The 18th Annual Chicago Lakefront 50/50 Ultra

My husband said it was just like learning to ski. You start out on the easy green slopes, work your way up to the blue, and years later when you’ve finally reached the bottom of a double black diamond, you throw your hands up in the air and scream “I did it!” That’s when the emotion of the whole journey sets in. He is so right.

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A few minutes after crossing the finish line, I burst into tears. After a big bear hug, my husband gave me a kiss, propped me up and stepped back to take a picture. I finally told him to forget it, I couldn’t stop crying.

My focus for the past couple of years has been all about ’speed‘ – how everybody else has it, and I don’t. The thought of putting my toes on another starting line and running my hardest to match a finish time I held in my head – a time that probably should have been debunked long ago – it made me crazy. I love to run. I just wanted to run.

The biggest confession of this race is that there were only 8 weeks left for training after the stress fractures on my feet healed; hardly enough time to build up to the mileage of most ultra training programs. So I trained for a marathon. Some runners have claimed this approach spelled disaster for their 50k, and some runners say a marathon training program works just fine for the 50k. There was only one way to find out.

I thought I’d struggle with two things: surviving the extra time on my feet beyond where my training had taken me (one 20-mile run), and convincing my mind to stay out of it.

I knew I could keep my brain placated by feeding it sugar, so for the first time (perhaps amazingly), I experimented with GU gels during my training runs and discovered the exquisite burst of energy achieved from the GU that touted 20mg of caffeine. My husband bought me a bag full of those little pouches of GU, and although I could only stomach two during the race, they did their job.

I also vowed to try a little of every type of food offered at the aid stations, which included trail mix, M&Ms, pretzels, chocolate chip cookies and several varieties of potato chips. In 6 hours, 16 minutes and 59 seconds, I never hit the wall. My legs were a different story entirely.

As much as I like to groan over the elevation of my typical training run, some coaches say running up and downhill causes a change in which muscles are used and the percentage they are used, while running on a flat surface uses the same muscles. . . which could cause problems if your legs aren’t adapted to long hours on a flat terrain using the same muscles. My legs went stiff somewhere along the middle miles.

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Ready, Set your Watches. . . Everybody!

The race course included 3 out-and-back segments along Chicago’s lakeshore path. A light rain fell in the same place for 2 out of the 3 segments. There was a warm(er) spot, an area that was strikingly frigid, a tunnel that was gruesomely muddy, and the wind grew steadily to over 14mph as the race lingered into early afternoon (welcome to Chicago!). The 50-mile runners had started two hours earlier, which left a constant shuffle of runners along the same path; back and forth, out and back, hour after hour.

There were a few onlookers here and there that cheered us on. One guy held up a sign for hours that read: Run like zombies are chasing you! Otherwise, we were mostly left to our own thoughts and the quiet, peaceful attempt to run further than I’ve ever run before. I absolutely loved it.

Everyone wanted to know if I would run another 50k. Yes, definitely.

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A finish time of 6:16:59 and a 3rd place finish in my age group of 50-59.

The Despicable 5k

It was in June of last year that I stumbled onto a post, “Are Marathons Stupid?” Three little words, and I was captured.

The author, Jon Waldron from therunnereclectic.com, quickly referenced an article by Christie Aschwanden that had been published a few days earlier on fivethirtyeight.com, “The 5K, Not The Marathon, Is The Ideal Race“. I had already read this article, and thought it was a lousy attempt to upsell the 5k.

Waldron had the perfect response: “But the problem I have with the piece and others like it is that it makes no serious attempt to really grapple with the reasons people choose to run hard events, or competitive events, or long, life-altering events, rather than convenient ones. People don’t run for no reason, they run for a variety of reasons, some simple and some complex, and like any other human behavior, people engage in it because they apply a calculus that convinces them that it’s worth it.”

The last 5k I ran (and at this point there have only been two in my life) was 7 years ago. I wrote about the experience: “Less than 10 minutes in, I was saying to myself, “Shit! This hurts. I hate this!” A few minutes later I had decided nothing was worth this much pain. I would quit. I stepped off the course and stopped running. For the next few seconds, I tried to picture how I would unwind myself from this race. Walk back to the start? Walk to the finish? Good lord, how would that look. How long would that take? My husband was standing at the finish line waiting for me. Did it really hurt so bad that I couldn’t finish? No, it didn’t. I put my feet back on the course, stopped at the aid station for water and, cussed all the way to the finish line. . . in 3rd place for my age group.”

Almost every year I try to convince myself I should run a 5k. They must be great for improving speed. It’s a nice way to set realistic expectations for other races scheduled that year. It’s only 3 miles. I hate the 5k.

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fivethirtyeight.com

Last Saturday I ran a 5k. It set me back $15. There were no finish medals, no mile markers, no aid stations – although there were plenty of bagels, donuts, coffee, water, oranges and shirts for all – and I won a blueberry bush from the drawing at the end of the race.

My only training included testing a theory that riding my bicycle would fire up the fast twitch muscles as well as sprints at the track, so I’ve spent about one day each week cycling instead of running fast. Otherwise, I focused on maintaining fitness for a spring half marathon instead with 25-30 miles/week and one longish run of 10-12 miles. It’s been heavenly.

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As race prep, I looked up the last 5k I ran (in 2010) and realized I had never recorded my finish time. Unfortunately, those race results have long ago been deleted from world history, which took me to my very first 5k in 2008 where I finished in 24:19.

There I stood at the starting line last Saturday morning hoping for a finish just one minute slower, but knowing I’d be happy with a two-minute gain over 9 years.

Maybe the 5k race strategy seems pretty simple. Run. Fast. Do. Not. Stop. There are other approaches.

Lauren Fleshman became an ambassador of sorts for the 5k. Her advice for running the perfect 5k goes like this:

“Try this next time: Run the first mile with your head, the second mile with your focus, and the third mile with your heart. In the first mile, you can’t let any emotion or excitement in at all. Start with a pace you are confident you can maintain and then relax a little bit more. Until you see that one mile marker, all you are allowed to think about is running smart. From 1-2 miles, focus on maintaining your form and start to look around you, taking a survey of which runners around you probably went out too hard, and which ones you should make your prey in the third mile. You are taking some time to strategize for the big battle, and you aren’t allowed to draw your sword until you pass the 2-mile marker! The last mile, start to pick off your victims.”

With the passing of time (old age), I’ve realized that if I can get my feet moving fast, and then settle my heart rate back down by relaxing into the pace, I can maintain that pace for a while (however subjective that may be). On race day this translates into: start fast, settle in and feel good, momentarily crash just past midway, recover, and surge to the finish. Turns out it’s a viable strategy.

Rick Morris wrote “5k Race Strategy And Tactics” for Running Planet where he differentiates the 5k strategy based on the runner’s experience level:

“It has been drummed into our heads that we should always be conservative during the first mile of a 5K race so we are able to pick up the pace in the middle and last miles. But is that always good advice? Maybe not. There is evidence that competitive runners will usually perform better with a stronger start. Scientists at the University of New Hampshire studied 5K pacing strategy of eleven moderately trained women distance runners and found that the best performances were obtained when the athletes ran their first mile at between 3% and 6% faster than their average split times for the entire 5K race distance. Another study from South Africa that studied record breaking performances found that the first and last kilometers of most record breaking races were run significantly faster than the middle miles. Both of these studies seem to support the benefits of competitive runners running the first mile at a slightly faster pace. . .”

I survived my token 5k race of this year (decade?) with a finish time of 26.03. It felt pretty good to run faster than usual for the first mile. Things looked good when I made the turn at the halfway point, and then I nearly crashed on an uphill around mile 2. I had vowed not to stop and walk. I stopped and walked. Cussed when the 50-something woman ahead of me didn’t stop and walk. Recovered and surged to the finish.

It was the most miserable 26 minutes of this year.

Now that I have run the 5k race three times in my life, I realize the length of the race is not commensurate with lessons learned.

In just 3 miles you can reach your limit, recover, and make a decision whether to continue or quit. . . “and just like any other human behavior, people engage in it because they apply a calculus that convinces them that it’s worth it.”

Happy racing, runners – no matter the distance.

What keeps me running?

It’s been three days since my downhill marathon, and my quads are still on fire.

The first 6 miles were appropriately described as a “rolling 10k.” It was one of the most beautiful 6 miles on earth. Buses had driven us up the mountain at 6:30am under a clear, starry sky where every constellation could be identified. Quiet conversations ensued amongst us with tales of past and future races here, there and everywhere.

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Peak to Creek Marathon Elevation (finishlinepros.com)

The starting line was in front of a Marathon gas station along a quiet mountain road, boasting a double row of porta pottys where we all stood quietly in line. .  twice.

There were 300 some odd runners, and only those at the front of the pack could possibly hear the comments the Race Director made at the start. I didn’t even hear what actually started the race, but we all headed out at 8am sharp among a momentary rise in the decibel level of excited runners.

The mountains in the distance were spectacular in orange, red and yellow. Christmas trees were being harvested from a farm that spread across dozens of acres, and despite the challenging terrain of these first 6 miles, nothing could distract from the spectacular views. I made a point to pay attention to the surroundings during this race, and it paid off handsomely.

Hunters lined the road deep into the second half of the course, their dogs barking wildly across the valley. We passed a black bear strapped to the back of a truck – something I had never seen. We ran between gigantic boulders that seemed to reach the clouds as if the trail had been blasted right through the granite mountain. A creek followed us down the mountain for most of the second half reminding me of my own favorite long run spot at home. Although, everything was not bliss. . .

Most of the course was in the National Forest on unpaved roads. Camber was not to be an issue, although I’ve never met a switchback that didn’t camber. Rainwater runoff left deep dips in the road that could be treacherous, and more than a few times we landed sure-footed on large gravel stones.

My feet were terribly sore as we reached the home stretch, my legs like mush, and I had battled an upset stomach for hours (my husband reminded me that my stomach has never tolerated blue Gatorade very well). My finish time was 4:41:00.

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I was trying to hold it together across the finish line, but the lady’s expression in front of me was how I really felt.

The post-mortem was held Sunday morning over coffee.

My husband thinks it could be training error. I think it could be race strategy. Then we spent a good amount of time on the subject of why I want to run marathons at all, and what really motivates me to run in the first place.

I admitted (agreed) that I am competitive, and I doubt I will ever be the kind of person that wants to simply ‘finish’ a marathon. Reluctantly, I also admitted it seemed futile to spend that many hours in pain if not to find an acceptable spot among my peers. It’s who I am, and I suppose it was good to admit this at 56 years old. More importantly, the conversation forced me to think about why I keep running at all.

A post I had written in March 2014 popped up on this blog’s Trending Now list that same afternoon. I couldn’t even remember what I had written, so I read it. The entire post was about running hills, and the last paragraph a quote from a book I had read on Chi Running. It is a fairly good answer to why I keep running at all.

A new idea is to transform running from a sport to a practice. If you see running only as a sport, you’re limiting yourself to getting only the physical benefits. It’s like the difference between stretching and yoga…between sitting in a waiting room and sitting in meditation…between training your body to run faster or farther and practicing to run in a mindful and masterful way.

Making an activity a practice is a process of self-mastery. You are no longer simply practicing that activity; you use it to learn about, understand, and master yourself as well as the activity.”

(Excerpt From: Dreyer, Danny. “ChiRunning.” Simon and Schuster, 2009.)

 

The Running Formula

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Enter a distance you have run recently in miles or kilometers, enter the time it took you to run that distance, enter the distance you want to predict, and click calculate. The formula was devised by Pete Riegel in the late 70s to predict how fast a person could run one race based on their finish time of a previous race. I bet I’m not the only runner to obsess over, or cuss this formula.

Using my last half marathon time of 1:56:20, the formula predicted I would run a marathon in 4:02:32. Of course we all know the formula can’t predict everything that magically happens on race day. . . which began last Sunday when the alarm rang at 3:45am. Our clocks had sprang forward a few hours earlier, already leaving me with one less hour of fitful sleep.

After two days of debate, my husband had finally agreed that I should drive myself to the starting line. It was only the 2nd time I have ever gone to a race by myself, but the race director had been insistent that all runners should be on the shuttle bus to the race venue no later than 6am – which would put us back home again at least 2 hours after our oldest dog could no longer “hold it,” if you know what I mean.

I brushed my teeth, dressed, had breakfast, and my husband fixed a cappuccino for the road – a routine that is exactly backwards to everyday life. I had filled water bottles, and packed extra clothes, in case the forecast didn’t fib and it rained. My husband gave me a kiss, and told me he’d see me at the finish line around noon. It was 65 degrees (18ºC) at 4:30am when I left home.

 

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Most runners will consistently improve when they first start running, even if they do everything wrong. I know this to be true because I did everything wrong. At some point, however, it becomes harder and harder to best your finish times. With the natural slowing experienced with age, I’ve always believed it to be a “win” just to maintain. Nonetheless, runners live and die by setting personal records, achieving Boston Qualifier times, and forever running faster. I am no exception.

I drove myself to the race, completely forgot to bring along my purse (i.e., no money), panicked when the directions took me on a toll road, marveled that there is such a thing as “Pay by Mail” on a toll road, shared “war” stories with a fellow runner on the shuttle, sat on the curb between taking turns standing in line for the porta-potty, positioned myself at the starting line, and ventured off on 26.2 miles all by myself.

The race was touted as “Flat and Fast” – the reason I chose this race in the first place. It was not flat.

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Tobacco Road Marathon Elevation; the fourth ‘flattest’ course in North Carolina.

The American Tobacco Trail is a 22+ mile trail of rolling hills. There was a 2-mile stretch on the road before the trail where the half marathoners turned left, and the rest of us turned right onto a ‘granite screenings surface’ – a naturally decomposed granite created when granite is compressed and broken down into a combination of sand and gravel. Somehow in my search for the perfect, flat and fast marathon, I didn’t realize this course would be mostly sand. By the end of the race, I had sand everywhere.

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The home stretch.

Things went well for the first 2 hours, and I felt pretty good until mile 22 when I bonked. Determined to run that 4-hour marathon, I didn’t accept that this course wasn’t flat until I had spent too long at a flat course pace. I also didn’t accept that it was warmer than one might expect for an early spring morning.

It crossed my mind that an elite runner would walk off the course, preserving their effort for a day when their body cooperated. As usual, I decided I had worked hard for a medal and I wasn’t leaving without one.

There were several miles between 22 and 26 that I walked – only to remember my husband had been standing at the finish line since noon wondering where I was. He later told me he had positioned himself directly in front of the line, and worked his way further and further back down the course as time went by. His next move was to start walking the course.

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Sometimes a race just feels right, and sometimes it doesn’t. As soon as I crossed the finish line I told my husband, “I don’t ever need to do this again. I’m done.” Wisely he smiled and told me I could tell him that tomorrow, not today. He was right.

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Hunters running in a cave painting made 2,000 to 3,000 years ago in Zimbabwe.
From Racing the Antelope.

Berne Heinrich wrote the book, Racing the Antelope: What Animals Can Teach Us About Running and Life, (xii + 292. HarperCollins, 2001) where he proposes that humans have evolved into endurance hunters. Athough a biologist by profession, he has held the masters (40 and older) world record for an ultramarathon (100 kilometers) from 1981 through 2007, and at the end of 2007 he was inducted into the American Ultrarunning Association’s Hall of Fame.

Heinrich makes the case that our bodies are physiologically well adapted for the long run; from our flexible Achilles’ tendons, arched feet, and strong big toes to the fact that our lungs, blood and circulatory systems supply oxygen for aerobic processing that allows us to burn fat for energy – the key to fueling the body for the long run.

Perhaps most importantly, Heinrich argues that we are psychologically adapted to endurance running since we can visualize far ahead and use our imagination to motivate ourselves.

Yes, this is the life of a competitive runner. We wake up the day after a grueling race, assess our errors, re-visit the formula, and vow we can run this race to the peak of our ability. We vow to try again.

At the end of my very, long race day, my husband told me yet again how proud he was of me. He said, “You are my warrior.” I gave him a tired smile, and warned him that sometimes warriors die. He said, “No, sometimes warriors have to live.” That’s when I realized I had survived, and I would have to try again.

WIN, PLACE OR FINISH?

It doesn’t matter how long the race, or how far away the starting line, the alarm always seems to ring at 4:30am on Race Day, and with that ring of the bell my long hiatus from racing ended last Saturday with the Mistletoe Half Marathon in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

 

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Runners race for different reasons. Some thoroughly enjoy the excitement of finishing just one race while others are on track to finish as many races as possible in their lifetime, these 50 States, or across the World. An elite few can realistically aspire to win their races.

Then there are those of us that just want to run as fast as we can possibly train our bodies to run with the best measurement of success being a side-by-side comparison to how fast our running mates have forced their bodies down the same course.

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A chilly start to this year’s Mistletoe Run.

The temperature was around 32 degrees at the starting line where roughly 850 runners gathered. After verifying that Age Group awards would be based on ‘chip time’ as opposed to ‘gun time,’ I positioned myself closer to the back of the pack – being fairly certain my legs would not willingly spring into action just because the gun fired.

The course was a cross between an out-and-back and a loop, guaranteeing we would hit the worst of the hills at least twice.

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Mistletoe Run Half Marathon Course Map & Elevation Chart

At the halfway mark my watch showed elapsed time at 59 minutes, and I spent the next mile or two calculating, and re-calculating how I would stay on pace through the 2nd half of the hills.

I’m pretty sure the time will soon come that I can no longer finish a half marathon in less than 2 hours, but I did not want that day to be now.

The only time I stopped running was through the aid station just before mile 7 where I took a cup of water and one of gatorade, and hoped I could drink some of each and catch my breath in 30 seconds or less.

For the rest of the race, I ran with all my might.

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The home stretch. . .

After the race, my husband asked me if it was pretty course, “You ran through the Wake Forest campus, right?” It was true, the course traveled through Winston-Salem’s beautiful Buena Vista neighborhood, continued through the Graylyn International Conference Center, Reynolda House and Gardens, through Reynolda Village, onto Wake Forest University’s campus. . .  I had no clue.

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The finish line. . . elapsed time: 1:56:20

 

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A 3rd Place Age Group Finish (F 55-59 yrs)

 

** Several days after the race we learned there had been a problem with the chip timing system. When the dust cleared, I found myself with a 2nd Place Age Group Finish. Even better.

 

Finish As Strong As You Started

For the better part of three months, I have been singularly focused on the two weeks ahead of me now…. the end of renovations on our lovely, old home.

The whole process has not been unlike training for a marathon. Initially, the race is so far away that day-to-day efforts seem trivial. The slow ramp-up of mileage over the months hardly relate to the race at all until finally, we reach that long, grueling 20-mile run and realize in a matter of weeks all this training must come together so we can run the full distance… and survive. It is at this point of realization that also brings with it a touch of panic.

faucetFrom the moment we determined the remodeled floor plan of this old house, my attention turned to finding the perfect finishes to transform this blank canvas into our home. Finishes that would complement the architecture, yet reflect our personal style. My InBox holds no less than 35 emails confirming various orders from toilets to drawer pulls and a doorbell; items that required varying degrees of effort to uncover them from the vast sea of online shopping.

Had my piggy bank been stuffed with unlimited funds, this job would have been straightforward. There were oodles of perfect choices where money was no object. This project, however, was more like searching out the best bottle of wine for under ten bucks.

The parquet fit perfectly in the kitchen.
The parquet fit perfectly in the kitchen….

The treasure hunt for some items was downright delightful. The light fixture for the main stairwell, for example, appeared in Wayfair’s clearance corner quite unexpectedly. A $400 fixture that now sat in an open box for $89. I threw it in my cart without a second glance.

There were a pair of faucets for the master bath reduced to $40 each by a nice vendor on Amazon, and the beautiful parquet tiles my Aunt had stashed in a warehouse were the exact number of tiles needed to fill the kitchen, which was completely void of hardwood flooring.

These were the things that came together effortlessly…perfectly.

.... with just enough tiles left over for the butler's pantry.
…. with just enough tiles left over to highlight  the butler’s pantry.

Then there was the 10″ toilet.

Who knew toilets were configured by their rough-in size? I spent weeks searching every nook and cranny under the planet for this one toilet. It was the item that nearly made me looney as I tried to will the look I wanted onto this strange toilet, at the price I wanted. That toilet tormented me to the very end.

Finally, these beautiful treasures began arriving at our doorstep. The kitchen drawer pulls shipped straight from China; the packaging still retaining the smell from this foreign land. A beautiful, gold faucet was packed in a cloth bag as if it were a piece of jewelry.

 

Not everything was perfect….fridge text

The toilet for the 3rd floor bath was cracked, the dining room chandelier was missing three crystals, the granite slab for the kitchen counter-top broke, and the handles on the refrigerator and freezer did not match.

Things were falling apart right there at the finish line.

Training for the marathon, we work our way through a training plan that best fits our level of experience and life, yet we may still find ourselves challenged by something. We urge our bodies to respond to the challenge, willing it to adapt. Pace, speed-work and nutrition are researched in an effort to prepare ourselves to go this distance. Finally, we arrive at the starting line….where things can and will go wrong.

Somewhere in the middle miles of this race, when you’re tired and irritable, it’s easy to make bad decisions. We begin to accept second-best…. we just want this race (project/job/commitment) to be over. The thing is, when the race is over you can’t take back what you’ve done. Better to hold true to your resolve…. stand firm to your commitment to do this thing right.

My husband has given us advice over the years whenever we have decided to leave one job in favor of another, “Finish as strong as you started.”

The devil is in the details, true in life and in running, but we can stand firm to our commitment to do this thing right, and finish as strong as we started.

The Dam Race and A Personal Best Time!

My first race was in 2007, the Wrigley Early Start 10k in Chicago, with a time of 54 minutes 25 seconds. In January 2013 I ran the Asheville Hot Chocolate 10K in 53 minutes 2 seconds. Saturday I ran The Dam Race (10k) in 51 minutes, 41 seconds… a personal best at the 10k distance.

imageOur morning started with a drive through the Nantahala National Forest. It was foggy and we could barely see the vast expanse of Fontana Lake as we passed the scenic overlooks. The road cut a path through the forest with back-to-back hairpin turns. We were almost level with the treetops on the right side of the road because of the severe drop-off on the other side of the guard rail while the rugged rock face on the left pushed the treetops up above us hundreds of feet. It was eerily beautiful.

We found a dozen cars parked on either side of the road once we reached Fontana Dam and knew we must have found the starting line of the race. The race course was touted to be relatively flat along the shores of the Little Tennessee River below Fontana Dam. It was one of those no-frills kind of races… the kind of race that attracts runners who don’t care about the frills anyway. We were just there to run.

imageMy plan was to actually train for this 10k, but then school and work began to interfere with the calendar and I’ve found myself two weeks into marathon training already.

The summer schedule included 5 weeks of rapid progression base training using the Lydiard system, which took me to just under 70 miles/week. Then there were 3 weeks of rapid progression ‘learning’ when I attended the EMT course and my training tapered to zero miles/week. When class ended, I used the rapid progression system to re-build mileage to 55 miles/week and added a bit of speedwork. This caused every muscle in my legs to ache and when I warmed up before the race on Saturday, I could hardly move.

imageThe course consisted of two roads running along-side a creek that fed into the river. Both roads ended at the dam where we made a turn and ran back up the road, across the bridge and down the other side. There was a slight hill on both sides of the creek where the roads met the bridge – making the course relatively flat. These hills seemed insignificant the first time we ran them, but I’ve never met a hill that was insignificant in the second half of a race, especially when it falls just before the finish line.

The race started at the base of the first hill and by the time we had reached the bridge I had broken through the small crowd of runners and found myself the 8th runner. I maintained that spot for the entirety of the race.

It wasn’t easy to run a personal best at this point in my running life, but I wasn’t gasping for air and my legs didn’t feel the customary heaviness or lactic acid buildup I’ve felt before. I credit these changes, and the ability to maintain a steady pace throughout the race, to all those slow runs that were promised to build aerobic capacity.

imageIt wasn’t until we looked inside our little brown bag of race goodies that we realized the beautiful roads that brought us to this race were part of the “Tail of the Dragon“; a famous road with 318 turns in 11 miles. It is the location of the Cheka Dam where Harrison Ford jumped from in the movie The Fugitive. The dam and old single lane bridge were also in the 1974 movie Two Lane Blacktop.

There are millions of breathtaking spots in this beautiful country of ours and Western North Carolina is among some of the best.

We traveled back home through those hairpin turns, the sun now shining bright along the lake and the mountains in the distance, and my heart could not have been more content. Looking back on 7 years of competitive running I can see as many twists and turns as the road I was driving, but a road that has taken me to lots of new places.

You may believe it is not possible to make improvements once you reach a certain age – that perhaps it is a win to simply maintain. I submit to you that it is never too late to accomplish new things.

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