The Harrisburg Marathon: A Spectator Sport?

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This past Sunday, our little river city hosted the 41st annual running of the Harrisburg Marathon. Though I kept my hat firmly on my head and out of the ring this year, my father-in-law traveled from Indiana to join 1000+ other runners to tackle the rolling hills of wildwood, iconic bridges, and Capital streets on a route designed and managed by the YMCA.  It was a crisp but clear morning for early November, and almost perfect running temperatures when we headed downtown for the race.

Nimbus with the Marathon Half-zip tech shirt

Nimbus with the Marathon Half-zip tech shirt

There is an infectious feeling of enthusiasm, hope, and accomplishment that buzzes from the throng of runners and eager spectators before a marathon that is unlike any other race.  The marathon has become the gold ring for most mainstream runners: a lifetime goal for some, a Boston Qualifier for others, a triumph of discipline and physical fitness for all participants.  Say what you will about ultras, mudruns, triathlons, and other tests of physical prowess – none is more well known or recognized as the marathon.

The Marathon Start

The Marathon Start

This was a great race to spectate.  After the start on the Market Street bridge, and observing some of the wacky costumes (Keith Straw and the ever-present pink tutu, the guy juggling for some reason, wonder-women and plenty more) we strolled across the Walnut St Bridge, where a live band was playing the appropriate Flock of Seagulls Cover.  From there, we were able to catch the runners 3-4 times as they circled about the course.  Next we scooted over to Wildwood in time to see all the runners twice more before heading back to the finish line.  Check out the Course Map here.

Runners Heading North along the Greenbelt

Runners Heading North along the Greenbelt

The race finishes at City Island, directly at the end of the Walnut St Bridge.  Since that grating is miserable to run over (AM I RIGHT?) the runners all stick to the sidewalk.  This allows spectators to stand on the grating, and I imagine offers a dramatic end for the runners:  flanked on one side by the river, and the other a crowd of cheering fans offering high fives and encouragement.  Or maybe its just claustrophobic.

The Finish!

The Finish!

for the most part, this course made me proud of our river city, showing off unique places like Wildwood Park, the Capitol Complex, South Harrisburg Greenbelt, City Island, and Riverfront Park.  Parking is ample on City Island, and packet pickup was a breeze.  We have perfect infrastructure for this type of event.

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Like so many things in our fine city, the Marathon is really, really good – but it has the potential to be great.  Over 1000 runners signed up this year, from more than 35 different states and 3 different countries. Anecdotally,  these runners brought along family members and friends.  Many traveled in the day before, and/or stayed the night after.  One of the downtown hotels is an advertising sponsor for the race. Well executed, well supported marathons draw folks from all over – over 70% of whom make over $75k per year (check out these stats).

In addition to an opportunity for the runners to test their mettle, city-wide events like this are an opportunity to celebrate.  To hit the streets with your neighbors and show off our hospitality. I would love the city to not merely host the marathon, but to EMBRACE the opportunity to be inspired by these athletes, have a darn good time cheering them on, and showcase our unique city in the process.

I had so much fun, I just might try running the damn thing next year.

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Labor Pain 12-Hour Endurance Trail Race

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In my experience, trail runners find their way to the sport in a variety of ways. Some are converted road-runners, some are hikers that just sped up, and others are drawn to the variety and scenery that trails offer over the average road run. There seems to be a common trajectory once people find their way to trail running, and that is eventually (or immediately) pursuing an ultra marathon distance.  One of the greatest aspects of the Labor Pain 12-hour Endurance Race, is the opportunity to see folks from almost all levels of experience competing on the same field, each with their own goals and measures of success.  Whether you are trying to reach the golden ring of 15 miles, a marathon, or 75 miles, you’ve got 12 hours to shuffle through, with a supportive crowd every 5 miles and aid stations every 2.5 miles.  This is a perfect environment to try to reach your farthest distance (unless you are already in the 100-mile range.  Then its a great training run!)

We got up bright and early on Sunday morning in order to make it to the Reading Liederkrans for the 7:30 Am start time.  I know grains are getting a bad name in some nutrition circles, but I’ll stand by standard pre-race breakfast: Steel-cut oats with almond/peanut butter, a banana, espresso.

Breakfast

We arrived in plenty of time, and had a great time catching up with old friends and making a few new ones.  The course itself is a five-mile loop, comprised mostly of runnable single track.  There are some short pavement sections and a few tough hills, but that just made for plenty of variety (hate to get bored over the course of 12 hours!).  I started in the middle of the pack and  got stuck in the all-too-familiar conga line on the first loop.  This was certainly a blessing as it stopped me from going out too fast and burning out on the first lap.  I picked up the pace for the next two laps, and was feeling pretty darn good.  No nutrition at this point besides a few gummies.  At mile 15, a friend jumped in and paced me for the next two laps.  It was great to have somebody to chat with and help push me forward.

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The Start

After Mile 15, my lovely wife got suited up and jumped in to pace me for the rest of the race.  I was still feeling pretty good, but starting to slow down a bit.  We started walking the hills and cruising on the downhills & flats.  While I managed to pass by the temptation of “alternative sport beverages” for most of the laps, around mile 22.5 I decided a bit of Pottsville Swill would help lift my spirits.  After that, I imbibed about half a beer per lap, and started eating pretzel rods for salt+carbs.  Having Rachel along for the last few loops was a huge help.  Somewhere along the 7th loop I started really dragging.  The oppressive humidity and heat were really getting to me, and I hadn’t run farther than 20 miles in one shot since April of 2010.  We decided to call it at 40 miles, and spend the remaining hours enjoying the Liederkrans Bar and cheering on the remaining runners.

The Clever PCS T-shirt

The Clever PCS T-shirt

I still think I could have gutted through the last 10 miles to get to 50 prior to the cutoff time – but I would have been miserable.  Instead, I stopped at 40 and felt pretty damn good.  No injuries, still able to walk around and drive home without any problems.  Perhaps with a bit more training I’ll take another stab at that 50 mile mark next year…

Trail Runs – Stony Mountain Fire Tower

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Last Friday we scored a beautiful, sunny, and uncharacteristically cool afternoon that practically required a dismissal of the to-do list in exchange for some time running in the woods.  I’ve recently been roaming around new (to me) trails within a short drive of Harrisburg, and decided to locate the Stony Mountain Fire Tower.

SGL211 Mao

SGL 211

Located in the heart of State Game Land 211, the firetower sits atop Stony Mountain, and offers multiple routes depending on your desired mileage, difficulty, and tolerance for rocky terrain.  I chose to run a few miles on the Stony Valley Railroad Grade, then take the steep Water Tank Trail straight up the mountain to the tower.  I partially chose this route because it is labeled “Cascades during high water” which I read as particularly scenic and technical.

Rocky Trail

Heading up the Water Tank Trail

As usual for this time of year, the gnats were out in full force and seemed undeterred by my liberal use of DEET.  The only solution seems to be to keep moving, and run faster.  The Water Tank Trail was beautiful, with plenty of cascades and pools to keep me cool and the dog well hydrated.  This will definitely be a trail to return to during the spring melt.  After eating my weight in spiderwebs, I employed the swinging stick technique to clear the trail.  I’m surprised no enterprising hiker has invented a permanent solution to that yet.

Grassy Trail

Once we crested the ridge, the trail pushes through fields of highbush blueberry, and what looks to be great habitat for Ursus americanus, but alas we only saw a few deer bounding away.  The trail then opens up to a wide grassy fire road that leads the rest of the way to the tower.

Stony Mountain Fire Tower

Stony Mountain Fire Tower

Two great, big, black buzzards were perched atop the tower and took off as we approached.  I kept a wary eye on our twenty-pound dog, as he might look like a tasty snack from above.  We roamed around a bit, stopped for snack and some rehydration, and set off back down the mountain the way we came.  I will certainly return to this spot, hopefully trying a few more trails I have yet to discover.

Looking Up the Stony Mo

Looking Up the Stony Mountain Fire Tower

Trail Runs – Appalachian Trail from Rt 325 to Peter’s Mountain

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The pillar of most ultra marathon training programs is the long run. For those of us with a relatively conventional Monday-Friday work schedule, the 4-5 hour jaunts are relegated to the weekends.  Last Saturday I headed out bright and early (although not quite as early as I would have hoped) to run the 10-mile section of the Appalachian Trail between Clark’s Valley (Route 325) and the top of Peter’s Mountain.  I parked the car down in the valley, and planned on running out and back, for a total of 20 miles.

Kintner View

View from the Trail along Peters Mountain

I picked up the AT just below the Dehart Dam Reservoir, the catchment which supplies the drinking water for Harrisburg City.  This section starts with a healthy 1.5 mile climb, made a bit easier with well-maintained rock steps and switchbacks.  Since my Garmin was the victim of a forgetful owner (more on that later), I had to carry along my phone to track miles/pace.  I also brought along two water bottles, one spiked with electrolytes, and a gel in case I really needed some calories.  I tucked all this into the women’s small nathan running pack I borrowed from my lovely wife.

I was feeling pretty strong, despite putting in a longer week than usual, and in a bout of overconfidence tried to keep the pace up through a technical rocky section of trail  Right around 2.3 miles, I stumbled, lost my balance, and went down hard (luckily I caught myself with a rock).  I’m used to stumbling during trail runs, but I can usually manage to stay vertical.  This time I was not so lucky.  At only a little over two miles, I couldn’t turn around and waste the morning, so I pushed on.

Merely a Flesh Wound

Merely a Flesh Wound

After that initial rocky section, the trail evens out along the ridgetop and is much more runnable, with a few great overlooks and a spring or two on the way if you happen to run out of water.  There are also lots of side trails jutting off into the State Game Lands and the Ibberson Natural Area to explore.  As I approached Kintner View, some thoughtful hikers had been kind enough to leave me a note that instilled a slight hint of trepidation.

Snakes!

Snakes!

And Snakes there were.  Keeping my eyes peeled in the rocky areas and overlooks, I saw plenty of sleepy black snakes, rattlesnakes, and copperheads.  As the day progressed, they became more and more prevalent (or I became more observant).  Luckily they all remained docile and uninterested in the sweaty, tired human lumbering past.  I made the turnaround, and humped it 10 miles back to the car.

This was a great section of trail, and as long as you don’t mind seeing a few slithery friends in the summer, well worth the few minutes drive to get there.  Next time I think I’ll start in the same place but head north toward Maine, and let the snakes guard the path to Georgia.

How (not) to Train for an Ultramarathon

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Disclaimer:  I am recording this for posterity, but I am in no way, shape, or form advocating running an ultramarathon without proper preparation.  Read the title, above.

It’s been a busy summer.  Between the sweltering heat, lots of travel, and lack of motivation I haven’t been running or racing much since Hyner View back in April. After rattling around about running an ultra this year, I finally bit the bullet and registered for the Sept 1 Labor Pain 12-hour Endurance Challenge.

This will be my first attempt at a 12-hour race, and I’m excited to see how many miles I can chew through in that amount of time.  If you are interested in watching an ultra marathon this is one of the best for spectators.  Held at the Reading Liederkrantz (bar is open most of the day) it consists of a 5-mile trail loop that runners plod around till the time is up.  As a spectator, that means you get to sit back, relax, sip on some fine German beer while watching a carousel of ultra marathoners stream past.

Endurance running is an endeavor that requires mental toughness and nutrition management, and two years ago I was intrigued by the differences in the runners’ chosen supplements.  Some threw back carefully measured energy gels and tablets, while others chowed down on cold fried chicken and coke.  I’m aiming for somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.

The race is but a mere 7 weeks away, and it’s time to think more concretely about whether or not I am prepared to get through 30-50 miles.  I decided to pick the first 50 mile training program that popped up in Google (congrats to the SEO folks over at Runner’s World).  Next, I downloaded my running history over the last 9 weeks from DailyMile, and with a little excel magic ended up with this:

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It was a bit disheartening, but a much-needed reality check.  See that two-week period of 0 mile days?  I have a pretty good excuse, I was busy riding a 35 year old motorcycle across the country.

I’m using this week as a litmus test, of sorts.  If my base is strong enough to jump into the training program at week 9, I think I’ve got a shot.  Otherwise, I may need to revise my goal for Sept 1.  We will take another look at that graph in a few weeks and see how things are progressing.

Race Recap – The Sweetest Half Marathon on Earth!

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Last Sunday I joined a throng of nearly 4,000 other runners for the annual Hershey Half Marathon.  The opportunity to join in this massive road race became available about four days before the race – and after some internal wrangling (two beers) I decided to jump in with both feet.  My “training” this year has been loosely focused on ultras, mainly just plugging away miles without regard to pace, and certainly no speed work.

Busy Day at Hershey Park? Nope, It’s the Hershey Half!

The Hershey Half represented three first-times for me:  It was the largest race I’ve ran, the farthest road race, and most definitely the earliest race.  The gun goes off at 7:30 AM to ensure traffic flows and park visitors can return to normal by the afternoon.  Logically, this make sense…but when the alarm goes off at 5:00 it’s hard to agree with their reasoning.  Luckily the part of your brain which recognizes decisions you might regret generally isn’t operating that early, so when I rolled out of bed I was still feeling pretty good about the race.

My impression  was that the course was pretty well designed. There is a wide start line just outside the football field, with markers for your expected pace.  There is a predictable hike to the actual start line when the gun goes off (I crossed the START line at 1:30) but it breaks up relatively quickly after that. After weaving around the massive coliseum that is the Hershey Entertainment complex, the route enters the park and winds through some of the coasters and my personal favorite as a kid – the waterpark.  There was a live band in the park still dutifully playing us through as I passed.  The course then shoots through the town, the local golf course, and I think some property which belongs to the Milton Hershey School.  Lots of support & fans along the way.

While I didn’t win any awards on Sunday, there a few groups of folks worth mentioning:

1. Best Signs: There were some creative folks out there on Sunday.  My favorites included a bearded young man with a scully cap and a serious expression holding a sign that said “Worst Parade Ever”.  At mile 11, a beaming white haired woman with a red vest held an encouraging sign “Forget the Pace, Forget The Race, Let’s go Drink a Case!”.

2. Best Fans:  I’m sure they are a normal phenomenon at these types of races, but I haven’t seen them before.  The Team-In-Training folks were out in force!  Every few miles there seemed to be a sea of purple complete with noisemakers, balloons and costumes.  They were cheering full-bore every time I ran past.  That organization does a great job of supporting its athletes/fundraisers.

3. Worst Fellow Runners: I try not be evangelical about my running behavior.  I’ll do what works for me – you do what works for you, everybody runs happy.  But I got stuck with a group of runners who were constantly checking their GPS, and complaining at nearly every mile marker that course was poorly marked, since it was off by .1 or .2 miles from  their GPS.  If you have something positive to say, by all means speak up, but if you are just complaining about something trivial, please keep it to yourself.  The plus side?  My annoyance gave me enough umph to run faster and leave ‘em in the dust.

All in all, this was a successful race and a great experience.  I finished strong, didn’t get injured, and put up a respectable time.  If road half marathons are your bag, put this one on your list.  If the chocolate aid station wasn’t sweet enough – race entry comes with two free Hershey Park Tickets!

The Importance of Being Selfish

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After reinvigorating my focus on the 2012 in 2012 challenge, I’ve been paying careful attention to the habits and routines that enable me to tick off 9+ miles per day, a necessary evil if I plan on marking this year a success.  My experience thus far has been that the most significant roadblock is not the physical demands (after all, I could theoretically walk or ride a bike slowly all day and rack up miles) or dealing with the weather, but simply finding the time each day to spend on  fitness.

I was discussing this point with my father-in-law while taking some time to run on the Tecumseh trail in Southern Indiana.  He shared an observation/advice from a friend that I felt was particularly fitting, since I recently signed up for the PHUNT 50k in January and will be staring down long runs each and every weekend.

It boils down to this:  Training for a specific event or maintaining a strong level of fitness requires a bit of selfishness.  There will always be other people, relationships, and tasks that are deserving of your time, and it’s easy to feel like you can’t make the time to disappear for a few hours to run, bike, or swim.  If you are a feeling a bit guilty about choosing the 18-mile run on your training plan over brunch with your spouse or friends, remember that the energy and focus you bring back to the table will be valuable to these relationships in the long-term.

It’s the affirmation of something we should all inherently understand: If you are not taking care of yourself, it is very difficult to maintain focus and take care of others.  It’s tough to shake off the warmth of bed before dawn, or even worse, show up late to happy hour to squeeze in some exercise.  However, the long term health benefits, self confidence, and ability to complete that race goal in three months require those sacrifices.  So suck it up, buttercup – there’s miles to run (or bike, or paddle, or swim)!

Not Dead Yet!

Earlier this week I pulled up wordpress to cobble together an online presence for a great event coming up in November, the Harrisburg Cranksgiving. It’s going to be a heck of a lot of fun, so If you are in town on November 18th, please come out and join us!

It dawned on me that it had been some time since I paid any real attention to the 2012 in 2012 challenge. It’s been a busy summer – much of it was joyfully spent on planning and celebrating our nuptials, and soaking in the sights and sounds of a Peruvian honeymoon. I also competed in a few trail races, and spent as much time as possible paddling, hiking, biking, and running in the summer sun.

With three months left in the year (actually 89 days at this point), I dutifully pulled up DailyMile to see how much distance has been recorded. Now, I know that I’ve not been as regimented about logging miles as I should have. I’ve certainly missed a race or two and plenty of utilitarian bike trips, and haven’t recorded any paddling miles. That being said, in the interest of transparency, I can’t go back and guesstimate and will stick with those miles recorded.

As of this morning, I’ve logged 1,163 total miles in 2012. Going by this number, I’ll need to average just over 9.5 miles per day to complete the challenge! For a guy that doesn’t tick off century rides every weekend, this will certainly be a tough goal to hit. By adding some mileage to my work commute, and throwing in some long runs on the weekends, I still believe I can pull it off.

If you are looking for me over the next 3 months, I’ll be guy riding back and forth on Riverfront park on an old Mongoose Mt Bike…

Trail Race Recap – Hyner View Trail Challenge

“Our course is designed to reward those who have trained and punish those who haven’t!” – Not the encouraging words I had hoped to hear during the first mile of the Hyner View Trail Challenge, as I found myself running within earshot of one of the race organizers who was gleefully reciting the above mantra that is found on the Hyner View and Rothrock Challenge websites.  Sporting a healthy elevation gain of 4,226 feet over 16ish miles, I was not feeling particularly confident in my lackluster training regimen leading up to race day.  Luckily the weather was just about perfect for the race, hovering in the mid 50’s with plenty of cloud cover and the potential for a bit of passing rain.  This is a tough race, but the grueling course encourages camaraderie (misery loves company, after all), and the excellent organization makes the race feel much smaller than it actually is.  The trail is technical, and the views are incredible.  Those views don’t come free, however.  The hill climbs on this race are brutal, and there are three major ridges to conquer. I generally lost a few spots with each climb, but made up lots of time by bombing down the long, technical descents.  My knees are definitely going to make me pay for that strategy in a few years.  With 4 well-stocked aid stations, I chose to run sans hydration bottle, assuming I might need my hands for scrambles and to break the inevitable tumbles.  I ended up finishing MUCH better than I had anticipated, and celebrated with plenty of post-race beer provided by Yorkholo Brewing Company in Mansfield, PA.  If you ever get to Mansfield, make it a point to stop by!  One of the best parts of trail races? There is always good beer at the end!

Speaking of beer, we had meandered our way northward the previous night, carb-loading on great beer and pub grub at Selinsgrove Brewing Company and the Bullfrog Brewery en route. Selinsgrove is currently pouring the Snake Bite Stout, fairly light in body with a nice hop kick at the end.  Certainly worth a quaff! Growlers from each made it into the cooler for post-race celebrations.  While sitting at the Bullfrog, we happened to meet  two folks who were headed to Hyner the next morning as well.  One of these fine folks noticed the Ithaca HHH logo on our growler of Hopsfyxiation, and as luck would have it he had just founded a SoChesCo Hash in Chester County.  Stop by and see them if you are in town!

If you’ve never been to the PA Wilds, you are missing out on one of the great land legacies and landscapes in the country.  The PA Trails Trophy Series is a great way to explore some of the best wilderness areas in the commonwealth, and tackle some awesome races with solid company (and good beer at the end). Many thanks to The Nature Conservancy, Western Clinton Sportsman Club, sponsors, and volunteers for putting on an awesome race! See you next year!

Mileage: 16.35

Total Mileage: 456

Next up: Rothrock Challenge!

*I apologize for the lack of scenic photos, but I left the phone/camera in the car!

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