(the green line is the trail; elevation profile and map are courtesy of the Friends of the W&OD Trail)
|At about mile 40 the horse begins to smell the barn. My mental arithmetic powers are virtually shot, but looking at my watch I see that I may be able to break 9 hours—if I can crank up my pace to ~11 minutes/mile. The old legs are stiffening but not yet cramping. |
So I cut back walk breaks to 30 seconds every few minutes, take an electrolyte capsule, suck down an energy gel, drink remaining water, blast downhills, power-walk uphills, punch crosswalk buttons impatiently at traffic lights ... and as the graph shows, close out the Andiamo 2008 with my fastest splits of the day, including a last-mile 9:51. I finish in 8:56:27, sixth place of 13 starters.
Andiamo means "Let's go!" in Italian. It's also the name of a race, the full length of the Washington & Old Dominion Trail. The W&OD was originally a railroad, so the trail is reasonably straight and reasonably level, making the Andiamo a reasonably easy ultramarathon—if any ultra can be said to be "easy". Its length is variously estimated as 44.6 miles, 44.7 miles, 44.82 miles, or "about 45 miles".
The Virginia Happy Trails Running Club sponsors the Andiamo in alternate years, so last month when I chance to see it mentioned I have to decide quickly whether to try it. Sure, I'm undertrained. Official support along the course is minimal. Only a handful of people do the event, so most participants are alone most of the time. Finishers get only a round of applause and an Andiamo pin or patch. Hmmm—all that sounds pretty good! And the icing on the tiramisu: the entry fee is only $10—less than 25¢ per mile. Who could resist?
The 13th Andiamo attracts 15 entrants, of whom 13 line up to start at 7:31am in Purcellville VA. Race Directors Carolyn Gernand and Joe Malinowski give a quick pre-brief, the essence of which is "Follow the trail!" Official aid is planned near miles 6, 11, 17, and 25. There might be an impromptu aid station around mile 36, or then again maybe not. As the official web page warns, "ALL OTHER AID WILL BE THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE RUNNER." Near the trail are convenience stores and occasional water fountains.
So I'm toting $7, a cellphone, two water bottles, half a dozen energy gels and a dozen electrolyte capsules. I fill the pockets of my fluorescent pink shorts with root beer barrel candies and ginger chews that friend Mary Ewell gave me. Just in case, I also bring ibuprofen and antihistamine tablets, a folded up paper towel (in case of dire emergency), and a tiny tin of petroleum jelly. Fortunately today I only need the last, to grease delicate parts of my chest when they start to chafe.
Race Plan: start at the back of the pack, walk/jog at a comfortable 13-14 minute/mile pace, and try to finish in 10 hours, safely within the 11 hour time limit. Soon my scheme is left abandoned by the trailside. Jim Cavanaugh, coming back from knee surgery, has given three of us a ride to Purcellville from the finish line where we parked our cars at 6am. Everyone else in the car has done at least one 100 miler, so the conversation during our nearly-an-hour drive is fascinating. Dan Rose is running the Andiamo as a tune-up for the upcoming national 24-hour competition in Texas. Today he hopes to make 8 min/mile (and in fact does, winning the race at an average 7:52 pace). Lou Jones moseyed through the woods with me for the first loop of the New Year's Day Red Eye 50k 2008. I remind him of his wise ultramarathon advice to me: "You just have to not quit!" He chuckles.
So when the trio of sexagenarians Jim, Lou, and Paul Dwyer canter away, how can I hang back? I chat with Clarence Wilson Jr. briefly, but when he slows I catch up with the threesome. (Clarence finishes the Andiamo with a net pace just over 15 min/mi.) We pass the official 44.5 milepost in 1 minute 22 seconds by my watch, and continue together at about 12 min/mi pace for the first half dozen miles. Jim follows the parallel gravel horse trail whenever possible; I accompany him if it seems fairly level, but otherwise stick to the asphalt-paved bike path or its grassy shoulder. Lou and Paul chatter as I draft behind them. (Paul later drops from the race; Lou cruises through at an average ~14.5 min/mi.)
At the first aid station, the back end of a VTHRC pick-up truck, Jim Cavanaugh turns back; he wasn't signed up to race, needs to let his knee heal, and in any case can't abandon his vehicle in Purcellville. Volunteers fill my bottle with Gatorade, I grab a fistful of cookies and chips, then blast off. Lou and Paul follow shortly behind. I trot at 12-13 min/mi and shortly thereafter they're out of sight.
All's peaceful now as I cruise solo through Leesburg. The aid station at mile 11 is a welcome opportunity to refill and refuel. Soon I'm on terra cognita, the part of the trail that Mary and I ran together a few months ago (cf. 2008-07-19 - WOD Trail Trek). Cyclists, skaters, walkers, and joggers are increasingly common now. At mile 13 I literally "hit the wall"—more precisely, I reach out and slap the ancient stone structure that abuts the trail here, where Kate Abbott and Alyssa Duble and I turned back on our training expedition Friday a week ago (cf. 2008-09-26 - WOD Marathon Run).
A few miles later a lady in a lime-green shirt runs toward me, smiles, and says, "Hi Mark!" I do a double-take: it's Mary Ewell, and in my zoned state I didn't recognize her. (Duh!) She materializes bearing gifts: a gluten-free chocolate brownie, a big bottle of Zelectrolyte, and best of all her pleasant company. We run side-by-side for an hour, bantering and teasing one another: I thank Mary repeatedly and profusely for coming out to see me; in turn she apologizes repeatedly and profusely for leading me along at too fast a pace during our multiple sub-12 minute miles together. (Little do we know that this turns out to be the perfect pace for me today.) We visit with volunteers at the mile 22 VHTRC aid station and accept their kind offer of ice for our bottles. The plastic bag from Mary's brownie serves me for the next 20 miles to carry chips, cookies, candy, and empty wrappers. We discuss meditation, medicine, wine, and upcoming race plans. At Route 28 (the W&OD milepost 24, about mile 20.6 of the race) we shake hands. Mary turns back toward her home, and I stride onward. (Pssst: thank you, Mary!)
I catch up with James Moore, another multi-Andiamo veteran now in his 60's and still going strong. We talk a bit and then part ways. Near mile 26 I overtake Niki Evans and John Acker. One is from Wales and the other grew up locally. Neither has run beyond 13 miles before. I salute their daring and offer them my standard unsolicited advice for succeeding at an ultra (walk! eat! drink! enjoy the day!), then congratulate them as we pass the 26.2 mile point—their first marathon. I inform them that we're in 7th, 8th, and 9th place at this point. They admire my facial hair and confess that they're carrying fake beards to put on as they approach the finish line, so they can claim to have grown them during the long journey. We laugh together, and I bid them farewell.
Since Andiamo means "Let's Go" the classic-rock song of the same name by The Cars is rattling around inside my cranium. Fighting it for top billing is the Supertramp hit "Take the Long Way Home", heard on the radio this morning. Meanwhile I'm attending to my breathing, feeling my footfalls, and generally trying to remain mindful. I take advantage of every opportunity to run in the shade of trailside trees, since I know I'm going to come out of the day with a sunburn and I want to minimize it.
At mile 28 the first and only potential crisis of the day materializes. I've drunk half of my water and at Sunset Hills Rd in Reston I approach the fountain that I'm counting on for a refill. It's broken! My hope now rests on conserving fluids, running gently, and making it to the next oasis without dehydration. I think it's 4 miles ahead, but I'm confused: it turns out to be almost 5. During the hour I drain my last bottle dry and try not to panic. Thankfully soon, the number of pram-pushers and kids riding bikes with training wheels increases significantly. I tell myself that the town is near.
Then the crowds thicken, and I hear music. It's Oktoberfest, a mammoth street festival! The water fountain at the Vienna W&OD station is working fine, so I refill both bottles, take an e-cap and a gel, drink deeply, and thread my way through the throngs. At highway 123 I wait for the cars to stop and then hasten across. More major road crossings for the next several miles slow me down, but I make up the time in between. Having water in hand is good.
At the start of the Andiamo I spoke briefly with Paul Ammann, one of my many marathon mentors (cf. UltraMan, Injury Avoidance, ...). He's far faster than I am; I never expected to see him again. But suddenly, somehow, Paul catches up with me. What happened? He explains that he stopped for 20 minutes back at the Oktoberfest to stand in line for a beer with a friend! Paul shows me the red band around his wrist, proof that he's old enough to drink. I bemoan the fact that I'm not carrying an ID and with my luck would have been carded. Paul looks at my gray beard and suggests gently that that is rather improbable. As we run together he tells me about the grapes and raspberries and other good things to eat along the W&OD Trail, and reassures me that an aid station is shortly ahead. He's right. I refuel quickly and run onward while he stays to visit with comrades there. But soon Paul catches up with me, chats some more, then zips ahead out of sight. (I next see him at the finish line, where mysteriously he comes in a few minutes after me; he took another break later on at a convenience store.)
Now with only a handful of miles to go I get excited. Earlier today I upgraded my goal from 10 hours to 9.5, then 9.25—and now it looks as though I can break 9 hours, provided I push hard and don't go off course. The W&OD here has confusing branches where the Custis Trail and the Four Mile Run Trail diverge and converge. I focus, watch for signs and markers, and somehow manage not to get lost. My legs start to stiffen but I ward off cramps by dosing myself with more electrolytes and energy gels. The miles count down rapidly and now my chief fear is being stuck at a road crossing. Mercifully those delays are brief.
As the chart shows, my final miles are my fastest ones. A small hill looms. I see familiar-looking cars parked on the street nearby—the end is just beyond the crest. Over the top I stride. RDs Carolyn and Joe rise from their lounge chairs, take a photo of my triumphant moment, and award me an Andiamo finisher's pin. Carolyn tells me that I'm sixth today, which astounds me since I never make it into the top half of an event. This must be an aberration, a statistical fluke due to the small number of entrants. I stay to drink a soda, thank the volunteers picnicking nearby, admire the cute three-month-old baby whom I saw at the starting line, phone friends and family to tell them the good news, and then head for home. (Comrade Kate called about an hour ago to offer help, but I never hear the phone ring.) I'm tired and happy. And I can even walk down stairs the next day without more than minor wincing. (^_^)