Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK 50 miles – Race Report

Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK is a race I have in my heart. When I started to be more serious about running, I did the Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK relay with 3 persons. It was back in 2013, after my first marathon. With my team, “The Crazy Yinzers” (entirely composed of non-native US persons) we spend the day on the trails and it was a fantastic experience. Kim, one of the most inspiring running buddy I had so far was part of it and made this day very special.

I always thought it would be really cool to run the whole thing by myself. Last year, I did not feel ready for this and already signed up for EQT 10 miler as a pacer (which was on the same day). Since then, I did a 50 milers (JFK), a 100 milers (Burning River) and a couple of 50K.

So, this year, when registration opened, I took the opportunity and signed up. I wanted to do this, to give a try. Registration is very reasonable if you signed up as an ultra runner without a support vehicle (about $95). If you compare with JFK (about $200), this is a better deal and a better course (more on that later).

Course Map
Course Map

Race preparation

Since Burning River 100, I have a strong desire of taking a break from running. Just for few weeks/months. Running every day and continue with long runs during the week end was mentally and physically exhausting. I made some races here and there but running was no longer my top priority. I ran to work every day, doing an average of 50 to 80 miles a week. It fulfills a utility function (commuting), nothing else: I prefer to run to work than driving – it keeps me sane for the day.

Also, the month before the race, I had a lot of work commitments and traveled in Seattle, Ottawa, France and Iowa. For sure, it was possible to train but it is more difficult. As I visited friends and attended conference receptions and dinners, free time was limited as well. The longest runs I had were two back to back 17 miles, mostly on flat roads. Not so bad but definitively not enough when you are training for a 50 miles in the mountains. I tried to train in the elliptical and do other workouts, but it was probably not a good strategy as I injured myself a week before the race.

How I felt on race day
How I felt on race day

Also, my diet, usually based on vegetables, non-meat fats (e.g. peanut butter!) and water/coffee was now focused on croissants, butter, crepes, bagels, potato, various deserts with champagne, wine or beer. I gained about 10 pounds total during that period. So, I was definitively not at the top of my fitness level. But after all, this is the best I could do, so, let’s give a try!

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You have to carb-load the right way

I came back in Pennsylvania on Friday night before race week-end. I headed to State College on Saturday afternoon, took my hotel room (I was staying at the Toftrees, the official hotel for the race) and get ready for race day. Since I came back from my travels, I did not eat much, so that I was really hungry when I got there and ate probably enough for three days. Nothing better than brownies with ice cream and couple of beers to rinse your mouth!

Time to go

When going to the race start, I met Mark from North Park Trail Runners (NPTR) in the hotel lobby. He was doing the race with a relay team. Everybody seemed really excited, on my side I was still feeling that the high ABV of the beer I had the night before. When arriving on the race site, I saw Tim from the NPTR group, he was doing his first 50 miles. Also, Monica from North Park Trail Runner and Steel City Road Runners took an early start at 5am. If everything goes as planned, I should pass her sometimes around mile 25/30. It would give me an extra boost.

My miserable pace
Do you see the crash around mile 25? No kidding!

And then, it was almost 7am: time shut the fuck up and move my ass.

The race is in the mountain but not on trails. All the course is on gravel/dirt roads. Very runnable, not rocky/muddy, it would please runners afraid of single track trails. The course starts with a small elevation, about 800 feet over the first 3 miles. Then, this is rolling hills until mile 20.

For the first 20 miles, I was doing good. In fact, I did not really feel I was running, I was in this mode when you just know you need to go and keep running. In fact, I really enjoyed being outside, breathing fresh air and do not have to worry to be on time for the next meeting/conference/dinner/whatever. I arrived to mile 20 in less than three hours. At that time, I thought it would be possible to finish in less than 8 hours. It would be a PR and a good surprise: after a lack of training and a roller-coaster diet I could carry my fatty butt on 50 miles in less than 8 hours! It was encouraging!

austinBut from mile 20 to mile 25, there is a good climb (1300 ft over 4 miles) and I power-hiked part of it. During that climb, I saw a lady walking up the hill. As Monica told me I would catch her around mile 25, I was wondering if it was her. So, I asked if she took an early start. She barely answered and told me no. Whatever.

sub8Once I was on top of the climb, I started the downhill part and realized something was wrong with my left foot. My Achilles was hurting. Really bad. Running started to be painful. I thought it will pass. Quickly, I realized it will not get any better. And at mile 26, it was clear it will not be possible to continue like this and have to walk for a while. From now, it was bad. ***Really*** bad.

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At mile 48 – about to finish

I totally changed my expectations: I ran more than half of the course and there was no way I would drop. There was still 7 hours to finish. It was possible to finish by just walking the rest of the course. So, instead of shooting for a time, I will then make the best of it and just have fun and enjoy the scenery.

I reached the Aid Station at mile 28. Some kids were helping and the lady I passed before was there again (she passed me again when I was walking). She was sitting and seemed in pain. She told me she was sick, did not know what happened. She told the volunteers that she was about to drop. And she dropped. When I left the Aid Station, she was in a really bad shape.

Elevation Profile
Elevation Profile

When I finally arrived at the aid station around mile 30, I met John, a really nice runner that was doing his first 50 miles. The dude had a really good pace and just ran 30 miles in about 5 hours. Really good for somebody that never ran more than a marathon before! John and I ran together for a while and it was a real pleasure to meet him. We talked about various stuff to keep our minds busy: Pittsburgh, running, work, our respective lives. I was glad I met him!

Done and ready for pizza!
Done and ready for pizza!

I arrived at the next Aid Station. The volunteers told me Monica was 5 minutes away. I passed just after the Aid Station, which gives an extra boost. At that point, it was clear she will finish: she was running since almost 7 hours – so, she had 5 hours to finish 20 miles, which is totally doable by walking fast or alternate light jog and walk. As the pain was growing and I wanted to be done, I did not stick and took off.

About mile 38, Mark from NPTR passed me with his team and their support vehicle: his relay team was doing great and they were approaching the aid station at mile 40. I do not remember exactly how I made it to mile 40. A mile before the Aid Station, John finally came back. Then, there was a sign 1/2 mile until the Aid Station and of course, he suggested: “let’s try to jog there?”. You do not refuse that and this is why running with somebody is helpful: you stop making excuses.

From there, we continued together for a while. But as the pain increased, I let him go. I finished the last miles by combining walking the uphills and running the downhills and eventually crossed the finish line after 9 hours and 8 minutes (32th over 74 runners). Definitively not a record (I finished JFK in 8:58) but I had a ton of fun. And this all what matters.

Post-Race Party

22306020889_2384cca5b4_zOnce you cross the finish line, you get a medal and can the post-race party. Here, there are food (subway sandwich, barbecue, pizza), beer and (the most important) massage. The pizza is probably the only reason to run the race: the dudes are amazing, the pizzas and made directly on site and are delicious. The beer is also really tasty. All together (massage, pizza and beer), this is probably the best combination to recover from such a race!

After that, I try to walk to my car and come back in Pittsburgh. As my muscles started to be cold again, I started to feel the pin. I evaluated the damages on my leg and realized that it was really bad. I will clearly not be able to run for few days. But who cares? It was a great day, I finished my second 50 miler, had great company. It, it was a fantastic, epic adventure. I loved and embraced every moment and would not change anything if I had to do it again.

Should you do this race?

If you are looking for a good first 50 milers, this might the race you are looking for. Not expensive (not a rip off as JFK), not too difficult and very friendly, this is a great event! There is a very good support, 11 aid stations over 50 miles. An aid station every 4 miles: you can even do the race without a hydration pack!

Compared to my previous experience in ultra(s), I would definitively consider Tussey as a really good event with the same vibes as good ultra races (e.g. Burning River, Oil Creek, Forget the PR). The race fees are affordable and the support on the course is great. You can also put drop bags on the race if you have special needs or do not take any support.

The downside would be the selection of food at the Aid-Station. In ultras, aid stations are usually packed and look like a buffet at Denny’s. At Tussey, the food for ultra-runners is limited to chips, M&M’s, PBJ sandwiches, gels and sometimes potato. But this is not a big deal: you can pack what you needs in drop bags. As long as you are aware of that, this is not an issue. And for such a distance, you can still pack your own food.

Finally, if you have some friends that are doing the relay, this is a great opportunity to spend time together. This is also what makes this race unique: this is rather a big party between ultra and non-ultra runners.

The post-race party is also well organized and friendly – selection of food is great, having massage is definitively a big advantage. From my perspective, in all aspects, this race is better than JFK (and for half the price).

And now?

Once I got back in Pittsburgh, I wanted to send a word to the lady that dropped around mile 28. I was hoping nothing serious happened to her. I remembered her bib number, so, I looked up her name. I found out she was Connie Gardner, a three times first finisher and a well-known accomplished ultra-runner (see her wikipedia page). I was shocked that I have even crossed her path and it made me realize that sometimes, you just have a bad day: you have to accept that and move on. I hope she is doing fine.

It is now time for a break for a few weeks. I have some small races around Pittsburgh but nothing serious (see the coming races list). I will continue to run for commuting purposes but I will not train seriously for a while. I might run with NPTR from time to time but nothing more than 30 miles at a time.

The next ultra is Forget the PR in April 2016, a 50K shakeout before going for Hyner50K. Then, it will be time to train for the PA Triple Crown challenge. I already signed up for Hyner 50K and Eastern States 100. But until now, it is time to rest, lose 10 pounds and hibernate in my bed while watching Netflix and reading the pile of books and other comics that are close to my bed.

Special Note(s)

Thanks to Mike Casper, the race director. He put a very nice event and being part of this running party is a real pleasure! Special kudos for the folks that made the pizza and gave massage at the finish line, it was very nice to have people trying to take care of your injury!

Thanks to all the North Park Trail Runners and Steel City Road Runners folks. Meeting friends during the course is always special and I was happy to be there to see Tim finishing (strong) his first 50 miles race.  Finally, thanks to John for running with me during the second part of the race, having a running is the best way to get to the finish! He was there, helped me to push to the finish and finally, helped to make this day very enjoyable!

Notes & Links

Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK 50 miles – Race Report

Discovering Washington State, running the inaugural Baker Lake Classic 25K – Race Report

 

How I got there?

I have been told than the west coast is fantastic. I know some folks that want to relocate so badly to explore the mmaaaaaggggnnniiifffffiiiicccciiiieeennnccccceeeee of the west coast that I thought I should give it a shot. Having a trip in Seattle for work, it was a good opportunity to have a look at the coming races, see what was happening and if I could join one!

westcoastbeautiful

I found the inaugural Baker Lake Classic 25K, organized by the Skagit Ultra Runners group, which seems to satisfy my criteria: not too demanding, easy and scenic. The race was $50, which is a bit on the expensive side for a 25K. But considering that I did not know the area, I consider this was definitively worth the price to discover/explore the trails.

Pre-race

I took a plane from my beloved Pittsburgh to Seattle at 07am. Which means waking up at 0500am or so. After a week finishing a lot of stuff and making demonstration at work, it was rough. Also, considering my love for flying, I was really happy to get up so early. The plan was to get as close as possible to the race site early and try to discover these so beautiful trails. I got a location from Airbnb close to the starting line. Well, it also depends on your definition of close: this was 20 miles from the starting line. But this was the only place available around at that period. Also, I did not prepare any food or had any plan – until that day, I was considering that anywhere I go, there will be food. Ah. Ah. That was a dumb thought.

My plane landed safely, I got my rental car and finally made it to the location I got for the night. Then, I started to drive around to see what was there. There was creeks, trails, mountains. Nature. But no food. Even the gas station in Rockport (the location I stayed for the night) was closed. Oh yeah, there was a pub but I think you would get sick just by breathing the air. Even the most dirty dive bar would make this place looks like a fine-gourmet cuisine restaurant in the Michelin guide.

I drove to Concrete, about 10 miles away and found out this was just a bit better. Almost everything was closed and the only place to get Wifi is the public library (no kidding!). I found a local bakery (5b’s, highly recommended if you go around this area, especially because this is the only place when you feel you are not going to die if you eat there) that was the only place that seems to have decent food and closes at 5pm. Ok, the food there is really great but they close at 5pm! After that, you are starving until the next day when they reopen unless you feel adventurous and want to try the pizza place.

At the start
At the start

It feels like you are living during the war: you have to make sure you get your food before the lights in the street are shut down. And you do not know what will happen tomorrow, so you stock food as much as you can. So, all I got was a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter and two apples. Then, nutrition planning gets easy: one peanut butter sandwich before sleeping and another in the morning. After such a long day, it did not really matter and everything would be fine.

After traveling, flying, driving and looking for food, I decided it was time to sleep. And felt asleep at 0830pm. And I am only 32 years old. Fuck. My. Life.

Landscape at Baker Lake (picture by runners.photos)
Landscape at Baker Lake (picture by runners.photos)

Race

The beginning of the trail
The beginning of the trail

The race is a point to point, so, you park at the finish, get your bib and take a bus that gives you a ride to the start. The buses start to leave at 0730am and the last one leaves at 08am. The race starts at 09am. I took the first bus and had the opportunity to explore the area around. I met Mike, originally from Ohio, that moved in the Seattle area and enjoy the trail. During our discussions, he pointed out that the trails and the nature between here and the east was not better but just different – and he enjoyed both. I really like this point of view, different what I used to hear. None of these areas is better, they are just different and it is a pleasure to discover both.

Before the race, you can get gels, especially because the aid station are water only (so, fill your pockets if you need to!). The race started on time at 09:00am. You cannot really get lost: this is a point to point race and there are no connection with other trails. You just have to keep going straight … until the finish! Also, the race follow the lake, so, if you do not see the lake on your right, you probably went off course!

Passing the first bridge (picture from runners.photos)
Passing the first bridge (picture from runners.photos) – I should buy a new knee soon

When starting, I saw few guys taking off. I passed a girl and thought that the place did not really matter. After all, I was there to discover the area and have a good time. I did not know the trails, what I can expect in terms of elevation, so, the best was just to take it as a training run and see how it goes. No plan to push or stop, just enjoy the journey.

bl-map

The route is very scenic and during your run, you cross tons of bridges (the race director said about 20 bridges). There are some rocks and roots here and there, but really very difficult that gives you a hard time. It started to rain few minutes before the start. So, the rocks and bridges (made with wood) were very slippery. If you are not used to run on that type of surface, you might need to slow down from time to time. Especially in the rocky sections, where falling can be dangerous (remember, do not fall head first).

Passing the second bridge - I should buy a new knee soon (picture from runners.photos)
Passing the second bridge, supporting the Blerch and thinking about the keg waiting at the finish (picture from runners.photos)

There are two unsupported aid stations with only water: one at mile 5-ish and another at mile 10-ish. Also, there are no cups, so, you have to make sure you take a bottle with you. But take some gels before the start to make sure you have something in case you want to eat anything.

bl-ep

Overall, the race is very easy if you pay attention to the course and the potential rocks/ roots. Having some rain can make it challenging but really nothing difficult. Around mile 13-ish, you cross a creek and have to take a bridge made with a big tree. There is a rope to help you cross, so again, nothing very difficult. The last mile is on the road. At the end of the trail, you just take the road to cross the finish line. My last mile was actually pretty fast, around 07min/mile.

I finished 4th overall, which was totally unexpected considering that I took this as a training run and did not know the course at all. It was very fun and a good opportunity to discover the area, I am glad I did it!

Post-Race

After the race, you can hang out at the finish line where the is a lot of food and beers! Aslan Brewing was serving 2 kind of beers: a Red Ale and an IPA. As an IPA type of guy, I have to say that the IPA was a great reward after the race! Also, the food was really good with a option vegetarian-friendly!

There were also raffle-prizes. I found the idea very nice: with a raffle (based on your bib number), everybody has a chance to win something, not only the fast guys. This is interesting and more fair for everybody. I would love to see such a thing more often in other races.

I stayed for a while tasting the different beers and met Mike (another one!), the second finisher of the race that made a trip in Europe. At first, when he told me he visited France, I thought he will speak about the things I do not really like (e.g. Paris, the Eiffel Tower, the baking, restaurants, etc) and will get bored quickly. But it turned out that he did not even go to Paris but went to all the amazing places around Europe (Chamonix, Corsica, the good breweries in Belgium). Our discussion reminded me the great places I like in Europe and this was definitively a great way to finish the race and hang out with fellow runners.

And to finish ….

At the finish with Mike - Celebrating with a good IPA!
At the finish with Mike – Celebrating with a good IPA (and some veggie burgers)!

This inaugural race was definitively a great event! Yes, it was kind of the expensive side for a 25K (especially considering that the aid station are not supported and water-only) but it does not matter considering the quality of the event. Very scenic, accessible to beginners, you will have a great time guaranteed! The organizers are very friendly and the post-race food is very good as well! If you are running the race, make sure you take an hydration system (handled bottle or hydration pack) as the aid stations do not have cups and you can only refill what you carry (which is by the way, probably better for such a small distance!)

If you are not familiar with the area and consider staying around, try to find something more active than Rockport/Concrete or be prepared and pack your food! Yes, the area is pretty/beautiful. But other than walking around and seeing creeks, there is not so much to do. As you will see the nature and how beautiful this is during the race, you might want to stay somewhere else.

Special thanks to the race organizers and volunteers that make such a great event! I had a great time and will definitively come back on the area if I have the opportunity.

Information

 

 

Discovering Washington State, running the inaugural Baker Lake Classic 25K – Race Report

Breaking news: Allegheny Trailrunners ™ has been acquired by Tough Mudder ™ – Rock’n The Knob 2015 race report

The beginning of September is packed with a lot of good races in Pennsylvania. For road runners, this is the time to qualify for Boston at Erie, a pretty flat race where you can qualify for the race of your dreams (or not). For trail runners, there is the Groundhog Fall 50K and Rock’n The Knob. I did the Groundhog 50K last year and the 5 miles variance of Rock’n The Knob. It was time to try the 20 miles course of Rock’n The Knob then!

atr-tm
New race: run through the trails, traverse an area full of wasp and tell your friends it was so much fun!

This year was really special: it started to rain during the first hour, so, as there are a lot of rocks over the course, it was easy to fall and get injured. On my side, I got lost on the course and got plenty of wasp/bee bites on my legs and back. But it was good.

About the race

The race takes place in Blue Knob State Park around Claysburg in Pennsylvania. As all the races from Allegheny Trailrunners, this is well organized and really affordable, about $45 for the 20 miles. For such a distance on trails, this is a pretty good deal.

Also, Allegheny Trailrunners negotiated a block of rooms on the race site. You can get a room for $50 a night, which is very appreciated and cheap, especially if you share the room with friends.

How to get there

From Pittsburgh, this is a 2 hours drive. I took part of my Friday off to be able to drive to the race site. The plan was to get there very early to rest and sleep. The previous week had been hard with no consistent sleep and pain coming back on my knee and pelvis. But as most plans, this one was a miserable failure and other priorities takes over. The result: I stayed in Pittsburgh for a while, eating ice cream, discussing with friends and finally arrived on the race site around 7pm.

Once I got there, I took the key of my room, walked around, ate a couples of sandwiches, had a couple of beers and finally went into bed for a long deserved night of sleep. My knee was cracking when walking and my pelvis was still hurting. Ouch! All I had to do at that point was to hope it will magically heal within few hours.

The 20 miles map
The 20 miles map

Race Day

For sure, when the phone alarm rang in the morning, I had only one wish: staying in bed for the next few hours, watching TV and sleeping. But this was not going to happen: I signed up for this race and there was no way I stayed in bed. Not after driving 2 hours, it would not make sense to drive 2 hours again without even trying. The race starts at 09:30am, so, you have the time to prepare. I got my packet, get back in my room, sleep few more minutes. And finally made it to the start. I then see familiar face: Lance from Momentum Photography (who takes pictures on the course for free – please consider making a donation to him for his support to the trail running community!) and all the folks from the North Park Trail Runners (Mark, Tim, Julie and Mike). At that time, the usual pre-race anxiety started and I was not feeling like running 20 miles. I was considering asking to switch to the 5 miles but at that time, it was too late to ask. It was time to go.

But after the race started, I felt better and the anxiety was soon replaced by a feeling of confidence, that I was actually able to make it. The course was rocky but it does not really matter: I train on such terrain almost every day. I started to stick with one girl that was shooting to be the first female. But around mile 2, we hit a yellow sign “do not cross“. Probably a bad sign: we went off course and had to come back on the road. This made me run an additional 1.5 miles, which is mentally hard to accept in the beginning of the race. I had to make up the time lost and speed up. Unfortunately, I was then caught on single track trail with people slower than me and it was difficult to pass them.

This then triggers a question: why people do not move on the right when you say “on your left”? Why are they doing anything but going on the right? I got many behavior: the person with the headphone saying “oh, I did not hear you“, the one that thinks she/he is alone in that race and then they “oh, you scare me!” or the idiot that thinks that “ON YOUR LEFT” means he has to move on the left.

chart

Hey, there are runners for dinner

So, after passing few folks, I hit the aid station at mile 7.5. I wanted to limit my time at the aid station and go ahead. But just about a few meters, there was a wasp nest and I got bites all over my legs and back.

This. was. painful.

I did not really understand why there was no detour, this could be a hazard, especially for people having allergy. I figure the organizers were probably not aware of it when trying the course and putting signs and markings.

Elevation Profile
Elevation Profile

The nightmare was not finished: we had to pass twice this area. Yes, this was dinner time for our insect friends and runner’s legs was the day’s specials. When passing for the second time, I decided to avoid the area and go on the road to find the aid station. The dudes at the aid station took a picture of me, probably believing I was cheating but there was no way I got more bites on my legs: this is a trail race, not the Tough Mudder, I am here to have fun on the trails, I did not pay to suffer like an idiot.

Even if this is not life-threatening (unless you are allergic, which is another story), this is very inconvenient. The swap stings trigger a reaction and make your skin very itchy. Every person reacts differently but I was not able to sleep the night after the race, even with medication (ibuprofen, sleeping aid, anti-itch cream). It took two days to come back to normal – I can’t imagine how it was for people having stronger reaction.

wasp

After passing the 11 miles aid station, I thought it will be easy: just about 9 miles to go. But the second part of the course is more difficult than the first part. I continue to run for a while and did not stop.

Then, I hit the next aid station. I look at the food and gels available. The only brand available was Honey Stinger. Best. Race. Joke. Ever.

The only gels available at the Aid Station? Honey Stinger. Ah. Ah.
The only gels available at the Aid Station? Honey Stinger of course! Ah. Ah.

I saw Lance which took some pictures of me (and was feeling like a rock star) and finally took off. But the real climbs were waiting here: at mile 16-ish, there is a very steep hill that is almost not runnable. You have to power-hike this section for a mile or so. This was not expected at all, especially considering the conditions (very rocky and slippery after the rain).

Once you are at the top, you have just a mile or so to go to come back to where you started. I crossed the finish line in 3:47, which was better than what I expected (the goal was to finish under 4 hours). I was also 3rd in my age group, and so, was happy with the race, especially after being lost for 1.5-ish mile or so.

North Park Trail Runners at the Finish
North Park Trail Runners at the Finish

Post-Race

The post-race party takes place close to the finish and includes food and drinks. Railroad City Brewery (a local brewery from Altoona, PA) makes a special beer for the race, which is a nice reward after running 20 miles. You can stay warm inside, have a nice time with your friends there and look for the results (there are posted and updated often).

Post-Race Survival Kit
Post-Race Survival Kit – I could not wait to use the first tube before taking the pic

Should I do it?

If you are looking for a good trail race, this is definitively a very good one. Challenging climbs, wonderful course, very affordable (compared to many road and other trail races) there are many reasons you would like to do it.

The wasp/bee thing was clearly not expected and a potential issue for people being allergic. I do not think the organizers knew it was there on race day and I strongly believe that they would re-route the course to avoid it if they knew it was there. I hope nobody was seriously hurt during the race.

The Allegheny Trail Runners group definitively putting a lot of good races in Pennsylvania and this 20 miles version just confirm that fact. I did not take part of the Sweat for Vet, the 10K climb race they organize in November and I am excited to do it this year.

Information

Breaking news: Allegheny Trailrunners ™ has been acquired by Tough Mudder ™ – Rock’n The Knob 2015 race report

FAAP Fall Classic 10K – Race Report

The FAAP Fall Classic is a low-key race organized in the Pittsburgh area that benefits the Filipino American Association of Pittsburgh (FAAP). By low-key, I do not mean low quality but rather very friendly, like a good trail race rather a serious and competitive road race (like most marathons). Located in the North Park, the course goes mostly on trails, you have to run on roads for a small part of it. You have three options: a 10K run, a 5K run or a 5K walk. So, no reason for not being part of it!

Mark giving race instructions before the start
Mark giving race instructions before the start (picture courtesy of Fran Flaherty)

I did the race 2 years ago and at that time, I had an injury that made it almost impossible to run. It took me 1 hour and 6 minutes to complete the race at that time, which was also very painful. There was definitively room for improvement then.

The race starts at 9am, so there is no stress to get up early to get there. You also take your bib on race day and if you did not register, you can just sign up on race day. Mark, the race director, is very friendly and easy going.

That year was kind of special. Before the race, Herb Cratty gave a rememberance of Lou Lodovico, a strong runner that died at age 91. I did not know Lou but this gave me the opportunity to look up online who he was and his story is very inspirational (just look at his statistics on USATF – the dude was running 10 miles at 1:35 when he was 85 years old).

The start signal is given with a gong. The course itself is not too challenging, there are a couple of hills but nothing really crazy (only one might push you a little bit). It goes on the North Park trails, which are also well maintained. The course is very well marked and there are volunteers to guide you and show you the right direction. It is impossible to lose yourself.

Trying to put my ass and all the beers I drink lat week up the hill (picture by Grace Tabitha Lim Clark)
Trying to put my ass up the hill with an injured knee, heck yeah! (picture courtesy of Grace Tabitha Lim Clark)

Once you finish, there is some food and beverage available. Also, the post-race party includes a dance with kids from the FAAP. There are also bamboo medals for finishers in their age groups.

On my side, I finished the race in 47:33, 14th overall and third in my age group. Better than the 1:06 2 years ago. And being third in my age group was totally unexpected.

Should you do this race? Definitively! The race is not expensive ($20), well marked and support a good cause. if you are a new trail runner or an experienced mountain goat, this is a great opportunity to have a good time on the trails.

At the finish, supporting the Blerch. Picture courtesy of Mitch Radella
At the finish, supporting the Blerch. Picture courtesy of Mitch Radella

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FAAP Fall Classic 10K – Race Report

Two Faces 10K: race report

The Story

The two faces 10K is simple: it is two races that take place the same day. One road race and one trail race. The road race starts at 7:30am and the trail at 09:00am.

I wanted to do it because of the medal: this is a very cool medal that can be separated. One part is given once you finish the road race, the other one when you finish the trail race. If you do both, you can assemble both medals and have a big medal.

I thought this could be a very nice way to recover from Burning River 100 milers. Just having a short 12 miles run on Sunday morning, sounds like a good idea?

The Race Bling
The Race Bling

The Races

Both races start at the Boathouse in North Park. The road race is a basic loop around the lake in North Park. Clearly not exciting but it can be a nice way to gauge your fitness level. The trail race go over the basic trails of North Park but have some elevation but nothing really challenging.

The good part of it is that the road race is pretty flat so that you can really have a sense of your progress in terms of speed. The trail is mostly single track trail, which makes it challenging when you want to pass. For that reason, I would recommend to speed up in the beginning of the race if you do not want to be stuck on the single track trail. Once you are in the woods, it can be difficult (and not easy/safe) to pass other people.

The trail race is very well marked and there is no way you can get lost. There are also regular water stops on both races so that you do not have to carry any water with you. Overall, the race is well organized and there is nothing to complain about.

Let’s do it?

I finished the 10K road in 43:53 for the road (3/34 age group 30-39 – 13/208 overall) and 52:07 for the 10K trail (5/40 age group 30-39, 14/193 overall). Not a really big result or achievement but considering that I did not sleep the night before, it is still good to see I did not crashed during one or the other race.

If you are running in North Park, doing this race can be fun but will not introduce you to new trails or roads: you already ran them plenty of times. But it can be fun to hang out with your friends and have a good run. Considering that the race fees are not expensive (about $35), it might be a good plan.

 

Finish line of the Road Race
Finish line of the Road Race – yes, I need to sleep

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Two Faces 10K: race report

In the Search of the Running Mojo – Laurel Highlands 50K 2015 – Race Report

Laurel Highlands was one of the big race of the year. I wanted to do it since more than a year ago but was not fit enough so I waited and trained before taking the challenge. But in 2015, this was the race. This was my race: I was training on the trail every other month and each training taught me how different it is to run on trails than roads. This course is difficult, especially the first 8 miles, where you have several big hills to climb. The typical training (known as Gate to 8) consists in going to mile 8 and come back, offering a total of 16 hilly miles, destroying your quads and glutes. It also has the specificity to work on different aspects: during the winter, you learn how to run downhill on ice, during the summer, you learn how to manage hydration with a humid and hot climate. If you want to train to run on trails, this is definitively a good spot on Pennsylvania and I consider this is probably one of the major contributor to my lately improvements on trails (the first one is living less than half a mile in a hilly park and eat hills for breakfast).

Steam around mile 24
Steam around mile 24

 

I signed up as soon as the registration opened. The race costs around $100, which is reasonable considering it is limited to 100 runners and the cost to operate such a race. Once I signed up, I started to regularly go on the trail, train and be used to the elevation. Sometimes with friends. Sometimes alone. No matter what, I had to improve and know the course. I ran it so many times that I had it in my head and knew where I need to walk or run. I was prepare to be on these trails but I still had to improve my nutrition strategy. The last experiences (Forget the PR and the Pittsburgh marathon) were a total disaster and I adapt my nutrition during the last months. It was then time to see the improvements in a real race environment.

Laurel Highlands Medal
Laurel Highlands Medal

Getting There and Race Strategy

I did not want to stay around before the race – as Ohiopyle is only one hour from Pittsburgh, it was very convenient to drive there in the morning. My girlfriend, her relay buddy and I drove directly and got there just on time for the start (we parked 5 minutes before the start actually – which on one hand can be stressful but on the other hand force you not to worry about anything). Julie and Erica were running the relay (with “Faster than your girlfriend“) and myself, running the whole course. There is no fancy packet, just a bib and a tee-shirt. The start is simple: the race director reminds you some general guidelines and give the start by just say “GO”.

The race strategy was simple: it was supposed to rain and the weather was very hot and humid. I decided to go shirtless (no sweat that stick to your body) and only with a handled bottle (a bagpack would implies chafing on my back). As for nutrition, nothing – I was relying on the aid station (mile 11, 19 and 26). For a 50K, you do not need so much nutrition, hydration being more important, especially in hot and humid conditions. Many folks pack a lot of gels but you do not need them – you can just rely on sport drinks for hydration and electrolyte and if you prepared your race correctly, you should have enough energy in the bank!

The week of the race, I tried to get as much sleep as I could – trying to get at least 8 hours every night. Which was challenging to balance that with work duties but still doable. I did not drink alcohol except a single beer at a party. The night before the race, the meal was very simple: two banana pancakes: one with cheese, another with peanut butter and chocolate. Nothing else, keep the KISS principles: Keep It Simple a Stupid. Finally, I made sure I had at least 6 hours of sleep before the race.

 

Laurel Highlands 50K map
Laurel Highlands 50K map

The Race

When starting, you have to be careful: as the race is mostly on a single track, it is very difficult to pass people. If you plan to finish under 6 or 7 hours, this is better to start in the front of the pack so that you will not be stuck in a pack of slow runners. The race is well marked with yellow signs/marks. The first 6 miles have some hills but nothing really difficult. Mile 6 to 8 requires to climb 1300 feet of elevation, with most of the elevation being between mile 6 and 7. Definitively hard and better to take it as a power hike than a run. I managed to hit the 8 mile marker at 1:35, take a short walk before running to the aid station (mile 11).

When hitting the 11 mile aid station, I was out of water, dehydrated. The aid station, has plenty of appealing food but this is exactly at that point you need to be careful and take what you need and not what you want. I then refill my handled bottle with ice and water, ate watermelon, few M&M’s and get the fuck out of there. I probably stopped at most a minute and quickly get out of there. Next stop will be mile 19, just 8 miles to go.

The next 8 miles were easy. the trails are not technical until mile 16/17. You can actually have a pretty good pace. So I started to pass some runners for the 70 miles race (they started 2 hours before the 50K runners). But I did not realize how much dehydrated I was. After 20 minutes, I was so thirty that I was taking sips every other minutes and was almost out of water again with still 6 miles to go. I needed more water and had nothing left. I then decided to be conservative and include more walk. It was fine until the last mile that includes 400 feet of steep hills. I decided to include a walk break into this last mile and take 3 minutes at the aid station to (1) refill my bottle (2) drink several cups of sport drink with ice to get fluids and electrolytes (3) get some food, basically watermelon that will contribute to keep me hydrated. I just took some M&M’s in a ziploc bag.

I left the aid station in a pretty good shape, ready to hit the last 12 miles. I started with a good pace and included more walk breaks when needed. My target was to quickly hit the 26 miles aid station, the middle of this last leg. The first part of the last leg (mile 19 to 26) is pretty flat and mostly runnable. So I kept going until I saw the aid station. When hitting the aid station, the volunteers proposed bacon, whiskey and other delicious treats. Again, I sticked with the usual strategy (sport drinks + watermelon). And just kept going, pretty confident I will have no issue until the end. At that point, my brain started to be disconnected and the real magic of running kicked in: I had no idea where I was and what I was really doing. But it felt good, awesome. The sensation of flying in the wood, keep running without pain is a fantastic feeling. I just wanted to continue as long as I could.

During the last leg, I started to see the finish coming, and that I was able to run again a 50K without pain. I was flying through the Seven Springs section, which is mostly downhill. Nice sunny area that gives enough energy to push you to the finish. After passing the Seven Springs section, Julie (who was doing the relay) caught me around mile 27/28. I was tired with this running euphoria and she was there and yelled my name. I loved it. This gave me more energy to keep going. It then makes the last two to three miles way more easy. There are a couple of strong hills but after 30 miles, the challenge is more mental than physical. 6 hours and 12 minutes after I started this race, I finally crossed the finish line and finished 19th over 83.

Laurel Highlands Elevation Profile
Laurel Highlands Elevation Profile

 

After finishing, I grabbed pieces of pizza and watched the other finishers while waiting for a friend to finish. Hanging out at the finish line was really nice: many finishers are staying for a while and there is also a lot of familiar faces from the ultra community.

Everything must come to an end
Everything must come to an end

The Take Away

This race is definitively one of the best around the state. Simple, no fancy packet but a lot of fun. Very well organized, the race director and the volunteers make this event very special and fun. The course is challenging and will put you outside of your comfort zone. If you are planning to do it, I highly recommend that you train on the course before signing up to know exactly in what you are going into. Considering the price and the quality of the event, this is a must do on your list if you like the trails.

On a personal note, this race was a necessary step both from a mental and physical perspective. I was in need for a sign that showed me I was done with this course. This race belongs to a past that I wanted to be away from. This is now done and this is time to focus on something else. I was also looking for getting my confidence back, making sure I have enough fuel in the tank to go for more than 50K. The last 50K (Forget the PR 50K) was a disaster and I was looking to improve my racing strategy. It showed that the changes to my training and nutrition (stop alcohol, being vegetarian) are paying off and will continue until the end of the season (October with Tussey Mountain). The next race will be way more challenging and, after the last three months, having a good race experience was necessary and help to be positive about the next events.

Finally, beyond these consideration, this race brought me back to the basics. No matter who you are, where you are from, how you define your running style or what people say: success depends on you. How much efforts you put into it and where your heart is at. As for me, I loved this race: I loved the exhaustion when going up the hills at mile 7, I loved the sensation of being out of gas before hitting the aid station, I loved being challenged by the elevation, I loved seeing my girlfriend catching me up lately. I loved all of it. I lost my love of running months ago found it on these trails. And it is good to feel alive again.

Thanks again to all the organizers and volunteers, congratulations to all finishers and hope to see many of you on the trails sooner or later! Now, this is time to rest for a while and focus on the next big thing.

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In the Search of the Running Mojo – Laurel Highlands 50K 2015 – Race Report

Pittsburgh Marathon 2015

The Pittsburgh Marathon is like a party in the local running community: everybody trained hard, is happy to be around their friends and have a good time. There is a lot of excitement and every year, new people start to train and complete their first marathon. For some, it will be also the last one but for others, this is the start of a longer journey. If you are a happy member of the Steel City Road Runners,you have access to facilities before (bathroom area, breakfast) and after (tent with post-race food) the race. I ran it last year, had a blast and, so, was planning to do it again.

I took the race as a nice training run around the city. A 20+ miles run every month to maintain the fitness level: even if you run every day, it is mostly short runs. This is why it is important to take the opportunity of long workouts. As I got a free bib for the race, I thought it was a good idea to take it easy and just enjoy the race.

Packet Pickup, expo and preparation

The packet pickup and expo is located in downtown in the convention center. The expo is huge with vendors all around and you can spend a lot of time around. The packet contains a marathon week-end guide, a calendar, some food and … your bib. I did not hang out so much at the expo – just wanted to get my packet and go on.

I was busy the week-end working on many projects. So, instead of resting on Saturday, I woke up at 0530am, work, go back and forth to Lowe’s. Instead going of sleeping early, I went to a party to hang out with friends, eating party food and drinking beers until 10pm. Then, it was time to get some rest for 4 hours before waking up and trying to be in corral B.

Race Day

A friend of mine gave me a ride in the morning, which is good since I was barely awake at that time. I did not remember where was the Steel City Road Runners starting area and tried to find it 15 minutes before the startt. This was quite challenging because all the downtown area was crowded. I finally found the area, dropped my bag and go to corral B. Staying in the corral is just painful and boring, that is why I stayed in the back of the corral, walking back and forth, not talking to anybody. This was totally fine: at that time, I just wanted to go, run and not chat to anybody. Just. Be. Alone.

The Race

The race starts at 0700am. The course go over many neighborhood: Strip District, North Side, West End, South Side, Oakland/Shadyside, Homewood, Highland Park and Bloomfield. The support from the local neighborhoods is great and the presence of music bands is more than appreciated. The worst neighborhood is  Oakland (nobody is there) and the most active is definitively Homewood with people singing and dancing on Michael Jackson and other funk/soul artists. Homewood literally shows you what community means. There is a general idea that this part of the city is a poor, unsafe area and it is common to see people scared to run there. For these people, you should go to Homewood, put your butt out of here and just see the support and the joy from the residents. You do not have such an experience in other neighborhood, especially not in what is “considered as the wealthy and secure ones”. Yes, Shadyside is boring (only Walnut Street is active), Point Breeze is just ok. Homewood is a blast. Without Homewood, the marathon would not be the same. Another active area is Bloomfield, there are beers stop and parties over the course. If you just want to have fun, this sounds like a great way to get some fun on the course.

When talking about Pittsburgh, many runners are concerned about the elevation profile with the common belief that Pittsburgh is a hilly city. In fact, this is not hilly at all: there is a single hill (about 150 ft) around mile 12 but is clearly not a big deal. Many other marathons have similar hills. If you are considering to run Pittsburgh, this is definitively not what should turn you off. The week after the marathon, I have talked with many other folks that told me the “big hill” was almost nothing compared to other races (look at Baltimore for example)

 

Marathon Map
Marathon Map

 

I was planning to run it under 3.5 hours and so, as I started in the back of the corral, had to pass a lot of runners. After a few miles, everything was ok and I was on a good pace (about 08 min/mile). I continued but, with a poor pre-race nutrition strategy, I did not feel thirsty until mile 18. Everything was ok then and did not take any gel, water, gatorade or other fluid. However, it was really warm and I then started to think it would be a good idea to start drinking. Unfortunately, my body did was not able to hold anything, which makes hard to maintain the pace. The pain was growing over the miles and even if people told me I looked strong, I was just going through a lot of pain, trying to make it under the 3.5 hours goal.

Unfortunately, it did not happened and completed the race under 3:32, about 2 minutes over the goal. Pretty happy with it, especially considering the conditions (really warm) and the poor preparation (4 to 5 hours of sleep every night since two weeks, bad nutrition strategy).

Post-Race

Once you finished, you get your finisher medal and there is food and water. The post-race party takes place in Point State Park where you can hang out with your friends and buy more food if you need to. For the Steel City Road Runners members, there is a tent with a full food buffet where you can also hang out with your fellow runners and congratulate each other. When arriving to the tent, I was dehydrated and not able to hold anything in my body. I tried to get some food but it made me more sick. When sitting, I got the feeling I was about to pass out. This was a good race, it was just time to rest. Fortunately, my partner in crime picked me up, took care of myself and was ready to celebrate this new personal best few hours later at Brew Gentlemen!

 

Elevation Profile
Elevation Profile

 

During the next days, the excitement around the race spread across the running clubs in Pittsburgh: race reports, photos, story about bad or great race, everybody starts to tell the story about the race they was hoping for, the one they would have run and the one that they actually run. There is also the usual marathonofoto rip off that offers to download your pictures for about $70 – who seriously pay such a price for race pictures? I still do not understand how they can make business. On the side, other (unofficial) photographers take pictures and share them on social media. The quality of their work is often better than what is offered by the official pictures – so, in case you want to get some pictures of you or your friends, you might want to just spend some time and research the person you want.

Let’s do it?

The Pittsburgh marathon is the best road race I have done so far: the support of the communities around is amazing and the course is challenging without being too difficult. The weather, even if it was slightly warm, is great for a marathon. The overall organization of the race is well done and whether you are a Pittsburgh or not, this is a great opportunity to discover the city. The Marathon office do a really great job and makes this event a premier running event. This is also why Pittsburgh was selected as one of the best nine marathon in the USA for 2014.

If you are not from Pittsburgh, I would advise to be careful about the weather. In May, the weather can be totally unpredictable: it can be very cold or give you a hard time with heat. During this 2015 edition, because of the weather, more people than usual were brought to the hospital and one 25 years old guy did a cardiac arrest and was still at the hospital few days after the race. Conditions is this event are unknown but as for all running events, consider adequate hydration and nutrition. Fortunately, the medical support over the course is very good and if you experience any problem, the staff will take care of you.

If you are also looking to do a PR, the pace team can help you to reach your goal. There are many pace team for the marathon and half-marathon for many different finishing times. While some folks like to run their own race, other like to have a reference and follow a pacer, especially when they worry about the elevation profile.

Highlights

  • Awesome course, reasonable elevation (if you are not convinced, look at the other marathon)
  • Pace team
  • Homewood, heck, YEAH!
  • The support (regular aid station, medical staff on duty)
  • The overall organization (everything goes smoothly and is well organized)
  • The medal!

Special Thanks

Thanks to all the Steel City Road Runners members and friends for their support and encouragement over the course. It has been very helpful and helped me to make it to the finish line. With an increased work load and other personal projects, I was less involved in the club during the last few weeks, but people was still there to help me, which is more than appreciated when you start to have a hard time. Last one, thank to my partner in crime for picking me up after the finish: I was sick, miserable, was barely able to walk – having somebody to take care of you makes a lot of difference.

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Pittsburgh Marathon 2015