John Tenney

Professional and Personal Blog of John Will Tenney

Tag orlando runners and riders

From Couch to Marathon in 35 years

JWT-finishAt the age of 21, long distance running was not part of my fitness plan. Sure I had to run for some of the HS and college sports I played, but nothing more than a mile at a time. 35 years later, I am wide awake at 4am, the morning after I completed my first marathon.

When I started distance running in 1980 my goal was always to complete a marathon, of course. It was another one of those things that never happened. The greatest distance accomplished was a 20K race in Oriskany, NY – or about 12.4 miles – in 1981.

This year, December 1st, the Space Coast Marathon was held in Cocoa, FL, over a route I was very familiar with – on a bicycle. Running this route had never been an option I had considered. It was hard enough on a bike.

Some perspective is called for here. 3 years ago, December of 2010, I weighed 287 lbs and would have had difficulty running a mile. I weighed 232 lbs after the marathon, and that was after a week of “carbing up.”

Dave Brillhart and I before the start of Space Coast Marathon 2013

Dave Brillhart and I before the start of Space Coast Marathon 2013

In February of this year I tried my first Half Marathon, The Xtreme Half, put on by Epic Sports Marketing at Orlando Wetlands Park. I had run a few 10Ks around the neighborhood and figured I should be able to stretch it out to 13.1 miles. After walking the last 4 miles, with severe pain in my feet, I realized I was not ready. Oddly enough I finished at 2:52 which put me on the podium in 3rd place for my age group. I had some issues to work on though.

First thing to do was get some good running shoes. After trying the popular “running” store, which didn’t give me what I needed, only what I wanted (big difference there) I ended up at Foot Solutions with Corinna Dexter, wife of my running buddy Patrick. She got me in to the correct running shoes with special inserts that were suited to the shape of my feet. They were not really comfortable to walk in initially, but she knew that as I broke them in they would fit my feet and she was right. Made a big difference in the marathon. My feet hurt at the end but not nearly as bad.

Coaching was essential. Brock Brinkerhoff helped me correct my running form. During the marathon I thought constantly about what he told me: “When you get tired your form will be the first thing to go. Don’t let it deteriorate. When you start feeling pain, slow down and concentrate on your form. You will recover more quickly.” He was right. Other members of our fine club, Orlando Runners and Riders, were also a big help, not only in inspiration but in tips on form, fitness, nutrition and training regimen. Special thanks to Dave Brillhart, Patrick Dexter, Janine Vance, Mike May and Brian Young, who all supported our running efforts. Also a big thank you to Crockett Bohannon for introducing me to “Injinji” socks, which fit your toes, very much as a glove would. Reduced blisters incredibly.

Injinji socks, or "toe socks" feel a little weird at first but they are excellent for running.

Injinji socks, or “toe socks” feel a little weird at first but they are excellent for running.

The most important and essential support came from my wife Kathleen, who made special meals for me, shopped for me and most of all, put up with me during the last month of training, which was very stressful.
Nothing meant more to me than seeing Kathleen waiting for me at the finish.  I am so thankful for all that she did to support me.

Nothing meant more to me than seeing Kathleen waiting for me at the finish. I am so thankful for all that she did to support me.

Training Challenges
In the early summer I started developing a burning pain in my right knee. Brock’s rule was always “Sore, keep going. Stop when it burns.” I stopped running for a while to see if it would go away. Although it subsided, it would come right back any time I tried to run. Finally, I visited Orlando Orthopedic for x-rays and other analysis and was told by the doctor that all was well, it was just the way my knee was adapting to a new running style. There was no bone or cartilage damage and the muscle pain would not cause any permanent harm. Good to know but I had lost about 2 months of training.

So when November started the furthest I had run since the Half in February was 6 miles. The plan was to get a 15 or 20 miler in before tapering off. That didn’t happen. 10 miles was as far as I got and the holiday schedule interfered. I still did a lot of smaller runs, 5Ks mostly, and one 10K. So the morning of December 1 arrived with only a 10 miler as my “longest run.”

My strategy was to run the first half, and try to beat my time from the Wetlands Park Half (2:52). Shouldn’t be that difficult as an 11:30 pace was expected, or about a 2:30 half. Since I had not trained for a longer run, I would “wait and see” what to do with the second half, but I expected a run/walk method would be necessary.

Brock (left) and Dave (right), shown here with Jerry Hertzler before a Hal Scott trail run, were tremendous trainers and motivators.

Brock (left) and Dave (right), shown here with Jerry Hertzler before a Hal Scott trail run, were tremendous trainers and motivators.

The Race
The first thing I noticed besides the large crowd, the crazy costumes and the incredibly loud music (why do the play loud music at 6am? Do they really want non-runners to hate us that much?), was the several “staging” groups with banners stating the expected finish time. It started at 3:15 and went up in 15 minute increments right up until 7 hrs. I had no idea where to start. I stood at the side of the road and wished I had read up on my Galloway running method a little more. Granted, the method works but it is annoying for people who want to run the whole thing to be constantly weaving around and through large packs of walkers, and then get overtaken by them as they sprint by in 2 minutes, only to do it all again. Safety tip: Please move to the side if you are walking? Please?
Dave took this photo of the crowd.

Dave took this photo of the crowd.

After working my was around several groups I got in to some clear space and settled in to my pace. Too soon, I had to pee. I just went before the start! This became an issue for the first 10 miles. I lost count but I think I had to dodge behind a bush 8 or 9 times in the first 10 miles. So while others were doing the run/walk method it seems my body had chosen the run/pee alternative. I still do not know why that happened as I had not had any unusual amounts of fluids other than normal hydrating procedures. Probably nerves.

I intended to run the entire first half, but it was impossible to drink from the cups given at the water stations without walking. I tried at the first one and spilled Gatorade all over myself. From then on I would walk a few feet while drinking and resume running ASAP. It slowed me down some, but not as much as all the pee breaks. I was conscious that I was running in a mixed crowd and had to go quite a distance in to the mangroves to pee without offending anyone. At least I hope I didn’t offend anyone.

I also noticed that the mile markers seemed long. In my experience, the Garmin runs behind actual mileage. It was the opposite on this course. I hit the 10K timing strip showing 6.5 on my Garmin. This continued throughout the race, as I crossed the 20 mile strip at 20.4, and the finish showed me with 26.7 miles. Others have confirmed that the course was long, although not everyone came up with an extra half mile.

Anyway, I made the quarter distance turn and began heading back to Cocoa. The weather was turning out to be perfect. Overcast, breezy and temps between 62 and 70 made for perfect running weather. Even on the “downwind” leg, with the breeze behind me, over heating was never an issue. I was watching my heart rate to judge my speed and it only got a little high when I was climbing up hills. Fortunately in Florida there aren’t many of these.

My Garmin shows me hitting 13.1 in 2:44:30. Of course, I crossed the timing strip in 2:48:28, showing 13.4 miles on my Garmin. Either way, I had managed to set a new personal record but was nowhere near my goal of 2:30. This made me change my goal of doing a 5+ marathon to just finishing. I began the run/walk right away with a 2 on / 3 off split. A few miles later I switched to 1:30 on / 3:30 off, hoping that when I turned around and headed back in to the wind for the last quarter that I would be able to cool off quicker and go back to 2 on / 3 off. While that was true, and I did so for a mile or two, once I got to mile 22 my feet were starting to hurt, and even with the Injinji socks on, I was feeling an impending blister on the bottom of my left foot. I looked at my watch and realized I had almost 3 hours left to beat the 7 hour time limit. It was time to relax a bit.

So I didn’t run the whole thing. In fact, I pretty much walked the last 4 miles (although at this point walking hurt a lot, like a real lot). Is finishing with a 4 mile walk still an accomplishment? I keep asking myself that. The time limit was 7 hours, and that wasn’t going to be a problem so why beat myself up more than necessary? I made a decision to walk the rest of the way, even though it was painful to walk, it caused less damage to be recovered from over the next few days. It hurt my pride a little to walk 4 miles, but my legs and feet are grateful today. 6:34:55 is nothing to shout about for a marathon finish, but it is a finish, and that is what matters. If at sometime in the future I decide to run another one, I will train better and be ready to run much more, and I will worry about a better time when it happens.

As it stands, I am different than I was 24 hours ago in at least one way. Back then, I hadn’t completed a marathon.

They had beer for the finishers.  I really thought it would taste better.  Even though it was good beer I couldn't even drink half a glass.

Patrick Dexter, Dave and myself with a FREE post race beer. Really. They had free beer for the finishers. I really thought it would taste better. Even though it was good beer I couldn’t even drink half a cup. Training has ruined me as a drinker.

My split times:

Six Gap Century Ride 2012

Before I tell you about Six Gap this year, let me share some history. Last fall, September 2011, at the last minute, Kathleen and I decided to head up to Dahlonega, GA for an event known as “Six Gap / Three Gap”. The official name of the event is the “Six Gap Century and Three Gap Fifty Ride”. Here is some info from their website:

“Coming on September 30,2012 and taking place in Georgia’s Premier Cycling Venue, the Six Gap Century & Three Gap Fifty boasts many of the same roads and mountain climbs as the elite Tour de Georgia. Come ride the Ride of the Pros! The Six Gap Century’s ultra challenging route takes you up and down six of the steepest climbs in the North Georgia Mountains. Test your stamina with more than 11,200 feet of vertical climbing over the 104 mile course. Elevations for the six gaps in this ride range from 1,400 feet to 3,460 feet. The toughest climb, Hogpen Gap, will test even the strongest riders, averaging a 7% grade for seven miles, with sections as steep as 15%.”

It was my first organized bicycle-only event. My previous experience was triathlons and relay races in the 80s and 90s. I attempted the Three Gap Fifty ride (which came out to be 60 miles, oddly) and although the hills were challenging it was a beautiful ride and definitely a memorable experience.

That was fine, but I still had the challenge of doing the “whole schmear”. So all this year I have been training to attempt the century. 104 miles of up and down Georgia mountains, that include the legendary Hogpen Gap, known as one of the hardest climbs this side of the Mississippi.

I had been stressing about it since mid August. What kind of training should I do? Does it help to go ride around the relatively small hills of Clermont? Should I just do interval training? I consulted many experienced riders and other “experts” and decided on a regimen of at least one hard century ride to establish the distance and speed, and a anaerobic spin class 2 or 3 times a week.

I did the End of Summer Watermelon Century Ride in Ponte Vedra in a record time of 6 hrs 18 mins for 102 miles. Kathleen and I started doing spin class Mon, Wed and Fri at a local gym. We had two rooms reserved, expecting four of us to go up there and ride. Strange, that a week before heading up to Georgia, it was only me.

I reached out to my friends at the Eastside Cycling Club. Welcome to join us at the ride John, but our travel plans are already made. A last minute attempt was made to fit me in to one car and have my bike go up a day earlier, but wisely we all decided not to complicate the logistics, since I was staying at a different hotel.

I couldn’t sleep at all Friday night. Finally at 3 am I gave up, got up and started the final packing procedures of my car. By 4 am I was on the road, stressed, nervous, short on sleep and not at my best. It took me 11 1/2 hours to get to Dawsonville, which included several attempts to plug the Volt in along the way, just to get some extra electric miles. I had trained myself not to use gas, and this was just adding more stress.

Chevy Volt plugged in to an outlet at a gas station

The BP at Lake Park, GA was gracious and offered me a 110v outlet while I ate breakfast. Unfortunately the power was not very consistent (spiky) and it kept resetting my charger. Gained all of 2 miles from this effort.

Eventually, when I reached the Best Western (who graciously allowed me to use a shielded, outdoor outlet to charge my car) I was able to relax – a little bit. A quick dash up to Dahlonega to pick up my packet, look around at the Crit race and back to the room. I took a two hour nap which helped a great deal. The ESCC guys texted and said to meet them at Johnny’s Pizza for the traditional, pre-century pasta carb fest. A nice dinner of spaghetti and meatballs and it was off to the hotel room. Not right to bed, no, had to get everything “ready” – had to pin the number on the jersey, had to put out my water bottles and the prepared mix for them, had to lay out the cycling outfit that would have to keep me warm for the first hour of 50 degree weather and NOT overheat me in the hot afternoon.

The next morning at 4:40 am the alarm woke me and I got prepared. There was very little breakfast ready but I did manage to wolf down some oatmeal, Froot Loops and a cup of tea. I sneaked a waffle in as the batter was brought out just before it was time to go.

photo by Linda Babadelis

Got to Lumpkin County HS at 6:15 am and was lucky enough to get a pretty good parking spot. Right across the lane from the ESCC guys in fact. The next hour was spent unloading the bike, going to the bathroom, pumping up tires, going to the bathroom, eating a food bar and one more trip to the bathroom just in case. Still had to stop by the side of the road before my first stop. Guess I was nervous (but I was also well hydrated.)

Me and 2800 other maniacs about to tackle one of the hardest rides known

Six Gap is not a race but there are some timed segments, and some time requirements. In order to be allowed to do the full course, one has to reach the top of Jack’s Gap by 11 am. It is the second climb and is about 40 miles out. This was one of the things I worried about all year. I knew that I first had to traverse Stone Pile Gap and the cross country path to Turner’s Crossing, and then climb and descend Neel’s Gap. I was worried a little about Neel’s. It was not a steep climb, but very long, almost nine miles from Turner’s Crossing (the first rest stop) to the top.

Somewhere in the first few miles my bike developed an annoying click. Like all things that aren’t going perfectly, it worried me. It definitely affected me the rest of the ride. I resolved to try and ignore it, and carry on. Yeah that didn’t happen. (Note: it was weeks later we discovered at the LBS that it was grit stuck in my seat post. ARRGGGGHHHH!)

I passed Turner’s at 8:43, two minutes ahead of my planned schedule. Surprisingly, Neel’s turned out to be much easier than last year. I was at the top at 9:33. I didn’t get off the bike, but I briefly stopped to switch my water bottles.

I headed down the descent, shown in the video below. Although nervous the whole way, I really enjoyed it. It was probably the most fun I’ve had on a bike in quite a while. Next year, I plan to attack this descent a little more.

The descent was also much longer this year, because unbeknownst to me, the Three Gap turn is not at the bottom as I thought, but about 3 miles from the bottom. Since I was NOT turning this year I got to enjoy a nice long descent. On the negative side, I think this long, cooling descent contributed to a bad cramp in my left leg hamstring. I never did get rid of that for the rest of the ride. Tip: Keep your legs moving in long descents.

We turned on to Jack’s Gap and it was steeper than I expected, at least in the beginning. I had been led to believe it was no harder than Neel’s. It was. I was barely cranking out 5 mph up the beginning, and the leg cramp wasn’t helping. I made it to the top at 10:15 though, plenty of time to spare. I even pulled to a stop and let one of the SAG helpers fill my water bottle. Another SAG helper handed me half a banana as I rode by. Still no complete SAG stop for me yet, as my plan was to rest up on Unicoi – the last stop before the dreaded Hogpen.

I knew I was running low on memory (and battery) in the Go Pro so I took no video of the Jack’s descent or the Unicoi climb. Unicoi was also harder than I expected. It was very much like Neel’s but shorter with steeper parts. It was also much prettier than Jack’s, which had been open, rural farm-type country. Unicoi was more “mountainous” and “woodsy” in nature.

At the top of Unicoi I saw Greg Wiedl from the Eastside club. We exchanged notes as I took my first break, and I stretched it out a bit, trying to get rid of the leg cramp (which didn’t happen of course). As I was waiting, Jason Ingalls came in and kindly took this photo of me.

Extended rest at the top of Unicoi. Greg Wiedle was leaving as I came in, and Jason Ingalls came in right behind me.

The descent down Unicoi was very pretty and pleasant. The middle part went alongside a mountain stream which looked very cool and inviting! I wish I had memory left in the camera to take a shot of it, but you’ll just have to do the ride and see for yourself.

About mile 50 I started thinking (who am I kidding, I’d been thinking about it for months) about the 7.1 mile, 2000′ climb I had coming up. The Hogpen. Legendary killer of cyclists. Well amateur cyclists anyway. I’m sure the Tour boys would not consider it much but with several long sections of steep grade, including a two mile stretch with a 12 degree average ascent, it was no joke.

“You’ve been training for this all year” I told myself. “This is IT. Are you going to let a little leg cramp stop you?” As we passed through the USA Pro Challenge KOM starting line at mile 56, I was a little surprised. “I thought this climb started at mile 60?” I said to many riders around me. I heard some answers but none that were intelligible. The pain had begun.

Well it was all that was advertised. It was steep, it was a crappy road, filled with vehicle traffic and the pain was extensive. The long, 2 mile section was every bit as bad as expected. My original plan was to pedal all the way to the top, and skip the mid point SAG, but I just couldn’t do it. Once I stopped there, I stopped three more times before the top. I never walked, but I stopped to let my heart rate sink down from max. The leg cramp and the sore right back hip bone were not helping at all. Here is a long and painful video of that climb. The camera doesn’t really show how steep it was. Notice the loud, 80’s disco music at the top!

The descent was terrible. TERRIBLE. If I do this next year, I am considering taking the shuttle down. It is SO steep and SO winding that I nearly wore out my rear brake. Finally, I used both brakes on a straight section to stop and let my rear wheel cool off before it burned through the tire. I suppose I could have let it build up more speed but there were cars everywhere, a lot of other riders and the road was not smooth at all. This video below is of the second part of the descent, not quite as steep, after I let the rear wheel cool off. At first it was too hot to touch.

Once at the bottom, we had to wait to turn on to highway 19, as four ambulances turned by us, to go back up Hogpen. We didn’t know it at the time but found out later that someone had a heart attack at the top(!) Last we heard he was OK and recovering well.

At the Vogel Park SAG stop I finally found a mechanic who had some chain lube, and tried to get rid of the annoying clicking in my chain. It disappeared for a while so that was a relief. I turned on to Wolfpen and started the 3.1 mile, 2000′ or so climb. I expected it to be hard, being at mile 75 and all. It was not that hard at all. I kept it going all the way up and was surprised to see the top so quickly. The timer shows me doing it in 33 minutes, as compared to 45 minutes last year.

Took a bit of a rest at the top to eat some food, fill water bottles and to thank all the volunteers for giving up their Sunday for us.

Shannon, a very pretty and nice young lady volunteering for the day, offered to take my picture at the top of Wolfpen

… and here is the picture she took. Thank you Shannon! Thank you to ALL the volunteers who gave up their Sunday for us.

I expected the section between Wolfpen and Woody Gap to be pretty easy, as there are no long climbs in that part and it was easy last year. However, it is important to remember that a section of road last year at mile 40 is not the same as this year at mile 80. It was draining. I wanted the climbs to be over. I felt that I had accomplished all the important climbs and now just wanted to get HOME. The crowd was thinning out too, as for most of the segment I was alone.

All I can say about the last 20 miles is that I hated every one of them. Several times I said to myself and the occasional rider I caught up with – “Next year I think I’ll just tear up the $45 and kick myself in the nuts 100 times instead.”

Resisting the urge to flag down a SAG vehicle every time they rode by, I made it past Woody Gap, did the long descent that followed, went through the three rapid and sharp 180 degree turns in the R Ranch, and conquered the numerous “rollers” on the way in to Dahlonega, and finished at 5:03 pm. I crossed the starting line right about 7:37 pm that morning so that puts me at 9 hours and 26 minutes. Far from record pace but at the end I can say this:

I completed Six Gap