Sunday, October 14, 2018

2018 Steamtown Marathon

I love Autumn races, especially marathons, because of the great temperatures and the amazing scenery they bring.  The downside to Autumn races is you are training through the Summer which can be difficult.  2018 was no different than most years for me.  Lots of heat and humidity his past Summer, coupled with more than normal work travel, made it hard to get my training runs completed.

I had been looking forward to the Steamtown Marathon after the first time I heard about the race.  I knew it was a net downhill course, and while it would challenge my quads I was hoping to have a great time and see how close I could come to my PR and determine how far away I might be from a Boston Qualifying (BQ) time to chase down in the future.

The other exciting part for me was seeing Scranton, PA which I had never visited and of course was the setting for the iconic TV show The Office.  The drive from my house was going to be about 3.5 hours, so very early on I had reserved a room at the Hilton in Scranton that was only blocks away from the finish line.  This also happened to be where the buses picked up runners to take them to the starting area; the Steamtown Marathon is a point to point race.  

When we arrived in Scranton the evening before the race we went straight to Scranton High School for packet pick up which was a breeze.  Very well organized with plenty of parking.  This is probably one of the largest and nicest high schools I have ever seen.  The expo was open on Saturday from 11am until 5:30pm.

Busing to the starting area is "free" and is simply part of the registration fee.  In fact, you don't have to show your bib to board the bus, but friends and family shouldn't join you as it would be a long walk back for them to meet you at the finish line.  Something you are reminded often during the frequent, very informative and hilarious emails leading up to the race.  Since you don't have to show your bib to board, they also have pickup race morning at the starting location, but for obvious reasons they request you pick up your bib the day before the event.  They also offer a bag drop at the starting line for pickup after you cross the finish.  As is normal these days, they provide a clear bag that must be used.

The Radisson Hotel in Scranton, PA

Since I never know what the size will be for an event like this, and I am not from the area, I also book dinner reservations well in advance to make sure the meal prior is something I know will help fuel me for the distance.  Scranton offered a lot of choices near the hotel, but I settled on Carmen's 2.0 inside the Radisson Hotel.  I normally stay in Hilton properties. but when I do this event again, and I will, I may consider staying at the Radisson.  It is a converted and renovated train station from the 1900s and is gorgeous.

Carmen's 2.0 within the converted train station

As you can see from the photos above the venue is absolutely amazing.  So much to look at and take in.  Timing wise there was a wedding reception going on within the lobby while we were there, so the noise was louder than I am sure is normal and it wasn't possible to really look around and take it all in.

The menu offered a wide variety of options and the food came out really well.  The bread was amazing as was their salted butter.  They also provided basil infused oil as an alternative to the butter.  I started with their French onion soup and had the salmon for the main course, as I often do prior to race day.

Salmon with polenta and wilted spinach

The salmon was perfectly cooked and I really enjoyed the polenta cake and wilted spinach that came with the dish.  I wasn't a fan of the pomegranate reduction, but it paired well with my wife's duck, so win-win.

As most runners understand, you can plan, you can train, you can play the event out in your head well in advance of your race,  and unfortunately, a lot of times things don't work out as you would hope, or expect.  This was one of those races for me.  I had been sick for several days leading up to the event and was concerned how well I would perform.  I knew I wasn't going to PR at this point, which was disappointing, but in some ways I would just be happy to finish.  Of course I was only able to get about 4 hours of sleep the night before for various reasons so that was weighing on me as I got up to get ready.

Staying locally only a few blocks away takes all the stress out of arriving on time, finding parking or fear of getting lost or being late.  It was a very short walk to the bus area and knew I would have plenty of time to stretch and prepare myself while I waited for the event to start.  It is about a 45 minute bus ride the starting area at Forest City High School.

There were numerous signs in the high school

We were welcomed to the starting area by loads of volunteers, high school kids and cheerleaders giving us their support.  Being allowed to wait in the school was wonderful so that weather didn't really play into it at all.  The school was decorated all over with signs of encouragement welcoming the runners.  I truly have never seen this level of support in any other race event I have attended.

Seniors in bright orange shirts making sure no one gets a head start

With about 15 minutes to spare before the starting canon, yes canon, I made my way to the starting area and lined up according to my planned pace.  They had high school seniors lined up at the starting line to ensure no one got an unfair head start.  Given the level of maturity I had been seeing in the event planning and communication leading up to the event, there was no doubt we would start on time, and of course that is what happened.

Strava Map of the point to point Steamtown Marathon

The course being a "net downhill" event is no joke.  If my math is right, there is probably only 110 feet or so of elevation gain in the entire 26 miles.  Granted some of that is near the end unfortunately, but you have to make sure you pace yourself coming out of the gate to save your quads for the first 10 miles or so of serious decent with some gas left to climb those hills at the end.  I have done other events that were advertised as net downhill such as Via Marathon, but those just don't compare.  The other added benefit of this event is the lack of trails.  The Via Marathon had long stretches of trail which changed your focus and posture significantly.  Long stretches of trail are usually also devoid of crowd support and water stations which I found frustrating for the Via Marathon event.

Strava Elevation chart of the Steamtown Marathon

With the Steamtown Marathon there was a total of about a half a mile of trail as you transition from a park back onto the road.  Since the majority of the event is on road there is significant crowd support along the way and plenty of police and volunteers closing roads and intersections in favor of the runners.  At no point did I ever feel as though I was in danger.  Additionally, there were plenty of water stops.  They were more infrequently at the beginning, probably averaging every 2 miles or so for the first 6 to 8 miles, but became more frequent as you continued.

The scenery on this course was breathtaking to say the least.  As you leave the starting area it is mostly wooded as you come down the "mountain" and the timing of the race is perfect to see the leaves changing colors for the start of Autumn.  One of the signs I saw along the way was a gentle reminder that Autumn is really our second Spring with leaves each being a flower.

Photo down the Lackawanna River Heritage Trail

After you find your way down the majority of the downhill you end up on the Lackawanna River Heritage Trail which is paved.  As you pass through various small times you end up leaving the trail for roads, returning the trail and so on a few times.  This was absolutely stunning.  So much so I had to stop and take a few photos of fellow runners in front of me in the Fall foliage and some of the many river crossings.

One of the many crossings over the Lackawanna River

One of the more silent features of the race are the numerous turns throughout.  Rarely were you running on a long straightaway that made you feel you were making no forward progress.  I overheard someone indicate that there were over 60 turns on this course.  I have no idea if that was accurate or not, but whatever the number was, I found it enjoyable.  And on top of that, as I indicated earlier, race support was outstanding.  So many people outside cheering the runners on through the entire course.

I found myself only 2 minutes behind my marathon PR pace around mile 12 or 13, but I was quickly fading.  I knew from some of the chatter around me and some of the volunteers that saving some juice for the climbs near the end was essential.  Sure enough I found out what everyone was referring too.  Around mile 23 you start to climb some, and at mile 24 there is a steep climb up what I believe was Sunset Street.  What was spectacular about this climb were the houses and the their owners.  They were out in the street in droves.  The houses were older,  yet gorgeous, very large, well decorated victorian and colonial styles.  The owners were out with lawn chairs, their kids, sprinklers to cool us off, candy, beverages, loud music and of course beer.

I have to admit that even though you are climbing what feels like forever, it was a welcome jolt of energy to have that support from the spectators at this point in the race.  I ran with my Apple Watch this time knowing I really didn't need my race watch given how I was feeling and it worked out great.  I was able to get some messages of encouragement from my wife along the course and keep her apprised of my progress so she could find a place to see me near the finish line.

Once I crossed the finish line I was presented with the finishers medal and overwhelming variety of food.  They had bananas, oranges, donuts, sandwiches, pasta and even more that I can't remember.  I wasn't ready to eat anything just then, so I simply had my Skratch Recovery drink.  We then ate at the hotel for lunch before the long drive back home.  I have to admit that once again I was disappointed by the hotel not paying attention to what was going on around them.

Steamtown Marathon finishers medal

There wasn't a "host hotel" for this event, but this is the events 23rd year.  The hospitality venues in the area should be expecting a lot of runners.  A lot of hungry runners at that.  Why on Earth wouldn't the hotel think to extend their normal Sunday breakfast buffet that ends at Noon to 2pm or so?  It would have been like printing money in my opinion.  Since the race starts at 8am that doesn't give a large number of runners enough time to get finished, showered and changed before food options start ending.  My wife discovered that the Radisson hotel did have a buffet until 2pm, but I wasn't up for the walk to be honest.  Perhaps another reason to try the Radisson the next time.

To top it off, I had to pay an extra $59 for a checkout time that was 3 hours later.  Normal checkout at this Hilton was Noon and I knew I would need until at least 1pm or 1:30pm to get out the door after a shower.  So, I reluctantly paid the $59 and of course only used just over an hour of the extra time.  At other races I haven't had this issue, they were more than happy to give me a few more hours.   I understand they need to turn the rooms, but it didn't seem like a lot of folks would be checking in on a Sunday.  And I would think they could give some latitude based on your standing with the hotel in terms of prior visits, or at least how many rooms have already asked to a late checkout.  Perhaps adjusting the price accordingly if they felt the need to charge.

Certainly not trying to end this summary on a negative note, but given that many runners will come from out of town, I thought it would be worth sharing some of those details and challenges to help folks plan.  If you have the time, perhaps just staying that Sunday night and enjoying the city would be worth it.  When you think about adding the $59 dollars anyway, it wouldn't have cost that much more to just stay another night.

This was a very enjoyable race from top to bottom (literally).  Overall I ended up with I believe to be my worst marathon time ever, but this will be one of my favorite runs regardless.  I am really looking forward to the opportunity to participate again.  I will be sure to train for the downhill portion to ensure my quads can take the pounding and save some in reserve for those two climbs at the end.  The races 25th anniversary will be in 2020, so I am thinking that might be my next visit to Scranton, PA.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

2018 Rick O'Donnell 5.22 Mile Trail

I really enjoy trail running, but it isn't something I do very often.  I find that looking down to ensure I don't face plant really messes with my posture and causes areas of my body to fatigue and hurt that don't usually bother me.

That being said, I was really excited to give the Rick O'Donnell trail run a try in September,  The event is held very close to my house and while I thought it might be somewhat hilly I knew going around the park lake would be beautiful.  The event lasts for 8 hours, so you have two options at sign up.  You can choose to simply go around once which is approximately 5.22 miles.  Or, you can elect to go around as many times as you can within the 8 hour time limit.

View of Lake from starting area

I had intended to try and go around as many times as possible when I signed up for the event, but over the course of time plans changed and I ended up only going around once.  Some work associates joined me for the event which made it a lot of fun and more than made up for the shortened distance.  The Maryland area has been getting a large amount of run this summer and the course was a bit muddy with a few higher than normal water crossings.

Now that I have seen how the event is setup and run, I do know that I will be back and certainly will attempt a much longer run.  While I didn't get any photos of the setup, it was extremely well supported.  Since it is a loop course, they had food/water support at the start line as the runners completed each loop.  For those only going around once, there was a separate area to allow the repeat runners easy access to water and food as they made their next loop.

Strava Map of the 5.22 mile loop

As the trail proceeds through the starting area there are numerous picnic tables and plenty of open space where runners had setup their own support areas with additional food and beverage options to help them meet their distance goals.  I hadn't thought about what I probably would have wanted to bring had I gone for a 50k distance or more, so seeing the amount of setup was certainly eye opening for me as a plan the adventure next year.

Having company on the course was also a lot of fun.  One thing that did surprise all of us was a few bee/hornet nests along the course.  Within the first mile or two, my two friends both got stung multiple times each.  Later on in the course around mile 4 or so we could hear other runners getting stung.  I didn't see anyone with a severe reaction, but if anyone with allergies decides to run this event, please do bring appropriate medication with you just in case.  Perhaps all the extra rain or other factors created the bee issue, but we certainly weren't expecting it, nor could we really see anything obvious to avoid.

The course had a wide variety of "technical" trail areas.  Everything from fairly fine gravel like dirt as you can see in the photo above, to larger rocks, roots and everything in between.  There were two creek crossings, but only one was really challenging given the extra rain the area received in the prior weeks.

The trail is clearly well used through the year given how visible and easy to follow it was.  Additionally, the course was very well marked by the event staff, so there was never an issue trying to figure out which way to go at various branch points along the trail.  There were also plenty of entertaining signs along the way as well.  I wonder if they would have changed some of them out over time to keep runners doing multiple loops entertained as they ran for 8 hours?

Strava Elevation

The elevation was more than I had expected.  As you can see in the photo above from Strava there is some significant change over some fairly short distances.  I am sure this would catch up with you on each successive loop.  Probably about 450 feet of gain each time around the course if my math is correct.

Overall this was a very enjoyable event.  I will certainly plan to run this again in the future and will take advantage of the ability to do as much as possible within the 8 hour time limit.  Seeing the course, the setup and how other runners prepared for their support was certainly an educational experience.  Very different preparation than for my usual half and full marathon road races.  I am glad I decided to do a single loop for my first experience.