I'll be honest. My DNF (did not finish) at Leadville still haunts me. I have dreams about standing at the top of Hope Pass, exhausted, spent and knowing deep down that it wasn't going to happen for me this year. Standing there, at 12,600 with the wind whipping around me, I felt exposed, raw and vulnerable. I can't shake that feeling. It comes to me in the middle of my runs. It comes to me late at night as I drift off to sleep in the comfort of my own bed. It is always there, serving both as a bitter reminder as well as a powerful motivating force.
I didn't run for a week after the race and then only short runs of an hour or so. During those runs I was tired and felt drained. I spent a lot of time on line and talking with friends looking for coach. I finally settled on Scott Weber, who only works with ultra runners and has spent many, many years helping runners get to the finish line at Leadville. I have been working with him since late August. I find it very helpful to be held accountable to a coach. It is far more difficult to rationalize skipping a workout if I know I'm going to have to tell someone about it. Especially someone I am paying to help me run.
He suggested a GPS, so I went out and purchased a Garmin 610 with a heart rate monitor. I have run with it since August and have discovered several things. The most glaring of which is that wearing a GPS is a lot like being married. The watch, much like a good life partner, tells you when you are doing a good job, but doesn't lie to you when you are not doing what you set out to do. It's unrelenting honesty helps to make me a better runner. I can't fudge the numbers when they are staring right at me. They speak for themselves. At first this was very unsettling and depressing. I was running so slowly and my heart rate was through the roof. However, over time, and with consistency, I have seen my pace increase and my heart rate decrease.
Several weeks ago I had some strange sort of breakthrough. Coach Weber has been having me run slow and easy at a comfortable pace to build a good base. That pace hovered around 10+ minutes per mile on the average until the Medoc Trail Marathon at Medoc Mountain State Park last month.
This is a fantastic race. The entire course is very runnable and most of it is a non-technical single track. It consists of three loops through the park which allows a good amount of crowd support for a trial race. I focused on running conservatively from the beginning, planning on about a 4:30 or maybe a 4:20 day. Early on I felt strong and relaxed and managed to take in lots of nutrition on a regular basis. At the halfway mark, I still felt great and was actually beginning to move a little faster. I was beginning to move up through the field and pass people regularly. I crossed the line in 4:10 and felt great. I wasn't spent and spent about 45 minutes hanging out and watching other finishers before I had to head back for a family engagement. Most surprisingly, I was not sore at all the next day.
I went out for my Tuesday run and was surprised to see that instead of plodding along at 10 minutes per mile I was running between 8:30 and 9:00 per mile and feeling great. This continued both Wednesday and Thursday. It was as if my body found another gear. The following Saturday I went to Umstead and ran 12 at just over a 9 minute pace and went back to the park again Sunday and ran just under 10 at about the same pace. Both days felt relaxed and fun and easy.
Last week my training was a little off as I went with my wife to support her as she completed the Florida Ironman. She has been working very hard for the last several months and it showed. She finished in 13:15 and change and felt great. She ran the marathon in 4:11, which was only two minutes slower than her PR for a stand alone marathon. Talk about throwing down the gauntlet.
The week after my wife rocked Ironman Florida my long time training partner and fellow lunatic Tim and I traveled to Richmond, VA for the Anthem Richmond Marathon. When we signed up for it several months ago we both had visions of setting PRs there as it is a fast course. As we got closer to race date we began to reevaluate our potential for a strong finish. Tim has been sick and busy with work/family and had not gotten in the miles he had planned. I, on the other hand, had gotten in plenty of miles, but they weren't fast ones. In fact, race week was a peak training cycle for me with 10 hours of scheduled running. My coach and I decided that I would train through the race and not try to taper or peak for it and just run strong and see how it went.
The weather was PERFECT for a race. It was in the upper 40's at start and quickly warmed up into the 50's and was in the low 60's by noon. My previous PR for a marathon was 3:51 in Charlotte a couple of years ago. When I signed up I told the race organizers I was going to run a 3:45 so I ended up in that starting corral and decided to hell with it. I would try to keep up with the 3:45 pace group as long as I could and them limp to the finish. They said go and we were off. I had decided to travel light and carry just my Hammer Gels and no water. I ate a gel about every 4 to 5 miles and used the water from the aid stations to wash them down. This strategy seemed to be working as I was still running comfortably with the pace group as we passed the halfway mark at around 1:51. I kept waiting to blow up but still felt good. Our pacer did a fantastic job of running at a fairly consistent 8:30 pace. He has run several ultras so we spent some time talking about various races and what it was like to run 100 miles. Around mile 17 a guy on a bike rode past the group and shouted encouragement. I immediately recognized his as legendary ultrarunner David Horton. Our pacer pointed him out to me and we spent the next few minutes talking about his exploits and the races he organizes in Virginia.
Strangely, I was still feeling great. I had been running and chatting with Scott for the past several miles. He is from Raleigh and was running his first marathon. He hoped to finish in 4 hours. Shortly after mile 17 we began to pull away from the 3:45 pace group and started running mile splits closer to 8:10 and 8:15. We kept this up for a while and when we got to the 22 mile mark we began to pick it up and push one another. I figured that I could suffer just fine for 3 miles and even if I blew up and walked I still stood a good shot of setting a new PR. By the time we passed mile 23 we were running sub 8 minute miles. Mile 25 to 26 was at a 7:30 pace. We were passing runners left and right, getting faster and faster as they slowed down. Slowly I began to realize that I wasn't going to blow up. That I was having the race of a lifetime. I knew I was going to set a PR. I knew I was going to run under 3:45 and there was a very good chance I could run under 3:40.
I knew that it would be close and I would have to really work to have a finish time that in the 3:30s. I remembered the Grandfather Mountain Marathon that I ran in June and how much I wanted to run a sub 4 and how I was on the bubble for a couple of miles. I vividly remember exactly where I was on the course when I gave up and quit the idea of a sub 4. I still finished in 4:03, but part of me knew I could have done more. I didn't want to feel that way again. I wanted to go sub 3:40. Scott and I stayed together until the last three tenths of a mile when he got a side stitch. I opened it wide on the file stretch and crossed the line with a chip time of 3:39:09. Scott finished moments behind me but actually ahead of me as he had a chip time of 3:38 and change.
It was an absolutely amazing day. Everything fell into place. I couldn't have run as fast without Scott to push me. I finished and felt great. No cramping, no nausea. Nothing. Just a little hungry. I couldn't believe it. Tim finished well under 4 hours and only a couple of minutes away from setting a PR. It was an incredible day.
The next day I got up early to finish my training schedule for the week and knocked out an easy 8 miles. My legs felt a little heavy, but not too bad. When everything was said and done I ran 68 miles last week, including the marathon. No injuries and no soreness.
While I harbor no delusions that I will always feel this good I have decided to live in the moment and enjoy it for what it is.
I will now focus my efforts on getting ready for the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run in April, which I will use as a tune up race for Leadville in August.
I already have my room booked for race weekend in Leadville again. Some people never learn.