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.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Race Report: Rock Cut Hobo Run 50K

I had a really good, strong run on Sunday!

The weather was great: temps stayed in the 60s the whole time; there was 100% cloud cover, so no brutal sunshine; the week has been dry so the trail was in good shape; there was even a gentle breeze coming in from the northwest – and I was feeling good going in, in spite of my (very) long week at work.

I mentioned it in my pre-race post, but wow, the course is really gentle and flat, for a trail race. Yes, there are hills, some that roll a little and others that are of the long, subtle incline type (sometimes those are more insidious), but there are lots of extended sections that are wide and flat. You can really get into a rhythm on those, settle into a good pace, and hit the hyperdrive just a little.

Last year I totally got taken in by that. I seriously blazed through the first of the two 15.5 mile loops. My overall pace for the first time around was under 9 minutes a mile. That might not be such a bad thing in a road race of the same distance, but out on the trails, it’s hard to quantify how much the varied and uneven surfaces take a toll on your feet and legs. Last year, I never got back up to speed again on the second loop. I slowed down and kept slowing down and really blew up in the last 7 miles. I just didn’t have the energy to keep pushing forward with purpose. Still, I had so much time “in the bank” after the first half that my final time was still a very satisfying 5:17:20 – easily my fastest paced ultra to date. (It was also faster paced than the sweltering hot Chicago Marathon 3 weeks later, but that’s a different story.)

This year, knowing better how the course looked, I planned to take it a lot slower on the first loop and try and keep enough energy in my tank to hold the same pace for lap two. Even just a ten minute per mile pace the whole way would still give me a PR. With the weather looking so favorable, I felt like my chances looked good.


I waited until race morning to make the 80-mile drive out to Rock Cut from Chicago, and arrived on site just about 15 minutes before the 8 a.m. race time. (Yet another luxury with these small, trail-based races.) I did a quick check-in under the picnic pavilion, picked up my packet and number and then went back to the car to change clothes and load up my fuel cargo. I had just enough time to duck into the grass line to take a quick pee when then megaphone boomed out over the lawn, “Less than 5 minutes to race start time!”

There were maybe 100, 120 of us, including friends, family and volunteers. By the time we had all gathered near the trailhead at the entrance to the picnic area parking lot, the announcement had been updated to, “60 seconds to race start!” There were a few announcements first.

First, they told everyone that 21 people were there to run the third leg of the
Illinois Trail Ultra Grand Slam. That, of course, is the reason why I was there. 24 people had finished the first two events back in March and April and I was impressed that there were still 21 going for it this fall. (The last race is in three weeks at the Farmdale Trail Ultra outside Peoria.)

Then, they told us all that there were still 9 people trying to complete the weekend’s Hobo Trifecta. A couple of months ago, the event date was pushed back one weekend and the event schedule was rearranged. Instead of a one-day race with 2 distances, 25K & 50K, being run at the same time, now it was a three-day event with a 10K Friday night, the 25K on Saturday morning and the 50K finale on Sunday. Anyone running and finishing all three events would get a special prize. 10 people had started the quest on Friday night and 9 of them were lining up this morning to start the 50K. They each wore special yellow bibs.

There was an older fellow standing next to me at the start. He turned to me at that point and said, “Those people are crazy.” Now, when you’re waiting around to run through the woods for 31 miles and the guy next to you, who also paid for the chance to run through the woods for 31 miles, turns to you and tries to suggest that someone else is crazy to pay to run through the woods, just because they paid for a few more miles than you did, you know his tongue is planted firmly in his cheek.

They blew the horn to start the race a few moments later, and my new friend was still with me, talking about how nice it was to run a longer race like this where no one sprints off the starting line like an idiot. Then he started talking about having been in Northern Wisconsin for the whole of the last week and running through the forests there every day. He said while he and his wife were driving through the area they saw wildlife they’d never seen in person before, a bear and even a mid-sized mountain cat crossing the road in front of them. He said it gave him a little pause on his runs to think of that. That reminded him of the trip he’d once taken to Africa when they’d taken a wildlife hike and had to first be trained on how to escape a mad, charging hippopotamus!

With the gentle conversation to focus on, it was easy to hold back on my pace in those first couple of miles, but I didn’t see a mile marker on the trail for a while, even though I knew we should have finished one already. I didn’t see the 2nd mile marked when I expected to, either. I decided that maybe this year they hadn’t been able to mark the miles on the course as they had the year before. I usually like to see the miles marked, but on a long trail race like this, I’ve learned to do without.

After the first 15 minutes, my new buddy and I got separated going around a rare, muddy turn while he was in mid-sentence. I turned and looked over my shoulder to see if he was going to try and catch back up to me, but saw that he had already picked up the chat with another guy who had been running behind us. This happens in a trail race. People and conversations come and go, as most people can’t run the same pace from start to finish. Even though we all know it’s usually easier to run with a buddy to push and pull you along, no one feels obligated to hang back and wait around for someone they’ve only just met. It is, after all, still a race and we all want to finish as quickly as we’re able.

A mile or two later, the field had started to spread out. The rabbits had blazed off ahead. The back-of-packers were out of sight behind. I did most of the next mile or two with 2 guys running as a pair right behind me. I wasn’t talking with them, but I could hear all of their conversation. They clearly knew each other, were both in their early 20s, and were either current or recent military – I was guessing Army. They were also running the trifecta. They were comparing notes on various aches and stiffness from the first two days. At one point they started talking about some training runs a drill sergeant made them do with full packs and, I think, they said, “claymores” on their backs. So maybe they were Scottish Army. (Right.)

They moved on ahead of me a little bit just before I noticed a “3” on a yellow plate stuck in the ground by the trail. So, that was the first mile marker I saw. My watch said 27:28 at the time, so I was actually moving a little faster than I needed to. Probably just as well that I let the two army boys go by and stop pushing me.

This was about when my new friend turned up again. He greeted me with his now familiar, jovial tone: “You look like you’re doing pretty good up there,” he said to me from my right shoulder. Now he was beside me instead of behind me and I had a chance to take him in a little better. Definitely an older guy, wearing glasses, a long-sleeved, orange shirt with a white cap and also a thin white sweat band under the edge of the hat. He was shorter and slighter than I, maybe 5’8” and 145 pounds? (I'm not always a good judge of weight.) Oh, and I caught a glimpse of his age group division tag that we were all wearing on the back of our shirts. He was in the 60-64 age group.

This time, he didn’t start in with idle chat. This was a little more business. He clearly wanted to make a quick decision about something. “So, what kind of time are you aiming for today,” he asked me. I told him I was trying to be smart and take it easy, and was aiming for something in the general range of 9:30s to 9:45s for this first loop. He didn’t quite say it, but I could tell he thought that sounded more or less right for himself, too. So we both picked up a running buddy for the morning.

In fact, we did the whole first loop together after that. By the time we got to the 4th mile marker, there really wasn’t anybody else around us at all. (We’d past the 2 army guys again by that point. They’d pulled over for a pit stop and never caught up to the two of us.) Mostly we talked about running stuff. And, honestly, he did most of the talking. At one point, I found myself playfully thinking about scientific studies done with the common house fly. They discovered that when a fly’s legs aren’t touching anything, their wings automatically, instinctively flap. This guy was like that, too: When his legs were running, his mouth was automatically engaged.

But I really didn’t mind at all. He was very upbeat the whole time, was funny, and he told good stories. For twelve miles and two hours, we covered a range of topics. He told me about his experience running the
Comrades Ultramarathon in South Africa. He talked about one of his daughters who lives near me in the city. He talked about his daughter’s husband and how he’d been coaching his son-in-law through his very first marathon training process. We talked about the marathon they were in training for, the Steamtown Marathon which is in 2 weeks, the same day as the Chicago Marathon. We talked about parenting. We talked about the time he spent as a student at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, where my dad where to school and where I used to live nearby the campus. We talked about his wife and the painting retreat she’d just been on. I know I talked about stuff, too, but it’s always easier for me to remember what I’ve heard than what I’ve said. Most of all, we talked about running. What ever else we talked about, it always came back to running. Training ideas, race strategies, places we’d run or thought about running, how we were running right at that very moment.

He confessed to me after the first couple of miles together that he was only doing one loop and would drop at the 25K point. His original plan had been to drive in for the official 25K on Saturday, but when he and his wife found they wouldn’t be able to make it, he decided to come on Sunday anyway just to do the same distance. He was using it as a final long run before his marathon two weeks later. Basically, the same as me, but with me doing the whole 50. This, of course, led us to talking about how each plan might work out and how to plot a good recovery schedule between each race. I knew a lot of what he knew, but repetition is always good for the memory and someone is always apt to add a new, useful wrinkle.

At 7.5 miles we passed an aid station and he stopped to eat the one gel-pack he was carrying with him. He told me to go on and he’d catch up in a minute. I’ve said this to or been told this by a lot of people in a lot of ultras, and usually, you don’t see each other again, or not until much, much later when one of you has started to fade. But there was a long, wide down hill right after the aid station and just about the time I got to the bottom I could hear rapid footsteps behind me, and then he yelled out, “Weeeeeee! I can’t stop!”, and laughed his way past me to the bottom of the hill. He had me laughing, too. This old guy was really having a blast!

We were 11 miles around the first loop before one of us remembered to ask the other’s name. I think he realized that we weren’t so far from the end of the first loop and his race day. “Yeah, usually you don’t trade names until the second loop,” he joked. He told me he was Richard, and after that I made sure I used it a few times to be sure I didn’t forget. But he was honest with me five minutes later and had to ask, “Okay, I already can’t remember, did you say your name was Daniel Isaac?” I corrected him and we both laughed again.

By this time I knew, both by the way he was running and from the conversation, that even though he might have been nearly twice my age, he was definitely faster than me. It wasn’t too much, but he was definitely holding himself back just a little bit so that we could stay together. It says something nice about him that he was more interested in a worthy conversation than he was in blazing some kind of new PR for himself.

But by the time we past the 13 mile marker, I could tell he was chomping at the bit. I was still feeling pretty good and would settle at a steady pace, and then he’d pull away from me without completely realizing, and I’d have to pick it up a little to stay with him. Then he would realize it, and ease off a hair, only to do it all over again. All the while he kept telling me that he planned to just stay with me the rest of the way in. He had, after all, told his wife to expect him back at the starting area about 2 ½ hours after we started, and it looked like we would easily meet that time goal. But then he’d speed up a little all over again.

It was funny: just as I was thinking to myself, well, he can obviously smell the barn, he said those exact same words to me, “I guess I’m getting a little eager because I can smell the barn!” I felt like that was okay. Even though I might be burning just a little extra fuel to keep up, he was keeping us on a good, honest pace, and we didn’t have that much further to go.

We passed three guys in the final ½ mile of the loop and, finally, in the last ¼ mile, I let him go to run himself into his finish. I peeled off 70 yards from the return point to dip into my car for a change of shirts and a reloading of supplies. Then I ran through the origin point and hit the split on my watch. Before I set out for my second loop, I jogged over to where Richard was already under the picnic pavilion. I thanked him for his good company, gave him a warm handshake (two-handed style), wished him luck at Steamtown in 2 weeks, and finally set off for my second time around.

Richard and I had, indeed, made good time in the final miles of the first lap and we came around in just under 2:30. Adding in my pit stop at the car, my unofficial split was 2:33:36, a 9:55 overall pace. I did a good job on the first half. Not too fast, not too slow, and right on time to finish in a little over 5 hours. I had committed myself to not trying to break 5 hours. I didn’t want to waste myself Sunday and then be no good for Chicago in 2 weeks. I didn’t really think I’d be able to duplicate my first lap time anyway. I just figured I’d aim for 10 minute miles and see how long I could make that hold up.

I didn’t hold on as long as I would have liked – only four more miles, but my drop off wasn’t severe. It slipped to slow 10s, then into the early 11s and finally up into the 12-minute mile range. It wasn’t exactly because I was running slower. When I ran, I think it’s fair to say I was still moving at a 10 to 10:30 pace. The difference was that I was running less. I stopped at more of the little aid stations to refill the bottle that I was draining more quickly, or to grab a couple of watermelon slices. I was walking more of the uphills because I found myself more winded. Uphill walks are a common energy conservation strategy in Ultramarathons, because they are often trail based and even the short hills can be steep and draining on a rocky dirt trail. Every now and then, though, I just walked because I was tired. I didn’t want to have to, but there were a few times when I just needed to catch my breath.

I tried to stay diligent about my fuel intake. I’ve come to believe I often have more trouble at the end of my long races, because I’m not taking in enough gels and solid foods for calorie replacement. I had the pockets on my shorts loaded with gel packs. On the first loop I ate one about every four miles. Now, on the second loop, I switched that to one every 30 minutes. I’ve also read recently that sometimes the body can absorb more fuel when different types of sugars are consumed in food form. So, in addition to the gels, I was sure to pick up the watermelon and cantaloupe slices that were at a few of the aid stations. Whether it worked or not, the watermelon sure tasted good. A last remnant of summer time.

I also ran the vast majority of that final loop alone, no other runner at all visible in front of or behind me. Then, around 11 miles, out of nowhere, one of the army guys from the first few miles of the race blazed past me like his shoes were on fire. I practically did a double take. His buddy wasn’t with him, though. I’ve no idea what happened to him. Maybe he dropped after the first loop? Maybe he didn’t, but he was slowing so much he gave his buddy permission to take off? Whatever it was, the guy zipped past me. He was either holding back all day or he was really, really ready for it to be over.

After another mile, I had an odd realization: I hadn’t stopped to pee all day. It wasn’t alarming, but usually, in a long trail race, I have to take one or two pit stops. I didn’t really have to go right then, but because I thought about it, I just decided to stop and empty out the tank. When I finished, two more runners were coming over the hill behind me.

The firs
t was a guy I recognized from a couple of the other ultras I’ve run in Illinois. He and I always finish in the same general time frame. I actually ran with him and a third guy on the second loop of the ’07 Farmdale Trail Race last October. I had already passed him early in this race. He was one of the guys that Richard and I ran past in the last half mile of the first loop. Now he’d caught back up to me again. He was instantly positive and supportive, but he was also wearing down. He complimented me on how well I seemed to be doing, but admitted that everything was starting to hurt and he was really ready for it to be over. I told him I was gonna test my memory and asked if his name was Michael. I told him who I was and where I remembered him from. “No, Michael was the guy I was with out at Farmdale last year. I’m Adam. But I remember you, you’re from Chicago, right?” “That’s it. Greg,” I didn’t make him try to remember my name. But just as the second guy was catching up to us, Adam begged off and gave himself a walk break to ease the muscles.

The second guy was really tall and slender, a gaunt face with a scratchy brown beard trimming the edges. He had a friendly face, but wasn’t so talkative. I could tell he had found a second wind and was just focused on powering his way to the finish. We passed the 13 mile marker together, then 30 seconds later passed another marker that also said “13”. (I’m pretty sure the first one was accurate, because I remembered it’s location from last year.) We joked about the little time warp, and he ran on. I didn’t think I could stay with him.

Maybe a third of a mile after that, the course pops out onto one of the park roads for four or five hundred yards. It’s kind of a long straightaway. So I was able to see that Adam actually wasn’t too far behind me. After he knew that I’d seen him, he called up to me, “How are we doing on time, Greg?” I looked down at my watch and was a little surprised. “We just hit 5:02.” It still amazes me how quickly five hours can pass while I’m running through the woods.

By the time we turned off the road again to do the final little mini-loop on the course, Adam had caught back up to me again. He told me we were going to run in the last couple of miles together. He and I were both flagging when I first saw him coming over the hill behind me, and we were both doing better by playing off the running buddy energy, so it only made sense that we should push each other home.

We kept talking to each other the whole way, but it was pretty much all about how we were doing and the race and any mutual encouragement we could contribute. We made a point of trading off who was in front, sharing the pulling duties. We passed the 14-mile marker with a 10:30 split and the race time was just under 5:10. Adam was definitely surprised when I gave him our split for that mile. We didn’t do quite as well the next mile, but it was due to a big hill that we wisely walked. We passed the 15-mile mark with an 11 minute split.

Then there was one more long, rocky hill in the last half mile that we walked, “so we can look really strong running across the finish line,” I said. Adam took me at my word. A minute later we were running around a bend, came to a grass line, and - surprise! – we were back at the finish line meadow. I totally thought it was another minute in front of us. I’d forgotten what the last turn looked like. Adam took one look at the finish and said, “Come on let’s do it!” and he sprinted off at full tilt. I trailed him, but didn’t feel the same need to burn up the last 80 yards. He got everyone at the finish line riled up, and they were all hollering at both of us, “nice finish kick, guys!”
My official finish time read 5:26:26, with Adam 13 seconds in front of me. (Nice kick, indeed!) I was just nine minutes slower than last year. Coming in, with the good weather and a smarter race strategy, I really thought I had an honest shot at bettering last year’s time, but I really feel like a nine minute difference is really pretty small, and I didn’t totally tank in the last 7 miles, like I had the year before, in spite of my lower time this year. I was really satisfied. This is even more true in light of my results at the first two ultras this year back in the spring when, due to injury and illness, I had finished significantly slower than in 2007.

I collected my finisher’s shirt and my commemorative 5th Annual Hobo Run Tin Cup, douse my head with a cup of water and had a slice of watermelon before hobbling back over to my car to dry off. I wasn’t going to be able to get home for an ice bath for at least 2 hours, so I wanted to sneak over to the swimming lake on the park grounds for a dip in the cool-if-not-cold water. I mixed myself more Gatorade and scarfed down my post-run Balance Bar.

en I decided I ought to take a look at the finisher bulletin board to see how many people had come in and how they’d all done. Instead, I got a nice surprise. I saw my back tag stapled to the board, and when I counted back toward the winners I saw only two other men in the 30 to 34 age group who had finished in front of me. I could hardly believe it! I counted backwards again from the leaders and I was still third. So, I said it out loud to the volunteers monitoring the board: “I think I just got third place in my age group.” I showed him my tag and he also counted back to me and got three. “Yup,” he said with a smile, “looks like you earned yourself an award.” “Well, I’ll be snookered,” I said. (Yes, I really did say that. I remember because I was a little giddy about my prize and it was fun to say.) He dipped into the cardboard box behind him and pulled out an iron railroad spike with a little plaque on it that said “Rock Cut Hobo Run 50K 2008” I’ll have to get it amended to read “3rd Place Winner” It’s only the second time ever that I won an age group award at a race! So, I made a little speech. I said, “I have a speech: I’d like to personally thank all the faster people who decided not to show up to run this morning.”

All, in all, a very satisfying morning!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Hobo Run Tomorrow

My Marathon and Ultra Season is finally upon me! It follows a long, difficult week at work, which distracted both my brain and my body from the race tomorrow, but not much I could do about it. I still managed to get my running in, except for a little 4-miler, which I'm still trying to give myself permission not to squeeze in sometime today. It can’t help me much now, anyway, and might even hurt. (See? I'm talking myself into skipping it!)

It’s also been tough to manage my diet well in the past 7 days. I’ve been eating a lot of sandwiches, so that was a decent amount of carbs and proteins, but I’ll be doing pasta for lunch today and, maybe pasta and pork for dinner.
(Hmm, what to thaw…?)

Of the four Ultras I ran in 2007, the
Rock Cut Hobo Run was, by far, my fastest. I could hardly believe, that morning, how incredibly fresh and springy my legs felt on the first 15.5 mile loop. I was trying to run slow and still doing 8:30, 8:40 miles. Of the four Illinois trail ultras, it is certainly the flattest and fastest. I finished the first loop, last year, in 2 hours, 18 minutes. But going out so fast, combined with the warmer-than-usual temperatures which hit 80 before the race ended, all cost me, and the second loop took me nearly 3 hours.

Just like last year, I’ll be running the
Chicago Marathon two weeks after Hobo again. So, I’m trying not to have any specific time goals. The big reason I’m going back to Rock Cut this year is to finish the first, official Illinois Trail Ultra Grand Slam, and they're not judging me on speed, just on participation and completion. Just like last year, where I really want to run fast is Chicago, so my goal will be to take it easy tomorrow. (Hopefully, Chicago won't turn out to be a steambath again!) The good news is, if I can hold an easy 10 minutes per mile pace from start to finish, I’ll still finish a little faster than I did last year.

Wish me luck!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

I Spy...

My post last week about Peter Sagal got me thinking. Because not only have I read about his marathon exploits, I’ve actually seen him running on the Chicago Lakefront.

It was a Sunday morning and I was out for the start of a gentle 12-mile run, and he was headed the other way on the path. I totally had a star-struck, brain-freeze moment, too: First, I noticed him, then my brain realized that I had seen him somewhere before, then the pieces fell together and I
knew him, but the rush of recognition hit so quickly that it failed to bring me his name at the same time. You can’t really accost someone and tell them you love their work if you can’t also call them by name.

He can’t get recognized all that often. He is, after all, a radio personality. I had just finished reading his book, too (“The Book of Vice”). It made me laugh out loud more than once. Plus, with the whole running angle, I was fully armed to chat him up and praise him well. My only trouble might have been trying to keep up with him on the run if he decided to drop me. (The little Boston-qualifying speed demon.)

But he isn’t the only fame-touched person I’ve seen while running. In fact it’s happened a number of times.

Lisa Ling once popped out onto the path in front of me near Oak Street Beach. Petite Asian girl in a Miami Heat basketball jersey. I remembered reading something where she said that she likes to wear a Duane Wade shirt while running. I recognized her right away, but even if I’d wanted to say “hello” to her, she was way too fast for me. I was doing 8:30s that day and she blazed off at an easy 7 clip.

By far the most frequent sighting I’ve had in Chicago is of our governor, Rod Blagojevich. H
e lives a little west of my neighborhood (he refused to transplant his family to the Governor’s Mansion in Springfield) and I’ve seen him running at least a half dozen times, in a handful of different locations. I'm sure they have him vary his route every time out just for general security. The first time I saw him was a sunny summer afternoon. I was on the sidewalk and he was running in the street. I made eye-contact with him as he ran by, and he gave me a little runner’s greeting thumbs-up. Then a few moments later it hit me "Hey, that was the Governor!" He's got the most uncomfortable, loping, knee-lifting stride I think I’ve ever seen. Every time I’ve seen him since, I can always tell it’s him from a ¼ mile away because of that painful gait. Well, that and the security guy riding a few yards behind him on a bicycle.

I also saw the Illinois State Treasurer, Alexi Giannoulias, on the path just north of Irving
Park Road. He wasn’t running, but I was. He had his bike out and was standing near the parking lot seemingly waiting for a lady friend. He’s a young guy. Younger than me, even, and he's taller and beefier than he looked in his campaign commercials. He looked like he must have played football in high school or something. I couldn’t place him at first, either (taking people out of their context, you know). I was convinced I knew him from one of my freelance jobs, or something, and I gave him a purposeful, friendly nod. He kind of looked back at me like I was purple. Hours later I figured out who he was.

As far as recognizing people, I once saw former Atlanta Brave and fan-favorite catcher, Eddie Perez jogging the street of the city. He stopped for a traffic light right next to me and the first thing that ran through my head was, “hey, that guy looks just like Eddie Perez!” Then it hit me that the Braves were actually in town to play the Cubs and suddenly I realized, wait, that IS Eddie Perez, but the light had already changed and he was off down the street.

My most surreal sighting actually happened at O’Hare A
irport. The terminal was especially crowded on my way home from a family holiday. I was walking on the edge of the crush, near a bay of windows, when a rather tall, heavy-set, black man in an elegant business suit literally trotted past me. I knew him instantly: Jesse Jackson. Yes, himself, the man (Green Eggs and Ham). He had no bags or luggage, and he was, like, doing laps or something in the terminal – the very crowded terminal. Or maybe he was just trying to avoid being stopped by any admirers in the airport. He kept his trotting pace far down the concourse until I finally lost sight of him. Just strange.

I’ve also seen a few people who are actually famous as runners. One-time U.S. 10K champ, Katie McGregor, jogged past me once on a sidewalk in Lakeview. Her shock of red hair made her unmistakable. I ran a trail ultra in 2007 that super-elite ultramarathoner, Karl Meltzer was also in. (He lapped me twice (!)on that looped course). And, best of all, I managed to be in New York City last November to see the U.S. Men’s Olympic Marathon trials. I had goose bumps watching Ryan Hall power his way around Central Park in the late miles of the race.

So, tell me! What famous footers have you seen running or while running?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Dare I?

I’m less than a week away from the start of my marathon and ultra season. The Rock Cut Hobo Run 50K is this coming Sunday morning out in Rockford, Illinois. I’m already signed up for two more distance runs in October.

And this past weekend I found myself wondering… Could I sign up for a few more?

Oddly, my brain always wanders in these fanciful directions during weeks when I’m not running all that well. Last week wasn’t really a bad week, but it was, sort of, a recovery week after a fantastic, but intense week right before.

For some reason, though, when I’m on a good stretch, I don’t think about running new races. You might think it would all happen the opposite way, but I don’t know, maybe it’s a good thing. It's good that when things aren't going great, that I focus on optimisitc things. Like conquering newer, bigger mountains. It’s the power of positive thinking, right?

So, this all really starts with my one failure for 2008: I didn’t run my first 100-Miler like I had planned. I was signed up for the
Cascade Crest 100 in Washington State. The race was in late August, but I had to bow out months before when I started doing math and realized how expensive the trip was going to be. Then, because of a heavy work schedule, I was unable to find another century race that I could attend and train for. So, I’ve had to put my first 100 off ‘til 2009.

In the meantime, I stumbled across a
100K being staged in Chattanooga in late December! Still not 100 Miles, no (it measures to 62.14 miles) but still, 100 something – and it would be the longest race I’ve ever done, so I’m still breaking some new ground.

Chattanooga is really close to where a lot of my dad’s family lives, so I’d probably be able to find someone to stay with (and maybe get some familial support out on the course). And since it also isn’t terribly far from where my parents live outside of Atlanta, it would be easy to add it in to my trip home for Christmas this year.

It will be an inaugural race and the website isn’t too detail yet, so I’m waiting to sign up – there’s no hurry – but it very much has my interest.

But, now, if I’m going to do a 62-miler at the end of December, I’ve got to do something to keep my legs sharp between then and the last Ultra I’m currently signed up to do at the end of October. I mean, that’s two whole months of Ultra running I could be doing to build myself up for 60 miles over Lookout Mountain!

Several events currently have my eye. There’s a
50K staged on the Chicago lakefront on November 1st. It’s a totally flat course, so the times are always pretty quick. I could see what kind of speedy PR I could set for the distance.

But the Lakefront 50K is still too early for the 100K. Maybe I could also run the
Tecumseh Trail Marathon at the beginning of December. It’s just outside of Indianapolis, a relatively short drive from home. Heck, 26 miles thru the woods would be, like, easy after all the Ultras! Like a walk in the park, right?

Or I could try going back down to
Otter Creek State Park to run the trail marathon they hold there every year. I ran that course back in 2006 just 5 days after my debut marathon in Chicago. They staged a special version of it for Dean Karnazes when he was running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days. Now I could finally go back and run it for real. I think they do it in the first or second weekend of December.

I know it all seems a little obsessive, but if I'm going to do a 60-mile ultra, I've got to do long distances in training anyway. I might as well run them on race days when I'll get a lot of on-course support and a nice medal at the end, right? Right!

Oooooh, the possibilities! I’m going to visualize this fantasy world a while, maybe make some decisions. Then again, maybe this week i'll be running like the wind again and the whole crazy scheme will get forgotten.
I'll have to get back to you....

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Peter Sagal Is My Hero

There are a lot of world-class, elite runners who I’ve become a fan of over the last few years, but my running hero is Peter Sagal. His real job is host of the NPR radio show, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me…” It’s a great show and I often listen to it on the weekends during my long runs. That, in and of itself, might have been enough to earn him hero status, but then I found him on the last page of my Runner’s World Magazine early last year. They do a feature every month to close the issue called “I’m a runner”, where they print a little Q & A with someone of some fame or notoriety about their running habit.

I already listened to Mr. Sagal every week, so I was happy to see him featured, but then, as I read the article, my jaw dropped. He had run his debut marathon (when pros run their first one, it’s always called a “debut” - sounds all official) in 4:03. Very respectable, nothing extraordinary, but notable to me because I ran my first one in 4:06. And THEN, he decided that he wanted to run another one and this time, qualify for Boston – and he did it! Sagal is a little over 40 years old, so to qualify he had to run a 3:20. He ran a 3:20:39, and with the 59 second buffer that Boston allows, he qualified with 20 seconds to spare.

So, in just one year, he cut more than 40 minutes off his marathon time. He went from a 9:16 pace per mile to a 7:38 pace. Peter Sagal is shorter than I am, once weighed more than me by 30 pounds, was never a runner until his adult years and tried his first marathon only one year before I did.

So he gives me hope!

I don’t honestly know if I have it in me to run that fast for a full marathon. For me to qualify for Boston this year, I’d have to run a 3:10 (7:15 pace). Next year, when I’m 35, I’ll be granted an extra 5 minutes (7:27 pace). My current PR is a 3:59 at a 9:07 pace, and that was my third road marathon not affected by extreme weather conditions, the first 2 being a 4:06 and a 4:03. I genuinely feel that given a good season of training and optimal conditions on race day, that I have a 3:45 in me on a relatively flat course. Under the current rules of the Boston Athletic Association, that time wouldn’t qualify me for their marathon until I was 55 years old!

Who knows? But I do like to think that if Peter Sagal can do it…

I’ve just recently discovered that a much longer edition of his Q & A is available on the Runner’s World Website. It’s a really great read.
Click Here to Read the Article

It’s worth your time if you have a few extra minutes.

Monday, September 15, 2008

It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright

I used to think you had to be nuts to take an ice bath on purpose. I know that pro athletes do it all the time, but hey, it’s their job to abuse their bodies like that. Sure, I thought, if you’re putting your body through that much stress, I can understand why extreme counter measures like an ice bath would be necessary. I just never thought I would ever need to resort to anything that crazy, right? Well…

I always thought the ice bath was just to control swelling, you know, like putting a piece of meat on your eye after you get punched in the face. Well, that is true, but a lot more happens with the ice bath.

After a hard run, there is a certain amount of microscopic tissue damage, and that damage tends to collect in muscle tissue. The body will also pump a quantity of Lactic Acid into your muscles. In the short term this helps you complete the exercise, but the LA is bad for you long term, is difficult for your body to flush back out again, and is one of the primary causes of muscle soreness in the days after the workout.

When you dip into the ice bath, your body responds to the cold temperature by pulling your blood away from your skin surface and toward the center mass of your body to help maintain your core temperature. This flushes blood away from your muscles faster than it would otherwise go. Yes, this controls swelling, but when the blood evacuates, it also carries a lot more of that damaged tissue and lactic acid with it. Even more than that, when you get out of the ice and begin to warm back up, lots of fresh blood rushes back into the muscles. This carries away even more of the junk and compounds the benefit. The process requires just about 15 minutes under the ice.

After I learned all that, there was no denying anymore that the practice actually made a lot of sense. It’s such a blatantly logical little process. So, this past March, when I decided to try a weekend double, I couldn’t think of a good reason not to give icing a try.

My original idea was to run the Clinton Lake 30-Mile Ultramarathon here in central Illinois on Saturday, then fly to Atlanta that night and run the Georgia Marathon on Sunday, but my winter schedule made training for that very difficult. Instead, I fashioned myself a "mini-double", running Clinton then staying in Chicago for the Shamrock Shuffle 8K on Sunday. Following up the 30-Mile race with a 5-mile race was far less daunting, but I was still worried about my recovery turnaround. So? You guessed it. I tried out my very first ice bath on Saturday night as soon as I got home from Clinton Lake.

I drew a bath of cold water, then dumped in three large bags of ice from the convenience store. I measured the water temperature and the thermometer read about 38 degrees. I was seriously not sure about this, and was really nervous! My stomach got tight just thinking about getting in. I felt like I deserved a little protection so I pulled on my compression shorts and my warm, skin-tight Under Armor shirt. I stepped in with my feet first. The pain of cold was searing.
And then I sat down in the water.

I think I just kept repeating over and over, “this is not a good idea, this is not a good idea,” until I finally gave up, stood up and got the hell out. Elapsed time? About 10 seconds.

OK, so I may be a wimp, but I’m not a quitter. Instead I ran hot water into the tub until the water temperature was about 55 degrees. Then I was able to get back in, adjust to the cold and wait out the full 15 minutes. I have since found articles on line stating that even a 50 degree bath has real benefits, so my “ice bath” was still legit.

Did it work? Well, even though I’d run a difficult, six and a half hour, 30-mile trail race on Saturday, I was able to rattle off a personal best 37:52 in the 8K the very next day. Since then, I’ve been an official ice bath convert – the 50 degree version, not the 38 degree misery. After every weekend long run, I head directly home, draw a cold bath and soak for 15 minutes. It’s made a huge difference in my running and recovery this year.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

There's a Dark Cloud Hanging Over Me...

This morning was supposed to be a 20-mile run. My last 20-miler before my marathon and ultra season begins. After a shorter, "easier" run next week, I then have a 26.2 or 30+ mile race to run on 3 out of the next 4 weekends. So, this 20 is relatively important.

Mother Nature had other plans. It started raining yesterday and still hasn’t stopped, and the front that brought in all this precip is just leading the way for what will be left of Hurricane Ike. He'll take over sometime tonight and then continue, unabated, into late Monday.

The whole of northeast Illinois is flooding. Lakes and rivers are overflowing, roads and side streets are swamped and impassable. Two sections of major interstates in the area had to be shut down because the standing water had grown so deep.

Even with all that, I still would have run this morning. Yes, still. I’ve run in the rain before. It’s not the greatest thing in the world, but it’s just water. At least the air temps were in the mid 70s, so it was a warm rain, and that’s no small blessing. It wasn’t the rain that stopped me. Noooooo…. It was the Tornado Watch. Somehow I couldn’t convince myself it was a good idea to be out in the forest preserve or on the lakefront for upwards of three hours during a wide-spread tornado watch.

I had plans to run the 20 with a friend of mine. She's also running Chicago this year, and we've already done a couple of long days together. We have a similar pace and similar goals. At 5:40 this morning we were on the phone trying to convince each other that it really was OK to put the run off a day. No, really, we can do it. It'll be fine. We can just do it tomorrow. Really.

Even on a day when you know you should skip it, there’s still that guilt – especially for a 20-miler, which would be easy to procrastinate even in perfect weather. So, when I’m staring at a long hard run, or even a long, hard week, why don't I skip? It’s not just the fear of failure, but the guilt of failure that eggs me on. Races? Races are easy. I mean, they’re hard too, but they also offer a ton of gratification. However, 20 miles at 6 a.m. in the rain – or, say, on a windy lakefront in 14 degree weather and snowfall – there’s not much gratification in that. But avoiding the guilt; knowing that I didn’t miss getting my miles in (which are SO hard to make up); knowing that I did my work even though no one was around to help me out the door or pat me on the back when it was over; that's why I do it. (It's all about the journey.)

My friend and I will try again tomorrow. It will still be raining, there’s no doubt about that, and it will be a little colder, though at least the tornado danger will have passed. But until it’s done, it’s just going to hang over my head.

The only way I’ll escape that guilt, is to run.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


I ran, this afternoon, along the lakefront. Not far from downtown, I passed a little sign randomly stuck in the ground. These pop up every now and then, but not often. Usually they warn of lakefront path closures due to weekend events or the occasional construction project. This one? “Urogynecology Institute of Chicago”. Huh? Okay, I’m paraphrasing the title, but not the specialty. Urogynecology? I’m not an expert, but that sounded like female bladder problems to me. I checked it on the web when I got home, and yep, I was right.

But the sign wasn’t linked to any lakefront event, or to any upcoming races. It was just the name of the clinic on a corrugated plastic sign stuck in the ground with a metal frame. A unique stab at advertising, and to an unlikely audience. Think about it. Isn’t it hard to imagine a woman with urinary problems deciding it’s a good idea to spend her time running or biking up and down the lakefront? But what do I know?

Nevertheless, it set my brain to wandering while I ran. Never mind the clinical bladder issues, taking a pee on a run is sometime a curious problem. Not a big deal on a little 5 or 10K, of course, but when you’re going to be running for 2, 4, 6 or even 12 hours at a time (and I have), well, it comes up. And if not for me, then certainly for my fellow runners.

At the first half-marathon I ran in 2006, I was slightly astonished to see people, during the race, standing in line outside of the port-a-johns on the course, waiting their turn. Standing in line to pee during a race! Men and Women both! At the 3-mile point! Wasn’t it supposed to be a race?

Not everybody bothers to wait in a line. Before I ran the New York City Marathon last year, I was told that I should hope to start the race on the upper level of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The VNB is huge and the marathon uses both the upper and lower levels to ease congestion at the starting line. I was assigned to the upper level, and I found out why that was good. Past the 1 mile marker - over the crest, but still on the bridge - dozens and dozens of men were pulling over to the edge of the bridge and peeing off the side. I’m sure the wind up there, 250 feet above the water, was catching all that urine and blowing it right back under the bridge and all over the runners on the lower level. Gross!

Dean Karnazes, in his best selling book about ultra-running, talks about discovering the urinary strategy used by most of the elite ultra-runners when they’re competing to win a race: They don’t stop at all. They just pull their shorts aside and let it go on the go. He says he figured this out when he noticed the strange, extended, stuttering, yellow lines in the snow at his first ultra.

Speaking of ultras, at my first trail marathon, the race director, in his short pre-race speech reminding us all of the course and the rules, advised us of the local policy: “There aren’t any port-a-potties out there on the trail, sorry everyone. So, while you’re running… whadaya say, girls on the left and boys on the right?” It got him a good laugh from all of us.

But the beats-all, takes-the-cake story happened to me at last year’s Chicago Marathon. It was minutes before the race and we’re all standing together in the corrals. As usual, they were crowded, and more so at five minutes to race time when people began to push forward a bit. It was right about then that a woman standing a little in front of me on my right squatted down slightly. I could then hear the distinct sound of water trickling onto the pavement.

She had pulled the leg of her shorts aside and was just peeing on the street in the middle of all the waiting runners. She was completely unabashed about it. No visible remorse of any kind. Not true for all of us around her, though. It was odd to watch the ripple of awareness spread across the people around her in the corral. We were all trying not to look at her, or each other, or to say anything. But this is true too: No one chastised her; no one even shot her an evil look. After all, we’d all seen or waited in the impossible lines at the port-a-johns.

It took her, maybe, 15 seconds to empty her tank. By the time she was done, a perimeter had pushed back in a circle around her that was four or five feet in all directions. There was a guy with her, the only one of us who hadn’t stepped back, and he summed it up correctly on behalf of everyone: “I admit, I’m impressed,” he said, but the look on his face was a mix of befuddlement and concern.

Yes. Yes, that one takes the cake.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Spike Me!

My cross country spikes have been sitting in my little entryway by my front door since the last race I wore them. I haven’t worn them or moved them since the race, but more than that, I haven’t cleaned them since the race… but more than that, it was one of the muddiest races I’ve ever run – but more than THAT, it’s been Five Months since the race!! Those poor shoes needed some love.

It wasn’t just procrastination. Those mud caked shoes were kind of like a trophy in and of themselves after my 2nd 50-mile finish, and 13.5 difficult, sloggy hours of foot travel. But I’ve finally got another race coming up that I might want them for, so they got a well-deserved bath.

Once they were clean, I realized just how much I’d already worn down the spikes. They’d started out as six pointy canine teeth on each sole, but now they looked more like a set of discarded baby tooth molars. Not so impressive. And not worth much for trail travel. I’d need to find a replacement set.

First, I searched the New Balance website, but the only spikes I could find all came with one unwanted accessory: the shoes they screw into. I’ve already got the shoes. The local NB store couldn’t help me either, but I finally found out that the spikes are not brand specific, and most of the bigger sporting goods stores carry replacements. Good News! I called a Dick’s Sporting goods, located at little north of the city, and they told me they had some in stock. I’d just need to come match the size.

However, later in the afternoon, I found myself nearby the Fleet Feet store in Lincoln Square and went in to buy some gels to eat on my next long run. I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask about spikes while I was there.

The attendant who helped me was really nice and told me they did have them, but when he went to look, all he could find was track spikes which are only about 1/8” long. My cross country spikes are 3/8”. He looked around for five minutes, quietly frustrated that he couldn’t find what he knew he should have. Finally he looked at me, a bit determinedly, and said, “Wait here for just a minute,” and he disappeared into the back. I wandered over to look at some running shorts. He came back a few minutes later, his face a bit red, said, “Here you go,” and held out a little bag of black spikes with a turnkey. “Just take ‘em. On the house,” he said, “I pilfered them from a shoe box in the back.” “Really?” I asked him. “Yeah, go ahead,” he said, “just stick ‘em in your pocket, my pleasure,” and he grinned at me. I paid, of course, for the gels, thanked him a second and third time and left with my gift.

And that, right there, is kind of everything that’s cool about running, about being a runner: Not always, but often, it’s kind of like being in a big, friendly club, where all your fellow runners just want to help you out and see you do better and cheer you on, even as the same is being done for them. Sure, there are a few people out there who can actually race, but the vast majority of us are only ever racing ourselves, and you can only get further along by helping someone else get there, too.

I’m going to run fast in those spikes the next time I wear them

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Olympic Rewind

The new digital broadcast channels on TV are turning out to be pretty cool. It seems the networks have more programming space than they know what to do with, and so they’re getting liberal with their programming. So NBC is using one of their new sub-channels as an all-sports channel, but it may not just be mainstream sports. In fact, it seems that NBC actually might use it to broadcast sports that don’t go by the names “Football”, “Baseball”, “Basketball”, or even “Golf” (Sorry, I don’t think Hockey counts as a sport unless you’re from Canada or Boston.)

They're calling it Universal Sports, and it’s being beamed out on Channel 5.3 (at least, that’s what it is here in Chicago). They’re kicking things off with a replay of all their Olympic coverage, including the U.S. Olympic Trials.

I tuned in earlier this evening and saw some of the stuff from the track trials in Eugene, Oregon back in June. I saw an early heat of the Men’s 1500 with Alan Webb and Bernard Legat both still in it and looking strong. They played the Men’s 800 final, won by the three Oregonian guys, electrifying the home crowd. I saw the Women’s 3000 Steeple Case, which I never saw the first time around. And also the Women’s 1500 Final, when Shannon Rowbury looked so very strong and 16-year-old Jordan Hassay made her surprise appearance in the final round, her long blond hair bouncing around down half the length of her diminutive frame.

It was a little odd to think back to June, when so many people (me included, of course) were so very jazzed up about the potential for the American runners in Beijing. Not that the team did poorly, and the sprinters did well enough, as usual. But it really seemed as though the distance runners on both the men’s and women’s sides were really poised to make some break-throughs at the games. The Men’s and Women’s Marathon, the Men’s 800, the Men’s and Women’s 1500, the Men’s and Women’s 5000, and the Women’s 10,000 all had Americans competing who had a totally legit shot, maybe not a winning, but at easily being on the podium. The U.S. has been a sprinting force for nearly a full century now, but distance medals have been precious and few the last 40 years. Team USA performed rather well at the World Championships in 2007, and 2008 seemed set for them to make up even more ground.

In the end though, how many medals came home? One. Yep, one. Shalane Flanagan turned in a truly astonishing performance in the Women’s 10K, set a new American record (breaking her own previous mark from earlier this year) and won the Bronze Medal. It was only, I think, the 3rd or 4th time she’d ever run the event, having focused mainly on the 5K in previous years. She managed this performance in the final in spite of the fact that she’d suffered from a severe case of food poisoning in the days before the race. Her medal was only the 2nd medal the U.S. has ever won in the event. And her accomplishment went largely ignored by the media, because it occurred a couple of days before the swimming events were complete and she was drowned out by the (well-deserved) fervor of Phelps Mania.

But after Shalane? Nothing. Deena Kastor had to drop out of the Marathon with a foot injury at 3 miles. Bernard Lagat, the reigning world champion, failed even to make the final in the 1500, and had no life or kick in the 5000 to finish out of the medals. Kara Goucher, the 5K bronze medalist at last year’s World’s, didn’t pick the right tactics and got schooled in both the 5K and the 10K. She left Beijing wondering aloud if maybe she has been pursuing the wrong event and talked about moving up to the marathon. Shannon Rowbury ran well in the 1500 final, but couldn’t quite keep up with the finishing kick of her European and East African competitors, and later gently lamented her lack of experience in international competition. (She’s still young, plans to run in Europe a lot over the next year, and will still be a force at the world’s in ’09.) And finally, in the Men’s Marathon, on a scorching hot day, in heavy humidity, five East Africans astonished the field, and everyone else watching, by going out in the first 10K at world record pace, and then nearly managed to hang onto that for the entire 26.2 miles. The 3 Americans, forced to choose between going with the suicidal pace or being more rational in the hopes that the leaders would fade and come back to them, all chose the saner approach, only to find that no one came back. Dathan Ritzenhein and Ryan Hall finished 9th and 10th, respectively. It’s the first time in decades that two Americans were in the top 10 at the Olympics, so there’s that.

So, It was all a little anti-climatic after the build up and the progress in ’07, but hey, maybe it was an off year. I know I’ve had one; interrupted often by little illnesses or injuries. I’ll be looking to bounce back a little next year, rethinking some of my training and strategies. So will Team USA.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Running Shoe Fetish?

Well, “fetish” may be too strong a word, but I do seem to have accumulated a lot of running shoes over the years. I'm not just talking about buying a pair, wearing them out, buying a new pair to replace them and then failing to throw out the old ones. (Though, I tend to do that, too.) No, I’m talking about all the pairs I've got that I could take outside right now to run in. And I just went to double check, and even I’m surprised. I’ve got – ready? – Seven pairs.

I didn’t realize this situation had developed until a few months ago when my girlfriend started ribbing me in front of my friends about the shoe store in my closet. My good-natured defense at the time was that most of them were running shoes, but then later I wondered to myself if that was really a sane argument. I mean, isn’t that a little like someone opening your refrigerator and noting, “My, you sure do keep a lot to drink in here," and replying, “Yeah, but most of it is vodka and gin.”

The tally of those seven pairs? I’ve got my street running shoes for the summer (NB767), and I’ve got a nearly identical pair in an “all-weather” version meant for winter running (NB768AW). The summer pair is very breathable and let lots of air through, and the winter pair are the reverse. They make a big difference in the sub-freezing Chicago winter, so they’re kind of a necessity.

I’ve got a pair of fly-weight trail shoes that I love so much I bought a 2nd, identical set that are just a ½ size larger (NB790s). The larger ones give my feet a little more wiggle room.

I’ve also got a more heavy duty pair of trail shoes which weigh a little more, but offer much better protection on rocky surfaces (NB800). I haven’t had a chance to use them in a race yet, but they feel good on the local dirt trails.

I’ve got a 4th pair of trail shoes, from a totally different brand, which is supposed to function as a cross between my other pairs: light-weight but trail rugged (Inov-8 Flyroc 310). I was really excited about these when I bought them, but don’t wear them so much anymore, because I’ve learned that they cut oddly into the back of my right heel (and only the right - something to do with the shape of my foot), which causes a lot of friction and blisters on long runs.

And finally, early this spring, I picked up a pair of cross-county racing spikes (NB RX505CR). They’re really meant for a max of 7 or 8-mile races, but I wore them all the way through my 50-miler this past April and they did great on that dirty, muddy course.

All this doesn’t include the older pairs of running shoes that I don’t run in anymore, but keep around as “work” shoes, or the fresh pair of NB767s that I bought cheap and put away for future use. (And we'll not get into all my "regular people" shoes.)

That is my one defense for all the running shoes I have: Every single pair, except for the Inov-8s, I bought at a really great discount. And they all do serve different functions for me. Really!

But I know I may have a legit problem, because in spite of my personal supply, I still want to go into every shoe store and look around, “Just to see what they’ve got.”

Sarah Jessica Parker would be proud of me, but I’m not sure that’s good. But, now, if Kara Goucher approves, well, that’d be cool.

So, come on, tell me how many pairs of running shoes you own.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Lakefront vs. River Trail

Saturday mornings mean long runs for me. Even longer now because I'm only 3 weeks from my first Ultra of the fall. I did a 20-miler last week, I've got a 20-miler next week and today was the in between "easy" week, which meant 14 miles.

The past few years, if I wanted to cover more than 10 or 12 miles, just about the only convenient place to do it was the Chicago Lakefront on the Bike Path that runs about 18 miles one-way next to the city. It's really the only place in the city limits (that I know of) to cover long distance without the obstacle of a traffic light intersection several times each mile. (Even on the bike path, there are street crossings where you have to wait for cars, but they are minimal.) There are long stretches of gray dirt track to run on, there are dozens of water fountains to reload the bottle (at least in the warm months), and there are lots of other runners out there with you to try to hook onto and pace with.

However, it's also, often, a crowded, tangled, sprawl of people running, biking, roller bladeing, pushing baby strollers, or just walking haphazardly across the path. Occasionally in the summer, long sections of the path get closed down to traffic while the lakefront hosts some massive public event. (Such was the case today, as Red Bull put on its Flugtag at North Avenue, and the Air & Water Show is always a pointless weekend to try and run long.) There are also lots of badly sun-exposed miles on the path and in the summer heat it can be brutal.

Earlier this year, however, I stumbled on a new alternative to the lakefront. While driving back and forth to my freelance job out in the northwest suburbs, I kept noticing a little running path sneaking out of the woods near the highway. Finally, I decided to take a nearby exit to find out where it went. It turns out it's a fully paved bike path that runs 13 miles end to end along the north branch of the Chicago River. It is, appropriately, called the North Branch Trail System.

The whole thing is inside Cook County Forest Preserves, making it a gorgeous woodland trail. 90% of it is totally tree-shaded. It can still get hot on summer mornings, but at least there’s plenty of cover from the sun. Also, there isn’t a tenth the number of people out on the NBTS as there are on the lakefront on the weekends. (In fact, most of the usage comes from bike traffic.) The southern end of the trail is still 10 miles from my apartment, so I do have to drive over there, whereas I can just bike a mile down to the lakefront whenever I want, but this isn’t a huge hassle.

The only big downside – and it is kind of big: except for one manual pumping spigot near the 5 mile mark, there are no water fountains on the course. It’s a tickly little problem to overcome, because on any run over 12 miles, I’m going to need to refill my bottle, for sure, at some point. The self pumping spout actually comes at a useful point, but on hot days or really long runs, it isn’t enough. I’ve been fortunate that the one training group that uses the trail, I-Runs, has been planting big coolers of water and Gatorade in one or two spots on the trail on Saturday mornings. I’ve been able to nip a few refills from those coolers. (I’m going to have to make a little donation to I-Runs or something before the end of the year!) A friend I’ve run with once or twice is going to join me next weekend for the 20-miler and we’re planning to drive around to a couple of spots north on the course and plant some water bottles. Hopefully that will work out, but it’s kind of a pain.

Both locations have their up sides and down sides, but the truth is, I really prefer the tree covered seclusion of the NBTS. It seems like the lesser of two evils. But that water problem will still have me going back to the lakefront ped-o-highway for a long trek now and then.

If you're itching for a new place to bike or run around the city, check out the North Branch Trail. It might be one of the best kept secrets in Chicago.
You can see a map of the top and bottom halves of the NBTS here.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Double Days

Yesterday, in an effort to make up for a little lost time this week, I ran a "double". Instead of only going out for my daily run, I went out for two. A 5-miler in the morning before work and 6 more in the afternoon after work, both at a moderate pace. I don't do this very often, but it's a great way to pile up the miles in a short time, and with the hours long break in between jaunts, it's not too tough on my body.

Pro runners, especially distance runners, apparently do this all the time. Of course, instead of going to their job between sessions they take an afternoon nap instead. But that's how they're able to rack up 150+ mile weeks. It normally takes me a full month to total that many miles, so I don't really need double days. This week was a special occasion, having missed my run several days in a row due to a number of obstacles both thrust on me and self-imposed.

The hard part, for me, is crawling out of bed early enough in the morning to get the first run in. Even just 5 miles can take me 45 minutes, so it requires some time, and I just don't wake up easily. I know this is because I also don't go to bed easily. I'm stubborn and won't lay down to sleep. But I choose to blame this on heredity: My father is notorious for having the same problem.

I've long had the idea that I should start most every day - maybe 5 times a week - with, say, a 2-mile run. Nothing flashy, nothing ambitious. Just roll out of bed, slip on my New Balances and run a mile up the road and back. It'd take me about 20 minutes door to door. It'd get my blood flowing with a gentle jolt. I could add a few more miles into my weekly total. The obstacle? Just waking up in the first place. Well, it's not like I'm slouching. I do a very respectable 40 to 50 miles a week already when I'm working up to an event. It's just a moral victory out there for me to still win. Then everyday would be a "double day".

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Inaugural Post

Ok, wow! I have a blog! That took, like, no time at all. (Very impressive, Google.) In fact, that went so quick, I barely had time to think about exactly what this blog's really going to be about. Except, well, running, of course. I'm not an amazing runner (just comfortably above average, I like to say), and I'm not really sure how much I'll have to say about running, or my running even, but I'll try not to let it get too boring (I have my training log for that).

Ooo, I can say that my one, clear mission statement, to start with, will be accurate spelling, and proper grammar. Otherwise, I've got one blogging friend who may not read it. (She is a librarian.)

It may take me a few days just to get my page here set up properly. After that, I hope to let this thing find it's own voice - or, rather, find my voice. And we'll see what kinds of sounds it'll make once it does.

'Til then....