Sunday, July 20, 2014

A run of midnight madness

Executive summary: I finished the Loonies Midnight Marathon in Livingston, Tenn., in
3 hours, 54 minutes and 7 seconds, and was the third grandmaster (50 and older) finisher. I was third of 12 in my age group, 38th of 128 men and 45th of 236 finishers. 
Every runner who finished ahead of me is younger. It was my 37th marathon. This race tied my record for marathons in a calendar year (set last year) at 5 and marked the 18th state in which I’ve finished a marathon.

The Loonies Midnight Marathon is exactly the sort of locally run marathon that I prefer. Local folks — the members of the Upper Cumberland Road Runners Club — do an excellent job of putting on the race without any sponsors. The back of the technical shirt most races give runners is packed with logos from sponsors.

The back of the T-shirt has the UCRRC logo, the logo for the city of Livingston, Tenn., and the phrase "Sleep is overrated ... Run 26.2 at Midnight."

This isn't some for-profit operation run by an out-of-state company like the Raleigh Rock 'n' Roll Marathon. The race is administered by hard-working volunteers with the TCRRC and other local folks who care about running. Of the 236 finishers, only one lives in Livingston. I'm guessing that's because local runners are among the terrific volunteers I saw on the course.

You can tell that runners put on this race because they take care of all of the little things that matter to runners.

Race officials and police did an excellent job of making sure that the course was fairly well lighted. When there were areas without good street lights, the town placed temporary spotlights, which also were used around Livingston Academy. All of the lights were on for a couple of athletic fields on the course as well.

There were also flashing pylons at many points where you needed to turn and flashing reflectors on the shoulder of some roads. The Asheville Citizen-Times City Marathon started at 6 a.m. and the sun didn't rise until I was at about mile 7. That course seemed a lot darker over the first 7 miles of that marathon than any part of the Loonies course.

There were enthusiastic volunteers at every water station, and other volunteers directing runners at many parts of the course. The hour got the best of one young woman sitting at a corner of my last mile of the race: She had fallen asleep. It was a little before 4 a.m. CDT!

There was very little traffic, and the Livingston Police did a good job of controlling it.

In addition to a nice technical race shirt, all runners got a nice running cap and, of course, finishers earned a medal.

Even though "sleep is overrated," it helps!

I’m an early-morning runner. But I’ve never run this early — in a race that starts at midnight.

I adjusted my sleep schedule on marathon week many times when I was in the newspaper business. In those cases, it was because I worked until well past midnight and I usually woke up at 10:30 a.m. Since most races start between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., I had to take a couple of vacation days ahead of the race in order to slide my sleep schedule earlier.

But I’ve never had an adjustment like the one on Loonies Midnight Marathon race week. With my post-newspaper-career 8 a.m.-5 p.m. (or sometimes later) work schedule, I usually am asleep by 10 p.m. I’m out of bed and out the door for my runs a little after
6 a.m. or a little before if I’m running 8 or more miles.

Livingston, Tenn., where Loonies is run, is in the Central time zone, which meant that the race started a little after 1 a.m. EDT.

It was easy to see that adjusting my sleep schedule earlier made a lot more sense than adjusting it later (which would have been easy in my newspaper days). It really was no decision when you consider that I tend to wake up, unable to go back to sleep, around 6 or 6:30 even when I don’t have to be up that early. These days, I don’t even need an alarm clock.

I started shifting by early in the week by going to bed at 8 p.m. and getting up at 4 a.m. This also gave me a preview of what it would be like running at night. I’m all too familiar with what that’s like, though, because of early-morning winter runs.

By Tuesday night, I went to sleep around 8:15 p.m. and got up at 3:45 a.m., and on Thursday, I was asleep by 6:30 p.m. and got up at 2:45 a.m. We left for Livingston on Friday morning, checked into the motel late Friday afternoon and I slept for about 4 hours before heading to the race.

I very much appreciated that my wife, Jean, and younger son, Scott, kept the motel room dimly lit and quiet Friday evening so that I could get some sleep. I’m a very light sleeper.

For the looney, it's loopy (6 loops, to be exact)

The race starts and finishes at Livingston Academy. It got going at about 10 minutes after midnight to shots from loud muskets, followed by a short fireworks display. The latter was a first for me at a race.

The course starts with a 1.2-mile loop, followed by running the same 5-mile loop (that has no hard turnarounds) 5 times. While that does create some monotony, you are certain where water stations are located. With a race-record 300 runners registered (the rain probably had something to do with only 236 finishing), you rarely were running alone for long.

For 4 of the 5 miles of the loop, runners are going in the both directions. This gave the 60+ Marathon Maniacs plenty of chances to greet each other along the course. There was, of course, the traditional pre-race picture or 2 of the Maniacs at the race.

I'm squatting in the front in the prerace picture of Marathon Maniacs.

I also liked that there only was a marathon. It seems like just about every marathon these days also has a half-marathon.

It was neat to lap other runners after a few of loops. Not so neat to get lapped, though. About 2 hours and 30 minutes into the race, I was lapped by the leaders who were on their 5th 5-mile loop while I was on my 4th loop. I’m sure that a good number of other runners who passed me after that also were that far ahead of me.

By the third loop, I had every tangent figured out and knew where there were puddles to avoid.

You cross the finish line 6 times. In a nice touch, the lady on the PA microphone announced your name each time after the first initial short loop.

I got into a good routine of consuming a Gu packet about a half-mile away from the finish line since I knew that there was a water station there.

Race officials describe the course at “Tennessee flat,” which meant that there were a couple of minor hills in the middle of the 5-mile loop. Those hills were nothing like the ones I routinely run in Durham.

Knowing that I was going to run 5 laps of that 5-mile loop made it oddly easier psychologically. I really didn’t concentrate much on the mile totals but rather my progress on each loop. I remember being surprised to find at one point that I had already run 11 miles because it didn’t seem like I had run that far.

Although I knew I was running in the middle of the night, I decided to never look at my regular watch to check on the time of day. I just didn't want it to enter my head that it was, for example, 3 a.m.

If not for the backlighting on my Garmin Forerunner, it would have been quite a challenge to even check my pace, which I did often.

A wet visit to Tennessee

I was in the state of Tennessee for parts of 2 days and never once saw the sun. It raining as we crossed the state line on Friday and rained about 90 percent of the time until we crossed back into North Carolina on Saturday. Driving to Livingston and driving back was challenging many times because we were dealing with driving rain and poor visibility.

Thanks to the arrival of the Polar Vortex earlier in the week, we were greeted by the coolest temperatures in the race’s 3-year history. Temperatures were in the mid-60s for the whole race. It actually felt a bit cool standing around waiting for the race to start and actually wasn't raining. During prerace ceremonies, it started to lightly rain.

It rained lightly almost constantly during the race, more of a mist that I barely noticed after a while. I was lucky to finish when I did. About 5 minutes after I was done, the mist gave way to a downpour almost as bad as what I dealt with over the last 6 miles of December’s Jacksonville Bank Marathon. I felt bad for the runners who were out on the course after that.

It might have been prettier to be able to look up and see the stars, or possibly the moon. It likely would have been a lot hotter in that event, though. I understand that it was much hotter and humid for the first two years of LMM.

Few reserves left over the last 6 miles

After keeping a fairly consistent pace for the first 10 miles or so, my 5-mile loop splits kept getting slower. After I finished the first loop in 42 minutes, 37 seconds, the successive loop times were 43:47, 44:00, 46:17 and 47:31.

My last really decent mile split was an 8:38 16th mile. After 3 miles just under 9 miles, every mile after that took longer than 9 minutes.

Whether it was the lack of sleep or the fact that, by my body clock, it was after 4 a.m., my pace started leveling off substantially down the stretch.

I walked for a few stretches at the Hatfield-McCoy Marathon in June. Even though I never walked at Loonies, my time was only about a minute faster on a much flatter course.

I didn’t really hit a wall, though. It just felt like a higher gear no longer was available. I popped in an Advil along with a Gu packet at the end of the fourth loop. Although that seemed to help (mile 26 was the fastest of my last 5 miles), it didn’t really allow me to push the pace much.

Although I highly recommend this race, I doubt I’ll run another midnight marathon. The actual race is fun. It’s the elaborate planning to shift my sleep schedule that was no fun. Without that plan, I doubt that I could have come close to the same time.

There is no doubt that I thoroughly enjoyed running this race.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Hatfield-McCoy: No feuding, just terrific racing

Executive summary: On a challenging course for my 36th marathon, 2nd in 2 weeks and 3rd in 6 weeks, I finished the Hatfield-McCoy Marathon in 3 hours, 55 minutes, 10 seconds. I was 5th out of 39 in my age group, 42nd out of 265 men and 50th out of 506 overall. You can count this race for Kentucky or West Virginia. I already had West Virginia (the Marshall University Marathon), so I used it to make Kentucky my 17th marathon state.

The Hatfield-McCoy Marathon is the perfect example of why I much prefer races put on by local folks over the huge, big-city corporate-run races.

The people of South Williamson, Ky., where this marathon starts, and Williamson, W.Va., where it finishes, are proud of this race and embrace it. There is very little crowd support on the course, particularly over the second half. But the volunteers and race officials are passionate and enthusiastic.

During a talk before the 50 State Marathon Club’s reunion meeting on Friday afternoon at Belfry High School, race director Dave Hatfield got emotional talking about how much the race means to him. His last words to us were that if we didn’t have fun, he would be upset. I didn’t upset him!

We (me, my wife and younger son) enjoyed a Hatfield-McCoy skit that two men (one posing as a Hatfield and one posing as a McCoy) put on Friday night. I was able to get my picture taken with those men after picking up my packet Friday afternoon and eating the pasta dinner that is free to runners. I also high-fived those guys as I crossed the finish line.

I tried to bring the Hatfield and McCoy representatives together.

When a lady put the medal around my neck, she congratulated me and said, “thanks for coming.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard “thanks for coming” after a race. It reminded me of when former East Carolina football coach Ed Emory would say that at the end of a press conference.

This was where we stayed the night before the race.

We, along with many other Marathon Maniacs, stayed at the Williamson (W.Va.) Fire Department. We all got cots with sheets and pillows in a big room on the second floor that included free Wi-Fi and clean bathrooms.

The cots were more comfortable that I expected and our night at the
Williamson (W.Va.) Fire Station worked out well.
You think that would happen at one of those huge corporate races in a big city?

It was quite a terrific deal considering that we only had a 3-block walk from the fire station to the shuttle buses that took us to the starting line, and the finish line was in the same nearby area.
The few hotels in Williamson and South Williamson require a 2-night stay, aren’t that inexpensive and usually are booked well before race day. The alternatives are to drive 45 minutes to and from hotel or motel in Logan, W.Va., or Pikeville, Ky.

After the race, there made shower facilities available for free at Williamson High School, which is a couple of blocks from the fire station.

All over the course, there were signs welcoming back people who were running the marathon for at least the second time. They would say, for example, “Welcome back, John Smith of Washington, D.C.,” then there was an inspirational message at the bottom. That’s a nice touch!

In addition to the finisher medal, each runner received a short-sleeve technical T-shirt, a nice tote bag and a Mason jar with the race logo on it.

Several people told me that this race is terrific, and they were right!


Challenging, but it’s no Grandfather Mountain Marathon

Considering that HMM, like the Grandfather Mountain Marathon, made The Weather Channel’s list of top 15 toughest marathons in the world, I was prepared for a challenge. I got it. But I overestimated the course. HMM comes in at No. 14 and GMM is rated the 12th-toughest.

 I’ve run GMM twice, and it is substantially more challenging than HMM.

After the race starts in the Food City parking lot in South Williamson, Ky., the first 2 or 3 miles are downhill. While I enjoyed those miles, I was mentally preparing myself for a Blackberry Hill, which really gets your attention on the elevation chart. On that chart, it looks substantial.

When I got to the top of the hill, my immediate thought was, “that was it?” It wasn’t as bad as Laurel Hill on the Tar Heel 10 Miler course. Maybe all the hill training made it seem milder.

After we reached the top of that hill, there were substantial downhills for quite a while. I thought it was nice, but my quads seemed to have a different opinion. I was actually glad when the course changed to more of a flat section.

The hills on the rest of the course really weren’t that bad and it almost seemed that there were more downhill stretches than there were climbs.

There was beautiful scenery, particularly over the first half of the course. Much like GMM, no roads are closed to traffic. But it’s not a concern because there isn’t much traffic. While HMM is beautiful, I still think that GMM is prettier.

There are two half-marathons: One that starts at Food City and goes over the first 13.1 miles of the marathon course. The other starts where the first one finishes, in Matewan, W.Va., and shares its finish line with the marathon in Williamson, W.Va.

They made me feel at home a bit by painting Carolina-blue foots on the pavement at many parts of the course to direct runners where to go next. If only there was tar on the heels.

If you need crowds to keep you going, this isn’t the marathon for you. There were stretches over the second half of the marathon in which I didn’t see anybody in front of me or behind me.

Much of the second half is run on roads so narrow that they easily could be mistaken for paved running trails. The good part is that there was a lot of shade. The bad part was a stretch of a couple of miles around mile 16 when it turns into a dirt road. I rained the night before, so I was constantly trying to avoid muddy areas and puddles. At a couple of points, there was no avoiding the mud and it would have been easy to slip.

I've never run in this much mud in any race. It's still caked on my shoes.

We ran over a wooden bridge during the second half of the course that shook and had uneven wooden slats with inconsistent spacing between them. Not good for me since I have the classic marathon shuffle. I slowly managed to high-step my way through that bridge without falling.

Exceeding low expectations

Knowing this course was challenging, my expectations were low since this was my second marathon in 2 weeks (I ran the Sunburst Marathon in South Bend, Ind., on May 31) and my third marathon in 6 weeks (I ran the All-American Marathon, a point-to-point race from Fayetteville to Fort Bragg, on May 4).

I did not plan to run 2 marathons in 2 weeks. I registered for HMM months ago, then won free entry into Sunburst a few weeks after that and wasn’t going to turn down that chance.

My goals were the same as they were for last July’s Grandfather Mountain Marathon: avoid walking and break 4 hours. Like GMM, I failed on the first goal and succeeded on the second one.

We got fortunate with the weather. The morning low was in the high-50s, the lowest in quite a few days.

I would love to see what kind of time I could run at HMM with more rest between marathons. I was on pace to perhaps run a 3:40 or 3:45 and feeling pretty good when I could feel the toll of all of those marathons. I walked for several stretches in the final 4 miles even though there weren’t substantial hills.

While I got the sub-4-hour marathon I wanted, I could have earned a much better finishing time if I could have kept running. My legs had other ideas. I battled a bit in the last couple of miles at Sunburst. But my legs weren’t ready for battle and I they felt much better after those short stretches of walking.

Clearly quantity and quality don’t always go together.


So you think I run lots of marathons?

At the 50 States Marathon Club reunion meeting Friday afternoon, it was amazing hearing how many marathons some of the others had finished.

You can join if you’ve run marathons in 10 states (I’ve run marathons in 17 states, plus Ontario and D.C.). But the long-range goal of most members is to run a marathon in all 50 states. There were many folks who had done that multiple times. One man had run marathons in all 50 states 9 times! Many had run well over 300 marathons.

I'm in the middle of this big group of 50 State Marathon Club members.
It was interesting hearing from Benji Durden, who was one of several members honored for recently finishing marathons in all 50 states (along with his wife). With a sub-2:09 marathon PR, he bemoaned the frustration of getting slower.

A lot of 50 Staters and Marathon Maniacs don’t worry about running a good time and like to stay near the middle or the back of the pack and have a good time. Durden talked about how he had a hard time shaking his competitiveness and running a marathon just to finish.

I talked to a 13-year-old boy on the course. He was running the first of the 2 half-marathons and I noticed that he had a Marathon Maniacs singlet. He told me that he already has run 8 marathons. At 13! That sounds a little young to me. I wish I had asked him how old he was when he ran his first, which was his PR at 4:55.

I met lots of Marathon Maniacs during the weekend, many who make my 4 marathons this year seem like a light schedule. A few of them had run marathons the previous weekend.

I'm sitting in the center of this pre-race shot of the many Marathon Maniacs
who ran the race.

Now a 2-star, silver-level Maniac

In December, I became a Marathon Maniac by with the minimum entry standard of 3 marathons in 90 days (Asheville Citizen-Times City Marathon, Outer Banks Marathon and Jacksonville Bank Marathon). That made me a 1-star, bronze-level Maniac.

Hatfield-McCoy marked my 8th marathon in the last 12 months (GMM, Tobacco Road, All-American, Sunburst, the 3 mentioned in the previous paragraph and HMM). It would have been nine had the George Washington’s Birthday Marathon not been snowed out in February.

The 8 marathons in 12 months bumps me up to a 2-star, silver-level Maniac.

Next up

My next marathon is the Loonies Midnight Marathon on July 19 in Livingston, Tenn. It promises to be an adventure since it starts at midnight (1 a.m. EDT).

Saturday, May 31, 2014

A fun Sunburst run around South Bend

Executive summary: My 35th marathon, the Sunburst Marathon in South Bend, Ind., marked the first time I’ve run 2 marathons in a calendar month. It was my 3rd 2014 marathon and the 16th state in which I've finished a marathon. I was timed at 3 hours,43 minutes and 33 seconds, good enough for 8th in my age group, 83rd among men and 99th overall.

The Sunburst Marathon always was on my marathon bucket list since it usually finishes on the 50-yard line at Notre Dame Stadium. It sounded like a pretty neat finish. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case this year because Notre Dame is installing FieldTurf for the playing field and the playing surface currently consists of mounds of dirt. I had to settle for a finish outside the stadium, near the famous “Touchdown Jesus” mural.

With FieldTurf about to be installed at Notre Dame Stadium, the Sunburst
Marathon didn't finish on the field as in past years.

That's the bad news. The good news is that we didn’t deal with the extremely hot conditions with lows in the mid-60s and highs in the mid-80s that greet runners some years. I talked to one runner who said she ran the marathon one year when it was in the 90s. We got lucky to get a race day with temperatures in the mid- to upper-50s at the start and in the low-70s when I finished.

Make no mistake: It still was hot, and it was sunny. It could have been a lot worse, and this race was so much fun to run.

South Bend gets its name because the south bend of St. Joseph River goes right through town. And course designers made full use of it.

This was a just a beautiful course, with many miles of shade, riverside trails and — with one exception — only gentle hills. There were, of course, many miles also on roads. The Jacksonville Bank Marathon course I ran in December went very close to the St. Johns River for miles. But you only saw the river when you twice ran over a short bridge.

All the trails reminded me a lot of my favorite race, the Tobacco Road Marathon. There was a variety of trails, some paved, some wide concrete sidewalks and a short stretch that was like a wooden pier. We went on bridges over the river a couple of times.

We did go by the South Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant. Fortunately, I only knew that because of the sign and not because of any bad smell!

Sunburst included a lot of up-and-back sections, which are always fun. It's motivating when you see runners so far ahead of you and satisfying when you see how many runners are behind you.

There is a sign informing you that you are about to climb “Hallelujah Hill” on mile 24, the only real challenging hill. Once you make it to the top of the hill, another sign proclaims, “Hallelujah, you made it up the hill.” The course elevation chart suggested a decent hill at mile 23. That was just an extended gentle hill of the kind that I dealt with for several miles at the All-American Marathon earlier in May.

Photo by James Broscher/South Bend Tribune

The race starts just outside the former site of the College Football Hall of Fame. There is an artificial-turf field that remains next to the building, which is where you pick up your packet. It also provides for a good place to stretch before the race (see above) and to take pictures of Marathon Maniacs (see second picture below). There were plenty of public restrooms nearby so that you didn’t have to go the Porta-Potty route.

Here's one of 2 Marathon Maniac group photos. I'm 93 on the right.

I'm 93 on the front row to the left in one of the pre-race Marathon Maniacs
photos. On the front row in the middle (in blue) is Larry Macon, who
ran a world-record 255 marathons in 2013.

I had the pleasure to meet up with several Marathon Maniacs before the race. They included Larry Macon, who ran a world-record 255 marathons in 2013. Just another weekend stroll for him, no doubt.

Sunburst gives marathoners advantages

I love how Sunburst sets up its races.

It also has a half-marathon, a 10K, a 5K and a 5K fitness walk. Many races start the marathon and the half-marathon at the same time. Sunburst starts the marathon at 6 a.m., the 5K at 7:15, the half-marathon at 7:30, the 10K at 7:45 and the 5K fitness walk at 9.

Since the second race starts 75 minutes after the marathon starts, parking was a breeze and the start wasn’t as congested as it is for races that start the marathon and half-marathon simultaneously. For some races, such as Tobacco Road, starting the half and the full 90 minutes apart probably wouldn’t work. But there are many other races that should consider it.

It seems like the popularity of half-marathons has those races luring many more runners and taking the the focus at events that feature half-marathons and marathons. I know that the Raleigh Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon actually gave larger cash prizes to its half-marathon winners.

It’s nice that Sunburst gives marathoners a few advantages over half-marathoners, not the least of which is starting that race at 6 a.m. on a hot day!

I wondered how that would work with fitness walkers finishing about the same time as marathoners. But it was fine since the only time I saw walkers was on a 4-lane road, and the walkers were kept to the left 2 lanes and runners took the right 2 lanes.

One lady had a sign on the course playing off the sign Irish football players see when they go down the steps from the Notre Dame Stadium dressing room for games: “Run like a champion today.” It also had the same font and the same color scheme. I thought it was neat.

I took the Notre Dame Stadium tour on Friday and saw the famous stairway that Irish
players take on the way to the playing field.

Two hot May races

With the heat and the fact that there were only 3 weeks between the All-American Marathon and Sunburst, I wasn’t sure what to expect. As it turned out, the weather was fairly similar for the 2 races. My Sunburst time was only 5 seconds slower than my All-American time.

The courses were very different, though. All-American was much hillier. So, other factors being equal, I should have been able to run a better time. The short rest between races probably had something to do with that.

Evidence that it's an easier course: the 2 marathons had exactly the same number of runners in my age group (46) and Sunburst had fewer overall finishers (544) than All-American (810), yet close to the same time got me a 2nd-place age-group award at All-American and an 8th-place age-group finish at Sunburst.

The big difference is that I felt much stronger in the final miles at All-American than I did at Sunburst. My lower leg muscles weren’t too happy and I really didn’t have faster gear available. That explains why I had only 2 miles slower than 9 minutes at All-American, but had 3 at Sunburst.

As I approached Notre Dame Stadium, I found myself — at that moment — glad that the race didn’t finish inside the stadium since that meant the finish line was closer!

I was able to get a post-race photo inside Notre Dame Stadium even though I wasn't able
to finish inside the stadium since what will be a playing surface is mounds of dirt.

A quick turnaround

Several months ago, I registered for the June 14 Hatfield-McCoy Marathon in Kentucky. A couple of months later, I won free entry to Sunburst and wasn’t about to turn that down.

But that means I’ll have 2 firsts for me: 2 marathons in 2 weeks and 3 marathons in 5 weeks.

This is likely to be another hot marathon. Given that it also is a hilly and challenging course, there will be no thought of running a PR, just hoping to break 4 hours and try to avoid walking. That’s pretty much the approach I took for the Grandfather Mountain Marathon last July, and only succeeded on the first of those 2 goals. I'm thinking meeting either goal may be tough for Hatfield-McCoy.

Hatfield-McCoy also will be my 8th marathon in 12 months (Grandfather Mountain being the first), which bumps me up to silver, 2-star Marathon Maniacs membership status. I initially gained entry with the minimal standard of 3 marathons in 90 days, which is the bronze, 1-star level.