“Cheers!” I exclaimed, just before pounding the liquid carbs handed to me around mile 24 of the 2015 New York City Marathon by a generous and jovial group of marathon onlookers. I think they were as thrilled that a runner finally accepted their offer as I was to accept. I am a lightweight, maxed out after a beer or two, but at that moment there was nothing better or more appropriate to consume.
I stopped “racing” just after the North Brooklyn Runner water station about mile 12 in Williamsburg, and cramping legs forced me to stop running altogether, several times throughout the rest of the race – and for this, I am thankful.
As opposed to worrying about “running the tangents” and mile splits, I savored the varied high energy musical acts and basked in the glow of the wildly supportive crowd. Hip-hop acts, metal bands, folk singers, a Japanese drum choir – they were all perfect compliments to which ever mile I found myself.
Every Chilean flag was a reason to veer across the street and shout “Chi Chi Chi Le Le Le, Viva Chile!” with my ‘gente.” I chatted with complete strangers who had come to watch and support, and high fived every one from babies to octogenarians. There was a fireman running in full gear and I backpedaled to take a selfie with this intrepid guy.
At my glacial pace I was able to read the hundreds of signs, one more morbidly humorous than the next, including my favorite, “If a marathon were easy, it would be called your mom.” Quintessential New York City attitude. Funny, sarcastic, but served with a side of wink wink – and a banana. I was laughing too hard and forgot to take a photo of the sign.
With a quarter-mile to go, I was feeling the beer, and resigned to limping to the finish. But then my friend, and 3:45:00 pace leader, De’Vang overtook me and refused to allow my walk of shame. My legs, which heretofore refused my orders to run, somehow responded to De’Vang’s positive vibes. I tucked in behind his lanky figure and held on for dear life, finishing with a gentle sprint, and happy, for so many reasons besides running.
“I could be killed – if I go for a run.”
Exercising in public in Afghanistan carries significant risk to personal safety, according to a female competitor from Afghanistan with whom I chatted while I was photographing the 2015, 4Deserts Gobi March. The “March” is an annual 250km, self-supported foot race through the Gobi Desert in China’s Xinjiang Province which attracts runners from around the world. 40 nations were represented in this year’s race.
The Afghan runner, was able to travel to China and race thanks to the Free To Run charity. Free To Run creates opportunities for women and girls to get involved in running, fitness and outdoor adventure in some of the most difficult places on earth. This year two women represented Afghanistan as Team Asma’i and finished as 4th team overall.
The order of finish for the Afghan women was not important. Considering they could not train on a regular basis, and when they did exercise, it was largely in secret. It was a deeply emotional experience for all – both for the two women who were at last running free, and also the rest of the field and 4Deserts staff who were reminded that the ability to choose to run or not, should not be taken for granted.
The Afghan girls were not the only runners who caused us to rethink what is possible? Also among the 164 competitors were three blind runners. With the help of guides, all three finished the challenging course. Vladmi Dos Santos of Brazil and guide Matt Moroz finished an impressive 49th overall.
When accounting for the extreme climates and treacherous footing, the achievement of the sight impaired runners is even more extraordinary. Amazingly, of the several sprained ankles I witnessed this past week, none belonged to the visually impaired runners. Also, at different stages of the event, competitors ran through a blizzard, freezing rain, biting headwinds, and through blazing 100 degree temperatures. The cold was particularly painful for the blind runners who could not release their grip on the string which was attached to their guide, and warm their hands in their pockets as did other runners.
Then, no sooner had the final, 80 kilometer stage concluded, and a sandstorm straight from The Mummy Trilogy blew through the campsite. The storm ultimately forced the cancellation of the final 10km stage and a resulted in a bussed retreat to the host city of Hami.
The physical and emotional limits of all runners and staff were tested to their limits, and beyond. While we may have suffered, there was no room for complaining.
“Why do we hold the race in May when it is so hot and humid? In order to make it challenging,” explained Keys 100 Race Director Bob Becker to the runners gathered in Key Largo, Florida for the pre-race briefing. While Becker’s comment elicited some nervous laughter, it was nevertheless precisely the challenge of finishing such a race which had drawn us all to South Florida. I, for one, had competed, and suffered in the 2014 event, and was nevertheless looking forward to another jog through the Keys.
In addition to the steamy climate, the course alternates between the slanted shoulder of a road and a hard, concrete path. “Hard concrete” may be grammatically redundant, but it is appropriate. The shredded soles of hundreds of brand new running shoes and bruised feet are evidence of this particularly challenging surface.
When the race started at 6:20 am in Key Largo, I was already dripping sweat. Even so, the first 15 miles were almost comfortable as the pace was easy and I was not dehydrated or overheating, yet. I even took time for selfies and had energy to chat.
As the day wore on, temperatures rose to the mid-90’s, while the humidity remained. Sparse clouds did nothing to shield runners from the sun. At one point along the course, a sign announced that we were about to run through “The Tunnel Of Hell.” Or maybe it read, “Welcome To Hell’s Tunnel.” Either way, the concrete path meandered through a heat-trapping tunnel of boondoggled bush for several miles. I wanted to speed through this phase of the course, but my body was too stressed for anything faster than about a 12-minute run/walk pace. A tedious pace under normal conditions, but a top-speed after 40 miles under the Floridian sun.
I eventually made it to the 50 mile aid-station, but after about nine hours on the tarmac, I was thoroughly cooked. I knew from past ultra-marathon experiences, that I would be better off, later on in the race, if I cooled my body now, as opposed to pushing myself past the point of recovery. Thus, I sat in the shade for 30 minutes with ice cubes on my head, replacing them with fresh ice as they melted.
It was discouraging to see other runners go past, but I reminded myself that ultra-running ultimately isn’t about competing with other runners, but rather oneself. If I had tried to keep pace with other racers I would have soon overheated or my muscles would have cramped. Unlike shorter races, where one can match pace with other runners, in ultramarathons, each runner has to find his or her optimum pace and fueling strategy to get the finish the fastest. Furthermore, I was running the race without a crew so it was prudent to err on the side of caution. Before leaving the aid-station I swapped out my well worn Huakas with a brand new pair which I had packed in a drop bag.
I paid a price for the long, but necessary break. When I restarted my quadriceps and and hip flexors were extremely tight and I noticed sharp pains in my right hip and left knee. It was a discouraging moment because running another 50 miles seemed impossible due to the frozen muscles and aches. Slowly, my muscles warmed up, and I endeavored to not stop for the rest of the race. Along the way, I popped 200 milligrams of advil and tylenol, but only after drinking enough water and electrolytes that my pee was nearly clear.
Eventually, the sun set and temperatures dropped enough for me to increase my pace without the risk of overheating. It was still hot and I continued to pack ice under my hat for rest of the race whenever possible. I did not negative split thanks to the extended aid station break, but I did run the second fastest split of all the runners over the final 25 miles and finished in 19:55, 5th overall, and First Place Master.
There was very little room for error in the steamy South Florida climate and the right nutrition and gear were critical to finishing. As usual, I relied on a steady diet of HammerNutrition which included: one Endurolyte Extreme capsule and gel every hour, one Sustained Energy serving every 25 miles, one Endurance Amino capsule every hour and every couple hours a Fizz tablet was added to my CamelBak bladder. Many bananas and a potato rounded out my calories.
The CamelBak Marathoner vest was perfect for this race as the bladder holds up to two liters of water and it also has two front pockets for water bottles. I used one water bottle specifically for dousing myself with water in order to keep cool, one bottle held my Sustained Energy mix, and I drank from the bladder.
It’s official, I am in a relationship, with the Huakas. With substantial cushioning and light-weight, they have proven to be an amazing shoe for both short and long distances.
The 2015 Boston Marathon was the coldest, wettest, head-windiest marathon I have every run – but relative to the brutal training conditions this winter, it was a balmy spring day! At least that is what I told my legs as I toed the starting line.
The first-half of the race is an easy, entertaining jog through the suburbs. Already boozed up Bostonians line the course, ACDC blares from occasional speakers and the planet’s densest population of running groupies press up against a quarter mile of barrier at Wellesely College. Once past the deafening screams and “kiss me! I love runners!” signs, the hard work begins.
This year the “work” was especially challenging thanks to a strong headwind and pelting rain. I did my best to keep rain from accumulating on my prescription sunglasses by running with an awkward chin tuck and I tried to avoid the headwind by drafting behind some very generous runners.
A few years ago I heard the legendary Joan Benoit say that she “doesn’t start racing until mile 18” and I have never forgotten her words. So with about 8 miles to go I focused on negative splitting the remainder of the course.
Nevertheless, along the way, I did stop twice to hug my family – yes twice – as they had separated in the crowds and were at two different points on the course. This required two, time consuming stops – including a nerve-wracking moment while my mom and her frozen hands fumbled with the camera. If that was the difference (it wasn’t) for a sub-three hour marathon I really don’t care. I wouldn’t trade those moments for anything!
I ended up negative splitting the race and set a new PR of 3:01:24.
As for nutrition, I had a coffee, banana, yogurt, cinnamon and raw egg smoothie for breakfast, a hammer bar about an hour before the start, a Hammer gel every 45 minutes during the race, and Anti-Fatigue Caps and an Endurolyte capsule every hour. I also wore a pair of Hoka Huakas in a marathon for the first time and loved their lightweight and cushioning.
When I visit Chicago, I feel like I am at an urban spa. The Windy City is a legitimate metropolis, yet everything seems to function flawlessly, and that includes the marathon.
Even though I overslept and was running behind schedule – literally running, as the streets had already been closed down and I wasn’t able to hail a cab until I outdistanced the roadblocks – I still managed to check my non-essential gear and get to the starting corral with enough time for some pre-race strides.
The strides were ceremonial more than anything else. Today was my birthday and I vowed to take it easy during the race – at least the first half-marathon – so I could “enjoy” the race. I looked forward to sightseeing along the course and getting some quick hangs with friends who I knew would be spectating.
The cool day and flat course made for ideal marathon conditions, and thousands of runners blew past me in the first third of the race. A twinge of FOMO hit me, as I thought I might be missing a golden opportunity to run a personal best, given the conditions, but since I was still recovering from a 24 hour race three weeks earlier, I decided to stick with the chill birthday plan.
Between miles 10 and 13, I actually stopped three times to see friends and distribute sweaty hugs and high fives. I even pounded at least $3.00 worth of Kate Maxwell’s $9.00 bullet-proof coffee which she was kind enough to share. In my morning rush I had missed out on coffee and by mile 12 I was tweaking from caffeine withdrawal. Energized by the jolt of joe, the perfect race conditions and my slowish start, I naturally started picking up my pace after the half-marathon point.
After 13.1 miles my leisurely Sunday run shifted into a higher gear. I began “running the tangents” and checking my Garmin for pace updates. My goal was to gradually speed up, while saving my fastest pace for the end of the race. I didn’t know if this was possible, as I had never negative split a marathon, but I was curious to find out.
To my astonishment, I actually negative split the second half of the race by 12 minutes, finishing in 3:08:08 and 1683rd overall. My fastest mile split all day was 6:17, which happened to be the last mile of the race.
I owe the elusive negative split to a very relaxed start, great race conditions and a consistent nutrition strategy. As usual, I relied on Hammer Nutrition’s Hammer Gels and Endurolytes and popped an Energy Surge six miles from the finish. After the race, for recovery, I gulped down a chocolate Recoverite which I had stashed in the gear check bag and a couple Endurance Amino capsules.