Race report – Staten Island AC Cross Country Championship 10k

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This is an event that I’ve shown up for every year, albeit with my camera, not my running shoes. Each year my running team, the Staten Island Athletic Club, stages a race to raise money for its Scholarship Fund, which provides tuition help to promising student-athletes at local high schools.

Starting in 2013, SIAC was able to partner with the NYC Parks Department to create a race within Freshkills Park, infamously known as the location of the old landfill but under a long-term conversion project to what will be one of the biggest parks in New York City. It’s by no means a unique conversion project (Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx is another example) but the scale of it is, I believe, unprecedented.

While it will take some time for the park to fully open to the public (not least because the size will require staffing and facilities to be built to support visitors), they offer bi-annual “sneak peak” days to show the progress made, and occasional special events such as this race.

After our successful 5k at the Staten Island Half, our men’s open team captain had suggested that the 5k at this event might be a good next race for me, but having watched this race twice and admired the effort of the runners, and hearing that the 10k course was now USATF certified, I felt I wanted to try the “main event” of the day. This is the race’s second year doing double duty as the USATF New York championships, bringing some of the top teams from the city, and as a somewhat competitive runner (albeit coming back from injury) you want to run with the best runners you possibly can.

Race day arrived with me feeling a little sore – somewhat recklessly I had decided to run a tough 10-mile training run in the city on Thursday, and more significantly on Wednesday night put in a long session of my rehab exercises. Three days later and I still had groin/hamstring soreness from all the squats. I opted to go for maximum support: KT tape on the inner knees, running tights to hold everything else together, my max-cushion shoes to avoid any foot issues.

prerace

Pre-race warmup: relaxed but not feeling particularly fast

Unsurprisingly I didn’t exactly feel speedy in my warmup, but I already knew I wasn’t going to be competing for any prizes. I took note of all the clubs in attendance: NYAC, Central Park Track Club, North Brooklyn Runners, Dashing Whippets, Prospect Park TC, Van Cortlandt TC… in short, the best of the best. We had a good turnout last year (from the Whippets especially) but no doubt this year surpassed it. Although I don’t represent SIAC in any official capacity, other than a member and unofficial club photographer, I do recognize what a big deal it is that these clubs will send strong teams all the way to the West Shore of Staten Island, and it says a lot for the trust put in our club’s ability to organize such a race.

And so onto the race itself. I’m still constantly amazed at my first mile splits. Amongst the throng of runners I feel like I’m jogging, and then get to the mile mark to discover I’ve run one of my fastest splits of the year. This likely explains some of my personal best times in big NYRR races where I have company for the whole race.

start

Start: this is easy!

In this one, however, the field got strung out quickly by the first hill. We went off the road, onto a gravel path and, of course, up a hill. Some slight worries about getting a “Mizuno rock” in my heel (any other wearers of that brand will know what I mean) but overall was strong going uphill, passing a couple of the Whippets’ ladies with whom I’d been pacing. Careful back down the hill (descents continue to be hard on my knees), and back onto the road, but the damage was already done – my legs didn’t have much spring left in them, I was isolated with no other runners close to me, and had to start digging deep to keep the legs turning over and not lose too much speed. I amused myself with the “No Passing” signs by the road, and hoped the runners behind me would respect these instructions.

The last two years as a photographer, I’ve stationed myself around mile 5, on the “North Mound” of the park. I hadn’t seen anything of the South Mound other than runners ascending the hills in the distance. I found it to be a real challenge. By the time I returned to familiar territory I was fading, seeing the runners ahead of me recede further away into the distance. I looked forward to any and all human contact with volunteers, just to make it less of a solo time trial.

Eventually I reached the Mile 5 hill that I knew so well, and as I rounded the corner of the initial peak, I heard the familiar voice of my daughter, cheering and giving high fives to runners with her friend. It gave me just the energy needed to get to the real peak, where I’m told there is a great view, though I was a little tired to appreciate it.

mile5

Mile 5: ok, this isn’t easy. But best cheering section ever.

Then down the hill, yes! More volunteers to say hello to, yes! Back on the road, the same one on which we’d walked into the park. Walking to the start village it had seemed endless. Running wasn’t that much more enjoyable, but at this point I wasn’t going to be denied. I might’ve been making a slight dent into the lead of the runners in front of me. Not enough to catch them, but I certainly wasn’t going to let anyone else go past me.

The Mile 6 marker was well received (thank you SIAC for the well marked course), I found another gear, and managed to look good for the finish, where I was given a big shout-out on the PA system that I’m probably not quite worthy of yet.

prefinish

Almost home. Steve Zimmerman gives the best support, even if it looks like he’s yelling at me for being slow.

43:46 on the watch, and done. Nowhere near a PR, but as a training run, it’s my best sustained effort of this return to running, so I’m satisfied. Another solid step in the right direction.

I’ll finish up with some pros and cons of this race:

PRO:

  • Challenging hilly course.
  • Good combination of road and off-road surface.
  • Great post-race food and drinks thanks to the generous support of local businesses.
  • Nice race shirt (tech material, neon-coloured which will be useful for dark winter runs).

CON:

  • Gets a little quiet in places. The remote location doesn’t lend itself to spectators out on the course. In hindsight I might have worn headphones.
  • Speed which with results are announced. I want to see this race continue to do well, and it’s sad to see the teams who have travelled a long way to come to the race leave because they can’t continue to wait for the awards ceremony.

Photo credits: Chre Genao (mile 5), Michelle Fishman-Cross (all other photos)

A Runner Again

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If you’d told me eight months ago that this year I would win an age group award in a New York Road Runners race and appear in their race galleries, I probably would have laughed in your face.

Back then I was still 41-going-on-71, pain in both knees, despairing every time I’d drop an object and have to ask someone else to pick it up for me.

I’m not pain-free yet, but with the right help and the right mental attitude, things are turning around.

When I last wrote, it was to say I’d found a doctor who really seemed to want to help me, however long it might take. Well, true to my expectations, it has taken a while, but you don’t fix a runner who’s been broken for two years in a matter of a few weeks.

Dr Kevin Toss was strongly recommended to me by a member of the Monkey Bar Gym here on Staten Island. They’re a group of super-competitive obstacle course racers who are some of my favourite photo subjects when I shoot the High Rock Challenge and other events. Sometimes the monkeys get broken, and Dr Toss knows how to fix them.

The full-circle synergy appealed to me: I get injured, I end up doing a lot of race photography, through doing race photography I end up in contact with the people who can recommend the doctor who can get me running again. I love it when a plan comes together. Things happen for a reason.

So here we are, months later, and I’m running again. It’s been a very gradual build-up. Back in April I aborted a run after a mile with severe pain and essentially stopped running for a couple of months. In late June, I complained to the doctor that I was getting worse, not better, at the rehab strength training, specifically lunges, that he’d given me to do.

“Are you here to get better at lunges, or to get better at running?”, he asked me, rather pointedly. I made some waffling excuse about how I could I possibly run if I couldn’t do the things that are supposed to prepare me to run, but it didn’t seem to carry much weight.

I left his office, went home, ran a mile, survived, opened a beer and felt better. Two days later, I ran two miles. Three days after that, a huge milestone, 5k.

All of which hurt a little, but not as much as those lunges. Most importantly my attitude was now turning around. Instead of spending most of my free time thinking about my pain (which is almost the definition of clinical depression, though I always thought I was doing so in a constructive way, i.e. how can I get better), I was now daydreaming about my next run. Three-and-a-half? Do I dare think about four miles? Can I go to the trails?

I took this back to Dr Toss, who has really been just as much as a coach and therapist to me as a doctor. Am I not just replacing one obsession with another? He was fine with it. He truly understands the mindset of athletes. Thinking about the high of the next workout is what we do, that’s our normal.

So just to wrap up this part of the post, I do have to give a big thank you and enthusiastic recommendation for Dr Toss. If you’re an athlete on Staten Island (he also has a NJ office) with soft tissue type injuries – really, anything other than a broken bone – then he ought to be the first person you should see. His knowledge of anatomy is amazing, he’s willing to take his time explaining things to clueless patients like me who didn’t take biology in high school, and his ability to analyze form and work out where pain is coming from is a real gift. He’s also not expensive, even off-insurance, and very easy-going about whether he sees a patient twice a week or twice a year.

So back to the recovery. The mantra continued to be “run to conquer pain”. A bizarre concept, but seemed to work for me. At this point I’d been physically examined once or twice a week for three months and the doc was convinced there was nothing seriously wrong with my structurally. Running might hurt, especially the first mile, but I’d feel way better after doing it, and have little or no lasting pain the next day, so it appeared that I could do it if I was prepared to be stubborn and suck it up a little.

The next huge confidence booster was running the ups and downs of the Greenbelt trail system, for which I have to be very thankful for the Greenbelt Conservancy‘s weekly Wednesday evening group runs and especially our guide Anthony. To be able to just settle into a run and find my stride and let someone else pace and navigate was fantastic for a recovering runner.

Early October arrived, which always makes me think of the Staten Island Half Marathon. The first goal race I ever trained for (as a new runner in 2010), and more recently the most impressive race I ever ran (in 2012). I was having a nostalgic day thinking back to that 2012 race on Facebook, and thinking whether I should go down and take photos of this year’s race, when I was challenged by our running team’s open captain to show up and run the 5k, a new addition to SI Half Marathon day.

I hadn’t thought about this at all. When I’m feeling down-with-the-kids and using hashtags on Facebook, I’ll throw out a #run2015 and a #believe every so often, but racing was always very much a #race2016 kind of deal. Yet the more I thought about it, the less good excuses I could find as to why I couldn’t race. My long run was up to 13 miles (albeit very slow miles), I was free that morning, what was stopping me?

And so, encouraged by Facebook friends, I renewed my NYRR membership, signed up for the race, picked up my t-shirt and race number, ran a two mile Friday shakeout run that had me thinking I’d made a horrible mistake, spent most of Saturday with my knees hooked up to ice and TENS therapy, and went to bed crossing my fingers and hoping for the best.

Race day was a pleasant surprise. Threw on my new shoes (far heavier and more cushioned than anything I’ve ever raced in, but my feet seem to need it) and the aches from Friday were gone. Drove the car to my lucky parking space from 2012, near Snug Harbor, and jogged to the start. So many runners doing pre-race miles to get ready for the marathon. Ran by one of my 2012 summer long-run training friends Matt, who told me I was looking strong, which may or may not have been true, but I knew I was back. More friends and teammates outside the Richmond County ballpark, including our masters team captain Gus, who I’d finally be representing. Told him my estimated pace for the race and his eyes lit up. Turned out he thought I was running the half-marathon, not the 5k.

As for the race itself: I knew that as the secondary race of the day, the 5k would not have that many exceptional runners, though as a NYRR event, you know that the top finishers are going to be really top-notch athletes. In between the elites and the “I’m just doing this while I wait my half marathoner to finish” crowd would be me, and hopefully at least a few other runners to keep pace with. If I’m signing up for a race I want a true race experience!

The horn sounds and we’re off. I’m immediately thankful that my right knee, which is now my primary pain point, is not hurting me. Adrenaline works – good to know. The first mile is more down than up, heading along Bay Street, and I find myself not only keeping my pace with our men’s Open captain Charlie, but slightly ahead of him. I know I’m not going to last long at this pace, so drop back just a little, but tell myself to keep him in sight. Second mile sees my spirits drop just a little when the course has been altered and we have to turn right, run half a block, then do a 180 degree turn and come back the other way. No runner likes those turns, but if there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to send jolts of pain through my legs, it’s lateral or twisting movements. My heart sinks a little, I grimace and get through it, and then it’s time to head for home. The pain is still manageable but I’m getting some muscle fatigue: I’m doing about 6:20 a mile, a pace I haven’t run at all in training, hoping to sustain it for 3.1 miles is optimistic. That fatigue, and the uphill last mile, mean I’m phoning it in as I approach the end, but still manage a bit of a surge for the fun finish – a long downhill followed by a sweeping turn into the ballpark an a run to home plate.

20:28 was the finish time. I’d hoped for around 21 minutes (though I admit I started dreaming of sub-20 after the first mile), so a success.

I’m writing this three weeks later, as October ends. I’ve continued to progress steadily. Runs keep getting longer, or hillier, or faster (but not all three at the same time). I’ve always been a very data-driven athlete, and my logs tell me that the last time I ran more miles than I did this month (125.4) was back in November 2013, back when I was healthy and preparing for the Trail Festival 50k.

The bottom line, then, is that whether or not I still have pain, I don’t think I can keep calling myself an injured/recovering athlete any more. I’m a runner again.

Tomorrow this runner goes to the start line of the New York City Marathon. Not to run, but to volunteer. Being on the sidelines for so long, my feelings for running have wavered up and down over the months and years, but I’m excited to get close to this great event at last. And health permitting, I think I’ll be throwing in an entry for next year’s lottery…

The long road to recovery

Welcome back, readers, to the world’s most forgotten blog.

We left off almost a year ago, when I decided to withdraw from the Boston Marathon, in doing so making the title of this site rather unfortunate.

Since then, I’ve vacillated between trying to run and trying to avoid running, seeing doctors in the hope of getting better and avoiding them because their diagnoses only bring disappointment.

I’ve seen neurologists, orthopedists, rheumatologists and physical therapists. I had three MRIs in less than two months, a bunch of x-rays, nerve conduction studies, an EMG, bloodwork, and every time I would be told I was normal (or at least, normal for my age).

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I’ve at various moments convinced myself I had Lyme disease, neuropathy, radiculopathy, multiple sclerosis or some other autoimmune disease, and every combination of “normal” runner injury – runner’s knee, IT band syndrome, meniscus tears, in both knees, at the same time.

In doing so, I have learned you should not research symptoms on the internet. It just doesn’t end well.

I’ve tried conventional physical therapy after a diagnosis of runner’s knee. They were good people, genuinely seemed to want to help, but I simply didn’t get better. Every time I showed up for an appointment I felt I was disappointing them.

On the bright side, I learned to swim. Not particularly well – you won’t be seeing me line up for triathlons any time soon – but I’m so much more confident in the water than I used to be.

By the end of 2014 I’d come to the conclusion that having failed to get better by actively pursuing a fix, I would just rest and let my body heal itself. No more recovery timeline. I allowed my guaranteed entry for the 2015 NYC Marathon go unclaimed. On one level this was sad, as this was a race four years in the making – I began qualifying at the epically cold 2011 Manhattan Half Marathon. With the Sandy-cancelled 2012 race and my injury-deferral in 2014, I was guaranteed for one last attempt. I wasn’t happy with NYRR pushing the application deadline all the way back to February, but had to ask myself one serious question: by June, could I see myself running 40+ miles a week.

No way, no how, so that ambition also had to be cast aside. However I was now free. After years of paying large sums of money upfront for races I failed to start, I now had no commitments, and with my sideline of race photography doing well, still had a way to stay connected to my friends in the running community.

So it all ends well, right? Ride into the sun, move onto the next passion, leave running behind.

In theory, yes. In practice, that works until you find yourself dropping something on the kitchen floor (or tripping over something your kid has left there) and you can’t pick it up, and you yell in exasperation at the pain.

Then you read posts on Facebook from friends who’ve overcome injuries with the help of doctors and techniques you haven’t tried, and you start to wonder: maybe someone out there CAN fix this.

So I’m trying again. I think I’ve found a good match. I’ve thought for a while that I’m the perfect case for a doc who wants to prove himself, I’ve been to several specialists from very high-profile medical institutions in New York City without success. Fix me and I WILL make sure everyone hears about it.

And wouldn’t you know, I’ve found someone with that exact mentality. A physician with the mindset of a competitive athlete. “I want to win” he told me tonight, meaning he wants to show he has the skill and knowledge to get me healed.

Eight hours ago I was musing about whether I should renew this domain name and keep this blog going, or let it lapse and save myself a few bucks.

I have my answer. The dream of Boston is not over yet.

A dream delayed

It’s certainly been a while since my last post here. Considering I should be towards the peak of marathon training, that means something must be wrong, right?

Unfortunately, yes. Without wanting to turn this into a long self-pitying post, Boston isn’t going to happen this year. My knees have failed me again, and a last-ditch plan of resting for six weeks followed by an abbreviated training schedule aimed at just finishing the marathon didn’t work out. The final straw was losing a week of training not to injury, but to a particularly aggressive cold virus that had me confined to the house for four days.

I had been prepared to go ahead and run Boston just as long as I could have a positive experience, which in my mind I’d defined as “slow but not too painful”. With four weeks to go I know that’s not possible, so it’s time to draw a line under this cycle and prepare for the future.

Any positive spin? Well, thanks to a few sessions with a physical therapist I have a better understanding of the biomechanical issues that affect my running. That should help me improve my cross-training regimen when I resume training.

The biggest positive by far is not having any pressure on me to go out and run in pain any more. A couple of weeks ago during a particularly terrible run I came up with the particularly self-wallowing phrase “I’m in a prison of my own making”. Which is completely overdramatic, but it is going to be good to relax, return to full fitness on my own schedule, mix up my activities, and hopefully run pain-free before too long.

Despite this setback, Boston is still top of my running goals, though given my experiences these last twelve months, I’m not making bold promises or guarantees of re-qualifying on the first try. But it will happen, eventually.

To my fellow Staten Islanders running Boston: I’ve so appreciated your support during the weeks I’ve tried to get ready for this race. I’m inspired by you all and wish you all the most wonderful experience next month. If there’s one thing I enjoy almost as much as running races, it’s tracking them, so you all KNOW that I’ll be urging you on all the way from Hopkinton to Copley Square.

And to my family too, thanks for supporting me through a winter of lurching mood swings. Between the harsh weather and my painful-one-day, ok-the-next legs, I’ve likely not been too easy to live with. Hopefully that improves now…

Well That Escalated Quickly…

A list of marathons/ultra-marathons I’ve done, and how far I ran in the six days following those races.

Following RnR USA Marathon (3/17/2012)
19.11 miles @ 10:18 pace (16 of those miles run on the sixth day)

Following Brooklyn Marathon (11/18/2012)
8.77 miles @ 9:34 pace

Following 2012 Trail Festival 50k (12/7/2012)
2.84 miles @ 8:31 pace

Following 2013 Trail Festival 50k (12/8/2013)
25.32 miles @ 8:00 pace

Adding those 25 miles (which represent the first few days of my Boston training plan) to the 50k, that’s a 56 mile training load for the week, and while I’m hitting my target paces and completing workouts, my knees are starting to feel it. So power recovery is the name of the game, alternating ice and heat to speed the healing process. One more workout tomorrow morning, and then it’s my running club’s holiday party, followed by a glorious rest day. My new coach and plan have me more inspired to run than ever, but right now I’m ready for a little micro-break…

Race Report: Staten Island Trail Festival 50k

For my last race of the year, I returned to the site of one of my more spectacular failures to see if it would be third time lucky at the ultra-marathon distance. Having finished fourth in the 25k at the inaugural Trail Festival in 2011, last year I attempted the 50k distance for the first time. This was only three weeks after my goal marathon, so I hadn’t spent a whole lot of time on the trails, but I assumed my road racing fitness carry me through. Long story short, I went out way too fast and had a painful last ten miles, having to will myself to even continue to walk. I placed seventh but with the ugliest splits you’ll ever see (2:01 first half, 2:46 second half).

This September, I then attempted to run a six-hour ultra in Silver Lake Park, which was ambitious given that I was still early in my injury recovery phase, but nevertheless, my strategy was again ill-conceived, resulting in very quickly transitioning from being amongst the lead runners to lying flat on the grass and refusing to go another inch.

Would it be third time lucky at the ultra distance? I decided the best way to be sure would be to make my own luck, by resolving to run more conservatively than I’d ever done in a race before. It probably also helped that the elite coach who’s designed my Boston training plan has me starting on Monday, with the first hard workout on Thursday. So I needed to come out of this race intact and able to recover quickly.

The race got started a little late (I’d learn later that the hard-working race organizers Matt and George of King of the Mountain Events had to make last-minute course adjustments – no rest for the weary!), and I settled into an easy rhythm in the company of our team President Mark and Publicity Director Josh, who were running the 25k. Somewhere ahead of me were my speedy first-time 50k teammates Ian and Issac: I’d led them on a three hour training run the previous weekend to give them an idea of what to expect, but somehow I knew they’d be taking off at a pace I couldn’t commit myself to. As I remarked to Josh, I was Yoda and they were my Jedi Knights – I had to trust them now to do their thing.

The first few miles around Camp Kaufmann were a little confusing to follow – around 30 of us took a very minor shortcut (less than 1/10 of a mile) about 2 miles in, thankfully race director Matt was on hand to re-route us and get the confusing section taped off for the following loop. With that snafu behind us, I just wanted to focus on following the trail markers. Eventually we’d get out of this section and onto the trails I know intimately, and at that point I’d be able to settle into running my own race.

The other early concern was to get a feel for what the overall race distance would be. Last year’s 50k was said to be 30 miles, but measured only 27 on my GPS device: switchbacks and tree cover mean a GPS, which measures discrete points every second and assumes a straight line between them, cannot accurately gauge the distance, and the faster you run, the greater the inaccuracy becomes. This year, we were treated to mile markers (which I understand to be a rare luxury in an ultra), and I could see that I was getting roughly 0.9 miles on my watch for every mile marker. 10% “extra free” is a nice bonus!

Pace aside, my other strategy change was at aid stations. Last year I had a marathoner’s mentality. Grab the cup, keep running, slurp what you can as you move, don’t waste any precious seconds. I learned my lesson: seconds don’t matter in an ultra. Even if you’re waiting a minute or two to get across a busy street (as happened later on the first loop, at Richmond Hill / Forest Hill Road), it’s not such a big deal, that’s useful recovery time. So, I took my time to refuel properly, exchange small talk with the volunteer (“next time you see me, I won’t look nearly this good”) before getting on my way.

It was about this time that I joined up with a runner from South Brooklyn Running Club. One of my favourite parts of running this 50k, both this year and last, is when I get to play tour guide. The non-Islanders are usually surprised at the beauty and the challenge of our trail system. The least I can do is make them feel welcome, give them the inside scoop on tricky sections coming up, imminent road crossings, where to get back on the trail after those crossings, and so on. My favourite tour guide moment had to be the section of trail that I’m trying to get officially named “The Ledge”, the almost unrunnable, steeply banked narrow section of Blue Trail next to Snake Hill, with its breathtaking views.

Speaking of road crossings – I’d just told my new friend that we had a 1/4 mile or so to go before we’d hit one coming out of High Rock Park, when suddenly the trail lurched unexpectedly to the left, down a bank to the foot of a 30-foot high near-vertical mound, with pink streamers indicating that, yep, this is where you’re going to go next. “Are you f****ing kidding me?!” was my reaction – I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. After getting the top and looping around, we found ourselves…. exactly where we would’ve been if we’d gone straight for a minute instead of making the left turn and following the markers. “Well, that’s going to be strictly on the honour system the second time around”, I joked to my SBRC friend. And yes, I did do it twice – I can provide the GPS evidence if needed :-)

I eventually lost my friend after the Nature Center aid station at about 14 miles, he felt he’d gone out too fast, having originally tried to go with the leaders. It was great to have company for so long, but now it was time to steel myself, for shortly I would be coming through the start/finish line and having to set out for a second loop. If the mind is even starting to lose focus, I knew from last year that this can break you.

On the way up towards Moses Mountain I caught sight of my new training friend Kerry, easy to spot as the only runner of the day in short sleeves. I’d first spotted her up ahead when we were stopped at the road crossing I mentioned earlier, but it had taken a while to fully catch up. The timing turned out to be perfect, as I got into shouting range just in time to see Kerry miss a turn, and get her back on track. She’d go on to finish as the first female, and second overall, in the 25k race. A fantastic performance.

Back to my race, last mile of the first loop, time to make some decisions about what I need from my drop bag. Change of shoes? Music? In the end, I stick with my shoes. The previous day’s rain had made the trails softer (and for the most part not that muddy), and I really think that helped my feet. I did pick up a handheld bottle of Gatorade, so I could sip continuously rather than wait for the aid station, and grabbed my iPod, walking the first quarter mile or so of the second loop while unravelling the headphone wire. No panic, very calm, seconds don’t matter. See, I’m a wise trail guru now!

The music kicks in, so do my legs, and off I go. Fourteen miles left. (I appreciated the asymmetry of this year’s course: it’s good to know that “half-way” is actually more than half-way) I’m starting to rock out and fly down the descents. The average pace on my watch is getting faster! I don’t know where I’m placed in the race, but I feel like I’m going to catch some runners on the second loop this year. I start to wonder where my Jedi Knights are.

At High Rock the second time, the aid station attendant says I might be the first 50k runner she’s seen. I don’t believe this for a minute, and say “don’t tell me that!”. Shortly afterwards I run into Matt Lebow, directing the 10k runners, he gives me a high-five and I compliment him on the course. Perceived course quality is of course directly proportional to how awesome I’m feeling – at that point, it’s the best course I’ve ever run!

It got harder, though. That was always going to happen. The second climb of “WTF Hill” coming out of High Rock had my quads screaming, and I had to dial back the effort for the next mile or two, climbing up the White Trail. Along the Red Trail towards the Latourette Golf House, I finally caught up with Issac, who told me a horror story about going off course and running four miles too far. We wished each other well and I continued along my way. It’s a tough situation – on the one hand, I definitely wanted to be doing some passing on the second loop, rather than the opposite as happened last year. But when it’s your teammate and training buddy, it’s not exactly a situation that’s going to give you an energy boost.

A little later on the multipurpose trail, I passed a couple of recreational walkers (not in the race), and then almost immediately afterwards, on the slight upslope, my legs wanted me to start walking too. But not wanting the walkers to see me stop, I managed to maintain a plausible-looking jogging motion and continued along the way. Going back into the single-track trail a half-mile later, I encountered a group of hikers who cheered me enthusiastically, which was quite a lift. “Almost there!” someone very wrongly said. “In five miles maybe”, I chuckled back.

But I did know I was at least on my way to the finish now. I switched my iPod over to my most intense playlist and maintained a good pace to the final aid station at the Nature Center, passing more cheering runners as I did so. Approaching the aid station I heard the ringing of bells. From 50 yards away I yell “I NEED MORE COWBELL“, and you know what? They performed the hell out of that cowbell for me. I ran into the Greenbelt Conservancy‘s Chris Hellstrom at the aid station. Chris will, I think, be ok if I say he’s not a regular runner, but I believe he’s the only person to complete the 50k for all three years of the Trail Festival. It’s very much an all-day event for him, but he loves his trail system, and what better way to show it.

I leave the Nature Center, cross over Rockland Avenue, and keep the music loud and pumping to distract myself from wanting to walk. For a while now I’ve been walking up the hills, that was always part of my race strategy. The trick is to be mentally tough enough to hold yourself to that bargain. As soon as you say “maybe I’ll walk this flat section too, it won’t hurt”, it’s a downward spiral. Past Moses Mountain again, over Manor Road and now I know there’s no more road crossings, this is the trail section I’m in until the finish.

I reach the 30 mile marker and blow a kiss to it. Roughly a mile to go, but it’s the Camp Kaufmann section of trail that I do not have any feel for. I’m following the pink trail markers as best as I can, but I keep thinking “Is this right? Didn’t I already go here?”. After a couple of minutes I see a figure up ahead. I’m catching someone! About time, I think to myself, I’ve been keeping up even splits and other than Issac I’ve not caught up with anyone on the second loop – what’s up with that?

I don’t have a whole lot of interest in catching whoever’s in front of me, and indeed I’m still walking up anything that could reasonably be described as a hill, but I’m still bombing down the descents, and like it or not, the gap is closing until I’m maybe 10 yards behind.

Then I see another figure up ahead! Stopped on the side of the trail, distinctive in his orange shirt, is Ian. Why’s he stopped, I wonder, he’s almost done! My attention drifts away from the guy I was pursuing as Ian tells me his story of getting lost – it’s a slightly different account than Issac’s, as Ian is convinced he’s cut the course short. We compare GPS distances, and it’s clear to me that he’s as good as run a 50k. Maybe not exactly the same 50k as me, but surely now it’s time for us to finish this thing, so I encourage him onwards – at which point he finds the speed that I know him for, and I’m the one struggling to keep up! The other runner is somewhere with us too, I’m not sure exactly where, as I’m just rambling on to Ian about how we’re going to finish this race and how I’m proud of getting this race right, but also how I’m not going to run trails again for a while and how much I love the roads, and… really, it was verbal diarrhea at that point.

We turn the final corner, and Ian, who has in his mind already decided he’s going to disqualify himself, encourages both me and the other runner to give our best to the finish line. The other runner gives it a decent sprint finish, I honestly can’t be bothered to contest it too much, and we cross the line, four hours and eighteen minutes after setting off on our adventure.

I later discovered that I’d finished in third place – I guess I should’ve given the sprint a little more effort! But then, I did learn that the second-place runner, Joe, was one of the few who didn’t follow the slight shortcut near the start, so justice prevailed in the end.

The after-party was just what this tired ultra-runner needed. A much-needed finisher sweatshirt for my shivering body. BBQ, beer and friends. Even filmed a cameo for our club’s Christmas party comedy video, about which I will say little, as I don’t understand the plot, other than that they made me RUN, and I hope they appreciate how hard that was for me after the 50k!

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After the race – thanks Yessica for the photo!

A wonderful day all around. See you again next year!

Where We’ve Been, and Where We’re Going

Today marks the 20 weeks to go point until Boston – expect me to start getting a whole lot chattier here!

But what’s been going on these last few months? Here’s a quick review.

August (155 training miles)

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I followed up my July track race with a 4-mile jaunt through the trails of Wolfe’s Pond Park in the Hot As Blazes Adventure Race. Tons of fun, despite coming out of it somewhat bloodied and beaten. Finished a solid if unspectacular 7th. Another step on the route to recovery.

The month ended with the Celic Run, a hilly 4 miler and one of Staten Island’s oldest road races, in and around Clove Lakes Park. However, despite the nudging of my team captains, this would be a race not for me, but for my eight-year old daughter Abby. Not since 2005 had an eight year old girl finished this tough race, but Abby shares my stubbornness and not even a nasty fall on concrete in the second mile would stop her reaching the line and claiming second place in the 14-and-under category. A proud moment.

celic trophy

September (175 miles)

As the month started, I had a decision to make on my fall racing plans. I had run plenty of miles in August, but nearly all of them were easy-pace efforts. With no specific speed training, I decided to pass on signing up for a half-marathon, despite it being my favourite distance. The chances of a satisfying outcome just weren’t good.

Instead I opted to register for the Richmond Rockets 6 Hour Ultramarathon, a particularly twisted slice of self-torture that would involve endless 1.67 mile loops of Silver Lake Park on Staten Island. Going into the race, I’d only run for two hours once all year. What could do wrong?

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For three hours, the answer was “nothing”. I was grooving along nicely, somewhere around third or fourth place. And then the pain started. Hips, quads, and eventually the rest of me came together to say “please stop this madness”. At 25 miles I allowed myself a change of socks and shoes and was horrified at what I saw of my toenails. Once I passed the 26.2 mile chalk marking after 3:44, I was pretty much done. Sure, I’d told my ultra-running brother that I was going to do 40 miles. And my boss. But this was no day for macho silliness. I half-jogged, half-walked one final lap, getting out my phone to check my email and find an invitation to hang out with friends in the city, which is all I needed to tell the scorers I was done and grant myself a merciful exit.

I hung around for the rest of the race to admire the experienced ultra runners as they continued to effortlessly tick off laps, their running gaits just as smooth at 2pm as they’d been when I’d been pursuing them six hours earlier.

One day I might get the hang of running such distances, but to be positive, to complete 28.2 miles on legs that couldn’t run at all four months earlier was a big confidence boost.

October (171 miles)

A quiet month with no races, but starting to get serious about training now. The six hour ultra proved I can do distance, but what about speed? I started to hit the East River Track near my office in the city, and increased tempo work at home. Even including a number of runs with my daughter, this month’s mileage was clicked off at a 7:59 average pace, compared to 8:35 in September and 8:31 in August.

November (165 miles)

This month featured a big return to the trails to get ready for the Greenbelt Trail Festival 50k, the race that was my undoing last December. Three long runs of 2 to 3 hours, plus the experience of last year, should hopefully result in a less painful race this Saturday.

A major highlight of the month was my team, the Staten Island Athletic Club, putting on the first race at Freshkills Park, the city’s long-term landfill-to-park conversion project on Staten Island. I opted out of running this race, instead offering my volunteer services as event photographer, teaming up with our club’s tireless Publicity Director to document the event.

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As selfless as this might seem, I can’t deny that I was proud and excited to see the Staten Island Advance run one of my photos in a story about the event that was published a week or two afterwards.

Having opted out of running this race, I laced up for a couple of others later in the month. First, again I acted as support runner for my intrepid daughter, who conquered the trails in the Fall Flat 5k, the race that first got me involved with the SI running community three years ago. Another race, another medal, this time 2nd in the 12-and-under category. We have big plans for next year!

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Finally, Thanksgiving Day saw me put on my racing flats for the 64th Annual Lou Marli Run, a three-miler that’s not-quite three miles, but it’s a traditional course and no-one complains too much. On a bitterly cold and windy day, I managed to shave off 19 seconds from the last time I ran (2011), with a nice negative split to boot. Everything’s coming together just at the right time…

And there you have it. Four months of until-now unblogged life events somewhat related to running.

Now it gets serious. 2 weeks until training begins. I can’t wait.

3 days ago: 11 miles at a shuffling 9:11 pace and I was in pain from start to finish.
Tonight: 6.5 miles w/ 5 miles @ 6:35 pace and I feel great.

Sciatica’s a fickle mistress.

Race Report: Daniel Kelley Twilight Mile

Yesterday saw me return to racing for the first time since February, at a local one-mile track race held in memory of a highly talented and much missed runner, teacher and coach at St Joseph’s By The Sea High School here on Staten Island.

A week ago I returned home (to New York) from a visit to my “other home” (England). It’s hard for anyone to get back to the everyday routine of work, chores and the like after a vacation; when it also involves saying goodbye to your family and not knowing when you’ll see them next, that makes it that little bit more difficult. So I needed a pick-me-up, and what better than to try out my doctor-cleared knee and enter a race to really feel like a runner again.

The weather was scorching hot as we arrived, the sun beating furiously on the track with no clouds or shade. The organizers however had an endless supply of iced water bottles available, along with a sprinkler, and the PA announcer encouraged runners to hydrate often.

After some apparent glitches with the timing system, the event got off to a delayed start, starting with a kids’ half-mile race and then moving to one-mile heats with progressively faster paces.

Along with most of my teammates, I opted to try my luck in the 5:45-6:00/mile heat. I really had no idea of what I might be capable of, having not run a mile quicker than 6:30 since February. There’s a saying in running, which I might be mangling, which is “if you want to run fast, you have to run fast”. Which sounds stupid, but the essence is that you can’t just run a bunch of easy-paced miles and then expect to be a speedster on race day. Still, I expected to be able to run sub-6:00, so hopefully wouldn’t disgrace myself too much.

As the 6:00-7:00 heat ended, we were blessed by a cloud finally obscuring the sun. Relief! “No excuses now”, noted one of my teammates, as we assembled on the start line.

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The gun fires, and we’re off! I’m a racer again! This thought sustains me through the first turn, and then as we settle onto the back straight I switch to more tactical thinking. The runner in front of me seems to be holding me up. Do I blow past him to get some space? No, too early for that. Move out a bit, hang on his shoulder. Yes, that’s better.

I should mention that this is my first track race ever…

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By the end of the first lap I’ve settled in, the time looks good (84 seconds), I’m well placed. I settle into my rhythm, voice my appreciation for the support of my teammates on the back straight – always the loneliest section of the track – and end the second lap pretty much in the same spot as the first, though with a bigger gap behind me (not that I looked back at the time to realize this).

And then my “pacemaker”, one of the younger runners on our team, suddenly takes off, and I can’t respond. Now I’m going to have to get myself home without help. On the last lap, I try to will a little more pace from my legs, but they don’t respond. Not surprising considering my lack of training. Still, they’re churning away at the same pace they’ve given me for the last three laps. I can’t complain. Finally, into the home straight. I’ve been expecting someone to come past me and it’s not happened yet. If I can surge even just a little, now’s the time. I give it everything I have, for an 85-second finishing lap, and I cross the line with the clock showing 5:41. I’ve not embarrassed myself or the club. Mission accomplished!

My teammates followed me over the line with equally impressive (and in some cases prize-winning) performances, and then it was time to avail ourselves of the free BBQ burgers and hot dogs and settle into our spots on the bleachers to watch the elites show us how it’s really done. The elite men clocked a 62-second final lap with a desperate fight to the finish, really something to see.

All in all, an enjoyable afternoon, a well-organized event, a rare opportunity to run a track race, supporting (and being supported by) my team, renewing my competitiveness, and reassuring myself that my knee can hold up to running fast.

Now to sign up for a fall half-marathon!