Monday, March 29, 2010

N.C.'s cleanest running store? It'd better be.

Think of two things that absolutely do not go together. A tweed jacket with swim trunks. Or green beans on an ice cream sandwich. Maybe a duet between Metallica and Hannah Montana.

Then imagine trying to get someone to buy into your unlikely mash-up.

This is the exactly the kind of zany leap Peter Asciutto took in 2004 when he opened a store in Albemarle that promised to be a one-stop shop for all of your -- ahem -- vacuum cleaner and running shoe needs. (Oh, if you need something shipped via UPS, he can help you out there, too.)

Vac & Dash defied common sense, logic, and just about every set of odds you can come up with. But the funny thing is? Asciutto's concept worked.

Today the 11-time marathoner and his store have a tremendous influence on runners in Stanly County, and maintain a small but growing following within the running community here in Charlotte, 38 miles to the west.

The 51-year-old Florida native attributes some of his wackiness to his childhood. He had four siblings and was the middle child; his mother is "a devout Catholic woman ... [who] was married seven times to five different guys. Yes, she doubled dipped Holy Matrimony to two different guys," says Asciutto, who himself has a wife, Renee, and a son, Gregory.)

He took up running as a freshman at Troy State University (now just Troy University) in Alabama, but had an off-again on-again relationship with the sport until a little over a decade ago.

"My weight got up to about 230 in 1998," recalls the 5-foot-7 Asciutto, who moved to Albemarle that year. "My blood pressure was 165/110. I decided to get back to running and make it part of my life. My weight still hangs in the 190 range. Still need to bring it down more."

Yet he's run sub-two-hour half-marathons several times, and has a marathon PR of 4:01 that's only a few years old -- making him an above-average runner for his age.

Like it or not, though, Asciutto will probably always be better-known for his sense of humor than his running prowess. He makes hilarious T-shirts (oops -- did we not mention that Vac & Dash also does screen printing?), and has a sense of fun that's infectious.

Exhibit A: This Thursday evening's sold-out April Fools' Day 5K Classic, which will send runners through backyards and a garage, and features aid stations with water balloons instead of cups of water. "Originally, we were going to cap the race at 100 people the first year. Ended up with 135," Asciutto says. "I thought it would be all [Albemarle] runners. We have 41 runners coming from 45 minutes or more to participate."

Over the weekend, Asciutto shed light on his odd business concept and his flair for the funny, but also talked about the things he's done to help turn his area into a hotbed for seriously good high school runners.

Q. What did you fall in love with first: Vacuums, or running?

I love running. The vacuum part was my livelihood for 15 years. I worked for the Eureka Company for 14 years as a Territory Manager, then as the Branch Manager for Charlotte. Selling to vac shops from Florida to Maryland gave me the background in the vacuum industry.

Q. When you first started "going public" with the idea for Vac & Dash, did your friends and family think you were a little bit crazy?

People had to digest it for a bit. Even today, folks that first hear about us have to think about it for a while. Some of my friends suggested that I pick one or the other, rather than do both. Initially, I had a hard time getting shoe companies to allow me to be a vendor. The idea of selling shoes next to vacuum cleaners was not something that fit their marketing schemes. I had to keep talking to people up the chain of command at the shoe manufactuers until I got a yes. Brooks, Mizuno and Saucony were the first three companies that let me sell their shoes. Since then, I've added Asics, Pearl Izumi and Somnio.

Q. Why do you think the concept has succeeded?

The strange combination has actually become a marketing boom. The first week we opened the store, a college kid from Memphis came in the store with a camera. He was in town on a mission trip with a local church. He said, "Vacuum cleaners and running shoes, that's the most unique specialty store I've ever seen. Can I get a picture in your window with me standing next to the mannequin in the running clothes pushing a vacuum cleaner?" That's how I got my slogan, "The South's Most Unique Specialty Store!" People tell me stories all the time how wearing a Vac & Dash T-shirt tends to strike up conversations with strangers.

Q. What is more responsible for keeping the business in the black: Vacuums, or running?

For the first three years, dollar sales were split even between vacuums, running and UPS Shipping. Then Kellie Pickler came along, and we sold a few thousand Kellie Pickler T-shirts during her "American Idol" ride. I'll always be thankful for her success, as she drove a lot of business to Vac & Dash. A friend of mine printed the shirts and we sold them. Each week, we had a new shirt out. Example: When Simon called Kellie a "Naughty Little Minx," on Tuesday night, we had black T-shirts with "Naughty Little Minx" in Hot Pink Ink on the shelves to sell, and an ad in the Stanly News & Press by Thursday. Businesses and schools started coming to us for their T-shirt needs. We soon were outselling what my friend could produce, so we bought our own screen printing equipment. Now the screen printing, UPS Shipping and running keeps us going. The vacuum part of the business hasn't grown much the last few years.

Q. You're known for making wacky running shirts. What are some of your personal-favorite designs?

People seem to like the Vac & Dash Racing Team with the "We eventually get there!" motto. I have some University of Albemarle Fighting Catfish shirts I like. When we first started screen printing, we came up with a line of Fighting Catfish shirts to practice screen printing. My favorite is the Fighting Catfish Badminton Division III Sub-Region Runner-up 1967.

Q. How would you describe your role in the running community?

Mainly as a communicator. I don't have the knowledge or time to put together a running program to teach someone to qualify for Boston. I probably should, since I own a running store. I try to send out information -- whether it's [through] the newspaper, by e-mail newsletter, posting on my Web site, Facebook, etc. -- on successes of others. Runners come in all shapes, speeds and sizes. I feel that sending that info out will [allow] others [to] see that they are not alone and start running.

Q. What are some of your proudest achievements as a running ambassador?

One of the most successful things has been helping the local cross-country programs. I don't know how to teach a kid to get faster, the coaches do that. I just dangle the carrot. The faster kids -- the ones who are named all-conference, all-county, or break [a certain time] in a race, etc. -- get their name in the paper, picture on my Web site, and bunches of free T-shirts. I put together a group of XC boosters that help fund a timing clock and finish line supplies that I donate to local races, plus the T-shirts to the kids. We also have an XC camp in the summer, [and] put videos on YouTube of major meets. It seems to help. When the store opened in 2004, two local kids ran at [the] state [meet]. The last few years, over 30 have run at state each year. In 2008, Daniel Yeakley of West Stanly was the 2A State champ, with his team finishing second and Gray Stone Boys placing second in 1A. In 2009, Gray Stone Boys were 1A state champs with the Girls fifth. Five of the 10 all-state runners in 1A Boys were from the Yadkin Valley Conference.

Q. OK, tell me about this April Fools' race.

Each year I send out an April Fools' Day Newsletter. It usually tricks a few folks. This year, I decided to try an April Fools' Day Race. My biggest challenge was convincing people that I was actually having a race.

Q. How much can you tell me about the course?

It is a race with surprises. We are going to run through two people's yards, have an inflatable obstacle course at the finish line, plus fun at the post-race awards.

Q. What's the race tee look like?

Long-sleeve white tee with orange and blue print on front, with the following quote from Mark Twain: "Let us be thankful for the fools. But for them the rest of us could not succeed." On the back, we made up wacky combo stores and logos, such as Barney's Animal Clinic and Taxidermy: "If we can't fix 'em, we'll stuff 'em."

She was sick and tired, but she finished 26.2

Here's a quick follow-up with Matthews resident Lorri Elliott, the 52-year-old Carolinas HealthCare System flight nurse who I profiled earlier this month here. She ran her first-ever marathon -- Tobacco Road in Cary, on March 21 -- in a time of 6:31:35.

The bad news? "I was sick and running from one Port-a-potty to the next," she said afterward. The good news? She finished with a smile.

Q. And that was your goal, right?

Yes ... (but) I was disappointed in my time. Despite knowing my first marathon was going to take longer than most, it felt like it took forever to complete. I had to stop at the water stations more than most, but being sick, it just couldn’t be helped.
My running buddy Joie Tavener and I had talked about walking if need be, but we didn’t -- we ran the entire race. Running across the finish line, I was really hurting, but I was so grateful to have completed the WHOLE thing, I didn’t have to work at smiling! It was there for everyone to see.

Q. Did the experience live up to your expectations?

Yes and NO. Yes, the trail was great to run on, the volunteers and stations were very friendly and encouraging. No, I didn’t expect to be sick, nor did I think there was going to be a problem with the shuttle -- they did not pick us up at the hotel, so we had to drive and arrived 10 minutes before the marathon. That didn’t help my already upset stomach. I just didn’t let it all get to me. I had trained to run this race and I just felt that no matter what was thrown at me, I was going to do my best to complete the marathon.

Q. Would you do another one?

The first question posed to me after the marathon was what did I think about doing another marathon? My answer was, “I think I would like to do a half instead.” I was sore for about three days and felt very tired for about four days, but now a week out I am thinking that yes, I would like to do another marathon. I think I would like to do a few halves and work back up to the full in order to improve my time. I might even do Tobacco Road again, since the trails are really great to run on. And I have a year to get there, physically and mentally.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

RaceFest has steep hills, free beer

At the end of the Charlotte RaceFest Half-Marathon and 10K on April 10, participants will find what many runners consider the ideal recovery drink: free beer. (Eight to 10 kegs of it, with a two-beer limit per runner.)

To get to it, though, you'll have to complete one of the toughest courses in the city.

I've never run the 10K before, but having done the 13.1 in 2009, I can offer this warning to first-timers: Enjoy the downhills in the first half of the course, but remember that what goes down must come up. Most notably, there's a gradual ascent on Sharon View between Miles 7 and 8; another short, steep climb on Valencia Terrace near Mile 9; then two decent uphills in the last three miles leading back to the finish near SouthPark mall. (Course maps are here.)

One new wrinkle for the 2010 RaceFest, which is now in its ninth year, is that the start time has been moved up from 8 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. It's a minor wrinkle, but it could potentially pave the way for major changes.

Says Neil Howard, one of the organizers of the event: "By pushing up the start time to 7:30 a.m., we've been able to alleviate some of the city's concerns when it comes to traffic delays, particularly along Fairview Road. However, after this year, we'll have to evaluate with the city again and see if we need to make wholesale changes to the course."

As of March 15, about 1,600 people had registered for the two races, and Howard expects that number could climb to 2,500 by race day -- "if the weather forecast is good that week. (Nice weather) gets us a good bump on 10K folks."

Registration for the half-marathon is $45 through April 7, $50 thereafter; the 10K costs $35 through April 7, $40 thereafter. In addition to a race T-shirt, all finishers (in both the half-marathon and 10K) will receive a commemorative finisher's medal. Full details are on the race Web site.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Speaking of bonking in a marathon ...

Mark Ulrich, a friend of mine from the University City Road Runners, went into the North Carolina Marathon in High Point on Saturday with a goal of 3:40. He hit the wall (even harder than I did in Virginia Beach on Sunday) at Mile 18 and limped to a 4:10:30.

But even though he called his race "a complete disaster," he had a sense of humor about it. This, essentially, was the race report he e-mailed that night to members of our group

Lesson #1: Although a strong 18-mile run is generally a good thing, it isn't nearly as gratifying if the race is 26.2 miles.

Lesson #2: The water stops seem much farther apart when you are walking.

Lesson #3: You expect to get passed by other runners if you begin walking, but if you are walking slowly enough, it is also possible to get passed by other people who are walking.

Lesson #4: If you walk the majority of the way from Miles 20-26, but had a strong first 18, you can finish in 4:10, which isn't terrible considering you walked a good portion of the race.

Lesson #5: Even if you walk the last four miles, you can start running just before the last turn and people at the finish line will think you ran the whole thing.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Shamrock 26.2 was no day at the beach

They say you learn something every time you run a marathon. I've only run three, but I've done them all within less than five months, so for me, the lessons have come at me -- relatively speaking -- rather fast and furious.

In New York, I learned not to go out too fast. At Thunder Road, I learned that if there's fuel left in the tank, don't wait till Mile 25 to start using it. And on Sunday at the Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach, I learned ... well, I learned a bunch of stuff.

I wasn't terribly well-trained for this one. I got in close to the recommended number of 20- to 22-mile long runs, but otherwise didn't follow a formalized plan. I probably ran my long runs too fast. I had one good month of speedwork (in January), but then slacked off. I swam once a week, but otherwise did no cross-training or core exercises. My IT band gave me problems off and on.

At the same time, I was relaxed and having much more fun than I did while training for New York. Relaxed, having fun ... and feeling confident. Maybe too confident. I PR'd in Charlotte in December, coasting to a 3:42 on a hilly course. Using a pretty unscientific formula, I went into this one with a goal of 3:33 -- halfway between my NYC time and my required BQ time. Fueled by some encouraging long runs and friends' lofty predictions, I actually believed a sub-3:30 was possible.

When the 3:40 pace group cruised past me around 21.5 miles into the race late Sunday morning as I walked along the side of Atlantic Avenue, I was starting to wonder whether a finish under four hours was even realistic.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I picked Shamrock because it is billed as being flat and fast, and after two marathons on rolling courses, I was excited about the change of pace. My buddy Allen Strickland was planning to attempt to qualify for Boston there, and I knew several other people from Charlotte who were making the six-hour drive -- including Mike Ham, a guy from my running group who had done the race twice before.

I'd heard about the coastal winds, which were stiff but not overpowering for parts of the morning. And I'd heard about the mind-numbing boredom of the middle of the second 13.1. What I wasn't ready for was the heat.

Heat's a relative term, of course. In July or August, 70 degrees is probably a reasonable temperature in which to run a marathon. For me, 70 is a problem after weeks/months of doing long runs in 30- and 40-degree weather. It's not a problem for everybody -- plenty of people, including my friend Meghan Fillnow, had great races Sunday. She trained all winter in Charlotte and PR'd by a minute Sunday, placing sixth in the women's race with a 3:04. Allen missed a BQ, but ran a 3:26 and PR'd by eight minutes.

So did the heat cause my big bonk? I think that was part of it. A little over a year ago, I bonked in the Corporate Cup HALF-marathon at Mile 11 because it happened to be unseasonably warm. (Worth noting: The mercury rose enough Sunday that a friend of a friend, Elizabeth Goldman of Falls Church, Va. -- another heat-sensitive runner -- dropped out just past the halfway point.)

The bigger factor, though, is that I had a game plan and I didn't stick to it. Like I said, my goal was 3:33 and I believed that on a good day, I could go sub-3:30. The strategy was to run an 8:07 pace (which would get me to 3:33) for 16 miles, then start picking up the pace. In the six weeks leading up to this race, I had set a 5K PR and a half-marathon PR on negative splits; if you've bagged races that way, you know how good that feels, and I figured following the outline would lead to marathon bliss Sunday.

Unfortunately, it was over almost as soon as it started. A few minutes before the gun went off at 8 a.m., I was standing in the corral with Allen Strickland; Mike Ham; another friend, Dexter Pepperman, part of the Run For Your Life-Dilworth crew; and two runners Dexter knew from Charlotte, Mary Dare Mayeux and Joel Thomas. Joel, like Allen, was shooting for 3:20:59 or less, so I had no interest in running with them. I'd told both Mike and Dexter about my strategy, and they were cool with hanging for awhile. Mary Dare, it turns out, was also shooting for 3:33. Seemed like a perfect person to keep an eye on.

Then the gun went off and my plan went out the window. Not immediately -- as we headed south down Atlantic Avenue, which runs parallel to the beach and is lined with souvenir shops and tourist-trap restaurants and towering hotels, the river of 2,600-plus runners was thick enough that we clicked off Mile 1 at 8:14. It was in the next mile that I made what could have been a fatal mistake: I continued to be social.

There are pros and cons to running with others, for sure. The upside is it makes the miles go by faster. The downside is that if your goals aren't the same, someone's plan is ultimately going to be disrupted. Mike was hoping to PR, and his is 3:17. He was going out slow to keep me company, but he wasn't going slow enough. Dexter, I don't know what his goal was. He'd left Charlotte at around 10:45 Saturday night and was running this on one hour's sleep; he may well have been delirious. (He's run more than 20 marathons and is headed to Boston next month, so I think it was a "fun" run/loong training run for him.) But he was sticking with Mary Dare ... and she seemed to be pushing the pace well below 8:07.

When I race, I rely on my Garmin to pace me. I don't try to catch mile splits, but instead set the watch up with a goal time and distance. In this case, I'd set it to 3:33 and input the distance as 26.4 miles, figuring I'd miss my share of tangents even though Shamrock isn't a turn-heavy course. So what the Garmin does, then, if you put it on the right screen, is show you exactly how far ahead or behind the pace you are, in feet. I wanted to be within 50 or 100 feet of the target. Instead, by Mile 2, I was a good 200 feet ahead.

Dexter and I chatted for a few minutes, then Mike rejoined me as we crossed the Rudee Bridge -- which at 40-feet high marked the only steep climb on the course. (We crossed it at about the 2.5-mile mark and then once more at around Mile 10.) When I caught the third mile-split -- 7:42 -- I told Mike I had to back off. Meanwhile, Dexter had rejoined Mary Dare and they were putting some distance between Mike and me. Despite the fact that the pace felt like a cakewalk, I was smart enough to know I was getting myself into a bad situation. I just wasn't smart enough to get out of it. Sporadically, I would tell Mike he didn't have to wait for me; what I should have done is just let him go.

Mile 4 was 7:55. We were headed down General Booth Boulevard toward a turnaround just beyond the 5.5-mile mark, and shortly after the 4.5-mile mark, we could see the frontrunners chugging back up toward us. We saw Justin Breland of the Charlotte Running Club cruising in a pack toward his 2:55 (18th overall), and then Meghan Fillnow charging up looking strong. Todd Joefreda of Rock Hill, another good runner (he ran a 3:10). Allen and Joel. Mile 5 was 8:02. I saw Dexter and Mary Dare coming back up the course shortly before I hit the turnaround; didn't see them again. Mike was starting to inch ahead, and he waited for a few seconds as I hit the turnaround ... then indicated he was going to take off. I was relieved.

Mile 6: 7:55. On the way back up, I ran by several people I knew who were heading down: Observer business editor Patrick Scott, who was running his first 26.2 and is training for an Ironman in August;
another first-timer, Tom Patania of Fort Mill, who had awakened that morning with the stomach flu; and my Run For Your Life pals Jes Douglas and Alice Watson. Then the course veered right, onto South Birdneck Road, and Mile 7 clicked off at 8:06. The good news is that this was more like it. The bad news is that I was now 350 or 400 feet ahead of pace, the effort level felt low, and I was blowing another chance to save my race. What I should have done is slow down and try to ease back toward that 50- to 100-feet-off-pace range. Instead, I got greedy (apologies to Mark Hadley, who warned me!), and I banked the time.

It didn't help that at 7.5 miles or so we entered a very cool stretch of the course: Camp Pendleton State Military Reservation, where several men and women in uniform were lined up clapping and reaching out to slap hands with runners. That was a highlight, exchanging fives with a line of eight or 10 soldiers right before the Mile 8 marker. I didn't speed up, but I also didn't slow down -- too energized by the patriotism. Mile 8: 8:02.

Mile 9 was 7:50. We crossed the bridge again and made the turn toward the boardwalk. Mile 10: 8:00. At this point it's almost an hour and 20 minutes into the race; it's about 9:20 a.m. It's about 60 degrees, and the sun is hanging there over the Atlantic Ocean off to our right. This is when I first started to feel hot; prior to this point, I hadn't much cared about the water stops, although I had been taking a couple of gulps at every one. The wind was also more noticeable here than it had been in the early going. But the boardwalk was sprinkled with a good number of family members who were waiting for their runners -- including my own wife and daughter, who I also saw at Mile 1 -- which was energizing. And the sight and the sound of the ocean was remarkable. NYC offers enormous crowds, Thunder Road is a great hometown race, but running a marathon next to the sea ... it's amazing. Mile 11: 7:52.

I was still feeling good, but I was still banking time. Overestimating my preparedness, underestimating the rising mercury. After a mile and a half or so along the boardwalk, we took a left and headed one block over back onto Atlantic Avenue, where we started the long march northward. Mile 12: 8:10.

Not long after getting back onto Atlantic, I saw Dexter's wife, Elisha, cheering along the roadside, and then my friend Beth Michels (also of Run For Your Life) and Ryan Danner; all three of them had driven up from Charlotte overnight to lend support. A minute or two later, a young woman named Rebekah pulled up next to me from behind and asked me what I was shooting for. I said 3:33. She told me she was shooting for a 3:40. I told her she was way ahead of pace. Just as I was getting ready to settle into what I figured would be a nice chat, Meghan Fillnow's twin sister Kelly hopped onto the course and began running with me. I introduced the two, but after a couple minutes, Rebekah drifted back (smart girl), and Kelly and I pulled away. I crossed the halfway mark at 1:45:58.

Kelly is a superstar. She'd finished running the half-marathon earlier in the morning, placing as the 10th overall woman in 1:23; in her first Ironman, last fall, she completed the 140.6 miles in 10 hours 14 minutes and qualified for Kona. She was hitching a ride up to Mile 16, where she'd be able to meet Meghan after she made the long loop at the top of the course (the course split off of Atlantic at Mile 16, then rejoined it between Miles 22 and 23). She kept telling me how great I was looking, she asked me how I was feeling. I told her I was enjoying the shade of the hotels but was worried about how hot I was getting. She told me to make sure to pour water on my head to cool off at water stops in addition to drinking. I told her I heard the back half of the course was boring. She told me to just count my steps. "Focus about 30 feet ahead of you. Not too far off in the distance, not at the ground." She told me about funny signs along the road for runners. Miles 13-16: 8:04, 8:02, 8:00, 8:01. I don't think I looked at my watch at all for that stretch. If you ever need pacing help, call Kelly Fillnow.

Right before Mile 16, the course heads inland along Shore Drive which is a tree-lined road just shy of three miles long. It is a steady and very gradual climb, but it's a climb, and it just seemed to last forever. People were starting to die in this section. There was a little shade, but not much, and the fact that you could see so far off into the distance was mind-erasing. I started counting -- not steps, but breaths. One for every exhale. I'd count to 200 and then start over again. (I remembered my friend Caitlin Chrisman had mentioned this number recently in lieu of a mantra.) Mile 17: 8:11. The wheels were coming off.

Those signs Kelly had mentioned? They were probably funny to her, because her mind was fresh at that point in the half (Miles 3 to 6 for her). But they were driving me crazy. Not angry, just ... crazy. I was trying to stay sane with the counting and the eyes-30-feet-ahead thing, and every time I looked at the signs they seemed to be about the lighthouse or about the hill we were on. It really was not a bad hill, but I thought the signs were making it seem worse. I also wanted water. At around the 17.5-mile mark, there was a water stop, and I took my biggest drink yet.

Onward up the "hill." Mile 18: 8:27. We finally got off Shore Drive right before Mile 19, and were back on Atlantic Avenue, at the very top of the course. Mile 19: 8:27. Another water stop, another big drink.

But despite the water and the GUs I'd been taking religiously every five miles, somewhere around the 19.5-mile mark, the tank went empty. Anyone who's hit the wall in a marathon knows the feeling, and it's a strange one. It's not that the desire to walk is overwhelming; it's that you literally cannot run anymore. You just stop. It's not a decision, it's a necessity. The body has used up all of its stored glycogen, and there's no energy left to draw from. The worst part is that this happened at absolutely the loneliest part of the course. Zero crowd support up top. Very little interesting to look at. Just several hundred yards from the ocean. No cover from the sun or wind. Brutal. I was able to regroup enough to start jogging. Not long after, my new friend Rebekah said hello as she passed me like I was standing still.

Mile 20: 8:57. I saw Rebekah several more times; she seemed to be cramping up, so while she was stretching, I'd shuffle past her. Then she'd get going again and pass me. We exchanged smiles and pleasantries every time, but neither of us were feeling great. She offered to run for a little while with me at one point, but I couldn't keep up with her for more than about 10 seconds. Mile 21 was 8:59. Then a few minutes later -- right near the Cape Henry Lighthouse that had been foreshadowed on those signs -- my left calf twinged, followed almost immediately by some movement in my right calf. Three more steps, and they locked up. Stop. Stretch. Walk. Walk faster because you think that, well, faster walking is better than slower walking. Before long, Rebekah was out of sight and I wouldn't see her again.

At this point in a collapse, the mind goes to two places: First, it's to mathematics. You start telling yourself you can still make X goal even if you can just do 9-minute miles till the end. Here's what my finish time would be. No, that's not going to happen. OK, 10-minute miles. What's that? And then, when you realize you are really on empty, I'm still almost five miles away. The average person can walk one mile in about 18 minutes. Five times 18 is ... And mathematics evaporates and misery sets in. This is about the point when the 3:40 pace group passed me. It was a small group. Runners were bonking all over the place out here.

Misery -- it really is the only way to describe it. Five miles out. Feeling completely gassed. Mustering up the strength to start shuffling, then 400 meters later the calves are cramping again. Mile 22: 9:59.

I did get a boost out of seeing a friendly face in Beth Michels again at the split (back where the course reconnected at Miles 16/22.7ish). She was waiting for Jes Douglas and Alice Watson to come back around, and cheerfully jogged along with me to the Mile 23 marker, filling me in on how everyone else was looking. Mile 23: 10:30.

I won't bore you with the last 3.2 except to say it involved a lot more walking and a lot more cramping. At 25.5, I saw my wife and daughter again; I polished off a Sprite they'd been drinking then had them jog along with me for a couple hundred yards before I made the final turn off of Atlantic and back onto the boardwalk. The finish line was a sight for sore eyes.

Anyway, I told you there were going to be a bunch of morals to this story. Several of the little ones you probably picked up along the way. But here are three key ones:

No. 1: Flat doesn't always mean fast. I ran seven minutes faster three months ago on a much hillier course here in Charlotte. They say hills help keep your mind active, and they definitely mix up the muscle groups used in your legs, instead of forcing you to lean on the same ones the whole time like a flat course does.

No. 2: There are many different ways to run a marathon. One way is as a team, as a social endeavor (Jes Douglas and Alice Watson did this successfully Sunday, starting and finishing together). Another way is in pursuit of a specific goal. Don't try to run both types of marathon at the same time unless you've really, really done a great job at picking a partner. I should have stuck with my plan.

No. 3 -- and this by far was the most important lesson of the day: Respect the distance, respect the distance, respect the distance. I did a half-marathon two weeks ago in 1:36; I completed a 22-mile training run last month in 2:54. You can do some extrapolating and say "Oh, you can run a 3:33, sure" ... but there is never any way to tell for sure how your body will respond to that distance on a given day. Twenty-six point two miles is a very, very, very long distance. I didn't respect it. Could I have run a 3:33 under other conditions, using my original plan of attak? Maybe. But I practically took my goal for granted, and was too focused on the variables that might get me to a better time. I should have taken into account the variables that might make things worse for me. Like the weather. 3:33 was a good goal, a realistic goal. But it would have been a 9.5-minute PR and I should have been happy with that.

All this said, I am 100 percent OK with the outcome. What's the saying? Without struggle there is no progress. I love the fact that the marathon is such a unique challenge, one that requires so much strategy, so much strength and focus, so much inner fortitude, so much knowledge in the form of these lessons you learn every time out. To me this is not a failure. I just completed my third marathon in less than five months; that's an overwhelming success.

Besides, it would be wrong to whine about a 3:49:14. It's a perfectly respectable time. Will I do better in my next marathon? I won't even venture a guess. But I can guarantee you that whatever happens, I'll learn a few things from the experience.

Fire leaping + mud crawling + 5K race + concert

Up for a 3.5-hour drive and one of the zaniest races on earth? Check out this press release I just got, from the people who bring you the Great Urban Race:

MOUNTAIN CITY, GA – It’s more than a race, it’s Warrior Dash. On May 22 and May 23, fearless runners will be heading to Camp Blue Ridge at 355 Playhouse Dr. in Mountain City, GA to take on twelve intense obstacles over three miles of extreme terrain.

Warrior Dash will have participants jumping through fire, crawling through mud pits, climbing over vehicles and working their way through nine additional grueling obstacles. After conquering the course, racers will be greeted with live music, a beer garden featuring beer from Pyramid Breweries, and crowned with a furry warrior helmet.

Warrior Dash is partnered with many local charities and organizations including the Georgia Lions Lighthouse Foundation, PEARLS Woman’s Club of Rabun, and more.

Race Director Alex Yount says, “Warrior Dash is an event that runners will never forget, it is not only the most extreme race in the U.S., it is also the most fun!”

The first wave of the race will begin at 11 a.m., followed by waves of 500 racers taking off to battle the course every half hour until the last group at 5:30p.m. A loud burst of fireworks will signify the start of each wave, followed by a fireworks show and the awards ceremony at 6:30 p.m.

Participants are encouraged to suit up in their best warrior attire and will be crowned with fuzzy warrior helmets prior to racing. Turkey legs and other warrior grub will be available for purchase along with activities such as tug-o-war and axe throwing lessons. Spectators are welcome to enjoy the live music playing throughout the day, watch the warriors tackle the obstacles near the finish line and participate in the other activities on site.

Warrior Dash is the ultimate event for thrill-seeking athletes. This national racing series is held on the most demanding and unique terrain the U.S. has to offer. Participants will take on intense obstacles and celebrate their feat with music, beer and muddy shorts. For more information or to register online, go to

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Odds + ends for my running friends

The new Piper Glen location of Run For Your Life is set to open its doors for a "soft opening" on Monday, says RFYL owner Tim Rhodes.

Notable amenities at the new store, in the Piper Glen Shopping Center at 6418 Rea Road, include: a children’s play area; personalized wardrobe consulting services for women; and lockers in which to keep valuables if you'd like to run on nearby Four Mile Creek Greenway (only available during regular store hours).

Rhodes does warn that runners using the greenway should "remember parking is limited, so park on Bevington. The landlord has instituted a towing policy for those parking in the center but not shopping. If you are coming to visit us at Run For Your Life, please feel free to use either the front or rear parking lot."

The current RFYL Stonecrest location, at 7868 Rea Road, will be open after today's Shamrock 4 Miler, till 5 p.m., then closes permanently. The new store, which is just 1.4 miles to the north, will celebrate its official grand opening on April 3.


The Buck Hurley Triathlon Challenge, set for Sunday, April 18, features a sprint triathlon (300-yard pool swim, 10-mile bike, 5K run); a super sprint triathlon (200-yard pool swim, 5K bike, 2-mile run); and a kids triathlon (25-yard pool swim, half-mile bike, 220-meter run). All three events start at the J.F. Hurley YMCA, 828 Jake Alexander Blvd. West, in Salisbury. The kids tri takes place entirely on YMCA property. All proceeds go to the Y's Invest in Youth program, which provides for kids whose families cannot afford the Y's sports and other programs. Cost is $35 for the sprint or super sprint, $10 for the kids tri. Of note: Everyone gets a dri-fit shirt and lots of food. ... The award medals are being made by Ashworth Awards, the supplier to most of the country's major marathons. ... There will be a short church service between events. ... Buck Hurley was the son of Caroline and Gordon Hurley; he died "much too young, due to illness." ... Race director Ester Marsh says more than 70 people are registered across all three events, and that they can handle 250 athletes. To register: Click here.

The Jetton Park Triathlon is set for 8 a.m. Saturday, May 8, at -- you guessed it -- Jetton Park in Cornelius (19000 Jetton Road). The second annual event consists of a 750-yard swim, a 20-kilometer bike ride, and a five-kilometer run. Says race director Sheila Wakeman: "The swim will be in a protected cove of Lake Norman, the bike will carry athletes along the rolling hills of Jetton Road, and the five-kilometer run will showcase the beauty of the park." Proceeds from the event will benefit Ace & TJ's Grin Kids and the Levine & Dickson Hospice House. Online registration will close May 5; the race will be capped at 500 participants. The race Web site is here.

ALSO WORTH NOTING: Online registration for the AJC Peachtree Road Race 2010 will open at 1 p.m. on Sunday (possibly creating an inconvenience for runners participating in the Atlanta, Tobacco Road, Shamrock or other marathons across the region). Later this spring, 10,000 of the 55,000 total entrants will be selected via mail-in lottery. The Peachtree Web site is here.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Odds + ends for my running friends

The Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA) is looking for people who are interested in training for the Inaugural 13.1 Marathon in Boston on June 27. The CCFA's mission is to find a cure for Crohn’s disease -- a seldom-discussed, painful and unpredictable disease of the digestive tract -- and a similar disease called ulcerative colitis.

What's being offered: The Foundation will provide participants with professional training and will pay most of the expenses for the participants to travel as a group to the race in Boston, where they'll stay a total of four days and three nights.

What's expected: Each person will raise money for CCFA; the Foundation guarantees that a minimum of 75 percent of all funds will be used to help find a cure for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis -- and to improve the quality of life for people living with the diseases.

Charlotte resident Jordan Sorrells, 28, a Crohn's sufferer himself, is among those already committed to training for the half-marathon in Boston. It will be his second time participating in the training program.

"Having Crohn's disease was depressing," says Sorrells, who was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when he was 16, in a press release. Crohn's lowers his immune system, causing weight loss, extreme fatigue, and illness. "It affected me emotionally, physically and socially. I felt like I became more and more introverted.

"I knew that thousands of people have been diagnosed, but no one talked about it and it made me feel so alone. ... Today, because of the time people have devoted to raising money for the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation, I am no longer fearful of talking to others about my symptoms and I am about to run my second half marathon." (The photo is of Jordan running the Rock 'n' Roll Las Vegas Half Marathon in December.)

Training and fundraising for the Boston race and trip has begun, but it's not too late to join the team. For more info, contact Brittney Leigh daCosta at; call 704-817-7544; or click here.

And we're off to the races ...

In addition to the Shamrock 4 Miler, which I blogged about here, here are two other runs worth considering if you're looking for a last-minute fix this weekend:

  • The inaugural Run the Creek 5K is set for 9 a.m. Saturday, and features a course that traverses the rolling hills of Highland Creek. Proceeds benefit the Garrett's Wings foundation, which supports terminally ill children and their families. At the moment, 280 runners are registered, and T-shirts are only guaranteed to the first 300 who sign up. (So hurry.) Race page is here.
  • The fourth annual Young Life 5K is set for 9 a.m. Sunday, and will take place on the track at Charlotte Motor Speedway (formerly Lowe's Motor Speedway) in Concord. Proceeds will be used to support school scholarships for Young Life summer camp. At the moment, 182 runners are registered. Registration is available here.
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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Go green at the Shamrock 4 Miler

If you're one of the 1,100 to 1,200 people planning to run Saturday's Shamrock 4 Miler down in South Charlotte, here are some things about the race that you might want to know.

When and where: Starts at 8 a.m. at Run For Your Life - Stonecrest (7868-H Rea Road).

The course: See the map here. Says race director Ashleigh Lawrence: "It's rolling hills -- they aren't too drastic, but they are consistent. As one runner put it, they are 'motivating hills, really, and they keep your mind active -- you push yourself to get to the top of the hill, then relax on the downhill, push yourself to get up the hill, relax on the downhill.' "

The music: "Over the past few weeks," she says, "we have been taking song requests for the start line and the finish line of this event. Requests have come in through the stores, e-mail and on Facebook. We have compiled quite the playlist. Some tracks fit in perfectly with the Irish theme of the race..."

The food: Fruit, bread from the Great Harvest Bread Co., and snacks from Extreme Pita. (Sorry, no beer at this one.)

The fun: RFYL is encouraging participants to wear their favorite green running gear, whether it be green tights, striped green socks, a green wig ... or the 2010 race shirt.

Speaking of green: In an effort to "go green" and reduce the usage of paper and plastic, the race will utilize virtual goody bags (with discounts, product promotions, services offerings and coupons) to all participants following the event.

Kids stuff: "This event actually features one of the most popular kids races within the Grand Prix Series," Ashleigh says. The Leprechaun Jog, which covers just a few hundred feet, kicks off at 9 a.m. Cost is $5, and all kids will get a Leprechaun Hat upon crossing the finish line. "We also have some awesome Shamrock stickers to hand out," she adds, "but those aren’t reserved for just the kids!"

Worth noting: The Run For Your Life location hosting the event closes for good at 5 p.m. Saturday. Ashleigh says nothing special is on tap, although the traditional sidewalk sale will take place on race morning. RFYL's new Piper Glen store opens Monday, with an official Grand Opening celebration set for April 3.

Charitable beneficiary: Run For Your Life is partnering with Levine Children's Hospital, a partner of Children's Miracle Network, for the second straight year. Since opening in December 2007, the hospital has grown to include more than 30 pediatric specialties and has already received national distinction by U.S. News & World Report as one of "America’s Best Children's Hospitals" for treatment of kidney disorders. For more info, click here.

The Shamrock 4 Miler race Web site is here. Cost is $20, or $30 day-of.

Running the Grand Prix Series? The Shamrock 4 Miler is the first of 10 races in the series this year. Ashleigh says 101 runners registered for the series, up from 72 last year (when there were only nine races). "We are noticing a trend not only in the number of runners that intend to run the entire series, but also in the number of runners that actually do run the entire series, which if you think about it, can be a pretty significant commitment for people schedule-wise." In 2008, 28 people finished all nine races; in 2009, that jumped to 60 runners. At the end of the year, everyone who has completed all 10 races will get a special award.

3 of city's fastest women share backstories

While putting the finishing touches on my story about 13-year-old Alana Hadley, which appeared in Sunday's Observer (and lives online here), my editors asked me to add a paragraph or two that might put her success at such a young age into context.

The idea was to check in with a few of the fastest women in Charlotte and find out how young they were when they got into running. This is what wound up in the newspaper:

Generally speaking, [USA Track & Field spokesperson Jill Geer] says female distance runners tend to peak during their late 20s.

For instance, 28-year-old Shalane Flanagan, a former UNC Chapel Hill star (whose photo adorns Alana's social studies notebook), broke the U.S. 5,000-meter record when she was 26. Megan Hovis, 28, a local runner who finished 12th at the women's Olympic trials marathon in Boston in 2008, started running competitively during her senior year of high school.

But that was the super-abridged version.

There was plenty of info I gathered from Megan (pictured at right) and two other top female runners that wound up on the cutting-room floor. Of course, none of it answers the question Is such a young start a good thing or a bad thing?, but from an anecdotal standpoint, it was still an interesting survey. Sharing those outtakes now for those who might be interested.

Megan, who has never raced Alana head-to-head but has a faster 5K PR, told me she started running her junior year of high school. "I ran on my own a bit in seventh grade to get ready for soccer, but never on any sort of team." As mentioned in the story, she didn't run competitively until her last year of high school, "and really started to progress by junior year of college." Her time at that Olympic Trials marathon in 2008 was 2:37:29.

Caitlin Chrisman, who was also mentioned in the story, ran a 28:51 to win the Winter Flight 8K women's race on Feb. 21; Alana finished second in 29:27. As I mentioned in the story, Caitlin was a star at Wake Forest -- in her senior year (2007), she ran a 20:54.10 in a 6K race at the NCAA Southeast Regional Cross Country meet, placing 12th out of 225 runners.

As for how old she was when she started running: "That's tricky. I think I did my first mile 'fun run' when I was in fifth grade, and my dad ran with me the entire time. Both my parents were training for marathons during my childhood and my sister ran cross-country in high school. I did not run regularly during the week, unless you count the games of tag I played every day on the playground. ... So really, to answer your question, I started running in seventh grade when I joined the middle school track team. I maybe ran 12-15 miles a week, and my PR in the mile was something like 6:11. I ran maybe five days a week with two to three miles as my training runs. I also went to the Southern Illinois University recreation center almost every night with my parents for 'fun,' to lift weights."

As for when she started running competitively: "I ran my first run over four miles the week before I started high school, when I was 14 years old ... . My high school coach wanted me to peak in my junior and senior years, so my mileage was increased each year. Freshman year I ran maybe 30 miles a week, sophomore 40, junior year 50, senior 55."

And finally, there's 25-year-old Tanya Zeferjahn -- currently the top women's runner for Division II Queens University's track team (last year she won an NCAA outdoor national championship in the 10,000 meters). Tanya ran a 17:06 to win the Runway 5K women's race last Oct. 31; Caitlin finished second in 17:30, Alana finished third in 17:49.

Says Tanya: "I guess you could say I started running in junior high, but I wouldn't really call it running. We maybe did 15 miles a week.

"In high school, I was on the cross and track teams and ran about 25 miles a week. This is when I would say I really started running. But I would say I didn't start running competitively until college. In high school, my fastest mile was only 5:24 and my three-mile cross time was 19:02 -- so not very competitive, especially for California; I couldn't even qualify for the state meet.

"It was all just for fun in high school, but in college, I upped the miles to about 45 miles per week and was able to earn All-American in cross country. My college -- California State University, San Bernardino -- did not have track, so I was never competitive in track until I came to Charlotte to run for Queens University."

By the way, I mentioned that Caitlin and Tanya have beaten Alana, and implied that Megan probably could (although Megan is more of a longer-distance specialist). Just a reminder that they're among the only women in Charlotte who can outrun Alana.

Maybe sometime in the future we'll get to watch these four battle it out in the same race. How awesome would that be??

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Lots of rears are now in gear

It really is a minor miracle that Charlotte's inaugural Get Your Rear in Gear 5K went off without a major hitch this morning.

Organizers -- who five months ago would have considered 500 participants a successful event -- realized this week they might have more than 1,000 people on their hands. The forecast had been looking dicey for days, and at 8 o'clock Friday night, there was a downpour, thunder and lightning the likes of which we haven't seen here in Charlotte in months.

But by the time the gun went off at precisely 8:01 a.m. today at Independence Park in the Elizabeth area, the sun was shining, the poster women for the race (colorectal cancer survivors Sue Falco and Mary-Karen Bierman) were smiling, and ... did I mention the sun was shining?

The good news about the first mile was that it was mostly downhill; the bad news -- well, in addition to knowing I'd eventually have to go back up -- was that we were running down Elizabeth Avenue, which is an imperfect running surface because of the train tracks built into the street. (Race director Paige Hauff told me afterward that next year they'll probably adjust the course to avoid Elizabeth.)

After the turn onto Kings Drive, the pack faced a half-mile-plus climb with the sun in our faces as Kings became Central Avenue heading up toward Plaza Midwood (about 135 feet of ascent, according to my GPS).

Those were the two most memorable parts of the course. The rest of it was mainly residential -- along Hawthorne, Eighth, Ridgeway, and Greenway -- and not too taxing, although it's worth mentioning the short, steep hill just before the second mile marker on Hawthorne. I haven't run either CPCC's Charlotte Skyline Run or the Elizabeth 8K, so I appreciated the opportunity to race in a new-to-me area of town.

Oh, I should also note that I struck up a conversation early in the race with a guy who was just starting to get back out on the roads after a quasi-break due to the birth of his twins 4-1/2 months ago. He asked me what my PR was and went on to try to coax/cheer/talk me through the last mile or so. I ran splits of roughly 6:30, 6:45, 6:35 and finished in 20:41, missing a personal 5K best by just four seconds. Anyway, he was a big help -- I think I would have barely slipped in under 21 if not for him. (His name was either Seth or Tim; process of elimination using the results doesn't help because he finished at the exact same time as a buddy of his! Oh well.)

Anyway, to my surprise, I placed 18th overall out of 854 official finishers. But -- and this is by no means a slight to the race, the other runners, or the winners -- the field was, overall, slower than average. For comparison's sake, at the Cupid's Cup last month, 1,004 times were recorded (150 more than at GYRIG). More than half the runners -- 534 -- ran sub-10-minute miles. At GYRIG, only 258 ran sub-10-minute miles. Also, today's winner would have placed 14th at Cupid's Cup.

There are a couple likely explanations: 1) As with October's Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, a large number of the participants today seemed to be running or walking for the cause, not for a fast time. 2) Many serious local runners were probably saving themselves for next Saturday's Shamrock Four-Miler, or one the several big half-marathons and marathons scheduled for the Southeast U.S. next weekend.

As a result, non-elite runners who normally are gone by the time the awards ceremony takes place at other events found themselves sticking around and collecting hardware this morning. So ... slow field, yes, but I'm not complaining: Eighteenth place looks great on my resume! I talked afterward with overall runner-up Chad Crockford, and he wasn't complaining either -- Chad PR'd and missed winning his first race ever by just one second.

In fact, I heard very little complaining this morning. Because there was a greater percentage of slower runners, the atmosphere was exceedingly casual and friendly. And because the atmosphere was exceedingly casual and friendly, this was a great way for first-timers to be introduced to the 5K experience: solid course; good vendors; live entertainment from the David Michael Band; and a fantastic post-race spread from Manhattan Bagel of healthy-looking bagels, bananas, oranges, along with granola bars and other prepackaged snacks.

Sue and Mary-Karen did a nice job at the closing ceremonies, sharing their personal stories about beating colorectal cancer but also moving things along at a reasonable pace. That's a tough balance that I've seen screwed up at other events. The awards were a mixed bag: It was nice that overall and age-group winners got Omega Sports gift certificates, but I thought the medals for other top age-group finishers were a little disappointing. They basically were like your typical low-end finisher's medal -- you know, the ones you get just for completing a medium-sized half-marathon. I definitely would have preferred a trophy. (Sue did indicate to me that there was a problem with the awards they were supposed to get and that these were the compromise.)

Only other problem was beyond organizers' control: Leftover from the rain were some rather significant mud puddles where most of the pre- and post-race tables and vendors were set up in Hawthorne Park. And unfortunately, two of the biggest ones were on the path to two key areas -- registration/packet pick-up and the results board. I wish someone had run an audible and moved those two stations to paved (or at least drier) ground; I saw a lot of very dirty shoes. I feel sorry for anyone who was wearing new-ish sneaks.

But all in all this was a pretty remarkable event for one in its first year. The odds were stacked against Sue and Mary-Karen, given the weather forecasts and the overwhelming size of the turnout. But they beat the odds when they had cancer, and they beat them again today.


Tesfom Mehari, 20, of Wingate was the overall winner in 17:27. The runner-up, 28-year-old Chad Crockford of Charlotte, finished just one second slower. Ryan Burris, 20, of New Lexington, Ohio, was third place, in 17:55.

The top three women were: Nelly Anderson, 21, of Staunton, Va. (20:23); and a pair of Matthews 16-year-olds, Arden Mattachini and Emily Costa (both 20:48).

For full results, click here.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Former 'fat kid' about to become a marathoner

Lorri Elliott is a flight nurse for Carolinas HealthCare System. Been one for 15 years. Loves it. Always has, and wants to continue doing the job for as long as she can.

This, in fact, is why the Matthews woman started running a year and a half ago, just before her 51st birthday. She'd ballooned to 225 pounds after going through a painful divorce, and was worried that her weight and physical condition were in danger of -- literally -- grounding her.

Since then, Lorri (now 52) is happier and healthier than ever. She knows she'll never have blazing speed, but since October 2008 she's taken almost 10 minutes off of her 5K times; she's fallen in love with triathlons; and a week from Sunday, she'll tackle her first 26.2-mile race: the inaugural Tobacco Road Marathon in Cary.

Lorri Elliott with her 19-year-old son Nicholas.

Q. How did you get involved in running?

A few years ago, I was accepted into CHS's LiveWELL Warriors, a weight-loss program that focuses on lifestyle changes with food and exercise. I did well, but still had a lot of weight I wanted to lose. I continued to work with Kelly Roberts, a LiveWELL specialist, but really struggled to lose more weight. So Kelly suggested that I “kick it up” and increase my exercise. In September of 2008, just before my 51st birthday, I enrolled in a running class sponsored by LiveWELL and managed by a professional coach, Jen Frank of Athleticore Coaching. We started running one minute and walking four, for four cycles. The next week, we went to running two minutes and walking three minutes. By the end of six weeks, I ran the entire HopeBuilders 5K race. It took me 43:40, but I didn’t care. Just finishing the race having run the entire time was an outrageous feeling of accomplishment. Having always been the “fat kid,” I never thought I could run, let alone do a race. I was on top of the world.

Q. So what happened next?

After completing the Hopebuilders 5K, I realized how much I had accomplished for a woman of my age and weight. I wanted to see if I could improve and see where the fitness improvement would take me. Before I started the class, I never thought I could participate in a sporting event like a 5k race, so now that I had and been successful, I wanted to do more. Luckily, LiveWELL continued the running program and I decided to continue as well. I continued to sign up for classes with a woman I met in the first class named Joie Tavener. They each lasted about six weeks, and at the end we’d complete the 5K race associated with the class -- always improving our time. Having a running buddy really helps because you are more accountable.

Q. How much weight have you lost?

I got down to 208 on my own, before I started running, just by doing some random walking and working out. Since I started running, I have lost 14 more pounds.

Q. Are you happy just to be out there being active and being healthy, or are you determined to get faster?

Improving is important to me. I will never be competitive, but I still want to continue to improve and get stronger.

Q. You've shown some pretty good improvement so far, haven't you?

I have! Like I said, at the Hopebuilders 5K in October 2008, my first race, I ran 43:40. At the Cupid’s Cup 5K in February 2009, I improved to 37:34. At this past Cupid’s Cup, last month, I finished in 33:48. Improving so much is unusual for the average 20-year-old, but for an over-50, overweight female, it makes sense when you're learning to run and having fun doing so.

Q. Tell me how you got involved in triathlons.

Last spring, one of my co-workers also started training with (my Athleticore coach) Jen Frank, and he completed a triathlon. He then came to me and challenged me to try to do the Lake Norman Triathlon held Aug. 23, 2009. I actually told him he was on crack, but decided I could do it when Jen stated “I’ll coach you!” I talked Joie into the training, and together we trained six days a week for 10 weeks. Sometimes that was only a half an hour; sometimes it was several hours a day. Our goal was to complete the race, which we did. By the end of training, I’d lost five pounds and one percent of my body fat, my body mass index dropped one point, and I lost three inches from my hips. I went on to also do the Take Flight Triathlon in October.

Q. What do you enjoy more, running road races, or triathlons?

I really enjoy it all, but I lean toward the triathlons. It’s fun to break up the activities -- if you’re poor in one sport, you can overcome in another. And the people who participate in triathlons are special. They come in all sizes and abilities and are extremely supportive. They actually have categories such as the “Clydesdales,” for men over 200 pounds, and the “Athenas,” for women over 150 pounds. I, naturally, am in the “Novice” class.

Q. What's your goal for Tobacco Road?

My goal, as with anytime I try a new type of race, is to finish on my feet with a smile. Joie and I will be running together. Although she now is much faster than me, for the marathon we have talked about the fact that we are going at our practiced marathon pace in order to have the stamina to finish.

Q. What do you think is next for you after Tobacco Road?

Good question. I would like to improve my triathlon, try the trail version of triathlons -- mountain bike, trail run, open water swim -- and maybe do the Virginia Beach Rock’n’Roll Half Marathon (in September). Not sure I want to tackle a marathon again, but it’s too soon to tell.

Q. Do you regret that you didn't start running earlier in your life?

I hate to regret anything, although there are things that I do regret. Yes, I regret not taking the opportunities to be in good physical shape earlier in life. But things do happen for a reason -- I am sure that my running is one of those things. Fortunately, unlike other runners at my age, I still have well-working knees!

Q. And I hear that you're now “giving back”?

Yes. I am now a mentor for a women’s running class. While participating in the running classes, I noticed that women would come to the class and because there were few other beginning runners, they would run just with one of the coaches. They rarely returned. They felt uncomfortable because of their weight, age or lack of ability to run. So with my idea, Jen started the “Ladies in Motion” class through LiveWELL. This class supports women who want to learn to run or even just walk with other women looking to be more active. We learn about clothing -- we big ladies need assistance with our supportive clothing -- hydration, shoes, and nutrition. Mentoring doesn’t pay me a thing, but I feel good knowing I have encouraged other women to become more active and improve their lives.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Do positive things happen to positive people?

Progress is a beautiful thing.

Check this out: A year ago, at the 2009 Alston + Bird Corporate Cup half-marathon, right around Dilworth Neighborhood Grille near the 12th mile marker, I stopped ... and walked. Felt like a loser. Watched as my friend Holly hustled up the hill. After a minute or two, I struggled up Morehead and finished in 1:52:02.

This morning, at the 2010 running of the same race, right around Dilworth Neighborhood Grille near the 12th mile marker, I took off. Felt like a champ. Hustled up the hill, passing several guys ... who looked a lot like I did a year ago. Made the turn onto Tryon Street, kicked to a 1:36:44. Eighty-fourth out of 770 participants.

What's the difference? I mean, obviously, I'm a better runner than I was this time a year ago. I've trained harder, I've trained smarter, I've picked up the intensity when I've felt good, I've backed off when I've felt bad. I have a lot more race experience.

But there's another secret. If you can call it a secret. Maybe just call it One to Grow On. A lesson. A good thing to bear in mind. And this is going to sound corny. Except it's true. Whenever I race, I try to surround myself with positive energy.

Let's talk about this a little bit. See, when it comes to races, there are plenty of things that are out of your control. You can't control the weather (although today's was perfect). You can't control the course layout (Corporate Cup is always gonna be hilly). There's not much you can do about a head cold, and you never can guess exactly how last night's dinner might sit in your stomach.

You have complete control, however, over your attitude, and over how you carry yourself. If you have a great attitude, little boosts of energy are sprinkled all throughout the racecourse. They're there for the taking, these little boosts -- and they're every bit as useful as the GUs in your pocket or the fluids at the water stations.

Some basic tenets that I live by when racing:

If you're settling into a groove and you've been running next to the same person for a few minutes, make small talk. "What're you shooting for today?" "Has it really only been 5 miles??" "Who put this hill here?" Anything. If they blow you off, move on, or let them move on. Chances are good, though, that they won't. A little small talk can go a long way toward making the miles go by faster. Boost.

Say thank you. Sure, the cops are getting paid by the race organizer, but their job is to protect you from motorists, and by and large, they do a darn good job. And volunteers are, well, volunteers. They don't get a cent. They're there basically acting as your personal servant, handing you a cup of Gatorade or bending down to pull off your timing chip. The least you can do is acknowledge their presence! I feel good every time I say the words "Thank you" (and I say them a lot), mainly because I'm pretty sure these people don't hear them often enough. Another boost.

Make a connection with the spectators and "cheerleaders." Let me preface these next remarks by admitting that I may appear to have an unfair advantage when it comes to feeding off crowds. A lot of people in the Charlotte running community know me because of this blog, and so I tend to hear my name being called out fairly frequently during local races. But there's an easy way to level the playing field: Write your name or a nickname in big bold letters on your shirt, or on something you pin to your shirt, or on your body, in magic marker. This is advice commonly given to marathoners; I say do it for races of ANY distance. Hearing your name will give you a boost, whether or not you know the person who's calling it out. I mean, 75 percent of the time I have no idea who's shouting for me. Also, making eye contact with spectators (and police officers, and volunteers), smiling at them, waving at them = boost. Because they will smile back, they will wave back. Boost, again. (Bonus boost for giving high fives to small children.)

Plenty of you have probably read advice like this before and appreciate the sentiment, but just haven't made it a priority. I'm sure there are also some of you thinking to yourselves, These things are a waste of time and energy, and I don't have any to spare out there. Or maybe you're just an introvert. But it pays to follow these bits advice, to loosen up, to at least pretend -- for as long as the race lasts, at least -- to be an extrovert. It really does. I promise you.

I love that I set a half-marathon PR this morning by almost 11 minutes (previous best was a 1:47:39 at ING Atlanta last March), and it was a big confidence booster as I prepare for the Yuengling Shamrock Marathon two weeks from Sunday, in Virginia Beach.

But I'm actually more proud of the fact that instead of struggling to get through it today, like I did last year, I crossed the finish line feeling absolutely, positively energized. By the other runners I talked with along the way, by the men and women in blue who waved back, by the volunteers who said "Good job!," by the families on their lawns who I exchanged smiles with.

Today I covered 13.25 miles, since I didn't quite hit all the tangents. My average pace for the first 12 miles was 7:25ish, and I think that's due to my training. But I'm giving credit for the 6:58 pace on Mile 13 and the 6:00 pace on the last quarter-mile to the people I connected with along the way.

Jinnie Austin and I about to cross the timing pad at the 8.1-mile mark. Photo by Paul Mainwaring.

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Top three overall men in the half-marathon: Jason Holder, 26, of Charlotte (1:15:29); Kevin Lisska, 30, of Tega Cay (1:16:55); Billy Shue, 26, of Charlotte (1:17:58). 756 half-marathon finishers. Top three overall women in the half-marathon: Alice Rogers, 31, of Charlotte (1:24:05); Danielle Walther, 28, of Charlotte (1:24:52); Michelle Hazelton, 26, of Charlotte (1:29:27). There were 756 half-marathon finishers. For full results, click here.

Top three overall women in the 5K: Stephanie Snyder, 22, of Charlotte (20:11); Holly John, 32, of Indian Trail (20:14); Despina Kabouris, 27, of Matthews (21:03). Top three overall men in the 5K: Will Raby, 19, of Charlotte (15:46); Trent Kirk, 33, of Charlotte (16:22); Seth Huffstetler, 32, of Charlotte (16:52). There were 879 5K finishers. For full results, click here.

John Compton, Ben Hovis and Daniel Matena won the men's half-marathon relay with a time of 1:09:25, beating 13 other teams. Val Matena, Megan Hepp Hovis and Maureen Campbell won the women's half-marathon relay with a time of 1:20:11, beating 10 other teams. Chris Jones, Todd Mayes and Grace Ridley won the mixed half-marathon relay with a time of 1:19:28, beating 19 other teams. For full results, click here.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Odds + ends for my running friends

Several interesting nuggets to pass along on this beautiful late-winter evening:


The Elizabeth 8K Road Race is set for 8 a.m. Saturday, April 17, at Independence Park (300 Hawthorne Lane). The event is in its 24th year, making it the oldest 8K race in Charlotte. Cost is $25 in advance, $30 on race day. Proceeds benefit the beautification of the Historic Elizabeth Neighborhood.
There’s also a 3K Run/Walk ($10) and a Fun Run for kids 6 and younger (free). The first male and female finishers will each receive a 90-minute gift certificate to Breathe Organic Massage and a $75 gift certificate to Asana Activewear. After the race, there’ll be live music, yoga sessions, chair massage, and – wait for it – free beer from Anheuser-Busch. For details, click here.

NC Water For People invites you to participate in the inaugural Water For People 5K Fun Run/Walk on Saturday, May 8, at McAlpine Creek Greenway (8711 Monroe Road). Start time is 9 a.m. Prizes for the top three men's and women's times. Water For People "assists people in developing countries to improve quality of life by supporting the development of locally sustainable drinking water resources, sanitation facilities and hygiene education programs." Registration is $25 in advance, $30 on race day. Register here.

Then on Saturday, May 22, there's the 3rd Annual Thin Mint Sprint 5K, which allows runners to dash through Carowinds theme park on the N.C./S.C. border. Cost is $20, and proceeds benefit the Girl Scouts Hornets’ Nest Council. Note that the race starts at 7:15 a.m.; there's also a 1-mile Fun Run/Walk at 8 a.m. ($15). All race participants receive a Thin Mint Sprint T-shirt, and age-group winners will take home a box of Girl Scout cookies (Thin Mints, of course). Participants will also be able to purchase discounted tickets to the park. All the info you need should be here.


The Charlotte Running Club, which has worked hard to shed its image as a group of elite runners, is looking for people to lead pace groups in the 9-minute- to 11-minute-per-mile range -- and the CRC couldn't be making it any easier for you. Writes board member Jay Holder: "All you need to do is let us know when you run, where you run and how far you run. You don't have to change your schedule, or place. We'll post it in our newsletter and put it on our Web site. Maybe you'll get 10 runners, maybe it will just be you and your tunes. But we want to have as many options as we can for our members." If you're interested, send an e-mail to

The Charlotte Track & Triathlon Club will host the 21st annual Brown Cup Award ceremony at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Dilworth Neighborhood Grille (Morehead and McDowell streets on the edge of uptown). The Brown Cup was inspired by Donnie Brown, a Charlotte resident and former elite triathlete who beat leukemia back in 1989 and to this day advocates for the type of bone marrow donor program that saved his life. The award will be presented to a local athlete “who, while overcoming adversity, has shown dedication, determination, discipline and sportsmanship during the past year in their quest for personal improvement.”

Charleston's Cooper River Bridge Run, which will be the first major U.S. race to use a timing device attached to the bib, is on pace to sell out its 38,500 spots. Race is March 27. Note for procrastinators: Registration increases from $30 to $40 this weekend. For more info, click here.

Got other running-news tips to pass along? Or have ideas for future features? E-mail me at

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Alana Hadley getting into the school spirit

Just putting the finishing touches on a story about Alana Hadley, a seventh-grader who regularly competes against -- and beats -- the majority of adult runners when she runs a local race. (The article will appear in the Charlotte Observer later this month.)

This spring, though, the 13-year-old phenom will be picking on girls her own age: If all goes according to plan, she'll be running multiple meets as a member of the Community House Middle School track team.

"I was sort of interested in it last year, when I was gonna go and do one of my workouts and [the team] happened to be finishing up track tryouts that day," says Alana, who has a 5K road PR of 17:32. "And so I was just sort of watching 'em [and thought] I’d like to do that because it involves running, which is something I love to do. So I started thinking about it. I’m like, 'Yeah, I don’t know, I have to wait till next year,' " since sixth-graders can't compete for the team.

"And then I sort of lost interest in it until ... I did the mile run for PE at the beginning of the year," says Alana, who is a 5K and 10K specialist. "I know the mile hurts, and I know that this is what I’d be doing if I do track, but it just would be sort of fun to sort of let my school know that I’m not just some seventh-grade girl -- I can run a lot."

Her father and coach, Mark Hadley, tells me Community House's athletic director Jeff Smith and the girls track coach are "thrilled that Alana wanted to run, and they figured that Alana would need to do her own workouts and not something that they directed. But she would still go to practice and do the couple-lap jog and stretching together as a team, then she would stay at practice and help the coach with the timing of the other kids. And then after practice, she’d come home and then do her normal workout with me afterward. So it was a good compromise that we were able to work out."

Mark and Alana Hadley, after the Winter Flight 8K in Salisbury, where she was the second-fastest female finisher.

Anyway, as soon as I know exactly when my profile on Alana will run, I'll let you know...

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Monday, March 1, 2010

Corporate Cup will runneth over Charlotte

It seems like there's a 5K somewhere in or around Charlotte every weekend, sometimes two or three.

But half-marathons? They're pretty scarce around here. And that's unfortunate, because 13.1 is a great distance: It's serious enough to feel like an accomplishment, but doesn't require the punishing training of a full marathon (or a long, painful post-race recovery).

So excitement is understandably building for the Alston & Bird LLP Corporate Cup on Saturday; the event features a 5K and the first half-marathon to be hosted in our area since the Amica Insurance Half Marathon held in conjunction with Thunder Road this past Dec. 12.

The deadline has passed to assemble a team of co-workers to compete for the Corporate Cup, but there's still a week and a half left to register for the two races (or the team half-marathon relay).

YCommunity special events director Erin Morris gave us some details on this event, which has been around for 31 years and is the largest race within the YMCA of Greater Charlotte.

PARTICIPATION: Morris says they're expecting 2,600 participants. ... The number of corporate teams participating is up from 31 in 2009 to 37 this year. ... At last check, there were 126 relay participants registered. (Half-marathon relay teams will feature three runners; two of them cover 5-mile legs and one covers 5K.) ... The 5K, half-marathon and half-marathon relay races all start at 8 a.m.

THE HILLS: Charlotte's half-marathons are notoriously hilly, and Corporate Cup is no exception. Morris says "this course offers medium hills. There are two tough ones -- by the Providence/Queens area and then by Myers Park -- and the gradual one on Morehead that seems tough because it is Mile 12. ... I would rate our course about a 7 (on a difficulty scale of 1 to 10)."

POST-RACE FOOD: Treats and drinks from Bruegger's Bagels, Zoe's Kitchen, Caribou Coffee, Cookies by Design, Energy Café, Dilworth Coffee, Great Harvest Bread Company, Smoothie King, BJ’s and Trader Joe’s. No post-race beer at this one, FYI.

SHIRTS/AWARDS: The race tees are short-sleeved and cotton, with a small pocket logo on the front (unlike last year's, which had a huge logo on the front). ...
All half-marathon finishers will receive a medal. Overall and age-group winners will get trophies; the top overall corporate team will receive a Cup-type trophy.

VOLUNTEERS: Morris says volunteers are still needed for the event: "Getting volunteers is a struggle, simply for the amount of people needed. For instance, this race has 200 various 'jobs' for volunteers. Events like this would not be possible without volunteers. We are grateful for their help, and will be sure to take care of them race day. Our volunteers receive a long sleeve T-shirt, breakfast and snacks throughout the day."
If you're interested, contact Emily Ratliff at 704-716-6407 or

CHARITABLE BENEFICIARIES: Proceeds from the Corporate Cup support the following YMCA of Greater Charlotte programs: Starfish Academy (literacy program for rising first- and second-graders); Strengthening Families (social workers who work with more than 150 families to bring them from various stages of crisis to stability); and English as a Second Language courses.

NEW THIS YEAR: Alston & Bird has partnered with the Arts & Science Council and the organization Eat Charlotte to offer Corporate Cup participants special discounts at uptown museums, restaurants and cultural destinations.

For more information on the Alston & Bird LLP Corporate Cup, click here.
Registration is $30 for the 5K, $45 for the half-marathon, and $70 for relay teams. Race-day registration will also be available ($35/$55/$75). To register, click here.

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