Monday, November 9, 2009

USA Trail Marathon Championships

This weekend I ventured out west to Ashland, Oregon to run in the USA Trail Marathon Championships.  This year's event was hosted by the Lithia Loop Marathon, which is put on by the Rogue Valley Runners.  Last year was the first annual event and the course was actually lengthened this year by quite a bit to become a 'certified' marathon distance.

CMS sent out a contingent of 4 brave souls to attempt another National title run (following up the USA Mountain gold that CMS won this past June at Cranmore Mt. in North Conway, NH). I along with Dave Dunham, Dan Verrington, and Judge Jones signed up and headed west to throw ourselves at a very hilly and picturesque course starting and finishing in Lithia Park and circumnavigating the Ashland watershed near Mount Ashland in Ashland, OR.  The course consists of approximately 2 miles pavement, 3.5 miles single track and 21 miles dirt/fire road with an honest 4,700 feet of elevation gain.  This would be my 3rd marathon this year, and my 4th marathon in the last 15 months.

Jonesy and I headed out on Friday morning from Boston and arrived just before Dan Verrington, at Medford International Airport. DD picked us up and off we went, over to the Rogue Valley Runners' store in Ashland to pick up our numbers and race packets. When we got over there, Rich Bolt (CMS/USATF-Oregon) was there to meet us, as well as the dudes from Rogue Valley, who run a VERY cool store.  It was probably the coolest running store I've seen, with lots of great gear and a killer shoe selection which included a pair of road flats I have been looking for and couldn't find anywhere else. We hung out there for a while, met and talked with store manager Ian Torrence, who was thrilled to have us out there,  and then headed across the street to the course start/finish area to do a short run over the last part of the race course.  Rich, Dan, Dave, Judge, and I ran up the road over the last part of the course and took a wrong turn somewhere, but we got the general idea of what we were getting into.  The views and scenery were awesome.  I was getting anxious and excited for the race and felt pretty good, considering sitting in a plane all morning.  After the run, we parted ways with Rich and headed back to the hotel to change and head out to dinner.  We picked Rich up on the way back into town and had a nice dinner before heading back for some shuteye.

In the morning, we all met for a light breakfast and then headed over to the starting area, where Cath dropped us off before continuing up to the 2 mile mark to get some photos. We were one of the first ones there, and headed on in to get our chips (yes chip timing in this trail marathon :) ).  As we sat in Pioneer Hall, laying out all our gear and deciding on what to wear for shoes and clothing, Aaron Saft walked in and plunked his stuff down next to ours.  I went out with him for a 15 or so minute run over the first part of the course and got to chat with him for the first time.  He's a great guy and really down to Earth.  By the time we got back to the start, I was actually pretty warm (even though it was probably in the low/mid 40s).  The sun was teetering on coming out through the thick low cloud cover and the rain was holding off.  I made the decision, after doing the warmup and talking with Aaron, to go with a singlet/shorts and the Inov-8 230's.  As the start time approached, many folk started to make their way up the road (.2 miles up the hill) to the start.  DD and I were the last 2 out of the hall (after a last minute bathroom break) and were cutting it close, when he mentioned that he had just dropped his gloves accidentally in the sink.  They were soaked.  I had an extra pair, in my bag, so we both sprinted back down to the finish area to get them.  It was close, but we made it back up to the start (last ones) in time to get a few strides in before the gun.

Photo above at just shy of 2 miles into the initial 8 mile climb up to close to 5000 feet. L-R: Aaron Saft, Max King, Sam Robinson, and JJ (with Nicholas Lewis in the background).

The Race:

As the gun went off, 2007 Trail Marathon Champ Aaron Saft (Inov-8) went out quick and opened up a 20+ yard lead through the first 3/4 of a mile or so before Max King, Sam Robinson, and myself caught him and formed a tight pack that would lead up through the first 4 or so miles.  Through the first mile, the course is essentially all paved and has a slight climb up to the start of the dirt road, that would encompass most of the next 2+ hours of my life.  The dirt road wound up through the forest with a very similar look and feel to Mt. Washington, although not as steep and every now and again, there was a small break (which you do not get at Mt. Washington).  I was running pretty comfortable, and trying not to fall into the trap of thinking it was an 8 mile race to the summit.  I kept bringing myself back to reality, and reminding myself that I had another 18 miles to go AFTER reaching the first ascent, and not to go too crazy on the way up.  I didn't want to fall completely off the pack however, so I pushed up enough to keep the first 3 guys in sight.  I want to say that even before the 2 mile mark, there was nobody within view behind me except for Nicholas Lewis.  Through 4 miles and about 1600 feet of climb, I started to fall off a bit.  Max took a noticeable lead and Aaron and Sam fell back off the lead but stayed together.  I went up past the first of 5 aid stations somewhere around 4-5 miles or so and passed on water.  Huge mistake. I ran within view of the 3 leaders until close to 7.5 miles or so, where the course goes from the dirt/fire road to single track trail.

When I hit the single track trail, I couldn't see anyone in front or behind me.  I pushed on up the first real 'trail' portion of the race and up past the 8 mile mark, which was painted on the trail (most all the other previous markers were small yellow signs on the side of the road).  This was a tough grind and very steep at times.  The 8th mile was definitely the slowest mile of the course, and was almost 8 minutes for me.  At the top of the single track ascent, there was the 2nd aid station.  I took a small bit of water here (1 cup I think) and pressed on.  I took a GU around this time (I carried two with me).  I felt fine and it was more of a preventative measure at that point of the race.  The main climb was done with, but now came the 12 miles of straight dirt road that wound up and down around the Ashland watershed.  This would prove to be a very lonesome and tough grind for me.

As I pressed along the next few miles, my back started to tighten up a bit.  I felt it in my lower back and hips. I wasn't thinking much of it at the time, but now I know that it was just a sign of things to come.  I noticed some very light flurries happening somewhere around mile 9 or 10, and my sleeves were iced over from where they were wet.  I was comfortable temperature-wise, with only my single/shorts and sleeves, gloves, and hat.  I couldn't have prepared any better, except for the decision to NOT bring any water with me.  Slowly but surely, I started to feel my hamstrings tighten and I hadn't even hit the halfway point yet.   I kept plugging away, but was being very conservative.  It had been a while since I had seen anyone in front or behind me.  I would look back at each turn, up or down the previous long stretch of isolated dirt road to see if anyone was coming.  Nobody back there.  I kept on chuggin', but had to hold back the whole time and was getting very frustrated.  I knew it was coming.  I went through 13 in 1:27 and figured it would be no problem going negative, even with some issues, as it was pretty much mostly downhill from there.  I was wrong.  Right before 15 or so, my right hamstring went.  I'm talking full on cramp up underneath my butt and there was no denying I was in big trouble. Only 15 miles in, and I had to stop.  Completely stop.  I had 11 miles to go, deep in the forest at about 5000+ feet up, and I was at a standstill.  I stopped and stretched for 20 seconds or so and started up again, but it was in slow motion.  I came around the corner and saw the next aid station.  I rolled in there and stopped.  I grabbed some water, electrolytes, and another GU.  I also stretched a bit more and started up again after staring back up the road, just waiting for a glimpse of another runner.  Nobody in sight.

Out of that next aid station, I made it a mile or so without a full on cramp.  Then disaster again.  It popped on me again and this time, both hamstrings were going.  For the next few miles, it was 1-2 stops per mile.  Each with 20 or seconds of deadstop stretching and staring up the hill, looking for the next runner.  17, 18, 19, 20.  I was still moving, downhill, but SLOW.  Even thought I was running in the 6's for pace, it was downhill, that I should have been rocking at 5:50s or faster.  The combination of bad cramping and the initial climb was taking it's toll on my legs.  Cardio-wise and 'bonking-wise' I was complete control...but my cramps where slowing me down to a literal scuffle and stiff-leg stride that was depressing me with every step.  As I hit the 20 mile mark or so, there was the next aid station.  I stopped again for some water, but this time could almost not keep it down.  I was heaving a bit and having more trouble keeping my composure.  I downed a cup of electrolytes and took a few GU blocks and stretched for a few seconds before continuing on.  From 21-23ish is straight down.  This part of the course, had I not been cramping up, would have easily been my fastest 2+ miles.  It was like running down parts of the Mt. Washington auto road, yet I was reduced to a stiff-legged scuffle and had to stop AGAIN on the way down.   At this point, I was shocked that nobody had caught me yet.  I pushed on thinking that if the rest of the race was like this, I may be able to manage holding 4th.  Not too much further after I had that revelation, I was disheartened to see that the course leveled out and hit single track again.  This meant up and down, up and down, and slow, slow, slow for me.  This was the beginning of the end of my race.  I was essentially walking the uphills here at this point and had to shake out my legs and punch my hamstrings and calves.  My calves were starting to cramp now, worse than ever before.  I've never had this many problems with my legs in anything I've ever done.  And I had 3 miles or so to go.

At this point, I had done all this work and was now pretty sure I was going to lose it. I waddled up and down the single track and hit the last aid station and this time, figured there was no way it was going to help me if I stopped, so I went right past it without taking anything.  I heard a woman say 'nice job' as I went by.  I was still in earshot when I heard her say it again, but this time, knew that the time had come.  She was saying it to someone else who was now right behind me.  The single track started to now wind back and forth, over multiple switchbacks, down to the paved road below.  As I wound down the and looked up at the trail sections I had just been on, I could now see the first runner who was behind me.  The first runner I had seen in 13 or so miles.  To my surprise, it was top master runner and well known coach Greg McMillan (photo left by Cathy Dunham) out of Flagstaff, AZ.  I could tell by his head-to-toe adidas garb.  He looked smooth, steady, and was gaining on me with every step.  I pushed down and scuffled as much as I could without really lifting my legs.  It was so aggravating and borderline depressing at this point that I felt so good but couldn't lift my legs enough to run anything faster than a jog.  I wanted to race so bad but had no muscles willing to cooperate. Not a situation I am used to by any means.

As I hit the bottom of the single track, I was still ahead of Greg, and in the same spot I had been in since the gun.  But I was fighting a losing battle.  I went by Cathy Dunham, who was taking pictures at the base, and I commented to her that I was having problems. Right after that, I hit the paved road and had just over 1 mile to go. I had to stop at that point and stretch out the golfball sized knots in my calves and hamstrings.  Greg came wizzing past me and actually asked me if I was OK. I told him I would manage and congratulated him on how he was about to finish the race and I started to basically walk/jog the last mile down the paved streets to the finish.  I had to stop 3 times on the last street, all the while people cheering me on and trying to lift me up to the finish...but I was at the point where I couldn't even stand up. Walking was borderline excruciating and to jog a few steps, walk a few steps was all I could muster.  I came whimpering across the line, more than 2 minutes back of Greg. He put over 2 minutes on me in the last mile and pushed me back to 5th overall.

It was a very tough day for sure, and the toughest 10 miles of my life, potentially. I am very pleased and excited to have actually run as fast as I did for that course (especially with all my troubles, the nature of the course, etc) and also to have placed 5th in a National Championship.  In retrospect, if I didn't have my problems, and never cramped up as badly as I did, the only thing that would have changed (besides running maybe 5 or 6 minutes faster than I did) was that I would have been 4th instead of 5th. So really, I only lost 1 place, as I was deep in 4th when my troubles started.  I couldn't even see Aaron Saft when I started cramping, so I only really lost 1 place after all that.  I actually didn't lose any prize money because Greg is now a master (he's 40) so he won the top master's money ($500) and I still got the 4th place open cash ($200).  I talked to Greg after and he mentioned that he had never saw me until he went through that last aid station, and they told him I was only '30 seconds ahead'...he said he was shocked to hear that and didn't really see me until I saw him on the final switchback.  Max King (photo on left taken by Cathy Dunham) won the race in an impressive 2:40 (even faster than last year's shorter course).  He did this after running a 2:19:11 at last week's NYC Marathon.  Max is a former USA World Cross Country team member and competed at the 2008 Olympic Trials in the Steeplechase.

After the race, I was surprisingly OK, considering.  I couldn't sit, stand, bend over, or really move at all without a lot of grimacing and yelling, but I wasn't 'medical tent material' like I usually had been, in the last couple of marathons I did.  I was eventually able to change my clothes, get warm, and get some grub while the rest of the finishers came down out of the hills.

CMS teammate Dan Verrington was only 6 or so minutes back and came in a solid 10th place overall.  Dave Dunham came in in 16th place overall (15th Men) and Judge Jones came in in a solid 47th place overall (39th Men).  With just the 4 of us, we did all we needed to do to win the men's team titles (Open and Masters) for the 2nd time this year, in USATF competition.  One interesting side-note...this is Judge Jones' 4th National Title (Team and/or Individual).  He's won a US title in swimming, triathlon, duathlon, and now the trail marathon.

Top 20 Overall + CMS in Blue

Eagle Point

Race Vitals:

Number of Finishers: 143
Number of Females: 42
Number of Males: 101
Average Time: 4:12:34

CMS Medal Winners:

Jim Johnson - 5th Place Medal - USATF Top 10 Open
Jim Johnson - Team Gold Medal - Men's Open
Dave Dunham - 2nd Place medal - USATF Men's 45-49
Dave Dunham - Team Gold Medal - Men's Open
Dave Dunham - Team Gold Medal - Men's Masters
Judge Jones - 2nd Place - USATF Men's 55-59
Judge Jones - Team Gold Medal - Men's Masters
Dan Verrington - 10th Place Medal - USATF Top 10 Open
Dan Verrington - 1st Place Medal - USATF Men's 45-49
Dan Verrington - Team Gold Medal - Men's Open
Dan Verrington - Team Gold Medal - Men's Masters

Total USATF Medal Count for CMS: 11

L-R below: Dan Verrington, Dave Dunham, Jim Johnson, Judge Jones

Splits: Trail Marathon - 26.2

Mile 01) 6:05
Mile 02) 6:23 (12:29)
Mile 03) 7:28 (19:57)
Mile 04) 7:29 (27:26)
Mile 05) 6:52 (34:18)
Mile 06) 7:12 (41:32)
Mile 07) 7:08 (48:41)
Mile 08) 7:57 (56:38)
Mile 09) 6:05 (1:02:45)
Mile 10) 6:29 (1:09:14)
Mile 11) 5:53 (1:15:08)
Mile 12) 6:11 (1:21:20)
Mile 13) 5:57 (1:27:17)
Mile 14) 5:55 (1:33:12)
Mile 15) ?:?? (?:??:??)
Mile 16) ?:?? (1:45:41)
Mile 17) 6:45 (1:52:26)
Mile 18) 6:15 (1:58:42)
Mile 19) 6:22 (2:05:04)
Mile 20) 6:36 (2:11:40)
Mile 21) 6:42 (2:18:47)
Mile 22) ?:?? (?:??:??)
Mile 23) ?:?? (2:31:27)
Mile 24) ?:?? (?:??:??)
Mile 25) ?:?? (?:??:??)
Mile 26) ?:?? (?:??:??)
Finish) 2:56:57 - 6:45 pace.

After the awards and afterparty (with tons of food, beer, etc) we all headed back to the hotel for a while before heading back into town for another dinner with Rich and a couple of his family members.  We ate at the same place again and had a great time talking about the race, the results, and plans for next year.  Then it was time to go back and hit the sack...early flight on Sunday, out of OR at 6, through Denver, and back over to Boston...all with stiff legs/back and jeg lag...not fun. I'm hanging on for dear life while writing this.

My in-race problems aside, I had a blast and will seriously consider going back next year.

In the airport, Jonesy picked up the Mail Tribune (paper in OR) and saw that they actually threw in a small plug for's the online version of the article:

Mail Tribune Article (11-08-09)

Full (Searchable) Results

Photos posted to SmugMug of the trip and race (race photos courtesy of Cathy Dunham).


GZ said...

Wow. Quite impressive finish considering the hell you went through. Way to tough it out. I'd tell you to get recovered up, but I am sure you have a race planned even for this weekend. Great write up.

J.Fyffe said...

So cool man. I hate hurting like that. Good write up.

Dan said...

Great race despite the hamstring problems. Sounds like you really earned that finish.

mueblerunner said...

Congrats, JJ. Way to hang in there while the going was tough. Awesome write up but could you tell Dan to smile for a picture for once:) Way to go!

double-d said...

Quit your complaining! Wait until you are Dan's age and you feel awful(and in his case look awful) all the time/

DoubleJ said...

When I'm Dan's age, he'll be 62 and you'll be 61.

GZ said...

Hey - I will buy you a beer when you turn 21. But first, we'll go to a rated R movie someday.

Scott Dunlap said...

Jim -

You still crushed it! CMS really set the bar at this race for future team competition. It was awesome to have you guys out, and I hope to see you there next year!

A Trail Runner's Blog

DoubleJ said...

Thanks Scott! Great meeting all you guys out time and look forward to next year for sure!!!!