Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Tackling the TARC 100

Let me put this right out there-training for a 100K trail race was the most difficult mental and physical thing I’ve done. From my very first training run, I struggled running in the woods. My legs and calves ached and my already weak ankles were toast from frequently rolling them. I also put up two DNFs in my first two trail races/trg runs, a 12K in the Blue Hills and 50K in Medfield, MA, both Trail Animal Running Club (TARC) races.

My confidence was shattered and for the first time ever I was questioning if I was able to accomplish a goal because of my low-vision. Running trails is so different than running on the street. Due to my narrow field (I have a 3-5% field in both eyes) and inability to see contrast (i.e. rocks and roots on the trail) I was tripping and falling everywhere and forced to walk through technical sections-even with outstanding guides calling out every root, rock, step down/up, and turn.

I had already put it out there that I was aiming for a 100K in October but at the time of the 2nd DNF I hadn’t signed up. I finally decided to reach out to Adrian Broca, Jason Romero, and Richard Hunter, peers who are excellent runners, have completed ultra trail runs, and also have low-vision (two of them have the same eye disease as I do). Talking to them and getting tremendous feedback about trail running (Jason even recorded a video about poles, lights, etc!) reaffirmed my commitment to making this work and gave me the confidence to push forward.

Fast-forward to the end of my training and welcomed taper time. I spent my taper weeks running on pavement and doing ankle strengthening exercises multiple times a day, including while waiting for the MBTA bus. I felt confident going into the race and felt like I had a shot at the 18 hour cutoff.
Taper time is often spent mentally preparing for a race as much as it is resting your body. I felt mentally strong and confident. However, I started to have a lot of feelings around my role as a runner who is also blind/visually impaired (B/VI). Like all athletes with disabilities, I often just want to be a “runner,” or “skier” with not the added B/VI qualifier. Part of this is driven by the fact that I was embarking on something so few runners attempt. So why not call me a runner, or ultrarunner, and leave it at that?! This is also why I advocate so often for person-first language. I also know that I, and many of my peers are often in a position to raise awareness about being active regardless of your vision and breaking down barriers at every opportunity. I’ve somewhat made peace with this and accept my awareness raising role, but be warned it still kicks up some feelings for me.

Race morning was here and my guide Michelle and I pulled into the Hale Reservation parking lot right at 5:30AM. When we got to the Start/Finish line the Race Director introduced himself by saying “Hey Kyle, its Josh Katzman” and I replied “Hey, how did you know it was me (I had my white cane out)?” Josh quickly replied that he recognized my foot fallJ Josh and the entire TARC crew have been SO supportive of me and my desires to run TARC races. Without blinking an eye, they said yes to my guides, made it possible for me to switch out guides at different spots, and continually asked what else they could do to help. True class acts all around.

After a quick trip to the woods (one of the top reasons why I love trail running), the group of about 20 100kers were off just a few minutes past 6:00AM, roughly one hour after the 100 milers. Due to the unpredictability of being able to run different parts of the course, it was tough putting together a race strategy with firm paces. However, I thought I could finish the first 12-mile loop in about three hours.

With our headlamps, reflective gear, and Black Diamond Trekking Poles, Michelle and I jogged down the beach and headed into the woods. We were able to run this section at a somewhat comfortable pace so I constantly reminded myself to breathe and take it slow. Michelle is an incredible guide so I was very comfortable running two steps behind her, with her calling out the footing and when we were turning. The first 12-mile loop was mainly on the larger 25-mile loop but there were a few sections not on the official course.  

After an hour or so I felt pretty good and settled into a decent groove as the sun began to rise. It is really cool being in the woods and getting to experience daybreak. A few times Michelle called out “smooth sailing, lazy feet” which is my favorite cue. I can totally relax, both mentally and physically, and simply enjoy running. It was so quiet in the woods-all we could hear was nature-birds chirping, small animals scurrying about, and small twigs breaking beneath our feet. Simply beautiful!
 I was running with my Nathan pack filled with Tailwind and pockets stuffed with bars, gel caps, and salt tabs. We cruised through one of the smaller aid stations and shortly the trail opened up into Powisett Farm. This spot was a highlight of my day partly because we were running on grassy farmland, the scenery was beautiful, and the Farm aid station was less than two miles away. When we left the farm I asked Michelle our pace and it was just over 16 min/mile. This took me down a notch or two. I thought we were running more than walking and would be closer to the 15 min goal. After the farm we popped back into the woods and were greeted by some rolling single-track and a few small hills, but nothing too major. After another couple of miles we dropped our average pace to 15:30 which picked me up.

Somewhere in this section I tripped and went down knee first. I actually executed a nice roll and almost stood right back up but my left knee took the brunt of the fall and had a nice gash on it. Thankfully, I had some Advil on me so I immediately downed two and kept going. We were able to run a little bit more so I excitedly asked Michelle our pace. Turns out she lost her phone somewhere behind us, and my Garmin was off, so we didn’t know our pace or mileage. Oh well, keep running we said.

Now the fun begins. We soon came upon Mark’s Knob which is a gravely hill, roughly at 30% grade, but short. We power walked the hill and were soon engulfed in some gnarly single track that was strewn with small jagged rocks, roots, and numerous boulders to climb over. I was not expecting this and it rocked me (pun intended) mentally. Our pace became laborious seeing that we were constantly stepping up onto and off of rocks. I spent the next mile or so stewing on why I was doing this-it was no fun constantly tripping and regularly falling. I was done and already crafting my drop out excuses to my wife and guides.

We finally cleared this section and had about .7 miles of easy terrain back to the Start/Finish. About a ¼ mile from the S/F Jill greeted us and I could tell she was “curious” on what took us so long from the last aid station. That last section dragged us down and we were well over my goal pace and even behind the cutoff time pace. We finished the 12 mile loop in 3:43, almost 45 minutes past my goal time.

Michelle & I finishing the first 12 miles. 

I downed half of a breakfast burrito (should have held the spicy salsa), a bar, some delicious noodle soup from the aid station heroes, and stuffed a salted baked potato in my bag while Jill refilled my Tailwind. My new guide Steve lost his phone right before we arrived so we were once again without pace or mileage. Maybe in a road race this would have been a big deal but in all honesty this didn’t stress me out too much. Our plan anyway was to run the runnable terrain at a comfortable pace and walk the other sections as quickly as possible.  
Steve and I headed out on the first of two 25-mile loops shortly after 10:00AM and there was a mix of runnable single track and “rock gardens” as Steve likes to call them which we had to walk. We ran past a number of gorgeous ponds and even crossed a narrow dam like structure in which there were about 40 students/tourists cheering us on (what exactly were they doing out there?).

Steve is an experienced trail runner and was very good at simply saying “let’s run and make up some time” and off we went. We passed through Grossman’s aid station and again was greeted by Jill. I downed a few pieces of watermelon (my new favorite trail item), refilled my pack and continued plugging along. I was pleasantly surprised that my stomach was feeling great. Although not low on energy, I was constantly getting hungry a mile or so before each aid station which was fine by me.
Shortly after leaving Grossman’s we entered the Noanet Woodlands section which is a combination of very runnable trails along with the tallest peak. Steve pushed the pace when we could and I felt really good. The climb up Noanet is about a 5 minute, calf/quad burner. We climbed this a ton during our training runs, including a few repeats, but I swear it got a little higher come race day. The top afforded a nice view of Boston and there were a few hikers up top to say hello to.
We picked our way down and were able to run a bit. At one point, Steve saw a runner in front of us stretching his legs on a horse jump (some serious horse dung on the trail!) and I was THRILLED that I may actually pass someone. Steve called out “let’s run” which I think got the other runner moving. I had him in my sights for a few minutes then lost him when we came onto a technical section. Oh well.
Steve guiding me through one of the many "rock gardens" w/ "basketball" size rocks.
We arrived at the Noanet aid station feeling good and once again Jill greeted us (see a pattern here-she rode her bike to every spot!!!). The two TARC volunteers were incredibly helpful in setting us up with food and refilling my pack. VIP treatment all around. Jill said there was another 100k runner about 30-45 minutes ahead of us so she told Steve and me to get going.

Around the 18 mile mark of the loop (hey, I was already 30 miles into the race!) Steve handed over the guiding reins to Samantha. Like Steve, I met Samantha through the TARC Facebook community (you all rock!) and we did a number of training runs at Hale, including a 5:00AM run in the dark. Samantha is a strong and resilient runner who also keeps me moving forward.

Samantha & I cruising in Powisett Farm. 
I was still smiling and looking forward to sharing the Powisett Farm section with Samantha. At the farm, about one mile from the aid station, the 100k leader cruised passed me. Yup, I had been officially lapped. We ran strong into the aid station which I found out later from Jill created some confusion because folks thought I was in 2nd place. Nope, but still moving forward.

We left the farm and headed toward the Mark’s Knob section. See above for all the fun had in this section. 

It was close to 6:30PM and dark when we arrived at the Start/Finish. That lap took 9 hours and I had been running for 12:36:13, a new personal record for time on my feet! It was clear that I was not going to make the 18 hour cutoff but there was no doubt I was going to keep going. I may have even joked with Josh that I may have a third lap in me. My feet were starting to get sore with a few hot spots on top of my toes so Jill kindly helped me change my socks and apply a fresh coat of Vaseline (don’t knock it until you try it) on my feet, change my shirt, grabbed more potatoes and a half of rice/bean burrito, and Samantha and I took off.

Heading out for the second lap! 

About a mile in Samantha saw some sort of small four-legged animal but she didn’t know what is was. Maybe the Yeti? Times like this I am thankful I cannot see a thing in the dark! My left knee was throbbing by now and the multiple Ibuprofen wasn’t having an impact. It hurt to bend my knee and killed going downhill so I knew this was going to be a slow lap. My main focus was relentless forward progress and to finish regardless of the time.

A mile or so before Grossman’s we ran past a wedding reception in the middle of the woods. That “whip/nae nae” song played. My 8yo daughter loves this song so I may or may not have busted out a small “stanky leg” in her honor.

I was pleasantly greeted at Grossman’s aid station by my friends Michael and Chris and Michael’s son. Jill mentioned earlier that they were coming out and this helped to keep my spirits high. I downed what may have been the greatest grilled cheese ever, stuffed two more halves in my pocket (dirt was the least of my problems at this point), and said goodbye to everyone around 10:30PM.

Michael, Chris and Harry (nice photobomb!) out cheering us on! Thanks, fellas. 

I think Michelle hopped on the trail with us after Grossman, hiked up Noanet Peak with us, and took over at Noanet aid station. I was getting pretty tired so very thankful for Samantha’s guiding expertise getting me up and down safely.  I had calculated previously that Noanet to the finish was 10.91 miles so I was excited when one of the volunteers said she ran it this morning at it was 10 miles. I had already gained .91 miles! I downed two cups of hot coffee and set out (slowly) to tackle miles 52-62. We left Noanet at about 1:00AM Sunday!

About ½ mile from Noanet I started to shiver. I had a long-sleeve on and gloves but couldn’t get warm. Michelle kindly gave me her sweatshirt, which went to about my bellybutton, but fashion would have to take a back seat to comfort.

My knee was done with the whole running thing so I was power-walking the runnable sections. At some point a runner came flying up behind us and when we pulled over to let them pass it was Steve out to join us for the final stretch! These guides are rockstars, right?
A runner had returned Michelle’s phone and Steve found his so we had mileage info (I could care less about pace).

We came upon our old friend Mark’s Knob and slowly climbed up it. My legs actually had some life in them but my overall body was fading quickly. At some point I figured out I had passed the 55 mile mark which was a new personal high. At this point I was taking anything I could to pick me up.
I don’t know how to describe this section other than pure physical and mental suffering. My eyes were closing mid-step and I couldn’t stop yawning. My quads had some energy in them but both knees were shot so it was a challenge to simply sit down to slide down some of the boulders. At one point my pole got stuck in a mess of underbrush and when I pulled it out I swung my pole in a fit of fury (aka mini-tantrum). Thankfully, I didn’t hit Michelle or Steve. On a couple of occasions I stepped onto a boulder only to rock backwards. I’m pretty sure Steve held me up once or twice.
I was totally honed in on the mileage and I just wanted this to be over-or to be able to take a nap on a rock.  I was minutes away from full on tantrum mode. I convinced myself that Steve and Michelle, also known as the two sighted people in our group, had gotten us lost. I was so pissed I had to count back from 10 multiple times to keep from yelling at them. At one point I asked Steve to run ahead to see how much farther to the top of Mark’s Knob. He (correctly) said no as to help light up the trail. It took us another 30 plus minutes, and yet another sunrise (not as memorable as the first), to circle back to the top of Mark’s Knob. Michelle and Steve did an amazing job tuning me out and focusing on moving forward. We are almost there…

Samantha was waiting for us which afforded me the opportunity to run the final mile or so with all three of my sighted guides. We quickly stopped at the Road Crossing aid station so I could take off the sweatshirt (had to look good for the finish!).

Adios, small sweatshirt! Photo Credit: Dave Metsky

After a brief section around the water we met Jill and were shuffling on the beach heading to the finish. I could hear people cheering and cowbells ringing with 200 feet to go. Michelle was guiding me and we took a right up the rock stairs, onto the paved path, and across the timing mat with Jill, Samantha, and Steve right behind me. 100 kilometers in the books at a time of 25:22:18. The second lap took me approximately 13 hours.

L to R: Jill, Steve, Kyle, Samantha, Michelle aka the best crew & sighted guides ever!

I am disappointed in missing the cutoff but this doesn’t take away from the fact that I ran 62 miles in on very technical terrain. I trained for this opportunity and I achieved it, regardless of my vision or lack thereof. I will officially finish an ultra trail run but for now I am going to enjoy this one.

Quick Hits
·         I didn’t pass one single runner but more importantly every runner who passed me was so supportive and friendly.
·         Enough can’t be said about my three guides and Jill for crewing the entire race. You all have my complete TRUST (even walking over that narrow dam) and RESPECT.
·         TARC volunteers are the unsung heroes of this event.
·         I only rolled my ankle 3-4 times so the last minute, two weeks of PT and strengthening exercises paid off.
·         Carrying trekking poles for 62 miles was tough but it made all the difference. Props to Mike Wardian for being the first one to recommend them to me.
·         At one point I counted how many times Samantha called out “roots” and it was well over 200.
·         I’m always looking for trail sighted guides so holler if you want to run with me (kylerobidoux atyahoo dotcom).
·         If not in Boston but interested in being a sighted guide, check out www.unitedinstride.com
·         Congratulations to everyone who started both the 100k and 100 milers and to all of the finishers.
·         I will expect watermelon at every trail race!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Skiing the Running Trails

I’m new to running trails and so far I love being in the woods and outside of the urban running environment. However, the actual running and racing has been a struggle. As someone who is legally blind, I am having a tough time running confidently on the classic New England style trails that are filled with roots, rocks, and the occasional fallen tree. I find myself walking more than I thought I would/should and my overall pace is slower than even the normal road>trail drop-off. 

By far, trail running is my most challenging athletic endeavor since my sight has decreased.  Additionally, running with a sighted guide on the trails compared to the road/sidewalks is completely different because of the single-track.

I realize that there is something else holding me back. It is a combination of fear of falling and injuring myself (very much looking forward to the upcoming ski race season) as well as failing on my next big trail race. Both are renting space in my head but I am determined to make this happen.

Trail running with Jill at Hale Reservation.

It dawned on me this past weekend while running trails with my wife (thanks for being my sighted guide) that there are so many similarities to trail running and alpine skiing. I remember the first time I skied in the trees at Sunday River off White Cap Mtn and Spruce Peak (these were off-trail stashes of steeps & pow pre-glade era). I was trying to keep up with my then roommate Josh Tostado (now one of the top U.S. endurance mountain bike athletes around) and I continually found myself in the backseat, holding back, nervous about cranking out turns in very tight trees. Similar to skiing the bumps, the more I leaned back the safer I felt but in reality the less control I had. I finally decided to attack the steeps and began to carve out some nice turns in between the trees and loved every minute of it (I still couldn’t keep up with Josh though!). Skiing also taught me, and I’m learning more about it as I get into ski racing and running gates, to keep my head up and always think two to three turns ahead.

My trail running to date has been very similar to that first ski run or the feeling I had when I began skiing bumps and I stared down a mogul-filled trail. Whenever I get nervous running trails, I tend to lean back and not stay over my feet which throws off my balance. Then my confidence drops. Although I can no longer see everything on the trail (I also recognize that these hazards are issues for all runners), I can work with my guides more strategically to ensure that I am planning for two to three steps ahead and not what is immediately in front of me. One ski turn/step at a time.

So regardless of the challenge, here is to plunging forward, attacking whatever is in front of us, and confidently kicking some ass. See you in the woods.

P.S. Thanks to all my running peers who have imparted invaluable trail running and guiding wisdom. YOU ROCK!!!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Falling (Back) In Love with Skiing

Yes, I know this post isn’t about running or local beer. But it is about being active, creating new challenges, and building community. And setting the most ambitious goal to date: making the US Disabled Alpine Ski Team with an even higher goal of skiing in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Paralympics.

The same year I was diagnosed with my eye disease (11 yo) my family took up skiing because doctors told my parents I could always ski-with or without sight. We jumped right in and skied almost every weekend and spent a number of holidays and school vacations on the slopes. We were the quintessential “weekend warriors” and I fell in love with skiing so much so that I took a year off of college to live, work, and ski at Sunday River Mountain in Maine for an entire season. I was immediately humbled by the hardcore, mostly local, skiers and began chasing them all over the mountain and sometimes through the woods (pre-Glades). That year I logged 100+ days including 44 straight!

However, as my vision continued to decrease (I currently have about a 5% visual field so similar to looking through a paper towel roll) so did the joy of skiing. I enjoyed the social aspect of skiing with friends and family (especially seeing my 7-yo have so much fun) and being outdoors. But the need to ski slower and constant concern about running into someone or something was always weighing on me.

All this changed in February 2015. I attended a United State Association of BlindAthletes (USABA)  and Vermont AdaptiveSki & Sports weekend for people who are blind/visually impaired (B/VI). I was matched with a trio of talented sighted guides and after the second or third run something started to creep back into me. I could ski hard, make whatever turns I wanted to, all while being safe due to the sighted guides. I left the mountain that day with renewed excitement for the next day.

Three fabulous guides at Vermont Adaptive & PICO Mountain

My family and I skied all over MA and NH the next two months and I visited a handful of adaptive ski programs-all which are AMAZING. I also skied in two Diana Golden Races (thank you George & New England Handicap Sports Association), which is specific for adaptive skiers. I also had the pleasure of meeting and skiing with U.S. Disabled Team members and coaches, including Para-Olympian DanelleUmstead and her husband/guide Rob (really great people) who gave me positive (and valuable constructive) feedback. I definitely caught the ski racing bug and my competitive nature began to kick in.

Diana Golden starting gate at Gunstock Mountain.

So I’m taking the step to compete on a more national level. My plan is to ski in a few national races this coming season (‘15/’16) and the next with a goal to make the U.S Disabled Ski Team the second year then get selected to compete in the 2018 Paralympics! There are many talented skiers who are visually impaired on the national circuit so I have two plus years of hard work. I need to train, learn how to race, and condition my mind and body for a full ski season. I just signed up for a fall 100K ultra-marathon so that should keep my legs in shape! But I’m confident that my strong skiing background, level of fitness due to running marathons, and with more racing experience and coaching I can compete.  I am also VERY thankful that my wife and daughter are supportive of this adventure.

To make this a reality. I need to raise approximately $13,000 before the ‘15/’16 ski season. This will help me to attend the premiere ski racing camp for skiers with disabilities this December in CO, upgrade my equipment from the early 1990s (this includes regulations that require me to have different skis for each type of race I do so I have to buy three pair of skis), travel expenses (flights for me and my sighted racing guide), accommodations (will always try to secure homestays) and other race related expenses. I would also love any leads on a potential sighted guide who can train and travel with me.

Please visit my USABA Athlete Development Account for more information about my fundraising.
Training and setting the bar high is not new to me. For the past five years I’ve been an avid long-distance runner. I’ve completed one ultra-marathon (54.7 miles in 12-hours) and eight marathons (including two Boston Marathons). So committing to and dedicating the necessary training time is something that I thrive on. Although I will continue to run as cross-training and for the enjoyment, I will focus on ski racing and the necessary training and fitness that will allow me to accomplish my goals.

Life is funny in the way it presents different opportunities. I am very thankful for the adaptive ski programs that embrace and empower athletes with different abilities. If for not them, I would not have rekindled my love for skiing. Regardless of my ski racing adventure, I can now truly enjoy skiing again and participate in this fantastic activity with my wife and daughter. One of this season’s highlights was cruising down a trail behind my guides, coming to a quick stop, and turning around and seeing my daughter about 15 yards behind me. She was chasing me and we both were loving it (this will probably last for only two more seasons before she is smoking me down the hill.

There is no better feeling than being able to do a sport you love with the people you love! - 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Community First

What community are you a part of? How do you define community and work to support members of your community? These questions and the topic of “community” have been rattling around my head for the past couple of days.

This past weekend I had the pleasure of hosting my friend Diane Berberian, who was in town from Florida to run the Boston AthleticAssociation 10k with Team With a Vision, Diane is racing in the BAA Distance Medley which includes the 5k, 10K, and half marathon. Diane is a legendary athlete, coach, mentor, and teacher who has completed marathons and IronMan as well as countless 5ks and sprint-tris.

Although we kept busy with lunches, dinners, chocolate factory tour, little league baseball game, brewery visit (paired w/ the chocolate!) and the actual 10k, the highlight of the weekend was chatting with Diane over coffee in my kitchen about the community comprised of athletes who are blind/visually impaired.

I identify as a community organizer and my family is very active in our local neighborhood/community. I have a strong network of friends, neighbors, and colleagues who share similar interests and passions as I do (politics, local beer, running, community service, etc). However, I am relatively new to the world of athletes who are blind/visually impaired (B/VI).

My first introduction was the 2013 California International Marathon (CIM) which is held every December in Sacramento, CA and also doubles as the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA) National Marathon Championships. Well over 40 athletes who are B/VI participate in either the marathon or relay. This was also my first marathon in which I was running with (two kick ass) sighted guides. Outside of my co-worker, who I flew out with, I didn’t know anyone else at the race. To say the least, I was blown away by the entire experience. As is the case with any race that has a lot of runners who are B/VI, the running took backseat to the networking, learning, and relationship building.

Since December 2013, I’ve been focusing on building my running (and now also alpine skiing) community. I keep in touch with athletes over Facebook, texts, group runs for folks who live in Greater Boston, and a couple of times a year a group of us are at the same race such as the Boston Marathon, which brings together over 25 marathoners who are B/VI.

Fast forward to this past weekend to my conversation with Diane. We talked about the balance between personal performance and the community as a whole. We talked about how the community (or as she calls it the Village) is more important than any one athlete, sport (there is a lot of cross-over between runners and triathletes), and race. Our individual performances are incredibly important and we should celebrate our personal accomplishments. But we should do this in addition to promoting our community and ensuring that as athletes who are B/VI, we represent our community to the best of our ability while recognizing that we are in a sense always representing more than just ourselves.

We also talked about the importance of mentoring and lifting up athletes who are new to the sport including young people. In order for our sport to grow, we need to encourage and work with young people to become active and share our examples of individuals who have some challenges with our limited vision but these are simply bumps in the road, not roadblocks. We chatted about the need to cultivate more races that are friendly toward people with different abilities and tactics and strategies (there is the organizer in me!) to connect with race directors. More friendly races means more opportunities for athletes to compete especially locally.

Finally, somewhere around my third mug of coffee, we discussed the need to create more community programs at local organizations who work with people who are B/VI, including young people and individuals who are active. Diane is very interested in replicating some of the community programs that the Massachusetts Association for the Blind andVisually Impaired (where I’m fortunate to work at) runs in here hometown.

Here are some ways in which we can build and support our community. Please comment below with your ideas.

·         You don’t have to race every race. A few times a year forget about setting a PR or staying on pace and run with a friend. Sharing miles at a comfortable talking pace is a great way to pass the time and get to know another athlete.

·         Join a running club or attend a weekly run at your local running store. This is a wonderful way to meet knew runners and if you are B/VI a great opportunity to recruit new sighted guides.

·         Go old school and call someone you know to wish them luck on their next big race. Social media and email are fantastic communication tools, but sometimes a direct personal greeting is more effective.

·         Recruit a training partner to stay motivated. Your training partner can be local or someone who you keep in contact with over the internet/phone.

·         Organize an informal fun run (including families) in your neighborhood followed by a potluck lunch/dinner at your home or nearby park. If you enjoy adult beverages, you can run then share some bottles of local craft beer.

This weekend reaffirmed all the beautiful things about our community and that we are strong and a talented group of athletes and have very supportive families and allies. Our community is very lucky to have so many athletes already working on this front and I hope to leverage my experiences and skills to do the same. At the end of the day, no matter what race I just completed or training activity I rocked or struggled through, I will always put OUR community first. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Getting it Done: Boston style

Running a marathon is so much more than a one-day affair. It is often a four to six month commitment that involves training and lot of preparation. For the first time in close to a year, I was healthy and truly committed to marathon training. Even while my skiracing unexpectedly took over February and early March, I still got in four days of running including all of my long runs. I ran five days during weeks I wasn’t skiing and even had my first six-day, 50+ mile week since my ultra-marathon. As I often say, I was trying to “get the miles in while the getting was good.” Finally, I was thrilled to meet a handful of new runners this training season, including my sighted guide Michelle Becker.

I had one setback in late March due to a minor respiratory infection that forced me to miss one week of running. I then struggled through my last 20-mile run due to a stomach bug. This left me less confident than I was in early March.

Marathon Monday is always a special day for Boston as well as most runners who are visually impaired and a part of Team with a Vision (TWAV). Our entire team gathers at a vision center about 200 yards from the start line which is temperature controlled, has two bathrooms, stocked with food and drinks, and full of some amazing athletes-runners and guides. This year the four hours seemed to fly by. I was so focused on being properly hydrated I spent most of the time in the bathroom line!

Michelle and I walking to the start.

All of a sudden it was 11:00AM and time to get moving. So much for stretching and rolling out. The plan was to run with Randy Pierce and his team because he was starting at the same time and had a similar goal time. However, when we got into the corrals with thousands of other runners, we could not find Randy or any other TWAV runner.  

The first mile at Boston is one of the toughest. You don’t want to go out too hard seeing that it is essentially a downhill start. More than that, it is INCREDIBLY crowded and very difficult to get around other runners. Michelle, who guided me for the first half, did a miraculous job guiding me safely and quickly around runners, including many who were wearing headphones (very difficult to hear a sighted guide asking to slide over a bit), and we were close to our target pace.

Somewhere around mile 1 Randy and his team came up behind us. Michelle and I slid in right behind Randy. However, the course was still so crowded and we continued to get separated at which point we fell behind.

Our 5K split was within seconds of our target and I was feeling strong. My legs had a ton of spring and energy in them and I felt as relaxed as you can be running a marathon. We held 8:30s to low 8:40s for the next four to five miles which was right were we needed to be. My breathing was even during a quick 8:27 (on my Garmin so somewhat accurate) mile 6 so my confidence was growing.

Somewhere around mile 6 Erich Manser and his team of guides (Peter Sagal and the super-fast Joe DeGutis) came up from behind. Erich was looking like the machine he is and was comfortable talking away. Within minutes our group caught back up with Randy and his team. It was really cool for the three teams to run together, even if only for a few minutes. Erich was pushing hard and pulled away from Randy and me. I slid back in behind Randy and settled into a comfortable pace.

I should add that Greg Hallerman, who was running with Randy, created this amazing spreadsheet that broke down the mile-by-mile elevation and created a fabulous breakdown (per mile and overall splits) of our target goals. So I knew we would be good as long as we kept up with Randy because Greg was keeping a keen eye on our splits.

For me, the weather was not a factor as I would rather enjoy running in cooler temps and rain than warm and sunny. However, the footing at time was slick and there were plenty of puddles and discarded cloths on the course. Michelle was spot on in calling out these hazards and ensuring that I didn’t trip over them.

I was still nervous about keeping an 8:40 pace but continued to plug along right behind Randy. Miles 8, 9, 10 and 11 were incredibly consistent with splits of 8:35, 8:38, 8:35, and 8:35. When we passed over the train tracks in Natick/Framingham I knew the Wellesley crowds were right around the corner.

Guide Transition. Photo courtesy of Darlene DeVita Photography

We picked up my second guide, Mike Flynn, at mile 12.4. Mike and I have done a lot of running together so I was excited for him to join in on the fun. We blasted through the Wellesley tunnel (sorry, no kisses as I had a pace to keep) and began counting down the miles.

Guide transition. Thanks, Michelle. Hello, Mike

My ½ marathon split goal was 1:53:50 which we bested by 6 seconds! My overall ½ marathon best is 1:51 so I was pushing hard.

I started to feel a lull setting in and began to question my ability to keep pace with Randy. I “jokingly” mentioned this and he built my confidence back up with strong words of encouragement and support.

My mind was focused on the Turnpike overpass that comes up around mile 15. Many people say this is the toughest hill on the course. I don’t think it is the toughest but it is definitely underrated especially seeing that you are completely exposed to the wind. The reward is a long downhill that for the most part carries you to mile 18 where the fun begins.

Turning onto Commonwealth Ave is one of the most energizing and exciting moments of the race. Your legs are feeling it and you know the real work lies just ahead. Making the sharp right onto Comm Ave. you are immediately greeted by the Newton Firehouse crew and both sides of the course are wall-to-wall of people screaming their heads off. It is hard not to feel like a rock-star turning this corner.

Our group became a bit more quiet as we knew it was time to get to work. This is where you learn if your training will pay off or break you. I thought about all the hills I ran; climbing up Summit Ave. at the beginning AND end of long runs, trying to keep my feet moving forward as I slowly climbed Parker Hill Ave, and closing my eyes while running up Peter’s Hill in the Arboretum hoping I was near the top. I was not going to let these miserable (in the best way possible) moments go to waste.

Our goal was to climb the hills in the very low 9s which we accomplished on the first one at mile 18 (9:03). We rode the downhills and small rollers knowing that Heartbreak Hill was looming off in the distance. Should add here that I saw a number of friends cheering and yelling my name which provided an incredibly boost and sense of accountability to keep moving forward. Thank you.

We were ready for HH and I whispered a few (Let’s go Robidoux) mantras to myself. In my mind we handled HH like bosses. Our group reminded one another to keep calm, relaxed, and to listen to our breathing. Although it was tough and I wanted to walk, we pushed through it. As we crested Randy, in his booming deep voice, yelled out “YOU DID NOT BREAK MY HEART!” This sent chills through my body and will be one of my all-time marathon highlights.

Randy & I and our teams banging out the hills. Photo Credit to Randy's team.               

One last hill at Boston College and the real race begins. Entering BC, Mike turned from guide to hype-man as he implored the BC students (Mike is a proud Eagle and was rocking his BC hat backwards) to “make some noise” and noise they did!  

We crested the last hill and made the big sweeping turn onto Chestnut Hill Ave. The crowds were loud and raucous which is what I needed. My quads were shot but I picked up some energy knowing we were close to Boston and Jill and Lucy were just a couple of miles away.

When we turned onto Beacon I wanted to ride the downhill while knowing I still had a lot to run. Like last year, this is always a tough stretch for me. I kept asking Mike if we had passed Coolidge Corner and he kept telling me no. We saw Erich and his crew right around mile 24 which provided some short relief to my constant thinking about how more miles I had to go.

As we neared Jill, Lucy and our friends at mile 23.5 I managed to drop into the high 7:00s for a minute or two (this is like flying for me). Mike was masterful in guiding me around the crowds as some runners had begun to walk. Finally, I saw Jill and our friends. I knew I was close to my goal so I threw out some high 5s and kept plugging along. Shortly after we passed the TWAV cheering section which provided yet another boost (DGs represent!).

I was spent and out of gas. I popped a shot-block for a final burst of energy and it backfired. I was breathing so hard that I chocked on it and just outside Kenmore I had to walk for a few seconds to clear my throat.

It seemed like it took days for me to get to the mile 25 marker. I thought I’d already passed it but then I saw it (sure I swore a few times right about here) just ahead. I somehow managed to run this mile in 8:36.

The rain drops and small text of my total elapsed time made it tough for me to read my watch. I thought I had 10 minutes to run the final 1.2 miles which I thought was doable. As we came up from the Mass Ave underpass I knew the “right on Hereford” was just ahead. My legs were lead and I was running on fumes. I was weaving like Glass Joe. One last “left onto Boylston” and this is it. I pushed as hard as I could while not knowing my time. I wasn't sure exactly where the finish line was and Mike said to just keep running.

I crossed the finish line with my arms raised and nearly collapsed. I managed to stop my Garmin but couldn't see the finish time. We were kindly directed to the VIP tent (the elites were already likely showered & finishing their post-race meal) where we were able to sit and get some water and bananas. I got the race text saying that I finished in 3:50:18. I laughed (and dropped the f-bomb) because this matched my fastest marathon time.

I am very proud of my finishing time. Boston is a tough course and to throw up my fastest time in any marathon is special. I also know that I left absolutely nothing out there. Sure, if I would have known I was so close I could have run 1 second faster or maybe 21 seconds to reach my goal. But I know I did the best I could. I trained hard in one of the worst Boston winters ever, was prepared and ready to go come race day. No regrets.

Running is an individual activity but when you add in sighted guides and friends who are running with TWAV, it becomes a team sport. I was honored to share so many miles with Randy and his team, enjoyed a few strides with Erich and his guides, and got a little pick me up every time I came across another TWAV runner. WE rolled deep and kicked some ass out there. Most importantly, raised awareness about the abilities of runners who are blind/visually impaired.

My sighted guides Mike and Michelle were beyond amazing. Boston is the toughest course to guide on. Incredibly crowded in the beginning, packed water stops throughout, and more crowds and obstacles the last few miles. I felt comfortable and safe for the entire 26.2 miles which allowed me to run my/our race. All done while providing support and words of encouragement.

Thank you to Jill and Lucy who supported me throughout the entire training season. Your support is crucial and always much appreciated. Especially when I decided to do “some ski racing” on the side which made an already busy schedule that much more challenging. You two rock!  


Until the next (running or ski) race….


Mike and I near the finish line!