Sunday, April 30, 2017

Cherry Blossom 10 Miler

April is one of the most beautiful times of year in the DC when the cherry blossoms are in bloom around the monuments and East Potomac Park inlet.  One of the best ways to see them, as a runner, is during the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler.  This was my second appearance at this event; my first time was back in 2014.

The race is a popular one, and as such is done as a lottery.  Be sure to sign up for the email notifications so you are informed prior to the start of the lottery process.  If you want to run as a group you can setup a lottery group and have your friends and family sign up under that group.  That way if you win, you all run together.  Signing up as a group for the lottery doesn't affect your chances of being selected, but it does make sure you all get to run together if selected.

The event hosts a 5K race along with the 10 miler for those that aren't yet ready for the 10 mile distance or might be concerned about the pacing requirements.  For those opting in for the 10 mile race, the pacing requirements is a 14 minute mile.  Most races tend to come in around a 16 minute mile, so this is one of the faster minimums.  I guess they can only have DC roads closed down for so long, and the 5K starts after all the 10 miler waves have left the starting area.

There is no packet pickup on race morning so be sure to plan ahead so you can get your packet at the Building Museum prior to race day.  Since the race is early and Metro isn't always running early enough (it did my first time in 2014, but not this year), it may make sense to book a hotel the night before.  This makes the race less stressful overall as you can get into DC, check into the hotel, get your packet and enjoy a nice dinner and some down time.

We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn off First Street NE.  It was a nice hotel right next to a Starbucks and was walk-able to the Building Museum for packet pickup.  The walk to the starting line from this hotel, that early in the AM, was a bit much so we grabbed a cab.  If I were to do it all again, I would book a hotel closer to the starting line well in advance of the lottery draw.  If I didn't make it into the race I would just cancel the hotel, but this way I would have a better location to walk to the starting area and walk back after finishing for a quick shower.

The DC mall at sunrise is really nice.  This time of year the air is usually cools and crisp and today was no exception.  The weather was perfect for running.  I had on an old sweatshirt I could discard right before the race to stay warm, and I had a change of cloths ready at the bag check when I finished.

Sunrise on the Washington Monument

Bag check this time around was really well done.  There were several tents marked with letters.  You simply walked up to any tent, preferably the one with the shortest line, and handed over your items.  They gave you a wrist band with the identifying information to pick your bag back up.  After the race you simply returned to that same tent, showed them your wrist band and they handed you your bag.  This made for really short lines and a quick turn around.

The flip side the Washington Monument

The race starts in waves that are all based on the honor system.  For the most part runners seem to keep it honest, but as you would expect there were several runners that were in corrals that they probably shouldn't have been in.  During the first two or so miles things are definitely crowded so if you are attempting a PR you have to be alert and identify clear paths ahead.

Still in the crowd at this point

Aside from the initial crowds the first few miles, the race is really flat and fast.  According to Strava the total elevation gain is only 34 feet.  That is by far the flattest race I have done to date.  Water stops are plentiful and are spaced out relatively equally about every 2.5 to three miles.  As with most races they provide water as well as Gatorade.  And just like back in 2014 the group handing out beer and Oreo cookies was at the tip of the inlet.  Apparently a tradition for many many years.

Strava Elevation Chart

Crowd support is actually really great for this event and after mile four you really start to see a lot of cheering fans.  The closer you get back to the starting/finish area the more people you start to see.  There were high school bands playing around the inlet as well as a small Jazz group.  As you start to see signs indication only 1500 meters remaining it is hard not to kick it into high gear.  There is a slight incline for the last half mile, but the crowds really get your adrenaline moving so pushing up that last hill isn't as hard as a normal practice run would be.

Strava Race Map

The course really allows you to see several different monuments and parks around the Washington Monument area including the Lincoln Memorial, the Arlington Memorial Bridge, Korean War Veterans Memorial, the FDR Memorial, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and the Martin Luther King, Jr Monument.  And of course the views as you go around the inlet are amazing.  Especially cool to look at is the housing/building for the Fort Lesley J. McNair facility across the inlet waterway.

Cherry Blossom 10 Miler Finisher Medal

After crossing the finish line you are provided some water and make the long walk back to the runners area entrance.  It is here you can grab some food and additional drinks and if you ordered a medal, you can pick that up as well at a well marked tent.  If you do decide to get a medal and pay for a premium shirt the overall price of the event does go up, but the shirt is worth it unless you like cotton t-shirts.

Cherry Blossoms after the race

Overall this is a great event, and for anyone that loves the 10 miler distance, or wants to try and set a PR, this is a great choice.  The event is very well organized, and the area is absolutely beautiful.  Granted the cherry blossoms weren't stellar this year with the late cold snap and snow in the area, but it was still worth seeing.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Mission 10 Miler

The Mission 10 Miler is a great Frederick, MD race.  This was my third time over the last four years; I took 2016 off.  The event is well run, with lots of great volunteers and supports a great cause that you can read about on their website.

What made this event so great for me this year was that for the first time my wife and daughter (16) both ran this event.  This was my daughters longest run to date and she did incredibly well for her first race.  For those that haven't tried a 10 miler before, it is a really great distance.  Longer than a 10k for those that have already concurred one or more of those, but aren't ready to tackle a half marathon.

The race is an out and back that starts at the Frederick, MD minor league ball park Nymeo Field at Harry Grove Stadium.  The home of the Frederick Keys.  Two great factors of this race is race day packet pickup and the fact that it is run on a Sunday afternoon.  No early wake-up required to take on this event since it starts at 2pm.  Arriving by 1pm is plenty of time to get your race packet, use the facilities and line up.

While there are not "formal" corrals, you do line up following an honor system and they do start racers in waves so that you avoid the huge initial staring line crowds.  They have pacers available as well for those that want to go after a PR or simply have a group of people to stick with.

Strava Map of Mission 10 Miler Course

There are three water stops between the start and the turn around point at mile five.  Each stop is full of volunteers with tons of energy and plenty of water and Gatorade.  The water stop at the turn around point also had Gu although I carried one with me just in case.

Most of the roads are open to traffic during the event, but police officers watch all the intersections and major turn offs to keep cars away as runners proceed through the intersections.  This is a chip timed event, so lots of runners are really pushing themselves.  I was doing really well until the last mile where I ended up slowing down some to run with a friend of mine.  I didn't realize that I was close to a PR at the time or I would have probably sprinted right by; although I have to admit the last two hills on the way back were getting to me.

Overall the course is relatively flat with a total gain of 225 feet according to Strava.  After the start you turn right onto New Design Road and have to traverse two hills as the road crosses over both Interstate 70 and Interstate 270.  Since this is an out and back run, you get to do them again around mile marker 9.2.  Between miles two and four you slowly climb about 90 feet, which is great on the way back between miles six and eight.

Strava Elevation Chart

During the hill climb between mile two and four you turn right on Elmer Derr Road right around mile marker 3.4 and then make another right onto Ballenger Creek Pike around mile marker four.  At this point you get a mostly downhill break until the turn around at mile five.

After making the U-turn over the timing mat, you work your way back up hill to the left turn on Elmer Derr Road.  At mile six you start your slow two mile decent while you turn left onto New Design Road until mile marker eight.  At that point you make a few climbs before turning left on Stadium Drive where it all started and cross the finish line.

Mission 10 Miler Finishers Medal

There are photographers on the course, but the only time I was captured on film was right before crossing the finish line, and lets just say it isn't a photo worth saving.  After I finished I quickly changed cloths since the air was cool and breezy (great for running) and I knew I would chill out.  After changing cloths I waited for my daughter and wife to finish.

After everyone was back at the start we went through the runners tent and grabbed some bananas, water, Gatorade and sandwiches provided by Jimmy Johns.  They had computers setup as well so you could check your time.

Again, this is a great event.  The size is relatively small with less than 800 runners, but well manned and plenty of water stops.  For a well run, medium distance run, with a small town feel, you can't beat the Mission 10 Miler.  And lets not forget about the cause.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Biltmore Backyard to Vineyard Challenge

For anyone that has read my running posts in the post or follows me on Instagram (@zarefoss) you know that I love the Biltmore Estate.  I have been visiting this sanctuary since 1995. When I started running and found out that the Biltmore hosted a Half Marathon and Full Marathon I knew that I would have to partake.

So, this year, as last year, I participated in the Backyard to Vineyard Challenge which consists of running the Half Marathon event on Saturday and the Full Marathon event on Sunday.  We arrived on Thursday afternoon to settle into the Inn at Biltmore and get an early dinner at Cedric's Tavern and visit the house.  Packet pickup was Friday afternoon at the Double Tree hotel in Biltmore Village.

Inn on Biltmore Estate

The weather on Thursday was a beautiful 72F.  The forecast had the temperature dropping each day through Sunday with a chance of snow on overnight Saturday.  At one point the total accumulation was as high as 12 inches but every time I checked it fluctuated wildly.  As much as I didn't want the marathon on Sunday to get cancelled I tried not to worry about it since it was clear no one knew what was really going to happen yet.

Friday morning was a lazy morning, I slept in, had breakfast at the Inn and relaxed.  I didn't go to packet pickup until about 2pm.  In past years I always went when it opened at Noon and it was always crowded.  This time I thought I would wait until after the lunch rush and it worked out great.  Although I had to wait about 15 minutes to get out of the parking lot to get back to the Inn, I was able to get in and out of the expo quickly.  There wasn't much merchandise I was interested in, although I did stop and get a jar of Betsy's Best almond butter with cinnamon and Chia seeds.  After taking a taste I couldn't say no.

Friday night was dinner at Cedric's Tavern and I was looking forward to their Salmon dish all day.  Salmon is one of my favorite dinners before a run.  While I have had this many times before, there had been some changes to the recipe since my last visit and frankly it wasn't as good.  While it wasn't horrible either, I don't think I will be ordering it again any time soon.

Running the Asheville Half and Full Marathon events and staying at the Inn on Biltmore Estate is a perfect match.  The events are beautiful, well managed and staffed, and challenging. Staying at the Inn allows you to simply walk down the hill about 30 minutes from the starting time.

The air was crisp and cool so I had to wear a hat and gloves.  The temperature wasn't going to rise high enough, or more importantly fast enough, to go without them.  After getting ready and putting a Gu in my pocket just in case, I headed down to the starting line about 30 minutes early.  Just enough time to get there, settle in and talk to a few fellow runners.

The Half Marathon started right on time and off we went.  Knowing I had to run again the next day, I made sure I didn't go out of the gate too fast and I wanted to maintain as consistent a pace as possible.  If you have never run around the Biltmore estate there are hills.  Lots of hills.  Very long hills.  And I knew I was going to get to do them twice.

Asheville Half Marathon Strava Map

As you can see from my Strava map and splits I didn't do too bad sticking with the "consistency" thing.  Even given all elevation changes between miles one and six.  This wan't anywhere near my PR pace, but again, that wasn't the goal here with the marathon the next.

Overall the course is great.  The start and finish marked on the map is beside the Barn near Antler Hill Village.  The start is a slight down hill before turning left towards the winery.  Around the first mile marker you make left and work your way up hill to the Deerpark Inn.  At this point you have crested your first of two main hills and also found the first water stop.

After the first water stop you turn left and head down hill for about a mile to the main entrance and ticket center.  While it is tempting to really make up some time here, I have to recommend that you pace yourself and save your energy for the second main climb of the day.  Once you reach the bottom of the hill you make a sharp right hand turn and start your way up Approach Road to the Biltmore House.  This is a 1.5 mile climb to start at which point you make a right into some parking lots and find the second water stop around mile 5.1.  You get to relax with some minor down hill sections before heading back up hill out of the parking lots and turning right twice to get to the Biltmore house.

Strava Elevation Map of the Half Marathon

If the weather is cooperating, and depending on your pace, you are seeing the house as the sun rises.  It makes for a breathtaking image.  The "U" shape towards and away from the house is just shy of a half mile and a nice break after mastering the Approach Road hills.  There are a few automated cameras around the house as well as a photography as you leave the house and turn right towards the gardens, so be sure to smile.  After that right turn you will also cross the 10k timing mat.

Biltmore House during Half Marathon

Leaving the house and running through the gardens is beautiful.  Depending on the weather in the area up until the event, the flowers could vary, but since there were some warm days prior to this, there were several flowers in bloom.  You also get to enjoy over a mile downhill through the gardens, past the bass pond, and over the brick bridge that was used in the movie The Last of the Mohicans.

At the bottom of the hill, right around mile marker 7.6, you turn left towards the equestrian center and you will pass water stop number three.  This stop will also have water, Gatorade and Gu like the second stop, but will also have bananas and oranges as well.  You do a quick out a back that is only about a half mile long on gravel, so you find yourself back at the water stop around mile marker 8.1.

At this point you head back towards the winery and Antler Hill village on paved roads.  As you approach the Lagoon you make a left turn and go around the Lagoon counter clockwise.  After making the left hand turn you are back on a gravel surface.  At the top of the Lagoon you will find another photographer taking pictures with the back of the Biltmore House over your shoulder.  Again, be sure to smile.  Or at least have someone behind you in a really good mood.

Lagoon during Half Marathon

There is another water stop around mile marker 9.3 with a variety of snacks and beverages.  This is definitely one of those racing events where you really don't have to carry anything with you.  While the spacing between the first and second water stops is long, especially given the long climb, in general there are plenty.

As you make your way along the French Broad river you will stay on gravel for several miles.  You will pass another water station around mile marker 11 where you do another out a back along the river.  You will find yourself back at this water station around mile marker 12.6 for your last water break.  As with most other stations this one will have Gu, Water, Gatorade and bananas.

Since coming down from the gardens the course has been flat, but as I mentioned most of it has also been gravel.  After passing this last water stop, there is a small climb that is about 3 tenths of a mile long before you turn right onto a paved surface and head slightly downhill across the finish line in the same manner you started.

Half Marathon Finish Line

According to the chip time, I crossed at 1:57:11.  About 13 minutes slower than my PR, but given my plans for running the marathon the next day, assuming the weather holds out, I was pleased with my performance.

The medals this year were once again wood, but this time they were simply slices of Walnut from the property that was laser engraved.  Very unique, and very cool.

Half Marathon Walnut Medal

I finished in time to get back up the hill to the Inn, shower and take in the breakfast buffet.  All I can say is made-to-order Waffles and Omelets are awesome after a run.

Since dinner the night before at Cedric's didn't go as well as we had planned, we decided to try Village Social for dinner Saturday night.  The food was good, but there wasn't anything specific that stood out at me as a must have before a really long race.  That being said I did grab a dessert which I never do.

When I went to bed the weather was still iffy and I wasn't sure what to expect so I set my alarm a little earlier than I had too so I could see how things were playing out and if there was a delay or cancellation.

When I woke up I was pleased to see only a few inches of snow on the ground and all the pre-treatment they had done on the roadways and walkways looked like it paid off.  I got ready and walked down about 20 minutes before starting time.  It was a lot colder Sunday morning than it was on Saturday morning so once again I was wearing a hat and gloves.

The walkway down the hill to the starting area was slippery and slushy so you definitely needed to be careful and use the grass in places to keep from falling.  Once I got down to the the starting area they had the portable propane heaters for runners to huddle around.  The roads around Asheville were covered in snow, so they gave folks extra time to arrive and the race started about 15 minutes late.

The start for the full marathon is the same as the half marathon.  If fact, the first 10.3 miles are exactly the same as above.  At mile 10.3 you make a left and go over the French Broad river to the West side of the property where most of the farming is done as well as the vineyards.

Full Marathon Strava Map

The one difference however was the snow.  Everything was covered in white, it was absolutely amazing.  The roads were slushy, but overall the staff on property did an amazing job keeping things relatively clear for the event.  I know everyone appreciated their efforts; I know I did.

A snowy Full Marathon

My photo near the lagoon wasn't as good as I would have liked given the snow but I bought it anyway.  I am not planning on running this event in 2018 given some other race commitments, and who knows if I would ever get the chance to do this one in the snow again.

After crossing the river to the west side, you are still on gravel and/or dirt roads.  There is a water stop  until you come back over the river again around mile marker around mile marker 10.9.  Shortly after you turn right away from the river and start your second longest climb of the marathon.  After doing the two climbs towards the house, this is another 1.5 miles up hill.  After passing another water station, you do a quick out and back that takes you over the 13.1 timing mat.  After passing the water station again, there is a nice 1.5 decline that gives you a much needed break.

Strava Full Marathon Elevation Chart

But just when you think you are rested up, there is a steep incline of about a half a mile as you go around the vineyards.  This was an amazing view covered in snow so I had to stop and take a few photos.

Snow covered vineyards

There is another water stop here, around mile marker 15.8.  Again, stocked with water, Gatorade, Gu's and bananas.  The volunteers at all the stops are full of energy and really help keep you motivated.

This is the last water stop on the west side of the property and your make your way slightly down hill into the woods and spend the next 2 miles on mostly flat terrain until you cross back over the French Broad river and then turn left following what you had done for the half marathon, doing the out and back, although this time the out and back is a little further (about an extra tenth of a mile).

However, when you come back towards the barn area, you don't get to cross the finish line just yet.  At this point you are at approximately mile marker 20.4, so just about a 10k remaining.  At least that is what I kept telling myself..."only a 10k remaining".

As I was running down the paved trail below the Village Hotel and Winery I saw my wife standing there with a big smile on her face.  Was nice to see someone cheering you on personally.  And to top it off she had some pancakes.  So I grabbed a blueberry pancake as I ran by hoping to get a second wind.

As you run along the trail back towards the Lagoon you are following a similar path as you did earlier in the day, except this time you are on pavement next to the Winery Road versus on gravel along the river.  When you finally get back to the Lagoon on gravel you stay along the river to the back side of the equestrian center and loop counter clockwise around the area you did the out and back on, past the water stop, then left again back to the river.

At this point you follow the same path back to the finish line that you just did from the barn where I got my pancake.  I have to admit that I was feeling it.  My right knee was barely working at this point, but I only had 2 miles left.  In fact, my knee started to hurt at mile 2 right after starting.  And having taken so long to write this blog entry I can safely say that it actually bothered me for about two weeks.  Four weeks later and I am basically back to my normal running schedule with no pain.

The downside of the marathon is that instead of turning right near the end and running downhill over the finish line, you turn right and run uphill over the finish line since you are coming from the other direction.

Crossing the Full Marathon finish line

After crossing the finish line I got my full marathon medal, again a slice of walnut from the property that was laser engraved.  They also handed me a nice blanket.  Since I did the Backyard to Vineyard Challenge I made my way over to the gazebo at Antler Hill village and received a nice wind breaker jacket and a third medal.

(left to right) Full Marathon, Background to Vineyard Challenge and Half Marathon

All in all, I love this event.  And while I am not planning on doing this event in 2018 at this point and time, I wouldn't be surprised at all if I change my mind at some point and sign up for at least one of the runs.  I highly recommend this event, especially if you have never visited the Biltmore Estate in the past.  It is definitely worth the trip.  And I can't stress enough that staying on property at either the Village Hotel or the Inn on Biltmore Estate.  The convenience of the location and the quality of service is totally unique.