Monday, November 28, 2016

2016 JFK Race Report + Cascade Crest 100 & Columbus Marathon

Early in the Cascade Crest 100.  Photo by Glenn Techiyama
My last blog post was a race report from the 2016 Mohican 100 Mile Run - even though I've been absent from the blogosphere I've run another 100 mile race as well as a road marathon that I never found time, or set aside time, to write a race report.  And here recently I completed the historic JFK 50 Mile Run for the first time.

Before reporting on JFK I'll write a quick synopsis of what I've been doing since the Mohican 100.

Last year after the Mohican 100 I knew it was a time for a break from running.  I could sense my body breaking down and mentally I was beginning to loose the motivation and drive to compete.  Even though I ran a great 2015 Mohican 100, winning and setting a course record, I told myself during the race that I was going to take an extended time off from running. So last year I didn't run a step in July, August, and much of September.  This time off gave my body a chance to heel and recover from a lot of imbalances as well as give my mind some time off from the daily pressures I placed on myself to train at a high level.  Luckily the time off allowed me to find the joy in running and I came back with a lot of motivation and perspective.

Since last fall I've found a good balance with running.  Even though I'm busier than ever with being a father, husband, working full-time managing Ohio Valley Running Company, and directing two spring trail races, my motivation and drive for running has been at an all-time high.  A lot of this is attributed to the growing running community in Athens and SE Ohio.  Having the support from OVRC, the runners that regularly come to group runs, and most importantly, the flexibility that my family gives me to train, has a huge impact on me.  This growing community is what it's all about, and it really helps keep everything level while training and racing.
Before the start of Cascade Crest getting a hug from baby Fern.
Cascade Crest 100 Mile

12th Place - 22:15:25
      -Strava Data (watch died at 75mi.)

After another satisfying Mohican 100 run in June, I geared up for the Cascade Crest 100, a one-loop mountain 100 with over 20,000 feet of elevation gain traversing the Central Cascades in Washington State, just north of Mount Rainier.  This was a race that I gained entry in through the lottery in January, so part of the charm of CCC is the small field of runners, plus the beautiful region and history of the race.  I won't go into an in depth race report like normal but I'll break down my race at CCC here:

Cascade stripped me to the core.  I've tried to focus on getting out of my comfort zone a couple times a year with mountainous races on terrain that I'm not aptly able to train on in SE Ohio.  The inability to train in the mountains shouldn't limit us in reaching epic places.  Having good races at the Grindstone 100, and two years at the Georgia Death Race at least showed me that I was able to hold my own in the mountains, but those races are in the Appalachia Mountains, terrain I'm much more used too.  Cascade ended up being a new challenge.

Things went great for 70 miles.  I started conservatively at the beginning running much of the race with Hal Koerner and Gabe Wishnie.  My main focus was easing into the course, adjusting to the big climbs as I moved on, and setting myself up for a strong finish.  This worked out great, as I started around 15th place, moved into the top 10 near the Hyak AS at mile 54, and then after a long uphill to Kecheelus Ridge I bombed a downhill and averaged under 6:30 pace for 5 miles going into the Lake Kachess AS at mile 69.  This strong 20 mile section moved me into 4 place and I was feeling good, especially since I was picking up my pacer Nick Koop.

Unfortunately for Nick, we didn't do a lot of running after he started pacing.  I traversed the "trail from hell" about as good as I could, still feeling fresh, running from one blowdown tree to the next on the ridge above Lake Kachess.  I was still in 4th place at the Mineral Creek AS at mile 75, but it was the long gravel road climb to No Name Ridge that zapped me.  The feeling came over me very quickly, and I began to regret the 6:30 miles coming off  Kecheelus Ridge.  The next 15 miles were a struggle, and it coincided with the hardest part of the course, "The Needles."  This was the first time in an ultramarathon that I needed to lay down on the trail, and I did this several times.  I would just tell Nick I needed a few minutes, turn my headlamp off, and lay down on the ground in order to regroup, only to bounce back up when I became too cold.

Tired, weak, completely vulnerable on the mountain - this was everything an ultra does to you.  I was passed by a lot of people, and there was nothing I could do about it.  I walked, and paused, and continued walking, even on downhills through all of the needles.  It wasn't until the sun started to rise, and a jolt of encouragement from a first-place Krissy Moehl at mile 95 that I was able to start running again.  Fortunately I was able to finish the last 5 miles running, and finish strong, but I fell back to 12th place, with the winner being the course!  I'm super glad I ran Cascade Crest 100, and loved everything about the race - I came away with some great experiences and memories in the mountains!
Coming into the finish at the Columbus Marathon.  Photo by John Meadows.
Columbus Marathon

8th Place - 2:34:30
      -Strava Data

After the Cascade Crest 100 I had 7 weeks to recover and gear up for a faster cycle of training for the Columbus Marathon, and then another 5 weeks before the JFK 50 Mile.  My legs surprisingly came back pretty quick after Cascade considering it was my second 100 mile in the summer.  I jumped up in mileage quick and started throwing in faster workouts.  One key workout 2 weeks before the marathon was a 20 mile run, with the first 10 at normal pace on hilly trails, and the second 10 on flat pavement where I started at 6:10 pace and inched by way down to the mid 5:30 and 5:40's before being able to close in 5:07 on the 20th mile.  This workout, and a couple other similar race pace work gave me a lot of confidence going into Columbus.

I had a mile by mile plan for the Columbus Marathon.  I was running with former Shawnee State teammate Joe Stewart and we wanted to work together for as long as we could running faster splits throughout.  Joe's goal was to get under 2:40:00 and so we set our first half-marathon to be at 1:19:20.  This would put us ahead of his goal and also allow a faster time if we felt good.  6:00's felt really comfortable early on and soon we decided to start running in the 5:50's.  We nailed our first 13.1 miles at exactly 1:19:20 like we had planned.  Once we crossed over to the second half of the course we stayed together for another 5 miles and started to dip into the 5:40's.  Joe dropped off a bit but I pushed on feeling great.

Running a conservative first half really played a difference in being able to finish hard.  In past marathons I ran aggressive at the beginning and always faded.  This marathon was a complete opposite when it came to pacing.  As the temperature warmed and we made our way into the last 10K of the course I began passing more and more top runners who were noticeably struggling.  I continued to get faster and locked in on 5:30's pace the last 6 miles, and surprisingly moved into 8th place overall at the finish!  2:34:30 earned over a 4 minute negative split from the first half to second.

The time didn't surprise me as much as being in the top 10 did.  Being a ultra runner, and Columbus being just 7 weeks after my second 100 miler of the summer, I didn't think I'd be able to hang with the top road runners in Ohio.  With this race being the key workout leading up to JFK, I gained a lot of confidence and started to reevaluate how I wanted to race it.      
Shortly after the Team Ohio Valley Running Company finished JFK.  Photo by Luke Kubacki.
JFK 50 Mile

3rd Place -5:56:01
      -Strava Data

JFK is one of the "must-do" ultramarathons in the United States, with rich history and a big field of runners, it's a race that every ultra runner needs to put on their bucket list and experience.  Being from the Eastern United States, and only a 4.5 hour drive, JFK has definitely been on my radar but due to other races and being later in the year the timing never worked out.  After Cascade Robert Wayner and Mike Cooper, two local runners and training partners, and I started discussing signup up for JFK and making a trip out of it with our families.  After taking a couple weeks easy post-100 in early September I had 10 weeks of training to prepare for a fast 50 miler.

I knew I had the base to put some good work in before JFK but the biggest challenge would be switching gears from a slow mountain 100 to a flat and fast 50 miler.  10 weeks is a short time to turnaround and switch gears like this but I felt like after a couple easy post-Cascade weeks I was able to focus on some faster specific pace work.  The Columbus Marathon 5 weeks before JFK was the perfect tune-up and workout to see where I was with running fast.  As the race approached a few fast names emerged on the entrant list, including all the hype with Jim Walmsley going for the course record and adding to his stellar year.  This would be a good one!

Trusting pace and training is crucial in a race like JFK.  Unlike the varied terrain of most trail ultra's, especially in mountains, you can really plot out a race plan with pacing during the different sections of the JFK course.  I poured over the results, splits from previous top runners that are provided on the JFK website, as well as past-runners' Strava splits.  This started to paint a picture for what I wanted my plan to be on race-day.  There were a few ways to go about running JFK.  What to do, attack the first 16 mile trail section and hope you have the legs for the 26.2 miles on flat towpath, or conserve on the trail and then go at the towpath hard?

One of the biggest things that helps was having a chance to preview the first 20 miles of the course with Mike and Robert.  We drove over four weeks before the race and ran from the start in Boonsboro, MD to Harpers Ferry so we could preview the 16 mile trail section.  This gave us a good idea of what the terrain, uphill, and downhill was like on the hardest part of the course.  The trail section can be pretty rocky in some parts so it was really nice we didn't go into the race blindly.
Maneuvering the switchbacks at Weverton CLiffs on the Appalachian Trail at mile 15 of the JFK 50 Mile.  Photo by  Paul Encarnacion

Appalachian Trail Section - First 16 Miles

The fastest split I could find for the first 16 miles was in 2012 when Max King broke the CR.  Dave
Riddle and Max both began the towpath around 1:45:00.  Last year Walmsley was under 1:50:00 and I knew he would be going through faster this year.  I didn't want anything to do with being that much under 2:00:00.  When I previewed this section of the course, not running hard by any means, I entered the towpath around 2:15:00.  I knew after that easy effort I could be around 2:00:00 without overtaxing myself so that was the goal.

When the race started a large pack formed up front.  Walmsley shot off much quicker and literally had 40 seconds on the entire race in the first mile and almost 2 minutes before entering the trail for the first time!  He was flying.  I focused on the rest of the guys and found myself in the back of a long singltrack line in the top 15.  Once we hit the long uphill road section that took us to the highest point of the course I began to pass a few people here and there, and shortly after entering the Appalachian Trail again, I skirted by two more runners and moved into 2nd place.

Being in second place this early was fine by me.  I had a couple guys right behind me but I would rather be in front seeing the trail ahead of me than behind a few bodies blocking the technical sections.  This position held the same for a long time until Anthony Kunkel ran by me as we started the downhill going into Weverton Cliffs at mile 13.5.  This 2 mile downhill featured 1,000 feet of elevation loss and a lot of switchbacks, and would be the last such downhill, and dirt trail of the day.

I went roaring through the 15.5 mile aid station at Weverton Cliffs, only a quick bottle swap from my crew, before letting the energy of the people surrounding this location carry me the last half mile down to the towpath.  I was right on pace, arriving on the towpath in 1:59:50, 7:29 per mile pace.
The best crew member we have, baby Fern, waiting at Weverton Cliffs at the 15.5 mile mark of the JFK 50 Mile.  Photo by Luke Kubacki
The C&O Canal Trail - 26.2 Miles
Running the Columbus Marathon five weeks before JFK makes this 26.2 mile section seem much more reasonable.  Pacing is key on the towpath.  There is 26 miles of controlled, level, smooth, crush gravel terrain ahead.  Normally this may be a monotonous task, but having the Potomac River flanking the West side of the towpath, along with being in competition mode made this stretch easier.  Anthony Kunkel was within eyesight when we entered the towpath, maybe 30-40 seconds ahead, and no one was within sight behind me.  I knew I set myself up for a podium finish by hitting exactly what I had planned for the trail section.

The plan on the towpath was to start conservative near 6:40 pace for the first 5 miles, then drop down to the mid 6:30's for the 5 miles after this.  I thought if I maintained these paces early I could finish the last half of the towpath in the 6:15-6:20 range, running a similar way to the Columbus Marathon, except for about 30-40 seconds per mile slower.  This plan would put me just under 2:50:00 for the 26.2 mile on the towpath, which I felt was super reasonable.

Unfortunately I deviated from the plan soon after getting onto the towpath.  The first couple of miles were spot on just under 6:40.  Anthony was still in front of me and I was feeling really fresh.  It wasn't long after this I started seeing 6:16, 6:15, 6:18, 6:17, 6:15 on the watch.  I was 25 miles into the race and already jumped down to the mid-6:10's.  This may be inexperience or stubbornness, or just being stupid, but I completely shot my race plan.  At the time it seemed like the right thing to do.  I told myself, "you have to take a risk to get bigger rewards" or "this feels easy, you'll easily be able to maintain this pace."

Part of that little voice in my head is correct.  Sometimes you have to compete, get out of the comfort zone to make something special happen.  At the time I felt great, and I averaged 6:23 pace from miles 16-34, so if I were to finish that off I would have been 3 minutes under my goal of sub 2:50:00 on this stretch.  Unfortunately I started to feel it near mile 35 and the pace became much harder to maintain.  Having 15 miles to go felt good but I started to realize running 6:20 pace would not be happening anymore.

During this stretch I was also bouncing back and forth into second and third with Anthony Kunkel.  We were both feeling comfortable at those paces and it ended up being a good battle for a bit.  We both started fading a bit after 35 miles, trying to keep it in the 6:40's but when I started to struggle a bit more in the last 3 miles of the towpath, into the low 7:00's, he pulled away from me and was out of site when we made the hard right-hand turn onto the paved county roads at mile 42.

At the end of the towpath, even though I didn't hold it together like I hoped I would, I finished the 26.2 mile stretch in 2:54:00. an average pace of 6:38 per mile.
Mile 38.  Last crew stop, and I told them, "I'm starting to fall apart."
Rolling County Roads - The Last 8 Miles
The last 8 miles on gentle rolling county paved roads can be tricky.  I knew about the initial climb up and out of the river valley from the towpath, but depending on how one felt, the last 8 miles could either go really well or really bad.  One person I looked at and wanted to mimic was Dave Riddle and his race splits from his "then" record-setting run in 2011.  His first 16 miles were nothing special at 1:55:00, and his 26.2 miles on the towpath that year was 2:53:00, just one minute faster than mine.  What he did great in 2011 was close the road section in about 53:00!  This put him at 5:40:00, but very easily could have been 5:50:00 if he had run what most people run.

For me, the wheels were already falling off before entering the road.  Anthony had put a gap on me to where I couldn't see him, even on straights, but I kept pushing and thought I could still break an hour for the finishing stretch and I would have been happy with it.  All 8 miles were a struggle.  It's not that I was struggling running 7:30 pace - luckily stepping back into that zone was easy, but I wanted to push and it seemed like anytime I'd get down to 7:00 pace I would tighten up.  I did what I could, looked over my shoulder a couple times, and even peered as far up the road as I could for Anthony showing any signs of weakness (or even Jim Walmsley ;).), but he never came back to me.  Fortunately a hard-charging Mike Wardian was just enough behind me that I didn't see him when I looked back.

My road section time, which is about 8.4 miles. was 1:02:23, an average pace of 7:25 per mile.

When it was all said and done I ran 5:56:01, good for third place 34 minutes behind new JFK record holder Jim Walmsley and four minutes behind Anthony Kunkel who ran a strong last 10 miles.  Iron Mike Wardian came in just three minutes behind in fourth place.
Just after finishing the JFK 50 Mile, embracing baby Fern!  Photo by Luke Kubacki.
JFK Reflection
Looking back on the race I am honored to have joined the list of 33 runners who have broken 6 hours in the 54 year history of the JFK 50 Mile, as well as being the 22nd fastest runner in race history.  Events that are draped in history, with stories and memories from the many years before, are really important to me, and to be able to be a part of that means a lot.  It was also really cool to be in the race that Jim Walmsley arguably ran the single-best American ultra race in history.  It will take some time to see if his performance is held up as the best performance in ultra history, but I think it at least ranks up there as one of the best, and will add to his legendary 2016 year.

Still, I can't help but think that I left 5-10 minutes out there.  Who knows what would have happened if I stuck to my original pace plan on the towpath, but I would have liked to have found out if it meant I would have felt better during the last 8 miles.  My thought is even if I would have ran the same exact time on the 26.2 mile towpath, but starting out slower and easing into a faster pace, I would have run onto the road with momentum instead of just holing on.  Regardless, it makes me hungry for more at JFK and I really hope to be back soon!
Top 10 men.  Photo from Mike Wardian.
Thank you!
I can't think my family enough for the support during training and at the race.  Bobbi and Fern were troopers as I often came home after dark when I needed a couple hours after a 8-hour workday to get the mileage in.  I averaged close to 100 miles/week in the 7 weeks leading up to JFK, so that's a 12-16 hour time commitment each week.

My crew support was off the charts!  Having Robert and Mike along for the trip meant having three crews at each stop!  Fern had Robert and Ali's two kids to play with on the weekend, and Athens friend Luke Kubacki traveled with us for his first ultra crew experience and he was a huge help, including providing some great photographs that we'll be able to cherish forever.  Thanks Luke!  As always, my sister was along as part of the crew, and solidifying her role as an experienced ultra crew leader.

Also a big congrats goes out to two good friends and OVRC runners Mike Cooper and Robert Wayner.  Mike just started running about 3 years ago and progressed all the way to finishing 13th at JFK and sub 6:40.  This was Robert's first ultra marathon and ran an incredible debut with a 17th place sub 6:50 finish!  Team Ohio Valley Running Company was second place overall in the Male Team category, behind only a team assembled with Walmsley, Wardian, and Koerner -- but we were the first "real" team, with runners from the same city!  

My biggest sponsor is Ohio Valley Running Company, new running specialty store in Athens, Ohio, and where I manage day-to-day.  Owners Jonathan Bernard and Ariana Davies area gracious enough to think that supporting me will help grow the brand of running in SE Ohio!  I strive to represent the brand well, and also represent the growing running community in Athens and SE Ohio. #OVRC #RunAthensOH

Swiftwick socks have been with me for three years and on my feet for four years in every single ultramarathon I've run and probably almost every single run I've completed in that time.  It's a brand and sock that I trust almost more than anything when it comes to my race day kit.  UGo Bars, Julbo Singlasses, and Cocoa Elite are brands that have supported my ultra journey with quality products and gear.  Their help is much appreciated - if you want to learn more about any of these companies, click their logo on the right side of this page.
It's the Walmsley show, get in line!  All photo's below by Luke Kubacki.
The Crew!
On the podium with Race Director Mike Spinnler.
Watching their dads run.

2 comments:

  1. Great post. I like the insight on pacing, because I have struggled with the exact same thing in the past (going just slightly faster than goal pace and it coming back to haunt you later) and I've also struggled with the flip side (going out so slow at Vermont and having probably too much left in the tank at the end). It is a fine line to dial that in over such long distances. I also did the same thing by going too fast in miles 18-28 on the Towpath last year. You held it together much better than I did though.

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