Trails of Glory
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Tuesday, April 29, 2014
The 2014 trip to Boston would be my first. I had never been to New England or run the famous Boston Marathon. I have completed over 50 marathons and ran Boston qualifying times in almost everyone of them. I had been continually asked over the years by fellow runners, family, and co-workers, "Are you going to run Boston?"
"No...why would I?" The travel costs and logistics of finding a place to stay, and the horror stories of standing around in corralled waiting areas for hours prior to the start of the race; none of this sounded fun to me. Another major factor against running Boston for me and my Guard team running compatriots is the fact that the National Guard trials marathon is only two weeks after the Boston race. Who would run Boston and expect to run a fast enough time 13 days later at Lincoln, risking not making the team for the upcoming year?
Well, after the tragedy of the Boston Marathon finish line 2013, I and every other marathoner that could qualify wanted to be in Boston April 21, 2014 to help support the event and community by displaying our presence in defiance of terrible acts of wrongdoing. I ran a minus 20 minute Boston qualifier and was reasonably certain I could attain a spot in this year's expanded field of 36,000 runners. The Guard team was also eager to represent so I traveled with a small contingent of the team. I showed up for the first time in 24 years of running marathon races.
Trish and I flew out of Phoenix on Saturday two days before the Monday race. We found a non-stop 5 plus hour flight into Logan Airport. As soon as we boarded the plane I recognized Shalane Flanagan sitting in the first row of first class. She is currently the best female marathoner in the U.S. and was heading to Boston to run her own amazing race (7th place and 3-minute PR in 2:22). The flight was filled with runners all making their own pilgrimage to the running Mecca of Beantown. The entire flight experienced abnormal turbulence. The flight attendants had their hands full trying to keep a hundred hydrating runners in their seats and out of the aisles standing in bathroom lines.
We stayed at the Constitution Inn in Charlestown, northeast of downtown Boston. The Freedom Trail right outside our door led us past the USS Constitution and the Bunker Hill Monument. Saturday evening we walked over to Warren Tavern and enjoyed a pint of Harpoon IPA. The tavern dates back to 1780 and is known for George Washington's visits for "refreshments."
On Sunday I went over to the race expo to get my race number and packet. Luckily this was the third day of the expo and many runners had already been there. It was still very busy and was abuzz with excitement and energy. Later that afternoon we stopped for lunch at a brewpub downtown next to TD Garden where the Bruins and Celtics play. There happened to be a hockey playoff game that afternoon and downtown was filled with fans wearing jerseys and pre-lubing for the game.
Finally the day of the race arrived. Boston Marathon starts unusually late in the morning compared to other races. This year they developed a 4-wave start, each 25 minutes apart with the first wave starting at 10am. Each wave was separated into 9 corrals all according to your qualifying time. I was in wave 1, corral 7, number 6433. We got dropped off by our support people at the final bus transport to Hopkinton Village. At 9am the first wave was allowed to leave for the .7 mile stretch to the start line. I spent a long time waiting in line at the port-o-johns and eventually jogged to the start around 9:30. Plans were made the previous week to meet my friend Tim Vandervlugt at the start so we could run together. He had the same wave and corral as me and with only 1,000 people in each corral I didn't think it would be that hard to find him. We agreed to meet one-third of the way back on the left hand side. I got there and looked around until less than one minute before the start when he showed up.
The weather turned out to be perfect. It was a sunny day in the low 50s with a light tailwind and a predicted high of 65 degrees. There were already hundreds of people outside of the corrals cheering for runners and offering last minute support in the form of Vaseline, band-aids, and water. There was even a group of college students offering beer, cigarettes, and donuts. A vibration of excitement filled the air as the Star Spangled Banner was sung followed by a 4-ship Blackhawk helicopter flyover. The start-gun went off and we began to walk toward the start line. It would take 5 minutes to reach the actual start before we clicked on our watches and the chip on our race bibs gave proof we had crossed the line.
My plan was to run 7:15 mile pace with Tim for 13-16 miles. Tim expressed that from there he wanted to pick-up the pace and see what he could do. I knew that I needed to purposely slow the pace after the halfway mark in order to save some energy for Lincoln in two weeks. We started out easily amongst a throng of screaming spectators. Shortly the course was lined in trees instead of people and many runners peeled off to relieve themselves after standing in line too long holding their water. This looked like a good idea and was the perfect time to take care of business. With the pit stop our first mile clocked 7:41.
Our pace quickly settled in around 7 minutes as the first part of the race course is slightly downhill. The pack did not thin out as we ran elbow to elbow and had to keep an eye out not to step on heels. The spectators along the course were like nothing I had ever witnessed. The entire route was lined with cheering and screaming fans. They were shouting, "U..S..A.., U..S..A..," and singing "Sweet Caroline," by Neil Diamond. The runners joined in on the chants and sang along with the chorus. It was incredible! I have never experienced this before, it was spiritual and motivational.
After 8 miles the pack had still not thinned out very much. My right ankle was aching a bit probably from wearing lightweight trainers instead of the Hokas I had been training in. Occasionally it seemed that the temperature was getting warmer and it might become hot but then we ran through a shady stretch and a light breeze cooled us off again. Tim and I decided to keep up the 7 minute pace until after the famous Wellesley College section of screaming female fanatics at mile 13. Around mile 12 I could hear the girls from a half-mile away. Many of them were holding signs describing their ethnicity or special talents that could be transferred to a runner by giving them a kiss. I watched many male runners zip over to the side and get a smooch. I ran by low-fiving their outstretched hands and grinning ear to ear as the high pitch of frenzied excitement continued for almost 2 miles.
After Wellesley Tim kept up the pace and I slowed to 7:30 miles. My feet and ankles were feeling the effect of pavement pounding so I lessened my pace to that of a comfortable long run. This would last until Heartbreak Hill. Never running the course before and hearing stories I could only visualize Heartbreak Hill on an elevation map. It didn't look like much but then again you have to run 20 miles to get to it. There was a hill right after the 19-mile marker that I thought was Heartbreak but it was too short. Shortly after the 20-mile marker I experienced the Heartbreak. Due to the hill it turned out to be my slowest mile split of the race at 7:50. I managed to run every step and not give into the temptation to take a walk break. At this point in the race there were dozens of people walking on the sides of the street. Whenever the desire to slow down to a walk occurred I moved over to the right side of the road and slapped hands with the multitudes of children waving their hands out for high-fives. The influx of energy and emotion from the crowd kept me moving.
With 10K to the finish my legs were tired and I searched for each mile marker. The crowds lining the course were three to five rows deep and the cheering was deafening. There were people standing on mailboxes and milk crates. At mile 24 it began to sink in that my journey on the historic Boston Marathon course would be over in 15 minutes. Part of me didn't want the race to end but physically I was aching to cross the finish line and stop and find my wife Trish.
I passed the "1K to go" marker which is just over half of a mile and then shortly after that made a left turn onto Boylston Street where last year's tragic events unfolded in the form of a terrorist bomb. Last year's horrific human-caused tragedy resulting in hundreds of injuries and three deaths would be transformed this year into a determined celebration of life. At this time the thoughts and scenes from last year did not surface as I went by mile 26 and surged for 2 tenths of a mile in order to cross the finish line amidst a screaming mob of cheers. Shortly after I stopped and walked a couple hundred feet on painful feet, ankles, and knees I collected my finisher's medal. I finally found and captured the elusive unicorn.
My finish time of 3:11:51 hopefully would prove that I saved a little for the trials in two weeks. At the 13.1 mark I was at 1:33 so my second half was 8 minutes slower than the first half. This is typical but the closer the gap is for the better. It indicates a more even paced race throughout. When the difference is over 10 minutes it usually means that you crashed and burned somewhere after 16 miles and much suffering took place. This wasn't the case for me as I managed to run every step of the way. Every finisher was provided with a lightweight poncho to keep warm and then walked through a gamut of food and drink giveaways.
The pain of running 26.2 miles slowly dissipated as I found Trish and other friends who had already finished their race. It turned out to be a beautiful afternoon in Boston on Victory Day. As we walked the 2 miles back to our hotel we noticed all of the pubs and restaurants were filled with people watching the marathon on television and enjoying libations. For the Boston Marathon, community, spectators, and runners around the world, they got their city and their marathon back. This is one day that I will never forget.
Thursday, April 10, 2014
April 5th is the 11th time that I have run to Crown King from the floor of the Phoenix desert valley. I did the 50K 10 times and the 50-mile once. Like the back of the race shirt says, "Spines to Pines." I wasn’t sure I would publish a race report this time simply because my traverse, time, and finish place aren’t unusual or amazing. The fact that I started doing CKS in 1997 and am still doing it 17 years later tells a different story.
Trish, me, and the dogs (Rangas and Reo) drove up to North Phoenix Friday night and got a hotel room 40 minutes away from the start at Lake Pleasant. The weather prediction for Saturday called for a cooler than normal day in early April. Last year was in the high 80s and this year didn’t get over 70 and was maybe 55 degrees at the finish with a 10mph breeze.
Many times in the past I only carried two hand-held 20 ounce water bottles. This is usually enough except for the warmest days. But since I’m not concerned about blazing times and a little extra weight I opted to wear a 70 ounce Nathan’s hydration pack. I knew I would only need to refill this one time but it was convenient for carrying other supplies as well; gels, e-caps, bandana, etc.
We arrived at the 6am start with 15 minutes to spare. I quickly checked in and donned my hat and sunglasses and jogged over to line-up. It’s always fun to see everyone for a minute or two before take-off. I found Scott Modzielewski (Mojo) running for his 12th plus time and shook hands with many others like Rich McKnight, Joe Galope, and Nick Coury. James Bonnett did the countdown and we were off. I don’t think I ever seen anyone take off as fast as shirtless Dave James. I thought he was in another race at first the way he sprinted off into the distance.
The first mile and a half is on rolling pavement and then onto dirt roads. The next several miles are scenic and casual cruising along at long run training pace jacking jaws with friends. I started running with Mojo and then sidled up with Paul Bonnett for awhile. The sky was partly cloudy as the sun came up in the east over Lake Pleasant. It was turning into a gorgeous morning.
As far as 5 miles into the race I ran with Bret Sarnquist for a bit. He won Mesquite Canyon 50K two weeks earlier and was using CKS as a trainer for Zane Grey 50-mile in 3 weeks. I was impressed with the way he held back and started conservatively in order to better tackle the late hills.
Like I stated earlier this is the 11th time I’ve been out here but this time I felt totally in tune with the beauty of the Sonoran Desert combined with the history of the area in the Bradshaw Mountains. I chose once again not to look at my GPS watch although I could hear the beeps every mile. I took short walk breaks on the early steep hills and pushed the pace on the long gradual downhills. The first 8-mile Cow Creek aid station came and went quickly and before I knew it I reached the 15-mile French Creek aid and hunkered down for the real challenge that lay ahead.
Miles 15-19 are probably the toughest part of the course but it’s early enough that you still have energy coming out of 15 to take it head on. That kind of strategy backfires for most people except the super strong or completely naïve. The steepest hill on the course is approaching mile 19. The best advice I can give here is to walk up it slowly. The sun is beating down on you and your legs are burning from lactic acid. Better to get to the top undamaged, fill your water bottles at the 19-mile aid at Silver Mountain, and take advantage of the very runnable next four miles into Fort Misery.
I set off on a downhill from 19 and maintained a decent clip coming into mile 23. Normally this is where the heat can be unbearable. Today was nothing but cool breezes and a moderate sweat when chugging up a hill. The aid station volunteers have a nice set-up at Fort Misery and were dressed in super hero costumes. Leaving 23 is uphill for a half-mile but has some decent runnability after that until around mile 26 when the deception takes place.
Oro Belle aid station mile 27 sits in view from way down below a couple miles away. You will lose sight of it every once in awhile as the road curves back and forth into a mountain draw. It comes back into view again and somehow isn’t any closer. You always know you’re getting nearer when you see Linda Van’s joke signs coming up the last climb to 27. Example: "This Hill Might be Easier if you Were Younger." As a bonus once you reach the long sought-after aid station there are still 2 more miles of ascent to top-out. Most people are pretty much blown at this point and end up walking to 29. It was no different for me. I got my arm swing going which helped pick up my walking pace.
With a half-mile to top-out the road turns sandy and you are in the pines. One last short climb and there sits the radio vehicle signalling the top of the hill. Here comes your reward, what you’ve been waiting for the entire day – two miles of soft dirt road in shady pines all the way to the finish, albeit in the company of several ATV riders. I breakdown the last 2 miles into three sections; first I look for the heliport sign; then the left-hand split to town; lastly I look for the cabins coming into sight on the left and you are less than a minute away – total relief!
As I mentioned I never looked at my watch and was concerned that I was much slower than last year. When the clock showed 5:25 I was surprised to be only one minute behind. I really enjoyed the course and am glad I decided to throw the clock out the window much earlier in the day.
This year Aravaipa Running lined up a new finish area which had lots of room to spread out for runners, family, and supporters. There was a band playing on stage, cheap beer specials, and an awesome spread of food catered by The Mill restaurant. It was great fun talking with the first and second place male finishers from Tucson, Gabe McGowan (4:13) and Dennis Pollow (4:19). I also ran into Mike Wilke, an old comrade in previous ultra boondoggles, who had just finished his first CKS.
After a 5-year hiatus Crown King Scramble 50K made a comeback in 2013 and is just as healthy this year. All of the new people that ran this year need to bring two friends next year. At one time in the late 90's and early 2000’s CKS was the fifth largest 50K in the United States. The main allure to come out to this race is the camaraderie everyone shares trying to conquer the climb and then join the party at the finish. You really can’t turn around and quit. It may take all day but you will get there.