Sunday, October 26, 2014

Marine Corps Marathon: meeting most of my goals

Marathon running... that's how it all started back in 1998! We had just moved from Paris to the Bay Area and it was initially for 2 years so I set a goal to run a marathon before moving back. Indeed, back then, I thought everybody was running in California and, while it's fair to say the state is on the healthier side overall, not every Californian has run a marathon yet... Anyway, I did run the San Francisco marathon in 1999 and barely broke 3:30 despite quite a strict training regimen. Hoping it was just because of the hilly course, I ran the Silicon Valley Marathon a few months later, a very flat course this time, but only shaved 5 minutes of my time. My third marathon was in Phoenix, AZ in February 2000 and my first major exercise-induced asthma, forcing me to walk or crawl the second part of the marathon for a very disappointing 5:05 time.

Our appointment in California got extended another year then we decided to call Cupertino, CA, our new home, even being granted the US citizenship a few years later. With that, from just finishing, the goal evolved toward qualifying for Boston first, then breaking 3 hours, then getting faster and eventually to placing... And eventually blogging about this "Farther Faster" quest, one which got no limit when I added the ultra marathon dimension to it, oops!

I eventually qualified for Boston in my 4th attempt with 3:04 at the Silicon Valley Marathon in October 2000. I'm not going to go through the list of the next 17 marathons but I did run Boston 4 times even getting on the podium as Top 10 Masters in 2005 and broke 3 hours 11 times out of these 21 marathons with a PR of 2:37 at Chicago in 2003 at 39.

Today was my 22nd marathon then, not counting the 105 ultra races I ran since I switched to ultra-running back in 2006. And when Max, who made us the surprise by boarding on our flight in Houston on Friday morning, asked me when was my last marathon, I realized that I didn't even remember (with 17 to 18 races a year, that's where my detailed running log and blog come handy! ;-). It was actually more than 3 years ago at the World Masters Athletics championships in Sacramento in July 2011. Quite a while from a race count perspective, 57 races ago!

I didn't even have the Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) on my calendar this year but, Alex running it for the second consecutive time, we decided to stop by DC on our way back from a very relaxing week in Belize. As I said in my previous post on Friday, the only thing I really did well to prepare for MCM was to taper for 8 days, which I don't even do before my ultra races now. With that, I was really anxious to see how my legs felt after such a break and which speed/pace I could maintain for 26 miles. I didn't do much speed work and was only glad to see I could still run a 10K at 5:45 min/mile, in September, 1 week after running 133 miles and taking 3rd at the US Nationals of 24 hours. And you could say I was grossly over-trained in terms of long runs with 13 ultra races and 17 ultra runs for training...

Back to the title, here are a few goals I had for this Sunday:

  1. Running the MCM while I was in DC this weekend. That was a challenging one actually. I was hoping to leverage my connection with Brooks, the main sponsor of this event, and local Michael Wardian, both a very fast runner and racer "stud", racing almost every other week when not back to back weekends. Michael connected me to Running Brooke and that's how I managed to get in.
  2. Raising money for Running Brooke. Brooke has run numerous marathons and races, creating an organization to raise money to help at-risk kids in Virginia through exercise and education programs. Specifically, for the MCM, we are raising money to build a playground in Alexandria, VA.
  3. Running a marathon with my son Alex. 
  4. Running another marathon in 2 hours + * minutes. trying to defy the age, I determined a few years ago that I'll try to establish "my" law (yes, referring to Moore's Law). I've been tracking this linear chart for more than 10 years now, +/- 1 minutes, I'm still hoping this will work for a while although statistics shows times increasing exponentially after 50.
  5. Breaking 3 hours. I managed to do it 11 times out of 21 marathons, that's never a given.
  6. Getting another Boston qualifier. In case I want to run in 2016. Or for New York maybe if I can figure how the lottery works (I entered last year but never heard back). The standard for M50-54 is 3:30, so that's easier as a goal.
  7. Winning my age group, or at least placing (that is in the top 3). I had checked the winning times for the past 10 years and they were all between 2:50 and 3:00.
  8. And, of course, enjoying running again after this 8-day break!
The problem is that a few of these goals were incompatible so I had to make trade-offs. With some limited training last year, Alex, ran 3:46 last year. A Senior at Georgetown, plus a demanding job, he trained even less this year and wasn't going to run 2:50. While we were in the same marathon, which is a way to check #3, it wasn't going to be the father-son run which Agnès was dreaming of, but Alex understood. We should have other opportunities.

The weather was gorgeous this weekend! Too early to be called Indian Summer, but amazingly warm and sunny conditions for October. The only glitch was the wind which was expected to increase up to 19 mph.

With more than 30,000 participants in the marathon (not counting the 10,000 runners or more in the 10K), I was surprised how easy it was to get on the start line.
I better understood what "The People's Marathon" tag line meant. With no prize money, this marathon is really about giving a chance for as many people as possible to honor our Marines by challenging themselves on this mythical distance.
From the opening ceremony to the finish and all along the course, there were hundreds of moving opportunities to feel and get immersed into this unique ambiance and spirit.

With a slight downhill like at Boston, the start was quite fast.
I was on the left lanes of Lee Highway, with the elites and lead car on the right side. After a mile or so, I decided to switch to the other side as the lead runners were going through an underpass, only to find out that the other route was shorter and we got passed by a few runners who took the other lanes. With that, we were at the bottom of a long hill, continuing on Lee Highway up to Clarendon. I'm usually good with hills but, unable to maintain the 6:20 pace, I got passed in that section by a few younger runners. I passed a few runners on the next downhill though, down the Spout Run. On the George Washington Parkway, I was stunned with the wonderful views of Georgetown University reflecting in the still Potomac. We had the rising sun right into our eyes while climbing up to Key Bridge and that made me miss Agnès who had already walked back from the start area (we stayed in Georgetown and walked the couple of miles to the start).
Key Bridge was covered with spectators on each side, actually more than on M Street at this early hour for the folks living in Georgetown. There were also many spectators cheering for us as we turned onto Rock Creek at mile 5.5. On the winding Potomac Parkway going through the woods however, it was much quieter, at least on the way out (this is a 2-mile out and back). After 20:10 at 5K, I passed the 10K mark right under 40 minutes (39:40). My GPS indicated a 6:19 pace but I think the distance was slightly over-estimated. In that section, I could see the lead runners coming back and encouraged Michael (Wardian) who was in 7th I believe. On the way back, it was our turn to cross the other runners, hundreds then thousands of them. I even managed to see Alex who was all smile, but we missed our high-five.

Maintaining the 6:19 pace was more and more difficult as I reached the mile 10 and 11 markers and I eventually lost ground to 2 runners I was running with. I passed the half-marathon point in 1:23:46 and got passed by 4 runners in the next mile, proving that I had slowed down. My intestines were painful and, after taking a GU gel every 30 minutes, I knew I needed it but decided to stop taking them, fearing to get even more sick. I kept pushing through the pain, barely paying attention to the monuments on each side of the Mall we were now on at mile 18 and 19, focused on my stride and drinking from the 2 bottles I carried all the way (I didn't make any stop at the numerous aid stations).

Despite being passed by a handful of other runners, I did pass the lead woman who was cramping, only to get "chicked" a mile later by the new leader, running behind 4 athletic military guys. I didn't walk but going over the long and deserted 14th Street Bridge was definitely my low point, kind of hitting the wall which was surely to happen after taking only 2 GUs. The fatigue and the guts pain made me grin even I was trying to acknowledge for the many nice encouragements we were receiving from the crowd in Crystal City. At mile 22 I saw one of the lead Black runners lying down, face on the ground and completely still, with many medics around him, that gave me a chill. I don't see anything on the Internet as I write this post on Sunday afternoon, I hope he is ok (there were a few other evacuations on the course and at the finish, likely because of the relatively high temperatures for the season).

I traded places with a few runners as my pace was now close to 7 minutes/mile but others had gone through an even tougher wall. As we were making our way back to Lee Highway, I got passed by a gal wearing Brooks shoes and tops and I encouraged her. A few seconds later, I got chicked again, then 2 more times in the next minute, yikes! The wind was so strong, against us, that I felt like I was almost not moving forward despite pushing as hard as I could, quite a depressing feeling. Adding to it, it was now clear that I would not meet my 2:50 goal, but I kept pushing anyway with the M50 age group win in mind, while grinning through the last mile... At least, I actually enjoyed the last 0.2-mile climb to the finish line, now in the lee of the wind, and it felt good to be moving again, if not sprinting.

2:53:24, not too bad on 200 calories. Even more satisfying as I found out later in the afternoon that it was good enough for an age group win! By 2:15, phew... But, again, MCM isn't so much about performance and, at the finish line, I did hug the Marine who gave me my finisher medal, as well as thanked dozens of other ones for their dedication and the sacrifices they are giving to our country.

Alex clocked a 3:42:34 time, a PR by 4 minutes. And, after a well deserved burger and nap, he is now back to studying...
It was the 39th edition of the MCM, with a cumulative number of finishers passing 500,000 this year. Great experience to run one of the major and largest marathons, I'm very thankful to Michael Wardian and Running Brooke for the opportunity. Michael finished 4th overall in 2:25:42 and easily won the Masters division, his new age group. As for Running Brooke, the fund raising is going to be open for 4 more days so please consider visiting this page and adding $10 to my current $300 count. Thank you so much in advance on behalf of these kids from Alexandria, VA!
Back to the title, I just missed goal #4 (2:53 instead of 2:50), not quite #3 (not running with or along Alex but in the same race), and met all the other goals! Not to mention great family time with Max in town. Hope you met your own goals this weekend too, either at the MCM or elsewhere, feel free to leave a comment to let us know!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Tapering in Belize: resting and relaxing as part of the training regimen

I'm going to make an exception and hiatus in my "Running in..." series; I discovered a new country with Agnès, but didn't run at all! 8 full days of tapering, I have not done such tapering in a long time, even before one of my 13 ultra races so far this year, and I'm "only" running a marathon this Sunday (the Marine Corps Marathon in DC, Alex' 2nd consecutive MCM)! We'll see if it pays off, very soon...

From a running perspective, I'm not sure Belize is the best place anyway but I'm all to hear otherwise (please leave a comment if you did find good spots). We first stayed inland, about 20 miles west of Belize City and the jungle is already pretty close. I'd say the safest is probably to run on one of the three main highways, knowing these highways are barely a strip of asphalt, about 3-lane wide but no road marking. We then spent 4 days in Caye Caulker (pronounce key like in Florida's Keys), which, referring to my thirst for long runs, Agnès initially introduced me as follows: "Will you be able to survive on a 5 by 1 mile island?" Well, Caye Caulker was actually split into two islands by a major hurricane back in 1961, and the inhabited part is barely 1 mile long and has 3 main streets. Dirt and many potholes for some good trail running, there isn't an ounce of asphalt on the whole island, golf carts are the only allowed vehicles on Caye Caulker, this adds to the very relaxing atmosphere.

So, what do you do in Belize when you are not running? Here are a few things we did...

Snorkeling. First and foremost, you have to love getting in the water when visiting Belize. Belize has the longest corral reef in the Northern hemisphere, only second in the world to Australia. With that, Belize is a paradise for divers and snorkelers alike. Like many other countries (including France!), tourism is the largest "industry" in Belize and many tours and activities are offered. The best snorkeling is actually near the reef which is about a mile away from Caye Caulker's shores. The best spots are actually North East, in front of San Pedro, a much larger and developed island. We were recommended two operators, Carlo's and Mario's and picked the latter just because it was the one open when we stopped by. We had a wonderful day (10:30a-3:30p), with another couple from Georgia, staying at the same resort as ours. We made four stops, looking for manatees at the last one but not seeing any. We snorkeled at Hol Chan, the Sharks Alley and the Coral Garden. Swimming with turtles, sharks and stingrays was an unforgettable experience, even more memorable as I captured with the GoPro the boys offered to me last year for Father's Day, the perfect opportunity to put to use.

Visiting, sightseeing and exploring. No, we didn't venture deep in the jungle, there is much much more to explore than what we did during the 22 hours we spent inland. But, 2 hours after landing, we were already at the Community Baboon Sanctuary, home of thousands of howler monkeys who, yes, howl, wow!
It was another incredible experience to have a monkey on our shoulders! We stayed at the Black Orchid Resort which we highly recommend. Very kind and helpful staff, superb room, good food and right on the Belize River. Although we didn't see any crocodile (like black bears or mountain lions in California, better miss getting face to face), the iguanas were quite impressive. And it was cool to also see families of monkeys playing and eating at the top of the trees. The next morning, our driver and guide, Richard, walked us through one of the 16 imposing Maya sites, Altun Ha. It was Sunday and the end of the low season, so we had the whole site for ourselves, an extra bonus! (Cruise ships stop in Belize City on Tuesdays and Thursdays and they bring boatloads of tourists on the 14-mile bumpy road leading to the site.)
We ended the morning by a tour of Belize City, which is still the most populated town in the country but not the capital anymore (now Belmopan, further inland and not subject to hurricanes and tornadoes as Belize City is). One of the oldest and original houses of Belize City:
And the oldest Catholic church in the Caribbeans:
By the way, here are a few facts about this small country which many people don't know much about: Belize became independent in 1981, after being a British colony known as British Honduras. Because of territory disputes Guatemala only recognized Belize in 1992. It is on the east side of Central America sharing a border with Mexico in the north, and a long one with Guatemala on the west and south. The population is around 300,000 people with a median age around 20. And, while English is the official language which is a great asset from a tourism standpoint, they also speak Spanish and a local form for Creole. After this quick tour of the city, we embarked on the water taxi for a 50-minute "ride" to Caye Caulker.

What else did we "do" to taper,  rest and... do nothing...? Some easy biking, blending in the local population zigzagging between potholes and puddles. More swimming and snorkeling at the end of the deck of our resort. Hanging out at the Split, the place where the island broke. Eating local food at a few of the 30 restaurants on Caye Caulker. Walking, photographing, videotaping, some bird watching (pelicans, seagulls, egrets, cormorants, ...), kayaking, sleeping a lot (quite some sleep catching!), and also some "hammocking", if we can make it a verb!

Here are a few recommendations on Caye Caulker:

Colinda Cabanas. You'll get a genuine local experience in these wood cabanas with just enough of our western comfort. The place is owned and managed by Colin and Linda who came here from Canada 4 years ago. We missed Colin who was out of the country but Linda was very welcoming and helpful with her recommendations. The place is kept very neat, which is a challenge in those humid conditions. We much appreciated the amenities such as bikes, kayaks, beach towels, fans, a small fridge and a strong and stable wifi access.
Pizza Caulker. Meet Greg, also from Canada, and his local family, serving delicious thin crust pizzas made with whole wheat. And that was our best rum punch too!
La Cubana. The best fresh fruit juices we had, for only $4BEZ ($2US)! And good local Caribbean food too. Right at the water taxi dock, near the small police station (or sub-formation as they call it).

Mendy's. Very simple and local family cooking.

Mario's snorkeling. Friendly instructor, good boat. $100-130BEZ ($50-65US) for the whole day, depending on the number of stops and the size of the group. (Trip Advisor, Facebook)

Iceland Ice Cream. Delicious homemade creamy ice creams with a great variety of flavors (Trip Advisor).

We also heard great comments about Coconut Reef and especially the homemade pastas from this other Canadian owner, but haven't tried it.

And, on the mainland:

Black Orchid Resort. See my comments above, and their website.

Richard Lord. Our taxi driver and accredited guide (tel: 664-6279).

I do feel rested for sure, almost too much so I'm looking forward to see how all this tapering and resting plays for the marathon this Sunday. There are many more stars to align for a great performance but proper tapering is definitely one which I took good care of this week! ;-)

Have a good weekend all! And see a few thousands of you, MCM runners, on Sunday!