Thursday, April 17, 2014

Boston Marathon Preview with Ali Mohsen

Ali at the 2013 Boston Marathon start
Hearts will be worn on all the runner's sleeves Monday at the 118th running of the Boston Marathon. But, this race will also be a day to celebrate our sport and show that terrorism will not scare us away from our passion. For my friend Ali, this is her chance to put the 2013 race behind her. Last year, Ali crossed the finish line hand-in-hand with her two friends 30 minutes before the bombings occurred. What was a joyous occasion quickly turned into a nightmare for her. Ali's Boston story is captured in a recently published book, If Not for a Perfect Stranger. Her story can be viewed here and I highly encourage you to read it before you read my interview with her. To Ali and all the other runners running on Monday, have a great race! I'll be thinking of you all! BOSTON STRONG!

Q: First and foremost, how has your training gone?
Ali Mohsen: Training has gone great!! I was not expecting to be training for this race, and was a little nervous to start training again with everything going on in my life. I got a new job in December, got married in March, and was still in the process of settling into a new home. Out of all of those things, training for Boston has been the easiest. Running is something I know and love. And it is the thing that really kept me sane the last few months while everything else was so crazy! In fact, the morning of my wedding I knew exactly what I needed to chill out – an easy run by myself :) 
Q: You were invited by the Boston Marathon race committee to come back and run in 2014. How did that come about?
AM: As of November 3rd 2013, I had not qualified for the 2014 race. When I did qualify at the NYC Marathon last fall, Boston was already closed to entrants. I was sad I would not be there, but accepted the fact that I would have to watch the race from afar and would be there to run again in 2015.
A couple weeks after NYC, I saw on the Boston Marathon Facebook page that they would be accepting a few entrants based on essays they submitted. The essay had to be based off experiences from the 2013 race and why you should be accepted to run again in 2014. As soon as I read this post, I wrote my essay. I think it took me 10 minutes to write, and within an hour I had submitted it to the BAA. I told myself that if I was accepted, I would not turn it down. I also told myself I would not be upset if my essay wasn't picked. 

The first week of December, I received the email that I was ACCEPTED into the race. I let out a high pitched squeal in Panera Bread and immediately called my husband to tell him the news. He was excited for me, and knew that this is something I really needed to move on from my 2013 experience.

If you want to read the essay, it is posted on this blog post. 

Q: What does it mean to be able to run Boston again this year?

AM: I am so excited to run this race again. And I am honored to be back. I know it will be extremely emotional, but it will be so good for our running community to experience this race together. This race will be dedicated to all of those affected last year, and I will be paying tribute to them with every step I take on that course. 
We will all run as ONE on marathon Monday and we will all heal together. We are stronger than ever before, and on April 21, 2014 we will prove that.

I cannot freaking wait. 

Q: Any goals on race day?

AM: No big goals for this race. I want to have fun and enjoy the experience. My training has been good, but not PR good. I would be absolutely thrilled with anything under 3:40. I will be running alone this year, and plan to focus on the experience and soak it all in. I will also be using my GoPro to capture moments so I can put together a video after the race and give people a feel of how awesome this race really is. 
Q: Do you plan to reunite with the 'Perfect Strangers' you met last year?
AM: As of right now, I do not have plans to reunite. I sent both of them emails today letting them know once again that I appreciated them so much and would be thinking about them when I am back in Boston. I wish nothing but the best for the people that took care of us when we needed it most. They are my Boston heroes!!!

Ali and her friends lay at the Boston Marathon finish line the night before the race

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Race Recap: Trap Pond 50K

One word to describe this race, unexpected. But, unexpected in a good way. I stumbled across this race only a few weeks ago and found out it would mesh well with my 100 mile training. I love to use races as training runs when I can. Makes training more fun, especially when your long runs climb over the marathon distance.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, I love, LOVE, small race venues. I think they really target the roots of running. I grabbed my bib and was informed by the race director to head towards a pedestrian bridge to find the start line. I jogged over to where I saw a small group of runners. I saw a sheet of paper tacked to a trail post that said "50K Start" so I figured I was in the right place. 

The course, a 4.5 mile loop in Trap Pond State Park in lower Delaware, was mostly a crushed rock/sand surface. To complete the 50K, we would circle the loop 7 times. With only 13 runners (including myself), this was the smallest race I've ever participated in. There was also a marathon and half marathon going on concurrently, so the trails weren't too empty during the run. 

A simple countdown from three and we were on our way. One runner (and eventual winner) bolted off ahead the rest of us. I settled into a comfortable pace and enjoyed the scenery around me. The majority of the loop weaved around tall, beautiful pines. When I looked off the trail in any direction, my eyes got lost in the maze of pine trunks. Pine needles covered the forest floor and trail. With the sun just rising, it made for some awesome nature eye candy.

Sunrise at the start
After the first and second loops, I was in 5th place. However, I knew that the 4th and 3rd place runners weren't too far ahead as I would see them from time to time on the longer straights of the trail. Seeing them made me run a little harder then I had planned to, but I the idea of being able to run 3rd in a race was too enticing. So what if it was only a field of 13 runners? I had never run in 3rd place, let alone finish a race in 3rd, and I wanted it!

Goose chillin' on the side of the course
By the middle of the third lap (mile 12 or so), I caught up to the 3rd place runner. A quick thought crossed my mind to just settle in behind him and run his pace for awhile. But, I wanted 3rd, so I took it. Once I passed him I put in some harder miles to create a gap between the two of us. I quickly found myself in a position I'm not use to. I was 3rd in a race! It was a pretty cool feeling!

Loops four and five went pretty well for me. I was able to hold my pace, but my stomach was starting to bug me. For early April, it was pretty warm and I was sucking down extra fluids. Unfortunately, I think I over compensated on the fluids and as a result, was having hard time eating solid foods.

When I headed out for loop six, I was starting to feel pretty nauseous. The only calories I was able to take in for the remainder of the race was the Gatorade and soda at the aid stations. I was still able to maintain a pretty decent pace, but I was starting to suffer. When I set out on my last loop, I was running painfully slow. I was still in 3rd, but certain I was gonna get caught soon. Sure enough, 2.5 miles from the finish, the 4th place runner blew past me and all I could do was watch. I had nothing left in me to fight back.

The last two miles were pretty rough. The hard pace I had run earlier, the heat, and the lack calories all caught up to me. Needless to say, I was very happy when I reached the finish line. While I was disappointed that I missed out on finishing 3rd, a new PR helped cheer me up! 4:40:52! I had left everything I had on the course, so in the end, I was happy. My thanks to the race team that set up this event. Even though it was tiny, the support was great. I had a lot of fun!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Bad Training Run?

For every five good training runs, I have one bad one. What do I quantify as a bad training run, you ask? One where as soon as I head out the door, I feel flat. One where as soon as I start, I wanna stop. One where I question how the heck I'm going to achieve my goals when a 5 mile run feels like a 20 miler. One where I bitch and moan the whole time in my head (or out loud) and want to chuck my running shoes in the trash when I get home. Basically, what I'm saying is that we all have bad training runs from time to time.

However, there is good news. There is a way to turn a bad training run into a positive experience. There is a way to harness that bad feeling and use it to your advantage. How? I think we can all agree that we've run a race that hasn't gone quite to plan. We hit a wall. Our legs get heavy. We get a wicked side stitch. The list goes on and on....

When you're in the midst of training run that isn't going so well, use it as practice to understand what it feels like to run when you aren't at your optimum. In essence, train your brain (and body) how to run when you aren't feeling your best. As we all know, the mental aspects of running far outweigh the physical side. If we DNF a race or cut a training run short, it's likely because we allowed our brains to win the battle. However, if you rewire your brain during a bad training run and prove to that powerful mass of mush up there that YOU CAN run through the lows, you might just surprise yourself. And, proving the mind wrong has a very powerful impact.

It is only after we prove to our minds that we can overcome all the reasons why it is telling us to STOP that we discover what we are capable of. I believe that proving our minds wrong is the only way we excel as runners. When we first started running, we thought running a mile was far. But, once we realized we could run a mile, we began to wonder if we could go further? So, we tried for two, then three, four, and before we knew it, we were crossing the finish line of our first marathon. How the heck were we able to do that? Simple, we proved all the doubts in our mind wrong.

So, the next time you're having a bad training run, turn it into a positive experience. Learn from it. The result? The next time you're feeling bad you can tell yourself, "I've been here before. I've felt this way before. I know I can get through this."

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Race Recap: Cherry Blossom 10 Mile

I must first start this post by thanking the Cherry Blossom 10 Mile race committee for selecting me as one of their social media runners. I had a lot of fun over these last few months and it was a tremendous honor to represent this event. To see and learn the amount of time, effort and logistics that go in to making this race possible was very eye opening. So, to everyone on the CUCB race committee, thank you for all you do. It is much appreciated!

The race weekend kicked off on Friday afternoon when the expo opened. I headed over after I got off of work and met up with Molly, who manages all of the CUCB social media accounts. We walked around the expo floor and chatted with some of the exhibitors. The expo was held at the National Building Museum and out of all the race expos I've attended, it is definitely the most unique venue.

Saturday, I spent of most of my day at the expo again, but the real highlight was attending the pre race VIP dinner. Many of the elite athletes were in attendance. Dinner was preceded by an open bar reception. I have no qualms about consuming adult beverages the night before a race and helped myself to a couple delicious beers.

During dinner, a short video played that showed clips from previous Cherry Blossom runs. Following the video, Phil Stewart (the race director) delivered a short speech. Also, a check was presented to the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals in the amount of $487,000! Over the course of the Children's Miracle Network Hospital's involvement with CUCB, 6 million dollars has been raised. Amazing! The evening wrapped up around 8:30 as the many athletes and race committee members in attendance needed to grab some much needed shuteye before the big day. I guess I needed to go to bed, too.

Pre Race Dinner
Social Media Team with US Elite Runner Tyler McCandless
After the horrible weather we had the weekend prior, the weather gods were on our side on race day. There was not a cloud in the sky as the sun rose over the start of the 42nd running of the CUCB 10 Mile. A friend and I took advantage of the free bike valet service provided by Two Wheel Valet and rode our bikes to the start. After catching up with Molly and some of my friends, I checked my bag and headed to my corral.

Hanging with friends before the start
My race goal was to PR. My previous 10 mile PR was set in 2012 at CUCB where I ran a 1:17:14. As a secondary goal, I was hoping to run a sub-1:15. I knew that if I could maintain a 7:30 pace, it was possible. My tempo runs leading up to race made me confident that I'd be able to run that pace. The race started without a hitch, but as with any race where you have thousands of runners around you, it was hard to find a clear running path the first couple of miles.

I tried not to stress too much about my pace and clicked off my first mile in 7:42. Once we reached the Memorial Bridge, I took advantage of the clear sidewalks to avoid the larger crowd of runners on the road. I was able to extend my stride and settle into a nice rhythm. I ended up running mile 2 in 7:16. Thinking that was a little too ambitious of a pace that early on, I tried to slow it back down, but my legs weren't having any of it.

By mile 4, the congestion on the course had improved greatly and my pace snuck down to around 7:10. In the back on my head I was wondering when I was gonna bonk. I knew I was going faster than I needed to, but this was the pace my legs wanted, so I didn't fight it.

Miles 6 through 9 is a part of the course many runners don't like, but I don't mind it. I think the loop around Hains Point is gorgeous and it's something I run (and bike) quite frequently while training. After rounding the tip of Hains Point, I decided to empty out whatever I had left in me and really push it to the finish. I ran mile 9 in 7:02. One mile to go!

Mile 10 was a blast as the crowd lining the streets started to pick up. For sure, their cheers helped turn my legs faster. Once the finish line came into view, I was in an all out sprint! Crossing the line I looked down at my watch and to my surprise I had beat my previous PR by almost 5 minutes! 1:12:35. I had also run my last mile in 6:48! I was beyond thrilled.

Finish Line
The entire CUCB race weekend was a total blast. To cap it off with a new PR was icing on the cake. Thanks again to the CUCB race committee for everything. This race is something I won't forget for a long time!

Garmin Upload

Monday, March 24, 2014

Race Recap: Rosaryville Half Marathon

After having to sit out of my marathon last weekend because of food poisoning (Not fun. Don't recommend it.), I was very excited to get out and pound some miles on the trails of Rosaryville State Park. My friend Kristy came along to run in the 10K that was also being offered. This was her first trail race and she loved it. I hadn't run a race since my 50 miler back in early February, so it felt great to get out there!

The trails were in great shape and I had a very enjoyable run. Temperatures were in the low 40s, which made for pretty ideal race conditions (for me, at least). I had run in a 50K at Rosaryville back in November, so I was familiar with the trails, which are relatively flat and well groomed. I was pleasantly surprised with the pace I was able to maintain, given my lack of consistent training over the past couple of weeks. I hooked up with another runner around mile three and we trading setting the pace for the duration of the race. We had a nice conversation, which mostly evolved around west coast races and how awesome the trails are out there.

I crossed the line a hair under 1:53 and was happy with that. The aid stations were abundant and full of energetic volunteers; not something you always see at low-key races. The race director, Jim, did a phenomenal job. The course was well marked and the post race fare was great. Piping hot pizza, breakfast burritos, coffee, and lots of other goodies. We run so we can eat, right?

Overall, it was a super fun day. The race was put on by EX2 Adventures. I had never run a race managed by them and was thoroughly impressed. Would definitely run another one of their events. Looking forward to my next race, the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler! Gonna be a blast!

Garmin Upload

Kristy and I, post race

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Northern Virginia's Hidden Secret - Prince William Forest Park

Nestled along side of I-95 near Quantico, you wouldn't think of Prince William Forest Park (PWFP) as a place to get away from the politics of Washington, DC. But, it is just that. Located about 30 miles southwest of DC, PWFP is a place of solitude and a hiker/trail runner's haven. Boasting 37 miles worth of trails, you can get creative with the routes you plan through the park. All of the park's trails are well mark with blazes. Are you a cyclist looking for some opens miles with little road traffic? Scenic Drive and its 12 miles is the place for you.

The trails of PWFP are hard packed and fairly non-technical. It's the perfect place to introduce yourself to trail running if you are a newbie. There are some rolling hills, but nothing to shy away from. My favorite trail to run on is South Valley. At just under 9 miles, it's the parks longest trail and in my opinion, the most scenic. The majority of the trail parallels the South Fork Quantico Creek. Hearing the sounds of the babbling creek as you run by is so peaceful and calming. It makes you forget that you are so close to urban life. If you're lucky, you might spot some whitetail deer roaming the park grounds. I even saw a couple wild turkeys the last time I was there.

South Fork Quantico Creek
Few rocks on South Valley to contend with

Foot bridge over the creek
South Valley

Western edge of the South Valley Trail
PWFP is definitely worth your time and a great place to get some good trail running miles in!

Garmin Upload of my favorite loop to run 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Race Recap: Antelope Canyon 50 Mile

"In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks." -John Muir

Before the race began, race directors Tim and Matt promised us all an adventure. With only 30 runners toeing the start line (and another 30 for the 50K), it was certainly the smallest race I'd ever participated in...and I loved it!

The ultra environment is a totally different running experience and I one I highly recommend to anyone considering stepping outside the marathon distance. On paper, it would seem that the ultra only differs from other races because of the distance. However, that's hardly the case. Take for example the packet pickup at Antelope; all it was was Tim sitting behind a desk issuing out our bibs and race t-shirts, while sipping on a beer. I find ultras more pure and very laid-back. Runners seem friendlier. Ultra running is about camaraderie. We all know that during a certain point in the race we are going to hit a low, yet we take comfort in knowing that we aren't in it alone. We are all out there on the course together, supporting each other on.

The fun for me really began the day before the race. I flew into Phoenix Thursday night and my friend Caitlin picked me up at the airport. Friday morning, we picked up her friend Rachel and we began our road trip to Page. Page is situated on the northern boarder of Arizona, just northeast of the Grand Canyon. The drive to Page was insanely gorgeous. We left the desert landscape and saguaro of Phoenix for the tall pine trees of Flagstaff.
The change of scenery was really cool to see as we drove into the mountains. We even got caught in a snowstorm in Flagstaff!

As we drove out of Flagstaff, we entered the northern desert of Arizona, also known as the Colorado Plateau. We were surrounded by brightly colored plateaus that jutted out of the ground and seemed to stretch for miles. The whole drive was a complete sensory overload!

The race started at 6am, so it was an early wake-up call for us the following morning. We had another runner join the pack in the morning. Caitlin and Rachel's friend Elena had gotten in late the night before, but she was ready to take on the race! In fact, this was Rachel and Elena's first 50 mile run! Had it not been for recent foot surgery, Caitlin would of been running with us as well. However, being the lover of running that she is, she helped volunteer at the finish line. 
Pre-race brief
Rachel, Me and Elena before the start
After the pre-race brief from Tim and Matt, we set off into the darkness! After a short stretch down the quiet morning streets of Page, we entered the trails. We were warned earlier in the week that due to a lack of rain, the course was going to be very sandy. Luckily, the first few miles of the course were fairly hard packed. Before long, we entered the first of many breathtaking slot canyons. I had seen a few pictures of these canyons before the race, but nothing compares to running in them. It was by far the coolest running experience of my life. Some of the slot canyons were so steep that we had to use ladders to get down into them along with some crafty rock climbing skills (which I learned I have none of.)
The drop in and out of one of the slot canyons. So steep!
By the time I reached the first aid station, a light snow had begun to fall. This was certainly unexpected, but a nice surprise. Rachel, Elena and I headed out of the first aid station and ran the next few miles together. As the snow began to fall harder, the orange sand under our feet and the red canyon rims that surrounded us began to turn white. It was here that we reached the famous Antelope Canyon. As Elena and I entered the canyon, we stopped dead in our tracks. What we saw around us didn't seem real, but it was. It left us both in complete awe and all we could mutter to each other was, "Wow!"
After Antelope Canyon, we retraced our steps back to the aid station we had just come from. After grabbing a little something to eat, I headed ahead of Rachel and Elena back into canyon we had run through earlier. The snow had begun to taper off and the sun was finally starting to stick its head out among the breaking clouds. It was about another 6 miles to the next aid station.

The interesting part about running on this course was that with the exception of the last 8 miles or so, we ran on unmarked trails. Most of the course was run on fire/ATV type roads, all of which were extremely sandy. While we were warned about the sandy conditions, nothing could prepare us for what we encounter. The sand simply ate up my foot with each step which made maintaining any sort of running form or pace nearly impossible. But, we were told that this race was going to be an adventure and if we wanted to see the gorgeous sights the course offered, we were gonna have to deal with the "not so fun parts."

I was happy to reach the Horseshoe Bend Aid Station around mile 21 and I was still feeling strong. I knew that the next stretch of course was going to be awesome, so I was eager to get in and out of the aid station. A few miles later, I reach the ridge of the canyon where Horseshoe Bend was. Horseshoe Bend was formed millions of years ago by the mighty Colorado River as it cut its way through the Arizona rock. It's sights like these that make ultra running so special. Ultra running gives you that rare opportunity to run among some of the most gorgeous scenery our country has to offer. In fact, what I saw was so beautiful that I couldn't help myself but to sit down for a few minutes and take it all in. It was too beautiful to run by and not stop and appreciate.
Horseshoe Bend
As I sat admiring the view, another runner caught up to me. We ran the next few miles together and shared stories about some of our recent races. We both noticed that course markings were becoming harder to find, which was odd because up until this point, they were very abundant. Then, we ran into two 50K runners that said they had been lost for about 30 minutes. Soon, more runners joined our pack of four, including Rachel and Elena. This part of the course was on slickrock, so there were no fire roads or sandy footprints to follow. However, with a solid pack of 8 runners working together, we slowly found the next course marking. Soon, we saw Matt in the distance waving and guiding us in the right direction. Shortly thereafter, we reached the next aid station, Water Holes.

Water Holes was about 29 miles into the race and my legs were definitely starting to feel it. However, Rachel and Elena where still looking very fresh and took off a little bit ahead of me. After leaving Water Holes, we dropped into the last and longest slot canyon we would run through. The slot canyon had many parts where we would have to climb the canyon walls and/or use ladders to make our way through it.

Climbing out of the last canyon, I could seeing Rachel and Elena ahead of me. As much as I wanted to catch up and run with them, my legs were pretty toasted. When I reached the next aid station (Horsebend for the 2nd time), they were just getting ready to leave. My drop bag was at this aid station, so I took the opportunity to dump the sand out of my shoes and change my socks. The volunteers were making homemade pizza, which was awesome! The aid station volunteers were great throughout the entire race. They play a big part in helping us get to the finish line.

Heading out of Horseshoe, there was about 15 miles left. Any sand I encountered took my already slow pace and brought it to more or less a crawl. While the next aid station was only 3 miles away, it took me almost an hour to get to. It didn't help that I managed to make a wrong turn during this part that added to my adventure. Yet, each time I was having a low, I would take a second and look around me. I was surrounded by some of the most amazing natural beauty I'd ever seen. Taking a moment to appreciate where I was reminded me why I was doing this race and helped me forget about the pain.

At the next aid station I noticed one of the volunteers wearing a race hoodie from the 100 miler I will be running this June. I chatted with him for a few minutes as I scarfed down some ramen he prepared for me. His tips for the race were insightful and hopefully I will be able to put the them to good use. Yep, leave it to me to think about my next race while I'm in middle of running one.

There was now less than 10 miles between me and the finish line. Thankfully, the sandy hell I was in only lasted for a few more miles. The final section of the course was along the Page Rim Trail, which was well groomed and hard packed. Unfortunately, my beat up legs couldn't make good use of it. My stride had shortened and it seemed like all my legs would give me was a 13 min/mile pace.
Rachel and Elena running along the Page Rim Trail
I had to put on my headlamp for the last couple of miles as it was getting dark again. Slowly, I made my way back onto the roads of Page that led me to the finish. The finish line wasn't your typical finish line fanfare (not that I minded). In fact, there wasn't even a line to cross. Just an empty table and a bystander that congratulated me as I finished. I didn't see Tim anywhere, so I headed inside the building where the bib pickup was. Sure enough, I found Tim and he ask me if I was done. I said I was and he recorded my finishing time. Caitlin was there too, as Tim had recruited her to pass out our handmade Navajo finisher necklaces and help record times. I later learned that Caitlin spent most of her day chatting with Tim about running, cheering runners on as they finished, and drinking beer. Not a bad volunteering gig, if you ask me!
Finishers necklace
My finishing time was 12:35. Rachel and Elena had great races and they finished together in just under 11:45! Awesome performances for their first 50 miler! Antelope Canyon is certainly a race I won't soon forget. Even though the sand was tricky and frustrating at times, it was an awesome course. Tim and Matt did a hell of a job putting on this race and I can't wait to run in their next event this summer, the Bryce 100! Also, my thanks to Rachel for sharing all her awesome race photos with me!
Me, Caitlin and Rachel on our way back to Phoenix