Over the past dozen years, I have been fortunate enough to run about 70 combined marathons and ultras, and each and every race has taught me something that I did not know before. (Even if that "something" was simply "I should not have signed up for that one!"). And while I have run a lot more ultras than marathons in the last five years, I like to consider myself just a "runner" at heart. Racing a marathon hard is, well, hard. It hurts. A hard-effort ultra hurts as well, but in a different way...
Looking back, I guess it's no surprise that I have been drawn to the Donna 110 the past two years. It combines an ultra with a marathon. It's in a great city. It's a beautiful course. And -- most importantly -- it's for a great and hugely-important cause (to eradicate breast cancer). What's not to like about this race?? :)
And although I ran the Donna110 last year, my experience this year was vastly different. Last year, I ran the race for the experience. I ran because the race is for a phenomenal cause and my family has a terrible history with breast cancer. (There is a reason I chose the color pink for the "Zwitty" logo).
This year, however, was different. Sure, I still ran because of the awesome experience of the race and what it stands for . . . I think I will always run the Donna 110 for as long as I am able. But this year, I did not just want to run. I wanted to race both days. (The format is 84 miles on Saturday, and then the marathon on Sunday). I wanted to push my pre-conceived "limits" and see if I could break through them...
Going into the weekend, I knew that the weather would be absolutely ideal for racing (sunny and a high of 60 on Saturday, sunny and mid-40s for the marathon on Sunday). And I had put in a solid training cycle leading up to the race, so I had no excuses.
2. friday the 13th.
3. valentine's day saturday (day 1 / 84 miles total): first 10.6 miles.
The first 10 miles of the Donna 110 mirror the Donna marathon course pretty much exactly: you run from the intersection of A1A and ATP Tour Blvd. in Ponte Vedra, make your way toward the beach, and run up to Atlantic Beach:
Besides the gorgeous views on this section of the course (such as the Jacksonville Beach pier, pictured below), this initial section went by pretty quickly for me, and I arrived at the "base camp" for the day -- the very-nice Adele Grage Community Center in Atlantic Beach -- in about 1:20 (so about 7:30/mile for the first stretch).
4. "the loop" (miles 11-73).
Luckily for me, all the runners this year had some factors really working in their favor to combat the monotony. First, the "Base Camp" aid station, manned by race director extraordinaire Caleb Wilson and Team Zwitty all-star Bambi Pennycuff, was indoors and perfectly-stocked with everything we would need. Second, the weather was ideal for running (sunny, light wind, and about 60 degrees). Finally, we all had plenty of company throughout the day. For the other 5 runners, in addition to moving through Day 1 basically as one big pack, they had crew members with them throughout the day as well.
For me, I ran the first three loops (up until the 50k point) alone, and tried to run them at a controlled, yet fast pace. (I came through the marathon mark at about 3:14, and the 50k mark at about 3:54; by then, I was convinced I would have a pretty good day...)
When I was finished with that third lap, I then I had someone pace me for each of the next five laps, which was absolutely invaluable. I've run really long road races basically by myself (such as Spartathlon in Greece and UltraMilano-Sanremo in Italy), but those races were in places I've never been before on point-to-point courses (so something was always keeping my interest/attention). On a loop I've run at least 100 times before, it's a whole different story.
So by the end of Lap 3, I was very glad to have my buddy Stovepipe Fletcher pace me for Lap 4 (about miles 33-40). "Stovepipe" is really Winston Fletcher, who has been slightly excited about the fact he will be going to Death Valley this summer to participate in this year's Badwater 135 as part of Oswaldo Lopez's crew team.
For Lap 5, my friend -- and pro triathlete -- Jen Vogel paced me on her beach cruiser. My buddy Chris "I can't run the Donna 110 because it's only 110 miles and doesn't involve climbing 80,000 feet in the Brazilian jungle" Roman also tagged along and chatted with us for a while. (Seriously, Chris is the nicest guy around; he just also happens to be a complete bad-ass!)
Then Alex hopped on the bike and kept me company for Lap 6. (During this lap, I hit the 50-mile mark in 6:54, which was a 9-minute PR at that distance for me). At that point, I really knew I was having a good day :)
The other runners were all looking really solid as well, and moving consistently throughout the entire day. Whenever I saw any of them, they were all very positive, upbeat, and encouraging. It was just turning out to be a great day...
My good friend Lane Vogel -- who ran the Badwater 135 in 2013 (when it was 125 degrees) with a 103-degree fever the whole time -- paced me for Lap 7, and then Lane and Jen together hung out with me on Lap 8. (Yes, Lane seriously ran one of the hottest years at Badwater with a serious temperature. And people think I'm crazy... :)
By the time the sun was setting and I was alone again, I only had one lap to go :) I finished that last lap pretty quickly, and got back to the Base Camp, Mile 73, in 11:03. Now all I had left was the 10.5 jaunt back to the start line area in Ponte Vedra...
5. Back to PV (miles 74-84).
But with only a few miles to go, and the promise of a warm shower at the Sawgrass Marriott Resort (the finish line for Day 1, as well as where the ultra runners were being put up for the night by the race directors), I just put my head done and finished those last few miles. I finished 84 miles in 13:26, and was extremely excited to see Alex along with Donna Board Member Chris Twiggs waiting for me at the hotel entrance!
6. Nine hours to recover.
I was, however, lucky enough to have a solid 9 hours between the 84 miles of Saturday and the marathon on Sunday. I had some great mahi tacos and a beer at the hotel bar/pub, and then settled into my bed at the hospitality suite. While I got very little sleep, I was off my feet, and by about 3:00 am, my legs were finally calming down. Right about that time, the other five runners finished, and joined me in the large suite (basically a few makeshift conference rooms put together).
I was stoked to see that all of the other runners completed the 84 miles; last year, I was the only runner who got through the Donna 110. (Well, Traci Phillips finished as well; she was pulled from the course at Mile 108 due to bad weather, but I think we can all agree that "counts")!! This year, however, it was great to see everyone who started make it through that first day!
In a few hours, however, it would be time to turn it on again...
7. 26.2 with donna.
I probably sound like a broken record, but I really don't understand why more people don't have the Donna 110 high on their list of races to run. Not only is it held in a great city, for a great cause, and on a great course, but the race organizers treat you like absolute royalty for the whole weekend. In addition to staying at a resort just steps from the start line, as well as having access to the "elite" tent after the race is over, you have access to the elite charter bus for the start of the race, so you can wait until about 10 minutes before the gun goes off, hop in line, and start the race without freezing. It was pretty cool being on a bus that seats about 100 people, with just 10 Kenyans, a few other international athletes, and myself!
At any rate, at 7:30 am sharp, the gun went off, and we were on our way.
The only difference between the actual marathon in the first 10 miles and the Donna 110 first 10 miles is that in the marathon, you run Miles 6-9 on the beach itself. It was really cool this year for two reasons. First, Jen was out doing a morning tempo run, and ran a few miles with me, which was cool.
Second, at about Mile 7, Joannie Samuelson (the 1984 Olympic Marathon champ) passed us. We sped up so I could talk to her a bit. ("Hi Joannie. (gasp). I'm -- gasp -- Dave. We met at the "shake-out" run on Friday. Double gasp. Just wanted to say it was great to meet you. Okay, I can't keep up this pace anymore.") She would later cruise on to a top-10 finish in something like 3:10. We are now 31 years after her Olympic win. Unbelievable.
After exiting the beach surface itself, we were in Atlantic Beach, and I was back visiting my old friend . . . that 6.95-mile loop, for the tenth time in the past day! (At least I wouldn't be getting lost) :) Actually, I felt pretty good on this "final" loop, and it brought back a lot of memories from the prior day. I felt like I was running with some inside information or a secret that no one else around me really knew about!
Even though I was feeling pretty good, though, my rational mind was really getting in the way. As much as I wanted to trick my body into "forgetting" I ran 84 miles the day before, my legs were starting to bark at me by about Mile 15, and by Mile 20, the "3:30 pace group" had passed me and I was about 2-3 behind them. That meant I had to make up a few minutes of time if I had any hope of finishing under 3:30.
8. Breaking through.
I'm not quite sure what happened for that last 10k, but something came over me, and just absolutely refused to slow down. Each mile actually became faster than the previous one. I was finishing around the same time as the half-marathoners who were walking (often in large groups), and I must have scared more than a few of them, because I must have looked like I was absolutely possessed at that point! I was gritting my teeth, snarling, and breathing really deliberately and with a deep gutteral sound.
I crossed the finish line in 3:28, sort of in a stated of shock, and my Donna 110 race was over...
As far as the other 5 Donna 110 runners, 4 started the Donna marathon, and all finished. (The only runner who didn't start had an acute ankle injury from the 84-mile first day, and obviously made a wise decision not to start the marathon portion of the race...)
Congrats to everyone who ran the Donna 110 or the 26.2 With Donna this past weekend! This is a special race, and I highly-encourage anyone who wants to run a first-class ultra for a great cause to sign up for next year's race!!! Amanda Napolitano, Chris Twiggs, and Caleb Wilson put on a fabulous event!
10. up next...
Hope everyone has a great week!!