The Roads Scholar Diaries

Jeffrey reflects on his eventful year of racing in 2010 and the profound impact of becoming an RRCA Roads Scholar.

In addition to the generous support of MarathonGuide.com and Brooks, The Road Runners Club of America helped play an integral role in my progress and athletic success in 2010. As one of this year’s Road Scholar Grant recipients, I was fortunate enough to receive financial assistance to use towards my development as a post-collegiate runner. As the year winds down, grant recipients are asked to write about their running careers since the time we applied in May. In these past 7 months, with the help of the Roads Scholar Grant, I have undergone a total metamorphosis as a runner. As I reflect back on my many racing adventures from 2010, I appreciate the role the RRCA played in my transition from an overzealous road racer– more casually referred to as a “road whore”– to a focused professional marathoner.

I remember having mixed emotions back in May, only days after I had anxiously submitted my Roads Scholar application. The excitement from my debut marathon in January had dissipated, and nagging injury problems during February had quelled my hopes of immediately building on January’s success. It came as a grave disappointment to indefinitely postpone all my racing plans, and I did not know how long my recovery would be. Weeks went by and I would continually test out my legs only to discover marginal improvements that were quickly reversed (in hindsight, I should have rested my body more from running while I was hurt). It was not until after Easter that I was finally able to run pain-free again each day, which came as a big relief. Finally healthy, I hastily resolved to jump back into racing as soon as I could, feeling an exigency to make up for all the racing opportunities that I had missed in early Spring.

So two weeks after formally resuming training, I traveled to Spokane for the Bloomsday Run. As a competition that is included annually in the Professional Road Running Organization (PRRO) Circuit, the Bloomsday 12K attracts a world-class international field each year. For me, it was pretty high-profile race to start a comeback with, however the very kind and hospitable race organization had me enthused to return to Spokane for a second year in a row. As I lined up for the race start downtown on Riverside Avenue, I saw the all the waves of runners lining up behind us and my pre-race jitters had once again returned. I thought to myself, it has been too long! Even with the electric feel of racing again, I ran a very conservative first half and moved my way up to finish 16th place overall and 4th American with a time of 36:44. It was an encouraging result, and my first time running under 5:00 mile pace in over 3 months. Going into the race, my fitness level had been a complete mystery to me, and thus I had soared over the low standard that I had set for myself. I was so enthralled with the result that I ran 10 more miles cool-down after the race to get in some “bonus” training.

Regardless of my Bloomsday result, I had planned to follow up with another race 2 weeks later– in San Francisco at the ING Bay to Breakers 12K. While also known for recruiting a very competitive international field, the Bay to Breakers is more widely renowned for its unique and festive race atmosphere. As excited as I was with this next racing opportunity, I also jumped at the chance to visit my sister and her husband, who live in the Bay. It was a quick weekend and I hardly spent any time with my feet up. The day before the race, I ran a brisk 12 miles around Crissy Field, went out to lunch with Beth and Matt for a delectable raw vegan meal at Café Gratitude and then spent a few hours strolling through the hippie shops in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. The next morning I rolled up and down the streets of San Francisco and into Golden Gate Park to finish 11th overall (and 3rd American) in 36:51. I felt it was another encouraging result, given that I was running into a headwind while being pelted with flying tortillas and nearly tripping in the first hundred yards over a pantless man carrying a briefcase. My experience validated the fact that Bay to Breakers is a race like no other.

Seven days after shivering through 12 kilometers in a singlet and shorts in the windy Bay area, I was 3 time zones away, running clear of my competitors in a hot and humid Medved Lilac 10K. It was a last-minute decision to visit home and run this race.  In March, I had planned a trip back to Rochester to defend my St. Patrick’s Day 5-mile title, although those aspirations were hampered by my ongoing ailments. As if returning to Rochester and winning upstate NY’s largest 10K wouldn’t be redeeming enough, the Lilac 10K was the only major race in my hometown that I hadn’t won (or competed in). With past champions like John Tuttle, Keith Brantley and Chris Fox, I was anxious to add a Lilac victory to my running résumé. Additionally, a great deal of pride and prize money were at stake. After a mile of inconspicuously observing the other athletes in our whittling lead pack, I pushed by the Ethiopian favorite and soloed home the final 5 miles. It was far from a graceful victory and I remember gritting it out for the final mile and a half, heading up a few rolling hills on the return into Highland Park and winning in a modest time of 30:09. Ten miles cool-down and an hour later, I was star-struck shaking hands with Dick Beardsley at the awards ceremony. Eight hours later, I was back in Flagstaff feeling over-exhausted and numb from travel.

By then, my racing appetite had grown insatiable. If I found a race with prize money and a means to get to the starting line, it was on my radar. In fact, I was committing to races without thinking about how I could train for them (the perfect example being the Mt. Washington Road Race). It probably would have been better for me not to include hard workouts between weekend races, and yet I was running mid-week workouts with the same intensity and volume as during my Phoenix marathon training.

The month of June tested my endurance as much with travel as it did with racing. In the first weekend I flew out to Des Moines, IA for a 20K. As we lined up en masse at the Saylorville Dam under torrential rains, I noticed this small-town road race with a generous prize purse was not the well-kept secret that I thought it would be. It took me 10 miles to catch enough race casualties to make my first trip to Iowa a relative success, as if earning prize money delineated success from failure. I didn’t think any more about my race, and blocked out the fact that it was my slowest 20K result on record.

The weekend after Iowa’s Distance Classic, I flew back east for 2 races on the New England running circuit: the Litchfield Hills and Mt. Washington Road Races. In the days before Litchfield while I was in Flagstaff, I ran a debilitating mile repeat workout on Snow Bowl Road that left me feeling largely under the weather by the time I arrived in the sticks of Connecticut. However, thanks to the friendly locals and other visiting athletes, I was distracted enough not to dwell on my lethargic state. The race proved to be a dogfight though, and I was part of a large front group as we entered the trail portion of the course. I pushed hard at the front while Julius Kiptoo, who I had met and raced at Bloomsday, patiently bided his time. I  remember relinquishing the lead as we passed a cemetery, and Julius pulled ahead with the ominous and steep hill on Gallow’s Lane just ahead. The effort up Gallow’s (a foreshadowing of my Mt. Washington experience) was extremely difficult and incredibly taxing, which resulted in my dropping 2 positions in the final mile.  It was neither a great result, nor an overly-disappointing run. However in the following days, my sore throat evolved into a deep congested cough and a headache. Against better logic, I jumped on a Greyhound Bus to Vermont to put the nail in my coffin…

The surprising news came days after I had arrived back in Flagstaff, still a little congested and completely disillusioned by my mountain running debacle. I received a call from Jean Knaack of the RRCA, and was pleasantly taken aback by her news of my selection as a Roads Scholar. When I had submitted my application for the Grant, I had doubted my legitimacy as a candidate, given how many post-collegiate athletes were healthy and running well on the roads. At the same time, I had remotely hoped that my marathon debut had not been totally eclipsed. It came much to my surprise that I was named one of the five finalists. To be recognized as a Roads Scholar was not only an honor, but it marked a turning point for me. I knew the Grant would provide me with the financial resources to focus on my training without getting caught up in chasing prize purses every weekend, as I had been doing. During June, I had committed to run in October’s U.S. Marathon Championship in Twin Cities. I recognized that the only way I was going to succeed at a U.S. Championship– and particularly in the marathon– would be if I directed my focus towards the preparation. This Grant would enable me to do that.

I finished up my racing in early July, returning to Iowa for a second place finish at the Fifth Season 8K, and ran on fumes a week later in my final race at the Utica Boilermaker. Just as it had been for 3 months, my race performances were consistent, but far from exceptional. I was in dire need of a break from racing, and just needed time to train and work on my craft as a marathoner.

The summer flew by, and I was responding quickly to the workouts Coach Jack had given me to prepare for Twin Cities (he used a training schedule he adapted from working with 2:23 marathoner Lisa Martin). While training progressed, I had started getting blood work done to monitor my hematological values. It was interesting to have this data as feedback, and develop a more scientific understanding of how my body was responding to my training. My blood work also confirmed that I was taking in and sustaining adequate levels of nutrients from my vegan diet (compelling data for me personally that disproved the common misconceptions about veganism).

As I have mentioned in past blog entries, I incorporated a few races into my marathon program to work on running hills (Snow Bowl Road and Jerome) and racing under tough conditions (Parkersburg). These select races really helped to keep my routine dynamic, and I appreciated the moderate exposure to competition while training remained as the primary focus. Both Snow Bowl and Jerome were nice confidence builders, where I was able to run away from my competitors and redeem myself as a climber. Parkersburg was in every sense a “rust-buster,” where I had to manage myself in difficult racing conditions against tough competitors, and simply experience the feeling of “grinding the gears.” After those races, I went into the Twin Cities Marathon as a stronger hill runner and felt more capable of handling increased levels of discomfort. I can conclude without any doubt that shifting my focus from racing to training during the Summer helped me make the podium at Twin Cities this Fall and qualify for next year’s World Championships.

Thanks to the RRCA Roads Scholar Program, I was able to make major strides towards the end of 2010 and in my second marathon. I felt that their supporting my continuing education as a marathoner has helped bring me closer to realizing my potential, particularly when I am focused and thinking of my running career in a more long-term context. As I enter 2011 I will be taking my new perspective with me, instilled with the belief that I can and will break through, as many tenacious Roads Scholars in the past have. But I will always look back on this year fondly and with gratitude, remembering how and where it began, and those who made it possible.

Again I am reminded that the journey is more important than the destination.

–JDE

Primed for 26

Here are my final musings before turning 26 and running 26.

The turning leaves and brisk mornings are not only indicative of Autumn’s arrival, but also of a few personal milestones that are rapidly approaching. Tomorrow I will turn 26, which is far less exciting than it sounds, but my birthday is a necessary waypost I must pass every Fall. Also on October 1st, I will be en route to the midwest as I get ready to run my second marathon on Sunday– at the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon. For me, neither turning 26 years old nor running 26 miles is anything to dread; my mind and body are well-prepared for this weekend and I plan to make each a quality 26.

Reflecting on my past year, I can say that the quarter-century mark has brought out the best of the Libra in me: my life is in a positive state of balance. As a result of my increased commitment to running (and with moving up to the marathon), I have worked to formulate a more healthy routine this year. From getting more rest to the adoption of a vegan diet, I have felt more energized and well at 25 than ever before. Additionally, my time living in Flagstaff has introduced me to so many positive and inspiring individuals: my housemates, my girlfriend, my coach, other dedicated athletes and my colleagues. Being around other motivated and congenial people in this mountain town has helped keep me in good spirits and made me feel like I am at home here. I am thankful to have such a dynamic, which keeps me focused and in a happy equilibrium. In turning 26, I will strive to continue in this healthy balance.

This weekend will also be my second marathon, at the US Championship in Minneapolis, MN. I’m excited with my level of fitness and preparedness for this 26.2 mile task. I have had a very focused Summer of training, thanks to Coach Jack’s expertise and workouts. Akin to my last marathon buildup, I have stayed healthy and been able to hone in on my ability to run harder at longer distances– although this time around I did not have any winter weather to contend with. After the progress I have made during this training phase, I feel wiser and more aerobically capable of running this event than I did in January. And so I travel to the Twin Cities this weekend feeling equipped with both the physical and mental aptitudes to take on the marathon, no longer a rookie.

As I hit the road for 26, I recall some great advice Coach Jack recently offered me:

“The road traveled is far more important than what you may achieve at the end of the journey. It’s the experiences along the way that you will remember, not your final destination.”

Thanks to everyone who has made this journey so worthwhile. I am primed for 26!

–JDE

The Jerome Hill Climb & Labor Day Weekend

I spent my Labor Day weekend running up and through the historic mining town of Jerome. Ali and I also had a few other adventures while exploring the Wild West!

Jerome, AZ sits snug on the Cleopatra Hillside about 60 miles to the southwest of Flagstaff. This historic “Wild West” silver and copper mining town dates back to 1883, and now a quaint downtown and artistic community remains amidst its ghost stories and folklore. Surely, Jerome’s panoramic view at 5000 feet and past reputation as “The Wickedest Town in the West” were enough reason for Ali and I to make the drive down early Sunday morning of the Labor Day weekend, but it was a particular event that peaked our (or rather my) interest: the Jerome Hill Climb.

My history in hill climbing– or more formally the sport of mountain running– is short and had humble beginnings. In June, my naiveté carried me half-way up the relentless 12% slopes of the Mt. Washington Auto Road before I experienced the most real form of mechanical failure. The renowned and quotable British commentator of the Tour de France, Phil Ligget, could not have described it better: “his effort is reduced to mere survival!” Having my unfavorable introduction to this new form of running masochism, I was left humbled but extremely motivated on that day. And I knew there was absolutely no way that I would abandon mountain running until I was at the top!

Looking over the course profile for my next marathon, Twin Cities, I recognized that I would need to become a stronger hill runner to be successful at this US Championship. So I worked in a few challenging, low-key hill climb races into my Summer training to improve my climbing ability. The first essay came in July at the inaugural RunFlagstaff Snow Bowl Road Hill Climb. After a practice run the week before (with Ali on bike), I soloed up the 7 miles of switchbacks and climbed over 2000 feet. I ran patiently and it was a much more controlled and sustained effort than my death throes up Mt. Washington. I felt good reaching the Agassiz Lodge Parking Lot, 2 minutes ahead of the second-place finisher and 1:30 faster than my practice run. I was excited with the improvement.

Now a month away from Twin Cities, and with my training volume at its apex, I signed up for one final ascent race. In its 40th running, the Jerome Hill Climb has evolved into a 4.4 mile race that gains 1100 feet in elevation. Starting at the Historical Park, the race course gently ascends into the downtown district and then heads up the severe mountain grades past the Ghost Town before continuing out on the winding dirt road to Perkinsville.

Even at a race distance of 4.4 miles, I stayed composed early on. I followed my breathing and worked with a steady, metronome-like cadence up the first mile. During the flat section I still maintained the same breathing pattern but allowed my legs to turnover quicker, while recovering and anticipating the hors catagorie slopes that became visible around the road’s bend. I had established a significant lead over the other runners and was still feeling comfortable. I waved when running by Ali, but seeing the upward road ahead had an unnerving effect. Luckily, my Smith Optics Pivlock V90 Sunglasses hid my solemn gaze.

After a dozen strides up, I had re-established a rhythmic connection between my breathing and my legs. Climbing requires more concentration and mindfulness (in contrast to the “autopilot mode” I might experience in a longer and flatter road race). There is constant feedback between the body and the mind. I’ve learned it’s not effective for the mind to override sensory feedback, but to manage it: to maintain an effort at my body’s limit without red-lining. As I have learned the hard way, the combination of ascending too ambitiously while racing at altitude is fatal; there is no point to recover and survival becomes the best possible result.

I followed the dirt road around the hillside, pressing but also enjoying the clear morning view. I could see the green patches of the Verde Valley, the Red Rocks in Sedona and Flagstaff’s San Francisco Peaks all the way up the Mogollon Rim in the distant horizon. It became clear to me why the Arizona Road Runners worked so diligently to continue hosting this race; it really showcases the State’s beauty. My focus abruptly shifted, however, as I was startled to discover the finish line chute around the following corner. I crossed the line in 26:45, and my Garmin 305 GPS Watch indicated I had run 6:05/mi pace for the 4.4mi climb.

A long run ensued after the race. I ran back down into town, changed out of my dusty Brooks T6 Racers and headed back up Perkinsville Road for about 13 miles. Marathon training isn’t over yet!

Then Ali and I went on our own “Tour of Arizona” after the race, heading to downtown Prescott for Sunday afternoon. We checked out the shops, craft fair and saloons on Whiskey Row (oh yeah and she also let me stop at the Public Library!). We rode back into the sunset that night, up the I-17, tired from our Wild West exploits. On Labor Day, I did an early morning workout in Camp Verde and then our adventure continued with a picturesque drive down to Fossil Creek. Here are a few photos from our relaxing Labor Day travels:

I hope everyone had a safe and relaxing holiday weekend! –JDE

On the road: Parkersburg, WV

The weekend of August 21, I traveled to the great state of West Virginia for the Parkersburg News and Sentinel Half-Marathon. I used this race as a tune-up in preparation for the Twin Cities Marathon in October.

I had a nice buzz going on Friday morning– primarily from the 3 cups of coffee I had while sitting at a Panera Bread in Parkersburg, West Virginia. The day before had been a typical travel day for me: a 2:30AM shuttle ride from Flagstaff to Phoenix, 2 flights with a generous layover in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and a 70 minute van ride from Charleston to this charming aforementioned town. And Thursday’s excitement had culminated once I arrived at the hotel, set my bags down, laced up my Brooks Glycerins and headed out on an 80 minute excursion in the balmy 80 degree night. After 15 hours of travel and completing a 12 mile shake-out run, it was easy to fall asleep that night. Needless to say, coffee was essential that next morning.

While planning out my marathon training with Coach Jack, I had decided to include the Parkersburg News and Sentinel Half-Marathon in my schedule as a ‘tune-up’ race. I felt it would give me a good opportunity to whet my competitive appetite without compromising my current training demands. This historic race has been held annually since 1987 and was  site for the USA 1/2 Marathon Championships from 1990 to 2001. For the past 5 years, Parkersburg has also hosted the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) National Championship. Given the race’s history, challenging course and competitive field, I was excited work this event into my racing plans.

I spent Friday performing my typical pre-race day rituals. I did an easy run on the course in the morning followed by some stretching and a few light strides. In the afternoon I went to the grocery store to plan out my next few meals. Sadly, my only nearby grocery option was a Super Walmart, although they had the essential ‘vegan-friendly’ foods I needed to make it through the weekend:

I had a light lunch consisting of vegetables with bread and roasted red pepper hummus. Later on, after picking up my start number and touring the course, I headed back to my room and heated up a bowl of Amy’s Black Bean Chili with 1/2 a cup of couscous for dinner. Aside from my vegan dietary preference, I like preparing my own foods when I am at races to prevent having any issues from eating unfamiliar foods. 

Fastforwarding to the race day, I felt good both on my early morning shake-out run at 4AM and during my 1 hour warm-up before the start. I lined up on Juliana Street wearing lucky bib #7, and found myself positioned next to a few other Team MarathonGuide.com athletes, including Alene Reta, George Towett and Julius Kogo. Even with its reported strongest field in race history, I was fearless and assertive at the start.  

The first mile of the race was quick, as we winded through the byzantine neighborhoods of Parkersburg’s Historic District before heading out on the open highway, Route 68. By 3 miles, I was situated in a select chase group behind a very busy front pack. I was running with a familiar competitor (later I learned it was Worku Beyi) and slowly reeled in Bado Worku Merdessa, who I had battled back and forth with at the Boilermaker 15K in July. The rolling hills of the course disrupted me from finding any rhythm, however I felt strong and ran more aggressive on uphill sections to distance myself from my competitors.

Around 10K, the race ahead of me was strung out. I was beginning to labor in the hot, humid conditions and only had a few athletes within striking distance. I knew the second half was not going to be an easy, but my resolve was to finish and run as hard as my body would allow me; dropping out is never an option for me. Between 15K and 10 miles, I had moved into 7th and was pulling away from one of my MarathonGuide.com teammates (maybe George?). The next athlete in sight was Canadian Eric Gillis, who was clearly struggling down the road. I was able to make some ground on him until making the turn onto 13th Street, where I hit a wall of a hill. It didn’t take long to climb up, but the effects of the hill and the sharp downhill that subsequently followed were debilitating to my legs. It took me until about 20K to recover my legs, but I still closed as hard as I could to get the most out of this race.

I crossed the line in 7th, finishing in 1:06:06. The time was testament to the difficult course and tough race conditions, being 2 minutes over my personal best for half-marathon. However, I consider my race to have been a very good performance. I raced aggressive early on, put myself in the mix with the better athletes in the field (and well ahead of any other American), and didn’t give in when it started to hurt. I think it’s easy for an athlete to run a fast time on a flat course in perfect conditions with pacers. However, I think the better athletes– especially in the marathon– are able to push themselves through walls while running on their own in less-than-perfect conditions. And that’s why I felt this race was the ideal marathon tune-up.

Overall, I had a great stay in Parkersburg. Chip Allman and the race committee did a fantastic job organizing the event! I also got to catch up with a friend and former Flagstaff athlete, Molly Pritz, who had an excellent performance in preparation for her marathon debut in Chicago (she is going to do great things with her new training group in Michigan!). I also had a great discussion with road race veteran Gideon Mutisya about recovery and training. Whenever I go to races, I always enjoy interacting with the other athletes and the running community. This little town in the confluence of the Ohio and Little Kanawha Rivers proved to be a very enthusiastic and welcoming race weekend host. I will definitely put the News and Sentinel Half back on my calendar for next year!

So now I continue with marathon training for Twin Cities back in Flagstaff. I love this time of year; the Summer is beginning to cool off, but my training is just heating up!  –JDE