Sunday, April 26, 2015

What is (and isn't) easy?

One thing that is easy is putting on 75 extra pounds. It takes time, but no real effort or planning. In this case, "Easy come, easy go" is not applicable in the least. I recently was reintroduced to a photo that was taken on the day after my father's funeral. It is one of only two occasions when I can remember all of my siblings being together. The photo is a reminder of how far I have come since I began running. This was not my heaviest, but a year before this, I was in fairly good shape after joining Weight Watchers Online in early 2011. That was the second of three extended efforts to loose weight. At the time, it seemed like success, but it was just part of the roller coaster ride.

Something that is definitely not easy is taking off those pounds. What I discovered from June to August of 2013 is that it gets harder the older you get. It's not all about weight, and no one should obsess about weight, but it is a key indicator to overall fitness. For me, I still have to make myself step on the scale at least once a week. It bothers me when I step on and see that I'm up a few pounds, but it is an important marker to watch. If I'm afraid to step on that scale, then I know that it's not going to show what I want to see.

I must acknowledge that it was God Who put things in order for me to have the opportunity to make a serious change. He put people in my life who would be great examples and motivate and encourage me. Probably the single most notable person is my pastor, who had embarked on a similar journey at the beginning of 2013. That one spark to begin running has grown as I now have more friends than I can count who are genuinely interested in my fitness journey. It seems every week that God puts a new person in my life who can encourage me. Also, now I feel like I am able to be an encouragement to others. That is the main purpose why I started to write about running.

Running has also allowed me to minister and be ministered to spiritually. Another thing that I now find easy is talking to others about running. And I must admit that I find it not so easy to talk about what Christ has done for me. There are more similarities than I could possibly list between a lifestyle of running and living for Christ. For example, some think they are not capable, some people do it occasionally when they feel like it, some are committed to it and passionate, some are way more committed than you can imagine, some seem to be specially gifted, while others just hate the thought of it. One thing that stands in my mind is that if I can talk about how much I love to run to someone who hates the thought of running, why is it harder to talk about the love of Christ, even to those who don't seem to care. Another similarity of running and the Christian life is that it is easier with help from others. I am so thankful for my church--not the building, but the people. Likewise, I am also thankful for my running friends who understand the challenge, provide encouragement and hold each other accountable.

Easy is a relative term. Running is not easy, but it does get easier with training and time. And the reward is well worth it. Many say, like I used to, that they can't run for one reason or the other. I've said it before and I'll say it again, if you have not given it a truly serious try then it is not accurate to say you can't. My problem wasn't that I couldn't, it was that I wouldn't. My back truly hurt at times I tried to run in the past, and that was an excuse for me. Now I realize that if you don't ever do a strenuous activity,  then when you do, something should and most likely will hurt as a result. How could it not be a shock to your body? Yes, running like any activity can cause pain, but there is a difference between pain and injury. Sometimes, even now, it is tough to tell the difference in pain and injury. Anything that is going to get someone like me back into shape after letting themselves go is going to hurt some, and probably a lot. Even if you find that you truly can't run--and I realize that running isn't for everyone--there is most likely something that you can do. The time to do that is now. But it can't be a whim or a shallow goal, it has to be a firm commitment with as solid plan. You don't have to do it perfectly according to plan every time, but you do have to stick with your commitment and continue to challenge yourself.

Even though running isn't easy, running with a local group like the ones I have found through the We Run Huntsville Facebook page, sure does help. You are guaranteed to find those who are slower than you and those who are faster than you. But knowing that you are all on a similar journey and you are not alone can make all the difference!

Another thing that isn't easy is racing. Since my post in  March, I have run 5 races: a 10-miler, two Half Marathons, a 5K and finally a Marathon.  That brought my total to 21 races since March of 2014. My most recent race brought an end to a string of 20 consecutive PRs. Here's a quick recap of the last 5 races:

#1 Rocket Run 10-Miler (3/21/15)
Flat and fast course with good weather 
4th of 16 in Age Group, 44th of 260 Overall
1:16:15 with an average pace of 7:38 per mile

#2 Oak Barrel Half Marathon (4/4/15)
Hilly, with one monster hill, but good weather
16th of 94 in Age Group, 81st of 1261 Overall
1:43:56 with an average pace of 7:58 per mile

#3 Bridge Street Half Marathon (4/12/15)
Mostly flat with good weather
7th of 64 in Age Group, 65th of 1061 Overall
1:40:51 with an average of pace of 7:42 per mile

#4 MSFC Running Club 5K (4/22/15)

Mostly flat with good weather
4th of 35 in Age Group, 21st of 347 Overall
21:20 with an average pace of 6:52 per mile

#5 Country Music Marathon (4/25/15)
Lots of hills with warm and humid weather
51st of 182 in Age Group, 777th of 2629 Overall
4:15:05 with an average pace of 9:44 per mile

Two highlights of this list are the first time running a race the second time and hitting a sub-7 pace. The Bridge Street Half Marathon in 2014 was my first race of this distance. It is hard to believe that a year later I ran it more than 40 minutes faster (and 35 pounds lighter). Another goal of mine has been to hit a sub-7 mile.  I had done this once in training on a slightly downhill stretch, but it is really cool that I could average 6:52 pace for 3+ miles at the Marshall Space Flight Center 5K. 

One thing is for sure from the Country Music Marathon. Marathons are not easy, especially when you allow other racing to interfere with smart training. In hindsight, I should not have signed up for this Marathon. For one thing, it's in the South in late April, which means the weather probably will be too warm. It was over 60 degrees at the beginning of the race and over 70 by the end, and the humidity was high, with only a few clouds to provide shade. Ideal temperature for a Marathon is in the 40s. Another reason I should not have run this was the timing relative to other races I had planned. In the end, the only reason I signed up was because it is really the last opportunity for one in driving distance until the fall. I guess my goal to get 3 marathons in this year got the best of me. Still I have no regrets and learned some important lessons.

As much as I wanted it to continue, the string of PRs in races had to end some time. One of the ways I got the string to be so high was running many different distances and spacing them well. To date, I have raced 3 5Ks, 2 8Ks, 2 10Ks, 2 15Ks, 2 10-milers, 1 25K, 5 Half Marathons, 3 Marathons and a 12-hour race that turned out to be 55 miles for me. On the schedule right now is a 10K (Cotton Row Run - Late May), a 5K (A&M Cross Country - June) and a Marathon (Marine Corps - October). After that, I have thoughts of doing the Huntsville Track Club Grand Slam (which consists of a November 50K, a December Marathon and 50K and then a very tough January 50K). I hope to run a few other races over the Summer and Fall, but will try to keep it smart and not overdo it again. Right now, I am going to take a few weeks to recover. I will be running, just not training hard or racing.

One final thing that I will say is easy is volunteering at races. I have been able to volunteer for a few since my last blog: McKay Hollow Madness 25K, Double Helix Dash 5K and Bridge Street Half packet pickup. Not only is it easy, it is very important and rewarding. These races take a lot of effort and could not happen were it not for volunteers. I try to thank as many volunteers as I can, but there is never enough that could be said. If you are a volunteer, please know that you are very appreciated. Even if you are not a runner, you can still volunteer.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

From 26 to 55

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned Marathon Maniacs, so today the promised more details are ready to share. First, though, a little about the latest race endeavor.

For reasons that may become clear by the end of this write-up, I decided to sign up for the Delano 12 Hour race in Decatur, AL. This race is on a one mile loop in a rather simple park just a few blocks from downtown. I had heard of a similar race in Georgia, and when I was describing it to someone, they said it sounds like Delano, which is less than 20 miles away from from my home. There are three options for the race which all began at 6:00 AM on March 7, 2015. There is a 50-Mile Solo, where the runner makes 50 loops as fast as they can; a 12 Hour Relay, where teams of 2-4 take turns running the loop for 12 hours; and a 12 Hour Solo, where one individual runs as many loops as they can or want before 6:00 PM. I did not know if I could do the 50 miles, so I opted for the 12 hours. As with all my races, I set a minimum and then a "in my dreams" goal. For this one, since it was based on distance, that was 31 miles (or 50 kilometers) and thought maybe I could get 50.

1 mile route through Delano Park, Decatur, AL

Either way, as long as I made it past 26.2 miles, this would be my first "ultramarathon" or ultra. For those unfamiliar with that term, the official marathon distance is 26.2, and an ultra is technically anything longer than that.  Also, any race that is not not 26.2 miles is NOT a marathon-just a little distance runner pet-peeve.

The 26 to 55 has in the title has a dual meaning. One of those is the morning low and afternoon high temperature for the day. North Alabama has been experiencing a strange weather pattern recently. In fact, our area went from 77 degrees on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 4, to an ice storm the next morning. This meant work was closed on Thursday and Friday before the race. I did have a major webinar that I had to present to NASA IT folks all over the country on Thursday, so it was not as relaxed as it might have been. Still, I got the benefit of some extra rest and better access to carbs leading up to the race. On Friday afternoon, I made a trip to Montevallo University to take my son to an Honor Band event.  I made it back by 9:00 and promptly got my things ready and hit the sack.  By 3:00 AM Saturday, my mind was starting to go into race mode, so I tried to relax and rest more, with plans to to be on the road by 5:00. During this "can't sleep" time, I thought back to the worship service before the Mercedes Marathon and tried to focus my thoughts on the Creator and Sustainer and pray for those racing, those volunteering and those who would benefit from the proceeds of the event (Developmentally Disabled Persons of North Alabama).
Finisher's Plaque

I arrived at the race in time to pick up the packet, which included: a cotton T-shirt, race bib, timing chip, some nice giveaway items from 3M, a drinking glass and a plaque engraved with my name and "Delano Park 12 Hour, March 7, 2015".  Below that was a space for a smaller plate that would be filled in after the race with the total number of miles or loops.

The day started out very cold, we'll call it 26 degrees as the title suggests (but it may have been a little cooler). We were warned that there was ice on several locations on the winding path, and before I knew it, I was running. I started at a comfortable pace and before I knew it I had the distance of a Half Marathon behind me in just over 2 hours. With the long day, I knew I needed to get some fluids and food in me, so I stopped briefly. During this stop, I also did something that I would find myself doing frequently this day: getting the rocks out of my shoes. Then ran through to mile 18. At this point, the temperature had risen, so it was time to go to shorts and a T-shirt. I really took it easy for the next 6 miles, then made a plan to run through to the 50K mark. I hit the marathon distance right at 5 hours and then 50K (31 miles) was completed at 5:59:03.

For a large part of the day, we also had some Sandhill Cranes that are spending the winter at the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge circling above and making a lot of noise. It was a neat thing to see and hear. By noon, all the ice had turned to mud. I stopped to change my socks and then started back walking. At this point and I called my mom to check on her. She was thinking I had done enough running and I assured her that I would not overdo it for the rest of the day. I knew I could stop any time I wanted. I also had a new goal in mind and that was to complete 53 miles, which would be a little bit longer than two full marathons. I also thought to myself that 55 would be a nice round number, but wasn't sure I could do it.

Cool effect by Gregg Gelmis at Mile 41
The temperature had now risen close to the high for the day of 55 degrees, so I felt I could not go many more miles running, without risking some serious health problems. After walking to mile 35, it was time to run some more. By the 8 hour mark, I was completing mile 40. I walked about half of the next five miles, but by this time I was really starting to get tired. I also knew I had 50 miles in the bag.  Also, I was enjoying visits from some of the TOTALLY AWESOME running friends who came to cheer and brought food, like watermelon and Starbursts, and run with me! During a time of my mouth feeling very dry and trying to stave off dehydration, I walked mile 46 to mile 50.  It was then that I realized my watch battery was dead (which was expected, because its advertised run time is 10 hours).

Mile 50!!!!
Once I felt refreshed and comfortable, I developed a plan for the remaining time, which was 1 hour and 10 minutes. By this time, I felt I really had to throttle my efforts to keep from ending up at the hospital. I decided, that a good plan would be to run to mile 53 and then walk to cool down the last two miles. I knew that with this plan, I could do five miles easily in the time allotted. I clocked mile 53 in just over 9 minutes, which was one of the fastest of the day. I then walked briskly through mile 54 (at a 13 minute pace) and slowed through the final mile, where I walked across the finish line for the last time at 11:52:54. I felt really good at the end of the race, and think I could have ran for the final 1:10. On the other hand, I feel would have been in much worse condition at the end if I had pushed. This will be good information to help train and race smarter in the future. The 1st place finisher ran 73 miles and I ended up in 11th.

So, now you can see the second meaning in the 26 to 55 title. The furthest I have ever raced, is now 55 MILES, instead of 26. In the end, I don't see ultra racing being something that I will do much. Still, if there is one thing that running has taught me, never say, "Never". I can't really disagree with the people who think I'm crazy. When I tell them that it was a one-mile loop, they really go crazy. I can see their point, but for me running my first ultra, this was the perfect setup. It was so nice to know that I was never more than a mile away from anything I needed.

At this point, 4 days later, I feel tired, but mostly recovered. The losing an hour for the Daylight Savings Time change didn't help, since I still was at church early for a full day of activities. It has been raining A LOT this week, too, which always makes me feel tired.

Finally, to answer the question, "What is this about Marathon Maniacs?" Quite simply it is membership organization for people who like to run marathons. There are several levels of membership with the lowest being Bronze. In order to qualify, you have to complete 3 marathons or ultras in 90 days, or 2 in 16 days. With this ultra, I completed my second in 13 days and my third in 85 days, going back to the Rocket City Marathon. There are 8 more levels, the highest being Titanium, which requires at least 52 total, 30 in 30 states, OR 20 in 20 countries-in 365 days! One of the many benefits of membership is discounts to some marathons. I am #10692. According to their information, there are only 132 other members in the state of Alabama.

Many thanks to all who made this race and all my running successes possible! To God be the glory!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

First Year Racing Completed

If you've read my previous posts, this is not much different than the theme of some of them. However, it is a milestone since today I ran my first repeat race. It was the UAH Spring Road Race, which was my first ever race on March 2, 2014. The race course was modified this year to be an 8K instead of the 10K from last year. The course was much improved and I enjoyed this distance. It was the second time I had run an 8K race, the first being the Steeple Chase in Decatur in May 2014. It seems this is a good distance for me to really get a feel for how my speed has developed.

This was the last of 15 races in the past 365 days. The races themselves totaled 165 miles, with each of being a PR for me. The total mileage I've ran since that race is 1,458 miles and as February ended, I completed the 10th month straight of 100+ miles.

The way running has changed my life has been a mantra that anyone who knows me has seen and heard. When I ran my first race last March, I had trained for 6 months and had lost 30 pounds. Now, one year later, I have lost an additional 42 pounds. I am without doubt in the best physical condition of my life. I had not planned on another post this soon, but I was asked to do it in hope that it would provide encouragement to others.

UAH Spring Road Race 2014 (Left) and 2015 (Right)
You've also heard me go on about how the Huntsville/Madison running community is so amazing. I owe them so much and cherish the relationships I have gained through running with them. I am also blessed with a wonderful wife, who supports training and participation in all these races. Ultimately, all glory goes to God, who sustains me, gives me breath, strength and provides every need. All I can say to those who can't stand the thought running is, I was one of you. It isn't for everyone, but you will never know for sure until you give it a valiant try. It is very hard, but very rewarding. If running isn't for you, then I would encourage you to find something that can help you gain or maintain physical fitness.

When I ran (and yes, I ran the whole time) the UAH 10K (6.2 miles) last year it took me 1:11:40, which is a pace of 11:32 per mile. I was third from last in my age group, and 197th of 244 overall. When I finished that race last year, I made a determined statement that I would do it in less than one hour this year. What a difference a year of hard work can make! This year my final time for the 8K (4.97 miles) race was 36:19. That is a pace of 7:19 per mile. It was a tie for 3rd place in my age group. My overall place was 44th of 229.

I was very pleased with the pace control today. I started too fast, but quickly scaled back to a pace where I could maintain. I felt great the whole race and managed a negative split, with the second half being 15 seconds faster than the first. I had a goal to run the last mile in less than 7 minutes, but missed it by 4 seconds. That is still the fastest mile I've ever recorded by 11 seconds.

This race was also special since I got to enjoy it with a family of five friends from church. Everyone was so encouraging and I had a great time racing after worshipping with my church family.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Sub 4!

2015 Mercedes Marathon Finisher Beach Towel 

It has been a little more than 2 months since my first Full Marathon. Since then, I have been training hard (to the tune of 335 miles) for the next one, the Mercedes Marathon in Birmingham, AL. I've increased to running 5 days a week, but haven't really increased total mileage. I did add more time in the gym, working on mainly upper body and core strength. Training in such cold weather has been an adventure, in fact, there were two runs with temps in the single digits and sub-zero wind chills. But it won't be long until the heat and humidity will make those days seem pleasant.

About 9 months ago when the first thought entered my mind for doing a Full 26.2 mile race, one of the things that was important to me was being able to complete it in 4 hours. When I began to contemplate Rocket City, 4 hours was not a practical goal. So, a few months before that race, I set a goal of 4 hours and 10 minutes. When it took 25 minutes longer than that to complete the preview of the course, it seemed unlikely. In the end, that race resulted in a 4:08:25, and there was a great sense of accomplishment and confidence that it was the top of my ability at the time.

This time, the goal was to come in under 4 hours, but there were some challenges. Just running this distance 20 seconds per mile faster, seemed doubtful. Add to that, the fact that the Mercedes course had more hills than Rocket City. Then, race day came and it turned out to be raining lightly and one of the warmest days in a while. The extra humidity and heat caused the doubts to soar.

I drove from North Alabama to Birmingham the day before and was able to attend the Expo. It was very busy and crowded. I saw some familiar faces and was able to meet the 4:00 pacers, which included Robert Moore from Huntsville. It was surprising when he said that he knew me through our mutual use of the We Run Huntsville Facebook page. The Expo itself was very good, but not as big or as much to see as the Rocket City Expo. Also, the Poston's opened their house to me. It was good to have a comfortable place to relax, enjoy the company and eat a healthy meal the night before.

One other awesome thing was a Worship service hosted just before the race started. It was a great time to focus on the Source of strength for every breath, every heartbeat, and every step. It was also an opportunity to pray for my home church and the Huntsville and Birmingham communities. Christ was glorified and He is worthy of all credit for any accomplishment in my life.

The atmosphere at the starting line was crazy. While there were fewer running the Full Marathon, compared to Rocket City, this race also had a Half Marathon and a relay option for the Full Marathon. In all, there were at least 4,500 participants, which made it much larger than any other race I've attended. The race was very well done and the crowd was not a problem for me, except I wasn't able to get to the 4:00 pacers. But I could see their sign until a few minutes into the race-when I passed them.

One huge advantage with this race was the benefit of having one of my training partners, Amy, willing to run with me for at least the first half. This was her first Full Marathon. She is such a strong runner, and often underestimated. I felt that I could finish ahead of her by a few minutes, partly because I had raced against her on a very hilly 25K just two weeks earlier. She was a great encouragement and pushed me when I needed it and slowed me down when I let the awesome energy of the crowds get me moving too fast.

Another cool part of this race was to be reminded along the way of the cause the funds raised were to benefit. The main charity was the Bell Center, who provides support to families with children with Down Syndrome. It wasn't just reminders of the cause, it was seeing faces of the children, as there were many, many runners with pictures on their back of the child for which they were running. It was great to pray along the way for kids like Ella and Blake and their families.

Amy and me (pointing at the WRH logo on my shirt) at Mile 8 
(Thanks Gregg Gelmis!!!)
The race plan was to start out running at 8:50 per mile and we were able to stay under this, some times well under it, through mile 16. The fastest mile was 13 at a pace of 8:17. Miles 4-8 and 18-21 were the most hilly. At mile 8, we were greeted by the one and only Gregg Gelmis from We Run Huntsville. The course was a double loop and, not surprisingly, those hills felt noticeably steeper the second time. I was dreading the point where the half marathon people would split to go to their finish line, but it was not too bad. It was odd to see people screaming past along the last several miles of the course, until I realized these were relay runners. It was also cool to lap some of the Half Marathoners.

By mile 15, the doubts of beating the 4 hour goal were fading fast. However, during mile 20, I realized that I wasn't going to be finishing ahead of Amy. She seemed very strong and I told her to go for it. I stayed not far behind for a while, being just 13 seconds behind at the 35K (21.75 miles) split. But she was able to stay close to a 9:00 pace during the last few miles, where it was all I could do to stay close to a 10:00 pace. I was really struggling those last three miles. In the end, I ended up 3:12 behind her with a time of 3:55:54, which is 30 seconds per mile faster than my first Marathon.

After the race, I was so excited that I forgot to get the finishers medal and had to go back to get it. I felt pretty spent, but not as bad as I did after Rocket City. After waiting for some other friends and seeing the 4:00 pacers, I made my way into the Expo floor, which was now set up with banquet tables, and we were able to enjoy some great barbecue. I ate about half of the sandwich, a banana and some fruit, while trying to rehydrate.

After going back to the Poston's for a shower, and more of their awesome hospitality, I headed back to Madison. I was able to rest a few minutes before our church's Sunday evening event, which fortunately included dinner. I devoured the food, but didn't overdo it. I'm really going to try to keep from adding 4-5 extra pounds within the next couple of weeks like I did after Rocket City.

As always, I have been very much encouraged by the outpouring of support from members of the local running community. The well wishes streamed in leading up to the race and the congratulations are still coming. We really do have a great running community in Madison and Huntsville and I am honored to be a part of it! I have many, many to whom I owe thanks: my God, my family, my friends, the race directors and volunteers, the Poston family and the Huntsville running community.

What is next for me in running? Not much...just 6 races before the end of April, including my first Ultra Marathon and another Full Marathon.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Hitting the Trail

In my previous post, I wrote about 2014, when I travelled on a journey from my first road race in March to a full Marathon in December. At that point, I was uncertain what the future held for me in running. I knew I didn't want to stop, but that was all I knew.

As the new year turned, I had set some goals and studied up on race options, trying to develop a balanced schedule. The main goal I set for the year is to run 3 marathons. I don't know why I chose that number, I guess two seemed too small. The second goal I have made is to reach Marathon Maniac status. This is membership with a group of runners who love running long distance. The basic prerequisite to qualifying is to run 2 marathons (or ultras) in 16 days, or 3 in 90 days. This is for Bronze level. There are 8 more levels, all the way up to Titanium. More on this in later posts, but I have a plan to reach this status very soon.

The final goal is to run 2015 miles this year. This one is not really a top priority, but it does sound good. In the end, it will either happen or it won't. I'm about 20 miles behind the pace I need in order to reach it at this point.

As for the race schedule, initially, I was thinking of running a marathon in the Spring, but I kept hearing about the Mercedes Marathon in Birmingham, AL, on February 22. At first, I didn't think I had enough time to train, but I eventually came up with a plan. So, that is mainly what I have been doing this year. I am very thankful to have some new training partners this time. They are keeping me going and making the miles go back so much faster. Thanks go to Amy, Matt and Marv! Amy will be running her first Marathon and Matt and Marv are both full blown Marathon Maniacs. Make no mistake, Amy is a very strong runner and constantly challenges me. But before that race, there was one more that popped up that caught my attention. 

Did you see the title? Did I say, "Trail"? No, trails are not my thing! But in the end, I went for it. The race was the Tick Ridge Trek in rural Tennessee, near Pulaski. There were two options for the race, 10K or 25K. My plan had me running 18 on the weekend before and 20 on the weekend of the race. I opted to run the 20 mile run in place of the 18 and then do the 25K the following weekend, which was just 15 days before the Mercedes Marathon. This was my first Trail race, but I was told it was not very technical, just hilly. I needed some more hills before heading to Birmingham, because the last hill work I had done was a few weeks earlier, where I took a 16+ mile run while on retreat with the church youth group near Adams, TN.  

This was not my first exposure to a trail run. I had done the "Beginner's" Trail Run on Monte Sano ONE time. Of course the day I chose to join them, I was welcomed with the news that they were going to try some difficult trails. We did a four mile route that included the Rest Shelter, McKay hollow and Death Trail. It was challenging to say the least. I liked it, but it just doesn't fit with my schedule and I was in constant fear of sustaining a serious injury. 

One problem with doing trails is needing different shoes, but I had read that some people run with the Brooks Ghost 7 on the trails and do fine. This is my current shoe of choice and I even have an older pair that I'm about ready to retire. 

So, race day arrived. After some jeering with most of my running buddies who had "strongly encouraged" me to do this race, the race director was giving final instructions. The jeering seemed necessary, since most of these buddies were more experienced trail runners, but none of them were willing to do the 25K with me. I refused to back down and go to the 10K, plus I needed the miles. Matt would't touch a trail with a running shoe, so he had gone on a Ragnar adventure to Key West, FL. Amy, who I think would run every race if she could, was the lone person of our group to join me in the longer distance. However, all the 10Kers were more than happy to hang around and wait for us to cross the finish line, and I was very thankful to see them at the end.

The race itself was absolutely beautiful, intensely challenging and one of the hardest activities I have done. After a short stretch of flat with some gentle climb through the first kilometer, we hit the first hill. I heard Amy, who was right behind me say, "I think I'm going to walk". I heard someone respond, "No shame in walking". After a little more running and weighing my options, I decided that walking was the best approach to this hill. This was the last I heard of Amy until the end of the race. According to Strava, this first climb was about 140 ft. over less than 1/4 mile and the grade exceeded 20% along the way.

Tick Ridge Trek 25K Elevation Graph
That was the first climb of many that I walked, and it was not the biggest. In fact, there were no fewer than 8 more climbs that were higher than this one. The steepest grade I see on Strava is 31.4% at mile 3.5, but there were several times where it exceeded 20%, reaching close to 30% again at mile 14.3. In all, there is about 2500 ft. of climb in this 25K. I guess the good part is that it is also down hill the same amount. RunKeeper recorded more than 3,100 ft., and I've seen some report over 3,500 ft. Also, those who told me that the course was not very technical had not run the 25K. There were parts that were tougher than I expected, but it certainly was not as hard as some of the challenges last June on my first trail run.  

Amy and me at the first turn
During the race, I was disappointed to find that we had to stop at the aid stations (or carry trash to the next one). I decided to go ahead and stop, because I needed my hands to help keep me on my feet. When I took my first gel, I dropped the tab and had to go back and get it. By mile 5.6, I had gotten into a rhythm on a downhill portion and was brought back to reality by a voice behind me saying, "Hey! This way!". I had ventured a few yards down the wrong path (right past an arrow pointing in the correct direction). I don't know who that was, but I'm glad they stopped me. However, the course was well-marked and I would not have gone much further before I realized there were no flags. At mile 9.2, I had to stop again, this time due to a rock in my shoe. Just before mile 14, we came to a crossing and the sentry said, "Across the road, left at the gate and down the hill." I was relieved to hear that the hills had been conquered, but I was slightly mislead. There was one more steep climb of about 60 ft. over less than 1/8 mile. Then, finally, mile 14.4 had come and the climbs were done. I was feeling sluggish, and much of the descent was too steep to take advantage of the slope. I was able to gain speed as the course went flat for the last half mile.

Ultimately, I reached the finish line with a time of 2:47:40, in 42nd place, out of 143. There was no age group placement in this race.
I checked and if there had been a 40-49 age group, I would've been 8th of 26.  

Early in the race at the top of one of the smaller hills 
One thing that surprised me about this event was how my biceps were sore the days after this race. That was not all that was sore though. The quads and calves got more of a workout that they have had in a while, but did not hurt as much as the week after Rocket City Marathon. I also earned some blisters on my feet in places that were odd. But none were so bad that they affected my Sunday recovery run.

Overall, it was a lot of fun. Trail running is not something for which I find the need to make a habit, but I will be thinking seriously about doing this race again next year. The race was as well done as any in which I have run. In fact, all these pictures are by Gregg Gelmis, courtesy of the race director. The only suggestion I have is that they should add age group categories. But the one thing that really impressed me is how they fully disclosed how much money they raised for the various causes. I would like to see this be done with every race.

Until next time, I'll be enjoying the taper for Mercedes Marathon.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The road to 26.2

Running has changed my life.  I started running in August of 2013 on my 40th birthday, after repeated efforts to lose weight and maintain.  I was 256 lbs. at my heaviest and at one point in 2011 got all the way down to the low 200s, but could not break the below the 200 lb. mark. 

In late 2011 my dad's health started declining rapidly.  We had to put him in a Memory Care center just before Christmas.  Then in April of 2012, my mom's health started failing as she was diagnosed with cancer, Multiple Meyloma.  By August 1st of 2012, I found myself alone with my Dad at a rehab center as he breathed his final breath.  My mom was at home bed-ridden at the time, her body ravished by the chemotherapy.  Over the months following, I was with my mom morning and night on a daily basis, and trying to raise 2 boys in their early teens.  This was in addition to trying to keep up with responsibilities at church and at work.  I had a lot of support from my wife and others, but it was a very tough time.  By June of 2013, I found the cycle had repeated and my weight had steadily increased to 246 lbs. I knew I had to start taking better care of myself.  I struggled for 2 months to lose weight and it was not happening nearly as fast as it had in the past. 

So, on the weekend of my 40th birthday, I decided to take my first attempt at running, inspired by mainly my pastor.  I made it about 1/4 of a mile, but it was slow and difficult.  Within a week, I had set my mind to doing a 5K some time in the next year.  There were a couple of setbacks, but I worked as hard as my body would allow.  By December 14, 2013, I could run more than mile at a time and this was a notable day because I actually ran/walked 15K at a 12:30 pace.  It also turned out to be one day short of a year before my first MARATHON!!! 

By March 2, 2014, I was ready for my first race, at a weight of 216 lbs.  I ran the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) 10K...yep, not a 5K.  It was HARD, but I did run the entire way and finished with a 11:32 pace, a bit slower than I had trained.  This inspired me to focus on speed and by April 8, 2014, I ran my first 5K and finished under 30 minutes with a 9:22 pace.  Also during this time, the Bridge Street Half Marathon had reopened their registration and I went for it.  I had done this distance once in training and had 3 other walk/runs over 10 miles.  I finished it successfully at a 10:46 pace, with a lot more walking than I had hoped. 

Again, I set my mind to work on pace.  On May 3, 2014, I ran the Decatur, AL, Steeple Chase 8K in 45:45 seconds, a 9:09 pace.  This was a significant day because I experienced the elusive negative split.  At this point, I started to branch out in my training and finally take on some hills, which I had avoided like the plague. 

Another significant day in my training occurred on May 24, 2014.  It was my first group run.  This was the Saturday Morning crew at Panera Bread at Bridge Street.  This led to a new skill starting to develop, talking and running.  This was probably one of the most significant turning points in my development.  I didn’t realize it then, but now I know that runners are a special family.  We don’t judge each other.  We encourage, challenge and motivate each other.  We look out for one another so that no one is left behind.  We struggle together.  We share in excitement over successes. We hurt for each other when we have setbacks.  We pray for one another and share our life experiences.  

My next race was a doozy, the Mountain Mania 15K in Decatur.  During the first 5K there is 300’ of ascent across a distance of 1.75 miles.  Then, after some rolling hills, there is another climb of 275’ in about 1.75 miles.  The concept of negative splits was a distant memory, but I finished at 1:31:59.

Then on June 28 I ran the Firecracker Chase in Fayettville, TN.  This is a 10.2 mile race with a not-so-easy climb about half way through.  It was a challenge in some warmer weather, but I managed almost an almost perfectly even split and even had the energy to come home and push mow the yard that day.

By this time, I had branched out and started running with more groups: Tuesday at Bruegger’s in Madison and Thursday at 4:30 at the Indian Creek greenway and even Sunday Morning Hills in various locations.  I was even leading the Saturday morning crew at Panera on occasion.  All these people are awesome!

Then came another race day I will certainly never forget, August 2, 2014, two years and one day after I watched my dad draw his last breath.  It was the 10K Race for Hope in Madison, AL, for a very good cause, Autism research.  Although there were only 130 people in the race, I was happy to be 28th overall and 1st in my age group with a pace of 8:11, 3:21 per mile faster than my first ever race, a 10K that was exactly 5 months earlier.  The next weekend, I tried the 5K distance again, this time with some trail mixed in at the Run to Rescue 5K at Bob Jones High School.  I was trying for under 25 minutes and ended up with 23:45.   

On my 41st birthday, I began a 16-week training plan for the Rocket City Marathon (RCM), but I decided not to sign up until I was sure I could add the distance and avoid injury.  At this time, I had crushed 200 lbs. and was down under 180, where I have maintained since.  (I thought that running a marathon would mean I would lose 20 more pounds, but came to realize that marathon training and weight loss don't go together that well.  This is good as far as my friends and family are concerned, because I've had a lot of people tell me not to lose more weight.)

Next up on the race calendar was the 2nd of 3 half marathons.  This was the Hartselle Half Marathon in Hartselle, AL.  This time I was experiencing the beginning of some moderate hamstring tendonitis, due to over-training.  I managed to snag 3rd in my age group and get in under 2 hours with a 9:03 pace.  There were only 5 in my age group, though.  There was no sign of the negative split and I felt terrible after the race.  The next week was spent on complete rest due to doctor’s orders because of the hamstring, but I started back running and resumed my plan soon.

In October, we had a family vacation, so I didn’t get the miles in, but I think I needed a little extra rest.  I did get in 7 miles along the coast of Carlsbad, CA.  We came back in town late Thursday before the Monte Sano 15K in Huntsville, AL.  I felt horrible during this race, as I carried my water bottle, but could not bring myself to drink from it for fear of loosing that pre-race banana.  I ran slightly positive splits, though I started slow...the average pace was 9:12, which was worse than the half marathon.  I spent the remainder of the day in bed with a fever and was still feeling bad on Sunday.  One interesting note: this was the first time I had been sick since I started running more than a year before, and I recovered quick.  Running has been great for sustaining my immune system.

The next thing I knew, it was getting close to the next price increase for RCM, so on the last day before it went to the highest price, I finally committed.  But I had one more race that I had already registered for.  This was the Huntsville Half Marathon, it was a relatively even split race and kept my string of PR’s alive by finishing around 1:55.

Now, the only thing that stood between me and my first Marathon was 5 weeks of training.  The highlight of this was the opportunity to run the awesome new RCM course in its entirety on November 22.  It was a beautiful day and I ran it in 4:35, but there were only four of us who ran the whole course that day.  The others finished in under 4 hours.  Nevertheless, I finally had my goal time, 4:21 (so I could get in under a 10:00 pace).  There was another VERY cool benefit to this: We Run Huntsville was out taking pictures and they got some of me just after I passed the Saturn V rocket at the Space and Rocket Center.  The sky was absolutely gorgeous as the rocket towered behind me.  The next day, I discovered my picture was featured in the weekly We Run Huntsville newsletter…then it was still there then next week.  And it was even printed out and laying on the table at their booth at the RCM expo.

After a few weeks of tapering, the time had finally come.  Even the date was historic, 12.13.14.  It was cold, I think 28, at the start, but the forecast was for sunny and mid to upper 50s before my planned finish.  I don’t know how the forecasters missed it so badly, but we saw very little sun and the temperature on my phone at the finish was 43 degrees with a cold, steady breeze from the north.  I finished with even my gloves still in place.  As for the race, a couple of miles in, I caught the 4:10 group and then several more miles I caught sight of the 4:00 group. I passed them briefly, but I knew that I was too fast.  I felt great and was taking it easy at the aid stations, just as I had planned.  By mile 16, the 4:00 group was starting to fade in front of me.  I knew not to try to keep up with them because I had to run my race.  As I walked through the final aid station and got ready for the last mile and a half push, I looked back and thought I caught a glimpse of the 4:10 group.  I felt strong and after taking one more look at my watch and about 30 seconds extra walking, I made my push to the finish.  As I turned the corner to the finish line, I saw the final seconds of 4:08 ticking by and made a dash to come in at under 4:09 by the clock.  The chip time was 4:08:25, and put me a full 30 seconds per mile ahead of my goal. 

16 weeks of marathon training with about 500 miles had culminated in what I consider a huge success.  I can’t take credit for this and the other running successes.  There really are too many people to thank, but you know who you are.  I do want to thank my wife for putting up with me being gone so much on the weekends.  In the end, though, all credit goes to God.  I don’t know why he has given me this passion for running, but I must be aware to use it for His glory and not allow it to hinder my relationship with Him.  This relationship was made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  So as we celebrate His birth this season, I find myself not knowing what is ahead for me and running.  I do know for sure that I don’t want to stop.  In fact, the thought of quitting is scary to me.  

I am also very thankful to have my mom still.  Most of my weekend runs and races end with me driving home talking to her on the phone, and I hope to continue that for a long time.  At some point I would like to be a part of a race to benefit Multiple Meyloma research—maybe even I can find a way to help in organizing one.