and we ran with one another for a stretch. "Five. Or ten?" he asked, meaning the distance.
"Five." I said, eyeing his ten miler bib. When the trail descended, he said, "Downhill. Time to. Close. The Gap."
"Let's. Go," I huffed.

We picked up our turnover and drew closer to the gray shirt in front of us, working off one another. Another runner was hands to knees just off the trail with a long string of spit hanging from his mouth. One less to catch.

With just over 1.5mi to go, a man stood at the bottom of a hill and waved the runners ahead of me forward. Then he pointed to me. “Five miler, turn right here!” he shouted, pointing into the woods.

I hit the brakes and tried to ride the turn into the narrow single track. The river quickened as the swift brown water swelled over onto high banks. I listened above the gurgling for the man to yell to my pursuers, but nothing came. I was the only one who made the turn.

Alone, I picked my way over the slick roots and jutting rocks, latching on to limbs and branches to steady myself while searching for the limp pink streamers dangling from the trees marking the course. When I hit tough climbs, I slowed to a trot remembering that my pursuers would have to climb them too.

I came to a bridge tended by volunteers who urged me on with just one mile to go. I crossed over the river and as the course double-backed on itself I stole glances to the other side looking to see where the hunters were. It wasn’t until I made one last turn up toward the finish with a half mile to go that I saw them. Two in a row, I allowed myself to think, as I continued on alone.

On a particularly nasty climb, I slowed to a hike and chuffed up the hill. When I neared the top, I broke into a slow trot then saw the blue, plastic mesh signaling the finishing chute and straightened up. I came through it to a round of hoots and applause, this time leaving no doubt that I was first. The next runner came through more than 90 seconds later.

Last night before going to bed, I filled up my first place pint glass with the third beer in my four pack and toasted to 50 points and sole possession of first place in the series. One race to go.


Friday, March 23, 2012

The Track is Back, Jack!

I believe we all have those friends who we seldom see yet when life brings us back together, we slip into the old routine as if no time has passed. I have this same relationship with trails long since run and that perfectly measured oval known as: the track.

With roughly seven months until the Marine Corps Marathon and no big goal races on the calendar for the foreseeable future, it’s time to have some fun. Because readers, this runner has reached his limit of long tempo runs, 2K and 3K intervals, and 14-18mi training runs. Of course we're defining fun as lung searing, lactic acid storm repeats, the kind where you can feel your stomach getting ready to heave but don’t quite let it, or your hamstrings feel like they might seize after a particularly punishing 400.
No more ogling workouts online or in running magazines only to have to turn the page and sigh knowing that that 10K workout isn’t going to do much good for a marathoner.

It was with this in mind yesterday that I laced up my new Nike Elite Zoom kicks and drove to the nearby track. I slung my backpack off my shoulder, moved to the starting line, and started a slow trot around the oval. The sun had begun its descent into the tree line, which did little to shield it from my eyes on the back stretch since not all of the leaves have filled in yet. I felt clunky and out of synch during that four lap warm up, but as the pace quickened on that final lap, I hit the last 100m and felt my canter increase. I caught myself, There’ll be plenty of time for that, I thought.

Remembering my hockey days, a shoddy warm up always meant I had a spectacular performance in store, and for some reason that holds true for my running as well.

Breaking in the new kicks
I moved over to the goal post, went through some dynamic stretches, and then back on the track for some drills. After the last butt kick, I sipped on my water bottle, traded my Elites for my Asics Racers, and there was nothing left to do…except the workout.

I saw this one back in Running Times a few months ago. It’s a Greg McMillan in and out workout where you run 10 laps, using the straightaways to push the pace and the curves to recover. It’s supposed to help increase your turnover, make your stride more efficient, and as the warning said, not be as easy as it might sound.

I set off on my first lap, having already decided to break the workout into five sets of two for mental sanity. I started to sling shot myself around the first turn down the backstretch. When I shut things down heading into turn two, my breath turned raspy, my heart rate thudding. Shit, I thought. This could suck. But before I could ponder it further, it was time to start the second strider.

I barreled down the final 100 and lifted a finger on my left hand to denote number one, set one was indeed in the books.

The workout continued that way. My body settled in after that initial shock, when all signs pointed to STOP!, but the override switch is nearby. And I spent those surges on the straightaways letting the whispers of races past speak to me and perk that adrenaline up some.

When I lifted the final finger, I jogged a mile cool down and finished with some more dynamic stretching. The school was desolate as I walked back to my car. A satisfying ache lingered in my quads and hamstrings that I knew would still be there this morning. A track workout beats you up in ways a marathon workout could never touch.

More fun to come in the next few weeks. I’m just happy to see my old my friend again.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Being a Runner Again

Walney Pond
The afternoon rush hour hummed all around. If you closed your eyes, it almost sounded like waves roiling up on the shore. Almost. My CRV crunched over the gravel parking area. I killed the engine and opened the backdoor to let my dog Mattie out. The perpetually happy dog, her nose went to the grass as she hoovered whatever new smells called her all the while wagging her tail. You see, despite the major highways that crisscrossed in the background, there is a small pond inside the afternoon chaos with a little more than two miles of trails behind it. It’s just enough to help you forget that you’re in a bustling metropolitan area and only moments ago capped your eight hours at the office.
Returning to Walney Pond casts wide memories of my youth like the ripples that spread along its surface from nervous frogs. I remember fishing alongside my dad and grandfather using a bamboo pole when we first moved to Virginia so long ago. It brings back Cub Scout nature walks, elementary school fieldtrips, and the summer afternoon bike expeditions that live in coming of age novels.

My wife and I return to it now and again for short weekend walks. More recently, I’ve taken to adding it on to my 12 mile loop should the plan call for 14-16 miles.

Yesterday, however, I simply decided that I needed a change of scenery. With the Rock and Roll USA Half Marathon behind me, I have room to play. Yes, I realize this is in direct contrast to what I wrote about not too long ago, but aren’t we always tempted by that seemingly greener grass over there? And, truth be told, I already have a new training program on the fridge that includes this week of “easy miles” to just enjoy being a runner again.

So, Mattie and I set off behind the pond and across the wooden bridge that spanned a burbling stream. We went at an easy pace to acclimatize ourselves to the too warmish March weather and to simply enjoy an uncommon middle-of-the-week outing.

After a half mile running at a slight incline over wood chips and mulch, we merged onto the one mile long North Loop trail. The acrid smell of freshly cut trees punctuated the air and was quickly replaced by the soft perfume of budding trees. Clusters of daffodils add a shock of color to the muted woods.

Another half mile goes by and we tossed a nod to a pair of walkers before bearing left onto the half mile Wild Turkey Trail. Mattie kicks mud up my shins from the suddenly soggy route. The trail veered close to the street long enough to remind us that we’re not completely immersed in the wilderness.

When we reconnected with the North Loop, Mattie’s tongue lolled out the side of her mouth. We slowed the pace and made a quick diversion to the stream for her to steal a few sips. Up ahead, a gray doe stands guard on the edge of the trail. She locks eyes with us and just beyond her, we can see the mottled hides and white tails of her troupe. It’s not until we’re 10 feet away that she spooks and darts into the woods. Mattie’s lethargy disappears and she’s straining at the end of her leash to give chase. It’s enough to carry us back to the start of the North Loop trail.

We make one more pass around the North Loop and Wild Turkey Trails before ending back at the bridge and burbling stream. The heat has gotten to both of us so we walk when Mattie wants to walk and we stop when she wants to sniff.

Before heading back to the car, we walk down to the clear, cool stream and I unclip her leash. She nearly belly flops into the water and alternates dipping her belly with slurping from the stream. I peel my socks off and dip my feet in while she bounces from rock to rock and chases the water spiders. The cold rocks feel good on my slightly swollen ankle.

For a few more minutes, we let the warm afternoon breeze wash over us and just relish the thrill of being a runner and a dog.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Rock and Roll USA Half Marathon - Redux

In years past, when the Rock and Roll USA Half Marathon, was simply the “National Half Marathon,” I knew that if I could tough out the course’s steady climbs through the first four miles, I could conquer the rolling hills that seemingly took away life on its relentless inclines and gave it back on its forgiving backside. What I hadn’t counted on was the gurgling in my stomach that began at the 10K mark. Frankly, there’s no conquering that.

Following a marathon PR at the NY Marathon back in November, I planned for the Rock and Roll USA Half Marathon to become my “next big race.” But an ankle sprain in December and a nasty chest cold two weeks ago that made me feel as though someone had just opened the Ark of the Covenant but Harrison Ford wasn’t there to tell me to close my eyes. Anyhow…it simply became a race to run.

My friend and I made our way to the front of the corrals, all the while eying porta potty lines and alternative areas to, let’s say, “stretch our calves.” With the clock ticking down toward gun time, I finally darted off from her to a spot I thought shielded me from any onlookers or authorities. I did my best impression of a runner just out for a warm up run. When I got to the “secluded” pillar under the metro bridge, I took a pretty long, err, calf stretch, then, pleased with myself, turned to see that in actuality I was in full view of arriving racers. Perfect time for some striders.

I linked back up with my friend and we made our way to our respective corrals. After some last minute stretching, I pulled my sunglasses down and…we were off.

Over the first mile, the course climbs through Capitol Hill where a smattering of spectators shake signs and various noisemakers. For this runner, it’s about getting to the top of that hill to work on settling into a rhythm. The course’s constant rise and fall makes this easier said than done, which is why I fight thoughts of, “I hate this,” during the first four miles. Nevertheless, it’s easy to distract yourself by the stunning view of the Capitol rising at the end of the street and the Cherry Blossom lined Constitution Avenue.

At the 5K mark, I took a quick glimpse at my watch and noted the 6:00 pace and thought, Huh, this might actually come together and be one of those days. It was also about this time that I could feel the sun on my shoulders. When I grabbed for the water at the aid station, I noticed my heart rate sky rocket and my stomach quiver. Hmm, that’s new.

Just after the four mile marker, I turned up 18th street and steeled my mind for the steep, relentless hills that would carry us up to and through Dupont Circle. My feet turned over faster and I made up ground on the runners in front of me. As I picked each one off, my face sneered as my stomach began to roil. Just relax, we’re just out for a run today, I thought.

The final hill up Connecticut Avenue, a long, lung searing monster came and went, chopping up my stride. I reached the top and pleaded with my legs to regain their form and convince my lungs to find the steady in-out rather than the haggard exhales I spewed. I came through 10K, glanced at my watch and was surprised to see that I was only 20 seconds off my 10K PR and wished then and there that the race would end. No such luck.

I switched to Gatorade at the next water stop and while the sugar jolted me awake and out of the lethargy that descended on me after that climb, my stomach became less than pleased.

I rode the downhills and toughed out the uphills, ticking off each mile until nine. Nine is your savior, I told myself as mile nine through 10.5 is a steady downhill that you can use to reset and pick up some lost time. At mile eight, we left the shade of the building-lined streets and met the sun full on while rounding the reservoir. With one final climb, I made the hard right onto North Capitol street and onto 1.5 miles of downhill I craved. Except the retreat I counted on just wasn’t sitting right.

I backed off the pace and tried to find a more comfortable flow. But with each step, I could hear my stomach sloshing. The overpass at New York Avenue looked an eternity away. At mile 10, I saw the medical tent…and the porta potty. I took a hard right and, well….

Four minutes later, I’m back on course and just ready to get this last 5K over with...but the uphills are still wreaking havoc on my insides. So I slow the pace and just focus on one mile at a time.

Coming down C street, the stadium finally comes into view. I mince my steps and turn a tired eye toward the finish line that appears over my right shoulder. The road winds around and begins to climb toward the finish. More twisting and havoc, and I wonder if I’m going to make it. I see my two friends who have come to spectate. We slap hands as I go by and I cross the line in 1:27:30 officially or 1:23:27 with the stop.

I catch up with my friends and we cheer on our other running cohorts before collecting our gang and heading to breakfast.

Big congrats to my friends and Loopers who ran well, PR'd, survived the course as well as the metro delay that sounded like a race in and of itself!

In less than seven days, I’ve had two stomach issues. When faced with throwing up after a win or suffering intestinal distress in the middle of a race, I’ll take the former any day of the week. What I do know is that both end with a tall pint of beer so I guess it’s not all bad.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Learning to Race

Back in 2010, I arrived back to my car atop the parking garage of the Pentagon City mall. I had just completed the Army Ten Miler and hit my goal of crossing the line in under an hour. I stepped gingerly into the front seat, pulled the phone from the glove compartment, and dialed up my dad. Somewhere early in the conversation, I confessed: “Racing is hard.”

I can still flashback to the eight mile marker in that race just before crossing the graveyard of all D.C. races, the 14th Street Bridge, and remember the feeling: beaten down, sapped of strength, and full of doubt. I would pinpoint it as one of the first moments I truly reached within and willed myself on toward the finish line. “I will go to the well,” I remember telling myself as I flipped through my rolodex of character workouts from that hot Virginia summer and pushed on to the finish.

There are races we run for others or in their memory; there are races we run for ourselves; some we run for time; some we run for tradition; and still some we run to race and even win.

When I first started training seriously, my goal had been to run a sub-20 5K. I had inconsistent success at it and when I’d relay my experiences to my dad and uncle afterward, they independently said the same thing: “You’re just learning how to race.”

Learning how to race? I thought. I’d completed many races to that point, including a couple marathons. What was there to learn?

A lot.

As I toed the line month in and year out, I learned more about myself, let alone racing: How much pain could I endure? How much was I willing to endure? Where is my training weak? What sorts of courses do I excel on?

By taking an honest look at my performance in those races, I could pull out the positives, discard the negatives, and apply them to my next race. I know, for example, that I thrive on uphills and can use that portion of a course to do some damage.

Up until the Backyard Burn Trail Series, I ran for time. When I put together a training plan prior to each race, I had a goal time in mind that I could adjust based on how the program progressed. If my finish came with an age group prize, that was just icing on the cake.

But this race – or series – is different. I don’t have much need for a 5.6mi PR. In other words, the clock is pretty much out the window. To do more than run – that is, to race – in this series is to hunt down those ahead of you and outlast the ones behind you. First place in a “slow” time is still first place.

In a recent race, Pete Rea, head coach at ZAP Fitness, told his runner to put the watch away and run to compete. My dad called it “running to win versus running for time.” Such a simple statement that pretty much summed up in seven words what I’d been pondering since winning last weekend’s 5.6mi trail race.

In running books and perhaps even in our heads, we romanticize that feeling of being in extremis and I believe – at least for this runner – that when faced with going to that dark place, I’ll embrace the pain and lay myself bare to obtain whatever the goal is. But saying that you can endure it and then actually enduring it are two completely different elements. I like to think that I answered the bell this past weekend and hope that I can again. Because no matter how much it hurt at the end (and the middle), it all went away when I crossed the line.
The reasons we race are as different as the places we come from. To win, to place, to remember, or whatever your reason, we have an opportunity to learn about ourselves.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Backyard Burn Trail Race, Wakefield - Redux

“Did you win?” asked the red-faced runner who’d stalked me for the past four miles. We shook hands and alternated talking with sucking in the brisk morning air.

“Um, I don’t know,” I said. “On the course they told me I was sixth.”
“Yeah, but I think those guys ran the 10.”
“Hmm, we’ll see, I guess. Nice run.”
“You too.”

Thirty-seven minutes before that conversation, I stood on top of the curb unable to muscle my way to the front of the running horde waiting for the siren to signal the dam break. Some last minute instructions: the course was flat and fast, it was actually 5.6 miles not five….The starter counted down the last five seconds and an uncommon shot of adrenaline coursed through my body and sent a wave of nausea that crashed in my stomach. I leaned back a second trying to catch it, trying to save that unexpected nervous energy, but it was too late. The siren sounded.

We bound down the road in a tangle of legs and arms. I stuck to the outside to stay out of the melee before methodically working my way to the other side of the road. The pack strung out in the first 300 meters separating us from the group. The nausea wave pooled and hardened into an angry ball. I took deeper breaths to try and break it up, willing myself to relax and find a rhythm. I settled in behind two runners and hung on their shoulders. The course bent to the left and sent us down a long, flat stretch of dirt road. Here, I found my stride and took mental notes as the “.5 mile to go” sign flashed by. I’ll see you again, I thought.

After my conversation ended, we headed our separate ways, him for the food and me away from the crowd. The nausea from the start returned and I walked to be alone. I pulled in deep breaths to fill my lungs with that life-giving cold air and thought I had everything under control. Then I coughed. Then I vomited. And then again. I stood there with my hands on my knees. A woman walked by and patted my back. “Good job today,” she said. I turned watery eyes up to her and managed a “thanks.”

The dirt path disappeared and carried us over wet grass. The pace slowed noticeably as the three of us ran under a canopy of trees and the bright orange sign shone ahead, calling for a hard right turn onto the single track. Before I could ponder the decision, I shot out and around the first of the two runners then decided to overtake the second, not wanting to get caught behind them heading into the woods. Riding my confidence, I kept my foot on the gas to add a little distance between us and focused on the orange swatches on the runner’s shirt ahead of me.

Without my GPS watch – I forgot to charge it – I was at the mercy of waiting for the “3 mile to go sign.” I put the distance covered out of my head and focused on the task at hand: hunt the runner ahead of me, stay ahead of the hunt behind me. My mind worked as hard as my legs trying to spot my next footfalls, finding the orange shirt between the branches, and spotting the pink ribbons and orange turn indicators to stay on the course.

Sometimes it was too much to compute.

I reached a creek crossing and slammed on the breaks. Panicked, I looked for the course markings, spotted one flickering ahead in the light breeze, and jumped down nearly three feet into the creek then pulled myself up the other side. That couldn’t have been right, I thought tamping the water from shoes. Out of the periphery, I saw the easier crossing, but too late. I cursed myself hearing the footsteps closing in behind me, and ahead, the orange shirt nowhere to be seen. The earlier confidence trickled away and I pressed on the gas to fly around the twists and turns that set my heart rate skyrocketing and my breathing ragged.

My reference point vanished and the pursuit pack snapped branches somewhere behind me. I ran on alone.

The gang post-race
After I emptied myself out, I trotted back toward the finish line and sipped on some water. It was cold inside my empty stomach. The other runners began to stream in. I met up with my wife and friends as they came through, and we chatted as they indulged in the post-race snacks.

I pulled my wife aside when she asked, “How’d it go?”
“I think I won it,” I said. Her face lit up. “But I don’t know for sure, so don’t say anything.”
“I’ll have the camera ready,” she said.

I pointed at the volunteer holding out the cups and muttered, “Water?” then snagged the cup and sipped more to wash my mouth out than to swallow. “You’re sixth!” he bellowed. I tossed a wave and listened to see how long it took him to yell to the other runners. I had gained my lead back. The trail switched back as we began to climb. I caught my pursuers over my shoulder and still had a good gap.

The three mile to go sign flashed by, then two. The trail rose and fell and on every turn, I glanced over my shoulder but only enough to catch a sense of where the predators were. The trail turned hard over itself and I minced my steps, trying not to panic as my pace slowed. They have to run it too, I reminded myself. Don’t get nervous in the pack, Bruce Denton said in my head.

With one mile to go, I breathed a “Come on!” A storm of doubts raged in my head and I did my best to batten down the hatches. Believe in the miles. I pleaded. Believe in the work.

I began to retrace my earlier footsteps along the straightaway dirt road. Keep it neat. Turn ‘em over, I repeated. Told you I’d see you again, I said to the “.5 mile to go” sign.

I went for broke.

I dropped the hammer and decided to kick from here. Every breath thundered out of me and the lactic acid seaped in and started to bind my legs. I straightened up for the photographer then took one last look over my shoulder and allowed myself a brief moment of reprieve seeing the gap I’d opened up…then nearly squandered it when I stumbled over a branch.

I bore down on the finish, wanting it to just be over, willing my legs to churn. How could the equivalent of two laps around the track take this long? Then the finish chute appeared and I summoned one last effort.

“Number 432!” the man shouted. I came across the line and nearly went hands to knees but tried to walk it off. There was no tape to break, no applause, just a woman there to tear the ticket from my bib. I stumbled around, a grimace on my face, and saw only volunteers.

The awards ceremony began and we crept closer to the stage. I listened to the times get closer and closer to mine, the nervousness back in my stomach. When they got to second place, the announcer said, “Brad,” and my heart sank a bit. “Burns,” he finished. “And first place overall in the five mile race in a time of 36:32…Brad Holzwart. You have to be a Brad to get on the podium I guess.”

That evening, I opened up the next beer in my four pack. It tastes a little better out of a pint glass that says “First Place” on it.


Friday, March 9, 2012

Operation Extreme Redundancy and the 2012 Marine Corps Marathon Registration

The clock read 2:49. I’d had the Marine Corps Marathon tab open in my browser since I signed on at work many hours ago. I went about my day but always with a frequent glance at the time in my taskbar. My Outlook appointment reminder popped up one minute later. I clicked the “dismiss” button then turned to my vibrating phone, which twitched to give me the same message.

Operation Extreme Redundancy had gone into full effect.

All the weeks and months, all the planning with my friends, had finally come down to just a few minutes. Several waffled on whether or not to sign up, and we pleaded with them to just do it and transfer the number later if they decided they couldn’t run it. As Sheldon Cooper said, "I warned you thusly."

For grins, I clicked refresh on the screen and watched as the banner said, “Register Now.”

A quick glance at the clock again. Really? Now!

I clicked and watched the registration page pop up. After the initial shock, I got ahold of myself and shook that feeling that I somehow had cheated the system. My fingers flew over the keys entering my information and then doing it again for my wife. The confirmation e-mails arrived in my inbox, and just like that…it was done. I exhaled and fell back into my chair.

I texted my friend who I’d made a pact with to let him know that registration had opened. All part of Operation Extreme Redundancy. Except, as you can see, it reads more like Will Ferrell in The Wedding Crashers yelling, "Mom! The meatloaf! We want it now!"

Before 3:00, I’d registered my wife and me, texted a friend, and made the obligatory Twitter and Facebook page updates, then proceeded to retweet and “like” many of my other friends’ similar statuses. This in addition to shaking my head at the posts from people reeling from server crashes. I had flashbacks to signing up for Boston two years ago when the registration page kept you in an endless loop that never quite made it to the submit page.

When the dust had settled, I realized that signing up for races had suddenly become the musical equivalent of purchasing concert tickets, or the scholastic equivalent of registering for classes. Let’s face it, running a marathon, or any of the big short races, is the new “it” thing. I can still remember back in 2004 when I ran my first marathon in Philly, you could have walked up and signed up to run the day before the race. Not anymore.

30,000 slots. Two hours and forty one minutes to fill them all. Unbelievable.

I went through a similar ritual to sign up for the trail series I’m currently in. Just another in the long line of races that reaches capacity in a matter of days, let alone hours.

Well, I’m happy to have survived the madness that became the Marine Corps Marathon sign up. I ran MCM back in 2006. It was my second marathon and I was a different runner back then, just hoping to break four hours…which I missed by seven minutes.

As Quenton Cassidy once said, “I’m just happy to back on the bus again.”

Who's coming on along?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Backyard Burn Trail Race, Hemlock - Redux

“Do you remember the scene in Star Wars – the first one,” the race director clarified. He stood on the flatbed of a muddy pickup truck, a bullhorn cocked to the side of his face. “And they’re in the garbage pile? That’s what it’s like around the river, so be careful.” The herd of runners exchanged nods and knowing looks. “Google it if you have no idea what I’m talking about. You’ll understand after the race.”

Then, we took off.

In the weeks leading up to the Backyard Burn Trail Race Series, my concern lay in my recently sprained ankle holding up. But a catch in my throat on Thursday morning quickly put an end to those fears, and instead placed them squarely on my throat, chest, and sinuses. I decided after a complete day of rest on Saturday, that I had to at least try to race as my cold rattled around in my chest. If nothing else, it would become a five mile hike through the scenic back woods of Clifton, VA.

I used the first half mile to test my legs, my breathing, my head, as I sifted through the crowd of runners barreling toward the woods. The first half mile had us on pavement and crushed gravel. Just before we descended on the trail, I met a short, steep hill that brought me up on my toes and stretched my calves as I picked away. This, I knew, would be the initial test. If I could get to the top of this hill with no burning in my chest, it would be full steam ahead.

Slightly out of breath, I crested the hill, wiped the snot from my nose, and pressed down on the accelerator. It was time to race.

The crowd had mercifully strung out as we entered the first section of single track. My friend Ebo talked about “seeing the trail with your feet” and I did my best to concentrate on where my foot placements would go to avoid hobbling to the finish on another sprained ankle.

The trail twisted and turned through the woods and I found myself steadily gaining ground on my competitors during the uphill portions. I crept up on their shoulder, waited for the hill to level off then shot by them tossing a quick, “On your left,” and a wave that was met with a return wave. Trail racers are so polite.

What I hadn’t bargained for was how bad I was at running the downhill sections. In trying to “see the trail,” I slowed way down and almost tip-toed down the hills, arms out for balance, and could hear the footsteps coming behind me. I thought back to my only other trail race – a half marathon – where a woman came screaming behind a pack of us, yelling, “Get the $%& outta my way. Use the downhills to pick up speed, morons!” I guess they’re not all polite.

At the bottom of the downhill, the Bull Run River rushed by. After nearly half an inch of rain from Friday, the river had swelled and left behind muddy puddles on the trail. I stomped through them, kicking mud up onto my calves, knowing that since we’d come down this way, eventually we’d have to go back up.

Just over half way, I hit the “garbage dump” area and fell out of the rhythm I’d finally managed to settle into. Here, the footsteps grew louder, then voices. Then I slipped hopping to a particularly muddy boulder and nearly wiped out. I grabbed for a tree branch and caught myself, coming to a complete standstill.

“You all right, bud?” the voice came from behind me.
“I’m ok. Go ahead, guys,” I said gesturing to the path ahead, and watched as they nimbly navigated the rocks.

When I reached packed earth again, I could see a red shirt bobbing through the branches and I locked in on him, hoping to gain back some ground.

The trail began to pitch upward and I knew this would be my bread and butter. If I was going to make up ground, it had to be on the uphills. I have one (ok many) quirks, including when climbing a hill like this, I repeat the name of hockey player Joni Pitkanen because for some reason his name makes me think of "picking" my way up the hill. So I muttered this man’s name as the shirts grew closer. At the top of the hill, I lurked behind a guy in a gray shirt to see if I officially had him. When I heard the ragged breathing, I gunned it and flew by him hoping to take advantage of one last flat area to really put some distance between us.

I came by the “Half Mile to Go” sign and ran alone. I crossed the finish line and waited to cheer my wife and friends on. After a cup of coffee, a banana, and a thorough diagnosing of the course with fellow finishers, I came away with a 5th place age group finish, 7th overall, good enough for 26 points in the standings.

Cheers to that!

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Backyard Burn - A Race in the Woods

Somewhere between mile six and the man sitting in the chair with a sharpie to mark halfway, I tamped out the water in my soggy shoes. The creek crossing didn’t seem deep on the first step. It was the second one that dismantled my stride and submerged me to just below the knee. I executed the return crossing on the back portion of this out and back half marathon much better. What I didn’t expect was the bee sting at mile eight or the nettle bushes that left my side tingling for three days after near mile 11. And so came the battle scars earned from that first trail race back in 2010.

Since then, the woods have been a place to escape, to challenge myself, to recover, to explore, and to “wash my spirit clean.” It takes me back to a time when I was a young boy crashing through the woods behind my house with my best friend in tow, without a care or a thought in the world other than the simple pleasure of disappearing into this timeless place.

It was with these thoughts in mind – and the rave reviews of my trail racing veteran Sarah Finding Fit – that I decided to pin another bib on and go crashing through those woods again.

Without the benefit of a crystal ball or other such devices to tell the future, I clicked “submit” on my entry to the EX2 Adventures Backyard Burn Trail Series back in December. Four days later, I sprained my ankle. On a trail run.

The series – which begins this Sunday – pits runners against one another (and the terrain) over the course of four races on Virginia trails. Each race is roughly five miles (or ten if you wish to complete it twice) and runners can tally points throughout the series depending on where they finish in their age group. Age group prizes are pint glasses with your place printed on the side.

Sunday’s race takes place at Hemlock Overlook, a course that the race director bills as “the most technically challenging of the four.” Which means rocks, roots, and ridges. Just what I need for my rehabbed ankle.

In preparation, I’ve added some trail running to my longer runs and have been no worse for wear.

Ankle concerns aside, I think the appeal of the trail race – or trail run for that matter – is that primal connection when flying through the woods. It's slipping away from the known world and completely removing yourself from the rigors of the morning and evening commute and the traffic and exhaust clogged streets. It’s running through a place both brutal and beautiful all at once.

I factored in the first two races to my Rock ‘n Roll DC Half Marathon training plan with the idea that I would knock out my long run on Saturday and use the trail run as recovery, with the caveat that if I feel good, I will push the pace to put one of those pint glasses to good use later in the evening.

I hope that come Sunday night, I can toast to that. Either way, I look forward to escaping even if only for five miles....
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