Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Harrisburg marathon review

A quick race review of Harrisburg. The race itself was excellent and has enormous PB potential. The volunteers were the best I have encountered anywhere, such that depending on plans for 2012 I would seriously consider volunteering at this race if I am not racing it myself. The course is relatively scenic, especially along the river's edge and the two portions on trail were a welcome change from hard surfaces, but with plenty of traction. The event being less than 1,000 marathon runners is logistically uncomplicated - comparatively, and I love being able to show up twenty minutes before a race to pick up a race number and walk the 200 metres to the start without any fuss or shoving or general air of panic that envelops many race starts. The number pick up is in a heated pavilion adjacent the start and allows you to stay warm minutes before the start. Free coffee was also available for runners and only 25 cents for others. 
The post race bounty is phenomenal; fruit, yogurt, bagels, coffee, and other foodstuffs; only Cologne has come close to this. The medal and tech t-shirt this year were an improvement on what I had seen on the web in previous years and I have already worn the shirt on a slightly chilly day when doing a max HR test this morning. All the above for $60 is excellent value, especially so when you look at the $95 that some half-marathons in Maryland think they can charge. Being unemployed I simply cannot afford that and even were I in employment it would take something really special to get me to shell out that kind of coin, and by special I don't mean the gimmicks that come with 'Rock n' Roll' events; thank goodness for races like Harrisburg. I hope to race this again and significantly improve on my time and do the race and course justice this time.

Harrisburg Marathon 2011

Me about to cross the bridge across the Susquehanna river and towards the finish line.

Harrisburg is the capital of Pennsylvania; it is also one of the largest cities to file for bankruptcy, which it did recently, even making pages of The Economist in a commentary about city finance and the polarisation of US politics. My wife is from the small town of Mechanicsburg which is a few miles west of Harrisburg and so this race was a good way of combining a trip to her parents with a marathon and is only a ninety minute drive from Baltimore. The race has also received consistently excellent reviews from Since adopting a HR approach to my training and using Pfitzinger and Douglas's HR bands, rather than target paces, my training paces have slowed and I had felt better than I have in a while. I felt I had made good progress. A few weeks before the race I did seventeen miles with the final ten miles at 87% MHR; these miles averaged 06:42, this was considerably better than a similar effort a few weeks before that came out at closer to 07:00 min/mile and for an additional percentage point in effort. I had my doubts that I had the aerobic base to maintain 86/87% MHR for 26.2 but resolved to go out at sub three hour pace see how it felt. The race began at 0830hrs and conditions were perfect and I quickly settled into 06:4x pace. However, by mile eight I knew it was not going to be able to maintain the pace and decided that I would forget about sub three, which I always knew was going to be a big ask and backed off to 07:05 pace for the next few miles. During mile ten I had to duck into a port-a-loo and do both a number one and two; this is something I have never needed to do in a race but I did initially feel better for it. By halfway I was not feeling good and the slower pace that was initially comfortable was now increasingly uncomfortable. As we passed the halfway point we ascended up a short sharp climb and I slowed further. My pace was now in the 07:20s and my legs were turning to concrete. This was frustrating as while I thought a sub three pace might be tough to hold I did not think it was suicidal either and I had sensibly backed off after eight miles. By mile seventeen, as we entered the Harrisburg Area Communinity College campus, many runners were passing me. There was a turnaround at this point and the final nine miles would be a double back on much of the first half of the course and many of the runners passing against me, at least half a mile ahead, were previously in the same group that I ran with in the first eight miles; this was not a confidence booster. By now I was doing the maths to calculate at what pace I would need to avoid a personal worst and would have taken 03:15 without any hesitation. The final six miles were something of a death march and runners were going by me in groups of two or three now. By mile twenty-two I resigned myself to a personal worst. My pace was now north of nine minute milling. At mile twenty-five I was about to walk when I heard the shouts of encouragement from my wife, mother-in-law, and friend visiting from Ireland; this prevented me from walking. I tried to increase the pace but any injection of pace never lasted more than a fifth of a mile. I reached the finish mile in 03:23:22; a bit if a disaster. However, I refuse to be too discouraged and have decided upon a reasonable and informed, I hope, plan to rectify my very poor 2011 racing year. Discussion of that will follow in another post shortly.

Harrisburg marathon 2011 by westley1977 at Garmin Connect - Details

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Odyssey: Ragnar Pennsylvania

Shortly after moving here my wife's cousin's husband invited me to participate in a 202 mile relay. The Ragnar relay involves twelve runners, six each in two vans running 202 miles from Lancaster PA to Jim Thorpe PA over thirty-six legs. The relay begins in the city of Lancaster and through the city of Reading, Amish country and a number of small towns. The six runners in each van run consecutively and hand over to the other van, and so each van leapfrogs the other until the thirty-six legs are complete. As the event's website pits it, 'run, drive, sleep?, repeat!'
The race began at 0630 in the dark and cold of Lancaster's Stauffer park. During the second leg we saw the bizarre sight of an Amish woman of at least seventy years talking and running alongside a Ragnar competitor! As 'runner three' in van one my first leg of 8.2 miles began in bright sunshine. I decided to run at sub three hour marathon pace and see how it felt. The first six miles were rolling hills heading east through the town of Strasburg along route 741. The weather was perfect - cool and bright. The first six miles fluctuated between 06:40 And 06:51; a heart rate in the 170s was definitely not ideal for so called marathon pace; it felt more like something between marathon and half-marathon pace. The last two miles were significantly uphill and my heart rate increased into the mid 170s and the pace declined. The average mile splits were 07:02 for 8.24 miles.
When we completed our initial six legs we handed over to the other van and had a number of hours to pass at a high school. Here we had lunch and relaxed for a while in the bright sunshine. My next run, leg fifteen, was through the city of Reading during rush hour, which is the poorest city in the United States; running through this town I could definitely believe it; it reminded me a little of Sheffield where I used to live, except only worse. This leg was 4.5 miles and I ran through some 'interesting' parts of town. It being after 1730hrs the race organisers required that I wear a high viz jacket and head lamp even though it was still quite bright; this did nothing to prevent curious glances and stares from the locals. The legs through Reading were quite confusing and some orienteering skills were definitely advantageous; my teammate Frank D, who completed the leg before me got lost and he and two other runners spent quite an amount of time before they found me at the checkpoint.

Me, ready for the off in America's poorest city.

The first two miles through downtown were tough, the paving here was worse than it is in Baltimore and it felt more like running on a single track trail than through a city centre. The final two miles were up Hill road; never was a road more aptly named! This was two miles of steep hills and my HR went above 90% MHR to maintain close to ten minute milling pace! I saw very few runners on this leg. I did see one ahead of me during the final mile but I could not close him down enough to pass him and I was just glad to hand over to Rick for a further 1.8 miles of climb to the top of the mountain. At the next checkpoint, to cheer Rick in and prepare Linda P to assume running duties from him, is where I first thought of Homer's Odyssey and Odysseus' journey to Ithaca and all the characters he encountered; here Frank D and I encountered an odd character sitting on a walll - half stoner/hippie, half hipster. It transpired he was drafted in at the last moment by a friend involved with the race organisation to manage the checkpoint. He did not have much of an idea of what to do so Frank and I accepted his request for help and gave our advice on how to manage things. He then told us his life story and how his friend knew which pub to find him in earlier that day because since his fiancé left him he's either in the pub getting smashed or in his tattoo parlor, whereupon he proceeded to showcase and explain his fiancé inspired tattoos! Thankfully we got called away to get back in the van so we could provide support for Linda P on her leg!

Soon we were at exchange twenty-four where we could sleep and await the arrival the other van who were running legs nineteen to twenty-four. The sleeping quarters was a school's basketball hall. Not much sleep was had, especially with the bright lights in the hall and the guy snoring who sounded like he was cutting logs with a chainsaw! At one point there must have been well over 150 lying on the floor in sleeping bags.

I am under the bag on the right with the yellow high viz jacket over my head to try and block out the light.

My final leg took place at a little before three in the morning. It began in a small town of McKeansburg. This was a nice little town and the local church was out in force with coffee, cakes and other food they were selling for the church's benefit. Best of all they had a large roaring fire. It was here that Odysseus encountered the last of his monsters blocking the path to Ithaca; a female member of the church struck up conversation with me and expressed with a sharp intake of breath her shock and surprise when she heard Ragnar would run night-time legs through her county; why I hear you gasp - well apparently Schuylkill County has the highest level of DUI in the nation! This is just what you want to hear when you are scheduled to run 3.7 miles in the dark! The final run was the best. I knocked out a hard effort and completed it with average mile splits of 06:28. This felt like 10k pace; last year this was a little slower then half-marathon pace! I did see a surprising number of drivers on this rural but thankfully wide road and none were swerving. For almost all of this I was completely on my own with only the stars above and off to my left the sound of the odd twig breaking; presumably a deer wandering about. Following me was Rick and then a couple of gutsy runs from Linda P, John P and Derrick, who was especially was feeling the affect of his excellent second leg performance.

Campfire where scary stories of DUI drivers were told!

When we completed our final set of runs we proceeded to the finish line and rested for a few hours before welcoming home the remainder of our team in the other van. We all crossed the finish line together in beautiful Autumn sunshine.
In short, a unique and fun experience that really just embraces the joy of running with other people in nice places; for most it is entirely about that rather than times or overt competition. I would certainly relish the honour of running with my eleven other teammates again and our two van drivers, the two Jeffs, who arguably had the harder job of driving, navigating, coaching, cajoling and coralling twelve runners over two days and 202 miles.