Wednesday, August 5, 2009

I Think I've Found My Calling

Last week was an inspiring week of running. As I mentioned in last weeks blog I got to pace twice! Once at the Dublin Irish Festival 4 Miler, where I lead the 8:00 minute pace group. I was really excited that I crossed the finish line with a 4 second cushion – talk about right on pace! We got a lot of great feedback from people who joined us on the run, who really appreciated our help with pacing. Afterwards the pace team and fellow MIT team members went to Brazenhead for an adult beverage – it was a great night all around.
The second pacing opportunity came at the Burning River 100 Run. Again, as mentioned in last week’s blog I had the opportunity to pace Jenny Chow, who is a very accomplished ultra runner. I was very excited about the opportunity to pace because it’s a great way to get in a long training run while simulating a race (i.e. eating every few miles and fighting sleep deprivation). I was also excited to learn a few things from Jenny, who has clearly had a lot of success in 100’s this last year. Jenny was looking for a pacer because her normal running partner Nathan was planning on running a bit faster at Burning River. You know that saying, “You know how to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.”? I think that saying very much applies to ultra running as well.
I got to NE Ohio around 10am on Saturday and was excited to get to the Burning River course to cheer on the runners. I thought Station Road Bridge would be a great place to spectate because runners come through twice, so that’s where I went. 35 miles into the race everyone was looking strong and in high spirits. I saw all the front runners come through and a lot of friends. I was trying to be useful but they had an army of volunteers and for the most part I was just cheering on the runners. I remember how crappy I was already feeling 35-40 miles into Mohican but every time I came through an aid station everyone said, “you look so great!” I thought, oh they’re just being nice because I don’t FEEL great. Well I’m pretty sure they were being honest because everyone really did look great at this point in the race. After all my friends, including my new friends Nathan and Jenny, came through I headed over to the Boston Store – another double aid station.
Runners come through the Boston Store at mile 56, head back out and run a Brandywine loop, and come through Boston again at 60. I was planning to jump in to pace Jenny after her second time through Boston, so I’d wait here until it was time to run. I’ll be completely honest here, everyone was not looking good as they came into the Boston Store. The 15 or so miles between Station Road and Boston clearly took their toll on the runners. Even a lot of the front runners, who you expect to just breeze through these races, were in trouble. It was good for me to see that everyone struggles, no matter how good a runner you are. After waiting a while Jenny came through and right with her was Nathan. Apparently he got lost near Sleepy Hollow Golf Course and ran an extra four miles. Remember what I said about plans changing?...
Both Jenny and Nathan looked really strong when they came through at mile 56 and it seemed like they were trying to work out their plans for the last 45 miles. TheY told me that I was free to pace another runner because Nathan would probably stick with Jenny but that I was more than welcome to join them at mile 60. I knew Michelle was without a pacer for the last 40, so I thought about sticking back and pacing her, but Rob (her friend/crew) was confident that a pacer would become available and told me not to worry about it and to stick with Jenny. When Jenny and Nathan came back through at mile 60 I told them that I’d still love to join them if they didn’t mind the company. Off we went, into the night!

(Disclaimer: these are simply my thoughts and memories from the night, not those of Jenny or Nathan. I sincerely hope I’m not revealing any trade secrets!)

When Jenny came through mile 56 she was in 8th place, but I’m not sure what place she was in when I jumped in at mile 60. There was talk that one of the top ladies was lost on the Brandywine loop and that a couple other runners went out too fast and were slowing down. One runner who was certainly not slowing down was Starshine Blackford. When she hit the asphalt stretch on the way to Happy Days she took off. She was either making a big tactical error (why run so fast this early?) or she had saved everything for the last ½ of the race (I’m pretty sure this was the case). Before we knew it she was out of sight. Jenny was running her race though, and wasn’t worried about what other people were doing.
We made it through Happy Days and to Pine Hollow before night fall, which put us around mile 75. Jenny was still running really strong and I was taking mental notes every few minutes about how she was making her way through the course and aid stations. We continued to move forward towards the Covered Bridge. As night fell I took a more active role as a pacer because I was now responsible to make sure we didn’t get lost and I was pointing out potential hazards on the trail as well – that and Jenny said everything slows down at night, so I wanted to mitigate that. There are a lot of run-able miles on the way to the Covered Bridge and we ran every single flat section and some of the smaller hills. Was I pushing too hard? This was a heck of a lot faster that I was running at this point at Mohican. Jenny and Nathan were sticking with me and there were no complaints so I took that as a good sign.
We arrived at Covered Bridge, mile 80, and it was great to see so many friends working the aid station. We picked up Nathan’s pacer Amanda Stickel who was going to run the last 20 miles with us. Most runners are lucky to have 1 pacer, in a way Jenny had 3 now! It was clear that Nathan’s focus was on Jenny as well and I must say we made a great team : ). Amanda is a really strong runner, with a better resume than my own, who was doing her first night trail run with us. Unfortunately we were all pretty tired at this point and weren’t too chatty, but I hope she enjoyed her time on the trail with us. I know I was happy to have her with us, I was feeling pretty tired and Jenny was running so strong. If I had trouble keeping up I was counting on Amanda to bring Jenny home!
Mike Keller was checking in runners and I was quizzing him on the position of all the top females. One runner he didn’t mention coming through was Star. “What do you mean? She was running great, you must have missed her!” We left for the Perkins Trail very confused about where we stood in the race. Can’t worry about it, must keep running… The Perkins Trail is supposed to be the toughest stretch on the course but we made it through without a problem, running a lot more of it that I expected to. As we were finishing up the loop we passed a group of runners, including one of the females but she made it out of the aid station quicker than we did.
Nathan and I were debating where we stood in the race. Where’s Star? She still hadn’t checked into the Covered Bridge and must be lost. Nathan claimed that it was Dawn that we passed finishing up the Perkins Trail, but that couldn’t be right, she had been running so strong early in the race. We left the aid station just as confused as ever about where Jenny stood in the race, but to her credit she could have cared less – she just wanted to run her race.
The next section of the course was on the roads for a couple of miles, with gently rolling hills, before we hit a mile of trail on our way to O’Neil Woods. Jenny really seemed to pick it up at this point, either that or I was getting tired :). We ran the entire road section, hills and all, and we re-passed the mystery female runner. Nathan was right, it was Dawn - I didn’t get a good look at her when we passed earlier. She must have had a rough patch but was looking determined to finish this thing – way to go! We made it to O’Neil Woods (about mile 89?) and we were starting to finally figure out where we stood place wise. Connie’s got first locked up (she might even be finished by now), we just passed Dawn, Star got lost, so did the runner at the Boston Store, and we passed someone at Pine Lane aid station. We were either in 3rd or 4th so we were doing well.
The next section of the course contained a lot of towpath trail. In fact we would pretty much be on the towpath for the next 7 miles until we hit Memorial Parkway, the last aid station. I was getting tired at this point and would have been happy to walk a bit but Jenny was having none of it! She pretty much ran the entire 7 miles, without much help from me. She was running so strong that I simply ran by her side and kept HER pace. Every mile or so she would slow down, stop and walk, but after about 10 seconds would be running again. She must have been extremely tired, but she refused to let herself settle into a walk. Nathan was mixing in walking and running but was keeping up just fine. They were machines!
At about mile 95 we passed another female. I whispered to Nathan that I’m pretty sure she was the only other female ahead of us, except for Connie of course. Once we arrived at Memorial Parkway we got confirmation that we were in 2nd! Off we went, on the home stretch! That brick road you climb after Memorial Parkway sucked the life out of me. I had only run 35 miles but I was ready to slow down. I think my weakness was starting to rub off on Jenny so I told myself to dig deeper and to not let up. We jumped back on the trails and I tried to be assertive like earlier, taking the lead and setting the pace. This section is all uphill, and it seemed like we climbed a couple hundred stairs on our way out of the valley! When we were a few miles from the finish it dawned on me that I had no idea what type of finish time we were looking at. I had done calculations earlier in my head and I thought we’d finish in about 23 hours but I realized that my math was way off…we might break 22! I pushed on, not letting our pace slow up when it was so easy to do so late in the race. We exited the Glenn Trails (I need to do this in the daylight…it seemed like a cool trail) and we had about a ½ mile to go to the finish.
For the first time all night I gave Jenny and Nathan a time check. I said, we can still break 22 hours if you can get to the line in under 4 minutes and 30 seconds. I expected their response to be frustration that I didn’t keep them under 22 hour pace but being the good sports they are they picked up the pace. We were really booking it to the finish. My Garmin showed that we were running 6:30 pace at one point, which I would have said was impossible when I was struggling up that brick road on Memorial Parkway. We crossed the final street and into the finishing chute and I just watched that clock count up: 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59…and Jenny and Nathan leaped over the finishing pad! 21:59:59, what a finish!

A few lesson’s learned:
  • It’s what you do in the last 20 miles of a race that matter, not the first 80. While most people are walking the majority of those final miles Jenny was running 95% of the time, and gaining a ton of ground on the field.
  • Walk the first 5 minutes after an aid station and let the food and drink digest. I think this was a big part of my problem in past ultras. I never let the food digest before running again.
  • Keep running! The sooner you finish the sooner you can take a nap :).

Thank you again Jenny and Nathan for letting me join you on your journey. I enjoyed my time on the trail with the both of you and I learned a lot. I hope that I was as much a help to you two as you were to me. I owe a great deal of my future success to you two!
Amanda, it was great to run the last 20 miles with you. I’m sorry we didn’t get to talk more, we were all pretty tired and there wasn’t much chatting going on :). I hope our path’s cross at upcoming races (I’ll be in your neck of the woods this weekend at the Baltimore 5k) and I wish you a lot of success in the future!
To everyone that had the courage to start the race, and to those that were able to finish, congratulations! It’s so inspiring to see each and every one of you out on the course chasing your goals! I know that’s cliché, and it might seem disingenuous coming from someone who has also completed a 100, but it really is special and inspiration to see other people chasing their dreams (and achieving them), just like I hope to continue to do myself. I was in tears as several of you crossed the finish line and I’m not ashamed to admit it.


  1. Michael, as the 18th o/a finisher right behind (if you can call 9 mins right behind) Nathan and Jenny you guys (pacers) did a great job of keeping your charges motivated. All 4 of you looked so fresh it was demoralizing when you passed me-and you were the only runners to pass me on an uphill all day! Great job!

  2. Michael
    Great report! Thanks for the encouragement. It meant a lot! I wish we had been able to chat more but I was blasted when I saw you at the finish : )
    I hope we get a better chance to chat soon. Peace. --Mark

  3. Hey,
    Nice job pacing BR! You did amazing work up front leading the way! I had a great time! Thanks for the kind words. I actually had planned to run Baltimore to get under 18 but plans got changed bad training week. Good Luck!

  4. PS- My thing showed me that you had a blog about struggling with weight and when I went there it was gone... hmmm... was interested in that???