Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 Year in Review

A few days ago, I was in the midst of a multi-day break from running. I was intentionally resting my legs after a long Fall filled with my first 100 miler, my first 100K, a marathon PR, and a slew of tempo runs. I wanted to make sure I took it easy for a bit before beginning my 2016 training for Western States. And I found myself itching to run. I thought about it every couple of hours ... I really wanna get a run in! ... it's great weather for hitting the trails! ... just lemme lace up my shoes and head out the door!  In my impatience it donned on me, I finally feel like a runner.

The years since I finished college have been filled with infrequent bouts of running, but no sustained efforts, no training plans, no goals or desires, and entirely too many weeks and months that passed by without ever lacing up. I could never find a way to motivate myself to stick with running. If I was a runner, I was the laziest runner around. Which is why this year has been so special for me.  I looked down deep and realized I didn't just want to be a runner, I needed to act and actually become one.

Year in Review

A Rough Start

My year started in a rather unimpressive manner. Before Thanksgiving I had a stinging sensation in my knee, and subsequent attempts at running were hit or miss.  I had a 4+ hour run just after Christmas that ended with me gingerly jogging for 10 miles as I fought off the stingers that made my knee buckle. After that foolish run I knew I needed time off, so nearly all of January I was sidelined with injury.  This was not a good start!

The Canyon

The much-needed rest worked out well and it enabled me to accomplish something I'd been dreaming of for over a decade: running Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim at the Grand Canyon.  My quads were nowhere near prepared for the hard downhill running and uphill hiking, but I survived the 42 mile solo run at the end of January without a hint of pain in my knee. It took me 12 hours and 24 minutes, a far cry from Rob Krar's FKT! That experience galvanized in me a desire to pursue ultra running; without that Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim run I may very well have spent the entirety of 2015 lounging around on a couch, wondering if I'd ever have the resolve to get back into running.

My First Ultra

Winter and Spring progressed slowly.  I was ever mindful of my knee, so runs were easy and infrequent.  I signed up for the DC North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler to focus my efforts and keep me from lapsing into apathetic running and an eventual abandonment of running for the umpteenth time. To stay focused I even signed up for the Grindstone 100 a week before the DC NFEC.  That's right, I signed up for a 100 Miler before I ever ran a single ultra race! When the April morning of race day approached, I felt confident. I wasn't going to go out there and run a sub-8-hour race or anything, but I knew that I would be able to finish. I paced myself well and ran smart but an awkward downhill foot strike with nearly 20 miles to go sent a stabbing pain into my knee.  Great, just what I needed!  The rest of the run I did everything I could to maintain an easy stride that wouldn't trigger the knee stingers, so my pace slowed dramatically.  As I finished the race I regretted the slow finish due to injury but was proud of my overall accomplishment.  In the last miles I though to myself, even with the bum knee, I could easily keep going for another 10 miles!

Rehab and Recovery

By May, I had seen a specialist who diagnosed me with patellafemoral pain syndrome (PFPS), a variant of Runner's Knee.  It was probably a result of my rapid increase in my long run distance over the previous Fall -- rookie mistake! May and the first half of June was spent avoiding running and going to physical therapy.  I performed stretches and exercises that strengthened my hips and knees, focused on the stabilizer muscles in my legs, and stretched out my hamstring.

In mid-June I randomly signed up for another 50 Miler, the OSS/CIA 50, a night race.  I KT-taped my knee just in case, but I didn't have a single problem with it all night long!  For icing on the cake, I somehow managed to finish in 3rd place despite brutal humidity, taking it really easy for the first few hours, and running off course for nearly 30 minutes. I was getting healthier, my legs were more responsive, my endurance was improving, and my confidence was going up.

Preparing for My First 100 Miler

For July and August I focused on hitting a series of hills with a 10% grade, over and over again, to prepare my legs for the 23,000' of gain and loss at Grindstone come October.  I also slipped in a 50K in horrible July heat that taught me a lesson in what happens when you push the pace too hard and don't take in enough liquids on a 90 degree day.  Despite near heat exhaustion and quad cramps that ruined the last third of the race, I still finished in 6th place and my legs somehow recovered quickly afterwards.  I then attended the Jarmans Invitational Marathon in August, near Crozet, VA.  The JIM is a lesson in boredom and inclines.  You run up and down a 3 mile stretch of gravel and paved road 5 times. The "race" starts at noon, so it's sunny and hot. The road has 1,500' of gain for a nearly 10% grade. There's no scenery, save for some pit bulls and mountainside yard trash.  By the end of it, my quads were sufficiently trashed, but it gave me the confidence that I could overcome the long climbs at Grindstone.

And at some point in August I thought it'd be fun to run over the same 1.2 mile stretch of trail in DC's Rock Creek Park for 5 hour straight, by myself, netting a cool 26.2 miles in 5 hours, covering 55 hill climbs and 55 descents and nearly +7,000'/-7,000' of vertical, albeit in little 100'-200' chunks. My run-up to Grindstone also included a final 3 weeks that had 30, 33, and 37 mile runs.  The last run, 37 miles, was bookended by 13 mile runs, netting me over 100K in less than 48 hours.  When it came time to taper, I was confident I'd be able to finish my first 100 Miler.


Grindstone was a blast! One of the best moments of my life. I took the race easy for the first half and still got to the turnaround nearly on pace for my "A" goal of 24 hours.  I chased that time hard for a few hours, but ended up bombing on the final couple of climbs -- a lesson in where to focus efforts next year.  The final 10 miles were nearly all downhill, many of which I'd ran before on a previous long run of mine.  I had tried saving my legs for this final stretch but they failed me on the earlier climbs.  After a few minutes, though, my legs woke up and I found enough energy to tear ass to the finish. My final stretch of running rivaled the pace of the Top 5 runners that day.  I ended up in 16th place and less than 11 minutes shy of sub-24.  Moreover, I felt, again, that I had more in the tank when I crossed the finish line.  More motivation for next year!

End of the Year

My season started wrapping up by spending a couple weeks recuperating from Grindstone and then switching gears to running tempo runs and intervals for a few weeks leading up to a fast, flat trail marathon on the C&O Canal in DC.  I held a strong 7-flat pace for the first 18 miles, but then my legs began to tighten up ... having run a 100 miler only 4 weeks prior, it was to be expected.  I fought hard trying to hold onto a Boston Qualifying time of 3:05 but ended up almost 2 minutes back.  Never-the-less, I finished in 2nd place and peeled 14 minutes off my marathon PR. Not bad for only spending a couple weeks of "training".

A few weeks later I ran a 5K fun run in 18:16.  It was nearly a 1 minute drop from 6 months prior and was wholly unexpected.  All of that ultra training and those few tempo runs have completely overhauled my legs. By the end of 2016 I may very well PR in the 5K, too.

A Gift from the Running Gods

In early December I learned that I snagged an entry into Western States with my single lottery ticket earned from Grindstone 2 months prior.  The running gods were certainly kind to me and my 3.6% odds!  I am so grateful for the opportunity to race Western States in 2016 after only one year of running.  It's been a lifetime dream of mine to toe the line at Squaw Valley and run for the coveted silver buckle.  Having this opportunity so early in my newly found running career is, simply, incredible!

One More Race? Eh, Why Not!

And finally, I was able to run Hellgate 100K in December. I only really considered running it after my strong showing at Grindstone. It was a great finish to the year. I had high hopes of finishing in under 13 hours and nabbing a Top 10 spot, but around 15 miles in, my quads started to twinge.  It wasn't anything bad, but I could tell that my muscles were still recovering from Grindstone and that marathon PR in the previous weeks.  ... So I backed off the pace and just enjoyed the run.  I ended up finishing in just over 14 hours, but I can't complain. This race was somewhat of a last-minute decision and I didn't want to blow out my legs knowing that I'd need to start training for Western States in the next few weeks.  So those final 50 miles were more of an easy jaunt in the woods, capped off with a near-leisurely stroll over the final 6 miles where I was able to step back and reflect on my year as it came to a close.

Luckily, that race gave me a great lesson in hill climbing that I hope to carry into 2016.  I usually get smoked on the uphills because my hiking is atrociously slow ... it was my downfall at Grindstone.  But at Hellgate I experimented with a run-walk strategy of 1 minute "on" and 40 seconds "off" (180 strides of running and 80 strides of recovery walking). I was able to maintain that on all of the climbs with ease. I can't wait to refine that skill over the next few months ... it's going to do wonders on bringing down my race times in the future.

One piece of advice I have is that you always find a lesson in each and every race that you can learn from and build upon going forward.  Finding that I did, in fact, have the legs for climbing at Hellgate was one of the highlights of my year and it came to me during a race that might have been considered a disappointment given how far off my finishing time was from my "A" goal.

Final Thoughts

All in all, I had a fantastic year.  I logged 1,200 miles in total, most of it in the second half of the year. That may not seem like much but it's probably more than I've ever ran in a single year before.  And I did it while taking nearly 10 whole weeks off to try and correct my knee injury. ... And, a number of those weeks were 1 and 2 run weeks of 15 miles or less. I can't wait to focus more in 2016 and stick to 5 and 6 run weeks.

I also logged nearly 135,000' of vertical gain this year ... nearly 26 miles of vertical gain!  I can certainly feel how those hills have strengthened my legs.  I feel more fine-tuned than ever before and I'm looking forward to knocking down my race times from the 100 Mile all the way down to the 5K. 

This sport is incredible. The races are genuine life experiences. The people I've met and suffered with are amazing people and I can't wait to see them again in future races. I look forward to what 2016 has in store for me ... and I hope it includes a shiny silver buckle!

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