Sunday, May 7, 2017

If You Ain't Pukin', You Ain't Tryin': My 2017 Revel Mt. Charleston Marathon Race Report

Net downhill, but not all downhill
“You need to learn to puke while running,” my buddy Keith recently chided me after I’d posted on Facebook that I’d stopped to puke at mile 12 of my latest marathon. And Keith wasn’t necessarily wrong.  

That unscheduled puke stop had wasted valuable seconds. Thankfully this time it hadn’t cost me, as I still managed to PR by almost two minutes (thanks to a 5,000-foot net downhill course and a 30-mph tailwind… more on that in a while). But next time… those precious lost seconds could potentially make all the difference.

There is little margin for error in the marathon; Every second counts. This is strikingly different from the longer, slower ultra-marathons that I'm accustomed to running. In an ultra-marathon – which can take up to a full day, and sometimes longer – runners can afford to lollygag along… stopping at aid stations to nibble on M&Ms, chat with friends, change socks, or even take a quick power nap.

An in-shape marathoner can knock out 26.2 miles in just a few hours or so. For comparison, that’s about the same amount of time that Donald Trump spends fashioning his “hair” each morning, searching for his errant golf balls all afternoon, or watching cable TV each evening while eating the most beautiful pieces of chocolate cake.

In a race as short as the marathon, even one short detour to the porta-potty can make the difference between achieving one’s goals (i.e., running sub 3, qualifying for Boston, setting a PR) and returning home empty handed and sad-faced like Hillary Clinton.

I know firsthand the importance of not wasting precious time during races with frivolous things like bodily functions. Several years ago, during an epic battle with local running phenom Chris Wehan, I finally managed to do something most runners only dream about but never actually accomplish: I successfully pee’d my pants while running without breaking stride. #HeDidWhat #WhyDidHeDoThat

Contrary to what you might expect, you can’t force your body to pee while running; rather you must cajole it. The trick is to relax your muscles, clear your mind, and enter a Zen-like state of meditation. Only then, when your bladder thinks you aren’t looking, can you coax yourself into releasing a warm torrent of salty, golden (Salted-Caramel-Gu smelling?) liquid down your shorts and thigh into your (previously dry) socks and shoes.

Please note that peeing yourself while bombing down a mountain trail at sub 6-minute pace should not be attempted by amateur hobby runners. Peeing yourself takes years of practice. Peeing yourself takes extreme focus. Peeing yourself takes a complete disregard for social norms and decorum. Disclaimer: please consult your doctor or medical professional to find out if peeing yourself is right for you!

But enough about how awesome I am, and how easily and effortlessly I can pee my pants while running. Let’s get back to the importance of being able to puke while running, and the even more advanced skill of being able to re-swallow mouthfuls of your own vomit after puking – without breaking stride. But first, let’s go back to the beginning and set the scene.

Who thought this was a good idea?

The Revel Mt. Charleston marathon is a point-to-point net-downhill road marathon held just outside Las Vegas. Revel (whoever/whatever they are) actually put on a series of four similarly-themed races (Las Vegas, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Los Angeles) all being point-to-point downhill races with around 5,000 ft. descent each.

These races are presumably ideal for runners looking to PR or who need to shave a few minutes off their times to qualify for Boston. More on that later, but spoiler alert, “it’s all downhill” is often followed by, “it all went downhill”.

The Mt. Charleston race starts at a ski lodge surrounded by snow-capped mountains at 7,633 ft. It's always beautiful up there, but it's usually also cold and windy. When the shuttle buses dropped us off at the start an hour before the race, it was so cold and windy  out that I refused to get off the bus. Eventually the security guards arrived and I was "re-accomodated".

Everywhere I looked, people were huddled together trying to keep warm. As I pranced shirtless around the starting area, my nipples going slightly numb, I almost regretted my decision to go sans shirt. However, I received numerous offers to be "the little spoon", whatever that means. The only notably-odd thing about Mt. Charleston was that it was so cold that our urine froze midstream before hitting the ground; I’d never had to deal with pee icicles before.

Aside from the pee icicles, the race morning unfolded much like any other race morning: Five minutes before the official start of the race I found myself back in the porta-potty line for the third time with several dozen people still ahead of me. I frantically tried to calculate various non-linear regression models in my head to predict how many people would likely drop out of line as we got increasingly closer to the race start. But with a minute to go I panicked and stepped out of line myself and headed over the starting line, suspecting I would later regret my decision.

Although, as mentioned, Mt. Charleston is a net downhill course with over 5,000 feet of descent –most of which comes in the first 21 miles – there are actually a few uphill sections in the course including one at the start and another at mile 13. The last few miles are relatively flat-ish but contain a couple of small – but entirely unwelcome and completely unappreciated – hills. #TheySaidItWasAllDownhill

I don’t recall exactly what about this race originally caught my interest, or what I was potentially hoping to accomplish by running it. Perhaps I was wistfully thinking of running Boston next year and wanted an “easy qualifier”? Or maybe I wanted to log some hard, fast downhill running to toughen my legs up for Hardrock? Or hell, who knows… maybe I had delusions of sprinting full speed down the mountain (shirtless) for 26.2 miles to become the first man ever to run a sub 2-hour marathon… in a speedo?

In any case, for reasons that will likely never be known, I signed up for the race… and then of course completely forgot about it until a couple weeks beforehand when I received a reminder email from the organizers. Oh crap! You know those dreams where you are back in school, and show up for the final exam and realize you haven’t attended class all year… and you are in your underwear? Yup!

When someone has a bad race it’s completely natural to look back afterward and try to pinpoint where exactly things started to go wrong. People sometimes point the finger at something they ate for dinner or breakfast. Or maybe they ran in the wrong shoes. Or they packed the wrong color compression socks. Or they went out too hard in the early miles.

It’s certainly true that you can sabotage your chances of having a good race by running too aggressively in the early miles – or, of course, by forgetting to pack your lucky pink compression socks. But in my experience, most bad races usually have less to do with bad race-day execution, and more to do with improper training and poor race preparation.

In my case, knowing that I was signed up for a fast, downhill marathon on paved roads, it might have been a good idea if I had done some long tempo runs or perhaps even some actual road running in the months and weeks leading up to the race. But nah, that’s not how Big Johnny rolls. Instead, most of my training was devoted to short, .3 mile all-out, puke-inducing sprints at my local park in a quest to capture some Strava CRs. Speaking of puking…

That heel strike though :(

So, there I was, just twelve miles into the Revel Mt. Charleston marathon, suddenly feeling slightly dizzy and nauseous as I crested a small uphill – on what was supposed to be an “all downhill” course!  “Why am I feeling so crappy,” I wondered as I let out a small, slightly-wet burp. The initial burp was followed by a larger, much “wetter” burp, which was followed by a third burp that was, for all intents and purposes, essentially just a mouthful of vomit.

Somewhat surprised – and more than somewhat dismayed – I quickly stepped off the road and deposited the contents of my stomach into the bushes – taking care to avoid puking on any endangered federally-protected Desert Tortoises which, we had been warned by race officials, would result in immediate disqualification. We were also warned not to pee on the Desert Tortoises, which I didn’t realize was such a common problem that they needed to send a pre-race warning (seriously, I’m not even making this up).

Prior to the unplanned puke stop, things had been going well and I’d been averaging around 6:34 pace, which included two emergency visits to the porta-potties (I told you I'd regret not staying in the bathroom line before the race). During my three stops I’d given up two minutes of precious time and lost over a dozen places, slipping from 47th to 64th overall.

Still not sure what was wrong with me, but hoping to avoid DNF’ing again like I had earlier in the month at the American River 50 Miler, I wisely dialed back the pace, running mile 13 in slightly over 8 minutes. Several times during that mile I burped up additional mouthfuls of warm, not-great-tasting froth. But in the interest of expediency (and decency) I decided to just swallow it back down and keep moving.

Over the course of the next few miles I started feeling better again. Desperate to make up lost ground, I picked up the pace and threw down a couple of 6:21 and 6:22 minute miles – two of my fastest miles of the race. I began flying past other runners and moved up from 64th to 42nd place. 

As my favorite British television sports commentators might say, my legs were full of running. But as the Brits also might say, I probably overcooked it a bit. Suddenly, at mile 22, the wheels began to come off the bus… or I guess in this case, the lorry.

"Can I get a little Goose in my OJ?"
It’s all downhill from here

“Oh bollocks. The wheels are coming off the lorry. His race is going all to pot. It’s turning into a proper cock up. Quite the damp squib. He looks completely knackered,” I imagined my imaginary British commentators announcing with reserved excitement.

The temperature had been slowly rising as we made our way down the mountain onto the outskirts of Northern Las Vegas. The sun had come out, and I was now sweating heavily and unapologetically. With every heel strike, sweat flew off my body in a three-foot radius, flying into the eyes of other runners and temporarily blinding them. Using this controversial technique, I moved up a few more spots from 42nd to 34th place.

As badly as I was suffering, other runners seemed to be suffering more. “At least I’m still running,” I thought encouragingly to myself as I jogged at 7-minute mile pace past several cramp-struck runners who had been reduced to walking. I was cramping up as well, but oddly in my arms rather than my legs.

Still, the arm cramps presented a problem. Every time I tried to lift my water bottle up to my mouth, my biceps would cramp up as soon as I attempted to squeeze the bottle. This meant I was unable to take on any fluids for the last few miles outside of the aid stations. 

I began to question if I was even going to be able to make it to the finish line. Thankfully I wasn’t carrying my cell phone so I avoided the temptation of having to place an embarrassing call asking my mother to come pick me up two miles from the finish line.

Mile 24 was my slowest of the race in just over 8 minutes. I began doing calculations in my head (and on my fingers) trying to figure out exactly how slowly I could jog the last two miles and still go sub 3 and break my previous PR of 2:59:52. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, disaster struck!

I have somewhat eclectic taste in music and my running playlist has a diverse collection of artists and genres including bluegrass, alt-country, gangster-rap, death-metal, techno, and even a smidgen of teen-pop. I love me some Taylor Swift and Ke$ha as much as the next cross-fit bro. But occasionally I causally add a song to my playlist that I later come to seriously regret. When “Bass Down Low” by Dev came on and she squealed, “It's like one, two, three, okay / Can I get a little Goose in my OJ,” I about lost my shit.

No problem, I thought, I’ll just reach up behind my ear and press this convenient little ‘next track’ button on my mp3 player. Unfortunately, much to my horror, every time I tried to press the button my arm would spasm and completely cramp up. So, I spent the longest three minute and twenty-three seconds of my life listening to Dev ask repeatedly if I’d like to get my mitts in her oven.

“Just make it to the next song,” I kept telling myself, in a slight adaptation of the time-tested, “just make it to the next mile marker” runner’s mantra. I tried to amuse myself and pass the time by thinking of songs that would potentially be even more demotivating at this point. Certainly R.E.M.’s ‘Everybody Hurts’ and Johnny Cash’s cover of NIN’s ‘Hurt’ both came to mind. Or for that matter, anything by Coldplay.

Leaning for the tape... about 10 feet too soon
Hobbling to Glory

Finally, just as I was debating whether The Cure or The Smiths would be more depressing, the finish line miraculously sprung into view! I put my head down and unleashed what was possibly the world’s slowest, most awkward sprint of all time – which I’m pretty sure included me "leaning at the tape" at least ten feet shy of the finish line. But whatever, I was done.

I crossed the line in 2:57:46, good enough for 6th in my age group and 35th overall. Immediately after finishing I dramatically collapsed to the ground and grabbed at my chest. “Don’t worry, I’m not having a heart attack,” I reassured the volunteers, “my pectoral muscle is just completely cramped up.” After thrashing around on the ground for what I deemed was an obligatorily sufficient amount of time, I got up and hobbled over to the pizza table. And thus ended my Mt. Charleston marathon debacle.

While it wasn’t a perfect race, or even an especially good race, I did still manage to run under 3 hours, and I shaved a full two minutes off my previous marathon PR. And all it took was a 5,000 ft. net downhill course and a hurricane-force 30 mph tailwind for most of the run. LOL. Who knows, maybe I’ll be back next year and maybe I’ll look into doing some of that actual “marathon training” stuff that people are always yammering on about.

My brother Marcus, who was at the finish line cheering for me, managed to capture my slow-motion finishing sprint on his phone. It’s pretty amusing.

Here's my Strava data.

And here's a link to a much more serious and helpful race report from this year's winner (and new course record holder), fellow ultra-runner Ian Sharman.


Unknown said...

That finish line video is a classic. #stumblingtowardendurance

-your loving wife

Larry Neumann said...

Typo re your prior PR, should say 2:59:52 (not 2:57:52). Some quality chuckles in there, especially the Dev bit :-)

Andy Benkert said...

The expression on your face in the third photo says it all: "He's completely knackered!" Great race report, and nice job getting the PR. Just remember, swallowing your own puke does not qualify as taking in calories during a race.