Eastern States 20
Down hill from ME to MA with a tail wind – Local runners build confidence for Boston.
Posted Sunday, 4 April, 2004
It seems like I’ve been running a lot of races by the ocean lately. The Eastern States 20 Miler is definitely ‘by the ocean’. Most of the time, the surf is crashing on the rocks just a few yards off of your left shoulder.
This is a race that hugs the Eastern coastline from Kittery Maine, through the entirety of the New Hampshire seaboard, to Salisbury Massachusetts. Three states, one race. (Things are smaller out here in New England - another few miles and you could tie in Rhode Island and Vermont too).
A few hundred runners joined me for the ES 20. It makes a huge difference when you don’t have to run alone. There were many representatives of local running clubs.
Most of the runners use this race as a ‘training run’ for Boston and are at or near the peak of their training programs. This makes for interesting dynamics. Everyone looks lean and strong. This is their last long run before the taper into Hopkinton.
Since it’s a point to point race you have to either take a bus or get someone to shuttle you. This year, as in previous years, I was able to lure my wife and kids with the promise of a seafood dinner to give my buddies and me a ride up from Hampton Beach to the starting line.
I hooked up with some of the Merrimack Valley Striders who are at the end of a tough marathon run-up program that includes twice-a-week coached work outs. I already ran a marathon a couple weeks ago, so I’m just trying to maintain fitness and not get injured.
These guys are strong and pretty fast. I harbored some trepidation that, despite all the “It’s just a training run” talk, they’d drag me out too fast and I’d founder on the rocks coming in like I did the last two times I’ve run this race.
One of the crew, my running buddy Frank, had a great new toy. He had one of those wrist-based GPS doohickeys that could instantaneously tell us how fast we were going and how far we had gone. It was very cool and quite useful. He bought it as a present for his wife! What a typical guy thing to do. Too funny! We referred to him any time we needed to know the pace or if the mile marks were accurate.
The weather forecast had been changing all week. Right up until gun time people were fretting over what to wear. Some were in shorts and tees, some were in long tights and sweaters. I think the shorts ended up being the right choice. It ended up being fairly warm, in the low 40’s. I was hot and sweat-soaked in the early miles with only shorts and a long sleeve Coolmax.
Saturday night I was watching the weather and you know those oversized cartoon-graphic arrows that they use to represent the wind direction? The weatherman drew a big one of those with the point aimed right at the starting line. I turned to my wife with manic grin and said, “Tail Wind!”
A sizable wind it was. The sea breeze was blowing in off the water at 15-25 mph, mostly on our backs, (thank you running gods).
I’ve heard some complaints about this race. I’ve heard, “Too much highway”, “not enough traffic control”, and “not enough support”. To some extent it’s a question of expectations. This is not a family fun-run. It’s basically a runners race and it doesn’t claim to have the density of amenities that larger everyman oriented events have.
The last three miles coming over the bridge on Rte 1A into Salisbury are about as grim a stretch of highway you would want to find. It is especially grim if you’re hitting the wall, (been there, done that).
But, as a last long training run, with a bunch of Boston primed runners, it’s great. We actually liked the wide ‘highway’ sections because we could run on the soft shoulder and get off the pavement to save our old joints and tendons.
The race starts from Traip Academy, across a wood plank bridge into the scenic center of Portsmouth N.H. The course is serpentine, following the outline of the coast along sandy coves and broken granite points. The Atlantic Ocean, moderately angry from the wind, is constantly just over the hedge. When you can’t see the big green breakers throwing themselves at the rocks, you can hear them.
The course is flat, and even though it gets strung out, you always have some company.
There isn’t much shelter, and despite the tail wind it still beats you up. We ended up wind-burned and tired.
The scenery is typical seacoast New England. There are plenty of salt water creeks and marshes filled with gulls, ducks, and at one point, a pair of majestic white swans cruised in a pond alongside the course. Cape Cod styled clap board houses, fishing boats, old lobster traps and the pungent smell of the ocean at low tide keep you company.
We planned to go out easy and kick in at the end with negative splits. The three guys from MVS were in better shape than I and pulled me out to a crisp training pace. We were a bit faster than our target pace, but we made up for it by stopping a lot to walk the water stops and visit the porta-johns along the way. Before we knew it we were pulling into Hampton beach and it was too late to worry about pacing.
At mile 18 the three studs stopped at the last water stop. I ran through it to maintain my momentum. We geared down and got serious. They caught me at the bridge, and we dropped the pace to bring it in hotter. They left me, but I picked it up and kept going strong too.
Twice before this race has kicked my butt at the bridge, but not this day. I got within myself and made it in to the finish just fine. There were a couple of mattresses discarded on the shoulder around 19.5 and I was impressed by the irony.
We finished with negative splits and a dash of confidence to bring with us to Hopkinton on Patriots day. Wind-blown and spent, we all went to Brown’s for fried clams and lobster rolls. It was a good day for all.
The last two miles of this race brought home an important aspect of distance running. Running is 80% mental. Instead of hitting the wall, I managed to ‘disconnect’. Those of you who have had the experience know what I’m talking about. It’s when your ‘self’ becomes separated from your body. You look down and see your legs churning as if they are someone else’s.
If you successfully disconnect, it’s like your torso is riding a magic carpet. I find I can do this when I run the first ¾ of the race smart. Not slow, but smart. If you go too slowly, you don’t get the effect. If you go too fast and build up the debt, your body shuts down.
If you do run smart, in the high miles you can ‘detach’ and let your momentum and stride bring you in. It creates a mental barrier to the pain and effort. It’s not ‘effortless’ running, it’s more like a ‘cruise control’.
It is something that you can practice. The body/mind connection can be trained. You have to run the razor edge between too slow and too fast. You have to balance performance and strength with debt and exhaustion. It all comes together magically at the end of the race. You know you had a 100% effort and there is nothing left in the tank.
Next time you close your eyes to visualize that pending long race, see yourself with a couple miles to go dropping it into cruise control. Picture your mind leaving your body, or more precisely, your body leaving your mind. See yourself channel the physical effort and pain into strength. Tune out the wasting noise. Set your body on cruise and ride your magic carpet through the finish.