Providence Marathon Race Report

May 6, 2014

Providence Marathon
Sunday, May 4, 2014

This is what a Boston Qualifier looks like!

Randy and Thor crossing the finish line of the 2014 Providence Marathon, a performance that netted Randy a Boston Qualifier!

There is a popular saying in running that goes, “You get out of the marathon what you put in.”

Having recently completed my 100th marathon, running them in every imaginable way – racing hard to my potential, running for fun at easy pace, pacing friends, and even drinking beers each mile after 20 – I should know. Because it’s true. You get out of the marathon what you put in with your training.

As if a cup to fill, one marble for each quality training session, you add more and more to the contents of the cup right up until race day. Then on race day when you toe the starting line, you start extracting from the cup one marble per mile, assuming you have been smart on pacing and hydration and with other in-race decisions. Two or more come out at a time for each mistake you make. Push mile 10 too hard and two come out. Fail to drink enough in the first 8 miles and three come out. If you have little in the cup to begin with, you have even less to take out. These will not be there for later. They are now gone, you left with fewer marbles.

If the time comes when these withdraws from the cup are forced upon you two and three and even four marbles at time, this is when you learn the most about yourself as an athlete. These are the moments where that flight or fight survival instinct is triggered. Some runners fight on. Some shut down. If the goal is in your core, and if you are fully committed to it, you push through that pain. If the goal isn’t as clear, you will likely cave in on yourself with an avalanche of negative thoughts that, in the end, take you to your knees beside the road, your race over.

I have played witness to survival instinct in myself many times through my running career. Just last June, when I attempted my first 100 mile race, things got so tough for me after mile 83, when my knee gave out, forcing me to drag my wounded leg behind me in a quest at that goal. My emotions had spun so far out of control that I gave up on myself time and time again. I tried to drop out. I even dropped out! But somehow I got back out there, in the race, and kept going. I sat beside the trail, in complete darkness, ready to call my day done. When all I wanted was to lie down and even plotted to do it, somehow, some way, I got back up and kept going. I owe much of that to my buddy pacer who stayed with me over that last 25 miles. That night, I had a glimpse into my soul, deep into my core, to see exactly what I was made of. And you know what? I actually liked what I saw. I gave up on myself time after time, but each time I got back up and kept going. I refused to be defeated. I would not quit.

Randy digging deep as Thor guides him toward a Boston Qualifier!

Thor guiding Randy at Mile 18, when the going would get very, very tough. Pictured is Randy digging very deep while Thor kept on an efficient run-walk pattern.

I was reminded of all of these complicated feelings this past weekend, Sunday, May 4, 2014, to be precise, at the Providence Marathon as I teamed with Randy, a runner friend with 100% blindness, to Guide him in his quest at qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

Randy and I met two months ago through Running Eyes, an organization connecting folks like me – a runner wanting to volunteer to Guide – with a Visually Impaired runner looking for a Guide. At the time, I had several races on my front, so we promised to stay in touch until my schedule freed up. We did. We connected so well that, when my schedule opened, Randy asked if I would Guide him at the Providence Marathon. Feelings were mutual, so I had no problem saying, with great enthusiasm, yes! We did a 10 mile training run together, where I guided him 10 miles on the Nashua Rail Trail, and decided to give it a go.

After that short training run with Randy, I had a good idea on his pace and what he was capable, but I was also made aware of how little training he really had. I know he knew this, that he was under-trained, so instead of harping on the negative (I’m a glass three-quarters full guy), I instead derived my energy from the fact that he was fully committed to this goal, he was driven, and he had a background hiking mountains – all 48 4000-footers in the Whites – in his pocket. If there is a will, there is always a way.

And when it comes to marathons, if the shit ever hits the fan, there is only one way through to the finish, and that’s through will. So although I had my reservations on his fitness, I knew he had what it took to do this. I saw it in his character. And since I knew the ultimate goal was to qualify for Boston, I took out a pace chart, looked at various paces and times, for both the first half of the race, when I knew we’d be running, and again for the second half, when I assumed we’d be walking a lot; then I thought about what I gathered Randy for in terms of pace and how long. Through it all, I came away with the confidence that I would get him qualified for Boston. The only question would be: how ugly would it get?

I would find this out when race day finally came, but I would also see a bit of myself in there, a confirmation that my pal and I were cut from the same cloth.

Early Sunday morning of race day I met up with Randy, his guide dog Autumn, and his wife Tracy at the convention center in downtown Providence. We moved through registration swiftly. After leading Randy to the bathroom for a last potty break, the four of us made our way over to the race start outside on the street. As we neared and the crowds of runners got bigger, Randy handed over Autumn to Tracy and we were off to the starting line, just Randy and I, connected by a tether. 5 minutes later, it was announced the national anthem was coming. Randy asked me which way the flag was. “To your right”, I said and then settled in silent prayer for our nation’s song. Within a minute, the race was started!

The race had a total of 1000 runners in the marathon. Since it was so crowded, and because I had us line up near the back of the race, near the guy holding a 4:15 finish time pace banner, it took us two minutes to cross the starting line.

Respect for each other kept the train rolling.

Randy digging very, very deep. One of the reasons our teamwork was so effective was that we both totally respected each other.

Once across the timing mats – “bump for timing mat”, I called out – it was crowded but we always found space to run. In the first mile, I tried to stay on the outside so that I could guide Randy around all of the turns and zigzags. Posing more technical than I liked were cones in the road marking the line we should take so that we can share the road with cars. With so many people still near us, I made a conscious decision to stay away from those, as they came upon us very quickly due to them being so low to the ground and concealed by runners.

Randy likes to use what is known as a hard tether. A hard tether is merely a sighting stick. I hold the grip end while Randy holds more loosely the other end. This allows for Randy to shift up on the stick when he needs to get tighter behind me (command “Tight behind”) and for ebbing and flowing of running and pumping arms and normal movement with two people running together.

Because we were passing people in these early miles, and because it was still crowded, we had to stay pretty tight and on heightened awareness, something that for me would never end, not until many hours later. Coming through the crowd from behind them, people were a bit surprised to hear me call out “on your left” or “coming through,” especially when there was enough room for one person. They showed a look of surprise until they saw that I was guiding a blind person; as soon as they saw this, they realized we needed a bit more space than just single file and then showed a different look of surprise. And once this happened, the energy and applause were unmistakable and much needed for my rock star friend.

We motored along comfortably, with us chatting with each other and those around us. As a Guide, I am constantly interrupting the flow of conversation to point things out, so although it could appear rude to those around us, everybody respected us and understood what was happening, even when it was a friend of mine who came by our side to chat.

Around mile 8, as I guided Randy along a busy, bumpy and very uneven suburban street, with cones narrowing our path and cars to our left, I saw up the road, on the other side of an intersection, familiar faces. It was Tracy and Autumn, Randy’s wife and dog. I told Randy immediately, as they were still out of earshot. As we neared, I saw the emotion in Randy and heard it as his voice cracked with love. What was so special was that we were not expecting to see them until mile 18, but here we were, barely into the race, showing support. In hindsight, this was the beginning of Randy starting to falter, with the day getting hard. The display of raw emotion told me this. When the body gets fatigued, those feelings come out more readily. And Randy was just starting to get there.

Immediately after seeing Tracy and Autumn, we entered a neighborhood and squirreled through streets to an out and back section that featured a u-turn marking mile 9. I warned Randy about the turn in advance. As we went into the turn, I called, “slowing, turning in three… two… one”; I did this as I applied pressure forward and in the direction we need to go on the tether to guide him around the tight curve.

Out the other side of the u-turn, Randy suddenly stopped short. The 180 degree tight turn threw off his equilibrium. His eyes were rolling in circles, and he was wobbly. I came up beside him to help him find balance. This happens to him every once in a while. It’s par for the course for being 100% blind, even to light. Where some blind people see some light, Randy’s world is one of complete darkness. Light, as you could imagine, and especially shadows, help orientation, but Randy doesn’t have that luxury, so this is what happens. After a minute we were walking and then back to running, Randy now with a stable equilibrium.

The course was a combination of city streets, busy suburban streets on the way out of the city, neighborhood, and bike path. I learned very quickly that all of the changing surface types and navigatables made this a very technical course to guide someone through. But I was up for the task, constantly calling out potholes, uneven pavement, steering through manhole covers, pylons on the bike path, and around runners, more potholes, cyclists, cones, police cars, aid stations, and much, much more. Because I was 100% in the moment being a Guide, the day actually went very quickly. At least it was that way for me. But it didn’t appear that way for Randy. Randy was slowly sliding into the hurt box, a function of his training. He was now getting out of the marathon what he put in through training, which meant it was getting ugly and about to get uglier.

"We did it!"

Immediately across the finish line, the mission complete and the goal accomplished. Thor is bringing his hands down from having raised them in a victory celebration.

Mile 12 was when Randy took his first forced walking step, where his body said no more running, not right now. His training had taken him comfortably enough to 10 miles. After that, his breathing got erratic, and then he fought on for two more miles, where we were now. In spite me forcing us to go slow, there comes a time when there are too few marbles in the cup. To that point we had been very efficient in our forward progress, and I knew we could walk plenty from here to the finish, and still get the Boston Qualifier of sub-5 hours. I didn’t panic even when Randy kept asking how much time was left; this just told me that it was on his mind, which told me he was hurting yet more. Even so, to this point, Randy didn’t complain. He was holding strong mentally even though his body was betraying him.

By mile 15, the going got very tough. Randy was quiet more than not. He also started coaching himself out loud. “Come on, Randy,” I’d hear him say to himself. “Get with it. You can do this. Snap out.” Sensing darkness, I used this as an opportunity to take even more control. I forced him to keep his mouth shut – “no talking back; let me talk at you. You need to conserve”. Randy spoke back. “You mean I should shut up,” he asked in a joking manner that wasn’t exactly looking for a response back. “Yes, Randy,” I said, “shut the fuck up.” We both laughed, and Randy, ever the student in whatever he does, took the lead and shut the fuck up. From there we fell into a nice run-walk rhythm. I based our cadence on his breathing. I kept him focused on staying in the moment, and I kept reminding him of all of his supporters. This helped him motor on. And every once in a while, I reminded him, “Conserve… Don’t talk back. Let me talk at you. You need energy for the last 10 miles.” And Randy followed suit.

One the reasons I think Randy and I teamed so well in this endeavor is because we a keen mutual respect for each other. Randy leaned on me in the first place because of my experience in the marathon. For me, I knew what he had done to live a healthy, full life with blindness, and I had seen how he climbed whatever mountain was in front of him. Tracy, his wife, said after it was all done, that we probably worked well together because Randy does well with engineers. I don’t know the reason, but I know respect of each other drove our teamwork. And now it was Randy’s time to lean on me, and he did.

To this point, my mouth was non-stop running. Before you say, “yeah, of course it was, blabber mouth,” know that the words spewing from my mouth were nearly all Guide commands and information, such as “uneven pavement, no trip hazards”, “speed bump ahead, step high in three… two… one,” and so on. I was 100% focused on being a guide. I had to. Any relaxing of the brain could mean a trip and fall. Although I told a few stories, the truth is that playing guide, especially on this course, took all of my attention.

During our time on the road, it wasn’t uncommon for runners to talk to Randy and send him along with inspiring words and “That a boy’s!” But what also stood out was that many runners would actually come up to me to thank ME! I was a bit perplexed and always kept deferring attention to Randy, as he was the brave one, the one doing the hard work. Sometimes I don’t see things the way others do, and I only come out of this more ignorant state when someone uses certain words to get my attention, to force me to look at it differently. For me, I was out there doing something cool, giving back to the sport I have extracted so much out of, and helping somebody achieve a long standing dream. It was nothing more. It’s just what you do. I have a gift, and I am paying if forward. It’s what you’re supposed to do. It was no big deal. I thought that way until this one woman runner got my attention. She came straight up to me, ignoring even Randy, and said, “Thank you for giving your time to guiding your friend.” She went on by saying, “He,” meaning Randy, “is an inspiration to everyone out here… and it’s because of you.” She ended with, “I’ve been behind you for the last few miles and see the work you’re doing and see how awesome you’ve been calling things out. This doesn’t happen without you. Thank you.” Those words, and the sincerity of them, sunk in. I got it. It took a while. But I got it.

After the woman got her message through to me, I thought back to all of the other people and what they had said along our journey so far. That’s when I connected the dots to the realization that this, right here, was my reward for helping Randy get his Boston Qualifier. I smiled to myself — called out yet another pothole, “watch your footing” — and thought of Heather and my boy back home. For a while I have had the feeling that I am in the best part of my life. And this just further confirmed it. I don’t think I could love my life any more. And that includes my love for both of them. Perhaps this is why I am ultimately in the right place to give back in this manner. It feels so right that it is no big deal.

This boost of emotion came at a good time, because the day was getting hot, Randy was struggling even more, and my energy needed to stay high because not only was I playing normal guide duties, but I was now also playing drill commander, feeling out when to run, when to walk, and keeping him focused and motivated and moving forward. Because although I still felt confident on a Boston Qualifier, I knew that only happened – the ultimate goal achieved – if I kept us motoring forward, and that included running as much as Randy’s body would allow.

With mile 18 came a nice boost when we came upon Tracy and Autumn, Randy’s wife and dog. Since I knew to expect them at that point, starting at mile 16 I kept reminding Randy that we would soon meet them again. This proved well because it got Randy to focus on a small milestone. If he wasn’t thinking about how much farther we had left in the race, he was in the right spot. This I knew. So I broke up focus to goals we could realize within a half hour, for at that point anything farther was, simply, too far for a beat up, tired body to process.

Tracy and Autumn did not disappoint. They came at a perfect time, just when Randy was slipping further into himself.

After that boost of energy, we went back onto the bike path. The path was mostly straight, wide open from trees or brush, and running parallel to the ocean. This wasn’t ideal. As the wind swept off the water, it came blowing at a steady 25 mph or more directly into our left side. This proved challenging for Randy, because as the wind shifted him, it threw off his center of straight. I learned very quickly that to help best guide I needed to always keep pressure forward on the stick, as if I were tugging him forward. But since I did not want him to use that as a cue to speed up and thus burn him out, I told him, “Follow the stick. I will keep pressure on it forward to keep you straight. But do not speed up. Just make sure you always feel the pressure. But do not speed up. Stay light on your feet. Short strides. I got you. You are good.”

Randy, in complete trust of my guiding, forged on. And on. And on. It wasn’t pretty — in fact it was downright ugly — but he followed every single one of my commands, both in guiding and in keeping him running and forcing him to start running agai. I made sure we ran light and easy — and I forced the pace very slow so that we could last running even longer — until his breathing ran out of control. That’s when I would force him to run just a bit longer and then walk. I forced these in, all with his full support, around natural landmarks, such as hills, all of which we were now walking, to maximize his time running, and his time walking, so that we would be most efficient in moving us toward that Boston Qualifier.

"Finish line in three... two... one!"

Randy and Thor team to get Randy a Boston Qualifier!

Not once did I worry about getting in under the 5 hour wire. My buddy was a fighter, and I knew he’d fight through this, even now when his legs were seizing on him. You get out of the marathon what you put in, and his work was paying him back in not a good way. But with his spirit and will working overdrive, I still felt comfortable that even though his cup was losing marbles, running toward empty, what he had inside him would help him string out each marble to get him farther yet along the course. Randy stayed focused and worked through the hurt.

When we reached mile 23, I knew again it was a slam dunk, though in his tired body and mind, Randy kept asking the time. I would tell him but get him back to focusing on staying in the moment. We carried on this way, fighting into a stiff head wind, me applying a steady pressure forward on the stick so that he would know which way was forward, so that the wind would not throw off his center. Meanwhile, other runners were joining us. At times we had a small army of runners around us, each listening to my words and commands, “short stride, not fast, just short steps, slow down, short steps, breath, stay in the moment, focus only on my words and your breathing.” We did this through mile 25.

At one point Randy came out of battle armor to make an announcement. To this point I had him on a nice walk-run cadence, running when his breathing was back under control, and stopping running when his breathing started getting too deep. I said, “Randy, we’re going to run in 30 seconds,” he said, “I’m sorry, I can’t.” As I assessed when to next run to give Randy the breathing he needed, he perked up with renewed energy and said, “I lied to you. I told you before the race that I’d follow all of your orders, and I just went against that. I lied. Let’s go. I’m ready.” I laughed, told Randy that he didn’t “lie” to me, and said, “Okay, if you’re sure you can give me some run, we’ll go in 10 seconds.” In 20 seconds – I gave him a bit extra – we ran again, and again Randy dug deep within his soul to see what was there, and what he saw was that he would not quit. Even when he wanted, even when his body was shutting down and muscles seizing, Randy would not let himself quit. I smiled at his pain in a way of showing mutual respect. This right here must’ve been what it was like for my pacer, looking into my soul, when in my 100 mile race the year before I too was in a dark, dark place, giving up on myself yet still finding a way to keep going. Randy was a true warrior. He was living to fight this day – not another day!

As we moving beyond mile 25, Randy, hearing by sounds of cheers the crowd growing thicker and louder, cheers reserved especially for him in his battle — both those on this day and that of a lifetime – Randy asked “where are we?”, referring to where were we on the course. “A half a mile, tops!” I told him. He perked up, “I want to run the rest of the way.” I knew this was still a long way, but I knew he would give me his all, and I knew that all we had to do was to get a little farther and the crowd would suck him right into the finish line.

Run we did. I got Randy to stay slow, to not race himself, and then painted the picture of what I was seeing. “The course bends left up ahead. I see other runners turning and picking their heads up. The finish line is down that road. This is the final turn.” But I still needed to coach, “I want you to stay at this pace. I will tug you around the bend. The road is uneven from here until there. Pothole. More uneven pavement. Pothole. Give me a high step in three… two… one.”

Meanwhile, the crowd, seeing my Randy, was now going mad; it was deafening. To command Randy, the only way he could hear me was for me to turn my head around toward him so that my mouth was pointing at him.

“Turn coming in three… two… one… feel the stick, I’m pulling you left around the turn… feel the stick… Randy, the crowd is three deep. They see you. Feel it, brother. They see you. Those are for you. Pothole. Another pothole. Dip. Rise. Uneven pavement. I now see the finish line. There it is, Randy. You did it. There’s a big finish arch spanning above the road. That’s the finish line. You did it. Another 50 yards. You did it. Pothole. More uneven pavement.” Randy, so excited, was pushing the pace. I could feel it on the stick. “Easy,” I said, “stay easy. 40 more yards. There it is, a big arch, people everywhere. They’ll all looking at you, cheering for you. You did it.”

Just then Tracy, along with Autumn, jumped into the road. “Randy, it’s Tracy, I’m right beside you,” Tracy yelled out to Randy. “I have Autumn with me.” As this played out, I glanced back to see a joy on Randy’s face I will never, ever forget.

Guide duties called, even down a finish line chute. “Dip,” I called out as I whipped my head back to Randy again to alert him to an indentation in the road.

“Dude, I have my hand in the air.”

As soon as I said that last line, I let out a holler and looked back again to give another command. Immediately after calling out a pothole, I processed the sight of Randy, hearing from me that I had my hand in the air, thrust his fist in the air and keep it there.”

“We did it. We did it.”

Randy was aglow in victory. I was too. And so was Tracy and Autumn.

“10 yards, Randy.”

“Wide open street. Uneven pavement the rest of the way. You did it! Here it is. The finish. Coming in three… two… one!”

Randy still had his fist in the air, as did I, when we crossed the finish line. Time on the clock was 4:42. We did it. Randy qualified for the Boston Marathon.

It would be a day neither of us will ever forget.

Immediately across the finish line, Randy and I embraced in a hug at the battle just had. He fought one hell of a fight, and he won it because he believed in himself and me as a Guide. Our teamwork was unmatched in its efficiency.

After we let go, Tracy and Randy hugged. Tracy then took Randy over to the side, away from the crowds, to connect Randy back with Autumn, his guide dog. This moment struck me in a profound way for a lot of reasons. Now that Randy and I were untethered, and that the goal was now complete, I felt a strong sense of relief, even freedom, that I could now let up on that heightened awareness I had held for the previous 5 hours. Freedom was walking without looking for tripping hazards. And pride, for seeing Randy through to this goal and getting a glimpse into his soul. Like with my own glimpse, the one into my soul, I like what I saw in Randy’s. It didn’t escape me that he had this fight in his because he was the ultimate warrior to get to where he was today, a marathon finisher and an entrant in the 2015 Boston Marathon!

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TARC 100

June 24, 2013

Friday, June 14, starting at 7 pm, I toed the starting line of an 100 mile trail race. It was my first race at this distance and a long, long dream of mine that, honestly, was never a goal because, well, I never thought I could or would ever want to challenge myself in this way. However, life, as it does, changes, and I found myself with goals and dreams. And so at 7 pm this past Friday, I, along with 200 others, set out in attempts to run 100 miles in the bounds of 30 hours.

TARC 100 – Due to a month of heavy rains, including a deluge the two weeks prior, the trail conditions turned into a painfully slow shit show slop fest in the mud and pooled water.

You might ask: how can you possibly run 100 miles? And what do you eat? Very few people actually run 100 miles straight. In perfect conditions, I have run, without stopping, over 50 miles. But 100 is too much, especially when it is trail, which contains rocks and roots and elevation change, all of which wear on you even more. The only way to power yourself for hours on end is to fuel and hydrate. I eat every 20 minutes and I sip on water so routinely that it is second nature — probably taking a gulp of water every two to three minutes.   Our bodies are engines, and so in order to power it for a long, long time, we must fuel it and keep it hydrated. There’s more to it, but that’s the essence.

Conditions on the trails were very, very, very bad. A rainy month preceding the race, not to mention the last two weeks in which we received more rain than we typically get in three months, made the course dangerous, slow, and very difficult to navigate. Water pooled over so much of the course that you had no choice but to wade through. Common was having water come up to my knee, sometime my hip. No joke. And you can’t run through the puddles like you can on streets, because you don’t know what’s in the puddle. Run through, hit a rock or root you can’t see, and your race is over.

TARC 100, Lap 1 – Still smiling, still feeling good, and shoes still mostly clean

The first of four loops (25 mile loop we did 4 times) was very slow, but I was still in good spirits if not far more tired than I should  have been. I was starting to get worried about how tired I was this early in the race until when I completed the loop I saw hordes of people dropping out of. I was later told that 25% of the field dropped out after the first lap. It was that brutal. I was slightly buoyed by the fact that I was not alone in wondering why I felt like I had run 50 instead of just 25. Either way, I kept going. It took me about 6 hours to complete the lap.

TARC 100, Early on in Lap 2 – Leaving aid station in the darkness

The second lap was, like the first, in complete darkness. It was sloppy and slow and I started to fatigue. I even considered dropping out, but I went on. I thought I hit lows, and I did, I just how no idea how low a low can really get, at least not just yet. By the end of this lap, with me now 50 miles in, I was just over 13 hours into the race. It was 8:30 am. I thought I’d finish these two laps in under 12 hours, but since this was one of those epic type races, I didn’t pay attention to how fast or slow I went. My goal was to finish. Speed didn’t mater. My energy was renewed with the notion that my pacer would be joining me for the next lap. In races this long and grueling, the race permits you to have a pacer to run with you. They keep your spirits up and, more importantly, stay with you during a time when, well, things can happen. I mean, running a 100 miles isn’t a healthy thing; it takes a tremendous toll on the body. Health conditions can arise quickly.

TARC 100, Lap 3 – Part way into Lap 3

The third lap was when things got very difficult. I was now joined by my friend Hank, who would be my pacer from mile 50 through 75. I had turkey sub to get me off to a good start and was feeling good again. I call out the turkey sub because it — and other food items like it — is what is considered “real food” — real as opposed to Power Bars and Gels. Real food gives back more energy but is difficult to carry, so we often opt for gels and bars packed with energy. Not long into this third loop, things got very ugly for me. In my head, I dropped out a few times, but each time Hank kept me in the game. I told Hank before this event that his goal is to make sure I do not drop unless I have a physical, real medical issue where I just cannot move on. Blisters, not feeling well, and being tired are not reasons to drop.

I knew I’d go through the emotions, so I told him up front to never let me drop out. And he, thankfully, drove that role better than I could have even hoped. He kept me in the game when I myself gave up. This lap was spent running and walking. By then I wasn’t able to run for long periods, mainly because when the terrain would get technical or tilt up, I had nothing in me to run. This is normal. But I was still able to run on the flats and downs. Troublesome was the fact that my left and right knee, each at separate times, started to give. Although I was still able to run, I knew that feeling, and I knew it wasn’t good. It always means that eventually it will get bad enough where I will no longer be able to run. As we were finishing this lap, there’s a two mile section that contains roughly 1.5 slow miles of wading through mud and pooled water covering the trail. It reminded me of being in the Amazon. It was during this time when my energy levels dropped very low. Beyond low. Hank kept me going even though I was now moving slower. This lap took 7 hours. We com

pleted it around 3:30 pm Saturday. I had now been running — or, really, moving forward with both running and walking — for 21 hours. If I could keep going, I was on track for a 26 to 28 hour finish. If I could keep going…

The fourth and final loop was brutal. It started with me being buoyed with another turkey sub and the fact that my other buddy, Andy, was joining me as my pacer while Hank was now leaving. Andy and I have run together for nearly 15 years. He, like Hank, is a great friend who knows me very, very well. I felt bad because he, being so fresh and spry, was getting me at a very, very low point. But that was also his job. I had told him the same deal I told Hank: don’t let me drop out unless it’s an emergency.

TARC 100, End of Lap 3 – Grabbing a turkey sub before heading out with Andyman on Lap 4. The ugliness was about to start.

After gobbling up the turkey sub over the first mile of this final lap, Andy and I got back to running. For 10 minutes. Shit hit fan again. I was trashed, beyond tired. My legs were cooked. My lungs were tight. My heartrate was high. And my energy and spirits were low. Poor Andy. We walked the rest of that segment, three miles worth. As we were walking, I came up with a plan: I was going to drop out. After mulling this over in my head for an hour, I finally told Andy. “Dude,” I said, “I’m really sorry, and this has nothing to do with you, but I’m done.” Andy asked what I meant. “I’m thinking about dropping out. I’m done. I have no energy. I can’t even power hike. That’s the part that worries me. I can’t do this for another 20 miles.” I was walking so slow. I was like a 98 year old man who’s always 25 paces behind his more healthy and younger wife. Andy asked me if I was sure. He reminded me that he wasn’t supposed to let me drop out. That’s when I told him, “Look, I’m done. But I’ll be fair to myself here. Once we complete this 4.5 mile segment (each 25 mile loop was a 4.5 mile loop that came back to the start/finish area, plus a 20.5 mile loop, so we were on that 4.5 mile loop, with me at mile 79.5 and coming back to the start/finish, where I had a cooler, chair, and bag of clothes, gear and food)… once we complete this 4.5 mile segment,” I said, “I’ll be fair to you and to me. I will sit down for a while, have a turkey sub and coke, take some salt, and reassess then. But if I’m still lacking energy, I’m done.” Deal. We got back to the start/finish area, with me now at mile 79.5, and I grabbed a seat, had my sub, and nursed a coke. “I think I’m done,” I said to Andy. He wasn’t sure how to respond. He was new to this type of racing, so he didn’t really know that he had to get me out of this funk by trying to help me figure out why I was feeling so low. He didn’t yet know that there is always a reason — always an answer to get you back going. After a half hour, I finally stood with defeat in my eyes. “Andy, I’ve put this off for a half hour.” Andy knew what was coming. He did his best to remind me that I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. “If it were easy,” Andy told me, “I would be doing it.” I laughed. But I was done, defeated long ago. “I’m handing in my timing chip.” Before Andy could catch me, I walked away. I hobbled over to the timing station, my legs so stiff that my knees wouldn’t bend, and went up the race director. “Josh,” I said, “I’m dropping out.” Josh, the race director, asked if I really wanted to drop. He said to sit down for a while. He reminded me that I had plenty of time before cutoff. I said I already did sat. I want to drop. Are you sure? I don’t know. I’m defeated. That’s when his friend jumped in. He said, “The next aid station is in 2.5 miles. Just go there. You can do that. Get some food in you, grab some salt, and go to the next station. If you want to drop out, then drop out there. We’ll send a buggy to come get you.” No, I’m defeated. But in the back of my head, I didn’t want to drop. I wanted to keep going. But I had nothing. That’s when Josh said, “You’ve come so far already. 80 miles. You can’t just quit. You look good. You’re healthy. You have to go on. Here’s what I want you to do. You’ve been sitting for a while, so I want you to walk with really long strides down this grassy section. Long strides. Stretch the legs. Then when you get to the pavement (parking lot), try to run. Even if it hurts. Break up the junk in the legs. Take high steps.” I stood there as I processed what he was saying. He was right. I was in a funk. I needed to somehow break out. And maybe this would work. One long stride after another, I walked the grassy path, and then when I hit the parking lot, I started running — like really running — and then did high knees, bouncing on my feet, renewed. I ran back to Josh and his friend and Andy and said, “Andy, I’m in. Let’s do this!”

Andy and I set out toward the next aid station. I was feeling far better, and I was running again. And I was dreaming again about finishing this race. I marvele at the ups and downs — extreme downs. In decent time, Andy and I got to the next station, at mile 82.5, and kept going. For a half mile. My right knee, holding on by a thread, finally gave. I tried to numb it out by forcing a run, but it would take it. I had no choice. I would have to walk the rest of the way. Assuming the dark times stayed at bay. Unfortunately, they did not. Again, I came up with a plan to drop, but each time I went to tell Andy, I somehow fought off the urge, and I kept power hiking. Each time, Andy sense my negativity, figured out I was slipping into a dark place, and got me back out. Wading through water and mud didn’t help the knee or my energy. By mile 85 I couldn’t even power hike. I was reduced to a slow walk, dragging my leg behind me. My knee was done. I was done. But Andy, now having learned that those dark periods come and go and that it’s his job to make sure I keep going when it gets dark, kept me going. And going. My knee got so bad that at times I had to stop and sit for 5 to 10 minutes to get it back to the point I could walk again. I knew these periods beside the trail weren’t good. Time was running out. In between those periods, I was back to that dark place — no energy, no power, barely walking. But Andy kept me going. One of the things I learned was that after 75 miles, Power Bars and Gels no longer gave me energy. They did nothing for me. So it was at the aid stations, where I could get real food, when I would get real energy. Because of this, Andy, back at the mile 80 aid station, where I almost dropped out, grabbed a Ziplock bag and stuffed it with pizza (three slices) and turkey sandwiches. So every twenty minutes, when my watch would beep signaling it was time to eat, Andy would rip a slice of pizza in half for me to eat or he’d give me a turkey sandwich. He joked that I was the real Dean Karnazes. This worked well for a long time. But it didn’t always work. I still found that dark place. Not able to talk, for it took too much energy that would take away from moving forward. I was surviving. Barely. It sounds gruesome. And it was. Dark and ugly. But Andy kept me moving forward. I learned long ago that in endurance sports, when dark times come, the only way to keep going is to block out all thoughts, especially when they turn negative, and stay in the moment. You focus on the here and now, not the finish, not anything else. Breath, feel it, step, repeat. I barely heard the frogs croaking and the coyotes howling in the darkness. On I forged.

After what felt an eternity, we finally, and I mean finally, came to the aid station at mile 90. I was now under 10 miles left. It was 10:30 pm Saturday night. I had been running for 28 hours. I had 2 hours and thirty minutes to hike 10 miles. Could I do it? I knew the answer. I would not make it. I couldn’t. I could barely walk. Running was out of the question. I tried running time and again, hoping the pain would numb out, but each time after two paces, I was reduced to walking. At one point, desperate to keep moving forward, I ran a pace, walked five, ran one, walked five, with each run pace on my left leg, the one with the good knee. I was no faster. And then reality hit. Another dark period came. My knee was wonked, and I had no energy. By this point I had to sit on a rock beside the trail every half mile. Wading through the mud took too much out of me. Each time I sat, I saw time slip away. I had to finish by 1 am, which was no less than two hours away.

By the time we got to mile 89, I knew I would not make the 30 hour cut off in the race. So tired and beat, I no longer cared. There was nothing more I could give; that much I knew. I also knew that as long as I followed Andy’s step, listened to his words of encouragement, and stayed focused in the moment, I would go through many more dark, dark periods where I’d want to drop, but I would get through them, keep moving, and finish this thing.

And that’s when things started to change. For the bad. And these bad things were completely out of my control. Not in my head, and not in my body. As Andy and I made our way in complete darkness, the path lit only by our headlamps, with me now moving forward for 29 hours over the course of three days — three days! — and 95.5 miles, two runners came the other way, these two, a runner and his pacer, on their way toward the finish only two miles ahead of me. As their headlamps came near, the pacer said, “Are you Thor?” Yeah, I said while wondering how and why they would know my name. I knew a lot of people on the course, but I didn’t know these guys, and yet they knew my name. Was someone looking for me, and why? The pacer went on, “Two guys behind us are looking for you.” Looking for me? Were they just concerned about my safety? Or was there more to it? I would soon find out.

As I made my way toward the next set of headlamps in the darkness, a familiar voice called out ahead: “Is that Thor?” Yeah, it’s me. “We’ve been looking for you.” As they came near, I realized it was Paul, a runner friend who had volunteered his time on the course at the aid station. But it didn’t yet occur to me that there was a reason he was looking for me. As Paul and his volunteer friend joined Andy and I, they turned and walked with us. Paul said, “You sound good. But your knee doesn’t look good.” I was dragging my leg behind me. Paul didn’t have the heart to say what he was really there for, why he was really looking for me. Instead he went on. “I got a beer for you at the aid station.” I laughed. Paul knew me well enough to know that I like my craft beer. “Ha, I’d love a beer but I have 5 miles left. A beer would knock me out right now. But thanks for the offer.” Just then Paul realized that I didn’t get what he was trying to but never quite got around to saying. “I’m really sorry, Thor,” Paul finally said with straight honesty, “you didn’t make cut off into the aid station (at mile 95.5). You missed it by 15 minutes. I can’t let you go on.” And there it was. My race was over. I made it 95.5 miles in 29 hours and 20 minutes.

Many people are saying sorry, offering that it must be bitter sweet, suggesting that it wasn’t fair. There’s nothing bitter sweet here. I gave it my all. I kept going when even I gave up on myself. I quit 20 or more times. But each time I got knocked down, I somehow, some way got back up and kept going. And going. And going. Why? I don’t know. I really don’t. I thought a lot about this. Maybe it’s ‘Just because.’ It’s the best I got. And in this race, I gave it the best I had. I am in awe, as it if were someone else, at the stubborn fight, the never quit approach, in me. I mean, I was left for dead time and again. But I kept getting back up. I took the fight to the battle. They had to yank me from the course. I would not let it defeat me. And I didn’t. I didn’t.


Green Papaya Marathon

March 18, 2013

Green Papaya Marathon
North Reading, MA to Waltham, MA
Thursday, March 14 2013

Results
26.2 mile marathon-distance run
3:26:35 (7:53 pace)Route: here

Run Report

Between jobs and with a lofty summer goal in the TARC 100, I decided to use my unstructured time away from work wisely by getting in a marathon distanced run. When Heather told me that she was meeting her brother for lunch mid-week at the Green Papaya Thai restaurant, my mind started working and, after playing around with gmap-pedometer.com, I had my goal. I would run marathon distance from my house in North Reading to the restaurant in Waltham.

Starting at my house, I ran due west straight into a rather steady and chilly headwind. Due to the cold morning (made colder by wind chill) and two days in a row with 10+ miles, including one with speed, I struggled for the first 8 to 10 miles with my pace in the low 8:00’s. Although I was not looking to run fast — or any given pace — low 8:00’s was rather slow, and it didn’t exactly feel smooth.

I followed a route west on Rt. 62 straight into the town of Bedford, where I hooked up with the Minuteman Bike Path. By this time I started feeling better and was running a pace comfortably in the 7:00s. Took MM bike path south into the well-known town of Lexington, where I then went due south-west toward Waltham. One trip around a reservoir and I reached my destination at the Green Papaya Thai restaurant, where Heather and her older brother were waiting for me. We had a nice lunch. Then home.

Pace started in the low 8:00’s and progressed faster to the mid 7:00’s, all comfortable. Best part was that I could have logged more miles, especially if I eased back on effort a bit. This bodes well for my attempt at the Boston Double.


Rás na hÉireann 5K

March 13, 2013

Rás na hÉireann 5K
Somerville, MA
Sunday, March 10, 2013

Results
5K (3.1 miles)
Finish: 18:03 (5:49 pace)
31st place overall of 5000
3rd place Master 40+
Mile 1 – 5:46
Mile 2 – 5:47
Finish – 6:28 (5:52)

Race Report

Just as Irish eyes start smiling each March with the advent of St. Patrick’s Day, so too does the Rás na hÉireann USA 5K, a race otherwise known as “The Ras”. Only, in this case, the Irish eyes smiling were those of Bernie, my Irish friend, as he comes knocking on my door for the Clock Tavern pub team in honor of “The Baker,” someone who loved this race more than most.

As I have in previous years, I told Bernie to sign me up. The Ras has become among my all-time favorite races in the Boston area. It is way up there with Eddie-O’s Cambridge 5K events and Doyle’s. Although I was excited for the fun to be had, I was a little apprehensive — or perhaps curious is a better word — of my race fitness, especially after just coming back from a lower calf injury that had sidelined me of fast running for nearly 3 months.

How would my legs spin up on a 5K? Could I get under the Mendoza line of 18 minutes flat? I was excited to find out but not all that hopeful.

Knowing my race pace fitness was not where it had been at the end of last year when I was running mid 17-‘s for the 5K (17:30 @ NR Turkey Trot, 17:38 @ Yulefest), I decided to get to race site early and warm up by doing a full loop of the course. I felt decent enough but just didn’t seem to be smooth when striding out to race pace or faster. My breathing was okay, but I was a bit ragged. My knee often felt as if it would give out, as happens when I’m not fit.

Ras na hErieann USA 5K – Nervousness on the starting line in Davis Square.

After a few more strides by the starting line in Davis Square, I was as ready as ever, so I wiggled into the starting corral three rows from front and waited for race start. That’s when Todd Callaghan, a friend from mountain running, said, “Hey Thor!” I had been wondering where Todd was, as I know he does this race every year, and I know he is the guy to chase for me for the Master’s crown. Todd clocks in the 16’s for 5K’s, slightly out of my league. But I like racing with him because I can usually gauge my fitness by how close I stay to him. Either way, seeing Todd on the starting line meant that I was now shooting for 2nd place Master. 1st was his.

Before long, the race was started. Off the starting line I went along with 5000 others. Unlike in prior years, there was very little jostling, no elbows, and mostly clear path. As I got up to speed relatively easily due to such a long warmup, I couldn’t help but note that this was surprising because it was obvious that there were more people around me this year over most, which meant I was a little slower. My fitness really was a bit off. Damn.

Over the course of a gradual up hill first mile, I settled into pace. I was breathing hard yet just on the edge of control. The hill has a great way of selecting placement in race by ability, and this hill was honest enough to do just that. By the time I got to the top, most runners were in place; there would be little passing the rest of the way. I went through Mile 1 in 5:46. A little slower than I’d like. No matter, I was still running hard and now focused on being efficient with all movement forward and all energies pushing me on.

A minor victory, I got by two guys who looked to be in my age group. The gray hair gave it away.

As the course makes it’s way through a traffic circle en route to the second mile, I passed two more runners. I tend to be a slower starter, even when warmed up, so I knew that I’d nip a few with nobody or very few passing me back. And that’s what happened.

Me being a slow starter isn’t exactly true. The truth is that others are fast, and they fall off pace, even if just a little. I tend to run races with fairly even splits. It’s because my strength isn’t about getting out the gate fast; my strength is being able to hold onto the pace I get out with for longer than most. I honestly don’t run much faster. This is what I thought about as I passed one more.

Just beyond Mile 2 (5:47), the course takes a right and sweeps down a fast way. Instead of thinking about the finish and how much distance was left, I stayed in the zone, stayed focused on being efficient, and spent my awareness on trying to close the gap to a few runners ahead of me.

This strategy worked well, as I closed the gap to 10 seconds before the final turn and hill on the course. From there until the end, a section that is arguably the fastest on the course, I was all-out, but so were they. I gained very little time on them, though none moved ahead, and nobody passed me from behind.

The final stretch was long, perhaps .75 miles, on a gradual down hill. It’s too early to kick. But I kicked anyway. I wanted to break 18 minutes, and this was my time to grab back seconds, as I knew I ran well with my current abilities, but I also knew that I was a bit slower than normal.

Kicking early meant that I had to be in control both physically and mentally. I stayed focused on form as I ran as hard as I could without tipping the over the edge of control. I pretended I was doing Top End Speed pacing on the Treadmill, running as fast as I could, focusing on keeping my center of gravity under me, not over-striding, and being strong yet fast and efficient and running on top of my feet.

Lucky me, I was able to hold on. Finish came in 18:03. I thought I might get sub-18, but it wasn’t happening. Not today. Victory of sorts came as I took 3rd place Master 40+. So I didn’t run as fast as I had hoped, but I did get a Top 3 spot among the old guys, a goal of mine coming in.

As I had streamed into the finish line, I was surprised to see my friend Samantha (Sammie Girl!) on the side of the road cheering me on. After I finished, we regrouped, and that’s when I talked her into a cool down run. It was an unexpected very nice treat.

Not long after that, we got our Irish (and Guinness) on. The Ras proved fun once again!


Black Panther (Cat) 26.2

March 7, 2013

Black Panther (Cat) 26.2
Salem, MA
Saturday, March 2, 2013

Results
26.2 miles
Finish: 3:06:53
Marathon #84
Marathon-A-Month #17

Race Report

SONY DSC

Two and a half months after pulling up lame with injury in the lower calf, deep within the Soleus muscle, on the side of the Chelmsford Bike Path in early December while on a run with my bud’s Dave and Jay, I was finally able to get back to health and running hard.

During this time I was (somehow) able to keep my marathon-a-month streak alive by limping through the New Year’s Boston Marathon when my injury was at its peak, and then by doing the Cape Cod Frozen Fat Ass 50K, where I miraculously came in 2nd place overall even though I could not run any faster than an 8 minute mile. Neither of these were smart, but I did them nonetheless to the tune of the streak at 16!

This meant I needed #17! Insert Black Cat 20.

A quick study of the course map showed that I could double up on a portion of the course (mile 3 to 6, including the turnaround at 4.5) plus an additional .1 miles per doubling) so that I would get marathon distance in a timed event where the clock at the finish would read my marathon finish time.

My goals coming in were to notch another marathon and after a warm up test my legs with marathon pace effort.

And that’s what I did.

When the race started, I was well in the pack chatting socially with friends and fellow Goons: Jen, Ann, Karen, and a few others.

By mile 1, I eased into a slightly faster pace, perhaps running a comfortable 7:45 to 7:30.

That’s when my buddy Tim came from behind to my side. Tim and I chatted together and with those around us through to the turnaround at 4.5 miles on this double-looped course.

Mile 5 came in a total time of 38:30 (7:42 pace). By this point, it was time to get into marathon race pace effort. I qualify race pace *effort* since I didn’t plan to look at my watch to see the actual pace I was running. I just wanted to get to the same effort of when racing a marathon. I figured with me having had no quality runs through most of December, all of January, and nearly all of February, race effort would be slightly slower than my true marathon pace (6:50).

In hindsight, I was probably running 6:55 to 7:05 in those middle miles through to 24.

The first loop was smooth yet uneventful. I came through in a time of 1:13:56 (7:23 pace). Pace for those five miles was 7:05.

Now making my way out on the second loop to the turnaround, I started counting runners in front of me as they were coming back. I was surprised that although I was running easy, or at least had been running easy for the first five miles, I was pretty far up in the race, and there looked to be few, maybe two, Master runners ahead of me. Even though I was sure I could catch several of these runners by the end of the loop, I decided that there was no glory in this race in finishing high up and that I should stick with my original plan of logging marathon distance. Spying results after the race was over, I learned that I would have been 2nd place Master runner. But no matter.

To the turnaround I went, back .1 miles beyond mile 16, and then as I should have continued straight, I turned around to do this 3.1 loop again. And then I did it again.

To this point I was running a touch easier than marathon pace effort. I figured I was on target for a 3:10 marathon, maybe 3:08 or perhaps 3:07, fastest. I was within myself but now working quite hard, as expected. What wasn’t expected, mainly due to ignorance, was how hard running a marathon really is. I say ignorance because I do this often. I set myself for wanting a goal, such as logging a marathon, without thinking about the pain that comes with it and the amount of work required to see it through.

The work came for me as I passed mile marker 15, which for me was mile 21.2. I was buoyed when I realized that I was on my way to a decent marathon time and that I was actually feeling in control. Part of this was to be expected, as my effort was purposely just shy of marathon pace effort, but part was a little surprising (in a good way) due to the length of my absence with injury.

By mile 24.2, the day was finally catching up with me. I was still in control, still powering forward, but now feeling as if my pace was falling slightly. I didn’t fight it too much, as I wasn’t there to bury myself but rather to get in an honest marathon-distanced run.

Mile 24 (7:01), 25 (7:13), and 26 (7:17) went quickly enough.

As I rounded the final corner with the school and the finish line in sight, I wondered what the clock would read. To this point I had not looked at the race time, nor did I know my pace, so the gift was the prize of seeing the clock for the first time.

I hoped it was a 3:0x. In my heart I knew it would be.

Finally, the clock was visible. It read 3:06:53 (7:07 pace).

Photo credit Brent Doscher


Marathons List Update

March 6, 2013

I finally got around to updating my Marathons List through early March 2013. At current standing, I have logged 84 marathons.

The list includes Ultras, marathons, and Ironman marathons. Also included are unofficial marathons where my goal was to run marathon distance.

At first I had not included unofficial marathons in the total count, but just recently — mainly because I had a change of heart after dreaming about the day I get to run my 100th — I fell back on my cardinal rule, which was:

“If the purpose of the run was to log marathon distance, and if it was timed [by me or other], I would count it.”

And so my count jumped by a few. So in some circles (Marathon Maniacs), some of these would not count, the truth is that, well, it’s my list — so I get to make the rules!

 

As always, an updated version of this always lives here!

The plan is to continue my marathon-a-month streak, hopefully through two years — currently at 17 months; will make the second streak of two years — which will take me to roughly 90 marathons by the end of the year.

Once I get within spitting distance and can smell number 100, I will formalize where I will run the prized Century number. Current thought is to either wing my own so that I can run it with friends and have family there, or I will return to the Cape Cod Marathon, site of my very first marathon back in October 1990.

Hopefully I will get there within two years, three tops.


Winter Break: officially over!

March 5, 2013

Winter Break and my hiatus from this space is officially over!

New year with new goals. I am committed and motivated.

Since my last post, an October entry last year in Training Week, I have been busy racing and running with a rambling of focus, which is how I always treat the off season.

Notable runs/races (not all races included):

During this time I have been able to keep my marathon-a-month streak alive (as of this writing, streak at 17 months) despite a recurrence of a chronic Soleus (lower calf) injury. I am now on top of the injury, with my streak in tact, and looking ahead to 2013.

Speaking of 2013, although it’s hard to lay out a race schedule now with a newborn at home, this is what I’m thinking:

  • Mar. 30: Bad Ass Fat Ass 50K
  • Apr. 15: Boston Double (Boston Marathon x 2 w/5 am start downtown)
  • Apr. 27: TARC Spring Classic 50K
  • May: Epic Training Runs!
  • June 14: TARC 100

List does not include small races, such as VERT, random 5K’s, etc.