Tuesday, May 24, 2022

New England Challenge (6 Halfs in 6 Days in 6 States) Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 16; 3rd-8th Editions
97.9 miles raced in 2022 races
Race: New England Challenge
Place: Fairlee, VT; Portland, ME; Nashua, NH; Warwick, RI; Westfield, MA; Hartford, CT
Miles from home: 1201 to 1349
Weather: A fairly consistent mid 50-low 60s, humid, foggy/rainy all 6 days

At the end of 2019, I had experienced a surge in my running and traveling after a few years of lethargy. A win at the Perpetual Motion 6 Hour Race got my juices flowing for 2020 and I had an absolutely amazing slate of races planned. First would be a half-marathon race across the Millau Viaduct in France, followed 12 days later by an 80-mile race around Loch Ness, and then just one week later I would run a marathon in Liechtenstein. I planned on traveling Europe that whole time, coming home for a month or so and then going back to run the Berlin Wall 100 mile race. I was as stoked to be racing as I had been in a long time.

Then, you know, 2020 and the Republican response to it happened. (Let's not even remotely pretend it wouldn't have been nearly as deadly without F*ckwork Orange in charge.)

2019 has been a year for change for me as I ran over 3,000 miles for the year for the first time ever.  I have never been a high mileage guy, at least for the types of runs I do and speed I run them, compared to my peers. I didn't expect to run over 3,000 again but as I couldn't race, I trained more. I wouldn't necessarily say I trained better but I did train more. Two years of dealing with a pandemic, fortunately staying healthy physically but beat down mentally (and financially from losing basically all sources of income) left me spent.

I moved in Minneapolis in February and then jumped into a snowshoe race which lit a fire under me. I was stoked to be racing again. Unfortunately, it also beat the living hell out of my left ankle as I was under-dressed for the race. A week later I partially tore my calf muscle on the same leg. I was a bit of a mess. I took some time off and slowly began to try to get my mojo back.

As this recap is already turning into one of "Just get to the recipe, Karen!" things I hear about, I will spare you the odd internet browsings and weird statistics stuff that overcome me late at night while I am wide awake and the rest of the word slumbers. Suffice it to say I soon found myself signed up to run six half-marathons in six days in six different states in less than a month with a goal to win all six.

Winning a race is about half skill and about half luck. If you are a slower runner, the chances are very slim you will ever win a race outright. But even if you are a faster runner, all it takes is ONE other runner to be faster to keep you from winning. This seems obvious but it goes to show how fleeting and difficult the process of winning can be and why racing is such a VASTLY different type of activity than running.

So, to try to win all these races would be quite a challenge indeed, especially for someone like myself who is fast but not FAST fast. But unlike other "challenges" that circulate amongst on the internet, I like to choose ones that are actually difficult. As such, I found myself standing in Fairlee, Vermont a week ago, in the midst of pouring rain seconds from the start of the first half-marathon of six to be hopefully done 121.5 hours later.

(This is a very low-key series of events put on by an affable and capable enough small family. There are definitely things that I feel the races could benefit from a little spit polish here and there and for the most part I won't really mention anything where I feel it could improve. However, I am going to try to include information that most runners will benefit from with regards to logistics and courses and the like which should be, but are not, readily available for those wishing to complete and or all of these events.)

Maple Leaf Half-Marathon: Fairlee, Vermont (Each clickable link takes you to my Strava account for each race so you can see what the course and elevation profile is.)

Quick description: Rather hilly course with a road that could use some new pavement; Relative tree cover to protect you from elements. Main course is a roughly 5 mile loop that half-marathoners do twice. (You can basically double my descriptions for all races for marathoners.)

Standing at the starting line, I wondered how difficult this was all going to be. I had driven the race course the day before and there were some humdingers of hills to deal with. As I mentioned, about 30 seconds before the race started, the rain pour down upon us. As it was 91 degrees the day before, the high 50s and rain here wasn't a problem except for soggy shoes and potential chafing.

As with most of the races, we had to do a little out and back prior to doing the multiple loops. And on most occasions, when we could done and out and back in any direction, we always seemed to choose the portion which had the biggest hill. Some jokingly say that the hills are free; I say maybe don't make your races harder just for shits and giggles.

Within feet of the race starting a taller and more muscular fella than me took off like a shot. I thought "Great.  Day One Second One and I am already not going to win all the races." With a guy on either side of me keeping pace, I wasn't even sure I would place third. But when the lead runner, and subsequently the two guys beside me both turned around that the marathon turn around point, I suddenly found myself in sole possession of first place. By the time I turned around a bit further down the road, it was pretty clear that this race was mine to lose.

Soon the rain stopped and all I had to do was run out the course. The course seemed to be a bit long but I was nevertheless pleased with getting the first race, and the first win out of the way in a time of 1:36:15. I was also pleased that the marathon winner, in a time of 2:42, hadn't decided to run the half today either.

Pine Tree Half-Marathon: Portland, Maine

Quick description: An entirely flat 2.5 mile loop until you get to the quick rise to go up and over bridge, which is also the only paved part on a hard-packed stone trail.  Completely exposed to the elements, whatever they may be.

Day Two of this challenge was eventful if only because I was curious how it would go.  I had run two half-marathon races back-to-back before but had always know that the second race was my final one. Here I would only be 1/3 of the way finished when I was done with this race. With the flat course I expected a stellar time.

I took the pole position to start the race but soon thereafter heard footsteps behind me and right as we approached the turnaround the lead woman passed me. I passed her on the way back as we had a nice downhill but within a mile she had taken the lead again. For the next loop and change she would steadily grow her lead with me sometimes gaining some of it back. Suddenly, at 7.55 miles she just stopped and started walking the other direction. Only through social media was I able to see she felt she wasn't having a good day and decided to call it quits. Appears we were running at or close to her half-marathon pace so I am not sure why she stopped but I wished her well. Now, again, like the day before, I was running alone and I definitely slowed the last 5 miles. From an average pace of 7:05 for the first half of the race, I slowed to a 7:25 or so once I had the second win in the bag.

I did see one runner in front of me in the last half mile or so who was cooking along at a great pace. I figured she was out for a workout.  But right after I finished, she stopped and I saw she had a bib on.  I know for a fact that she had never been in front of me and when she showed up in the results just a few seconds behind my time of 1:35:27, I was a little confused. I am sure it will sort itself out.

Two races.Two wins.

Granite State Half-Marathon: Nashua, New Hampshire

Quick description: Slightly hilly first half of a two loop course with the back half being mostly flat with a out and back on the road before running under a canopy of trees on trail. Footing can be a little dicey depending on rain or whatnot.

Having had to fend of female competitors in the first two races (second place on day one, who didn't finish too far behind me was also a fierce competitor) I asked a rather spritely looking young lass what she hoped to run for the race. She said "anything under 1:45" which I felt was likely a bit of gamesmanship. When we did our out and back to start the race and two guys absolutely took off like rockets, it was clear I was not going to win today. Bollocks. Moreover, Ms. 1:45 gleefully stayed in my hip pocket for the first few miles and cheerfully said "You can be my pacer!"

About halfway through the first loop, she passed me and I was now sitting out of the podium in fourth place. However twice in quick successions I had to call out to her as she was about to run in the wrong direction and the second time I regained the lead. At the beginning of the second loop, the road we were on which was obviously being occupied by a timing mat and runners, soon became also occupied by a truck which decided it was going to block the turn-around. I was none too pleased as I had to navigate a tight turn, a truck, other runners, and still try to grab a glass of water. But this adrenaline boost was a welcome addition.

As the second loop went on, I put more distance between me and my fellow competitor shooting for third. Knowing the loop now and where to run to avoid the sloppy forest floor (it had rained hard the previous night) I was making great time.  By the time I was heading home to the finish, I knew I had at least salvaged a third place. When I was handed the second place plaque I assumed they had made a mistake. Unfortunately for him, one of the marathoners had made a mistake and had done the half marathon start, adding some extra mileage to his day. The half-marathon winner ran in a time of 1:16 which I couldn't even compete with in a singular half-marathon day. So I didn't feel nearly as bad at having lost my winning streak. Don't get me wrong. I was still not happy but a 1:31:48 was not too shabby of a finishing time.

I was able to tell my young female chasepack that she had finished third right after she told me this was her first half-marathon. Pretty darn sweet day for her, all told!

Red Island State Half-Marathon: Warwick, Rhode Island

Quick description: Six loops or a winding and twisting bicycle path (95% paved) with quick little rises and falls that can be quite tiring on the back half of the loop. Mostly shaded by trees.

I was able to squeeze in a massage the night before this race hoping it would help spur me on to the victory stand again. However, right before the race I learned a new competitor had joined us and he was quite speedy. Within a few meters to start, I could tell that today was again not going to be a win for me. But at least this time I was neither going to be fighting to take third or have all that much of a chaser behind me either. It was a good thing because I was in a sour mood. As lovely as this course was it was the type that I just can't stand. And when you have to do something you don't like for six consecutive loops, it isn't fun. Especially when you know you have two more half-marathons to go AFTER this.

I won't say that I was going through the motions or that I wasn't focusing on racing but without a doubt I was a bit more grouchy about having to weave around fellow competitors who would walk or slow run 2-3 abreast without much concern about trail etiquette. If I had to pick a low time of the week it was definitely here. Getting out with a less than stellar time of 1:38:28 only made it worse. 

I was ready to move on to the next state.

Old Colony Half-Marathon: Westfield, Massachusetts

Quick description: Seven loops of an absolutely flat course in a mostly exposed park with some sidewalk running, some street running, and some stone path running.

As tired as I was, I could only imagine what those who were doing all six marathons felt like. A friend who had done double marathons previously but nothing of this nature unfortunately had to pull out of the previous days race and call the rest of her marathons off for this trip. She had sustained some sort of injury and wisely, even if it was extremely difficult, stopped running and stayed to cheer on her friend for the final two.

By now I learned that the speedster from the day before would be running the last two halfs as well. So right off the bat the wins were out the door and the window for getting a podium finish was narrowing. There were, however, two marathon runners who were running solid times and I was able to use them to help my pace even as first place disappeared into the distance.

It rained pretty steadily throughout and was cool, both which I welcomed. It was a bit of a mid game to keep my pace up and I was surprised I wasn't running faster on this completely flat course but it was also my fifth day in a row of racing. You take what you have each day and do what you can with it. For me it was my third straight second place in a time of 1:37:25. I was surprised it wasn't a bit faster but I think we had some bonus mileage on this course.

The Speedster, A.J., who I had heard had a PR of 1:11, was making his victories look easy as he lapped me with no problem with well over two loops to go for me.

Nutmeg Half-Marathon: Hartford, Connecticut

Quick description: Six loops of a golf course with a gradual 100 feet of loss over the first 2/3 of a loop and a less gradual two-stage climb on the back half. You can choose to run on the street or a trail for the first half.  Mostly exposed to the elements.

I had heard two days prior about the hills of this race and I will admit that they really got into my head.  They are indeed challenging but not too daunting. I had gotten another massage the night before this race as I was doing what I could to keep my body in check. I had been driving solo for approximately 500 miles between all the races but that was after I had already driven another 500 miles plus in the four days before as I toured Vermont. In addition, I was driving more than you would think because I was doing this ultradorky thing of trying to knock out counties in the United States I had never been to.  Fortunately I had a hybrid car that was giving me over 50 miles to the gallon. I figured I was out this way, I might as well kill two birds. I am happy to say that I closed out Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Once I visit the island counties which house of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts will be completed. Have I mentioned I am single?

I wished A.J. good luck on his victory and then fell into the rapidly-becoming-familiar position of watching him disappear into the distance. After two loops, I was surprised that an older gentleman was sticking pretty close behind me. The next loop he had halved that distance. By the fourth loop he was in my back pocket.

As we created the big hill, which was just about at the end of each loop, a car came zooming into the parking lot we were running in and, apparently trying to make his tee time with the Pope, the driver decided that if he hit me, that was collateral damage. Luckily I jumped out of his way just in time, which was an amazing display of dexterity here 5.75 half-marathons in. As the older chap behind me, Antonio, shook his head at the driver, I fell back for half a second to collect my wits. Antonio was now in second place as we hit the mat to begin the fifth loop. Adrenaline coursed through me and I soon passed Antonio again. On that previous loop I had actually felt a twinge in my calf muscle and slowed a good twenty seconds or so per mile. But here the pain was gone and I wanted second place. So I took off.

Antonio would tell me later that I had been running a perfect pace for him (I am so glad I could help all these people with my unplanned pacing efforts!) and he thought he might have a shot at taking me on the last lap but I zoomed away. In fact, my fastest two miles of the entire day were the last two. I closed it out in decent fashion taking 2nd place for the fourth straight day in a time of 1:38:25, my second slowest of the week.

I was very happy to be done.

My average time for these 6 half marathons was 1:36:18 with each day being my 95th, 89th, 69th, 104th, 99th, and 103rd fastest half-marathon times respectively (out of 113 lifetime halfs). I have often battled with doing this sort of racing where the times for the races are potentially admirable simply because of the number of races you run. I don't really like that whole "impressive because of the self-imposed barriers" mindset. But given where I was coming into this race, even taking out the driving and the pressure to not just show up but race hard each day, I am pretty pleased with how it all went. I am, a few days later, still quite knackered but shockingly unsore. I do not think there was much more I could have given each day than what I did and that, above everything else, leaves me pleased. If I won, placed on the podium, or finished tenth was all just a matter of who showed up. But *I* showed up every day. That's all we can ask from ourselves.

I have Gilbert's Syndrome with his a liver disorder that makes it markedly difficult to recover from strenuous activity. The time it takes to get refreshed from a hard race should take me more than the normal person. But for whatever reason, it doesn't.  My 52 marathons in 52 weekends, where I was setting seven new marathon PRs in the last ten races of the year is a testament to that. When I wrote my book Ignore The Impossible, it wasn't some catchy phrase mean to be hung on a doorway. It truly is how I choose to live my life. Don't bother yourself with what you should not be able to do. Don't worry if this doctor said you could never do this again or these friends told you to stop. Waste no time trying to prove anyone wrong.  Focus on you and the goals you want to achieve.

You will likely be surprised with the results and happier than everyone else in the end.