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HMF Surftown Half Marathon: the race that taught me everything

13 Sep

Yesterday I ran the HMF Surftown Half Marathon. I had run the race several times in the past and always looked forward to the flat, scenic course. In 2014 I ran my PR on these roads and I had always hoped that I could continue the tradition of running fast on this course. This year, however, it would end up being a turning point for me.


I began my running career (I use that term very loosely, as I am truly an amateur runner) as a road runner, back in 2011. I dabbled in a few short cross-country races, but I primarily stuck to the roads as I found them easier and I could run fast (ok, fast for me). Like most new runners, I improved rapidly over the first couple of years and enjoyed a few age group placings. My long-term goal became to run the granddaddy: The Boston Marathon. I ran my first marathon in 2013 and finished in 4:47. I ran another one three months later, taking 44 minutes off my time to finish in 4:13. My BQ was 4:00, so I was fairly confident that I could continue to improve and drop my time down below four hours.


My shorter race times were improving as well, and I started getting more and more age group podiums. My half marathon and marathon times had stabilized, though, hovering around 2:00 and 4:15, respectively. It was frustrating to work so hard and not see any improvement. I’m the type of person that loses interest in something if I don’t have a goal to work towards, and it seemed like getting faster was not a realistic goal. It was then that I decided it was time to up the ante and see if I could do more than the marathon distance.


I ran the Salomon Trail Running Festival 50k in May 2015, and I was hooked. I loved the longer distance, and I was getting better at staying on my feet on the trail. I still couldn’t shake my dream of running Boston, so that summer I kept training for marathons. I had two in mind: the Hartford Marathon in October and the new Fighting Seabees Marathon in April. There was plenty of recovery and retraining time in between, so I registered for both.


Unfortunately, both races played out exactly the same way: running goal pace for the first 13-14 miles and then completely blowing up. I finished Hartford in 4:28 and Seabees in 4:19. I had also decided at the last minute to squeeze another one in between, and ran the Marine Corps Marathon in 4:19. I was clearly a 4:20 marathoner and not a 4:00. In between all of this insanity, I did increasingly tougher and tougher trail marathons and was discovering a deep love for being in the woods. I figured it was time to take the plunge and registered for my first 100k.


I also continued to run half marathons, turning in times ranging from 1:55 to 2:05. You know the definition of insanity, right? Repeating the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Yep, I was doing that with deadly accuracy. Ok, enough was enough.   Time to focus on the 100k and the races that I would need to run as tune-ups for the big tamale. From May to August 2015 I ran all trail races, thoroughly enjoying them all (despite the foul language, cursing of Mother Nature, and a couple of diggers). I began to wonder if I could be happy without running any of the road races that had become my favorites over the years. I can sometimes be a creature of habit, enjoying annual races and trying to beat previous years’ times. But what used to be fun, enjoyable times was now starting to feel like a frustrating job that I hated to go to. It was the beginning of the end.


I decided at the last minute to register for Surftown, thinking it was a shoe-in for a PR. It was a flat, fast, familiar course, and all the leg strength I had gained with all the trail miles was sure to give me enough gas to take at least a few seconds off my previous PR. Well, someone forgot to tell Mother Nature the plan, and she delivered not only the most hot and humid morning of 2016, but also a 20 mph WSW wind that we would get in our faces for at least 4 miles of the course. Undeterred, I forged ahead with my PR goal in mind.


The gun went off and we were running. I was sweating profusely after the first mile. My first thought was, Good lord how on Earth was I ever going to get through 13 miles of this crap? Any good coach will tell you that if you are at mile one and you are already thinking ahead to future miles, you’re screwed. I desperately tried to stay in the moment and stay mentally checked in. I chatted with a few people I knew, trying to stay relaxed and steady. When we made the turn to the southwest, I felt my soul wilt. I was already struggling and now this effing wind. I visibly slowed with each passing minute.


Finally at mile 6 I caught up with my friend Caitlin, whom I was actually surprised to see because she is usually much faster than me. She was also having a very hard time in those conditions, so we commiserated together for a mile or so. We both talked about the hopes we’d had for the race and how we knew the goals we had set for ourselves were getting tossed out the window. It was then that we said the hell with it and decided to just run the rest of the race together and whatever time showed on the clock, well, that would be it.


As we ran/walked the last 7 miles, I began to seriously consider why I still did this. I was miserable, hot, and hungry. I longed for the aid station food served at ultras. I dreamed of being able to walk on the course without feeling like a failure. And as cars whizzed by, I wished for the solitude and peace of the trail. I turned to Caitlin and said, “I’m done with road racing. This doesn’t make me happy anymore.” She responded with, “I’ve always admired you and looked up to you as a runner, and I am SO GLAD to hear you say that!!!”. Turns out she was thinking and feeling the same thing.


So, in two hours and ten minutes, I completed my last road “race”, hand in hand with Caitlin and with a smile on my face. I will continue to participate in races that I’ve come to love, but it will be for the good times only and the clock will be non-existent for me. I’ve already registered for my first 50 miler, and in January I will register for my second 100k. Instead of running the Boston Marathon in 2018, I will (hopefully) run my first 100 miler. Dreams and goals change, and we shouldn’t be afraid to change with them. Just because I can’t run a four hour marathon doesn’t mean that I don’t still have room for improvement in my running “career”. So thank you, Surftown, for helping me to see that. At least I got a cool medal and a great finish line photo  🙂


Anchor Down 6 hour (non) Ultra (or how to get your ass handed to you by a 2.5 mile course)

08 Sep

Anchor Down Ultra 6 hour. I showed up to the 2nd running of this race ready to rock a 50k. I figured if I could do a more technical 50k in 6:10, I should easily be able to knock out 31 miles of the relatively flat, partially paved course that winds through Colt State Park in Bristol, RI. Unfortunately that’s not how the race played out for me. Things rarely turn out as expected, but most of the time something more magical happens…


The plan was for myself and my friends Elise, Mallory, and Wendy (my pacer from VT) to run the 6-hour, and my friend Eric to run the 24. Elise and Wendy were trying for their first 50k, Mallory was going for as many miles as she could get, and Eric wanted 100 miles. Yep, we are all a bit crazy – but that’s why we make such a good group (birds of a feather, you know). Elise’s mom and sister were acting as our crew and cheering section (a repeat of last year’s event). Of course the old adage about the best-laid plans never crossed our minds, so we charged blissfully ignorant, but thoroughly excited, into the abyss.


The week leading up to the race was spent obsessing about the weather, shopping for aid station food, and packing gear. Mother Nature’s predictions hovered between seasonally hot and humid and mildly cooler with a chance of showers. Personally, I’d rather have the showers. But since the 6-hour race starts at 7pm, I really didn’t mind what the weather turned out to be. I did have plans to pace Eric in the 24-hour race the next day, so I still hoped for the cooler option. I was again unfortunately disappointed.


My husband Joe was registered for the 6-hour as well, but has been unable to run since February. He chose to attempt to walk a marathon in the time limit. I know it was difficult for him to watch me run off the start line while he was reduced to walking, but I felt his support and encouragement follow me as I disappeared down the trail. The first few laps of the 2.5-mile course literally flew by. I by-passed the mid-point aid station but chowed down at the start/finish area. We had brought the goodies that had served me well at the VT100k – pickles, chocolate chip cookies, V8, and Coke. The race aid station also had PB&J and salted potatoes, so I was well-fed on each lap.


By lap two or three the sun had gone down, so it was a bit cooler. The course is just gorgeous. The first mile or so is in the woods and consists of very non-technical trail with one small hill. Then you come out along the paved bike path that follows the shore of Narragansett Bay for the next mile. The last ½ mile is bordered on one side by waving grasses and a little cove. As you can imagine, it’s quite peaceful and serene after dark. By this time the field is well spread out so you are sometimes running with nothing but your own thoughts. My dad has passed away a week earlier, so he was often on my mind. As a matter of fact, I wore his Masonic ring on a chain around my neck – although I didn’t need this reminder to know he was with me the whole time.


I was chugging along quite peacefully for a few hours. Then the fatigue started to set it. It really had been quite an emotional week, with little sleep, and I knew I wasn’t fully recovered from Vermont. The laps now consisted of walking the (small) hill on the trail while running the rest of the loop. I was still eating and drinking well, and I even passed Joe and got a hug. Elise’s mom said everyone looked good as they came through, except that Eric was having some GI issues. Ugh, not what one wants at the virtual beginning of a 24-hour race.


Somewhere around mile 17 I saw Mallory at the aid station, not looking very good. She wasn’t feeling well and no amount of cajoling was getting her to eat anything, but she didn’t want to quit. We left the aid station together and I told her I would stay with her and get her to her goal of 23 miles. Halfway through the loop she felt better and wanted to run but I was gassed so kept walking, thinking she would wait for me at the aid station. When I arrived, I was greeted by Wendy who had fallen off her pace and was now on the same lap as I was. She told me that Mallory had just departed, so after I got some food we set off in hot pursuit.


We walked the trail section, as neither one of us had much energy at this point. We popped out on the paved section and could see Mallory’s blinking red light about a tenth of a mile ahead of us. Convinced we could catch her, we flew (ok, it felt like we flew) through the next mile without overtaking her. Just as we arrived at the aid station, we saw her heading out. Checking our watches, we realized we were running about a 9:30 pace on that paved section, so apparently Mallory was feeling better! Joe had dropped at the 20 mile mark, so now my race became getting the marathon distance for him, as I knew the 50k was out of reach.


The next two laps went exactly the same way: walk the trail section, and run the paved section in small bites. Run to the ½ point aid station, walk a minute; run to the road crossing, walk a minute; run to the start/finish aid station, get some food. We headed out one more time, knowing we only had 45 minutes to complete the lap in order to get credit for it. I got that burst of energy that happens when I know I’m almost done, so I was pretty confident that we’d finish in time. Well, that energy only lasted for half the lap, and with a mile to go I was worried that we wouldn’t make it. I pushed hard for that last mile and tried to ignore all the check engine lights that were coming on. It was no longer about me; it was about doing something for someone else. I needed to get that marathon for Joe. The physical stress transformed into emotional breakdown, and poor Wendy had to deal with a blubbering runner as we came into the finish line. We finished in 5:48, with way more time to spare than I had anticipated.


Another race done. I was disappointed that I hadn’t gotten the 50k mark. Elise, however, was about to get hers. Wendy and I had crossed the finish line and then hung around to watch Elise come in to complete her first 50k in 5:50. Even though I was tired and hungry, I stayed at the finish line to cheer her on for this amazing accomplishment. We 6-hour racers were done, but somewhere out in the dark Eric was still marching along towards his 24-hour finish. Since I had offered to run some miles with him, it was time for me to get some food and try to get some rest.


After napping off and on for 5 or 6 hours, I gave up on getting some real sleep and gave in to the desire for coffee. Hobbling from the tent back down to the start/finish area, I was amazed at how good some of the 24-hour runners still looked. Clearly they were in a completely different athletic universe than I was!! We made coffee and breakfast and sat down trailside to wait for Eric and assess his condition. He arrived a little while later looking not bad, but still unable to get the GI issues under control. He had now decided that 100 miles was not going to happen, so the new plan was to complete 100k and call it a day. It would be his first 100k so I knew this was a huge accomplishment and not a defeat in any way. I told him I’d join him in a few hours and we’d get the job done.


As I headed back to the tent to change into my next set of running clothes and shoes, I thought to myself that I must be insane. I ran 27 miles the night before, and here I was gearing up for another 15. Only those people who run crazy distances understand the drive to do what we do. Not only did I feel incomplete without having finishing my own 50k goal, I knew that Eric would do better having some company and encouragement. So, I laced up my shoes, put on the pacer bracelet, and off we went.


Each lap we ran was the same as my final laps had been: walk the trail segment, and then run the paved segment in sections. The smaller bites were easier to digest (for both of us, I think) and it was nice to enjoy some of the scenery. Eric looked good for those last few miles, and he finished his 100k in 18:45. By this time we were both ready to chill out, slip on our Oofos, and get some real rest. Despite my failure to complete my own 50k, I had run a marathon for my husband and ran Eric to his first 100k. That was the real magic of the weekend.


Anchor Down Ultra was an amazing experience. Thank you to race director Jason Paganelli for his tireless (literally) presence throughout the entire 24 hours and for his hard work in creating a great racing atmosphere; to all the volunteers who gave up their weekend to help a bunch of crazy runners do impossible things; and especially to my husband Joe, whose continued support on this ultra journey makes it all possible.