Monday, June 9, 2014

2014 TARC 100 - Volunteer report

It was a long, long day. Up early, no sleep, out in the hot sweltering sun, long periods on boredom interspersed with moments of excitement, panic, and the inability to think straight. It seemed to go on and on with no end in sight, but ending up being an incredibly rewarding experience with amazing camaraderie,  new friends, and people doing amazing feats of mind and body. And I didn't even run.

I volunteered last year at the TARC 100, working the midnight to noon shift at the Gun Club aid station. It was a great time and I had so much fun that I decided to up the ante a bit this year and work a full 24-hour shift. My wife Monica had a very important commitment on Monday that included getting a reasonable amount of sleep over the weekend, so she planned to work an 8 hour shift during the day on Saturday. Our assignment to start the day was manning a road crossing on a blind curve where cars were flying by and the runners would be sitting (or slowly moving) ducks. We arrived at 6:00 AM to find the tent and table with water already in place and met Mark who had started setting up the traffic cones in the road. We quickly sussed out the scene, set up our decorations (Hawaiian themed, left over from a Jimmy Buffett adventure) and arranged ourselves to watch for cars. When the first runners came through at 7:50 the day had already started heating up - it was going to be brutal out there.

The first group of 100 milers came through sporadically; one every 10 minutes or so. And then every 2-3 minutes and eventually in small groups. We had a few spectators joining us as well which made for a festive little gathering. Around 10:00 Erica joined us to make us a three person crew, which was much better for runner wrangling as the leaders were coming back after the loop out to the Farm aid station. Runners everywhere! TARC had supplied big jugs of water and Tailwind for the runners but we weren't an official aid station. I had brought some Twizzlers and snack mix that seemed to go over well but the heat was causing the runners to take much more water than expected. We ran out of water at one point - it was heartbreaking to have to tell the runners that we were out as they looked at their empty bottles. Fortunately Josh came by with a full jug, and we had a few more deliveries to make sure that didn't happen again.

As the day wore on the initial excitement of seeing the runners faded and instead we were inspired by the runners working though the incredible heat and difficult course.  For runners looping back from the Farm they had under 2 miles back to the Start-Finish line so there was a big incentive to keep moving and they all did. The 100 milers started at 5:00, the 50 milers at 7:00, so by now they'd been out there for long enough that all reserves had been burned off. We started seeing the first of the 100 milers coming back through at mile 42 - it still blows my mind. Amazingly, nearly everyone had a smile on their face, even if only for a brief instant. Most were in good spirits and even enjoying themselves. Things don't have to be fun in order to be fun.

At 2:00 our shift here was over. Monica had to head out so I packed up the Hotel Subaru and headed up the road to the Trading Post aid station, which sat at mile 5 of the 25 mile loop. This was the worst heat of the day and runners were enjoying the hose, the ice, and the watermelon. This aid station was luxury compared to last year at the Gun Club Road station - we had electricity, running water, refrigerators, and even a couch for brief naps. The able staff running the Training Post (Linnea and Jill) had things working like a fine-tuned machine so it was easy to slip in and help out where needed. It was also set up well for taking photos of the runners coming down the steep incline from the ridge. By now the runners were spread out all over the course so we didn't get real waves of runners but a semi-steady stream coming in. At times we had up to 5 or 6 athletes there, most other times just 1 or none.

The weather, course and distance were taking their toll on the runners. We had a handful drop with stomach, knee, and feet problems, but they all seemed to take that in stride.  As the sun went down the temps cooled off but ice was still our number one seller, and people were still asking to get sprayed down with the hose. But soon they were asking for the grilled cheese sandwiches (thanks to Curry and her mad grilled cheese sandwich skills) and ramen noodles. Alas, the mashed potatoes weren't a big hit. As night fell and the headlamps came out the mood changed dramatically. Runners retreated into their own worlds, illuminated by a solitary cone of light containing feet, roots, and rocks. The rest of Hale Reservation retreated into the distance.

Most of the runners on their third lap had pacers and it was fascinating watching the dynamic between the two. People don't sign up for the job of pacing, they take a solemn oath. They are bonded together, not as a team but as a single unit - connected by emotion, devotion, and dedication to serious suffering. And headlamps. We spent quiet stretches in scattered conversation watching into the gloomy night for the flicker of light that signaled the arrival of a runner. We sprang into action with the clang of cowbell, clapping, cheering, and the standard question "What can we get for you?" Water, ice, Tailwind, Gu, grilled cheese, soup, watermelon, salty things, sweet things, we had it all. They would grab their food, attend to gear issues, talk to us a bit, and then off into the night leaving us alone and waiting for the next arrival.

The crew at the aid station drifted off to take our naps; most had been working 20+ hours so an hour or two nap did wonders. I used the Hotel Subaru, and heard some fireworks from the beach as I drifted off to dreams of endless trails and a bottomless bowl of mashed potatoes. As one worker awoke another headed in for a nap, we really only needed 2 people on duty to handle the occasional runner. Around 4:00 the sky started to brighten imperceptibly and quickly turned to full on dawn. There were only a handful or runners left on the course so we slowly started breaking down the station; putting away the food items, packing up the stove, cleaning the dishes. The last runner I saw came through just around 5:00, and we went through the same routine before they headed off into the new day.

It was an amazing experience, one that gives you a much greater appreciation for the work required to put on a race. And it's extremely rewarding. You are on the receiving end of the most heartwarming smiles, grateful appreciation, and have a front row seat to watch amazing athletes of all shapes and sizes push themselves to their limits and beyond. I never saw anyone cross the finish line in triumph but I saw a thousand little victories along the way.

Sleep is for the weak.

Let's Start at the Very Beginning

This Monday Monica and I woke up at 4:45, dressed for the day, hit the Dunkin' Donuts for bagel sandwiches and drove to Hopkinton State Park where we hopped on a school bus into town and wandered a bit until we found the Boston Marathon Starting Line volunteer check in. We met Sally who was in charge of all of us, and then Ellen who was our corral leader, and began learning about our responsibilities as corral wranglers. We had corral #8 which was right at the junction of the main streets where the runners come from the Athletes Village toward the starting line. Because of the way they configured the corrals this year we were at a critical location as all the runners come to Main St and either head right to corrals 1-7, left to corral 9, or straight to 8. We were right in the center of things.

Last year's marathon bombing made it important to us to be a part of this year's event. Through a friend we connected with the Sally and were able to get a volunteer spot, the only newbies on our crew but everyone was welcoming and the job isn't rocket science. Basically, our assignment was to check that the runners entering our area were in the right wave and had the right corral number. It was easy at first, since wave 1 was the most relaxed and had the most time. The first couple dozen runners we talked to individually and pointed out the bags for trash and extra clothes. As we approached the start time the crowds picked up and there was a huge stream of runners entering. We were just gazing at bibs, not faces, looking mainly for '9's, the scarlet number that got you banished to the next corral down. There were a few but fortunately everyone took it in stride.

The mobility impaired and elite women runners took off at their assigned times but that all happened up front. There's a hill along the corrals so we couldn't see the starting line from where we were. Around 9:15 the first of the nervous wave 1 runners approached us and started filing inside the ropes. These folks either were too nervous to wait in the Athletes Village or just like being prompt. It wasn't until close to 9:45 that things really got busy, as a wave of runners came down Grove Street all trying to match the number on the lower right corner of their bib to the signs. The folks in wave 1 were experienced and fast marathoners, but you could sense the nervousness underneath the concentrated exteriors. The corral began to fill up quickly and we had to ask runners to move forward so they could all fit. After the national anthem the gun went off right at 10:00 as the first groups surged. The corrals were let go one at a time as space cleared up so it was a few minutes before 8 got the OK. We cheered, slapped dozens of high fives, and shouted encouragement as "our runners" started their journey.

We ran into the corrals to pick up trash and discarded clothes and as we turned around we saw a wall of runners being held 200 yards up Grove Street eager to get in line. The workers let them go and the wave of wave 2 came at us with the anxiety that only a waiting runner can produce. This time the corral filled up quickly and the gun would be going off in about 20 minutes so we had to move. As we approached the gun time there were still streams of runners headed our way. To get them all in we had to move some barricades and quickly. Even with that we there were runners outside the barricades when the gun went off. Fortunately, the runners seemed to take it all in stride (pardon the pun) and no one complained.

Waves 3 and 4 were a blur of runners arriving late and the volunteers running around to move barriers and herd everyone into the corrals. We get the last two waves off in time, and all of a sudden it's over. The last runners are on the course, we pick up the trash and discarded clothing, and make our way up the hill to grab some lunch. Sitting on the side of the road by the start line we watch as workers pick up the all the metal barriers. It'll be hours before the final runners cross the finish line in Boston but our job is done.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Running with Chuck

I've run with a lot of people over the past 5 years. Robyn was there with me for every step of the Boston Marathon and lots of the training runs. Monica has been a steady running partner for road and trail runs as we explore new areas and revisit old friends. Alyssa, Elizabeth, Reji, and lots of the others in TARC have introduced me to regular training runs in the Fells. Even from afar my brother has challenged me to run further and faster. But my first and best training partner has always been Chuck.

When I first started running I was working in Kendall Square. At lunch I'd head out and meet Chuck partway through the run. We'd enjoy the sun, the mid-day crowds, the running paths and then go our separate ways. We fell into an easy rhythm early on. Later, we planned runs together and they became my first 5 miler, 10 miler, 15 miler. One of the most important runs we did together was 18 miles long and it was the one that convinced me that the marathon was possible. Until then I'd had trouble with leg cramps on my long runs, but Chuck's familiar companionship, steady pace, and comforting manner made that run possible. Later I raced with Chuck in a summer 5K series, working on speed and enjoying the post race beer.

If you haven't guessed, Chuck is the Charles River. I've run along the Esplanade, around Harvard Square, from Community Rowing, out to Newton, and across the many bridges along the way. The bike path runs up and down either side of the river, all the way from the Museum of Science out to Newton. It ranges from vibrant and active sections by MIT and the Esplanade, straight and steady sections by the BU bridge where you hit your groove, isolated and quite paths in Watertown where you can sometimes run a mile without seeing another runner. It's got variety and familiarity, activity and solitude, running partners galore, people watching, crew boats and bikes to race with; pretty much everything to ensure you'll never get bored or complacent.

A few standout memories:

  • Finishing my first 10 mile run just past the BU bridge, the feeling of elation at reaching an ambitious goal and making me feel like anything was possible.
  • Post snowstorm night time run though deep drifts by the Anderson footbridge wearing every light I owned.
  • Watching the sun rise while racing the crew boats at the Elliot bridge
  • Long runs from Community Rowing with Robyn coaching me for the marathon
  • Nearly passing out at the River Street bridge on a hot summer day, learning that some days are just not your day
  • My first 5K race, standing in a huge crowd on Greenough Blvd trying to guess my pace.
  • Cruising along the Cambridge side near MIT with Monica, looking at each other, and simultaneously saying "How about two extra bridges?"
I still look forward to running with Chuck on most days. We live about a mile from the river so on the shortest runs I don't get a lot of river time, but some
days I'll drive straight to the river, pick a spot, put on the headphones, and think "How many bridges today?"

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Snowy run

I managed to get out of the office just as the snow started falling. By the time I got to Alewife the snow was sticking pretty well and traffic had slowed considerably. On Concord Ave at dusk I noticed two runners, clad in standard issue neon yellow tops and black tights pick their way through the 1/2" of freshly fallen snow on the sidewalk and glide effortlessly along the crosswalk. That looks like fun, I thought, but it'll be fully dark by the time I make it home. Some memories flooded back of training for Boston when I ran in all weather, pre-dawn or post-sunset so I decided to give it a shot. Somerville had declared a snow emergency so my first order of business was to find parking but as I came in the door I announced to Monica that I was going to change and go for a run. Without skipping a beat she said that I should grab the ankle reflectors in the closet. That's why I married her. :)

Off with the work clothes, on with the winter running gear. Tights, shell, hat, gloves, reflective vest and ankle reflectors. The trail runners seemed a better choice for the conditions so I put those on along with my Dirty Girl gaiters. Out the door I went, just 15 minutes after arriving home, into the steadily falling snow and full darkness - although with all the streetlights and white snow it was hard to tell. I had two flashing lights and lots of reflective gear so I felt as safe as I could as I took off down the street.

It wasn't quiet like some snowy runs; everyone was on their way home and the streets were still full of cars. The sidewalk was fairly good traction but slippery in places so I took my time. Waiting at the first stoplight I wondered in the people in their cars were looking at me like I was looking at the two runners I saw, only without the gliding effortlessly - I plod. I'm a plodder. The Walk sign came up and off I went towards Harvard Square. I met a few runners and we exchanged self-congratulatory pleasantries before parting ways. I decided to stick to the more well light route since I was having some trouble seeing the contours of the brick sidewalk and didn't want to trip.

Along the river it was quiet and snowy and all I had hoped for. As I crossed the bridge and waited for traffic it struck me that I loved living near the city. I continued inbound on the Boston side of the Charles following another runners footprints and the path of one seriously confused bicyclist. I crossed paths with another runner at the next bridge, but they were so bundled up that I couldn't tell their gender. We gave each other a silent wave. Back on the Cambridge side I was slipping a bit and had trouble staying in the middle of the sidewalk - maybe it was time to finish this up. Back through Harvard Square and back to the brick sidewalks that were now making it tough to keep any rhythm to my stride. Almost home - do I push it? Nope, just not worth it. And it wasn't what I was looking for tonight.

In my training log it's listed as 3.7 miles at a fairly slow pace. In my memory it's a winter wonderland.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Pinelands 50K trip report - 5/26/2013


The runners in front of me were negotiating a stream crossing as I picked out my footing in the ankle deep mud so I didn't pay much attention. At water's edge I tried skirting around the left side but the water quickly rose up to my knees as my feet sank in the mire. Pulling my left leg out I was gratified to see my shoe came with it. Back on to firmer ground I walked a dozen paces to let the majority of the muck drain out and started a slow trot up the next hill. The runners ahead of me slowly but steadily pulled away. Six kilometers down, just 44 left to go.

It wasn't easy, it wasn't pretty, and it certainly wasn't fast but I completed the goal I set for myself; run a 50K race before my 50th birthday. Several friends recommended Pinelands as a well run race with a nice course and good footing to try for my first ultra so I signed up in December and started training in earnest. The winter is a tough time to train, especially for trail running and I developed a pain in my left heel that left me unable to run at times. Plus, winter is ski season and Monica and I went to Austria for a week in the middle of February, so my training really didn't pick up until March. There were a lot of long runs, including a 22 miler and a few 19 milers that left me feeling adequately prepared, if not really on top of my game.

Why yes, there was some mud
A week before the race the forecast looked great, then things started going downhill. It was going to be pouring rain all week, including Saturday when the 5K races were all being run. The organizers posted that the course might be a big muddy. Monica and I headed up to a hotel in Freeport on Saturday night after Peter and Anne's wedding and it rained the whole way. We had every conceivable piece of clothing available for possible conditions during the race; me for running and Monica for crewing. Off to Dunkin Donuts for a breakfast sandwich and then to Pinelands to meet up with friends and get things started.

When we arrived it was raining lightly but it seemed much nicer than it could have been. The 50 Mile runners were already on the course and you could see things were going to be slick. As we walked over to the sign to take a group shot several of us were picking our way to avoid the deep water. Foolish humans. In the first 100 yards of the race all of our feet were soaked and caked with mud, and it never let up for the entire course. I started running a bit faster than I should have, trying to keep pace with the folks I'd started with. My left heel was a bit touchy already, I wasn't sure how it was going to handle the day. By the time we reached the second aid station (the Yurt) we were all covered in mud and willing to stop, eat, and drink. It had sunk in that I wasn't going for any particular time, just trying to survive.

Monica was at the Yurt aid station and I'd see her there twice more on the first lap. The sections though the fields were pretty horrific. The grass had been mowed to a 8 foot wide path, but the footing was an unrelenting mess. There were trampled paths on the sides or down the center, but it was only firm ground in comparison to the slop everywhere else. Mud squished out on every step, sometimes sending you sliding down an incline or stumbling while the suction tried to remove a shoe. Parts were nearly impossible to run and when we hit the drier sections I was too tired to run up most hills. It drained me physically and emotionally.

The end of the first yurt loop
There were two loops coming back to the yurt and I ate and drank each time. By the second loop I'd lost all the people I'd started with and settled into a slow but mostly steady pace. It was clearly going to be a long day. My left heel was throbbing slightly, letting me know it hadn't forgotten about me. At the Valley aid station Monica gave me my MP3 player and the music really helped. I had to fast forward through two songs as the day went on; Stairway to Heaven and The Long and Winding Road. As the loop took us past the start/finish area I saw the hoard of 25K runners starting their run. My main goal at this point was to avoid being passed by any of them. Looking at the finish times I think I mostly accomplished that goal.

The last third of the loop was much drier but had more hills. I remember a very depressing sign that had an arrow pointing one way for "Last Chance Cut Off" and one pointing the way we were going labeled "Gloucester Hill". I spent this time mostly alone, running where I could and walking lots on the steeps. This was definitely the low point of my spirits and thoughts of dropping at the end of the lap came unbidden to my head. Monica was there at the start/finish which brightened my spirits, and just the act of completing the lap made me keep going. Everything was going to be familiar terrain after this - I knew what to expect at least. Finally, every step was bringing me closer to the finish which is an amazing psychological boost.

The loneliness of the long distance runner
At the starting line I was wearing shorts, calf sleeves, Dirty Girl gaiters, a long sleeve shirt under a short sleeve, a running jacket, gloves and baseball cap . Before the gun I handed the jacket to Monica as it was clearly too hot for it. At one of the aid stations I peeled off the long sleeve shirt and gloves since they weren't needed. Later I took my running vest from Monica and used that for the rest of the race. By the end of the race everything but the hat was covered with mud; I'm not sure the shoes will ever be the same. The socks went right into the trash.

Most of the second lap is a blur - lots of slogging in the mud, holding out until the end of a song before taking a walking break, being passed by 50 milers, and lots of encouraging words from runners, spectators, and volunteers. As I approached the start/finish line, which meant I had less than 10K left, it dawned on me that I was really going to finish. I wasn't wearing my GPS watch and couldn't do math in my head but I think my pace finally picked up near the end. I could do enough math to figure when I'd passed the 26.2 mile marker and that felt real good. I ran without seeing other runners for long stretches as the kilometers clicked down. As I pulled into the Last Mile aid station I saw a woman who had passed me about 5 miles earlier and I used her as motivation to run the final stretch. I actually passed her about 100 yards from the finish line, expecting to run in with her but she held back so I finished solo. I made it look good for the remaining spectators - Monica was cheering me home and that was the best part.
The best crew ever
This was an amazing experience, both the race itself and the training. I've gotten encouragement and well wishes from lots of athletes, many of whom were there that day running along with me. It's a goal I set for myself two years ago after finishing the Boston Marathon and there were times of injury and pain when I thought it was never going to happen. My biggest support is Monica, who gave up lots of weekends up north because I had to train, or was recovering from training, or was blathering on about training and my injuries. Seeing her 10 times on the course meant the world to me. I have no idea if I'm going to run another ultra. Certainly not for a while as too many things have been on hold while I pursued this goal. We have other plans for the summer and while I'm sure I'll be running quite often I am enjoying the freedom that comes with no deadlines.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Training Log - Week ending 4/6/2013

Sunday 3/31 - 3.55 miles @ 10:40 - Recovery run day after longest run of the year. Very slow.

Monday 4/1 - Rest day plus painful but helpful sports massage.

Tuesday 4/2 - 4.01 miles @ 10:30 - Slow but productive run

Wed 4/3 -60 minutes on the exercise bike

Thursday 4/4 - 4.15 miles @ 10:30- Trail running from work with hills

Friday 4/5 - Rest Day

Saturday 4/6 - 11.03 miles @ 12:03 - Trail run in the Fells, some foot pain during and after

Total Mileage -22.8 Miles
Less mileage, slower pace this week, but 100 miles in the last 4 weeks. Ended the week with some foot pain. 7 weeks to Pinelands.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Training Log - Week ending 3/30/2013

Sunday 3/24 - Telemark skiing at Cannon. New boots, binding problems, and watching Monica's nephew race cut down on the number of runs but I could still feel my legs.

Monday 3/25 - 5.1 miles @ 10:00 - Solo lunch run, wasn't planning on much but felt good enough to extend to 5. No watch or music, just me and the road.

Tuesday 3/26 -Rest day

Wed 3/27 -3.6 miles @ 10:00 - Hill repeats, my first time trying these at a hill near the office, 4 laps

Thursday 3/28 -Rest day

Friday 3/29 - 4.6 miles @ 10:38 - Legs felt like lead, but glad to have accomplished it

Saturday 3/30 -15.5 miles @ 12:46 - 2 laps of the Fells Reservoir trail, plus a little extra. That's 25K, just have to do that twice at Pinelands.

Total Mileage -28.8 Miles
Three weeks in a row of increased mileage. 8 weeks to Pinelands.