Friday, November 5, 2010

First Marathon!

31 Oct 2010

The Course
This was the 35th annual Marine Corps Marathon, held in Arlington, VA. The race starts near Arlington Cemetery, goes north into Rosslyn, across the Key Bridge, back to Georgetown, South to the Golf Course at Hains Point, back up to the Lincoln Memorial, down the Washington Mall to the Capitol, back west along the Washington Mall to Interstate 395, where we crossed the bridge back into Arlington. The race continues South into Crystal City, turning around, and heading back to the Iwo Jima memorial where it finishes at 26.2 miles.

Here is the Garmin Connect report of the race, as recorded on my super-nifty GPS watch:

Ugh. After reviewing the numbers, my split times really started to suffer after mile 10. This is where everything started falling apart for me, when that pebble got in my shoe. But let me tell you about all the good stuff! Let's back up a bit.

I drove into downtown Washington DC with Stacy and Cecilia the day before. Unfortunately, there was a rally in downtown Washington, called John Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear." The event organizers had originally predicted 40,000 attendees, but ended up with more than 150,000, by some estimates. I had a few friends head downtown for that rally with the Metro system to discover packed lines, and even more packed trains. By the time we drove downtown, the rally was dispersing, and all of the rally-goers were crossing streets, jaywalking, choking up intersections -- and there were also street closures disrupting the flow of traffic.

By the time we arrived at our Hotel, the Hyatt on Capitol Hill (On New Jersey Avenue), it was around 1700. We were sharing a room with our long-time friend Amy, who was also competing in her first Marathon. We brought along sleeping bags and air mattresses, and all crammed into a hotel room. Stacy, Cecilia and I headed to the Marine Corps Marathon Expo at the Washington Convention center on Saturday night, since there wasn't much else to do. Stacy got a chance to see all of the runner-oriented things they sell at Expos. I had already picked up my race bib and race packet the night before, so there was no rush to get to the Expo before it shut down at 1900.

We headed back to our hotel, and settled in for an early night's sleep, getting to sleep around 2130. I took the quite-comfortable sleeping bag and air mattress, while Cecilia and Stacy shared a bed that was really meant for only one. Amy slept in her own bed on her side of the room. Amazingly enough, we all got a good night's sleep, despite my snoring. "Let's just say there was some heavy breathing noises from your side of the room" Amy responded, when I asked her about my notorious snoring.

We woke at 0530, and packet up everything quickly. We were out of the hotel room by 0615, and off to the Union Station Metro stop. Stacy snapped a quick shot of Amy and me, and we headed off to our race.

The Metro ride was empty on the Red Line, but we had to change to the Yellow Line at Gallery Place. We got on an empty train that ended up being completely packed with marathon runners. It's a good thing that it was packed with freshly-showered and good-smelling marathon runners. I can only imagine packing the Metro that tightly with marathon runners after the race.

We got to Pentagon Station, and started walking. We must have hiked 1.5 miles until we got to the "Runner's Village", where we dropped off most of our stuff, and Amy put on her tooth costume. Amy is running to raise money for autism research, and she convinced several dentists in the area to handsomely contribute, so long as she wore a tooth costume with the names of their practices conspicuously displayed thereon.

I was terribly nervous. I turned on my GPS watch, and monitored the heart rate. I was 145 beats per minute while standing still. So many thoughts of failure haunted me. "What if I don't make the 17.5 mile cutoff?" "What if I don't make the 20 mile cut-off?" "I know I run fast enough to make that cutoff, but what if I have to go to the bathroom really badly and lose precious minutes in the Porta-John?!"

There are 30,000 runners in this marathon, so not everybody can line up at the starting line. For a race of this size, everybody lines up in the area for where they expect to finish. So if you are expecting a 6 hour marathon, you are supposed to line up at the 6:00 starting area. Amy is a much more capable runner than I am, so she headed up to the 4:00 expected finisher starting line. I lined up with the 5-hour marathon expected finishing time area. There were many other people much like me at this area. I saw a few VFF runners, and many people had never met a VFF runner before. So I spent some time explaining why I run in these weird shoes. This calmed me down. I met a couple whom I had met at the Marine Corps Run2Register 10k back in March. They remembered me and recognized me, mostly remembering me for the shoes. (amazing!)

The Start
We heard the cannons boom at precisely 0800. However, at the 05:00 expected finish time starting line, we were effectively 20 minutes from the start line. There wasn't much point in running to the start line, so the whole herd of runners started walking, once the 3:00 and 4:00 expected finishers cleared the way ahead. I walked along with some Army soldiers who were carrying 50 pound rucksacks. I asked one of them, "Hey what are you carrying in there, bubble-wrap?" "You want to try it on?" Me, stupidly: "OK!"

Holy schnykies! That was the heaviest thing I'd ever picked up. I am surprised I didn't throw out my back. It probably was the stupidest action possible, holding a heavy backpack like that with one shoulder, at the starting line of a marathon! My back hurt for 30 seconds, but didn't complain after that.

We got to the starting line, and I started jogging. I was following the pace runner, but didn't realize it until about a mile into the race. The pace runner is an experienced runner who holds a sign for an expected finish time. In theory, if you follow him, your finish time will be the same number on the sign he's holding up. In my practice, the 5:00 pacer got further and further ahead of me. By the time we turned onto Spout Run, he was nowhere in sight.

Despite being left behind by the 5:00 pacer, in all honesty, I was running faster than I should have. I needed to find a way to slow myself down so I wouldn't use up everything I had in the first third of the race. I saw this young lady walking, so I slowed down and talked with her. Liz, 20, was running her first marathon, and had just gotten over a bad case of bronchitis. She was told by her doctor that she shouldn't be running in the marathon, but she did it anyway. Her boyfriend, currently in the Navy Academy, was way ahead of us in the 9 minute per mile crowd.

Liz and I ran together up until mile 6, crossing the Key Bridge together, and along Canal Road. She would stop running, and I would slow down, not letting her get too far behind. I would turn around, she would feel guilty, and start running again. At mile 6.5, there was a switchback that went uphill. I am pretty good at running uphill, and terrible about walking uphill, so I ran, and didn't see Liz again until the end of the race.

As we got into Georgetown, the crowds started getting larger again. We hadn't seen many crowds since Rt 29 turned onto Spout Run. Several hundred spectators cheered us on. A whole sorority of Georgetown students cheered us on. One student had a sign that read, "You've got Endurance! Call me! Nicole (phone number)" The crowd here was awesome -- their cheering energized me. I high-fived all members of a fraternity who had lined up giving motivation.

"Make a hole! Gangway!" two guys were running way faster than the rest of the runners at this part of the pack. Just behind these shouting fast runners was a wheelchair competitor. The wheelchair competitors started the race 10 minutes ahead of the cannon booms at the start of the race. They take longer to go up hill, but make up for it on the down hill stretches. As we turned out of Georgetown, the wheelchair competitors, in these really reclined racers flew down the hill on Wisconsin Avenue.

The course turned along the Whitehurst Freeway, along to the Rock Creek Potomac Parkway. This is about where I got that pebble in my VFFs that messed up my run. I stopped right around mile 10.5 to take off my shoe and fish it out. When I put my shoe back on, I started running again, and it felt like the pebble was still in my shoe. This is where the blister started. Looking at my split times, this is where I started to slow down dramatically.

However! Remember that doing this race with a specific finishing time is not one of the goals. The only goals were to finish and finish fast enough to beat the cut-offs. I had to keep reminding myself of that on race day, as well.

Somewhere along in this part of the race, I was quite pleasantly surprised by Stacy and Cecilia cheering me on! I wasn't dressed conspicuously, so I couldn't really expect them to find me in the crowd. Stacy snapped a picture showing my surprise.

I don't remember very much for the next 5 miles. Running along the golf course down to Hains point is pretty unremarkable. I had lost all of the people I was talking to before, and hadn't made any new friends, so I wasn't talking with anybody along this part of the race. As we turned the southernmost part of Hains point, a half marathon seemed so easy! What a cake-walk a half-marathon would have been on this day.

Before the race started, I had set my Garmin into what I called "the grim reaper mode." The Garmin has a virtual partner mode, where it can calculate how far ahead or how far behind I am from a theoretical runner moving at an arbitrary pace. I set my nemesis to the 14 minute per mile pace. This is the pace that you must maintain on average to keep from getting kicked off the course.

There are two cut-offs: one at mile 17.5, on Route 1 (14th Street NW). If you don't make it to that point by a certain time, they will divert you to go directly from mile 17.5 to mile 20, and record your finish time as the most dreadful number of all: "DNF" (Did Not Finish). The second cut-off is somewhere along mile 20. If you don't reach the bridge by 1 PM, they scoop up all runners to re-open Interstate 395. Getting to the cut-off point before the dreadful bus of shame scoops you up is what the runners of the MCM call "Beating the Bridge." This, of course, was a requirement for my only real goal, which was to finish this race.

As we rounded mile 16, along the Lincoln Memorial, I was 25 minutes ahead of the Grim Reaper, and in pretty good shape. The professional photographers along the course were taking pictures of all of the competitors the whole way along the race. As I round the corner along the Lincoln Memorial, I smile for the photographer, and get a great shot.

Shortly after this, Stacy and Cecilia managed to see me. "He's not even sweating!" Cecilia shouted. I was sweating, but it was so dry on race day, that the sweat was drying up pretty quickly after emerging. It was really great seeing them cheer me on.

Mile 17 is easy going, and I am thrilled to be way ahead of the pace needed to make the mile 17.5 cut-off with ease. At around mile 18, the going gets much more tough.

For runners who run in "marshmallow shoes" running on gravel is easier on the body, than running on hard surfaces such as concrete or asphalt. Since I will never run in those atrocities that are modern running shoes, I have a different stride, and a different sensitivity to running surfaces. My preferences of running surfaces are almost completely the opposite of what is preferred by normal runners. I love concrete. Concrete is "cream" to run on. I like asphalt, but don't really like stray rocks that usually litter city streets. My feet are tough enough to handle the stray pebble, but occasionally, a stray pebble will be sharp enough to make me shout "ouch!" every once in a while. Even in those shoes.

At mile 18, as we cross in front of the National Museum of American History, the going gets tough. The running surface transitions from easy asphalt to rotten gravel. I have two choices: run on the chip-seal concrete, with loose gravel littered on top, or run on the dirt and gravel. Neither choice is really wonderful. Since there is a little bit of "give" on the dirt, I choose the dirt. One of the MarathonFoto photographers gets this great shot of me running in the gravel -- quite honestly, I don't know how I am managing to eek out a smile on this part of the run.

My feet were killing me at that point. It was time for my first walk of the race. I walk the whole way along the route in front of the Capitol building, and soak in the scenery. It didn't occur to me that, yes, it is nice to look at the scenery, but also the photographers are going to be shooting pictures of me in front of the Capitol. It's much better photography for me to be in the shot running and not walking!

I had been very good about eating the sugar along the run, and drinking the Powerade along the run whenever I had opportunities to do so. But for some reason, I had really gotten awfully tired along here. I started jogging, but had a hard time keeping it up for a significant distance. This is terrible. My eyelid is drooping, and I am not keeping good running form at all, so I am back to walking. Ah, this must be that "wall" everybody talks about. "OK, enough of this walking stuff. I see that sign, and I'm going to start running again, once I get to that sign. I have a bridge to beat."

"OK. There is the sign. Let's do this!"
I shout out loud. Another walker next to me, feels guilty and starts running too, but then realizes that he was walking for a good reason. Some sort of cramp. He falls behind. I seem to have gotten past the wall, and am back to running. However, I am running very slowly. This is my lowest point in the race. I am running, but exhausted. I look up and am passed by a dude who is juggling five balls. He's not just throwing them to face-height, he's throwing them high. Crap. I just got passed by a juggler. I am jogging, but not especially happy about it, and getting passed by the freaking juggler isn't helping my motivation any, either.

I didn't even get a quarter-mile, and there was another drink station, handing out Powerade, water and Sport Beans (essentially Jellybeans). I am so tired and sloppy that I dropped two of the jellybean bags that were handed to me. I dropped one of the cups of Powerade on the feet of one of the Marine volunteers. (I apologized profusely). Maybe this wall thing isn't quite over with, after all.

Since I'm pretty far back in the race, there are literally thousands of drink cups littering the streets. The thousands of wet cups are a slipping hazard, so I slow down to be more careful. The sugar in the Powerade coats the streets. As the road gets drier, the cups get stickier, glued to the bottoms of my feet by sugary PowerAde. I have to bend over to remove a sticky cup from the sole of my shoe. I can't scuff it off. Starting again is tortuous.

"Where is the bridge? Have I beaten the bridge?" I shout to spectators. I am turning left onto 14th street. "It's right ahead! I think you made it!" Spectators now are carrying the signs saying things like "You beat the bridge!" "The Bridge is your bitch!" Excellent. The next of the major hurdles has been passed. I am running with very low speed, but still running, and making my way up the hill onto Interstate 395. I am beating the bridge. No bus for this runner!

I meet up with a fellow VFF runner, and I am upset I can't remember his name anymore. Let's call him Trevor. "I hate running. Always have." he tells me. He got talked into running a marathon by his friend, who is "up there finishing by now, I suppose. " We get to talking about running in these weird shoes, and we are a lot alike, when he said "I can't run in marshmallow shoes, it hurts my knees too much."

One of the disadvantages of the VFFs, is that walking is much slower than walking in regular shoes. We have to make shorter strides, and can not land on the heel the same way a shod walker does. So in order to keep the walkers from flying by us, we have to maintain a slow jog. My blister is especially unhappy with walking, since it is on the back of the heel. It is less unhappy with a very slow jog. This slow jog isn't much faster than a regular person's walking pace. A MarathonFoto photographer gets this great shot (where I look so sad), walking next to Trevor. I may look downtrodden and sad, but I think I am looking at the pavement for things that are going to hurt my feet.

We get across the bridge and see a fellow runner being carried away on a stretcher. He's got an IV bag, and an oxygen mask. "Glad I'm not that guy!" It was actually at this point that I added another goal to my attempted Marathon run: Finish Upright.

By the time we get into Crystal City, I have decided to sit down and take a look at my heel, to make sure that there isn't some sort of serious damage. I sit down, take off the VFF, and look at the heel, and it doesn't look that bad. Stop being such a baby! I get the shoe back on, and it was so difficult to get running again. Trevor was gone by this point.

I started running again, and caught up with, and passed Trevor. At this point in the race, nobody is running, and it seems that everybody is walking. Once we beat the bridge, there isn't much incentive left in running, so there are more walkers than runners here. All of the serious marathoners have finished their race by now, and the only people left are the first-timer marathoners, whose only goal is to finish; and the people who have some sort of knee or ankle injury, and are hobbling to the finish line, unwilling to settle for a DNF.

Since I can't walk comfortably, and I can't run comfortably, I am settling into a very slow jog, a pathetic pace only barely faster than a normally-shod walking participant. By now, it's somewhere around mile 23, and I notice a runner I passed at the beginning of the race. He's got a bright yellow shirt that reads, "I may be old and slow, but I am ahead of you!" We are turning onto South Washington Boulevard, just west of the Pentagon, and my pathetic jogging pace is not passing his respectable walking pace.

There is NO WAY this guy is going to finish this race in front of me. I pick up the pace and pass him. Whew! Just a few miles to go. By now, people who have finished the marathon, received their medal, and proven their mettle, are walking in the opposite direction to get home, sometimes cheering us on.

Without warning, old-slow-and-in-front-of-me guy has passed me! UNACCEPTABLE! I pick up the pace. I am running as fast as I can muster. I manage to get past him. It's now mile 26, and I have to keep this pace up to keep ahead of him. There may have been tens of thousands of competitors on this race, but right now, it's just me and this old guy. Ain't no way I am coming in behind old-slow-and-proud-of-it guy.

The final 0.2 miles are uphill. I do hills pretty well, since I have these monster barefoot-runner calves, that spring me up the hill. Everybody else is walking. No way I am walking up this hill. The Marines are all lined up, cheering me on. They are looking at me with strong eye contact, "WAY TO GO! Finish Strong!"

PUSH! It's the top of the hill, and I can see the finish line.

PUSH! In front of the grand stands. The finish line is RIGHT THERE.

PUSH! Almost there. Holy crap this is hard.

I think back to Hal Higdon's advice at this point: Remember: smile, and raise your arms and look triumphant as you cross the finish line, they will be taking pictures. Don't press the button on your watch right now, you can do that a few seconds later, after the cameras have stopped taking pictures of you.

"YES!" I shout as I reach the line. "Yes!" What a huge achievement!

I was ready to collapse. I was ready to sit down where I wasn't allowed to sit down. I am given a mylar blanket, which I didn't need, and was directed to the medal corrals. A Marine Lieutenant placed my completion medal around my neck. I pose in front of the Iwo Jima Memorial with the MarathonFoto photographers.

I'm done. Where's my beer? I meet up with Stacy and Cecilia, who miraculously found me in the crowd. I saw Liz, whom I had left behind at mile 6. She had finished the race, but I didn't see if she had a medal on or not. I never got her bib number or last name, so I may never know if she finished successfully or not.

I never saw Trevor again, and never got his bib number either. The only picture of us together has a partial bib shot, so I will never know who he was, either. Since he hates running, it's unlikely he'll be back for next year's Marathon. If I ever do see him again, I'll doubtless call him by the nickname I've given him, since I can't remember his odd name anyway. Trevor is close enough.

In no time, the shoes are off and I'm sitting in the grass, with no fuel left in my tank. Where's my beer? I never found the beer garden. With so much opportunity for disappointment today, if this is my only disappointment, I'm doing pretty well, don't you think?

I paid nearly 90 dollars for these MarathonFoto pictures. I expect you to humor me and follow this link to view all of my pictures. :)

High Altitude Glider Flight

4 Sep 2010
Even as the sun rose that morning, it looked like an excellent soaring day. I was dressed for summer operations. I was wearing my VFF shoes (clearly designed for summer), shorts, and a tee-shirt. Several people quipped that there might be wave lift, due to the westerly winds. There was likely also ridge lift. There were incredibly strong thermals early in the day, and even if the wave or ridge lift were not working, it would still be a great day to be a glider pilot.

On a lark, I packed the "new" oxygen system in the glider, and hooked up the cannula. Three years ago, I bought this oxygen system shortly before I found that I was being relocated to Switzerland. Due to the timing of the equipment purchase and the relocation, I had never made use of the oxygen system. It was a shame to buy this brand new toy, and never be able to use it for over three years!

I hooked up the oxygen system to the Mountain High regulator, and hooked up the cannula to my face. Psst! Yep! It smelled like oxygen that has been in a bottle for over a year. After some tow-rope-break-induced delays, I launched later than I had originally anticipated, donning my summer-clothes and cannula.

I immediately connected with some intensely strong thermals. In only a few minutes, I was up to 500 feet below cloud base at around 7 or 8000 feet. I started nosing around for what had to be wave. I hung around on the upwind side of the clouds, and aggressively worked any gusts. In this situation, my standard procedure of waiting for the vario to drop off before starting to turn takes too long -- the lift is too spotty and broken and disjointed right under a rotor cloud to use regular thermalling techniques. So I just treat it like "really aggressive thermalling", and turn at the first indication of a gust of lift.

It didn't take long, and I connected with the wave, just over the eastern ridge of the Massanutten, east of Fort Valley. In short order, I climbed above cloud base at a steady 2 knots, still not expecting this to be a great wave day. (At least it's nice to get above the clouds!) The duty officer called Potomac Tracon, who had cleared the airspace of all jet liners, and said we were OK to climb to 18,000 feet without worrying about conflicts with the jet liners. By this time, I was climbing through 10,000 feet, and almost at the top of the clouds.

I continued to head south toward Luray, where Jim Kellett joined me in the wave (but not for long). As far as I could tell, we were the only two people within radio contact to get into the wave on that day. The key to working this day's wave was patience. Since I didn't have anywhere to go, I had all day. Eventually, I climbed above 14,000 feet -- higher than I had ever climbed before. The oxygen system was working perfectly, filling my nostrils with oxygen-bottle scented air. The Mountain High regulator has a pressure sensor, which determines how much "puff" of oxygen to deliver to the cannula. The quantity of puff is based on your altitude. On the ground, it is not much more than a 'token puff', as I continued to climb, the puffs became more substantial.

Several times, I had decided that "this has to be the top of the lift" and almost gave up. It was not terribly cold at 14,000 feet, and since I was above the clouds, the sunshine was keeping me quite warm. I headed a bit more upwind, to the southern corner of Fort Valley. There, I connected with a solid 4 knot lift that took me all the way to 17,600 feet. I had decided beforehand to cut-out at 17,500 feet of altitude -- just to have some margin of safety so I wouldn't break into Class A airspace inadvertently. I made a quick recording of this part of the flight with my Blackberry camera-phone, and headed south toward Harrisonburg. The flight computer showed the outside air temperature at 20 F.

The flight toward Harrisonburg was slightly upwind, and I wasn't overly concerned about finding lift along the way. By the time I got to just north of Harrisonburg, I was just over 10,000 feet, approximately as high as the clouds. Time was growing short -- a schedule of returning in time to disassemble and get to the Flight Instructors' caucus was drawing near. I headed directly back to Front Royal, aided by a tail-wind, with a ground-speed averaging 110 knots, even though I only had 80 knots indicated. My return flight to Front Royal cost me only about 1000 feet. Apparently, on the return trip, I must have been riding the wave, or at least minimizing the time-in-sink along the way.

Along the way back, I flew close enough to a cloud to see the effect called "Glory"

What a day! Unfortunately, we (the owners of the glider Juliet Sierra) are having a little problem with our Volkslogger. It records -- most of the time. Other times it gets tired and doesn't want to look up to the sky to see the satellites to get its position. It is a good thing that I already have my FAI Gold Badge, and that I wasn't setting out for a badge flight of any sort. As for evidence of my flight? Since the Volkslogger wasn' t working, there was no suitable proof of my flight, other than my word for it. (I did get my GPS watch to record most of the flight, though). I wasn't able to upload the flight to the OLC, due to the fact that I didn't logging the flight with my GPS watch until I was airborne and on tow.

Here's a picture of the flight in Google Earth, (Click to get a better view) as viewed from an oblique angle, looking down from 33 miles of altitude. The black shadow is the ground track along the flight. The colored ribbon is for my position, Yellow, orange and red are for various rates of descending flight, blue is steady or climbing flight 0-2 knots. Light-green indicates slightly descending at around 0-3 knots. I put a thumb-tack to indicate where I achieved the maximum altitude over the ground.