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.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Life is the Journey

Ok, the video below is a commercial, yes. But it's a beautiful, well made commercial, and the overall message just belongs on this blog. I saw it last night on a huge movie screen and came home to find it right away.

Here it is:

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Hello, Stranger.

So, yes, I’ve been away from here for months now. It wasn’t a planned absence, but it was an absence that lingered, which is a statement intentionally full of irony.

I’ve still been running, but running and I have been on the outs for a little while now. My failure in San Diego in June was a difficult one to swallow. I always knew that a DNF was possible – I think it’s always on the table for anyone who attempts 100 miles – but I never expected to flunk out after just 44 miles. (And in reality, I was cooked after only 36.)

After much reflection, I’ve come to blame it on the altitude. We started out at 6500 feet, dipped down for a while, and then climbed right back up again. I train at sea level, and it can take 3 or 4 weeks to properly acclimate to the thin air at altitude. So, nothing I could do about that, right? Right. Nothing, except never sign up in the first place. I should have known better than to attempt such a difficult race, on difficult terrain, and then, oh yeah, make it even that much harder by doing it all at unfamiliar altitude. It still just makes me feel foolish.

So why did I sign up? Well it’s the answer to that question that’s had me struggling with my habit as a long distance runner all summer. I picked the San Diego 100 because it was one of the few 100s in 2010 that I could squeeze into my schedule. And that’s the thing, see? It isn’t the altitude, or the remote locations, or the difficult terrain, or the beyond-most-people’s-imagination distance that constantly hold me back from fully enjoying this hobby – it’s just my work schedule.

I work in the arts, I work long hours, and if I’m not physically present, the work doesn’t happen. I manage to make a modest, decent living, but I just don’t get days off, not even weekends. The running community – especially Ultras – are built around weekend schedules. It impacts not only my availability for races, but also my ability to train. It’s been a while since I ran an Ultra that I felt truly prepared for. Instead it’s always a series of compromises, and then an "I'm just running to try and finish" mission statement.

None of this has stopped me before. I’ve run plenty. I’ve squeezed in runs on any day of the week, at any time of the day or night. I’ve eked out long runs on any day of the week when it looked like I might have a few hours to cross one of the week’s list. I've packed in 60+ mile weeks when I barely had time to go home and sleep in between. I’ve sought out races that I could drive to, run and drive back from, all in a day, so I could be home that night to continue more work.

But San Diego… San Diego was a punch in the gut and a wake up call. I let the schedule deceive me, and I bit off a lot more than I could chew. I had no choice but to sit and consider if I was balancing my life in a good way or not. If I scaled back, things might make more sense. I had plenty enough time to get 4 to 6 miles in on most days of the week. A little more than that once a week. I could aim for a series of half marathons each year and probably knock out some very satisfying fast times. Maybe still do just one marathon or short trail ultra each year for fun.

But then I start to think about some of the Ultras I have finished in the last 4 years and I get hungry all over again. Not all of them make me feel that way, mind you, but most. I think about finishing my first McNaughton 50M in less than 12 hours. I think about running the ridge high along the south side of Lookout Mountain 14 miles into my first 100K finish. I think about flying through the little leafy green trees in an “off-trail” section of the Gnaw Bone 50K in the cool morning air. I think about the surprise age-group award I won at the Rock Cut 50K in ’08. I think about the hours and hours I’ve spent chatting with friendly strangers in a single-file line in the middle of who-knows-where.

I still haven’t completely figured out how I can keep this little habit going. I know there are plenty of ultrarunners out there who are juggling WAY more stuff in their lives than I am, and the are able to get it all in. I guess I’m just not that organized. One thing I am getting better at with age, is accepting all the things that I don’t do very well. But, regardless, I’m going to try. If nothing else, I have to try one more time to finish 100 Miles. I’m 0 for 2, so far, but I just need one…

Sunday, June 13, 2010

An Unimpressive DNF

The SD100 was not good to me. I DNF'd at 44 miles after 12.5 hours on my feet. Worse, I was cooked after 36 miles. My "stubborn" got me those last 8 miles, but I paid for them with a three and a half hour slog up the steepest section of the course.

I'm dissapointed. Last year when I DNF'd at the Burning River 100 at 70 mile, I still felt like I had accomplished something. A DNF at 44 just feels like a let-down. I should have been in shape to run way more than that. I thought I did a good job with my training. I've finished 50-milers on the same or less. I've finished 100Ks.

I was taking in plenty of calories. I was running at a responsible pace. Maybe I could have taken in a few more S-Caps, but I was drinking the sports drinks, trying to replace my electolytes.

My only guess, at the moment, is the high altitude and thinner air did me in. But even that makes me feel foolish: I knew what the elevation charts looked like when I signed up. I should have realized.

I don't know. It's 8 a.m. Sunday morning. I've been off the course as long as I was on it. People are still out there running. There are 6 more hours before the final cutoff. I should still be out there. I should have run 80 or 85 miles by now. I should be out there knowing that the finish line is waiting a little ways in front of me. I should be feeling it's gravitational pull and knowing that I was going to finish my first Hundo, get my first buckle, wear my yellow "Finisher" t-shirt. I'm not. I'm sitting in my hotel room preparing to go downstairs and peruse the continental breakfast.

It was a beautiful course. I met some awesome people. I have good things to say about my experience. Those are coming, along with some pictures and video and whatnot. Right now, though, I've still got this bitter, unpleasant taste...

Friday, June 11, 2010

Friday Morning in San Diego

…And here’s where I’m going soon:

As I type this, I’m sitting in a hotel room just outside San Diego. It’s Friday, the day before the race. It’s a cool 55 degrees outside and overcast – perfect kind of weather for the race if this should hold for the next two days.

As we flew in last night, I got a bird’s eye view of the mountain range I’ll be running through this weekend. It was odd to look out the little window at the brown mountains, see little foot trails littered across and around their surface and know I’d be out on those trails in 36 hours.

I’m still worried about blisters, but I think I have a plan for that. I’m also worried about handling the mountains, but that’ll be what it’ll be. There’s no other preparation I can do for that now, except in my mind.
My sister is here – my sister the stage manager – to be my crew, and she’s got her red notebook of plans and information all set up already. (I’m in good hands.)

We have a few supplies to buy this morning, but we’ve already found the Wal-Mart. After that, we’ll chill out a little and wait for the pre-race meeting later this afternoon. It’s 7:30 am at this very moment. At 7:00 am tomorrow morning the trek begins.

We’re gonna do this one. We’re gonna get this one.

Here's a little catchup and mudsterd

I’ve been bad to my blog lately. It’s been a busy life these last 6 weeks. It’s been tough to clear time for the running, let alone the writing, but I have been running. The past, as they say, though, is prologue and the main event is nearly upon me. It’s just 1 (!) more day now until the San Diego 100 Mile Endurance Run.

I admit, I’m nervous. The biggest thing I’ve been asking myself lately is why I signed up to tackle a race in a part of the country I know so little about. I’ve never been to the bottom of California. I’ve barely ever been to L.A. I realized a few weeks ago, I don’t even know what the dirt is like out there. Sure that’s a silly thing to worry about, but is it black, or brown or red? Is it littered with gravel and skree, or is it fine and soft? Is it going to fill my shoes and blister my feet or welcome my every footfall with a cushiony plop?

You see? I’m kind of at that point in the training cycle.

Once I got past the Wisconsin Marathon six weeks ago, I went into a kind of recovery and maintenance mode. I just wanted to bounce back and nurse my mileage base.

However, almost as soon as I got home from Kenosha, I started to worry about my lack of a hilly trail ultra run in the last 5 months. So, two weeks after Kenosha, I patched one into my schedule and drive down to Nashville, Indiana for the Gnaw Bone 50K. It’s one of the Dances With Dirt Trail Series and was billed as a tough course with “stupid sections”. They had a 50 Mile option, but I didn’t want to bit off too much more than I could chew. I was mainly going for the trail work.

I wound up having a good day with it. I started off slowly, but after 6 or 7 miles, I fell into a very strong and steady rhythm. There were some tough sections on the course, and some no-trail sections, but a lot of it was very runnable and I was able to get comfortable. I caught and passed a couple dozen runners in the next 12 miles (though the 50K and the 50M shared the same course for most of the race).

I hit 2 problems: by 22 miles, I had a worn a blister on the bottom of my right foot. IT was a very wet week before the race, there were a lot of water crossings on the first half of the course, and my shoes were coated filled with mud. Blisters are what ultimately knocked me out of the Burning River 100 last year, and they are my biggest fear in San Diego. I was not happy to have one turn up in the middle of Gnaw Bone.

I was carrying an extra pair of socks in my Race Ready shorts (Love those things) and we when finally reached the Aid Station at mile 22 (which we actually expected at mile 18) I took the time to sit down, clean my feet and change into my fresh pair. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was an instant improvement even without trying to lance the blister.

The other snag I hit was the hill at Mill 26. It was a steep, 1/4-mile long, No-Trail section up the side of an unpleasant little mountain littered with forest ground cover and briars. I would dub it “Marathon Hill” both for the time it seemed to take to climb it and it location on the course, except that with all the different race distances being run on the course that day, everyone got to it at a different mileage point. It really kicked my butt in a major way. After that, for the last leg of the course, I was pretty much cooked.

It didn’t help either – and this is my one complaint about the race – that the course seemed to be marked a good bit longer than 31 miles and the error was somewhere in those last 8 miles. Almost every runner got off course during the day. I have learned from old race reports that this race is slightly infamous for that problem. I, however, luckily never really lost my way (there was a 100 yard detour at one point, but it was quickly corrected). But my split times between those last few aid stations cannot possible be correct based on the stated mileage between them. Even with Marathon Hill kicking my ass, the split times just don’t make any sense at all unless at least 1.5 extra miles are added in. I think that so many people go off course during the race that no one almost no one noticed that the actual course was marked far too long.

In spite of that, it was a good day, and I felt really good about my decision to go down and run it. It was excellent practice for San Diego.


Then, a week later, I kept the race appointment I made months before at the brand new C.R.U.D. 8-Hour Trail Race. I’ve known the co-race directors, Adam & Mike, for a couple of years now, ever since we all spent a number of miles on the trail together first at the Rock Cut Hobo 50K and then the Farmdale 33-Miler a few weeks later. I was excited to head down for the race, not just because it would be my first “timed” ultra event, but also because Mike and Big Z are great guys and I was sure they would host a fun day.

I wasn’t completely sure what kind of course it would be, though the guys had claimed on the website that there would be plenty of runnable sections. They’d mapped a 3.1 Mile (5K) loop that we would run laps on for the first 7 hours and 15 minutes, then we’d switch over to a separate 1 Mile loop for the last 45 minutes. I felt like I could get to 40 miles, at least and if thing went really well, maybe even as many as 45 before the 8-Hour cutoff.

Mother Nature had other plans. Central Illinois got even more rain the week before the race, than Central Indiana had the previous week before Gnaw Bone. Long sections of the loop course were, literally, transformed into a swamp. A quarter-mile of fire road was drowned under 3 and 4 inches of standing water. And perhaps as much as 1/3rd or half of the course was caked in slick, deep, shoe-sucking, dark-chocolate mud. It didn’t rain on race day, though. Instead, there were blue skies, and the temps started in the night 60s and climbed all day during the race into the mid 80s. Down in the low sections of the course, around all the standing water, it was sticky and humid. Luckily, most of the course was tree-shaded, or the soaring heat would have been a real problem.

After just the first hour, the fragile, muddy course had been chewed up so badly that any semblance of rapid forward motion was difficult. I was especially worried about the chance that I would start up one of the many gooey inclines (or declines) and my feet would skid out from underneath and the rest of me would crash hard to the ground. The only real running injury I’ve ever had was a fall I took where I banged up my knee so badly that I couldn’t run for several weeks. A duplicate of that event could take me out of the SD100 before I even got on the plane to California.

It’s hard to explain how much extra energy gets sucked out of you when running in that kind of mud. Much like snow (and maybe sand), with no solid ground to push off of, no step you take given you the forward propulsion you are used to. You do the same amount of work and get less result. It’s more than that, though, because the ground you’re on is not stable. Your feet can spend as much time sliding sideways and backwards as they do pushing you forwards. That forces you to engage the balancing muscles in your legs hips and torso in a way you are unaccustomed to. It all amounts to a lot of wasted energy and a frustrating day.

By the time I got to my 5th and 6th loop, I was beginning to wonder if it was worth it to continue. I could just push out a few more gentle loops and nudge my total up over 27 miles. Then I could technically claim the race as an “Ultra” (being over the standard 26.2 mile distance) and call it a day, stopping to hang out at the staging area to cheer on the folks still out on the course. Sure, I could do that. I didn’t have to run all 8 hours. You don’t get a DNF at a timed event so long as you run at least a mile, you just get a measly mile total for the day. And it was just a training run – did I feel trained? Sure, why not.

After the 6th loop, though, something shifted. First of all, I plundered my little mini-cooler and drank a full bottle of Ensure. I also changed my socks (a futile battle to stave off the mud, but I was doing it every 3 loops anyway). And then, somehow, I bounced back. I felt a little zippy again. The rising heat stopped bothering me. The mud on the course finally seemed like it was starting to dry up just a little. And I know that bottle of Ensure had a lot to do with it (I should have had one sooner).

And I was running again. I found a rhythm and settled in. The mud was still there to work its voodoo, but it bothered me less. And I started to think, “Nah, I don’t need to drop out early, I can just keep going.”

I decided I could get 3 more laps in (for a totally of 9) before the switch to the 1-mile track for the final 45 minutes, and then I might be able to knock out 3 little loops to put me right at 31 miles for the day. That would be a 50K – easily my slowest 50K ever – but still, a respectable, attainable goal under the circumstances. I ruined that plan though, by running the next 3 laps so quickly that after my 9th lap there was still 90 minutes left in the race and I had to go out of the 5K loop one more time to start my 10th loop! Believe me, it was a little teeny-tiny miracle.

I came around to finish Loop 10 with about 25 minutes left in the race. You only got credit for each full 1-mile loop you ran at the end, and I didn’t think I had quite enough energy left to run 2 more full miles on that course in just 25 minutes, so I walked just 1 more mile as a little, personal victory lap and called it a day 6 minutes before the final whistle blew at 4pm. I eeked out 32 miles (eek!) and I was satisfied.

I must say: Adam and Mike were AWESOME. After the end of my first 3 or 4 loops, Adam came over to personally check on how I was doing and to jog with me back out of the aid station to the entrance of the course again. Later in the day, when I was taking longer breaks at the aid station, Mike came over to chat, say Hello and see how I was doing (both in the race and the world at large). It might seem like a silly thing to say, but both Mike and Adam are big brawny guys and when a man like that give you a big handshake and claps you on the shoulder it goes just a little bit further towards making you feel like you can do it and you’ll be fine. They were great hosts and at the end of the day it really seemed like everyone had a good time.

It’s always a good lesson to be reminded of: whatever your expectations, you just have to run that course on that day. I ran the slowest 32 miles of my life and felt damn good about it. The same thing happened at the Chicago Marathon in ’07, and there have been – and will be – others.

The last note I need to mention about the C.R.U.D. is the response I got from my running attire. I made myself a shirt before my (failed) attempt at the Burning River 100 Mile last summer. I bought a yellow technical shirt and, with a Sharpie, carefully printed on the front: “I AM NOT TALENTED, BUT I AM STUBBORN”. It was a phrase I thought of that just stuck with me and resonated on many levels. I saved the shirt for late in the BR100 when I needed inspiration. Not many people saw it then, and I haven’t run with it since. I thought it deserved another special occasion. I pulled it out for the 8-Hour and people were talking about it all day long. There are a few “fast” people who run Ultras, but the majority of us are plodders, doing it for fun, and a lot of those folks could identify with my shirt. Somebody asked me where I bought it, another asked if I minded if he “stole” the idea and made one for himself (just talk about me when someone asked about it, I told him with a wink), and many more made it a point to mention it to me. I’ve never been a put-your-name-on-your-shirt kind of marathoner, but it was kind of fun how much attention my yellow shirt got.

SO ANYWAY: That’s where I’ve been lately…

Friday, May 7, 2010

Race Report: Wisconsin Marathon 2010

A happy accident happened to me this morning on my way to run the Wisconsin Marathon. The drive to Kenosha takes a little more than an hour, so I decided to catch up on my NPR podcasts, specifically, an episode of RadioLab. They like to look at common everyday questions about the elements of life and being human and examine them in a scientific way. (It’s just an amazing show.) The episode was titled “Limits”.

The first segment was an interview with a woman named Julie, who, once upon a time, decided to go and run the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii. She was a P.E. major in college, and happened to see Ironman coverage on TV the year before. She was a surfer and thought it would be a cool excuse to take a trip to Kona, do some surfing, run the Triathlon and then use the experience to write her thesis.


As the interview unfolded, I realized that it sounded a little familiar to me. It seemed like I’d heard it somewhere before. I listened carefully as Julie explained that she had trained for the event, but admitted that it was never “serious” training. She didn’t really worry about it until the gun went off and everything actually began. Still, she finished the 2.4 mile swim well enough, and had a strong 112 miles on the bike – so strong in fact, that as she transitioned to the marathon, she was in second place. More than that, the woman in first was dealing with an achilles injury and, about 8 miles into the run, Julie passed her and moved into 1st place among the women.

Now, I was sure I knew this story. “Julie” was JULIE MOSS. The interview hadn’t included any dates, and made it sound as though the events were recent. No, this was Julie Moss at the Ironman World Championships in 1982. The event was only 4 years old at that point, and it was still very much a fringe event. ABC’s World Wide of Sports had picked up coverage the year before, and that’s when Julie had seen it on TV. They were back again, covering the ‘82 race, and once Julie moved into 1st place, she was front and center on National Television.

Moss explained that after she found herself in the lead, something inside her changed. A competitive drive that she had never felt before emerged with force, and she became determined to win the race. She had a 20-minute lead on the girl in 2nd place, and was constantly aware of that woman’s imminent approach. She drove herself relentlessly forward.

But 1982 was also the wee early days of sports nutrition science, and Julie’s body began to fail her in the late miles of the marathon. 400 meters from the finish line, still in first place, but with her challenger closing fast, she began to lose control of her legs and collapsed. She rose but fell again. She pushed herself up with her arms, walked, found a trot and swaggered, then fell yet again. She staggered like a drunkard, bobbing up and down off the pavement until she was 50 feet from the finish line when she fell a final time and could not push herself back up. The crowd was mad with excitement, imploring her to continue. They and she could see the finish line waiting, so close yet out of reach.

Around the edges of the throng of people surrounding Julie, Kathleen McCartney bounced past, crossed the finish line and won the race. She didn’t even know she had won until race officials drop a medal and a lei around her neck and told her so. And in the background, 20 feet behind, on the wrong side of the line, Julie Moss had pulled herself onto her elbows – because her legs could no longer function – and began to crawl.

That’s how she finished the race, just behind Kathleen McCartney, in 2nd place. But she finished. And the whole thing was broadcast on National Television.

In the RadioLab interview, Julie says that she saw the feet of her competitor run past her as she lay on the ground in front of the finish line. Her legs had stopped working, but there was nothing wrong with her mind. She was completely lucid. She says her very first thought was to just quit; “F it,” she says in the interview. And then something else in her mind spoke: “Get Up.” Get Up. You Can Crawl. Whatever it took, she was going to finish.

That’s just about the last thing I listened to before I turned off the car to get out and go run my own marathon. I didn’t suffer on Saturday in Kenosha the way that Julie Moss did that day in Kona, but that RadioLab show did make a difference in my race.

The 2009 Wisconsin Marathon was a smashing success for me. I felt strong that whole morning, held my speed until late in the race, and ran a 3:44, chopping 15 minutes off my previous best marathon time.

This year, I was eager for more. I was sure I could do as well as last year, had a goal of lowering that PR by any little amount, and had a dream goal of running a 3:3Anything. An 8:20 overall mile pace would get me that dream goal with a little room to spare, so I planned to start out at that speed and hold it for as long as I could. If I slipped off in the later miles, it would still give me an excellent jump on just lowering my PR, and even if I missed that, I could still have a very respectable race.

Conditions for the 2010 race were a little different from last year. The start temp in ’09 was 45 degrees, and got up to 58 before the end of the race, with a light breeze. This year we started at 62, the heat creeped upwards to 68 or 69, and the wind blew in hard from the Southwest at 12mph for much of the second half. Nothing nearly so bad as, say, Chicago in ’07 or ’08, but not ideal, to be sure.

The early miles went well. I felt free and easy and I was hitting my 8:20s or just below with little trouble. The feeling never lasts, but after the first 30 minutes, I felt like I could run 8:20s forever and ever.

Kenosha’s a small town, but there were a fair number of locals and friends of runners out on the street corners to watch and cheer. It really is a nice little race, and runs through a lovely little town with plenty of lake views on the course. The route twists and turns through the neighborhoods a good bit early on, until finally settling into a basic out-and-back on the north end, and another on the southern 2nd half.

It was easy to recall the race route from the year before. At 3 Miles, we ran past what would also be the 12-Mile marker and the Half-Marathon final turn around sign. One of the guys nearby me playfully called out to his buddies, “What!? That’s it? Time to head to the finish line already?!” and then looped around and took a few false strides towards the Park.

After 4 Miles a guy inched up behind me, breathing loud and heavy. I found it rather distracting, and had to move over and slow down so that he would run away from me. I kept thinking, even if he was only in the Half, it was way to early to be breathing that hard.

Just as last year, I opted not to carry my own water bottle, choosing instead to depend on the course aid stations. No matter what type of portable hydrations system I use, carrying that much extra weight affects my gate and therefore my pace. My personal experience with this is undeniable. Instead, I was wearing my RaceReady shorts and had gel packs stuffed in the pockets. I sucked down the first one of these at 6 miles, as we ran back through the heart of town headed north.

I caught my first sight of all the race leaders on the north end out-and-back near mile 7.5. I forgot to check the bib color of the first runner, but he was really truckin’ it back down to town. I assumed he must have been running the Half. Other men and, finally, women popped up behind him, but it was a long time before I saw the first female marathoner. She was less than a mile in front of me when she streamed by. (The first woman finished in 3:26:16, and the second place woman was 5 seconds after her.) Shortly after that, I made it to the northern turn-around myself, and headed south. I would spend the next 11 miles running into the teeth of a stiff wind.

The only trouble I had early on, was a tight, achy muscle group in the strangest of places: my left shoulder. The area connecting my left pectoral to my shoulder joint just wouldn’t loosen up. If I lifted my arm up and rotated my elbow in the air, the pain went away immediately, but as soon as I dropped back down into my normal running motion, the demon instantly returned. It started up in the first couple of miles, and plagued me the entire morning.

This is an obvious thing to say, but experience affects your perspective so much. 26.2 Miles isn’t the uber-massive, intimidating distance that it once seemed to be. I still remember 2006, when I was training for my first marathon, how intimidating those first 10 and 12-mile training runs were. I’m not sure I would have made it through those without Abby, my training partner that summer.

Now, 22 marathons and ultras later, the first 20 miles go by and then the real effort begins. I’ve always heard that miles 1 through 20 are the “first half” of a marathon, the last 10K is the second half. That really is true, and the last 3 or 4 marathons have all been like that for me. The first 10 miles, I’m biding my time, the next 10, I’m finding out how I truly feel that day – how are my time splits looking, where are my strengths, where are the weaknesses in my legs, my form, my mind. Then I really check in with the race clock at the 20-mile mark, and set my goals for the last 10K, crunching numbers, dividing miles into minutes, trying to estimate what I’ve got left and what I can do.

In 2007 at the NYC Marathon, when I was still trying to break 4 hours for the first time, I crossed Mile 20 in exactly 3 hours. I did my quick math and knew I just needed to do 9:30 miles ‘til the end to break 4 hours – and settled for less when my legs would no longer respond in the last 4 miles. I watched my splits slip further and further beyond the 9:30s that I needed, and settled for a 4:03.

The opposite happened 6 months later at the Madison Marathon, when I crossed 20 in 2:59, and clocked an averaged pace of exactly 9:40 for the final 10K to finally break 4 Hours with a 3:59 finish.

Despite my persistent shoulder cramp, the first 10 miles on Saturday were smooth and easy, but the second 10 miles proved to be a little more work. The north loop brought us back through downtown Kenosha before all the Half-Marathoners peeled off at the 12-Mile mark to head toward the finish line. I got to 13 Miles and, roughly, the halfway point (which was unmarked this year) in 1:49, one minute ahead of last year’s pace.

The long out-and-back on the second half of the course is not the most interesting place to run. It reaches down to the southern outskirts of Kenosha, a secluded residential area along Lake Michigan. While heading south, the course detours off of that main road onto even more secluded county roads, dotted with homes. Some of those roads are still dirt and gravel surfaces. After the final turnaround, the course is a straight shot back up along the lake roads to the finish line.

None of this bothers me much. I’m not a runner who is motivated much by the scenery. What did start to creep in on me was the rising thermometer. It still wasn’t “hot”, but it also wasn’t comfortably cool anymore, either. The southern headwinds, which had gained strength past mile 14, at least offered a little relief from the warm, humid air. Regardless, my split times started to slide up into the 8:30 range.

I got into a polite conversation with a couple guys in the 17th mile, but they were slowing down a bit, and my next split was an 8:45. I had to decide if I was going to relent or push on. I pushed. I left the guys behind and concentrated on my leg turnover. I dropped my next split down to an 8:39, but my effort felt harder than that. So, not the greatest sign.

It was a relief to get to that last major turnaround just before Mile 19 and head north again. I was on the homestretch and the wind was at my back, but that didn’t get much rebound and my split at mile 20 was 8:48. So, there I was at the “halfway” point, facing a moment of truth. The race clock was at 2:48:39. I did my mental math. I knew a sub-3:40 was out. That would require 8:15 miles through to the end, and that wasn’t going to happen. However, if I could keep putting out 8:50s I would cross the line with a 3:43 and a new PR. My legs were heavy, but I clutched my optimism.

I did alright the next two miles, with an 8:53 and then a 9:06, but adding 13 seconds from one mile to the next was cause for concern. And the truth was the life in my legs was gone. I felt as though I was plodding down the pavement in cement blocks. The sun was beating down on me. I was genuinely surprised to see that the splits were as “fast” as they were. I began to worry about how much longer I could hang on.

The next two miles got tougher. I split with a 9:21 and then a 9:25, and the mile markers weren’t getting any closer together, and I knew my PR would have to wait for another day. I could really feel the warmth of the day by that point, too. I was still without a water bottle, and I began to regret the 2-mile distance between aid stations on the last 6 miles of the course (a small improvement I might lobby for in future versions of the race). My sense of time began to stretch, and so did my splits. Several runners who I hadn’t seen in miles caught and passed me. I could do nothing but let them go and keep plodding forward.

And it was at that point when, yes, my mind cast back to that RadioLab segment with Julie Moss. I had two voices in my own head, too, the one saying, “just walk, relax, it doesn’t matter,” and the other – the stronger one – saying, “NO, you have to keep running.” The episode had gone on to analyze those reserves of energy that Moss had drawn on, with detailed research about the body’s tendency to lie to your mind about how much is actually left in the tank. Turns out the body tends to be very conservative on those estimates, and that lie is then communicated as pain, or variations thereof. My body was trying to tell me it was stiff and tight and exhausted. I decided not to believe the lie. I chose to believe in myself instead. I kept going. I know I wasn’t moving very fast, but I kept running.

Finally, as I approached the last aid station at Mile 25, I allowed my self to walk the length of the water tables. I was shocked at how my legs felt when I hit the brakes. My walking gate was FAR wobblier than I could have expected. Each foot plant was stiff and uncertain. As I poured water cups over my head, and sipped down servings of Gatorade, I had brief doubts that I would be able to force my legs back into a running pace again. Luckily I was wrong.

My math skills were getting fuzzy, but my watch read 3:35, and I figured I still had to run for maybe 11 more minutes. A 3:46 finish didn’t sound awful. Just a few minutes later, I thought it would have to be more like a 3:47. I decided I could live with a 3:47. I can’t explain why, but 3:48 just sounded kind of awful in my head. I don’t know, 7s are skinny and lucky. 8s are fat and crazy.

The clock was at 3:45:50 when I crossed 26 miles. I could see the finish line around the bend in the park ahead of me. I was going to have to push as hard as I still could to come in with a 7. What I had left wasn’t a whole lot, but I threw it out there and tossed myself across the finish line at 3:47:54. My second fastest marathon ever, and just 3 minutes off my PR. Not too bad. I’ll take it.

Considering the extra heat, I have to feel like this year’s 3:47 is comparable to last year’s 3:44, but I don’t think that alone accounts for all 3 of those minutes. I put a lot more miles on my legs this spring than last year as well, all in preparation for the 100-Miler in San Diego in 6 weeks. The miles took a different toll, and my basic speed peaked and was sharpest about 6 weeks before the marathon – too soon. I still have a lot of things to learn about how my body responds to training.

It’s worth your time to listen to that RadioLab show. Both the Episode and the Series are just phenomenal. The Julie Moss segment is from the episode titled “Limits”, and you can listen to, or download the Podcast for free HERE. (You can also subscribe for free on iTunes.)
After you've heard "Limits", I recomend you listen to the episode titled "Stochasticity" next. If you're not hooked on RadioLab after that, there might be something wrong with you.

You can watch a video recap of Julie Moss’ 1982 Ironman finish on YouTube HERE. (Just ignore the cheesy, low-rent background music.)

And finally this is a print interview with Julie before the 2003 Ironman, the 25th anniversary of the event. She went back to run it again for the first time since the 1980s and reflects on the overall experience in a little more detail than in the RadioLab segment. That link is HERE.

As for the original broadcast of the Moss’ Ironman finish in 1982? It was a phenomenon. People watching the broadcast called their friends and insisted that they turn on their TVs because they “had to see this.” Julie was instantly famous and so, too, was the Ironman. After Julie’s brutal finish on Wide World of Sport in 1982, applications for the event began to skyrocket so much that a qualifying system had to be put in place for the athletes. That’s right: Watching Julie Moss suffer on National TV made people want to do the race more.

Just further proof that I’m not the only one.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Race Report: Chicago Lakefront 50K

I signed up to run this spring’s Chicago Lakefront 50K on a bit of a lark. I had several 20-mile runs planned for my training schedule and though a 20-mile training run doesn’t feel as daunting as it once did, they can get a bit monotonous. These last 2 seasons, I’ve started looking for ways to spice up those 3 hour training runs: different locations, different days of the week, running with or without my music and NPR, etc.

I’ve never run one of the Lakefront 50s. It’s a twice a year event (with a 50-Mile distance added to the fall version), and it’s held just 2 miles from my apartment, but I’ve always missed it for one reason or another. Back in early February it popped into my mind, and when I checked the Spring date, I found that the Saturday morning it was scheduled for was the same day I had planned to do my of my 20s.

What an easy way to liven up my training run! The LF50K is a simple, 10+ Mile loop course, 5 out and 5 back. It’s held on sections of the lakefront path which I already know so well. Aid station support is set up every 2.5 miles, and the entry fee is a super reasonable $30 dollars. I could sign up and jump in for the first 20 miles at a responsible, training pace, then see how I felt and maybe tack on the final 11 miles at a slow and gentle trot to see if I could earn a finisher’s medal. If I was spent after 20, I could easily call it a day, go home, and lose nothing.

The wrench in the plans came with the mail a few weeks later: an invitation to my cousin’s wedding in Auburn, Alabama scheduled for the Friday evening before the race. I missed a good friend’s wedding for a silly work-related reason 10 years ago, regretted it immediately, and swore that ever after I would remember that life, and family were more important than those silly things.

At the same time, I’m in the midst of a long, difficult training cycle, which I hope will culminate in my first successful 100-Mile finish in San Diego in June. These big 20-Mile (and 31-Mile) training runs are hard to make up when you miss them. How was I going to be in Auburn at 6pm Friday night for the wedding, and also at the start of the race on the Chicago Lakefront the following morning at 8:30?

I scoured the race schedules for Georgia and Alabama for the weekend: NO marathons or ultras seemed to be on the calendar for the area. I considered skipping the wedding, but that was a distasteful thought. I considered skipping the race, but that would have put me in a different kind of hole.

Finally I went back to look through flight schedules between Atlanta and Chicago. Of all the airlines, and all the flights between the two cities over that weekend, there was exactly ONE flight that would leave Atlanta after the wedding and arrive in Chicago before the race: a United Airlines affiliate, that would depart Atlanta at 6:30 am, local time on Saturday morning, and land in Chicago at 7:30 am CST. If – and that was a big “if” – the flight was on time, it would leave me 1 hour to get from the gate at the airport to the start line of the race.

So, yep. That’s what I did.

James and Leslie’s wedding was wonderful. I was the only cousin who was able to make it, so I was extra glad I was there. We enjoyed the reception until 11pm, and then Laura, my parents and I drove back to Mom and Dad’s house outside Atlanta, 30 minutes from the airport. We all got about 4 hours of sleep, then trucked up to the airport for the 6:30 flight. The plane was on time and even landed in Chicago a few minutes early. The taxi we jumped in hit no traffic at all on the way towards the lake and it turned out we had enough to time to get dropped off at our apartment, change clothes and drive ourselves to the race site at the lake. I had 15 whole minutes to pick up my race packet, pin on my number and loosen up a little before they yelled, “Go.”

Easy-peasy, no sweat, why was I worried again?

The quick pit-stop at home allowed me the chance to do one potentially foolish thing: pick up my new pair of shoes. I placed an on-line order for a pair of Asics Hyper Speed 4s. UPS had delivered them in the day and a half that we’d been out of town for the wedding.

I’m a looong way from becoming a barefoot runner, but over the last year, I have become a believer in lightweight shoes. Lightweight equals minimal. Since New Balance has discontinued the racing flats I was fond of, I’ve before forced to try some other brands. The Hyper Speeds are not the absolute lightest available, but they’re only 6.9 ounces, and they are $40 cheaper than the lightest shoe Asics sells.

I was stoked to try them out, and when we got to the front door of the apartment and saw them resting against the door frame, well, I couldn’t resist. I threw an old pair of shoes into my gear bag, and put the new Asics on my feet. They have red highlights, but they’re mostly bright white. Combined with my black compression socks, I had some old man style going, but I didn’t care. The shoes felt good.

Don’t be like me: NEVER where new shoes during a long race – especially not if they are fresh out of the box. Don’t be like me. I had my back-up pair on hand, and would be able to change every five miles if the new ones gave me trouble.

Back when I registered, I made a solemn promise to myself to go easy. I wasn’t out to do any racing. The real goal, I told myself over and over, was to get in the 20 training miles. Something at, or just slower than, a 9 minute per mile pace would get me that. I carried my own bottle, but I would enjoy the aid stations. I would enjoy a sub-5-hour finish, but a low-stress run would be more critical. And I was committed to dropping if I was pooped after the first 20 miles.

I was pleased, then, to see that the race was run as a laid-back, low-key affair. There were 200 runners (or less) at the start line, and it was an interesting mix of people. There were real trail ultra veterans, there were racing dudes with their singlets, there were the average city marathoner types, who were daring to go just a little bit farther, there were also (because the race is run in honor of George Cheung) a large number of Asian (Chinese, I believe) runners out to run as well.

It was a chilly morning, with a stiff breeze coming up at us from the Southeast, off the lake. I was grateful to have my wind vest and gloves on for the start. But the sun was out, the lakefront was only sparsely populated, and it was a lovely morning.

The race course starts out near the beach house on the lake at Foster Avenue. They were set up right on the running path. From there the course stays on the path until Montrose, where it diverts to a trail that follows the water’s edge on the east side of the golf course. The mid-way aid station is tucked in there at the 2.5 mile point near the clock tower. The route then goes all the way to the very tip of the entrance of Belmont Harbor and then swings around the bank of the harbor to spit you back out onto the bike path just below Addison. After that, you stay on the bike path all the way south to Diversey Harbor, when you loop under the bridge to cut inland to the south point aid station. Then you turn around and go back to the start. After three loops of that, you’ve done 31 miles.

Because I know the lakefront so well, the miles went by rather quickly. I found that all the little out-and-backs were easy to break down in my head. It’s always just 5 miles to the next goal. Seriously, it’s the easiest 50K you’ll ever run. And that was a nice, relaxing fact, too: Almost no matter what I did, I was going to run a 50K PR.

Just over a mile in, while I was still trying to settle into my rhythm, I heard a voice behind me say, “Hey, how long’s it been since you had a haircut?” but the tone was not a playful disdain, but admiration – something I don’t usually hear.

“It’s been two and a half years,” I told the fellow, but confessed it was more from laziness than intention. He’d gone six months without a haircut, and he thought that was a long time, but he had a purpose. He and his friend were training for the Comrades Ultramarathon in South Africa, and he’d decided not to get a haircut until he had finished that race.

Comrades is an amazing, famous, 56-Mile Ultra which has been held since 1921 and thousands of people run each year. It is the oldest, largest Ultra in the world. It’s famous for the amazing history of the race, for the hills, and for an unforgiving, 12-hour cutoff time. You don’t finish in less than 12 hours, you don’t get a time at all.

I chatted with these two guys for a few miles. We talked about Comrades, we talked about the 100-miler I’m training for. (They actually had a tough time wrapping their heads around the idea of running for 24 or 30 hours, which I thought was odd since they were already onboard with Comrades.) And we talked a little bit about running and training in Chicago. But after a couple of miles, they were ready to move on a little faster than I, and I let them go. I had no intention of getting caught up in someone else’s race during my easy little training run.

As it turned out, that was the only trail conversation I had with anyone the whole race. Once everyone got spread out in those early miles and found their pace, I really didn’t pass or get passed by many folks. In most ultras I’ve run, the hills and varied terrain winds up being a real equalizer and as the race goes on, lots of people fall off their early pace, so you wind up meeting new runners as the race goes on. I found that didn’t really happen at the LF50K. Nice then, that the course was such a small, contained loop, because you were constantly passing runners, both in front of you and behind you, who were headed the opposite direction.

I was also amused (and I mean that in a good way) to be cheered on by the marathon training clubs who were out doing their long runs that Saturday morning. I’ve no idea what distance they might have been covering, but it was fun to go by a pack of women in an 11 or 12-minute pace group and get a dose of the motivational “You can do it’s” that they are always getting and giving to themselves.

The only disappointing thing about the race for me was that my legs just seemed a little more sluggish than I’d hoped for. I expected to be able to hum along at a 9 minute pace, but I found it was something closer to 9:15s and 9:20s. Certainly not the end of the world, but still, a tell-tale sign of fatigue. Yes, I was operating on less sleep, but I was also near the end of the highest mileage month of my life. By the end of the race, I was at 193 miles for March, and 5 days later, on the 31st, I finished with 214, my first-ever plus-200 month.

Even after being a “runner” for seven years, and an “ultra-runner” for nearly four, I’m still learning a great deal about how my body responds to training. I turned in an excellent marathon last year after maxing out at 165 miles the month before. This year, the real goal is a 100-Mile finish in June, but I’m still hoping for another strong marathon on May 1st. It will be interesting to see what, if any, effect the extra miles have on my legs.

The cold and wind persisted throughout my first two loops, but after 20 miles, I still felt good enough to turn around and try for one more loop. My slightly slower than expected pace, plus a minute or two stop at each aid station had me through 20+ miles with a 3:20. A sub-5-hour finish was not out of the question, but it would be tight. I’d done each leg in right around 50 minutes. I’d need two more legs just under that pace for a sub-5. I considered. Ambition met sensibility and sensibility won. Forget the clock, this last 10 was just for fun.

Somewhere around the 23 or 24 mile point, I found I was really having one of those “why the heck am I doing this stupid $#!+” moments. 3 more miles south-bound into the teeth of that early afternoon wind sucked a lot of life out of me. My legs were heavy, and my torso started to feel like someone had been using it for a punching bag all morning. I walked a decent piece of that next-to-last leg. Not a lot of it, but enough to add about 8 minutes to my split.

When I got to the southern turnaround that last time, Laura was there waiting for me, as she had been at the top and bottom of the course all morning. She had my little bag of gear. I ditched a couple of layers, losing my vest, and the thermal, in favor of my long-sleeve ¾ zip. I dropped my gloves, and I handed over my water bottle. I wanted to free my hands up. I just had a little 5-mile leg to run to the finish line. No problem.

Even still, I was amazed at how much better I suddenly felt. The wind was at my back, the sun was out, and – this may be most important of all – I wasn’t carrying that 20 oz. water bottle anymore. For the first time all day, I got right into a nice stride and started to really groove my way up the bike path. I felt free and light and powerful. The lethargy that had zapped me just 25 minutes before had completely disappeared. I didn’t stop or even care to, when I came to the mid-point aid station. I powered on by. I blasted past at least a half-dozen other runners in those last 5 miles, and felt strong even as I crossed the finish line. I ran faster on that last leg than I did on any other leg of the day. My slow 5th leg prevented me from a negative or even split, but I still brought it home with a 5:08:58 – yes, a PR by nearly 10 minutes, and my first ultra with a sub-10-minute overall pace.

Oh, and I’m pleased to report that my brand new shoes served me beautifully. No trouble of any kind. They felt good, actually. I’ve still got my orange New Balance racing flats for my key road races over the next year or so, but I intend to my the Asics Hyper Speeds my primary training shoe for the time being. (Now I just need to settle on a good trail shoes for my upcoming ultras.)

I think there is a lot more for me to explore regarding the difference in feel I have while running with and without a water bottle in hand. This is only the final piece of evidence I have that proves I run better without one. Barring extreme heat (a la the Chicago Marathon 2007) I don’t think I’ll ever carry a bottle in a road race ever again.

But the obstacle still exists for my trail-based ultras when the aid stations are usually 5 to 6 miles and sometimes hours apart. I can’t be out there without carrying my own hydration. The backpack systems have always given me terrible shoulder pain. The waist strap bottles tend to give me stomach muscle cramps, and the hand bottles apparently do a lot to mess with my stride. Some further alteration thereof seems to be in order, yet.

In the meantime, I did, indeed, get a nice little 50K finish and a fun training run. I can’t say the LF50K is a remarkable race, but given its proximity and the low entry fee, I’ll be back when the schedule allows. Maybe I can return in the fall and knock out a “fast” 50-Miler!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Shamrock Shuffle ’10 – Volunteer Report

There’s some irony here: Last year I signed up for the Shuffle, but opted not to run for 38 minutes through downtown in 30 degrees, stiff winds and 6 inches of fresh snow. This year, I signed up as a race volunteer and had to stand still outside for 3 hours in the 35 degrees, with stiff winds and light rain. (Luckily the 2 inches of slushy snow fell yesterday.)

I’m good, I am. But no worries. I bundled up and headed downtown. I'd been looking forward to this, and icky weather wasn't going to stop me this year.

It’s the first time I’ve volunteered at an event this big. The Shuffle registers 35,000 runners. They take on thousands and thousands of volunteers for race weekend. It is – by necessity – a somewhat impersonal process. There is little time available for volunteer “training”, and so the quantity of responsibility doled out to each volunteer is minute.

I was assigned as a “Runner Info” volunteer. My assignment was based largely on the fact that I signed up, not as part of a church or community group (which are generally put in larger areas, like aide stations, where they can function as a group), but as an individual. Thus, I was stationed at a mostly solitary outpost near Michigan Avenue with an orange bib to answer runners’ questions as they entered Grant Park.

The training supplied for our job took about 2 minutes. We were given a big laminated map of the staging area and told where the Gear Check Tents were, because that would be our most frequent question. Then they walked us out to Michigan Avenue and scattered us at several spots down the street on the southern end of the park.

Really, though, I thought I had an ideal assignment, ‘cause, hey, I’m a runner, too, and I’ve run more than a dozen events over the last five years that were staged on Columbus Drive in Grant Park. I didn’t really need much volunteer training. I’m full of experience-earned tips on how to get around, where to find things, the best place to look for short lines at the port-a-potties and the easiest way to get into your assigned start corral. Once I’d spotted the precise locations of the various encampments for this particular day, I was good to go.

The reality, though, was far more mundane. I spent three hours manning my little territory, and true enough, 90% of the questions I fielded were about the location of Ye Olde Gear Check Tent.

There was a little variety:
= I started out on the sidewalk right at Michigan Avenue, and drivers kept pulling their cars over to the curb to ask me questions about parking. I did my best with those, but I really am only good with “Runner” info. I rarely drive or park down at Grant Park.

= One of the first runners to come by stopped and asked me if he had his timing chip attached to his shoe correctly. He had taped it around the bow of one of his shoe strings and it was flapping around like a price tag. So the answer was, “No, sir, you do NOT,” and we both had a good chuckle about it, once he realized his mistake. I got him to tuck it into the lacings against the tongue and sent him on his way.

= The official event hotel was across the street from me, and an hour before race time, I saw two dark, lithe men in warm-up suits headed up the sidewalk towards me. I recognized the Kenyan Flag on one of their jackets from 200 feet away. The other, who spoke English well, came right up to me and asked where the Elite Warm-Up Tent would be. They spent a minute with me while I used the map to explain where they were and what corner they should head for. Neither man could have been more polite. I smiled warmly, looked them both in the eye and said, “Good luck.” They grinned back. I didn’t see the man who spoke to me again; he must have been an event guide, or coach. The other gentleman I saw running down Michigan Avenue, four miles into the race, leading the field alone with a 15 to 20 second gap. His name was John Kemboi and he won the race. It’s a good thing for him that I gave him directions and wished him luck, because, clearly, without me, he’d never have had a chance.

= I helped one father and son who were trying to figure out where the dad should stand to see his son run by. I told them they’d be good anywhere on Michigan Avenue, but they should agree what side of the street dad would be on, or the son would never see him. That was my experience at work.

= I also got to dole out sage advice to three different guys who were trying to get into one of the lead corrals. I told them not to go east and walk up Columbus, as that would have them walking up the backs of 20,000 other runners. Instead, I advised them to work their way north up Michigan Ave., along the edges of the park, until they were nearly parallel to the starting gates. Then they could walk straight across to their corrals and avoid a lot of people. Again, the voice of experience.

Unfortunately, most of the excitement came from one of my fellow volunteers. Less than 20 minutes before race time, a woman approached me and asked if I knew were the Medical Tent was. (It was about 250 yards directly east of me.) She said she was asking because one of the other Runner Info Volunteers had fainted and hurt herself badly when she fell. I could see her sitting on a stone bench a block and a half south of me. She was being tended by an older gentleman who had been working near her.

I pointed the way to the medical tent, but after another minute or so, I decided to trot down to where the girl was to see how she was doing. She was pretty shaken up, still a little disoriented, and not a little scared. She had fallen face first, with a fat, bloody lip and a bleeding knee as proof. One of the first things I asked her was if she had ever fainted before, and she said no. (I could tell that had unnerved her as much as anything else.) One of the few things I know that could cause a faint in someone not prone to it, is low blood sugar. I asked if she’d eaten anything this morning, and she indicated yes, but I wasn’t sure if she heard me clearly. I felt like, regardless, it was a good idea to go ahead and get her to a heated tent where she could get some fruit or fruit juice. We helped her stand, I hooked her elbow (“just like we’re going to the prom,” I joked with her), and we walked together to the Medical Tent.

I kept her talking as we went with some friendly chit-chat, because I was hoping to help her calm down and clear her head just a little bit. Best if she not keep thinking about things too much and get more panicky. After she told me her name was Kim, I stuck to Yes or No questions: Yes, she was a runner; Yes, she lived in the city; Yes, she had run the marathon; No, I wasn’t walking too fast for her. I told her I’d fainted once, too, and clanged my head on the bedroom dresser as I went down. I understood how it felt. Her arm felt frail and uncertain in mine.

When I got Kim to the Med Tent, a couple of the EMTs sat her down on a cot and started asking some of their own questions, taking her blood pressure. (They’d gotten word she was out there and sent someone to look, but they must have missed us somehow as we walked in.) I stayed with her for a few minutes, but now that the EMTs and the RNs were at work, I felt extraneous. I told Kim that if she was released, maybe she could swing by where we were on Michigan to let us know she was ok, but that she should stay there at the Med Tent as long as possible. I asked if there was anyone she could call, and she said yes, but then was drawn back into a question from the Medics. I waved goodbye and headed back out to work.

One of the other girls in our Info group had been aquainted with Kim as part of a marathon training team the year before. If I had thought about it at the time, I would have drafted her to come with us, so that Kim would have someone a little familiar to sit with. I was so focused on getting her to Medical, that I just didn't remember it until later. Opportunity missed.

Half an hour later, after the race was well under way, I went back by the Med Tent to see if Kim was okay. One of the guys there told me she’d been released and, yes, was alright. After more questions, she remembered that, in fact, she hadn’t eaten breakfast before coming down to the event. They put some food in her, let her rest a few minutes and then she was good enough to head home. She’ll have a good story to tell when people ask her about her lip for the next week.

And that was it, mostly. There were a lot of volunteers in my group who were also runners. They came out to volunteer wearing their cold weather running gear. The bad news is, that stuff is meant for keeping you warm in 35 degree weather when you are running. It’s not as useful at keeping you warm when you’re standing still for 3 hours. A lot of them spent various amounts of time in the nearby Starbucks drinking coffee and shaking off the shakes. I had on two thermal layers from head to toe, with a waterproof shell and I was still shivering.

Other than the chill, it was a painless morning for me, and I would be glad to go back and work another event like the Shuffle. (Maybe next time, I’ll see if I can work a Key Volunteer position and put more of my experience to work.) But I think I’m looking forward to working a smaller event or an Ultra. If I can stand the cold, I’m liking the idea of spending the weekend in Pekin, IL, next month at the McNaughton Park Ultra. I can work one of the Aid Stations and maybe find one of the 100-mile runners to pace for a loop or two overnight. Then I’ll really be earning my volunteer stripes.

Monday, January 25, 2010

1st Half of '10 is Taking Shape

It’s Official! I am a registered participant in the San Diego 100 Mile Endurance run on June 12th & 13th this summer. My application was received and accepted this weekend, and the Race Director posted the official list earlier today. So, my second attempt at 100 Miles shall commence in less than 5 months.

I’m well aware, 100 miles is never “easy”, no matter where it is run, but the course at Burning River, which I tried to finish in Ohio last August, is relatively flat. (Relatively.) On the other hand, SD100 is run in the Laguna Mountains an hour outside of San Diego. Not so relatively flat. I tried the BR100 on only so-so training. There’s no way that will fly this time. But I’m already feeling good about my prospects.

Even before I knew my entry had been accepted (it was possible that a lottery process would be required), I began training. I’ve been rebuilding base miles since mid-December. I’ve added extra aerobic work with a mile worth of laps in the pool several times a week on top of my running. I’ve added a gentle, low-mileage run to my week, which means I run 6 days a week now. The seventh day is one of my swim days; I’ve never gotten aerobic activity 7 days a week before.

I’m picking ways to add hill work into my routine. (Never easy in Chicago.) The treadmills at the gym will be good for that. I’ll start spending just a little time on the Stair Master a couple or three times a week, and I’ll be heading out of the city a lot more often to do my Long Runs on some actual, hilly trails (such as we have in Chicago).

The biggest change I’ve made is to begin some basic weight training. Nothing crazy, just basics, and not just arms and legs, but also trying to pay worthy attention to my core and back. I haven’t done any real weight training since I was a junior in high school and had to do a few quarters of P.E. to fulfill graduation requirements. So far, I’m enjoying it, though. Like I said, nothing crazy; the point is to serve my running fitness. I don’t want another DNF this summer. I learned early last year that I can get far better race results if I dial things back or even take unscheduled off days when my body feels run down, and I’ll do that again this spring if I need to.

I’ll run the Lakefront 50K late in March. I’ll use the first 2/3rds of it as a training run, then depending how I feel, I’ll ease my way through the end and try for a finish. I’m running the Wisconsin Marathon again on May 1st. That’s also, basically, a training run now, but I’m still hoping to turn in a good, strong time. Two or three weeks after that, I’m going to organize some kind of long, final training run for myself near Chicago. Something in the range of 45 or 50 miles. Then I’ll start a taper and head to San Diego in the middle of June.

The race awarded Brass Belt Buckles to 30 sub-24-hour finishers last year. 52 more runners finished before the final, 31-hour cutoff and received a Bronze Buckle. 43 other runners (33%) were Did Not Finishers. I don’t care one bit which color mine Buckle turns out to be, I just want to make sure I get one.

There’s still plenty of prep and research to do. Not sure yet what kind of a crew I’ll have with me. (My sister says she’s interested again, but we already know Laura won’t be able to come out.) I learned at Burning River that I really do need, at least, one over-night pacer. I’ll have to track down someone who’s willing to do that. Then travel, and a place to stay, etc… But I’m really excited about this. I like the way the schedule sets up the next few months and I already feel really good about the work I’m doing. It’s been a year since I was this in tune with my training.

Mark my words: I am NOT going to DNF this one.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


I got an e-mail last week from the Shamrock Shuffle. It’s a big 8K race run in downtown Chicago every year. They typically get upwards of 30,000 runners and, for 6 of the last 7 years, I’ve been one of them. The e-mail was a cool little ego stroke. It was reminding me that if I sign up for this year’s race, I’ll be automatically seeded in a start corral near the front because of my past year’s performance. Despite that I still haven’t signed up. I really do love the course, which winds all over the heart of downtown Chicago. It’s just that the event itself is rather overwhelmingly large. So many runners, a heavy race entry fee – there’s even a runner expo the weekend of the race – it’s a lot for a little 8K. So, I was waffling.

And then it occurred to me: I don’t have to run it to be in it, I can work it as a volunteer! Then, as I looked at my prospective race calendar for 2010, the idea got a little bigger. I expect to run in 5 or 6 key races this year, so I will also try to work as a volunteer for the same number of events, and I will make that one of my running goals for the next 12 months, just like all the rest.

I’ve volunteered plenty of times before – at least 3 or 4 times a year the last few years – but I’ve never made it a mission like I’m doing right now. I’ll start with the Shuffle this March, and be sure to pick up a couple more of the local 10Ks and such here in town. But, I’ll also pick an Ultra somewhere in reasonable driving distance and spend a weekend out on the course at an aid station or something. And here’s the last wrinkle to my plan: I’m going to try and convince someone else to come out and volunteer with me at each of these events; if I’m good they’ll be a volunteer virgin, or even someone who’s not a runner at all.

This only makes a lot of sense. I’ve always enjoyed the atmosphere of racing. The first times I ever volunteered, it was for races that I couldn’t run, for one reason or other, but wanted to be a part of anyway. These last couple of years, rising entry fees (and lack of time) have encouraged me to race less, but now I can go back to races I used to enjoy and give back a little work instead.

Wherever you are, I encourage you to do the same. A 5K only takes a few hours on a weekend morning. Go help set up tables, hand out paper cups and cheer on your crazy neighbors!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Race Report: 100kout Mountain 2009

This Race Report has been a little delayed because, well, the truth is, the race didn’t really go well for me this year. I had a great time at Lookout Mountain last year. It's a class event and a lovely course, and even though I knew I wasn't in great racing shape for the run, I didn't want to completely miss it this year.

Funny, though, how the spirit of optimism can carry you through almost everything but the finish line.

I got through the first 14.5 miles relatively unscathed – and then, much to my great surprise, the wheels came off. I’ve had tough stretches and difficult races and totally bad days, but I can scarce remember another time when I was moving along relatively well, and then, all at once, I had no energy to run anymore. Worse, at that point, I was at the bottom of Lookout Mountain and was about to begin a long 8-mile climb back to the top of it. Suffice it to say, about an hour into that ascent, I was cooked.

I might have slugged it out, but for the weather. It wasn’t bad, but the temps were in the low 30s and it was windy. The rain that had nearly cancelled the race the day before was mostly absent (at least, while I was on the course), but the after effects were still present, and parts of the trail were a sloggy mess. So, between the wet and the cold and the wind, I just wasn’t confident that I could keep moving rapidly enough to keep my core temperature high enough to stave off a mild case of hypothermia. (That’s not an exaggeration.)

So, I did the smart thing and called it a day when the course brought me back through the Start/Finish line at just over 23 miles into the race. I would have been a lot happier with my DNF if my drop point could somehow have been past 26.2 miles. Then, at least, I could say I ran an Ultra distance. As it was, I didn’t even get in a marathon, and that bugged me – but, still, it was the right thing to drop when I did. I’m sure of it. I’ve run the 50-milers. I’ve run the hard, hilly 50Ks. I made it 70 miles into my first shot at 100M. I know how my legs feel in those late miles. I know when my quads are trashed and even running down hill is a stiff-legged, difficult task. My legs felt like that after only 18 miles this year. I was done.

It’s all good, though. I had a lot of work the last few months of 2009, and I made some good money doing it. It wrecked my training time, but honestly, I needed some down time for my legs anyway. 2010 will shake out differently and I’ll see about taking another crack at 100kout Mountain. I’ll finish it again next time.

It was good to see some folks I got to know at last year’s race. Kris Whorton, last year’s RD, recognized me at the pre-race meeting and was glad to see me back again. I ran into one of the runner who I got lost with at last year’s race. She and I had a good time reminiscing about that as we ran. And Abigail was back running again, too. Unfortunately, she had a worse day than I did. She took a fall just 10 miles in, twisted an ankle and had to drop at the second aid station. I caught up to her as she was walking her way there, and walked in with her those last ten minutes, talking and catching up a little as we went. I joked with her that last year she had to slow down to escort me to my finish and this year, I was doing the same for her. I warned the aid station volunteers when we came in that she was dropping, but to watch out for her, because she was stubborn and might try and talk her way back out onto the course again. I told them not to let it happen because the injury was real and she needed to stop. Then I made sure Abi got a phone call in for her family to come get her, gave her a warm kiss on the cheek, and promised to see her again next year, at least.

I also met a guy (a kid, really) who, just a month before, had just finished a complete, summer-long, through-hike of the Appalachian Trail, Maine-to-Georgia. He was running his first-ever ultra after having entered the race only the night before on a whim on account of his weekend plans to drive to North Carolina for a friend’s wedding were cancelled because of a snow storm in North Carolina. Yup. He was a good-natured guy and had a lot of questions about ultras, this being his first one. A lot of his questions were really good ones, and I guess, after I answered his first one in a friendly way without laughing, he decided it was safe to ask me a bunch more as we ran. (I did my best to represent the Collective Wisdom as best I could without excessive pontification.)

He was a little on the short side, broad shouldered, and had an impressive, long, dark reddish beard – earned, I’m sure, with 4 months of cross-country hiking. He looked to me a little like John Rhys-Davies in “Lord of the Rings,” and in my head I couldn’t help but nickname him Gimli. Whether by my advice or his own natural fortitude (the latter, I’m sure), he finished all 50 miles in just under 12 hours. A great run for a first-timer!

Finally, I tried a new trick while I was on course for the race. Instead of just taking photos with my camera, I shot a few videos of myself giving in-race updates. They’re a little silly (at least, I feel a little silly about myself when watching them now), but they aren’t too long, and I’m going to dare to post them here. The only disclaimer I offer is that it was dang cold out there and my face (and mouth) muscles were not as agile as they would normally be. Anyhoo, here they are without further apologies. (My personal favorite is “UltraRunner Lamaze”, the next to last clip.)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The King is Dead. Long Live the King.

When your shoe company discontinues your favorite shoe, what do you do? Accept change, move on and try out the replacement, or cling to the past and stock-pile the old model? (I think Elaine once had a quandary similar to this on Seinfeld.)

It’s not a decision I’ve faced before. Nike is apparently famous for it. They develop a shoe, offer updates with gradual improvements, get it to where everyone (or lots of people) think it’s just right and then – boom – they scrap the thing, never to be seen again.

I don’t wear Nikes, though. I wear New Balance, and until now, I’ve never faced the loss of my favorite shoe model. But this past Fall, New Balance discontinued production of the 790. It was a trail running shoe that also got a lot of cross promotion as a casual fashion shoe. It was nothing fancy, but the minimal, fly-weight construction isn’t very common in a trail-running shoe. It was kind of like an off-road racing flat. And it was kind of perfect. In fact, I already own three pairs.

New Balance now sells, instead, a completely redesigned light-weight, trail running flat which they’ve dubbed the 100. (All New Balance shoes are named with numbers if you didn’t know.) Same general idea as the 790 – but a totally different shoe.

I hesitated. New isn’t bad. The 100s could be awesome. I already had a set of the 790s. I could just wear those out and, in time, make the switch to the new shoe. Then I started reading the reviews. The consensus? Good but not better. Improvements, but also setbacks. Worst of all for me, the 100s are built on a narrower foot bed than the 790s and I have wide feet.

So, over Christmas, I panicked.

It took a lot of searching online (it’s amazing how many links within links you have to chase to buy certain retail items online nowadays), but I finally turned up a source (maybe the only one) that still had those glorious old 790s in stock in my size. They were at a Nordstrom in Skokie, of all places, so I guess it was the casual shoe market that saved me. I bought two pairs, bringing the total in my possession to five. I nearly bought a third pair, but managed to restrain myself. They were on final clearance sale, too, which was a bitter-sweet silver lining.

Yes, at some point, in spite of my efforts, the end will still come. But I might be able to get three of four years out of the shoes I’ve stashed, maybe longer. Perhaps by then there will be an update (or two) of those 100s and I’ll be happy to try them out for real. Who knows?

In the meantime, I’ll be asking myself one question frequently: is this run 790 worthy?

Monday, January 4, 2010

Cold Weather Coward

I glanced back up my training chart yesterday and realized that I've run outside just twice since Thanksgiving. One of those outside runs was a race and the other was a day when the air temp was nearly 60 degrees.

It's official: I'm a cold weather wimp.

I said as much to Laura yesterday and she laughed her dissent. It's true, I have done some decidedly un-wimpy things out in the weather and the cold (and she's seen many of them), but lately, the thought of heading outside in the cold, dark, late afternoon just scares me right back inside again.

In past winters, I've had little choice. This year, I've got a cold weather coward's golden ticket: a monthly pass at the YMCA. I've been getting my fill of 4 and 6 milers on the indoor treadmill at the Y. I once scoffed and giggled and pointed a jesting finger at the gym rats and their hamster wheels, and now I'm officially one of them. There are perks, though, to working in the gym: a fancy heart-rate monitor built into the treadmill, a room full of weight machines, and best of all, a pool in the basement. (In which I now swim a full mile several times a week.)

I'm in the process of rebuilding my base mileage this month before hopping full bore into marathon training for the spring, so at some point I'm going to have to Man Up again and head outside for some weekend long runs. But now that we've cleared Christmas, the days are getting longer again, and the temperature ought to soar north of 45 again by, oh, say, April. When that happens, I'll be the first one outside again in my shorts and long sleeves.

Until then, a Coward I shall remain.