Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Vermont City Marathon

Every year over Memorial Day weekend, the City of Burlington, Vermont becomes a bustling place as it hosts the Vermont City Marathon. This past October, I participated in my first marathon in Newport. Suffice it to say, wind and rain cutesy of a hurricane that just barely went out to sea, it was perhaps not the most ideal first experience. So, early this winter, when my friend, Amy, asked if someone would run a marathon with her, I agreed.

Let me say straight away that training for a marathon over the winter is folly. The weather is terrible, and it's hard to get in those long runs -- both because of motivation (winter = lazy) and because of the element (ice, snow, freezing cold). So, was it worth it? Yes!

After a string of utterly disappointing, cold and dreary spring weather, the Sunday of marathon morning dawned sunny and temperate. We would be running in temperatures in the upper 60s and low 70s, perhaps a bit on the warm side for an elite runner, but perfect as far as I'm concerned. Amy, her partner, Julia, my boyfriend, Ben, and I, had traveled up to Burlington the day before. This allowed us to swing by the expo on Saturday night right before dinner to pick-up our bibs and get a good night sleep. This was all very civilized compared to 3:45 a.m. departure time for the Newport Marathon. I got up at 5:45 a.m., had oatmeal and coffee, and we headed into downtown Burlington to for the race. A little ways from the start line, Julia and Ben dropped Amy and me off. As they went to part, we made our way over to the race start.

The starting area was mobbed with racers for the marathon and the relay. One of the very interesting things about the Vermont City Marathon is that it featured a few relay options. There was a two-person relay, as well as three to five person relay teams. This was really unique and something I would totally be interested in doing in the future. It was also nice to have a race where the course would be full of participants the entire time. At Newport, racers could elect to do the full marathon or a half. Most people chose the later, which meant that the second half of the race, where racers need encouragement the most, felt like an after thought. That was not the case at Vermont City. This was a marathon first and foremost!

Amy and I seeded ourselves near the 5:00 hour marathon pace group with a few minutes to wait before go-time. The place was a madhouse. There was lots of music and thousands of racers. Judging by the final result, over 2,000 marathon racers alone participated that day, plus another 1,600 or so relay teams (all with multiple people). Fortunately, we didn't have to wait long. After only a few minutes it was "go time." Within four or so minutes, we were across the starting line and the race was on!

The Vermont City Marathon has, overall a great course. There is a bit of a cloverleaf effect in play, so that you weave your way out and then come back. We had the chance to run through a lot of wonderful neighborhoods, past some of the universities and colleges that call Burlington home and along the lake. The Vermont City Marathon website has such an excellent description of the course, that I'm going to include it below. 

Our USATF certified course starts at Battery Park, overlooking Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains. The opening miles are run through tree-lined residential streets and Burlington’s pedestrian Marketplace where an enthusiastic crowd of spectators will inspire you. At mile 3.7 you begin a 4.5 mile out and back section on the Northern Connector, a divided highway which is closed to traffic only once a year – for your race. On the Northern Connector, enjoy beautiful views of the Green Mountains and get a chance to see the leaders and your friends as you cross paths. At mile 8.2, return to city streets for a second pass through the Marketplace and a loop of Burlington’s South End. At the half-way point of the course, enter Oakledge Park. Mile 15 brings the Assault on Battery; 6 blocks climbing Battery Street. You’ll see musicians and throngs of spectators to inspire you up the hill. The next 6.5 miles take you out North Avenue on gently rolling terrain through many shaded neighborhoods. A steep downhill at mile 21.5 brings you to the Burlington Bikepath, which provides beautiful lake views and flat to slightly downhill terrain over the last 4.5 miles. Your finish and all post-race festivities occur in Waterfront Park where you’ll be greeted by thousands of cheering spectators.

The start of the race was excellent. Amy and I both enjoyed running through the neighborhood near downtown Burlington. Even though it was early, people were already out at the ends of their driveways cheering us on.

From there, the course took an unexpected turn around mile four. We began an out-and-back along the highway that lasted for around 4.5 miles. This was, without a doubt, my least favorite part of the course. It was less picturesque than other areas and running along the highway was… odd. Not that there was traffic – the highway was closed – but it was still not super fun to run in the sun along the wide stretches of pavement without any real idea of landmark, especially since the highway was had a distinct camber that made running slightly uncomfortable. Also, Amy's foot was bothering her along this stretch, which was decidedly not fun. (The good news is that her foot began to feel better later on.) Fortunately, there were volunteers along the course and a band or two!From there, the course took an unexpected turn around mile four. We began an out-and-back along the highway that lasted for around 4.5 miles. This was, without a doubt, my least favorite part of the course. It was less picturesque than other areas and running along the highway was… odd. Not that there was traffic – the highway was closed – but it was still not super fun to run in the sun along the wide stretches of pavement without any real idea of landmark. Fortunately, there were volunteers along the course and a band or two!

I was happy when the course turned back towards town. We headed into the main shopping district and were greeted by Ben and Julia who cheered us on near mile nine. It was fun to be back in an areas with some visual interest and great to see loved ones. 

The course then took us along a looped section through some more industrial areas of the city. There was good spectator action along the course here, though the best crowd support was still yet to come. After the run through the South End, we did a quick jaunt through a nearby park. I loved all the running that we did through a few of the parks in Burlington. They were lovely, featured nice bike paths, and quite often were near the water. We hit the halfway point and were both feeling pretty good. The excellent volunteer support and the fun crowds all along the course were great. The best part was getting to run with an buddy and having Ben and Julia there to see along the course. Amy and I passed Ben and Julia before the big hill climb and received high fives.

The hill climb came right around mile 15. It was steep, but it was fast. I think we only had to run uphill for a few minutes. Very manageable. Overall, the course had some rolling hill but was very civilized. Most of the course was what I would consider flat, and we never had more than around 200 feet of elevation change. Also, the hill was packed with spectators who had motivational signs and cheered for all the runners. There was a band urging us on. All of the city streets had people who had come to watch the race. There was not a moment of the day when I didn't feel the fun atmosphere. Burlington loves their marathon and the citizens of the City give it their all in supporting the race!

After the hill, we ran through a number of neighborhoods. This might have been one of my favorite things about the Vermont City Marathon. All of the neighborhoods were jamming with activity. People sat at the ends of their driveways handing out ice pops, bananas, and water. Garage bands came out to play along the road. College students, spending the summer, were dressed up in costumes. People has sprinklers going for cooling off hot runners, a great pick-me-up when I was flagging around mile 21. I have never seen such a supportive group of townspeople or a better group of spectators. The perfect weather and amazing participation of the neighborhoods gave the Vermont City Marathon a sense of fun and celebration. This is what a marathon should be!

At mile 21.5 we took a turn down a hill. Every step was agony on my tired quads and knees. Fortunately, it was a short downward trek and then we were on the bike path. Only a little over four and a half miles to go along the flat bike path, which hugged the lake. 

While I was tired at this point, the run along the bike path was very civilized. It was great to get to finish on flat terrain -- much nicer than the rolling hills that dominated the end of the Newport Marathon. I also tried to enjoy the amazing views of the lake.The views and the cheers from spectators was a big help. In the final miles of a marathon, all distractions are helpful. 

I ran out of water in my hydration pack at around mile 24. At this point, I wasn't going to stop. Not for anything. After running for 4.5 hours, it was easier to keep going than to stop at a water station to fill up my pack. The water stations were plentiful, nearly every half mile at this point, so it was easy to grab a cup while on the run. I was very grateful at the organization of the water stations. They were ever mile or two in the beginning and then more densely packed towards the end of the race as runners needs might increase. This was smart and much-appreciated.

Around mile 23 on the bike path, I noticed that the 5:00 pace group was up ahead of us. At the start of the race, I had been a little concerned when the group of around a dozen and a half sped off ahead of us. I had through our paces might match, but the pacers for the 5:00 crew seemed to be starting out a bit fast. I ended up pacing Amy and myself at a very even 11:17 to 11:25 average pace. This worked because when we caught up and passed the 5:00 pacers it seemed like they had lost all but a member or two of their group. I am really pleased at how well the pacing strategy that Amy and I had was implemented. 

After a few miles along the water, the bike path finally exited the trees and I could hear the finish line. Spectators lined the route. The energy was awesome! Amy and I saw Ben and Julia who cheered us on. Together, we crossed the finish line in 4:26:30. 

This year's Vermont City Marathon was what everyone's first time marathon should be. The logistics were excellent, the volunteers superb, the course engaging, the crowd support amazing, and the weather lovely. It was the marathon I've wanted to run -- a celebration of hard work that culminates in a really fun event. I ran 26.2 miles, and I had fun. Was it hard? Sure. Were there time when I was kind of "done" with running? Of course. But there was lots of support on course from volunteers at race aid stations and the people of Burlington who turned out en masse for the race. Most importantly, it was super fun to see Ben and Julia along the route. I love that the Vermont City Marathon had a course that allowed spectators to view their runners so many times; plus, runner tracking via RaceJoy was a big help.

This fall, I finished the Newport Marathon in 5:19:42. Amy and I finished the Vermont City Marathon in 4:56:30. This was a huge improvement. Training with a buddy helped, as did the fact that I knew I could go the distance and felt I could be "medium conservative" instead of "ultra conservative" in the pacing.

The Vermont City Marathon was a great way to cap off a good 12 months of intensive running. I ran a marathon and had a blast. For now, I will be taking a break from marathon running to concentrate on preparing for the Obstacle Course Racing World Championships in Toronto this fall. Next year...who knows? Maybe a fall 2018 marathon is in the cards.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Ragnar Cape Cod 2017

It's less than 24 hours since my team, the NE Spahten Ninja, completed the 2017 Cape Cod Ragnar Relay and already I can't wait for next year.

Ragnar is a multi-day 192 mile running relay. Twelve person teams take turns running three times to cover the distance. Each "leg" (Note: Ragnar term for each run) is a different distance. You run every twelfth person, which means you find yourself running at crazy times of the day and night. This year, I was runner eight and ran 10.5 miles, 5.6 miles, and 2.3 miles at around 11:00 a.m., 10:00 p.m., and 8:00 a.m. for a total of 18.4 miles. As a bonus, my 10.5 miler was the second longest run on the team, which was great considering that I was scheduled for a 12 mile long run as I begin to taper for the Vermont City Marathon in two weeks.

This year, for the first time, I was in van 2. For Ragnar, your team divides into two vans of six that each serve to relay members as you leapfrog from exchange to exchange to meet your runners. For the first three years of my Ragnar experience, I was in van 1 (as runner 1, 6, and 5 for years 1 through 3, respectively). Van 1 tends to start running at 5:00 a.m., making for an early wake-up. Van 2, on the other hand, was scheduled to check-in at Exchange 6 at a little after 9:00 a.m. on Friday so that we could watch the safety video before we took over running at around 10:00 a.m.

Our (half) team of six, met up Thursday night at the Best Western Plus in Plymouth. The group consisted of Aaron, Geoff, Sandy, Sarah, Sean, and me. After a luxurious full night of sleep, we availed ourselves of the free hotel breakfast and headed off to meet van 1 at Duxbury Beach.

At Duxbury, things were just getting set-up by the Ragnar crew. We checked-in and walked around the sponsor tents. (I got a cold brew from one tent to save in the cooler we had in the van for tomorrow with breakfast.) Soon, our comrades in van 1 arrived! It was great to see Bobby, Jess, Josh, Paul, and Wes and to meet the new van 1 member, Peter. We took a few photos as a group (minus Aaron who had taken over from Jess and was out running). 

Then van 1 headed off to breakfast, and we in van 2 got ready to meet Aaron at the seventh exchange. I had a quick snack and coordinated my water bottle and chomps for my 10.5 miler. (Note: My leg had van support, meaning that my van could stop and drop off water and words of encouragement; however, they had to handle some logistics while I was out running. As a result, I wanted to be sure that I had everything I would need. In contrast, for my night run, I decided not to take anything and got to take advantage of the van support. Works well both ways!)

My run started in and ended in Carver, while occasionally taking me across the town line into adjacent Plympton. The first two miles of the route contained some serious rolling hills! The hills persisted throughout but were most extreme in the beginning. In my head I thought, "What is this! The Cape is supposed to be flat!" The entirety of the 10.5 miles was through some residential areas, often along semi-busy roads. Since our team had started so early, there were few other Ragnar runners on the road. I was passed by three other runners, and we shared friendly greetings. All-in-all, it was a fairly standard run. I felt fine about the distance -- I ran 20 miles last weekend in my final really really long run for my marathon training -- and moved along consistently. I averaged 10:29 miles, a pretty good pace for me, and an excellent pace for me considering the distance. The coolest part of the run was seeing a helicopter that was hovering over a farm doing some agricultural work. I texted my team a mile out and was greeted by the team at the exchange. It's always fun to run in and have someone to hand off to (and chest bump in the case of our team -- it's tradition). Our group is also great about coming out and cheering as a runner comes in and the next goes out. What better way to finish a 10.5 miler than to the cheers and well-wishes of your friends!

After the run, we headed back to the van. My teammates generously allowed me time for some stretching and a quick peanut butter sandwich and change of clothing. It was around 1:00 p.m. at this point, and I was hungry. I was glad we had ample snacks in the van. I refueled with the sandwich and some jerky. (I also might have indulged in my favorite race treat, Twizzlers!) I was lucky to have purchased a Dryrobe, an ultra-warm changing robe, that arrived just a day before Ragnar! The weather for Ragnar was cool this year. Temperatures were always in the upper 40s or low 50s. While this was great for running, it was a bit cold for standing around, especially for someone like me who is prone to feeling cold all the time anyway. I wore my Dryrobe pretty much all of the time when I wasn't running, and even slept in it a couple of times. Being cold for a couple of days would have been miserable -- Dryrobe to the rescue!

Our van continued dropping off runners and leapfrogging them from exchange to exchange for the rest of the afternoon. I couldn't believe how different the schedule felt from van 1! In van 1, at this point, I would have been super tired from getting up at 3:00 a.m. and would be napping (for ages and ages) while waiting for van 2. This time I was part of van 2, and I had gotten a good full night sleep, eaten at normal times, and was feeling my normal level of "active-ness." This made me probably a bit more engaged at exchanges, which was fun!

On our way to meet our Sean at exchange 12 in Buzzards Bay, we accidentally took a wrong turn that left us going the wrong way. This wasn't a problem -- we realize right away -- however, on our detour, we ran into a runner who had accidentally strayed several miles off course! Sandy quickly pulled over and Sarah jumped out. The poor guy had run over 10 miles (much of them uphill on a major road and in the wrong direction!) for his planned 9.6 miler. We quickly collected him and brought him with us to the exchange to meet his team. We were, sadly, late to meet Sean as a result. Fortunately, van 1 was there to cheer him on. We quickly collected him and were off to grab a 5:00 p.m. dinner at the British Beer Company before having to start our next set of runs around 10:00 p.m.

After a solid dinner, we headed to the next exchange where van 1 would hand off to us at around 9:30 p.m. Following a disappointing trip across the street to a Dunkin' that was already closed (at 7:00 p.m.! Seriously!) We all did some light resting / napping in the van. At this point, we were about half an hour or more ahead of schedule, so around 9:00 p.m., I got up and began or organize myself for my night run, which would start around 10:00 p.m. (instead of the originally scheduled 10:30 p.m.). During your night runs at Ragnar, or any time during the evening that you're out of the van, it's necessary to wear a reflective vest for safety. Headlamps are also mandatory for the night legs. Leg 20, my night leg, was 5.6 miles through Yarmouth.

In the past, I have had a kind of floating feeling on my night legs. This year, however, I felt much more grounded (better sleep?) and was pretty mindful as I ran. I was able to keep up a good pace as a result, at 10:30 per mile again. The marking were not as good as one might have hoped on this leg. As a result, I was very grateful when my team met me at around the 2.5 mile mark to cheer me on and give me some water. It was wonderful to see them and good to know that I was on the right track. I finished my night run in just under and hour and must have then gone into the van and crashed because the next thing I remember was that it was 2:00 a.m. and we were stopped, apparently having just passed off to van 1! More importantly, apparently there were showers to be had.

Shower! What? I woke up quite a bit when I heard this, especially since I had recalled learning there would be basically no shower service during Ragnar this year. (To which I had mentally replied, "Nooooo!") I hadn't brought a towel, but my teammate, Sandy, super super generously allowed me to use her towel after she had showered. After running 16 miles, I can assure you a shower is most welcome. I also grabbed an extremely delicious cup of soup from one of the volunteers at the school where we showed. Yum -- a 2:00 a.m. snack!

From there, we headed to the next exchange in Eastam where van 1 was scheduled to pass off to us for the final six legs at 7:00 a.m. When we arrived at Nauset Region High School, I decided to head into the gym to sleep. For all my past Ragnar races, I had crashed on the bench in the van. Other on my team has spread out on the long benches this time. (The same benches I had no doubt slept on during much of my team's legs over the previous hours.) My hip flexor was feeling very tight, and I didn't want to sleep scrunch in a chair, so I tagged along with Aaron and headed to the gym. There I caught a few hours of excellent sleep on the gym floor. It was chilly with the doors open, but it was great to stretch out. After that, I definitely felt better!

When I got up, I learned that van 1 was running a little bit behind. They had arrived at one of the exchanges to find that it was disorganized and lacking in volunteers. As a result, they had been delayed for 15 minutes. Other matters delayed them a bit further, meaning that I'd be running my final leg closer to 8:00 a.m. than 7:30 a.m.

At this point, we were getting farther out on the Cape. Beaches and dunes were in evidence. I was tired but certainly much less so than during other Ragnar races, mostly in part of having had a good night sleep Thursday into Friday.

My final leg was 2.3 miles in Wellfleet. It ended up most definitely being the most lovely run of all three legs of Ragnar 2017 for me. With such a short distance, I ended up running fairly quickly and finished with an average pace of something like 9:29 per mile. The run started with some rolling hill with the ocean on my right. It ended with a third to a half mile of downhill running, which let me run quite quickly into the finish. What a blast! "Comin' in hot" to finish my last leg of the relay was such fun. I passed off to Sandy and my running was done.

Van 2 still had a bit of running before we hit Provincetown. Aaron was schedule to run the last leg. Over the past three years, Josh had always run that leg and it was time for us to mix it up. Aaron kept up a good pace, even while running into a strong wind while carrying the American flag for the last four or so miles. Meanwhile, van 2 headed into P-town where we parked and went to meet up with van 1 and wait for Aaron to head in.

Josh and I headed down the road a little bit so that we could see when Aaron rounded the bend. He ran up the hill and the entire team joined together so that all twelve of us could cross the finish line together!

As always, Ragnar was an amazing time. Key to success is having an amazing team, and I'm lucky in this regard. How fortunate that the NE SpahtenNinjas took me on! I am already excited for our Ragnar Trail New England event next month and Ragnar Cape Cod 2018.

(Note: Photos are courtesy of Paul Jones and Josh Chace of the NE Spahtens. Team photo from Vince Rhee. Some are even taken by me!)