Crickets 3.4 – VT Shires Marathon – 2013

Crickets 3.4 – VT Shires Marathon – 2013



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Crickets 3.4


I was somewhere in the middle miles, deep into the race.  I was in a valley.  The thick, rugged forest climbed away near vertically into a verdant crush on my right.  Some sort of bushy swamp lay deep in the left.  All was claustrophobic, closed in on all sides by the crush of the looming mountains and trees.

The dirt road crunched under my feet as I held pace. The tireless thrill of racing, actually racing, a marathon filled my veins with that timeless mixture of effort, pain and joy.  Vermont is a wild place still.  Untamed.  Close packed with mountains of green.

I was re-passing one of the guys who had passed me on the previous uphill.  I looked at my Garmin for a sample of my pace but the GPS was struggling to find a satellite in this forested hole.

All that was missing was the visage of a laconic moose chewing his cud and regarding me bemused in the underbrush.

The dirt road was graded and washed at the same time.  I changed sides, back and forth from the crown to the wheel tracks to the washed gravel seeking a level, firm ride for my Hokas outside the washboard ruts.

I was soaked with sweat.  Really soaked.  I had been working my machine hard for miles and it was passing water and salt efficiently.  My shorts were so wet, that even though I had them tied well with the drawstring they were sliding off my hips and sagging with the weight of the water.

I had a Hammer Gel in my right hand with a Ziploc sandwich baggie that contained the last few Enduralytes.  I tried stuffing them into the useless pocket of my shorts but they kept falling out and I’d have to stop and go back to pick them up.

I had on the long baggy shorts with the bike liner that we got from Brooks when they sponsored our ultra team at the inaugural East Coast Ragnar Relay.  Team Twitter – (we won).  I had never had this problem with them sagging and dragging from the sweat but this must have been a special case.

I was pushing the pace, executing just at or below goal pace, working to keep between 1-2 minutes of slack in the bank for the last few miles.

It was a beautiful, lonely place.  An ancient place. A peaceful place of green mansions where I could wrestle my marathon daemons and make right my world.

The Vermont Shires Marathon was a kick-ass little marathon in a beautiful place at the right time with the right attitude to help me exorcise my ghosts of yet another comeback.  Yet another return to the distance I love to race.

After Boston I had decided to face the marathon on my terms.  I had decided to pay the dues and go back to the old school to use my strengths as a runner to re-find myself.  What are my strengths?  I’m not fast and I can’t take a lot of volume, but I’m smart and I have experience with the beast and I know what it takes for me to prepare mentally and physically to grapple.

I knew my problems at Boston had less to do with an aberrant day and more to do with a lack of fitness, a lack of comfort at race pace and a lack of confidence in my machine.

After 2 years of injury you need a few cycles to get your mojo back.

I’ve been at this game for a long time and I’ve worked through serious injury before.  I take the long view.  I’m patient like the sphinx.  I take what it gives me and I make the most of it.

My Boston campaign with coach was good base building but I needed something different on top of that base to get back into race shape.  I needed to get back to basics.  Basics for me is 1600 meter track sessions at a disciplined and consistent pace to burn in mechanics and confidence.

In 4 weeks and 6 days I took an hour and a half off my finishing time and I’m right where I need to be to re-qualify this summer.

The Vermont Shires Marathon had 350 finishers and I was the 45th to cross the finish line in 3 hours and 34 minutes and 12 seconds.  It was a well organized race with great support and a beautiful, challenging course.

I like these small races.  I was never totally alone, in the sense that I could see 3-4 runners in front of me and a few behind at any point. I would pass and repass the same folks as we see-sawed through the hills.  But there were no crowds and no distractions.

The race had offered free entry to anyone who had not finished at Boston.  My friend Amy forwarded me the notice.  Around 35 of us were quick to take them up on it.  It was the perfect race at the perfect time.  It allowed me to vent my bruised psyche and get back into the groove of my running life.

The day dawned sunny and warmish but the forecast called for overcast and drizzle.  I made the 2.5 hour drive from my house without event.

Oddly enough, in this small race, I ran into my own pseudo-celebrity.  I was standing in line for the porta-john and the guy in front of me said – “I recognize that voice.”  We had a nice conversation about my RecoFit calf sleeves and my new Hokas.

Then I ran into the hard to miss Trent Morrow from Australia acting out in his Marathon Man getup who I interviewed awhile back in episode 192.  He’s apparently trying to set the Guinness marathons in a year record.  While I was chatting with Trent, Joshua Warren from Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired came up to introduce himself and inform me that sight challenged Aaron Scheidies had run a 2:40-something at Boston.  Holy speedster Batman. I interviewed them both in episode 247.

The start and the first few miles had a fair amount of sustained downhill and I was constantly pulling back on the brake handle trying not to let it get away from me early.  Mile 2 ended up being a 7 minute mile – Oh My!

I was trying to focus on staying relaxed and not racing and conserving energy.

The first big hill at mile 5 as we turn through the campus of the university was a sobering reminder of the topography to come.  There was a small string ensemble executing Mozart half way up, which was nice in a non-sequetorial way.  The course was salted with random musicians.  I don’t know if they were specifically out for the race or just like to play the guitar in their front lawns on Sundays and we happened to run by.

I managed to stay close to pace and settled in with 2 minutes in the bank for my target time that I would hold till the end of the race and only then give back grudgingly.

The hills were a tactical challenge.  I hadn’t trained specifically for hill work and was trying to find that balance where I could climb comfortably without going too far into the red zone or over-fatiguing my legs.

They were long steep up hills with long steep down hills.  I found I could give up 20-30 seconds on the climb without too much trouble then make it up on the following downhill by relaxing and letting gravity work.  In this way I was able to keep my 2 minutes in the bank and hang in there at pace.  It was hard work but it was ok.  I would red line towards the top of the hills and settle back down by the middle of the subsequent down.

I hadn’t slept much the night before.  I rolled around with nervous expectation, butterflies and worry until the 4:00 AM alarm.  That was a good sign.  I sleep fine when there’s nothing to prove and nothing on the line.  This was not a race to sleep well over.  This was a race to nervously run through my mind all night.

I made myself a compact.  I would not give up.  I would not fold and walk it in.  I knew I was in for a battle of the old sort.  The ones they write epic poems about and I was gleefully expectant of the carnage to come.  This is my strength, my gift, if I have one. To cover myself with the blue woad and run naked and screaming into battle.  That’s the marrow of the thing.

I had gotten plenty of sleep during the week and had tapered well, if not a little too lightly.  I had to drive to NY on Thursday and couldn’t run my last 1600 session.  I had run a quick 3-4 miler on Friday to shake out the rust and packed for Vermont.

Saturday I got all the dozen things on my to-do list done, included getting my old motorcycle started for the summer and bleeding the clutch.  I wasn’t going to sit monk-like sipping Gatorade in a lawn chair for this race.  I had things to do, but I took it easy on the physicality of my errands.

I weighed in at an honest 186-187 pounds pre-race, down a handful from Boston and feeling fit.

The second long hill climb ended, fittingly,  next to a great, old, graveyard with lichen-covered, ancient monuments testifying like broken granite teeth to the fortitude of the New England soul.

I lost a half a minute but gained it back on the down keeping my 2 minutes in the bank.

I was executing well and fueling like a pro.  I started out carrying my traditional 24 oz water bottle with a weak Gatorade mix.  I could tell early by the amount of sweat, that I was going to have to stay on top of it and was taking nice large gulps every so often.

There were aid stations with happy kids handing out water and Gatorade every 2 miles or so and I’d walk them and take an additional full cup of Gatorade and a full cup of water.  One of the most endearing features of the race was a kid with a “Free High Fives” sign who was leapfrogging the course and showing up at water stops.  The kids were having a blast.

I took an Enduralyte at the start and another every 5 or six miles to make sure I wouldn’t get the cramps in the high miles.  I carried 3 hammer gels but because of all the full strength Gatorade I was taking at the aid stations I was able to parse these out for miles 6, 13 and 20 with no loss of power.  My stomach was fine, processing all this volume of stuff like a champ while I worked hard at race pace.

It wasn’t hot, but it was humid.  The sun went away early and clouds rolled in.  We actually got a welcome spritz of rain drops in the middle miles with a cooling head wind as well.  I passed my sunglasses to a teenager at the side of the road saying “Present for you…”  The weather wasn’t a factor either way as long as I proactively managed my sweat rate.

In the early miles I chatted up a guy wearing last year’s race Vt. Shires shirt and asked him about the course.  He said the first half was hard with hills but if you could survive the second half was mostly downhill and flat with a final hill somewhere between 17 and 20, he wasn’t sure.

At that point I pulled back the brake and let him go but I caught him late in the race when he was struggling with leg cramps.  I caught a lot of people in the last 6 miles, even though I was fading and losing pace.  That tells you something about my execution and also about the difficulty of the first half of this course.

Towards the middle of the race we ventured off onto that classic staple of the Vermont backwoods – dirt roads.  These were hard-packed with loose gravel on the shoulders and in between the wheel tracks.  The wheel tracks had that rippling washboard effect from water and grading.  I spent most of my time on the crowns which were generally flat and free of washboard and gravel.

Mile 11 was the hill that broke me.  A long, steep, dirt road climb that kept going and going.  I finally broke into a walk and figured my race was done.  I wasn’t even half way and this course had already beat the crap out of my legs.

But I remembered the compact I had made with myself.  I still had my two minutes and I wasn’t giving them back that easily.  I would make the race take them.  I started my ultra-marathon run-walk cadence.  12 steps power walk, 12 steps run…12 steps power walk, 12 steps run and surmounted the peak only giving up 35 seconds.

Then something amazing happened.  On the back side of that crushing ascent was an equally long free-fall descent.  I relaxed into it and soon had my 2 minutes back.  I worked and nursed that 2 minutes through the middle of the race and into the high miles.  It hurt.  I was tired but the race was going to have to take it from me.

And so I worked the pace right through mile 20.  The guy had said there was one more big hill, and I kept moving in dread of that last hill hoping my legs would have enough muscle memory to hold pace on the last ‘flat to downhill’ part he had talked about.  My plan was to give that 2 minutes back on the hill and find a way to race the last 10K.

There were some more rolling hills, but nothing that I would call ‘a last big hill’.  Still I found the 2 minutes bleeding away as my tired legs took shorter strides and the walk breaks at the water stops got a little longer each time.

I wasn’t crashing, I was just tired.  My legs were beat up from the hills.  They were still working but with less ‘pop’ and less efficiency as the miles wore on.

It wasn’t one of those times where I begged each mile marker to come into view.  I was lost in my execution and pleasantly surprised when another mile passed by.  I had no headphones on and was enjoying the music of my own brain as I executed each stride with a holy purpose and ran my race, on my terms.

Somewhere after mile 20 I saw that my 2 minutes were gone and I’d have to race now if wanted to qualify.  My hams were tight and fatigued from the hills. I knuckled down and pushed the pace.  My quads started ‘strobing’ like they had at the Eastern States in March – sharp stabs of fatigue pain.  I backed off, stopped and rubbed them out.  I ran on and they settled down as long as I stayed within my comfort pace.

That comfort pace was getting slower.  My mechanics were getting sloppy and I fought for each mile.  Grimacing and pushing the legs forward in that glorious dance of fatigue.

They had medical staff riding the course in the high miles and an earnest lady on a mountain bike asked me if I was ok.  I didn’t really know how to answer that question.  I was 23 miles in and fighting for my life, but yeah, I was ok, I was f-ing fantastic, to be here on this beautiful day in this beautiful place fighting an honest fight, grappling with the familiar nemesis and living life!  Doing what I love! Finishing unfinished business.  I was decidedly not ok and that was why I was perfectly ok.

I saw the finish tents up ahead in a field and tried to kick.  But I had misjudged the distance and mistaken a white barn for a tent leaving me heaving and spent ¾ mile from the end.  I gathered myself and pushed through the last bits self-satisfied with a job, not perfect, but well done.

My strategy was solid and I executed very well in all my tactics.   I held on to those two minutes and put myself in a position to strike. If I could have pulled out 2-3 sub 8’s in the last 10K I would have had my time.  I don’t think I could have held back any more in the first half and still had been in position to close it.

With the right tactics and training this could be a very fast course.  You’d have to get your hill work in, but it was net downhill and the downhills were fast and long. I was in the bus back with a guy who PR’ed and won his age group.

There were also a number of 50-staters on the bus.  They run 9-12 marathons a year to get all the 50 states in.  They say once you’re in shape and you’re running a marathon a month, you really don’t need to train anymore.  That’s where I was.  That’s where I’m going to be before the end of the summer.

I was not injured or overly sore in the days after the race.  That means I’m fit, just not fit enough.  One more cycle of training and I’ll have it.  When I got home I signed up for another marathon in Maine in 6 weeks. One more cycle. That’s a hilly course too, but that doesn’t scare me. It’s my time again.  I can’t lose.

I was starving after the race. I’ll have to watch that because your tendency is to take a free pass on the eating and that can undo a lot of work.  I did indulge in the ice cream, chocolate milk and free beer they provided at the finish.

After I picked up my hand-made ceramic medal, I chatted up the other finishers comparing war stories and enjoying the post-race vibes.  I ran into my friend Chris from my running club whose wife Amy had been prevented from finishing at Boston like I had.  She crossed the finish, exultant, around 4:20, finishing her first marathon almost three years in the making.  From her heat deferral in 2012 and the tragedy this year she was close to tears as she finished her race and triumphed over bad luck and circumstance.

Amy and I were grabbed by a local reporter who noticed Amy’s Boston shirt and we made the local news with an interview.

On a different day, on an easier course that was a 3:27 effort, but on a hotter day that could have been a 4:00 suffer-fest.  I don’t deal in might-have-beens, that’s a game that will make you insane.  No profit there.

I drove home from VT. and slept like a baby.  (I baby with sore legs.) A weight has been lifted.  I was lost but now am found.

Bring it on baby.

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