Surf City Marathon (3:39)

Finished! Cool medal too

A few weeks ago was my third race of the year – Surf City, in Huntington Beach. I chose this race for a few reasons:

  • I was looking for a fast marathon
  • A friend suggested this one
  • It was close to my parents’ place, so I’d have a place to crash.

I’d been feeling pretty good about the race until the week leading up to it, when I got a light version of the flu. My sleep, nutrition, and hydration were pretty bad for the week ahead of the race, so I didn’t know what to expect on race day.

Also, California has been getting a lot of rain recently. The forecast for this one didn’t look great either.

The Day Before – Packet Pickup

This deserves its own section. As context:

  • The race is quite large – I want to say something like 25,000 people run some distance that day, with the vast majority – about 90% – running the half marathon. So, a lot of people were trying to pick up packets.
  • The race expo is in a tented structure in parking lot at the beach – near the start line. This makes access to it very challenging, since there’s pretty much only one angle of approach to get there.
  • To top it off, the weather was pretty nasty. Rain was coming down in buckets. Californians are not great drivers in the rain.

So we have a lot of people trying to get to an inconveniently located destination in really bad weather.

After narrowly avoiding a traffic ticket, I secured a place to pack in a nearby parking lot and headed to the packet pickup tent. It was windy and wet – I was holding my umbrella at a 45-degree angle to keep at least part of myself dry.

Inside the tent, everything was a little bit wet. The tent was set up directly on the concrete, so water was cascading through the structure in wide rivers. I blasted through as quickly as I could, picked up my bib, grabbed my shirt, snagged a taste of some decent-looking granola bar sample, and booked it back to the car. I really hoped the weather wasn’t going to be this bad the next day.

Pre-race

After a nice evening with my parents and my cat ZigZag, I woke up pretty early – maybe around 3:30 – and headed up towards Huntington Beach. I left plenty of time to park, since we needed to take a shuttle to the start. The weather was looking okay. Only a few little drops on the windshield on the way. I left my umbrella in the car and got on the bus.

I was fully prepared to freeze at the start line for a while, which is one of those painful rituals that doesn’t get better with time. I’d brought a lot of extra things to stay warm, such as chemical handwarmers and plastic bags to wear. However, I met a super nice woman on the bus who had run the race a number of times before, and she let me in on a secret – the hotel next to the start line opened up their bottom-floor conference center for runners to hang out in. So I hung out in a warm, carpeted conference hall until about seven minutes before the race started. Pretty luxurious, and I wasn’t freezing.

Start Of The Race (Miles 1-15)

My goal is to run a 3:30 marathon one day. I was pretty sure that it wasn’t going to happen this day, but you never know unless you try. A strategy I like to use is to start with a slower pace group, then try to catch up to my goal pace group. That way I know I have between several seconds and several minutes of buffer time to spare if the pace group is going slow and I fall back.

I started with the 3:40 pace group, and promised to not overdo it – I would stay with them for the first mile, then try to track down the 3:30 pace group. This was actually pretty challenging, since I felt like I had a lot of energy – staying with the 3:40 pace group really made me modulate my pacing quite a bit for that first mile.

After that mile, I picked up the pace, and I found the 3:30 pace group around mile 5 or so. I tucked in with the two pacers and cruised. I didn’t know if I’d be able to hold it, but it was fun to chat for a bit with them, and I was moving pretty quickly.

Around mile 9, we turned onto Highway 1, which goes right along the ocean. We’d run up north a ways, turn around and run back south towards the finish line, then make another hairpin turn, run up north along a beach trail, then turn around and head to the finish line. One of the pacers called this stretch “the treadmill,” as it’s supposed to be very boring. I didn’t think it was that boring – at least it was flat – but the view could have been better, since it was still quite overcast.

Around mile 11, we started getting some droplets of rain. We were a little nervous that the skies were going to open, like they had the day before, and we’d be drenched, but this was about as bad as it got that day.

At mile 13, the pacers started debating whether or not we were on track for a 3:30. One of them thought we were, and the other one thought that we were behind.

At mile 15, we went up a slight incline, and I couldn’t keep up – I fell back a bit. I think I knew at this point that a 3:30 was not in the cards. However, I did track my race on Strava this time, since I needed to bring my phone anyway. When I looked at the splits later, I saw there were a couple of 7:40/7:45 miles in this stretch. I’m pretty sure the pace group picked up the pace quite a bit here, and that could be why I fell off. Whatever the reason, I knew that 3:30 wasn’t going to happen this time.

Strava splits. Fast miles in here.

Middle Of The Race (Miles 15-22)

The course continued south, and around mile 17 or 18, we made our second hairpin turn and headed back north. I was going pretty slow at this point.

When we reached the next hairpin turn to head down the final south stretch, that’s when things got really hard. It turned out that, during that couple of miles of northward-facing running, a wind had picked up from the south. So now, as we headed back to the finish, we were facing a stiff headwind.

This was not awesome and I didn’t feel great about it. I also didn’t have a lot of gas left in the tank by this point.

End Of The Race (Miles 22-26.2)

Around this time, a woman caught up to me who wasn’t going that much faster than I was. I picked up my pace and tried to stay with her. We went through a couple of aid stations together – she would stop for water, then come catch me, and I’d keep trucking along. We didn’t say anything, but we were definitely pacing off of each other for a while.

Running towards the finish- you can kind of get a sense for the weather in this picture.

With about a mile to go, the 3:40 pace group – my original buddies – finally caught me. By this time, the crew had dwindled to one pacer and about three runners. I picked up the pace again to try to stay with them – I knew if I could finish with the pacer, I’d at least be under a 3:40. So that was the goal, and I basically sprinted the last mile (at least, if felt like that). I finished at 3:39 and some change.

Left hand side: me finishing (lower corner). Right hand side: half marathoners finishing (remember when I said there were a lot of them?)

After The Race

Even though it wasn’t a PR, or even a top three time for me, I felt pretty good. I’d worked hard on the course, and if my health/nutrition the prior week had been better, and I’d fueled better on the course, I probably could have gone faster. I worked hard and was proud of the outcome.

My Strava splits are here.

Close up of the medal – it was pretty neat!

There was a second race this day – the race to the airport. I finished my run around 10:30 or so, and I had a flight at 1:45. so I took a picture at the finish line, jumped on the shuttle, got in my car, and headed to the nearest 24 Hour Fitness, which I’m strategically a member of just for situations like this. (NB: Not a shill, just really appreciate how convenient this gym is). This particular one also happened to have a hot tub, and since I was actually a little ahead of schedule, I jumped in for a few minutes before heading to the airport.

Overall, this was a fun race. I’d probably run it again – next time with better preparation the week before!

Just after finishing

New Year’s Eve Marathon in Zurich

Before the race, repping Antarctica shirt!

 

On New Years Eve for the past few years, I’ve run a race in San Francisco called the New Year’s One Day. It’s a timed race, which means you run as many miles as you can in a set period of time. The first two years I tried for the 24-hour version, with varying degrees of success, stopping at just about 8 hours in 2015 and after 17 hours in 2016. Last year, I ran the 6-hour version came in 3rd, which was pretty neat!

This year, however, the race moved to January 5th, which sort of defeats the purpose of the activity – e.g., running it on New Year’s. So, I was left without a clear idea of what to do on New Year’s Eve. Independently of that, while I was home for the Christmas holiday, I also developed a strong urge to burn through some of those airline miles and hotel points that I’d been accumulating. After a little bit of hotel searching and points optimization, combined with a non-zero amount of race trawling, I found the perfect solution: The Neujahrsmarathon in Zurich.

The race takes place just a little bit west of Zurich. It’s a four-loop course along the Limmat River, starting on the south bank and heading east, then crossing to the north bank and circling back, for a lap distance of 10.55 km (or, a quarter of a marathon). It’s run on fairly flat dirt trails – my jam.

And, the best part? It start at midnight on New Year’s Eve. What a cool way to start the new year.

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This is what the start line looked like last year (source)

 

The Swiss are experts at how to do things in the cold and in the dark – maybe because of the long winters and the nearby Alps. They understand how to keep warm. This race was no different – they cleverly began the race inside a gymnasium. While this may not seem like a massive innovation, runners will appreciate how humane this actually is. Standing at the cold at the start of a race is easily one of the worst parts of the overall experience. However, starting indoors made hanging out at the start of the race much more tolerable, since we didn’t have to shiver in 38*F weather outside.

About 1,000 participants ran the race. There were a bunch of distances folks could choose to do, from the 1/4 marathon (one 10.55 km loop) all the way to the full marathon, as well as several relay options. So, the start was quite crowded.

With a few minute to go until 2018 ended and 2019 began, we all squished into the start corral. The lights dimmed, and finally, the countdown began. 10 … 9 … 8 … 7… couples shuffled closer together to get ready for a pre-race kiss … 6 … 5 … 4 … right hands positioned themselves over GPS watches on left wrists … 3 … 2… 1 …

“FROHES NEUES JAHR!” and we were off.

We trotted out of the gymnasium and into the cold, and this was where the magic happened.

All around us – literally 360* – fireworks were exploding. Municipal fireworks, fireworks from people’s back yards, sparklers – you name it. The whole sky, both near and farther away, was completely lit up by fireworks. Everywhere we looked, rainbow flowers of light were bursting in the air. I couldn’t stop craning my neck in every direction – it was all I could do to not trip or run into my fellow athletes.

Church bells rang through the cold night air, creating a beautiful aharmonic symphony. It was overwhelming. I was so happy to be experiencing this moment. It was the perfect way to start 2019.

 

At the start of a lap. Still smiling.

 

Running with a fellow expat

The race itself was easy. I was smiling the whole time.

I’ll summarize the loop, since we did it four times:

  • Take a short jog out of the gymnasium to the river and turn right.
  • Run east along the river, heading upstream. Duck under a few bridges.
  • Around 4.5 km, turn left at the flaming tiki torches and cross the footbridge.
  • Run through the aid station and hang a left onto some slightly more tricky terrain – somewhere between single- and double-track trail.
  • Pass behind someone’s house? A bar? Not totally clear. Either way, it had FANTASTIC holiday lights, including green lasers and penguins. (Edit – I looked it up. It’s actually a monastery next to a restaurant?!)
  • Cross over the Werd Bach river, which was illuminated by more sparklers and tiki torches.
  • Cross back over the Limmat around 10km, and head back into the gymnasium.

In terms of how each lap went, here’s a summary of that.

  • Lap 1: Magical, overwhelming, gorgeous and glorious. (time: 51:47)
  • Lap 2: Cruising cruising. Found a fellow ex-pat halfway through this lap and got to talking. (time: 53:07)
  • Lap 3: Hung with my new friend for a lap- he kept me moving. (time: 55:33)
  • Lap 4: Popped a caffeinated GU and finished her up. I think I could have gone faster here if I had better light – my handheld flashlight was pretty weak. (time: 1:01:02)

I finished in 3:41 – not bad for a trail race at midnight in the dark.

On a side note, I gotta say that the jetlag certainly helped. I’ve never been more awake while running between midnight and 4am – the race started at about 2pm PST, which is what time my body clock was thinking it was.

 

Just before the 10th kilometer in one of the 10.55 km laps

 

At the finish line. This weirdly looks like I photoshopped the pose from the previous photo, but this is just how I run I guess!

After finishing, I hung out for a little bit and waited for my new friend to cross the finish line. It was actually quite cold, so I bundled up and popped in an Uber fairly quickly afterwards, heading back to the hotel just after 4am.

In addition to not bringing a strong enough headlamp, I did make one other mistake. In my day-to-day life, I typically don’t consume caffeine. I like to save it for races – since I don’t have a tolerance to it, it gives me a little bit more of a kick, which I took advantage of around mile 19. My plan for this evening was to finish the race, go home, take a shower, and immediately go to sleep, with the theory being that my body would have worked the caffeine out of my system by the time I finished the race and did all that other stuff. This was … massively incorrect. I got back to the hotel, took a shower, got under the covers … and stayed awake until breakfast. Then I got breakfast. Then I headed out to a church service (completely in German) at Fraumünster Church, which is famous for its Chagall stained glass windows. Then I wandered around Alstadt (old town) for an hour or so (everything was closed – because it was New Year’s Day – including a chocolate chop I wanted to go to). Then I went to the Thermalbad thermal baths and spent some time in the steam room and pools (spoiler alert: SO MANY COUPLES). Then I got a massage. Then I ate dinner. Then I did some reading. I didn’t end up actually sleeping until about 6pm that day. I was awake for about 20 hours. So – I probably didn’t need the caffeine.

All in all, this was a really fantastic way to spend New Years. It was a spontaneous trip, which made it a little bit more of an adventure. I got to do a few of my favorite things – running, exploring, learning about a new culture, traveling light (just a backpack!) and getting stuff for free (thanks points!). I would definitely do this race again.

Happy New Year, everyone!

[Spoiler alert – remember the New year’s One Day in SF? I got to run that too! Stay tuned for more …]

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Happy New Year from Zurich! Photo courtesy of zuerich.com

 

Running into the New Year

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Running around in circles near the Golden Gate Bridge

This New Years Eve, I ran a 24 hour race, called the New Year’s One Day. This was the second time I attempted this race – the first time was last year, where I encountered failure head on.

This year wasn’t as disastrous – I ran 70 miles in 16 hours before stopping, which was good enough for 3rd place. Will also did the last 15 or so with me, and we ran into the new year together – the fireworks were visible from the course, which was really neat!

This wasn’t quite the result I was hoping for – I was really hoping to get 100 miles in under 24, but it wasn’t in the cards this night. I was winning for the first 12-13 hours of the race (can you believe it?! I couldn’t). Around that time, I hit the wall pretty hard, probably because I wasn’t eating enough, and it was getting dark – I am a notoriously terrible nighttime runner. The other part that probably contributed to difficulties was the fact that half of the loop was on concrete – I didn’t realize how much that would tear up my feet, but now, over two weeks later, I still have a black toenail or two.

When I stopped, I was in 2nd, and the girl ahead of me had four laps (about four miles) on me. She ended up getting just over 100 miles, so unless I had a major 2nd wind, I probably wouldn’t have gotten there.

Just like last year, it was fun to meet all the runners. Lots of really talented people on the course, including some I’d met last year, back for a second punishment of running. Seeing an aid station every mile is always motivating, and it’s really cool to be able to run with people who are a few miles ahead of or behind you – something that never happens in point-to-point races.

All in, I’m glad I ran it, and I’m pretty proud of my result. 70 miles is no joke – it was more miles than last year! And this race was a really fun way to start the new year.

North Face 50-miler in D.C. – a race in three parts

I signed up for this race a few months ago because it seemed like a good weekend to run – with Boston also happening, I knew I wanted to get in some non-road-race mileage in a slightly logistically easier way. This race seemed like a good option.

Part 1 – running in the dawn

The race started at the uncomfortably early hour of 5am. Even though it would reach >70*F that day, it was cold in the morning, and we huddled around fire pits in the darkness before the race started.

This was a larger 50-mile field, with about 300 runners. Because we’d immediately clog the single-track dirt trail, we started in three waves, each a minute apart. They’d slotted me to start in wave 3 – I don’t know how they assigned these – but I snuck up to wave 2, which was a good plan; there was a significant amount of non-passable trail that we had to navigate in the dark, so it was nice to get a decent pace going at the beginning.

The first mile was around a very wet and muddy field. Given that this course was actually 50.9 miles, I’m convinced the race organizers just added this part in with sadistic intentions – we were wet and muddy, with shoes thoroughly soaked through, within five minutes of starting. They’d also set up a photographer at the biggest of these mud puddles, reinforcing my interpretation of these early tortuous motivations.

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Leading a train of headlights

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Running through the mud

When the sun started to come up, it illuminated a gorgeous, lush forest, bordered on one side by the rushing Potomac River. We continued to dance along single-track trail, still energetic with early-race adrenaline, as mist wove between the trees and settled over fields of tall green grass. Bright blue flowers hung from knee-high stalks all around us, carpeting the forest floor.

It was quite the contrast with Philly, and that made it so much more spectacular.

The first 13ish miles were hilly, but not excessively so. I walked the steeper parts and took it easy on the less steep parts, speeding up on the downhills and flats to conserve energy.

After a few hours, we entered Great Falls Park, which looks like this photo below.

Great Falls Park (source: National Parks Service)

It was a great start to a beautiful race.

Part 2 – three loops

The next part of the race would involve running the most convoluted 7-mile loop three times. See below for the illustrative map, which was intended to be helpful.

Map of the 7-mile Great Falls Loop.

Map of the 7-mile Great Falls Loop.

We started at the end of the first leg, then ran long a wider path for a bit, which had a slight uphill. We turned onto some single track, did an out-and back to a turnaround where someone marked our bib, then came back to the wide path. We crossed that, did another out-and-back to an aid-station, then took a side path back to the main, wider path, and headed back towards the start of the loop … only to take a sharp right, down to another out-and-back, then come partway back but take another detour to the start of the loop. Then do that two more times. Honestly, even though I’ve done it three times, I don’t think I could retrace my steps if I went back today. That’s how confusing it was.  The map is still not clear to me.

Look how pretty the park was!

The first loop was exciting, because we hadn’t done it before. By the 2nd loop, the 50k racers joined us, which was fun – they were pretty energetic, and many of them were excellent cheer captains. I paused at the mid-way aid station to take off my socks and shake the rocks out of my shoes – it was a great feeling to get the grit out, and I felt rejuvenated to knock off the third lap.

Third lap … tired of running … let’s try something different!

Part 3 – the long road home

Passing through the end of the last loop, having run about 35 miles, I felt ready to take on the remaining ~15 miles of the race. That feeling quickly faded … when I realized I still had to take on another 15 miles. Food seemed undesirable – not that there was anything wrong with the aid station options, which were great – my stomach just didn’t seem keen on any of it. I was mostly subsisting on Mountain Dew and water, and maybe a Gu if I could force one down.

The first four miles to the next aid station were challenging because they were flat, so there was no excuse to walk. At this point, it hurt to do anything – walk, run, or sit down – but the fastest way to the finish line was running, so I kept moving at a slow trot.

The remaining ten miles were very warm and humid, and seemed to take a very long time. Even though I was hurting, I seemed to be doing okay – I was passing some of the slower marathoners and 50k runners, and several 50-mile runners as well. Most frustratingly, the trail was completely perfect for running – soft, mostly flat single-track, pretty easy to navigate – which meant there were no excuses to walk. At least with hilly courses you get an externally-imposed walk-break. I found myself longing for the vertical ascents characteristic of West Coast races.

That is, until we hit the final hilly section. Then I immediately hated the hills – they’re hard to climb! – and yearned for the flat trails I’d been on just moments before.

The last few miles were pretty rough. At one point, we reached an aid station where all the shorter distance runners went straight for another mile or so to the finish, but we had to take a sharp right and do a two-mile out-and-back – that was pretty disheartening, because the finish line was right there!

Seriously … I can basically see the finish line.

I fell into pace with a younger runner – Naval Academy student doing his first 50-miler. We picked up the pace and were doing 9ish-minute-miles for about two or three miles during this out-and-back, which is really fast for the end of a long race! He dropped back at one point with just a mile to go. Feeling strong, I pushed hard to the finish.

At one point, I thought I saw the finish-line – it looks like a big red arch. Turned out I just saw a red back-hoe. Disappointing.

Thanks for colluding, North Face and local construction company

Thanks for colluding, North Face and local construction company

Just a few minutes later, I saw the actual finish-line. And crossing it was great. I had some enthusiastic friends – fellow Wharton students, running the 13.1 the next day – waiting at the finish line, and it was so fun to see them.

Crossing the finish line with #mywharton girls!

Friends at the finish-line!

Overall, it was a pretty great race. Tough towards the end – but what 50-miler isn’t? – yet I’m proud of my performance. I came in 3rd for my age group, and in the top quarter overall [including men!] which is pretty good. My final finish time was 10:28, which isn’t my fasted 50-miler, but isn’t bad considering the hills.

North Face is a pretty commercial ultra series, which means there are a lot of new or first-time runners. It’s always great to indoctrinate newbies into the sport. However, it also means that the spirit of the ultra community isn’t as present at these sorts of races – there’s a sort of camaraderie on the trails that arises from having done a lot of these. It’s an understanding that we’re all out here together, and a great way to get through the pain is to rely on each other for conversation, pacing, and support. North Face didn’t – doesn’t – really have that vibe. But being down there with friends, who would be running the next day, more than made up for it.

On to the next challenge …

Bring it on.

A marathon on the coldest, iciest continent – Antarctica

Late afternoon sunlight in Antarctica

I just got back from what can only be described as one of the most epic escapades I’ve been privileged to undertake – a two-week expedition to the loneliest place on earth, where myself and about 150 others explored, adventured, and, of course, ran a marathon.

If the title didn’t give it away, we went to Antarctica.

[Warning – probably a long and rambling post. It was an awesome trip, and the marathon was just a small part of it. It will be hard to do it justice.]

Backstory. I first heard about the Seven Continents Club when I ran the Inca Trail Marathon in 2012. The club is for those who are in the process of running, or have completed, a marathon on every continent. Obviously, the most logistically challenging continent to run a race on is Antarctica. In 2012, I also learned that there’s a 3-5 year wait list to get on a voyage down there, so I put down a small deposit – I figured I’d decide to take that journey if, and when, the time came. Putting down the Antartica Marathon deposit was choosing more of an option to participate rather than a firm commitment to this outrageous expedition.

Since then, I’ve run races on two other continents: Australia and and Africa. Antarctica makes six (although my Europe marathon was a solo, unsupported run, so I’ll probably have to go back and do that one again).

When I finally got off the wait list for Antarctica, the timing couldn’t have been better: it overlapped with my school’s spring break, and I’d get to train through Philly’s miserable winter (that last part turned out to be especially helpful during the race).

Before the race. Two weeks ago, four hundred of us met up in Buenos Aires with our Marathon Tours organizers. We divided into two ships: The Akademik Ioffe, which left one day early and whose runners would race on March 9th, and my ship, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, sister ship to the Ioffe, whose runners would race on March 10th. The results from the two days would be aggregated (important for later).

We had a few days in Buenos Aires – padding for those whose flights had been delayed – and a small group of us visited Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay for a day. That trip led to some shenanigans, such as a 20k training run in Uruguay which was actually only 1.5k. This silliness quickly solidified the friendship of this group of 9, and we affectionally named ourselves “The Colonials.”

The Colonial 9, atop the Uruguayan lighthouse

That day in Uruguay foreshadowed the depth of some of the friendships that would form over the course of the trip. Runners are a strange bunch, but there are some deep commonalities we have which makes it easy, and rewarding, to become fast friends with fellow running travelers.

The first two days were spent crossing the infamous Drake Passage. Many of us, myself included, spent significant time in our bunks attempting to avoid seasickness, with mixed success. We spent the time in-between getting to know each other, taking photos of the open ocean, and attending lectures on everything Antarctic, from penguins, to whales, to ice.

There was more than a little nervous energy onboard. Everyone was thinking about the race, and that manifested itself in a variety of ways. Most notably, we discussed every single aspect of the day-of race logistics ad nauseam. A couple of components were just unique enough that they made for interesting talking points. For example, we had to provide all of our own food and water during the race, and nothing could have a wrapper. Traditional food items, like Clif bars and Gus, were ruled out. Everyone had their own workaround, and we heard about all of them. I planned to use unwrapped Snickers bars shoved into a front pocket, operating under the assumption that they wouldn’t melt due to the frigid temperatures.

I was also not 100% convinced we’d even be running the race at all, so I was trying to avoid getting my hopes up too much. The entire lead up to the race was filled with weather warnings – inclement weather could cancel the race completely, and, in Antarctica, weather is not something you gamble with. I’d been reading the Ernest Shackleton story in my spare time, and, based on his harrowing 17-month survival experience stranded on the continent, I was more than convinced that the race should be called off in the case of poor weather. Nobody wants to get stuck ashore in Antarctica and forced to eat dog pemmican.

However, our first day ashore in Antartica – the day before the race – was amazing. We visited Half Moon Island, known for  its fur seals and chinstrap penguins. There’s also one, lone macaroni penguin – named Kenneth – who thinks he’s part of the chinstrap colony. The island itself was stunning – a little, white crescent surrounded by pounding, grey waves. It was our first taste of what Antarctic isolation is really about.

First shore day. The Vavilov is behind me

That day, the runners on the Ioffe were running their race. We learned that part of the course was drowned under about a foot of water due to melted snow, so they’d had to re-route, but they’d all made it safely back to the boat after running. That night, after our pre-race briefing, I removed myself from the rabble and anxiety – I didn’t want to discuss race-day nutrition for the 800th time – and went to bed early.

The race.

The official race map.

I woke up multiple times during the night. Just outside the porthole, massive snow flurries blinked in the dim deck lights. I kept trying to convince myself that it definitely wasn’t snow, but every time I woke up, it was definitely still snow, and it was piling up on the deck railings.

By the time we made our way to breakfast, it had stopped snowing, although the winds were holding steady at about 30 knots, with gusts to 35 knots. Even as we packed our dry-bags with warm clothes, filled up our water bottles, and donned our foul-weather gear for the boat ride over, I still wasn’t convinced they weren’t going to call it off due to weather.

We were aiming for a 9am start, which meant we had to start offloading 100 runners around 8am. Many of the Colonials were in a later boat – second or third-to-last. It seemed prudent not to wait in the cold for an hour.

The boats – called Zodiacs – were little rubber contraptions. During any expedition away from our ship, even if it was a very short trip to shore, each Zodiac carried ample extra fuel, enough food for all ~12 passengers for three days, and basic shelter supplies. We all wore lifejackets and waterproof foul-weather-gear at all times when on the Zodiacs. Again, no messing around down here.

On the boat ahead of us, a group of runners, including a family, were navigating the gangway down to a Zodiac. One woman was extremely terrified to step off of the ship and onto the gangway, which was shaking rather violently. She let her son and daughter escort her slowly down to the Zodiac, but the Zodiac was pitching and rolling on the choppy swells. I saw her reach a shaking hand out to cross from the gangway to the Zodiac, but she couldn’t take that step across onto the boat. She turned around and came back onboard the Vavilov. The Zodiac finished loading – without her – and took off for shore. (I found out later that she gave it another go, made it to shore, and finished the half marathon. The whole trip was full of inspirational stories like this).

Our trip over on the Zodiac took about 15 minutes, and the winds were fierce. We huddled together on the rubber seats, and I rubbed strategically-placed hand warmers to keep my fingers mobile. We all hoped that when we started moving, we’d warm up.

When we got to shore, we jumped out of the boat and into the freezing water, feet protected by rubber boots. We waded to shore and then up to the start line.

A couple of us at the start line

Even then, divesting of our foul-weather gear, we were still debating how many layers we should wear. I opted to trust my Philly training, and stripped down to just three layers: a long-sleeve shirt, a short-sleeve shirt, and a light jacket. I also had on running tights, a neck buff, a baseball-like hat to protect from any possible precipitation, a headband for ear warmth, and a warmer hat on top of that. I wore heavy ski gloves on my hands and tucked hand warmers into each one, and my normal trail shoes on my feet.

The start was anticlimactic (and I have never seen so many GoPros – mine included – recording it). Thom, our intrepid race director, counted us down from five, and we started trotting down the  muddy course.

The course would be a six-loop out-and-back course. Basically, we’d run 2.18 miles to a turn-around, then run back to the start, and do that six times. I tend to like loop courses, and I think this is because my powers of observation are pretty weak during a race – I’m discovering something new on every lap.

Just after the start

The first lap or two felt easy. The scenery was gorgeous at parts – the first mile or so was through the Russian and Chilean research bases, and after that we passed a glacial lake and ran right near the shore of the island, until we turned around at a Chinese research base. Despite how windy and overcast it was, it was very cool to be running past these towering mountains – in Antarctica!

I was powering up the hills and keeping pace with some runners that looked pretty fast to me. I didn’t think I had a chance of placing, but I do like to count how far back I am from the lead women … and after the first lap, there were only four women in front of me. My roommate, Erin, was in 3rd, and in 4th was another girl from Philly, named Taylor.

I was pretty sure I’d hit a wall at some point and fall back, so I didn’t think too much about it. However, at the end of lap 2, I was feeling pretty good – I’d been pacing off of another runner, and at the turn-around, he took a bit longer at the aid station than I did, so I kept going. The runner in 2nd had fallen back, which meant Erin was in 2nd now. Taylor, in 3rd, was just ahead of me … so I kept trotting along.

Even though I was keeping an eye on the competition, I, like most runners, was really just in it to finish. Because all of the runners knew each other by this point, the cheering throughout our short course was so enthusiastic and genuine. The course was only a few miles, so we saw our new friends frequently, and we all took the opportunity to encourage each other loudly, to the amusement of on-base researchers. They looked at us with what I like to imagine was admiration, but more likely confusion and worry for these crazy people who’d be out in these conditions.

Every so often, I would just appreciate how ludicrous the whole construct was – running a marathon on Antarctica is pretty crazy, when considered in the absolute. In my running career, it was also the race that I’d been thinking about for the longest – three years is a serious chunk of time, and this race was the culmination of that preparation.

Getting after it on the muddy trails.

Around lap 4, I was feeling a little fatigued, but Taylor was still just ahead, so I kept pushing. I passed her at one point, but then she passed me back, and I was pretty sure that was the end of things. It didn’t matter anyway – there was no way that, after combining our times with the other boat’s, the third-place person on our boat would also place overall.

However, I then passed her again, and with only 10k to go, I felt like I could maybe push it to the end and finish 3rd on my boat.

The next six miles were a slog. The hills were starting to feel steeper than before, and there were two short ones that I would walk for a quick recovery. The weather had also taken a turn for the worse, and it seemed like, no matter which direction we were heading, we were facing a stiff headwind. It had also started sleeting, and little particles of ice were now driving into any unexposed skin. I moved my buff up to cover my nose and mouth, but all that did was restrict my breathing, so I left it around my neck and faced the storm.

The last lap was rough. At the turnaround, with only 2 miles to go, I had my GoPro running. I crouched down to show off my favorite race sign – it said “Penguin Crossing” – and saw my Philly compatriot right behind me. I kicked it into gear and didn’t look back.

I felt like I was flying through the last two miles, although I’m sure it looked more like a limping slog than an Olympic sprint.

 

Running through the research bases.

The last 0.2 miles were up a shallow hill. I saw the 26-mile marker, and for some reason, turned around – I think I didn’t want to get passed at the last second. Taylor was right behind me! I turned back and sprinted to the finish line. She came in just a few seconds after me.

We high-fived and hugged it out, taking a finish-line photo (with Erin, who had finished 2nd and about 20 minutes ahead of Taylor and I. The first-place woman had already gotten back on a Zodiac and was headed for a hot shower). Taylor and I agreed that there was no way we’d be in contention for an overall podium spot, but we appreciated the competition.

After the finish

Volunteers bundled us into our foul-weather gear and back onto a Zodiac before we knew what was happening. My fingers, warm throughout the race, immediately became numb when I started handling zippers and velcro, and the Zodiac ride was pretty rough as a result.

After the race. That night, we learned that our boat had dominated the rankings. The men on Vavilov swept the top three spots, and the woman had grabbed the top two … and maybe the third! For the next twelve hours, I was constantly checking to see if they’d posted the results … and found out that a girl on the other boat beat me by two minutes. Very disappointing. I like to think that they had easier weather – it was very sunny! – but I know she also ran a great race.

The next several days were a combination of calm appreciation of our success and evening parties of wild, reckless abandon. Days ashore were happier and more relaxed. A few highlights:

  • A double-rainbow over icebergs.

What does it mean?

 

  • Quiet kayaking on reflective water (after a messy capsize due to inclement weather the day before).

I’m in that kayak on the right.

  • Whale watching – literally 20 feet from our boat – in the calm waters of Wilhelmina Bay on the last day.

Whale tail – so close to our Zodiac!

Whale next to a Zodiac

So peaceful and serene.

Epilogue. The whole experience was amazing. I focused here on the race because this is a blog about running, although, as mentioned, the race just became one part of a much broader, more epic adventure, which really deserves its own blog. Just like summer camp, we made memories and forged friendships that we’ll remember for a lifetime.

Antarctica is a pristine, unspoiled place. It is stark and isolated, and unlike anywhere else on earth. I am grateful that humanity was only able to reach it after developing an appreciation for preserving natural beauty – the continent is governed by a multinational research treaty – although I fear for the day that the lucrativeness of mineral rights overshadows this agreement.

The staff concluded our voyage with this quote:

Out here is where the magic happens, here in the quiet hills.
Here is where you have cried out with moans as deep as the earth.
Here is where you have found your long lost self that the madness took away.
So when you get back to those who talk loud in small rooms,
Remember that you have been to a place too beautiful for words.

-Anonymous

Here’s to the adventurers.

My favorite photo I took on this trip. Hi penguin!


Flap flap flap.

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Delaware Marathon: There’s Only One

Here are a few things I learned over the weekend:

  • Delaware was the first state in the union.
  • The largest city, Wilmington, has about 70,000 people. That’s about the size of Mountain View, CA.
  • There’s a guy who’s run ~1,300 marathons in his lifetime. He’s 69, and ran 255 marathons in 2013. He’s still going strong .. .because I just saw him running at Delaware.

When I registered for the race, it asked for the number of states the registrant has run marathons in. (For me, it’s something boring, like five.) Some minor sleuthing uncovered that this Delaware Marathon is, in fact, the *only* marathon in Delaware. If you’re gunning for all 50 states, this race is a requirement.

Registration also asked for a nickname. Will didn’t realize it was going to be printed on his bib.

The two-lap race started at 7am. There were waves for the half marathon and relay teams; they started after us. They had to wear bibs on their backs that said “Half” or “Relay” respectively, which was actually really nice; when they blasted past us at what seemed like unreasonably fast speeds, we could tell they were in a different wave, and not overly enthusiastic marathon runners making the rest of us look slow.

The first couple of miles were nice; we ran on a boardwalk along the river. Around mile five, the course started getting hilly. Mile six/seven was all uphill – challenging, but not terrible, because it was all in shade and under trees. We passed a zoo at one point, but I didn’t see animals out.

Towards the end of the first lap, I saw Larry the 1,300 marathons guy. I’d seen him at another race earlier this year, but hadn’t been able to track him down – I found him by searching through the Delaware race results. Apparently he started running marathons at 52 years old, and now, at 69, is running marathons almost every day of the year. If you want to read about one of the craziest/most impressive endurance runners out there, check out this ESPN article. If you want to see the list of races he’s run, here’s his Marathon Maniacs profile, which lists them all.

Anyway, he remembered me from the other race, and I waved as I ran by.

I finished the first lap around 1:50. I was feeling pretty good about running a sub 4:00 race without needing to push it too hard. Around mile 16, though, my legs started feeling heavy – I popped a Gu and pushed on.

I was still tracking for a sub 4:00 around mile 20. I knew the big hill was going to make or break this goal, and I promised myself I wasn’t going to get frustrated – this was a pretty challenging course. As I trotted up the hill, I was still feeling sore, but passing a lot of other runners; they were struggling too. I passed the zoo again – and this time saw two ostriches!

My hill push wasn’t fast enough. General tiredness, combined with the heat and humidity, made the last 10k very challenging. Around mile 22/23, my pinky and ring fingers started tingling all the way up to my elbow, and I figured it wasn’t a good idea, given the heat, to go for an all out 5k sprint to the finish.

I finished around 4:13, which was in the top 1/4th of women – not bad, although clearly the last 10k was much slower than the rest of the race.

I’m feeling a big of “marathon fatigue” – my last 9 races have been road marathons. I’ve got my eye on a trail ultra or two in the next several months; I’m looking forward to being back out in nature. My last ultra was at the end of 2012, so hopefully I still know what to do! 😉

Post-race, outside of our hotel. Our hotel was at mile 25.9 of the course… I was definitely tempted to defect to a warm shower.

Leave Nothing on the Table

I rarely plan races very far in advance. Usually, I’ll see a race happening in about a week, sign up, awkwardly taper for five days, then run it. This has the benefit of allowing for no anxiety buildup; because I wasn’t *really* training anyway, there’s no pressure to meet a certain goal. It’s just a fun run.

In organizational psychology, there’s a theory called normative influence. It’s a fancy way of saying that individuals get sucked into doing or thinking the same things as a larger group. Which is a fancy way of saying “peer pressure.”

I’ve been signed up for the Philadelphia Marathon for about five months, which is a lot of lead time. My fellow business school students have been training hard for this race. I found myself doing what they did: following a training plan, scheduling long runs, adding in speed work. This isn’t a bad thing – just a little unusual for me.

Probably due to training enthusiasm, I ran into several problems during this prolonged training period, most of which were related to injuries and nutritional deficiencies. On race day, I didn’t know what to expect, and I was very nervous. I was hoping to run a 3:35, but didn’t really know what that meant, especially given the speed bumps along the way.

Top of the Rocky Steps pre-race.

With most races I run, I have time to think during the race. Marathons are long, and relaxing into the distance is part of what makes them enjoyable. When I run for speed, there’s no relaxation. The race is stressful and confusing and I never feel like I’m running quite fast enough. Philadelphia was more like the latter.

We woke up in the dark and jogged a mile along the river to the start line. The day was perfect; cloudy and chilly, and the course was great.

We started out at the Philadelphia Art Museum (famous for the Rocky steps!) and headed across town, through the city. Once we reached the Delaware river, we turned around and shot back the way we’d come, along a different street. This was my favorite part of the race; I felt unstoppable, flying through the closed streets of the city I live in, right past my apartment. I understood at that moment that this was the feeling I’d been training for – this light, unstoppable immortality.

Miles 8 and 9 were tricky; lots of hills. I definitely need to do more hill work; I lost some time here. My 13.1-mile split was 1:49 or so. Aiming for a 3:35, I knew I’d somehow have to run faster on the second half than I did on the first half. For the next couple of miles, I picked up the pace – it felt very achievable.

Donchak running!

Around mile 20, I was in for a surprise: my left quad cramped. In over five years and 30+ marathons, I’ve never had a cramp during a race. I really felt like my leg could have fallen out from under me – which was a really fascinating and somewhat concerning experience. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I drank electrolytes, took some caffeine, stretched, and popped an ibuprofen, hoping one of those things would help. After about a mile or so, it cleared up – but I had lost a couple of minutes I was pretty sure I couldn’t make up.

Around the 23-mile mark, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make my 3:35 goal. I had two options: give up and take it easy for the last 5k, or see just how fast I could go – even though I wasn’t going to hit my time.

I played out the post-race thought-process in my head. If I didn’t run my hardest for the last few miles, I’d always wonder what I could have done. As a good friend said, “when you have doubt, there is no doubt.”

One of my first managers was a runner as well. In one our one-on-one meetings, we talked about managing energy. He said, “I know you’re good at this – you’re a runner. You know that in the final stretch, you don’t leave anything on the table. You go for it.”

I threw down.

The last 5k were very hard, but I felt strong. I finished in 3:39:24.

While I wasn’t thrilled that I didn’t meet my goal, it was my second-fastest marathon.

All in all, it was fun to train hard with my fellow students. It also put a lot of pressure on the race, and because I didn’t quite hit the goal I was aiming for, I felt a bit deflated afterwards. I run for the enjoyment of it; not for time. Putting time goals into a race takes some of the magic out of being out there.

That being said, I still think I can hit the 3:35 mark. So I’m signed up for another race … which is 21 days away.

At the finish line with another Wharton runner. One of us ran a 2:49 marathon … can you guess which one? (Hint: it’s him.)