Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011 Year in Review

Year of Challenges

As 2011 comes to a close, I reflect on an amazing year of running.  I had many highlights, a few lowlights and various challenges. 

Since I am fairly new to blogging and don’t have much of a history of posts to rely on, let me reflect for a minute on running prior to 2011.  I began my running journey during my junior and senior years of high school (1991-1993) where I ran cross-country and learned to both love and hate running.  I hated it because I was not fast (which seemed the point of cross-country) but loved it because we were running trails in beautiful back country.  Fast forward to 2008, after many years of inconsistent running I decided to take up, what seemed like for me, the most improbable challenge – to train for and attempt a marathon.  It was a late winter day and I stepped onto the track at the local YMCA.  “Here I am” I thought, “time to start”.  Sixteen laps (one mile) later and I felt like I would cough up a lung and die.  It felt that bad. Eight months later and I finished my first marathon in just under 4 hours.  I was on top of the world.  The next two years were spent trying to figure out where I fit in distance running.  I wasn't fast and struggled at the end of my only half and full marathons.  I added another marathon in 2009 and a handful of half marathons.  I improved my times at the half, got slower at the full and could never manage to improve on my 5k or 5 mile times.  Late in 2010, I entered a 10 mile trail run.  I am still not sure what specifically drove me to enter it but I vaguely remember thinking that my time on a 10 mile trail run should be about the same as my road half marathon times.  Boy was I wrong! I entered the Conestoga Trail 10 miler which self-proclaims to be “arguably the toughest 10 miler on the east coast” (or something like that). How hard could it be?

The RD tells us at the start to plan on a time of “twice your normal 10 mile time”.  Really? That would put me at 16 minute miles.  That’s absurd! Well 2 hours 42 minutes later (right on 16 min/mile pace) I finished the hardest run I have ever had.  And that is exactly what I told my wife when I hobbled in my house after the race. It was only 10 miles but tougher than either marathon or any training run I completed in the past.  But I loved every second of it! That day, I fell in love with trail running. 

The weeks that followed that crazy 10 miler, I researched other trail events in the area.  I also researched further the idea of an ultra-marathon.   Was it doable? Was it possible? Am I crazy? The answer to all was yes, at least in my mind.  I spent more time concocting a plan that would allow me to run a 50 miler the end of 2011.  Would I really be ready for it? I had a lot of work to do. The plan was simple though – work my way up to specific trail events strategically placed throughout the year, use those trail events as training runs and when it came time to the fall, I should be ready for a 50 miler. 

2011 started off with maintaining 15-25 miles per week.  This doesn’t seem like a lot but for me to maintain this over the winter months was more than I had done in years past. At the end of February I slowly increased my mileage and was able to make my way out on the trails every so often.  When I hit the middle of March I knew it was time to really start getting in some time on my feet.  It was one month to my first trail event and I knew I needed more.  I put in the time, the miles and the hills.  Was it enough?

This race is 16.5 miles of gnarly (translation = technical) trails.  Close to 4500 feet of ascents with an equal amount of descents. 

This event contains one of the better vistas in Pennsylvania.  I was looking forward to it but somehow felt that I hadn’t been able to get enough time on hills.  Although I wasn’t “racing” this event, I did have a finishing time I thought doable in the back of my mind.  Four hours I thought was plenty of time to get through this course.  In the days before the race, I did what most trail runners do – continually check the weather forecast.  It was looking good about 10 days out, 9 days out, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, oh, and then the outlook changed.  A big system was forecasted to sit over the entire central part of Pennsylvania on Saturday April 16, 2011.  The day before – absolutely perfect.  Saturday – cold (37 degrees F), rainy and windy.   Oh man – the one weather condition I loathe running in.  So I arrived in what I thought would be plenty of time to find that the weather didn’t keep too many people away.  900 out of 1000 registered runners/hikers showed up. I was surprised.  My first decision of the day came at my car – shorts or pants? I never wear pants (when I run) but it was cold, wet and I knew I would be out there for a while.  Funny – the guy parked next to me was thinking the same thing as he actually said it out loud.  I chose the shorts.  Good decision as the pants would have been soaked and heavy within the first 2 miles.  So I closed my car and looked up – you could see the first climb that hovered over the parking area.  The peak is used for hang gliding on better weather days.  What was I getting myself into? I made my way to the starting area (a good walk away) to find a rather long line waiting to get bibs.  Looking at my watch I soon realized this wasn’t working.  The race ended up starting late as the volunteers literally scrambled to get everyone’s bibs to them.  They called everyone to the starting line and I was 2/3 of the way back in the group of 900.  This was my first mistake.  The race winds down a dirt road onto the main road, across a bridge over the Susquehanna river, onto another road and then, 1.5 miles into the race, onto single track trail.  This is where I realized that 2/3 of the way back in the starting crowd hurt me.  For the next mile plus it was stop and go on the trail.  This was not trail where passing was possible so it was all patience.   Got to the first climb and passing here was definitely possible but it was also 1200’ plus of climb in less than a mile and a half so why bother passing.  Everyone was at a snail's pace.  Two false summits later and we finally made it.  Then the downhill.  Oh sweet downhill.    By this time we were all completely soaked, cold hands (despite two pairs of gloves) and mud covered.  Just embrace it became my mantra for this race and many others to come.  16.5 miles, 4 hours 21 minutes later, I was done.  What a tough run.  All in all, a great day was had.  Despite the not-so-ideal weather, I had fun and completed the challenge.

For the next few weeks I concentrated on keeping my mileage up.  I hit my first 40+ mile week in May and best of all, I was staying healthy.   40 mile weeks are the norm for many runners but for my short running “career” it was not.  My body struggled over mt first three years of running to do higher mileage weeks and back to back running days.  In training for my first marathon I only ran 3-4 days a week.  This is certainly not ideal and I would not recommend that to anyone training for distance.  But the way I see it is I am not a natural runner, barely an athlete, and it took me three plus years to build a base to where I could do 40+ miles in a week and not be injured or too fatigued to run. 

This trail event is called "Hyner's southern cousin"  – it contains climbs followed by downhill followed by rocks.  But this one had more rocks.  Lots of rocks.  Rocks beyond rocks.  It’s called Rothrock for a reason ya know.  Different from Hyner, we had a beautiful – almost perfect weather day for June in Pennsylvania.  Like I said, many hills, many rocks but what a gorgeous trail system.   I found my groove halfway through and hit the first two (of four) aide stations in under the times I projected for myself. My goal was sub 5 hours for this event.  I was on par for around 4 hours.  Did I go out too fast? Was I pushing too hard? Not sure.  But I hit a downhill section that was so steep that there was a rope to guide people down.  Down the hill and into the third aide station I realized I was slowing a bit.  I bypassed the aide station with minimal refueling (learning point here).  Up the trail and round the corner and BLAM! there it was – a huge boulder scramble going up. 

It was a climb and a half in my book and just about killed me.  I finally made it to the top and my lack of refueling during the last aide station hit me hard.  Long story short – I had to walk for a while due to a total lack of energy.  I thought I was doomed.  I finally made an effort between the last aide station and the finish putting me at 4 hours 48 minutes (or something like that).  This was a race of two halves – great first and close to the walk of death for the second.  Lessons learned – I knew I needed better long runs and I knew I needed to work on my refueling. 

My next official event planned was not until September so I had three months to work out the kinks.  But the next trail event would put me in the “ultra” category so long runs and overall mileage were the keys.  My goal going into the hot n humid summer months was to get a nice LR in once every 3-4 weeks, run moderate LRs other weekends,  and do a few higher mileage weeks in between.  For some random reason, I chose to run every day of July, prior to which I had never run more than 8 consecutive days.  So July 1st I started it with a bang – 22 miles on trails.  Most of the days that ordinarily would have been off days for me, I ran just 2 or 3 miles.  The important factor that my body adjusted to was just staying in motion.  I feel this month was important to get my legs more accustomed to the rigors of running.  But don’t get me wrong, I was grateful to get to August and change things back to having real off days.  My goal for August was to implement some good solid trail runs.   In August I pulled my first 5 hour run which ended up being 24(ish) miles.  I was hopeful because I was recovering well from my long runs.  

Challenge #3 - On the Rocks Trail Run

This was not on the original plan for trail races.  I didn’t know it existed until August and stumbled across the website for it.  Looked like fun and also looked to be somewhat close by (as opposed to races like Hyner which ended up at 3 hours driving time one way).  This was a 16.3 mile two loop race.  Ran the first loop with others who were running the one loop 8.3 mile version.  I had difficulty understanding if I was running at a good pace or not due to most runners dropping off after they finished their 8.3 miles and then running most of the second loop by myself.  I finished in 3 hours 8 minutes – not bad for a training run.  I finished 11th out of 27 finishers which made me feel pretty good about what I was doing.  This course had – yup you guessed it – lots of rocks.  But I seemed to be getting used to that by now. 

September for me was supposed to start my ultra distance races.  I had scheduled the Keystone SuperHike (28.4 miles), the Blues Cruise 50k and then my fifty miler in November.  But plans are always subject to change.  The first full week of September brought many days of rain and massive flooding to the central Pennsylvania area.  Having already run in rain and mud, I wasn’t concerned with that going into the SuperHike.  But as it got closer to September 10th, it became painfully obvious that the race would not happen.  The flooding wiped out much of the course we would be using, parking at the finish line and many of the back roads that led to the start and finish lines.   This became a huge disappointment as the race was cancelled, not postponed.  I was looking forward to this event more than any of the others, but in the scheme of life and devastation, running needed to take a back seat.  I was scheduled for Blues Cruise 50k three weeks later so I had to scramble to figure out my long run schedule.  I wasn’t about to go out for 4-5 hours a week or two prior to the 50k. 

Challenge #4 – Blues Cruise 50k 
This ended up being my first official ultra-marathon.   What a day.  Was a bit cold to start but ended up being perfect running weather.  There was plenty of mud as these trails were covered by the flooded lake in the previous weeks.  This was about the only factor that slowed me down.  Then there was the creek crossing that took a bit of tip toeing to navigate:

This event in the past was an out and back on trail.  This year they stretched it out to be one giant loop around Blue Marsh Lake.  Turned into a great choice.  I started out too fast as I always seem to do.  I found a grove and ran the first 10 miles in 1:40 (10 minute miles).  I knew I could not keep this pace up for 31 miles but I was riding my wave of energy.  The aide stations at this event were incredible.  The stations were manned by experienced ultra runners who were very encouraging and knowledgeable.    I experimented a bit with various foods and amounts to determine what would work and not work.  This was a good race to do so.  So many choices of food.  I hit the last aide station at 26.5 miles and realized I had just run my furthest distance ever.  I struggled the last 4+ miles but in the end I finished in a respectable 5 hours and 50 minutes good for 82nd out of 224 finishers.  My outside goal was 5:30, more realistic goal was sub 6 hours.  I felt good after the race and concentrated on fueling up to speed up recovery – I think it worked well. 

Seven weeks to my first 50 miler and I knew I needed one more 5+ hour run.  I thought I would be on my own for it.  I wasn’t planning on entering another race but one came up last minute that seemed perfect. 

Challenge #5 – Fire on the Mountain 50k
This event was supposed to be run the last weekend of October which would put it three weeks out from my 50 miler.  “Perfect”, I thought.  But in a year of weird and wacky weather, we got hit with 6+ inches of heavy wet snow the day before the race.  On no – another SuperHike? Cancelled? Thankfully they rescheduled for the next weekend.   This 50k turned into 32 miles of much more technical trails than Blues Cruise.  I was going to take it slow and steady regardless of the course.  This race consisted of four sections, three of which were trail and one was an 8 mile stretch of fire roads.  The fire roads did me in.  I hated them.   I somewhat regretted the decision to enter this event while I run/walked/shuffled the fire roads.  I went back to what used to get me through tough cross-country practices in high school - quoting Isaiah 40:31.  I did this literally for an hour.  I could never have gotten through that section (miles 17-25) without doing so.  God was trying to teach me something - "just wait - it will come".   And it did come.  I ran well the last 5 miles of the race - a big boost to my confidence.  I finished this event in just over 7 hours.  Tough race but was feeling good about it.  I recovered well and mentally felt good about being on my feet for 7 hours.  This being the first race I could use a drop bag, it was once again a training of sorts in regards to refueling and having a change of shoes, socks and clothes if I needed it.  It worked out well because I needed it. 

Two weeks until my 50 miler and I certainly took it easy.  I ran only 5 times in 13 days.  I had no thoughts of pushing any kind of significant miles those two weeks.  I was trying to prepare myself mentally during this time as well as reflect on a full year of training specifically for this event.
Final Challenge - Stone Mill 50 Miler
See my full RR for details: My First 50 Miler Racer Report.  It truly was a great way to end the running year for me.  If you read the full RR, you can see all the difficulties I faced.  But I learned a lot.  I learned that some of these issues I faced during the race are fairly normal things that ultra runners must face.  I hope my next chance at 50 miles (or more) will have fewer combined issues.  The highlight of the race for me and for the year came in the days following Stone Mill when I learned that the race distance was closer to 55 miles than 50 miles.  I was initially disappointed in my final time of 12+ hours.  But when I learned that I probably hit the 50 mile mark around 11 hours and that my body held up for 55 miles, it made the entire experience, the whole year of training, and the long day all worth it.  It makes me hopeful that with more training, putting into practice what I have learned, and logging the miles that I can do anything.  What's in my future - more 50k events, more 50 milers, a 100k, or maybe someday a 100 miler?

I finish the year with just over 1400 miles run, 6 official races completed, my first three ultra marathons, and many hours on trails.  This year was about going longer and facing the challenges that come with running -  and with life.   So what's my identity as a runner? I still don't know but I am having fun figuring that out one mile at at time. 

The next challenge: I started a PhD program on December 5th which should take me the next 4 years to complete.  It certainly interrupts any thoughts of piling on the races but with any luck and planning, running will not cease. 

I end this post with an illustration: I was running on a trail the other day with no real plan where I was going - just out for a run.  I came to a split in the trail.  To the right the trail looked well groomed, relatively flat and a safe bet to be easy.  To the left the trail had rocks, ascended the side of a ridge and looked dark & ominous.  Which do you choose? I chose the trail to the left.  It wasn't much of a decision.  In the past I would have stuck with the right but my running has helped shift my thinking to take up the challenges of life.  I hope you do the same. 


  1. What a great recap. You really captured the anticipation that we all feel once we put a race on the calendar and start training. I, too, was very excited about the SuperHike; there's always next year. You managed to fit in a lot of races in 2011. I suggest that you try to do the same this year, as it will keep you sane during your graduate studies. Pat (

  2. Wow Jamie! I dont know how long you've had this posted but I just saw it!! I cant believe that you started your trail running career with some of the toughest races in PA! I knew you did BC and Stone Mill but it was really cool to read what lead up to those races! Hope to see you around at a race in 2012. Of course, probably only if you decide to do an "easier" run!