I like to run. I've learned that it really isn't about where you're going, it's about the getting there - the how, the why, the who with. This blog is just a little repository for my thoughts along the way; the setbacks, the lessons learned, and the occasional triumph.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Lookout Mountain 100K Results

I'm still working on my Race Report, but for those of you who may be wondering...

I finished! I was 28th out of 37 finishers. There were 65 runners registered and 59 or 60 people who started the race. So that means there were, maybe, 22 or 23 DNFs from the field (38%!). Temperatures were in the upper 50s all day, but the rain came and went, and was often heavy. My official time was 16 hours, 3 minutes and 31 seconds, and I finished just a few minutes before midnight.

I thoroughly enjoyed (almost) every single minute of it, and I'll have the whole story up in another day or two!

Have a happy holiday, everyone! I hope you're all able to enjoy the time with friends and family or anyone else who loves you as much as you love them.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Unexpected Loss

I woke up last Sunday morning needing to head out to run an errand. When I went to retrieve my running watch from the bedstand, I discovered the band ripped in half across it’s width, hanging by just a few resin threads. Destroyed. Worthless. I haven’t a clue why I didn’t notice the carnage when I took it off the night before, but that is when it must have happened.

Of all the running clothes and gear I own, my watch is the one thing that I ALWAYS wear. I have a less equipped back-up watch for emergencies (or unexpected runs), but otherwise, that watch is always with me when I run. As a result, I tend to develop a small attachment to each one I’ve owned – not terribly unlike the affection many people feel for their cars. I don’t personify them, or name them (I don’t do that to my cars, either), but I guess I develop a kind of professional respect for them, as for a co-worker who is constantly tackling projects with me, always quietly holding up their end of the task, and never expecting any of the credit for themselves.

This is the second time that I’ve lost a watch to an inferior resin band. The way the watch is designed, the band is not replaceable; it’s built into the time piece. And the time piece itself, of course, is completely fine and totally operational. In fact, I just had the battery replaced a few months ago, and as far as I know, it would continue to operate reliably for another 10 years, or even longer. I suppose at some point down the road, the buttons would wear out and cease responding to a finger touch, or perhaps I’d take a fall and the crystal face would get cracked – but to have to cast it aside because of the cheap resin band? It feels like having to put down a champion race horse because he fractured a leg as he crossed the finish line.

I’ve only had this watch for two and a half years. It’s a Timex Ironman Triathalon watch (Timex is strangely reluctant to label their watches with specific model numbers.) It was advertised as the “flagship” running watch for the company when I bought it. Ninety-five dollars, 150 lap recall memory, water resistant to 100 meters, memory storage of each workout by date, large easy-to-read display face, etc., etc. Hey, the time piece is a damn fine example of design and technology – but the resin band? (Sheesh.)

I admit, for the first 2 years, I wore the watch every day and all the time, not just on my runs. (Did I mention I get a little attached to my running watches?) Earlier this year, the little loop designed to hold down the tail of the band’s strap cracked and broke off. I took this as a warning flag, bought a secondary watch for everyday use and took to saving my running watch just for runs. So, I guess that earned me another six months.

When this happened before to my previous watch, I was stubborn and kept using the watch in races, carrying it in my hand like a little stopwatch. I have a series of race photos from that stretch where you can see the thing in my left hand as I squeezed the stop button between my finger and thumb. But those were all 5 and 10K road races. It’s not really an option, say, this weekend, when I’ll be running a 62-mile trail race. I’m going to need my hands as free as possible. So, it’ll have to be the bare bones back-up watch for the weekend.

A few years ago, when my previous resin band watch fell apart, I went so far as to call the Timex customer service department. They told me if I mailed it into them, they would repair the band for a $10 fee. What they really did was send back a totally different watch, with similar abilites. At the time, I felt a little betrayed, because they hadn’t warned me that I’d never see my watch again, but the new watch had a Velcro band, and after a few weeks, I realized its vast superiority. Not only would it be more durable over time, it was also far more comfortable on my wrist.

I’ve already made that call to Timex again and they still offer the same service. It’ll be a $10 “repair”, and I can also request that they, once again, sent back a similar watch but with a Velcro band. They told me the turnaround time should be 3 to 5 weeks. I’ll try it again and see what I get back, but I fear the result will depend on the charitable decision of whichever repair tech opens up my shipment – and whatever product they have available to send me. I guess it’s worth $10 and a month’s wait to find out.

But if they send me something inferior and I’m forced to buy another, brand new watch, there’s absolutely no way I’ll be buying another resin band. My faith there is broken. Broken like a cheap resin watch band.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Race Report: Tecumseh Trail Marathon 2008

I am a little late with this, and I know at least a few of you have been waiting. Well, it is Tuesday, and the race was last Saturday. If we just forget the week in between (when I was swamped at work), then I'm actually pretty much on my regular schedule with this post....
____________________________________
OK. It’s been a long and arduous week. I’ve had worse work weeks – believe me, I have – but the hours were very long and the problem solving was an hour to hour exercise. It just didn’t leave me any time to craft my Race Report for the Tecumseh Trail Marathon.

I’ll be honest, though, I also wasn’t overly enthused to write about it, because I wasn’t overly enthused about how it went. It was a frustrating, weary afternoon, and regardless of all the factors involved, I just didn’t feel like I did as well as I might could have. (“might could”: that might sound poorly written to some of you, but trust me, it’s a legit and vital southern phrasing.)

First of all, the weather was not kind. The forecast all week had called for the temperature to start in the upper 20s and hover around 30 for the afternoon, with, roughly, a 30% chance of show flurries. Well, that weren’t what we got. When I woke up in my hotel room on race morning, I discovered that the damp precipitation from the day before was frozen over, and a half-inch of snow was already on the ground. Temps were still in the teens and wouldn’t rise above 25. There was a steady wind coming in from the Northwest. This was just the beginning of a mild -- but legit -- snow storm that would last the entire day.



Laura had come along for the trip to try and see me a few times on the course and to cheer me on. We had to, first, drive to the Finish Line area to pick up my bib and race packet, and then make the 25 mile drive north to the starting line so she could see us all head off. Just negotiating the roads in the car was a bit precarious. We had to use too many back roads and gravel roads in the middle of rural, west-central Indiana. We didn’t see any salt or plow trucks making the rounds and had no idea if we could expect them. Laura had scoped out both the course map and an area road map and picked out several places where she thought she might be able to see me come by, but I repeatedly encouraged her to choose safety over cheerleading. I was very worried that my little Toyota Celica would hit some snowy, icy patch and she’d wind up stuck in a ditch, far from help.

Honestly, if I’d known what the conditions were really going to be like, I think I might’nt had gone. (Weird words, again, I know, but just trust to my southern stylings…) A year ago, I entered a trail race series at the Rock Cut State Park near Rockford, Illinois. Once every month, through the winter, a race was staged, starting with a 5K, then a 10, a 15, and a 20K finale. The whole thing was well staged and directed, but there was both fresh and old snow on the ground for the race every month. The 15K, in February, was the worst: there were 7 or 8 inches of snow to negotiate. It took me just under 2 hours to cover the slippery, sloggy, hilly 9.3 mile course. I have never, ever been more miserable on a run. Walking on the snow and ice was actually harder than running, so even though I was completely exhausted, a walking pace offered no relief. After that, I swore that I’d never race on snow again. And it wasn’t a post-race protestation, it was a solemn, life-long resolution that I still intend to keep.

Yet, here I was, deceived, along with the meteorologists, by the weather, bracing for another snowy trail race.

---------------

When Laura and I arrived at the start line area, I was doing a decent job of staying positive. There was much rueful laughing about what awaited me, but I was holding onto my optimism. At that point I was much more worried about Laura driving around the area than I was about me running it.

The Start Line was near the Main Office Building in the Morgan-Monroe Indiana State Forest near Cherry Lake, Indiana. The course winds its way east and south from there to the Yellowwood State Forest near Nashville, Indiana. The majority of the runners park at Yellowwood and are bused up, en masse, to Morgan-Monroe so they can run back.

We pulled in more than 30 minutes before the buses. This gave me a chance to duck into a porta-potty without having to wait in a line. (No meager gift!) I wanted to ward off the need for any mid-race pit-stops like I had at Farmdale this year. One big unanticipated problem, though: It was, like, 20 degrees outside. I’m not an astrophysicist, but I believe that means it was near 20 degrees inside the porta-potty, too. I’m also not sure if the hard resin plastic used to mold most toilet seats is an above or below average conductor of heat, but either way, I’m pretty sure that the toilet seat was, also, going to be 20 degrees – and on my sensitive tushieflesh. I imagine all the ladies in the house are now nodding their heads with a kind of emphatic “see we told you so” kind of indignation, but being a dude, this was the first time I had to confront a problem so extreme in a public toilet. Luckily my lady gave me a tip: “If there’s enough toilet paper,” (being a pro at this, she wisely acknowledged that there might not be), “line the seat with it. It helps to insulate.” I’ll be darned if she wasn’t 100% correct. So there you have it, guys: an expert, insider tip from the other half of us who always have to sit to go.


After that, we found an out-of-the-way place to tuck the car and hang out until all the buses showed up. They started trickling in about 20 minutes to 10, and we made our way back up to the starting line. The Race Director was wandering around with a bullhorn making the occasional announcement, and it was about 9:55 when we heard him telling us all that because some of the buses still hadn’t been able to make it up through all the snow, that the start of the race would be delayed for, maybe, 10 or 15 minutes.

That was all fine, except that it was really freakin’ cold! I was not dressed for standing around in the sub-freezing weather. I was dressed for running around in the sub-freezing weather, and I was really ready to get to it! I had developed one of those deep bone shivers that erupt from far behind your sternum and your gut and quake out from there across the rest of your insides. Laura was bundled up far better than I was, but even she was starting to feel the freeze.

It was quite a crowd assembled at the start. The race results show that 516 people started the race. This was, by far, the largest field I’d ever been a part of at a trail race. I think the 50, 100 & 150-milers combined at McNaughton Park only total around 250 runners, at most, and we lesser mortals never see the 150-milers all in one place because they start the day before we do. So, there were lots more people standing around in the snow than I was used to seeing at a race. It makes you feel a little less nuts when you can see just how many other nuts there are in the can with you!

I wasn’t paying attention to what time it was, but finally the RD walked down to the front of the crowd at the actual start line (marked with a line of orange spray paint on the snowy gravel road), and made a few announcements. There were so many people and so much general chatter that, even with the bullhorn, I really couldn’t hear most of what he had to say. Everyone finally piped down long enough for me to hear him remind us all that the trail conditions might be rough out there and to really watch out for each other. Aid stations were all just 2.5 to 3 miles apart at most and to please notify a volunteer if we or anyone we saw was having any trouble.

Then he pulled the squawk trigger on his bullhorn and we were off.

_________________

The first mile and a half was all along a gravel road wide enough for a couple of cars to pass closely by one another. So, there was plenty of room for all of us to find our place in the pack without getting too pinned in behind slower runners and groups.


I tried to hold myself back. Due to my very hectic schedule at my freelance job, I hadn’t been able to go out for a run since Monday. That was four whole days with NO running, and even that Monday was just a gentle 5 miles on a treadmill. Granted, the week before had been a good one: a “taper” week with just 31 miles that also included my brand spankin’ new 5K PR on Thanksgiving Day. But now, through little fault of my own, I had temporarily fallen off the horse. I wasn’t overly worried about this affecting my fitness too much, but I was worried that all the extra rest would leave me feeling so fresh that I’d go out too fast in those early miles.

I’d have to try and hold myself in check without any distance landmarks to follow. I’ve done plenty of trail races without any mile markers on the course, but usually there is something on the course I can measure to; the aid station at the far end of the loop is just before the 5 mile mark, or the 2nd bridge is halfway around the course, or whatever. This way, every 4 or 5 miles, at least, I can check myself.

Tecumseh, though, is a point to point course (as opposed to any kind of Loop course – only the 3rd time I’d ever run a PTP). I hadn’t memorized the distances to each of the aid stations, but even if I had, I didn’t know for sure that they’d be set up where they said they would. It is also my experience that the aid station volunteers don’t generally know where they are on the course, either. (At Farmdale this year, for example, I heard a different answer all 6 times I passed the 2nd aid station.)

All of this, combined with my own inherent folly as a human, and I wound up doing exactly what I told myself I shouldn’t: I went out too fast. Worse: I pushed that too-fast pace pretty much all the way through the first 12 or 13 miles. I passed through an aid station that claimed to be at the 12.4 mile mark in right at 2 hours. That’s a little over 9:30 pace per mile – and that was with a healthy dose of uphill walking (though I was stubborn and didn’t start to take those walks until they started to get really rough around 7 miles in).

A lot of those early miles were on some kind of up or down hill slope. The ups seemed to come in half mile sections and the downs were just as long and loping.

________________

I think it was about 4 miles in when Tim appeared behind me. I was wearing my 2007 Chicago Marathon jacket for the race. It was the “official” jacket that year, and I consider it to be on the gaudy side – there’s a big race logo on the back with the date below it – and, I don’t know, it just makes me a tad self-conscious to be a billboard like that. BUT, it’s a really, really nice jacket made by New Balance with a fancy fabric they call “BioShield” which has been wonderful for running in the super cold and snow. I bought it last January a few months after the race -- and after New Balance had lost its sponsorship deal to Nike. They put all their dated Chicago stuff on super-sale and I got a $140 jacket for $37. I had to settle for a caramel/gold colored one, but it was still too good to pass up.

Anyway, Tim comes up behind me and compliments me on the jacket. Then he says, “That was the HOT year, wasn’t it?” (Actually I heard that a lot during the day. Half a dozen different people saw my jacket and wanted to talk about Chicago ’07 for a minute.) Tim was really friendly and funny, in a wry sort of way. Mostly, he talked about how under-prepared he was, how he was going to be dropping at 18 miles when he passed where his car was parked, how he was trying out a new training plan: run 10 miles one weekend, slough off the next two weeks, then repeat. He was funny. Dry, wry funny.

He was running with a buddy: Mike. It was easy to keep their names straight in my head because Tim was Talkative and Mike was Mute. Seriously, Mike barely uttered a word for four miles. He was not having quite so easy a time of it as Tim was. Tim, in spite of his protestations, was zipping along at a healthy clip. Pretty much the whole time we were all together, it was like this: me in front, Tim in the middle bantering away, and Mike in the back, quiet as a mouse. All the while, Tim was the engine that was keeping us moving, even though it was me in front.

So, maybe Mike just didn’t have the extra air to spare for speech. But I should have been wiser, because that was definitely one of my problems: I, too, was breathing just a little too hard to carry on an easy conversation. This should have set off a few more alarms in my head, in spite of the fact that there weren’t any landmarks for pace checking, but I just kept trotting and huffing and puffing up and over all those little hills with Tim in the middle, rolling us along.

I did get off one good retort that made Tim laugh out loud (LOL!) hard. He was encouraging Mike, and we were all gabbing (once again) about how tricky the course was today, and I called back over my shoulder, fully in Tim’s wry humor mode, “Hey, the harder it is, the gooder it feels to stop!” Tim laughed so hard I thought he might pull up for just a second to catch his breath. “I think I might have to write that on the T-Shirt I wear at my next marathon,” he told me. “You don’t mind if I use it, do you?” Not at all, my friend, not at all. After all, I now have proof right here on the old Journey Blog that I thought of it myself. (Because no one in the history of time could ever have possibly uttered an obscure phrase like that one before, right? Right? I said, am I right?)

Somewhere, not long after that, during an especially tricky, technical, and icy section of the trail, Tim and Mike actually wound up switching positions, and Mike ended up in the middle of our three-person conga line. He was still quiet though, and Tim must have kidded him about it, because I heard Mike say, “I’m just keepin’ an eye on Greg’s feet so I know where to put my own.” And I swear, not 30 seconds later, just after I scampered across a little downward dip, Mike slipped and went down on his side. I turned around in time to see him pop back up pretty quickly, a little embarrassed but not hurt. The irony was too thick and I couldn’t help it. “Well, Mike are you watchin’ my feet or not?” All three of us had a good chuckle as we continued on.

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At this point, as I recall, we were 9 or 10 miles into the course. We passed though an aid station and then came to another, mostly uphill, section where we got behind some other runners who had started to slow down. Tim and Mike were ready to get a move on, but I was already starting to lag and they ran ahead without me. I knew even then that it was the last time I’d see them.


(Oddly, though, I had a tough time finding their names in the race results. They were both from the Louisville, KY area, but I couldn’t find names on the list that seemed match. I hope they didn’t have trouble. Or maybe Tim really did decide to drop at 18 miles when he saw his warm car.)

For the next twenty minutes, I focused on seeing Laura between miles 12 and 13. The course was supposed to cross over State Route 45 just before the half way point and, on the maps, it looked like it would be relatively easy for Laura to drive in to that spot. But as I neared what looked like it must be the SR45 crossing, I saw a handful of other folks who had driven in to see loved ones, but no little black Celica, and no purple-coated, grinny-faced Laura. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe this wasn’t SR45. But no, I could tell by the time elapsed on my watch since the last aid station (which was mile marked) that I was past 13 miles now, and we were headed back off for a long turn through the woods.

So: No Laura. Aannnnd, I was officially worried. Was she okay? Surely, she’d simply encountered one too many closed and impassable roads and decided to take my advice, played it safe, and headed back to the finish line. But there were a dozen other people back at SR45 who HAD made it through. Hmm. What would I do if I got back to the finish line and Laura wasn’t there, either? I had suggested I carry my phone with me on the course in case either of us had a problem, even though I probably wouldn’t get a good signal, but we had opted not to do that. Why hadn’t I just brought it along anyway? It wouldn’t have been such a big deal.

And then I turned a corner on the course and I lost all thought of Laura. We were back on another gravel road and a quarter mile away, straight in front of me, the road turned into a wall that I, literally, could not see the top of because it climbed so sharply upwards into the trees ahead. I can’t remember, but I think I might have started walking just at the sight of that monster. We gained 200 feet of elevation in only 1/3rd of a mile. This is no BS of any kind: I think there were pieces of that hill at a 45 degree angle to the horizon off to our left. I was on it and thinking that exact thing to myself: “Is it? I think it is. No, it couldn’t be. That’s, like, impossible, isn’t it? What car could scale a 45 degree angled incline? It couldn’t be 45. No way. But, like, I think, it IS.” I even held my hand out in front of me at a 45 degree angle to try and compare it to the slope under my feet. “I really think it might be.”

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After that hill, after pushing a little too hard for the first 10 miles, after plowing my way through an inch of snow (and still falling), after far too many icy slopes – I was just cooked. The next five miles were not so much fun. I could feel the weight of my legs. I could feel the effort in my lungs. I could feel the cold in my cheeks. (No, not those cheeks.) The hills started to become a welcome sight because they offered a respectable excuse to just walk.

Worst of all – and I’m taking the blame for this – my mood started to go sour. I suppose there are a host of physiological reasons that contributed to this – lack of sleep and stress during the week, inadequate sugar intake during the race – but really, I just got in a pouty mood about how unpleasant everything was on race day, and I had a hard time shaking my way out of it. I was fully aware, before this race, that I wasn’t really in condition to RACE it. I hadn’t been able to properly prepare for the terrain. This was only supposed to be a healthy, well-supported training run. But I got mad at myself because I just didn’t feel like I was performing well. Even with a gentler pace. Even with lower expectations. Even with a stated goal of just enjoying the experience and trying to stay steady, no matter what the pace. Even with all that, I just felt like the course and the weather and the day had defeated me. Once that thought and that feeling began to sink in, that’s when my mood took a nose-dive.

When I was a kid, I was a swimmer. I was never spectacular at it. I think, just like now with my running, that I was just comfortably a notch above average, but I really loved doing it. There was, though, one winter when, with a handful of my teammates, I joined a winter training league. It was hosted by one of the other teams in the league at an indoor pool on a little college campus 25 miles away. (The Bluefins, I think they were. We were the Stingrays.) A couple times a week, 5 or 6 of us would load up in our coach’s van and we’d bus over to the college to join the workouts. The problem was, the training level was above my skill. I still have crystal clear memories of interval workouts that I was too slow to swim. I’m making up numbers here, but we were supposed to do, say, a 50 second lap, with a 10 second rest at the other end, then dive back in to repeat. Except I couldn’t do a 50 second lap, I could only do a 55 second lap, and by the time I’d lifted myself out of the water, it was time to dive right back in for another round. After a few turns at this, I couldn’t even do a 55 second lap anymore, it’d be a 62 second lap and I didn’t get any rest at all because I was already horribly behind everyone else in the water. It would become maddening and embarrassing, and the frustration was self-defeating. By the end of some of those workouts, I’d be raging and crying all at the same time – a fact I found surreal and unique even as it was happening because I was crying underwater. Even that seemed pointless and redundant.

That whole sensation is still accessible, and I regret to admit I felt a touch of it – just a touch – at Tecumseh.

Somewhere around the 17h mile, a talkative guy turned up behind me. I’d actually leap-frogged him a couple of times in the past 7 miles, and he was always chatting with someone. He finally opened communication with me by mentioning my jacket. I wasn’t really in the most talkative mood but I wasn’t feeling rude enough to blow him off and I wasn’t feeling fast enough to run away from him. He talked about how it was his wife who was really the runner between them and he was more about the cycling. He’d done a bunch of mountain bike races. Running wasn’t really his preference, but he’d done Tecumseh in ’07 with his wife and even though she was nursing an injury this year, he’d wanted to take another shot at it. I know he meant well, but it’s not always the most pleasant thing in the world to be struggling through a race and have someone else come from behind, offer you a story about how little running training they bother to do, and then have to watch them motor off away from you like it’s no real trouble.

The last thing he offered me before disappearing up the road ahead was, “Hey, are your feet wet? Mine are soaked!” At which, I realized for the first time that my feet were soaked and cold. Two things I hadn’t been paying any attention to at all until he kindly pointed it out to me. Now there was nothing I could do about it, except add that to the list of other unpleasantries.

______________

At the top of the next hill, though, I got a welcome surprise. Laura was parked on a fork in the road atop the next hill in front of me. I stuck my hand in the air to wave at her and she instantly responded. She had the camera out taking pictures and I wanted to run and make a good showing, but the hill she was at the top of was another sharp one and I just couldn’t do it. I got my hug and kiss and she asked if I needed anything from my stuff. “Yeah,” I said, “a fresh pair of socks.”

The bad thing about walking on the course this day – and now, about stopping altogether – was when I slowed my activity, the cold really took over and made me shiver. Sweaty, wet clothes in windy, 25 degree weather is not a good combination. Because of this, I had a lot of trouble getting my socks changed quickly. In addition, all the downhill and elevation changes had been taking a heavy toll on my quads, and even with all the walking breaks, they had begun to develop nagging cramps, especially my right one. Now, just the act of lifting my foot up to where I could reach it caused a charlie-horse so sharp I nearly fell over. Laura had to help me get my own shoes and socks back on. I had to pull my gloves off for this operation as well, and my damp fingers were, somehow, numb and burning in the cold air by the time I was done. Then for the same reason, it was nearly impossible to get my gloves back on again.

Laura had her own tale to tell, of course. She’d missed me at the halfway point because it had taken her almost two and a half hours to get there. I’d run 12 miles faster than she was able to drive it! This had happened because of all the snow on the roads that continued to fall in the area. At one point, she’d made her way, slowly, around to within shouting distance of the SR45 crossover point, only to see a 4x4 truck in front of her hit an icy patch and skid dangerously off the road. She wisely felt that if that guy couldn’t make it, there was no way she should try it in my car. But this roadblock meant backtracking for 45 minutes, almost to where she’d started, to try a completely different route.

By the time she’s gotten anywhere at all, she guessed that she’d already missed me anyway, and decided to take a shot at finding me further along the course. She’d only been at the 18-mile point for about 15 minutes before I got there, and was nervous the whole time that she might have missed me again. There were a good handful of local folks who offered her directions, gave her good advice or even said “just follow me, I going that way, anyway.” To all of those people, Laura and I both want you to know that we can’t thank you enough for your kindness.

____________

There was another aid station less than a half mile past where Laura had been. I stopped to refill my bottle and grab some cookies. But then I found I couldn’t get my fleece-lined gloves to go back onto my wet hands. I’d already spent nearly 10 minutes at the car with Laura trying to get my shoes and socks changed and now I wasted another 4 or 5 at this aid station wrestling with my darn gloves. Finally, I just gave up and went back to my other, thinner pair. My hands were so bitterly cold at this point that even the thinner ones were hard to put on, but at least it was something.

I made it through the last seven and a half miles on little more than sheer, bull-headed stubbornness. I’m not entirely sure that’s a good thing. After all, I think Napoleon may have experienced a similar conviction on his long, failed push into Russia and their unforgiving winter landscape. (Laura! Josephine!) Nevertheless, I did it. Counting down the miles after 20 was comforting, at least. No matter what it’s been like, when I hit the 20-mile mark at a marathon, I always know I will finish.

Around 21 miles, I came across an older guy who, I could tell, was in a similar mental place as I. The volunteers at the 21.5-mile aid station knew him and told him they’d been looking for him. He answered quietly and accepted their good-natured ribbing. I asked him how many times he’d run the race before. “I haven’t missed one, yet,” he answered with a note of pride that was present in spite of the rough day that he (and I) was having. (This ’08 version was the 6th consecutive year the event was staged.) We were on another uphill section, so I walked with him a while as I nibbled my cookies. Just like me, he was dealing with some disappointment that the race wasn’t going too well for him. He wasn’t really happy about it, but he was resigned to it and he wasn’t going to quit. I think he was the one person I talked to all day who seemed to be going through the exact same thing that I was. I liked him. I said to him something that kind of became my internal motto for the rest of the afternoon: “Sometimes,” I told him, “you hit a grand slam deep to the outfield seats and win the game for your team in the bottom of the ninth. And other times, you quietly hit a deep sacrifice fly to the left fielder and drive in the runner from 3rd base in the 7th – but you still win the game. This is just one of those sacrifice fly kind of days.”

I would have stayed with this guy longer, but the walking had cooled me down and I’d caught a case of the shivers again. I explained this to him and he agreed that it might be the best reason left to keep pushing forward as quickly as possible. I told him I figured I’d see him again before the race was over, and I really did think he might catch back up to me, but he didn’t.

_______________

The last 2.5 to 3 miles of the course were run around Yellowwood Lake, and the finish line was on the far side. With a little less than 2 miles to go, while I was making my way over the switch-backs that weaved up and down along the banks of the water, I looked up the trail and saw a bigger, older man wearing blue jeans and a nice leather jacket and a pair of leather shoes. He was with a dark-haired young man who was in his running gear and leaning against a tree. The older man wasn’t wearing a bib either. How did he get here? We weren’t all that close to the finish line. In fact, we were at least a 40-minute hike from there. Where’d this guy come from? As I got closer, I could hear him saying to the younger guy, “Come on, you gotta keep moving. Just keep going forward, it’s not too much farther to the finish.” So, the older guy was talking to his partner like a pacer would, but he wasn’t dressed for running or pacing at all. Everything about this scene struck me as unusual.

It wasn’t until I met Laura at the finish line that I got the whole story. The older guy was the runner’s father. The kid was still in high school, and though he was a cross-country runner, this was his first marathon. While Laura had been waiting for me at 18 miles, the kid’s mother had also been there, looking for her son to come through. She was so worried at the time that she told Laura just about the whole story.

The kid had started the race with the leaders and burned along with them for most of the 1st half of the race. His parents had seen him at somewhere around 8 or 9 miles and at that point he was in 4th or 5th place overall! And then – oh, yeah, you guessed it – he completely crashed. He must have run the first 10 miles in just a little over an hour! (I’m guesstimating, here.) When I saw Laura at 18 miles, the race was a little more than 3 hours old, and at that point, the kid wasn’t too far in front of me. So, he clocked ,maybe, 70 minutes for the first 10 miles, and then just under 2 hours for the next 8. Poor kid. Apparently, his mother was in a bit of a panic over it all, worried that something drastic had happened to her son after they’d seen him doing so well early on.

To his immense credit, though, the kid wasn’t giving up. Not completely, anyway. But he was having enough trouble – and going slowly enough – that somewhere in those last 8 miles, his dad had decided that he wasn’t going to let his son endure the end of the race by himself. And so, even though he wasn’t dressed for it, and even though he didn’t really seem to be in shape for it, he joined his son on the course to keep him moving and get him to the finish.

That’s a damn good dad.

I saw them at the finish line, along with the mother who I recognized from mile 18. The kid did finish. He learned a really difficult lesson, but he finished. He’ll grow up and spend the rest of his life thanking his dad for that.

We don’t run these things alone. We never do. Even when we think we’re alone, we never are. There’s always someone out there who loves us, and every now and then, that’s the one thing that gets us through.

_________

The end was a bit anticlimactic for me. We left the single track for the last time near one last, lonely aid station with one small table of fluids and a single volunteer who assured us that we had just one mile left to run. We did that mile on the gravel road that Laura and I had driven in on hours before, but naturally, it seemed longer now. There was a couple not far in front of me, and as I came up behind them, we all ran past a hunter in his pickup prepping and loading his hunting rifle. It was an unexpected sight, especially so close to the racecourse and the finish line. I could see the couple in front of me having the same silent reaction to it that I was. When we were out of earshot of the hunter, I called up to the guy in front of me, “I guess that’s how they handle any runners who turn up lame during the race.” He laughed really hard, but his wife/girlfriend had to ask him to repeat what I’d said.

I did my best, at least, to jog in the last ¾ mile, and mostly succeeded. Once I reached the top of the parking lot where the finish was, I started seeing a handful of the runners who’d passed me in the last 6 or 7 miles. Everyone mostly just looked relieved.

Right at the top of the finish chute, maybe 40 yards before the line itself, there was a violent dog fight happening. Just some people with their pets on site whose dogs had decided to completely go at each other. There were actually three dogs involved, but just two directly in the brawl and the bigger one was viciously chasing the smaller one. It was not a rough, friendly tussle, but a very serious one, and there might already have been blood. I’ve only seen animals fight like that in person a couple of times before.

There were, at least, half a dozen people swirling around the edges of it trying desperately to keep the dogs apart without being attacked themselves, and generally failing on both counts. To top the whole scene off, there was a woman, dark-haired, maybe my age, who was standing just off to the side of it all, bent over slightly at the knees, but otherwise frozen in place, who was screaming absolute, bloody murder at the top of her lungs. I’m not kidding, you’d think some horror movie villain had emerged from the ground right in front of her and chain sawed her boyfriend in half right before her eyes.

This was all happening just 20 feet to my right as I passed by and crossed the finish line where someone on a PA read my bib and announced my name to the small crowd huddled around the end of the chute.

Did that really happen?

My official time: 5:14:36. Not pretty.


Laura was at the finish line, among that small crowd. I was happy to see her, but all I really wanted to do was just get the heck out of there. The hot soup and sandwiches offered by the race were great, but I just wanted to grab a little of it, get back to the car, change into some warm clothes and hit the road for the long drive back to Chicago. That’s pretty much exactly what we did.

There was one last fun thing about the day: The little back roads we had to follow as we worked our way northward toward Indianapolis took us through a little town called Morganton. We’d wanted to find somewhere to stop and sit down for a hot dinner, but we figured we’d see a Denny’s or an Applebee’s somewhere once we’d gotten back out to US37. Then we made a turn in Morganton and drove past a little place near the modest town center that said “Kathy’s Café.” I said, “Hey, you wanna stop there and see if it looks any good?” Laura and I had good luck on a similar stop, over the summer in middle Illinois, on our way back from Staved Rock State Park. Well, Kathy’s Café was amazing. Just a little family owned place with homemade fried chicken, and barbecue, real mashed potatoes and green beans (unlike the freeze-dried, reheated stuff we’d been served at a Denny’s the night before) and a slice of hand-made peanut butter cream pie that might have made Laura’s whole weekend. Jackpot! If I ever find myself within 30 miles of Morganton again, I might just have to find my way back to Kathy’s Café for a meal.

So there you have it. Not one of my best days. And, unfortunately, it didn’t make me feel too great about my upcoming 100K over and around Lookout Mountain, now just days away. But I survived. Every snowy, icy, surreal, arduous moment, I survived.

Friday, December 5, 2008

On the Trail Again...

I'm headed south a little later today to Bloomington, Indiana for the Tecumseh Trail Marathon tomorrow. My expectations are modest (for myself, I mean).

It's only been a month and a half since my Fall marathon season ended, but I did keep up with my training and built back up to an 18 mile long run a couple of weeks ago. However, the last two weeks I've been swamped with work. Mostly, this has just been affecting my mental preparations. This week has been especially rough. Not only have I barely been able to think about the marathon, I've also been unable to find time to make it out for a couple of shorter tune-up runs during the week. (If I'm missing runs, you know I've been busy!)

But really, it's not a race for me tomorrow. The goal, all along, was to use Tecumseh as a final training run for my first attempt at 100K on the 20th in Chattanooga. I'm not trying to set any land speed records. I just want to stay steady and strong to the finish line, for both of these next two races. Both courses will be new to me, both offer plenty of elevation changes, and both should be good experiences all around.

I'll be content just to finish in less than 5 hours tomorrow, but I'll aim for 4 1/2. If that works out, then I'll consider it all a complete success.

Hopefully the forecast for snow will just hold off a day!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Weight, Weight, Don't Tell Me...

Well, it’s like clockwork – the temperatures take a nosedive and my body instantly begins adding in a couple of extra pounds to keep itself from freezing to death. It’s kind of fascinating, really. Like cats shedding and thinning out their fur in the summer. Or trees dropping their leaves in the fall. It’s marvelous how the body just knows. Well, marvelous except for the fact that it means I’ll be carrying a couple of extra pounds until the adjustment period ends.

At some point, in a month or so, the body will figure out that, oh wait, it’s not going to die of cold, that things will continue more or less as normal, and it’s okay to drop off that extra layer of insulation. Then all the miles will begin to have their affect again.

I’ve always heard that every body has a weight that it just kind of likes to be at. It never seems to mind so much when you increase your weight, but if you ever try to drop below that weight, alarm bells begin to go off for your metabolism. My body’s idea of baseline weight seems to be roughly 170 pounds, and that includes an extra layer around my stomach that I’ve never totally been able to eliminate.

The reason I originally started running was just for general heath and, well, not so much weight loss as just weight control. Therefore, I’ve always kept track of my status with a little scale in my bathroom. At least once every week or two I hop on after a run to see what it tells me.

Back in 2005, when I started keeping serious records, I was running steadily, but averaging just 5 or 6 miles a week. Then, for no good reason, I didn’t really run at all for 6 weeks around the holidays. I put on a pair of jeans over Christmas that I hadn’t worn in a couple of months, only to discover that they were tight and uncomfortable. I couldn’t believe I had put on the pounds so quickly. It scared me enough that I finally committed myself to a more regular, regimented running schedule.

In both of the next two years I upped my weekly mileage. In ’06 I averaged 20 mile weeks and 88 mile months. In ’07 that went up again to 33 mile weeks and 142 mile months. I saw the results on the scale: For both years, my weight hovered around 166-167. Over the summer of ’07, I was down to 163-164 – the result of those 35 to 40 mile weeks and the summer heat. Burning an extra 4,000+ calories will go a long way toward winning the battle of the bulge.

This last year was a little different, though. I have been doing a few more miles – my months have basically averaged 166 and the weeks 38 – but, somehow, I have not been able to keep the weight off. Early in the year (partly aided by the winter weight gain), the scale moved back up to 170 and has stayed there ever since.

At first I thought maybe the extra miles and harder workouts were simply building my muscle mass. I’m still not sure that isn’t true, but there’s also no doubt that the waist line of all my “skinny” pants got just a weeee bit snugger, too. So, I guess that my body caught up and figured out how to process all the mileage. So, it was finally able to push itself back up to that 170 lbs mark.

Allow me to emphatically state that I am not obsessed with my weight. Really, I’m not. I mean, I’d like to see it steady and under control – that is why the running thing got started – but mostly I’ve been thinking about it lately (and blogging about it) because it’s just so interesting to see it fluctuate over time and to pick out the variables that affect it. (But I know this must still resemble the transcript of a post-lunch chat between the Olsen Twins. Oh, well. See, Girls? Guys think about things like this, too.)

I’m not sure I can continue to up my mileage every year to stay in front of the increase and keep myself below that 170 threshold. Perhaps it’s a matter of doing more cross training so that the muscles have to exert their energy in different ways. Maybe that would confuse my fat cells again to where they won’t be able to multiply at will so much. Maybe it’s time to buy some clip pedals for my bike. Or maybe it’s just finally time to choose a slightly more responsible diet!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Race Report: Burgettstown Turkey Trot 5K

FANFARE FOR THE COMMON MAN
So: What is the purpose of the existence of all the hundreds – if not thousands – of Turkey Trots across the country every Thanksgiving Day? I’ll tell you. It’s so people like with me, with merely above average speed, can go run a race in a place where everyone else present in your age group might be slower than you are. In short: It’s the only real chance I have all year to win a medal! Not a pat-on-the-back, “You Finished” medal, but a real, bonafide, you’re-a-winner-and-you-get-a-medal-to-show-it Medal. The competition is just a little thinner at most of those small town Trots. The events are maybe aimed more at getting people off the couch for the first time for some exercise as a family. This is a fantastic goal, of course, but it also has the delicious side effect of making me look like Usain Bolt for a day by comparison!

This was my third Thanksgiving Turkey Trot in a row. I still can’t win the whole race - not a chance. (I did mention that I'm just a little better than average, didn't I?) But the Age Group Awards are ripe for the plucking! I succeeded in ’06, taking home a 2nd place award (M30-39). That was the first time I’d ever placed in a foot race. Last year, in ’07, it didn’t work out as well. I finished 3rd in my division, but the event only handed out medals to the top two finishers. (Foiled!)

This year I’m back in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania, outside of Pittsburgh, where my sister lives with my brother-in-law. This is where I got my 2nd place medal two years ago, so I came in optimistic. My girlfriend drove out with me and my parents drove up from Georgia and we all joined my sister’s in-laws for the holiday feast later in the afternoon.

I didn’t come planning to run two years ago. I’d driven in on Wednesday night, with just my running reputation preceding me, and my brother-in-law asked me in the first 30 minutes, “So are you going to run the Turkey Trot in the morning?” What? A race? Here? Tomorrow? Well, heck yeah! Why not? I ran well. Not only did I place, I also turned in my 2nd fastest 5K to that point.

This year I got bad news before the race – my age group had been expanded from just 30 - 39 year-olds to 21 - 39 year-olds! Noooooooo! Apparently the folks staging the race had, after 15 years, clued in to the fact that both the 20s and 30s age groups always had just about 15 people in each (2 years ago, when I took second, there were only 8 of us – but, shhhh, don’t tell anybody.) SO, this year, for the first time, they had combined the two groups into one.

A quick peek at the ’07 race results showed me at least 4 people who would now be in my division that ran faster than I could, three of them with sub-20s. Uh-oh. No way I was gonna be breaking 20 minutes. Well, nothing to do but show up and run and see what might happen. Because I was really just running for the joy and the fun of it, right? (Nope. Not a chance. I wanted a MEDAL.)

THE TOWN O’ BURGETT
Burgettstown ain’t big – there’s a main road through town and an older road that runs just above it and winds through the businesses and homes there. The race route is a simple out and back that starts at the high school up on one of the hills that overlooks the town, runs down the hill on Bavington Road, then along the older road that parallels the SR, to the parking lot of the Family Dollar, and then doubles back on itself to finish back up at the high school.

The thing is, that hill the high school sits on top of? Not really just a "hill". It’s about a 500 foot rise in only 3/4th or maybe 2/3rd of a mile. What is that, like a 7% gradient? OH MY. And, of course, it starts out gentle and just gets steeper and steeper the closer you get to the finish line. Holy Crapioca! Of course, the start is great. It’s kind of like a box car derby; you just roll down the hill. Then at the end when you’re already on your last legs… Well, you get the picture.

SLIDIN’ & GLIDIN’
It was still frigidly frigid outside about an hour before race time, but by 9 am, the air had warmed a little in the sunlight. They blew the starter pistol right after 9, but they were so subtle about it that most of the runners would have missed it if I and a handful of others hadn’t started calling out to all the runners that the gun was about to go off.


There were just a few patches of ice on the high school driveway. A boy running just in front of me (12 years old?) stepped right into one, slid, lost his balance, tried to get it back, couldn’t find his feet, and finally went to the ground head and hands first. But he popped right back up again and kept going, and when I asked, he said, “I’m fine.”

I coasted down Bavington Road Hill, just trying to keep my feet under me as I went. Soon, my shins started throbbing from my feet pounding down the incline with such speed and force. My family was waiting for me on a side street near the bottom of the hill. They waved and cheered and snapped photos as I blew by.

Then it was down into the town along the (far gentler) rolling hills of Main Street. My eyes were watering a little in the cold air and I was running into the sun, so I almost missed the “1 mile” marker on a small, orange piece of poster board stapled to a telephone pole. I hit the split button on my watch and was not surprised to look down and see it say 6:30. That would be – yes – the fastest mile of my life. (I grant a major assist to the HILL.)

MIDDLE MILE
I figured I should just push as much as I could through the next mile and a quarter until I got back around to the foot of the Hill, and then we’d see what happened. I still felt pretty good, but I didn’t have a strong sense of how fast I was moving. I was, however, passing a number of people. Had been since we’d come down off the Hill in the first mile. People started slowing down, especially some of the younger runners. Mentally it was a good thing to focus on. Just trying to keep my turnover rate quick and strong, and catching and passing runners one by one.

We got to the turnaround at the Family Dollar and I grabbed a cup of water there at the only aid station on the course. I had a hint of a side stitch in the previous half mile, and I decided a sip of water couldn’t hurt. I didn’t notice the stitch again after that, so maybe it worked.

Out and backs can be cool because you get to see all the other runners coming and going, too. There weren’t that many runners in front of me, as it turned out. I still felt powerful and allowed myself to show off a bit as I ran past all the folks behind me. I focused on my form, kept my back straight, my head up, my hips centered, and my turnover rapid, strutting my way back by those behind me. I hit my split as I ran by the 2 Mile marker and looked down. This time I was genuinely surprised to see it say 6:48, a very fast 2nd mile for me. How ‘bout that? And over the rolling hills of downtown, too.

So, with just over a mile to go, the big obstacle I had left was Bavington Road Hill, but it wasn’t the only obstacle. I was on my way over a little rise just after the 2nd mile, and looked up to see the walkers coming over the hill toward me and spread across the entire road with no room for incoming runners – namely, me – to go by on the right. I kept thinking the teenagers in my way would notice me looming and stand aside, but I finally had to yell ahead at them to get out of my way. (They heeded my kindly advice.)

We had to cross back over the SR 18 to get to Bavington Road. The local police hadn’t just stopped traffic, they had pulled their squad cars across the highway and formed a roadblock. This is a relatively significant little local highway connecting a lot of towns on the far side of Pittsburgh. With all the walkers making their way slowly around the course and the runners already heading back up to the finish, it was going to be, I’d guess, a minimum of 45 minutes that the road was closed. I heard after the race that the traffic was backed up for miles. Oh, well! Happy Thanksgiving!

THE HE… uh, HILL
The runners in front of and behind me were pretty spread out at this point, but I was still catching and passing them. We started in up the Hill and I could see three high school boys ahead. I used each of them to pull me up the monster. Focus on one, reel him in, move past and turn focus to the next one.

I didn’t have the sense that anyone was moving up behind me, and I couldn’t see anyone but much younger males in front of me, so, my division place finish seemed pretty set. I could have eased off just a touch, but that 6:48 second mile split had really excited me. What kind of a finish time could I end up with? Could I possibly turn in a PR today? My previous best came at the Ravenswood Run in Chicago a year and a half ago, when I finished in 22:02. The first two miles had me in good position to better that time. Could I just hang on and push through this final, brutal uphill?

I caught the third kid and finally (finally!), and made the turn up into the BHS driveway. I really felt like my lungs were ready to explode. There was still a little bit of hill left to climb on the driveway before the elevation finally evened out. It seemed like I could barely walk up that last crest. I knew, logically, that I was moving better than that, but my lungs kept sending pessimistic memos. That last kid I’d caught dug in and tied onto me when I went past him, and when we could finally see the final straightaway, he moved back by me and led me into the finish chute. He was the only person who passed me in the whole race.

My family was waiting in the lot near the finish line to cheer me in, but all I could see for that last 80 yards was the official race clock waiting at the finish line. It read something just over 21 minutes when I first spied it, but the seconds were ticking by far too quickly. I tried to find some kind of finish kick, but found that I’d used it all up on Bavington Hill. Tick, tick, tick rolled the seconds ever closer to the 22 minute mark. I could barely think straight about anything else as I pushed across the line and hit the stop on my watch. “21:59” Well, that was good news, but highly unofficial.


I got in line in the chute behind the kid who’d come back on me and waited while the volunteers pulled the tag off my bib and gave me a little finish ticket that said “25”, my overall finish place. I shuffled my way over to where my family was standing and got my hugs. One of the race officials overheard me wondering aloud what my official time was and looked it up on his handheld counter using my finish place – “21:59”, he told me. Woohoo! So it was real: a new PR by 3 seconds and my first time ever breaking 22 minutes. Not too bad at all.

UNEXPECTED SUSPENSE
Now, I just needed to wait and see how I’d managed to place. My dad and I walked over to the posting boards and found the column for my division. Shortly after that the volunteers added two more bib tags to the two that were already up. But neither of the tags were mine. The overall finish places had been written on each tag with a Sharpie. The top tag read “11” and on the second was “15”, but the third tag that went up said “33”. Well that couldn’t have been right. If I was 25th, then my tag should be ahead of that tag and in 3rd place, right? Maybe I’d misunderstood what the Sharpie numbers were. I asked one of the men posting tags. “Yeah, that’s your overall finish placement,” he answered. So, yep, my tag should have been up there in 3rd place.

Did I mention how important the MEDAL was to me at this race? (Yes, yes, I’m a silly, silly man, but I need my glory in the few places that it’s available to me.)

Luckily, I had that little finish ticket that said “25” on it, so I got the volunteers’ attention and showed it to them, explaining my concern. They believed me without any exasperation, and one went back over to the finish line to look for my tag. When he came back he said it was gone, but the RD would be over in a minute, and I could show him my finish ticket. That would likely get everything straightened out. The RD is also the BHS cross country coach. He was very amicable and promised we’d clarify everything before the awards ceremony. Then they made a little note about my bib number on the leader board with a ball point pen. By this time, a lot of the participants were finishing their race, but the volunteers were having a difficult time collecting bib tags fast enough. A line had formed of runners and walkers waiting on the wrong side of the finish line to be allowed to cross and be recorded. The volunteers all, clearly, had bigger problems than mine to deal with, so I left them alone with a sincere “Thank You.”

My family and I strolled inside the gym and found some seats for ourselves on the bleachers. They didn’t make us all wait too long before they started handing out door prizes in the raffle. The majority of the prizes were food stuffs that had been cooked and prepared with the runners’ upcoming Thanksgiving dinners in mind. So, my mom was far more excited about me winning one than I was. I promised to let her come up to the table with me and pick out the dish she wanted if my number got called, but it didn’t.

When I saw the volunteers bringing the leader boards back inside, I knew that the award presentations would begin soon. So, I grabbed my bib and finisher ticket and walked over to where they were hooking up the computer with all the data in it, to talk to the RD again. I just felt like it would be easier to iron it all out before the names were called and the awards distributed. (After that it could be a little awkward – rearranging placements, taking a medal away from someone who it had already been handed to, or having to find an extra medal to give out, etc.) The RD didn’t really have any doubts, so he rewrote the top four names in my division with me in the 3rd slot. So, it was done. (Yea!) And when the final announcement was made I went back up one more time to be handed my medal at last. (Double Yea!).

My dad noted that the two guys who finished ahead of me were clearly far younger than I, and if the age division hadn’t been changed, I would have been first. But that’s OK, it’ll happen eventually. I’m already clearing my calendar for Thanksgiving Day 2028, so I can come back and win the 50 & Over division and take home a first place medal at last.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Short, Quick Steps

I've been having some amazing tempo runs lately. Now that my Fall marathon season is over, my general fitness level remains really high. It's kind of exciting! Part of the success I'm having with my speedy tempo workouts is because I continue (slowly) to get better with my running technique. In particular, my stride and turnover rate.

For a long time I fell into an easy trap with my running. When I wanted to run faster, I dug deep, pumped my legs, and stretched out the length of each stride. It's a natural inclination: to go faster, you run harder and take longer steps, right?

Well, no, actually.

It took me a while to understand this, because it is, kind of, counter-intuitive. I read about it frequently, but it just didn't sink in: to increase your speed, you must take slightly shorter strides and increase your turnover rate (your "turnover" being the rate at which you pump your legs back and forth.)

If you lengthen your stride, you are actually decreasing the number of times that your foot is in contact with the ground over the course of a mile. Longer strides equals more ground covered with each step, which equals fewer footfalls per mile, which means the number of times your foot is in contact with the ground and pushing your body forward is also decreased, which means you must do more work with each push-off and you get less result in return for the effort.

Often, people who lengthen their stride to try and run faster, actually slow down. This is especially true because we are prone to lengthening our stride when we have already run a while and are beginning to tire.

I think it was, maybe, 18 months ago when it finally sunk in for me what all that really meant. The next day, I went out and tried it. Instead of the slightly loping, "easy" pace stride I normally used, I focused on maintaining short, quick, strong steps. I instantly cut 30 seconds off my per mile pace. But here's the thing that really amazed me: I did it with minimal increase in effort.

I was pretty much a full convert after that one workout.

I don't use it for every run. I still allow myself the "easy" workouts; I don't really need it so much to hit my goal times at those easy paces (i just want those to be "efficient"). But when I'm on a long run, a tempo run or just a little speed work; short, quick steps are foremost in my mind.

As the technique gradually becomes more second nature to me, I find that my speedy workouts get more and more fun. I keep my body tall and straight, lean forward slightly and motor along like the Road Runner on a length of Southwestern asphalt.

I've made one other little change lately, too. Instead of wearing my usual road shoe trainers, I've been pulling on feather-weight shoes instead. In spite of all the running shoes I own, I actually don't have a pair of racing flats. But I do have a couple pairs of New Balance 790s, which are designed as feather weight shoes with a trail shoe tread. The outsole is not overly pronounced, and there is a lot of dirt to run on beside the lakefront bike path, so it works out fine. And it feels so good to speed along in the feather-weights.

It's pretty much convinced me that I need to buy myself a real pair of road racing flats early next year. New Balance makes a racing comp that is actually 4 ounces lighter than my 790s. I admit, I'm drooling at the thought...

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Spreading My Thoughts on the Sheet a Little Further…

I re-read my last post a couple of times over the weekend, and I began to wonder if I hadn’t pigeon-holed myself a little too tightly. Let me esplain…

I think there are basically two kinds of organized people. There are the type-A, super-structured, highly organized, over-achiever types. And there are also highly disorganized, procrastination-prone, slightly disheveled, fly-by-night people, who have been forced to learn special pockets of organized behavior to prevent themselves from slipping completely off the map and into a cluttered oblivion.

I believe I would be a prime example of the latter.

So, if I am going to be organized, I have to find a habit I can maintain and then stick to it. The thing is, I’m still the procrastinating, shoot-from-the-hip, go-as-I-please guy underneath. So my faithful obedience to my training schedule is not so much a day-to-day thing as it is a week-to-week thing. I often rearrange, exchange and switch my workouts to suit my schedule, needs or whims. Just so long as my weekly miles add up to the intended amount, and I get my tempo and long runs in - I am pretty strict about those things - then I’m happy. Sometimes I’m feeling really good one day and go for a few extra miles. Then later in the week, perhaps I’ll be pressed for time, and can give those miles back with a shorter-than-planned run. Sometimes, I’ll be out for an “easy” run, discover in the first mile that I’m feeling really fresh, and switch it over to a speedy tempo run mid-workout. Then that’s done for the week already.

Above all, I obey my body. If I’m not feeling good one day, I cut miles off the run. I’m not afraid to ditch on a weekend long run if I find that I just can’t turn in quality miles. (I try to carry a little cash so I can hail a cab if that happens.) I keep the two No-Run days in my schedule every week so that I can spend them on days I really need them. There have been weeks when the legs just felt worn, and I’ve eliminated the tempo run altogether in favor of an all “easy” week.

So, the training schedule maybe isn’t quite as rigid as I made it sound. There’s far too much of the artist in me to allow the drill sergeant that much control.

As for the quantity of data in my spread sheet? Well, that has just accumulated over time. In the beginning, I just plugged in date, time, distance and maybe splits if I had them. But just like someone who rearranges their living room furniture every six months, I get bored looking at the same thing every time, and get to wondering if there are any new ways to manipulate the data. So, now, after four plus years, there are any number of formulas linked and connected across the sheet. I put one mileage total into one cell and six other cells recalculate in response. I guess the real fun is watching all the numbers piling up.

Still… None of this really explains that spreadsheet art I mentioned. So, I’m probably still weird.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Mastered by the Spreadsheet

It's been such a busy couple of months that I didn't even notice that I had failed to plot a training schedule past the end of October until October was already over. I needed to do a long run last Saturday but hadn't planned how many miles I should do.

The training plan that I map out for myself and keep on my computer is my running bible. I keep it all in a spreadsheet I designed several years ago, which has now grown to impressive proportions. OK, ready? With it, I track my mileage, the day, date, and time that I ran, what the weather was like, the shoes I wore, my post run weight, my workout times, split times, the location of my run, the type of workout I did, my weekly mileage, my monthly mileage, my annual mileage, and the total miles run since I created the spreadsheet. On a separate tab in the same spreadsheet I also breakdown my monthly totals for each year, and average mileage for each day, month and year.

I've already written a post where I let my possible running shoe fetish out of the closet (as it were). But I also use my training log spreadsheet to track how many miles I've put on each of my shoes, when the shoes were put "into service", and what kind of shoes they were. (When I was trying to recall how many shoes I own for that earlier post, I didn't actually go to the closet to pull them all out, I just opened up my training log to look them up!)

And this is all just my Training Log - I have a whole other, separate Spreadsheet that I constructed for my Racing History! (Just imagine!)

It's hard for me to explain, but the satisfaction I get from plugging numbers into the sheet after a completed workout is a large part of the reason why I get the workout in at all. Unless something major happens, I always run five times a week. I always get my miles in. I always do my tempo run once a week. Why? Well, that's what I plotted in my schedule and I hate having to go back later to log in different numbers.

Back in May, something happened that, in retrospect, kind of spooked me out a little. Right before I went to run the Madison Marathon on Memorial Day (m,m,m,m...), my computer suddenly crashed and died. I was hoping not to have to spend the money on a new machine, and while I was trying to explore repair options, a few weeks passed when I just didn't have a computer; no training log -- And I barely ran at all.

Now, it must also be said that I did run a really strong marathon - I finally broke four hours for the first time - just as my computer crashed. And I was overloaded with work which interrupted the time of day when I normally got my runs in. And I have rarely taken a true rest period after any of my hard marathons or training periods, so maybe it was just time. But it was an odd stretch for me, and it totally coincided with the complete absence of my training log. I did try to keep track with pen and paper in a notebook, but it was never quite the same.

What turned the tide and got me back out on the trails? I finally replaced my computer. I got into the old hard drive and retrieved my training log spreadsheet. I picked a half-marathon to work towards, plotted my schedule and everything returned to normal. I had a moment or two when I genuinely wondered if I could be mildly autistic, but realistically there must be plenty of other runners out there with this same problem, so I must be relatively normal. (Right?)

Now... Wait 'til I tell you about the spreadsheets I've been keeping for 14 years to track my baseball teams and comic book collection! Did I mention the spreadsheet art I once "painted"? (See, not abnormal at all!)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Different Kind of "Running" in the News

This is not, nor will ever be, any kind of a political blog. My opinions and experiences with running are boring enough on their own without throwing in politics to mute the flame even further. But the two things connected tonight.

I was nervous all day listing to news coverage. I took advantage of early voting services and hit the nearest polling place last week, so my duty was done days ago. Not only that, but this whole campaign seems to have lasted an absolute eternity (nearly two years!) and I was ready for it to be over.

I got home tonight from work at 4:30 and had the TV on before my jacket hit the back of the couch, or my shoes had been kicked to the wall. The evening news shows had already begun and I got sucked in for a while, but the real results were still a ways off.

So, naturally, I went out for a run.

I could have done as little as 6 miles tonight, but decided to aim for 7 instead. I took my armband radio with me. It gets AM and FM, but it also picks up VHF television audio, so I'd be able to keep listening to the network news coverage of the returns.

It was also a beautiful night in Chicago along the lakefront. Highs today were in the 70s (!) and now that the sun had set, a steady, gentle, southern breeze had settled in to cool the air a tad. Gorgeous running weather.

I had so much extra, nervous energy that I hardly felt the ground going by under my feet. I felt springy and fresh. The evening breeze was like built-in climate control. I started out at a respectable pace, but as I got absorbed in what I was hearing on the radio, I started thinking more of national events and less of my pace. So, my pace suffered, but it didn't matter.

I got openly emotional several times (luckily it was dark out), and when NBC declared Pennsylvania, I had to stop on the side of the path for a few moments to collect myself.

After four miles, I realized that I wanted to do more than 7 miles. I would do 8 instead. After 5 miles, I knew I wanted to do more than 8. I wanted to do 12. I also knew that I couldn't do 12 because my girlfriend was expecting me to meet up with her soon to see the final results come in, so I would just do 8, anyway. After 6 miles, I knew what I really wanted was to just run the full 18 miles down to the southern point of the lakefront path, then maybe turn around and run as far as I could make it north again. I wanted to do that.

Instead, I settled for a speedy, tempo-paced, eigth and final mile - but when I was done, I found I was barely out of breath.
(Maybe I should have gone for, at least, 2 more.)

Of course, it was nice to be able to spend the evening with my girlfriend, too. But it was funny how normal it seemed to be running during all of the hoopla of the evening. It felt better to be in motion. I felt more grounded while pounding the path to the backdrop of all the history being recorded tonight.

The world was busy changing just a little bit, and going for a run helped me to process that. Running did that.

Naturally.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Kara Goucher is 3rd at NYCM!

OK: There will be an abundance of other, better, more equipped online media outlets to be read on this subject, but... Kara Goucher took freaking THIRD PLACE at her debut marathon in NYC yesterday, in 2:25:53!

For reasons I'll never know, I couldn't get the live feed from Universal sports on my computer yesterday morning, had to hot-foot it over to my girlfriend's place to see the broadcast on her digital-tuner-ready TV, and therefore missed the first couple of miles of the women's race, but I was able to catch the bulk of it.

First, it must be said: Paula Racliffe is simply amazing. Short of her two Olympic marathon appearances, she just wins and wins and wins. Even when she was running alone out in front the last few miles, the victory well in hand, she continued to push the pace, pressing ever forward, and finished in 2:23:56. Her determination is always evident in the persistent bob of her head - up and slightly to her right, down and slightly to her left, in a constant, diagonal circle linked to her footfalls. The harder she pushes herself the more evident that head motion is. Paula is incredible to watch, leading, once again, practically from start to finish, with every other competitor content to latch on behind hoping she will pull them through, or that they can hang onto her long enough to have a shot at her in the final stretches.

Kara Goucher was equally impressive, setting not only a record for fastest U.S. female debut marathon, but also a U.S. female course record for the NYCM, bettering the time set by Deena Kastor in both categories back in 2001. Her third place finish made her the first American to earn a spot on the podium at the NYCM since 1994. (No American has won the event since Alberto Salazar did it in 1982, and no American woman has won since 1977.)

Goucher was first in line behind Paula for all of the first 19 miles. Then, on the late stages of 1st Avenue, Paula turned on the jets and Kara got broken. She slipped, temporarily, to 6th as the lead pack began to stretch out, but held on, talked herself back into it, and started to move back up. Paula had the victory all but wrapped up by that point, but Kara moved up, took over 3rd place, and was in the hunt for 2nd as the race came to a conclusion.

40-year-old Ludmila Petrova, a previous winner of the NYCM (2000), stayed with Paula the longest, and, though she faded in the last two miles, still managed to hold off Kara, and finished 2nd in a time of 2:25:43, a new female master's world record. All three women must have been immensely pleased with their day at the office.

The men's race had drama of it's own, coming down to two men in the final 10K, Marilson Gomes dos Santos of Brazil, the 2006 NYCM champ, and Abderrahim Goumri, an impressive runner with a string of heartbreaking 2nd place finishes. Goumri's frequent tormentor, Martin Lel, could not run this year's NYCM due to an injury and Goumri was left as the favorite. But dos Santos hung with him and didn't give up. Even though, Goumri opened up a 10 second gap on dos Santos between the 35 and 40K marks, dos Santos rebounded with 1.5 miles to go, pushed forward, and with half a mile to the finish, just as the men re-entered Central Park after passing through Columbus Circle, he caught, passed and promptly dropped Goumri, finishing strong and winning his second NYCM in 2:08:43, with a negative split of nearly 6 minutes. Goumri logged yet another second place and was visibly dejected as he crossed the finish line 24 seconds later. Four American men finished in the top 10, at 6th, 7th, 8th and 10th place (and also 11th). It's been since 1982 that so many U.S. men finished in the top ten spots.

I had a good many mental flashbacks to when I ran the course myself last year, and many of the sights on TV were instantly recognizable to me. It totally made me envious of all the runners I saw on TV. If only it wasn't such an expensive trip to make and the logistics of the thing weren't so difficult, I would absolutely find a way to be there every single year. Maybe I'll have to go back more often than once every 10 years. It's a great, great race.

Friday, October 31, 2008

NYCM on National TV this Sunday

A programming note from your favorite blogging running geek: The New York City Marathon is this Sunday morning! For the first time, in a long time, the entire event will be aired on national television. Universal Sports will broadcast live coverage beginning at 8 a.m. CST. US is one of the new digital channels that NBC now airs on it’s split bandwidth. I get it on my antenna in Chicago at channel 5.3. They’ll be doing a live webcast on the Universal Sports website as well – with three different feeds: The main race feed, plus one each constant on the men’s and women’s leaders.

(Once upon a time, before the advent of cable, the New York Marathon got live national coverage every year. But that was before I had discovered the sport and I wasn’t old enough to notice otherwise.)

I find I’m more excited about the women’s field than about the men’s this year. Not only are marathon superstars Gete Wami, Catherine Ndereba and Paula Radcliffe completing again this year, there are also two American women running that I'm very curious about. Kara Goucher will be making her marathon debut, and Katie McGregor will be running just her 2nd marathon following her debut in NYC in 2006. Both women have had strong careers at the 5 and 10K distances, and both now, Goucher in particular, seem to be embracing the idea of moving up in distance professionally. Kim Smith, a New Zealander who has spent a great deal of time collegiately in the U.S. will also be making her marathon debut. Any or none of these women may actually win (though Radcliffe is being named, again, as a favorite by many).

The New York Marathon really is an extraordinary event. I - somehow - made it through the lottery process last year in my first attempt, and had the privilege of going to New York to run it. I haven’t run Boston (and may not be able to qualify for years to come). I’ve run Chicago three times now. I’ve also run a handful of other city-based marathons. NOTHING I’ve seen or run quite compares to the NYCM. Chicago has almost as many participants each year. It has nearly as many spectators out on the course. Its elite field is always impressive. But the NYCM is somehow, more majestic.

I think it has a lot to do with the point to point course. To date, it’s still the only point to point course I’ve run in my life. AND, at the very start of the race, you’re running across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge - one of the biggest, tallest, longest bridges in the country. As you reach the crest it in that first ¾ of a mile, you can look over to your left and see Manhattan, 20 miles away across the bay. You can see exactly how far away that is, and you actually have to run even father than that because you snake all the way up to the Bronx before you can come back down into Manhattan again and finish in Central Park. It’s just awesome.

Paula Radcliffe and Martin Lel won impressive battles to the finish line at last year’s NYCM. I got to watch the Men’s Olympic Trials loop four times around Central Park on the day before and was totally inspired by Ryan Hall and Bri
an Sell (then, later, saddened by the death of Ryan Shay). And then I ran a PR for myself on Sunday, even though it was my fourth marathon or Ultra in a six-week span. I even convinced a friend to join me, went to the official party that night – and danced. The '07 NYCM remains, along with my first marathon, and my first 50-mile finish, one of the defining moments in my running life.

The logistics and headaches of getting nearly 40,000 runners to and across a starting line are not something I’m eager to experience again anytime soon, but I’m extremely glad I did it once. And I will try to go back and do it again at some point. Maybe once every ten years I’ll go run the NYCM.

And I’m going to enjoy watching 40,000 other people do it for themselves on Sunday!