Friday, December 4, 2009

I'm still here

Contrary to impressions, I haven't completely disappeared. I have been remiss in updating this blog, though, sorry about that.

On the running side, I remain in the dark purgatory of a seemingly-never-ending injury to my left hip. Doctors, injections, physical therapists, accupuncturists, and willfully ignoring the thing have all failed to gain a cure. I'm still in pain 24 hours a day, and that's been true for over seven months now. I'll keep fishing around for something that will actually help this thing get better. At this point, I think I am left with time ... I've heard it's supposed to heal all wounds. We'll see.

This is now my longest layoff from running in my entire adult life. Longer than the time I completely severed my achilles tendon and needed reconstructive surgery and a long painful rehab. To say that this year of running (er, not running) has been frustrating would be a vast understatement.

But life does present us with hurdles, some small and some large. I can see that this is one of my large ones. It's important to be patient, but it's difficult to maintain that in the face of month after month with no real progress. As runners, we all go through periods of injury, this one has just been particularly long for me. Sigh.

I was working on a conclusion to the general training outline I've been posting here. I'll get back to that and post soon. Again, I apologize for the delays, perhaps I need to stop feeling sorry for myself and get back to communicating and sharing (hey, any chance that might have any healing powers?).

Monday, September 21, 2009


Now that we've discussed the first two principles of training, it's time to get more complicated by adding intensity.

In essence, intensity is really just how 'hard' you train. Once you've laid in a base of frequent and appropriate-duration training, the truth is that you can just maintain that and you'll be fairly fit and probably make your physician very happy! Frequent aerobic exercise is great for your heart and lungs, burns calories, builds muscle, and recent studies suggest that it even benefits brain function. That's terrific.

The equation starts getting complicated if your goal is for something more: peak performance. In other words, just being fairly fit isn't the goal that you strive for; instead, you want to start testing the limits of your current ability as an athlete. In order to do this, you need to start adding some higher intensity training to your routine.

There are many, many books written on training as a runner. Up until this point in my reflections, most of them agree about 99% ... training starts with a base. But when it moves into a phase where intensity is added, the authors/coaches/researchers start to branch in different directions. Some suggest an almost-singular focus on running fast, to the exclusion of easier running. Others suggest simply adding in some fast running, in a rather unstructured way. Others publish multi-page charts showing you exactly what to run every day until you achieve a particular goal. All of these approaches, along with still others, are carefully plotted out, based on experience and research, and (frankly) probably work fairly well for at least some subset of runners. In other words, adding intensity, through whatever pattern or method you choose, will help you run faster.

But there is a warning here: adding intensity significantly increases your risk of injury. For that reason, I am going to advocate for a particular path or series of steps that I recommend you follow in order to add intensity. Is my "method" any better than that of the others? Possibly, for some of you, and possibly not for others of you. I am here to tell you that one method, one plan, one approach is simply not going to apply to everyone, period. As you gain experience as a runner/athlete, you will begin to understand what works best for you, and you will make adjustments to your training based on that understanding. No one, without working with you as a coach for years, is able to blindly recommend a perfect training program. 'Nuff said on that.

I advocate for a slow, methodical approach. I believe this will reduce your risk of injury, and maximize the chance that these workouts will build toward a peak without become drudgery. Of course, I'm aiming primarily at "working adults" here, not at high school or college athletes, or world champions (although this approach might be good for any of them, if they have the time to invest in it). I'm also aiming toward "lifetime runners", or those of us who would like to run and keep running. If your goal is to burn hot and short, try something else.

The basic pattern would be:
1. Tempo (2 months)
2. Intervals and hill repeats (2 months)
3. Repeats (1 month)
4. Peak race
5. Recovery (1 month)

Please note: I will write more about the time frames and how to piece together a year when I cover periodization in an upcoming post.

Tempo-paced running is also known as aerobic threshold training. It involves running at 90-95% of your maximum effort, which can be thought of as a "comfortably hard" pace (about 12-20 seconds per mile slower than 10k race pace). Tempo runs can be steady effort or intervals of 1-2 miles, with 1-2 minutes of rest (jogging) between each. I recommend that you limit tempo-paced running to about 10% of your total weekly mileage.

Intervals and hill repeats
Intervals describe running hard (but not all-out) for a specified time or distance, with a full recovery between each interval. Generally speaking, if you are running intervals at the correct pace, it should take about the same duration as the interval for you to regain your breath and bring your heart rate back down to an easy, aerobic level. Intervals are run at a pace that is about the same as your race pace for a 2 or 3 mile distance. In other words, it's nearly as hard as you can run without 'sprinting'. Hill repeats are a variation on intervals, in which you simply run them uphill. It's possible that uphill repeats will need slightly longer recovery periods. (one quick note on recovery periods: while you might want to stand around panting - or flop on the ground - don't do it ... keep moving, even if it's just at a stiff-legged shuffle. There are all kinds of reasons for this, but trust me it's best to keep moving - jogging if you can).

Repeats are special form of intervals, that are very fast, very hard, and rather short. They are run as close to "all-out" as you can achieve. Full recovery will typically take a much longer duration than the repeat itself (2 or 3 times longer; for example, if you run really hard for 30 seconds, you will need at least 1:00 to recover, but probably would do better with a 2:00 recovery). Let's face it, repeats are really hard to do. If you can do them with a group, it will help.

Peak race and Recovery
Once you have worked through these phases of intensity, you are ready to run your best race in months, then to take a nice long time (at least a month) to let your body recover from all of this work. Recovery means going back to the base-building workouts, and re-focusing just on frequency and duration for awhile. We'll get into this in more detail soon.

To reiterate: you add intensity to your workouts in order to make yourself faster and to strive for the best performance you can achieve. Intensity helps you get there, or it breaks you down in the process. Monitor yourself carefully, and back off if injury or exhaustion creeps in. However, if you give yourself the right amount of time to adjust to it, running harder and harder will reap benefits in your racing.

Subtext: for any of you who have been wondering how my own running has been coming along, I am loathe to admit it but I am still injured. Whatever I've done to my hip, and the diagnoses keep shifting slightly, it's a mess in there. Multiple injections have improved it, but it's not healed. I haven't even been biking, on the recommendation of my physician, so I'm just a lazy couch potato. It's awful. I am trying to follow medical advice and hope to return to running soon. When I do, it will be my path to follow my own advice put forth here. Hopefully, in future posts, I can use myself as an example of how to apply these principles of training. Stay tuned.

Monday, August 24, 2009


Continuing on the theme of thinking through the four basic principles of endurance training, let’s turn our attention to duration. Again, the concept here is pretty simple: duration is the amount of time you spend in an individual workout.

Let’s assume that you have been training for at least a couple of months, building your frequency up to an appropriate level. At that point in your training, it’s time to start changing duration in order to increase your fitness.

Frequency was easy to change; all you had to do was add a workout here and there. Duration is slightly more complicated, because it does not apply across every single workout. To be more precise: at this phase in your training, you will hold frequency steady, but start increasing the duration of 1-2 workouts per week. Your other workouts will remain as they were.

As a distance runner, one of your staple workouts is going to be a long run. Many runners do these long runs on a weekly basis, primarily because weekends work best. When designing the ideal workout regimen, I would probably advocate for a long run about once every 10 days, but since most of us have day jobs, that’s just not practical.

Creating your long run involves adding time, but not intensity, to one of your workouts per week. There is no set mathematical model for this, of course, but start by adding 5-10 minutes to one of your weekend runs each week for a month. If that’s too much, just back off a little. One other word of caution about long runs: you can’t build up duration infinitely. I recommend building up for 3 consecutive weeks, then dropping back down for a week before resuming the buildup. The duration of a long run for non-marathoners will build up until it's about 1:30 or 1:40 in length; marathoners will go longer, at least 2:00 and maybe up to 3:30. When I’ve finished all of these posts on training, I’ll create a sort of template workout plan that will illustrate all of the principles I've been writing about.

That takes care of the weekend long run, but it’s also a good idea to begin extending the duration of one of your weekly runs (logically, a mid-week run). Here you aren’t targeting the same duration as the weekend, but you want to gradually work your way up to a run of at least one hour (or up to 90 minutes if you are training for peak performance). Again, this should be accomplished gradually … try adding 5 minutes per week until you reach 60 minutes, then stay at that duration for at least three weeks before building up again.
Remember, at the core of endurance training is your body’s adaptation to stress. You adapt to stress when you rest, so make sure that you are recovering completely following each workout. If not, rest awhile. Be patient. How can you tell if you are not recovering completely? Several signs to look for:
  • Lethargy
  • A sensation of "heavy legs" or "floppy legs"
  • Afternoon sleepiness
  • Weight loss or unusual weight fluctuations
  • Dreading the next workout
  • Loss of sexual drive or loss of motivation for things that normally excite you
  • Breathing unusually heavily during low-intensity workouts
  • Heart rate won’t go up during exercise, or a long lag before it does
  • Muscle twitches or cramps during the day or night
  • Unable to fall asleep, but then unable to wake up in the morning

If you have more than one of the "symptoms" described above, then you need rest, not workouts. Skip a day or two, and go to bed early each night. As soon as you feel refreshed and eager to get back at it, do so. If any of these symptoms drag on for more than a couple of weeks, I recommend you speak to your doctor about them.

Remember, during this phase you hold frequency steady and always keep intensity set at "low". Duration is built up over about 2-3 months, ideally (shorter if you are young and/or generally fit, longer if you are the opposite).

(On a personal note: I am still not running due to piriformis syndrome. I’ve now been off for almost 4 months, making this one of the longest layoffs of my 31 year running career. I am in biweekly sessions of physical therapy, and will see the doctor again in about 3 weeks. At this point, I’ve written off 2009 as a bad running year, and now just want to get back to some kind of running, ANY kind of running! I’m doing the recommended exercises daily, and trying to be patient. If there is a lesson to be learned through all of this, it is to see the big picture and to take care of the little things that will help me heal and then help keep me uninjured when I finally start running again.)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


In a previous post, I outlined the four basic principles of endurance training:
1. Frequency
2. Duration
3. Intensity
4. Periodization

Today, I'd like to spend some time discussing Frequency.

On it's surface, the concept of frequency seems rather simple. It's just the number of times that you train during any given period of time. We runners typically speak in terms of days per week, but elite runners will likely talk about sessions or runs per week. For example, when I was younger and fit (and brash and foolish), I would train 8-10 times per week. That would include 8 or 9 runs, plus a bit of cycling or swimming. Of course, that meant that I was training more than once per day on a few days each week, thus the need to talk about frequency in terms of sessions per week.

Frequency is the baseline measurement for endurance training. You can't build any endurance at all without at least a moderate frequency of training sessions. Once per month won't do it, even if you think you can force yourself to do some kind of incredibly hard workout. The stress-response cycle that I have discussed here simply needs repetition in order to be effective.

To build your training program, you begin by holding both duration and intensity at a specific level, and work only on frequency. There is no exact formula for how to build up frequency, nor is there a perfect rule for the number of training sessions per week. Your experience will likely be your guide (but having an experienced coach would be the best approach). Even without specific instructions, the rule of thumb is to build any kind of training slowly and gradually. Let's get specific.

I am currently not running at all, as I work with doctors to correct and heal my injury. My frequency is zero sessions per week. When I begin running again, I will probably start by doing some very low-intensity, short-duration runs 2-3 times the first week (I anticipate running about 2-3 miles at (8:30 to 9:00 per mile pace). Assuming those go well, I will then proceed to add one more session per week, each week or two, until I'm up to six sessions per week. Full disclosure: for me, I'll probably aim to run 4-5 times per week, and cross-train (cycle or swim) once or twice per week. This formula should work for me, in part because it is based on my 31 years of consistent running (that is, I should bounce back fairly quickly). In contrast, if you are just beginning a running program for the first time, I'd recommend starting with only 1-2 sessions per week (even shorter and slower than me), and changing the frequency much more slowly, perhaps by adding one session only after keeping frequency steady for 3-4 weeks. Please note that neither I nor the hypothetical beginner will change the duration or intensity of our runs during this early build-up phase. We will keep our runs at low-intensity and short duration while we work solely on increasing frequency.

But how frequent is "frequent enough"? I wish I had a simple answer. It depends in part on your goals, and in part on your body's capacity to adapt to a training load. If your goals are based purely on losing some weight and pleasing your physician, one session every two days is probably adequate for your base frequency. If your goals are to run races up to and including the marathon, you are simply going to need to set your frequency at 6-7 sessions per week, with at least 5 of those as running workouts (the others can be cross-training). If you are looking to win your state championship, or aiming even higher, then you are going to need the dedication and capacity to train more than 7 times per week. Whatever your goals, your first step is to set your frequency at the level you need, before changing anything else in your training.

Frequency is the foundation. Next up, we'll talk about how to make changes in duration, building upon the groundwork of your frequency.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Periodization controversy?

Last night, while perusing the September 2009 issue of Runner's World, I came across an article by Bob Cooper titled "The Rules Revisited". I usually like these kind of articles, in which old and accepted wisdom is reviewed and sometimes debunked based on the latest research findings. This is most-common with ideas about nutrition, so it's good to keep on top of what's new. However, under the sub-heading "Build to a Peak", the claim is made that runners can "Train the same year-round". What?!

This contradicts what I started to write about in my previous post. Let's explore that.

Periodization is not only conventional wisdom, it's backed by research study after research study. As the author states, "No training system is more widely accepted". However, he then goes on to note that "critics say that all training elements can be woven into a one- or two-week cycle that's repeated throughout the year." He also quotes coach Scott Simmons, who seems to think that you can keep increasing your training load infinitely, "As you become fitter you recover faster, so you can do harder workouts ... Why should you ever cease development and start over again?"

Well, he's quite the optimist, isn't he? I hope he only coaches young, strong runners, and then only for a short period of time. His recommendations are a recipe for disappointment and/or disaster for most of us. In the least they will lead to staleness and require much more context, but in the worst case scenario they are irresponsible and may lead a lot of inexperienced runners to think that they can just keep ramping up their training forever, next stop the Olympics!

Sorry, but life just doesn't work that way. If you keep on building up and building up over an extended period of time, you will either (a) plateau - reach a spot where any kind of training doesn't make you even the least bit faster, or (b) crash and burn - end up injured and/or wiped out by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or something of that ilk. It is quite naive to think that you don't need to plan for the rest you need.

Another issue I have with this point of view that is that it isn't the kind of training program that will help individual runners achieve peak performances. If what you want is to be basically fit and mediocre, then go ahead and train the same way all the time. Sadly, perhaps that is the goal we now aspire to as a culture, let's not strive against our perceived limits to see how far we can go, instead let's all just plod along at a medium-effort-level like a herd of sheep. After all, everyone gets a medal now, don't they? Ironically, in the same issue of the magazine is an ad by Pearl Izumi, where they riff on the idea that even though marathon participation has increased a lot over the past 30 years, the average finisher's time now is over an hour slower than it used to be. Yeah, but everyone gets medals!

At the end of the article, in the fine print, Simmons contradicts himself and admits "Most people need some time off, if only for the mental break ..." Yeah, right, mental break. How about resting appropriately in order to avoid complete physical collapse?

The purpose of periodization is to plan ahead, proactively, for the times in your calendar when you will push yourself to your limits as well as the times that you will recover. The basic precept of endurance training is a simple stress-response formula: you stress the body, it adapts, you stress it again, it adapts, etc. But this is not an infinite cycle. Any stress, if applied over and over endlessly, will break down a system. Even if that system is strong and holds up for a long time, eventually something will give. What goes up, must come down.

I am an advocate for periodization based both on my reading of the literature and anecdotal experience. Not mention the fact that it's simply logical. For a parallel illustration: In long-distance horse races, a veterinarian is on hand at various check-points to monitor the health of the horses, because the poor things are so well-trained that if you just keep whipping them and riding them for long enough, they will dutifully follow your orders until they are dead. That's right, dead. Don't be a slave to your training program or allow a coach to ride you into the ground like one of those poor horses. Build in the rest you need to keep yourself healthy and ready for the next build up in your training. Life is about cycles, ups and downs, waxing and waning. It's the natural rhythm of things. Embrace it.

And be wary of those who claim to debunk all forms of common wisdom. It's fine and necessary to question orthodoxy in order to make sure it holds up under actual research, but we should never lose sight of the fact that some wisdom is actually rather wise.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Training: the overview

Note: in an earlier post, I mentioned that I would muse a bit about training. Should make for some interesting posts. To increase relevancy, I think I'll first write about the general principles, and then try to apply them to my situation when I return to running. Notice I said "when" and not "if". I hope I'm right about that. Even if it takes me a while to get back, this information should be at least somewhat informative. Let me know what you think.

Distance running is an endurance sport. As such, training is necessary for a distance runner to improve his or her performance. I'm sure that there are a very few people who could run quite well on little or no training, but for the rest of us it is pretty simple: if you train, you run better.

But what is "training"? How do you plan your training, or do you need to plan it at all? Isn't it just running? Fair questions. Not sure I will answer them to your satisfaction, but here is the way that I conceptualize it:

Becoming a better athlete in any endurance sport through training is based on four basic principles. I'll introduce each here, then address them one-at-a-time in upcoming posts.

The four principles are:
1. Frequency
2. Duration
3. Intensity
4. Periodization

Frequency is simply the number of times that you train within any given period of time (we typically discuss this in terms of workouts per week).

Duration is the amount of time you spend, per workout. Notice that I am focusing on duration here, not distance. Practically speaking, duration will typically range between 20 minutes and 2-3 hours.

Intensity is the amount of effort you expend in a workout. It will range from low intensity (walking or easy jogging) to high intensity (running at or near 100% of your maximum in short burst intervals called "repeats").

Periodization is the way in which you schedule your workouts over longer periods of time. We typically speak in terms of several weeks, or even years. Periodization more-specifically refers to how you weave together the previous three (Frequency, Duration, Intensity) along with periods of rest and recovery to maximize your potential. An effective training plan will incorporate periods of building up and periods of backing off, on one, two, or all three variables.

Let me try to put this into concrete terms by using an example. Let's say a runner looks at her calendar in January wondering how to train for a fall marathon. Let's assume that she's been running about 4 times per week for 30 minutes per run at a comfortable pace. Let's also assume she's clever and understands the four principles of endurance training.

To plan her year, she will begin with a period focused on frequency, holding duration and intensity relatively constant. In other words, she'll first get herself up to 5-6 days per week for 30 minutes at a comfortable pace. This period won't take long, about one or two months.

Next, she begins making changes to duration. She is still building strength, and not so concerned about speed, so she keeps intensity low, but begins to stretch at least one weekly run for more than 30 minutes. She's smart, so she does this gradually week by week until about 3 months have passed, and she's running 6 times per week, 4 times for 30-40 minutes, once for an hour, and another for over an hour. In addition, during those 3 months, she has established a periodic cycle in which she builds up her duration about 5% per week for three consecutive weeks, then drops back down for one week to rest and recover. She has laid a foundation of strength, aerobic conditioning, and endurance.

Now it's time to tinker with intensity. Up until now, the changes she has made to her running have been relatively low-risk. She's running more often, and going longer, but it's all been at a comfortable intensity and she's never really out of breath or feeling particularly stressed. However, to maximize her potential, she needs to start pushing her limits a bit. She starts with a period of aerobic threshold training, where once or twice per week she runs a faster pace, but one during which she can still talk (but only 2-3 syllables at a time). Again, she follows the cycle of three weeks of increasing intensity, then backing off for one week to recover. Another month passes.

It's now summer time, and her race is only 3 months away. She plans to increase intensity once per week, by running a set of intervals at faster than her 10k race pace. (Note: I'll talk about these various kinds of workouts in a later post). She is training for a marathon, so she also needs to add a long training run of more than 90 minutes about once per week. She will work her way up to a 3 hour weekly long run before the marathon. This period of training will be the hardest of the year, and is most-likely to lead to injury, but is necessary if she wants to peak for her race.

Following her race (let's just say that she ran strong and beat her previous best by 15 minutes), she knows that it's time for a period of rest and recovery, an "off-season". Otherwise, if she were to jump right back into training, the likelihood of injury and/or illness is very high. She knows she's fit, and it's hard not to be right back out there every day, but she has long-term goals and realizes that rest is just as important as work. When December rolls around, she looks back over her year and makes a similar plan for the next, perhaps slightly increasing frequency, duration, and intensity over the year before (because she is stronger and more experienced), or possibly cutting back on those variables if she knows that she's been pushing herself hard for 2-3 years and it's time to back off for one year, maybe skip a fall marathon, to ensure that she can be a runner for many years to come.

Of course, this is a vast over-simplification, but it begins to illustrate the basic concepts in action. If you are self-coached, it's important to think this through from a high-level, and map out the periods of training for your year. If you have a coach, make sure to talk to him or her about how these principles are being applied for each workout. I've often said, a coach should be comfortable in answering the question "Why this workout today?" in honest and direct terms that are informed by a long-term strategy. If not, then it's time to find another coach.

More to come, on each principle and the kind of workouts that fit with each, along with an outline for how I'll train when I can begin running again.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Gods Must Be Angry

Not sure what I've done this year to infuriate the pantheon of deities who overlook athletics, but my punishments never seem to cease. Call me Prometheus.

So, I still can't run, not at all. Last time I tried, my piriformis went on strike, and convinced all of its neighboring muscles to join the picket line. Traitors!

This leaves me limited to cycling, which isn't a bad endeavor, really. Except that cycling in NYC is bit like living in a really bad video game (credit for this concept goes to an old friend and cyclist, John Barrett). At the controls of your 15 pound pedaled steed, you do your best to remain upright (and alive) as you dodge pot holes, taxis, buses, kids on scooters, parked car doors opening into your path, manhole covers, construction sites, garbage, broken glass, brain-dead pedestrians, zombie joggers with iPod headphones blaring who never look before turning, overly-entitled dog-walkers wearing their perpetual scowls (what is it that makes dog owners in NYC so on-edge all of the time?), take out delivery guys on rusty old bikes going the wrong way, homeless crazies who toss things at you, cops, firemen, pigeons, squirrels, puddles, horse carriages, cars, tourists, other cyclists, and ill-timed stoplights. Whew!

Now, even if you can put yourself on hyper-alert and manage to enjoy a ride with all of that chaos going on around you, cycling offers one more challenge: weather.

I can *run* in any kind of weather, believe me. Nothing ever stops me. They say when it comes to running, there is no such thing as bad weather, just choosing the wrong gear. But cycling in the rain is akin to being blasted with a fire hose, from a polluted water hydrant. I swear, I would get *less* wet if I just jumped into a swimming pool.

Seems every single time I gear up for a long-ish ride this summer, the clouds immediately roll in, the thunder peals, and the rain pummels me from above. Not to complain, but come on! Can't I just have one or two convenient hours in the sun now and then?

I would throw myself on the proverbial ground and beg mercy from those mighty immortals who have deemed this the year to spoil my every attempt at running and to drench me on every bike ride ... but I predict they'd just make it rain (or maybe hail) on me while I was prone before them, and enjoy another chuckle at my expense.

Anybody have a dry helmet I can borrow?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


This is getting boring. I hate being injured and not running. Pout, pout, pout.

I'm finally back on the bike, which helps a little. I was spinning around Central Park this morning, envying all of the runners slogging it out in the humid air. I'm hoping that a few weeks of easy, steady cycling will help both my fitness and my mood, while I continue to wait for this injured piriformis to calm down.

What can I write that I haven't written already? The darned things is sore, possibly swollen, it's not really getting much better. I can stretch it a little now without the wincing pain I was having as recently as two weeks ago, but I still feel it all day, every day. It's either throbbing away, or it's in spasm and pressuring the sciatic nerve, which makes it seem like my hamstring hurts. At this point it's been hurting for so long that I can hardly remember how it feels not to be hurting.

In an effort to keep this blog from being a long series of "I'm still hurt" postings, I think I might do some musing on training and racing in future posts. Perhaps naively, I still hold out hope that I'll be back running at some point soon, so perhaps thinking through the kind of plan that one needs in order to start over again would be helpful to me and to you readers. We'll see, right?

Friday, July 24, 2009

30 years later

Just in case some of you might have an interest, I've started another blog with a very specific focus. One of the most-treasured memories of my final year of high school was our cross country team's season, which ended with a conference championship. That happened exactly 30 years ago. To celebrate that anniversary, and to take a look back at how we trained and thought about the sport in those halcyon days, the new blog will trace that season day-by-day, starting now in late July. I have entries in my running log detailing every workout and race from that season, along with some old, yellowed press clippings and photos. I think it will be a fun project to post each day's log entry on the same date (more or less), and then add some commentary from the perspective of three decades later. While the new blog is specific to a small-town Wisconsin high school team in 1979, it is my hope that the chronicle of that season might be interesting and may even evoke some memories for each of you.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

2009 is not my year

On the advice of the doc and the physical therapist, I tried my first tiny bit of "light jogging" last night. It was a complete and abysmal failure. The first three minutes hurt, but I can stand pain. Then the next two minutes hurt a lot, which made me start to worry. At that point (and remember we are talking only 5 minutes of jogging here) everything in my left hip and thigh just seemed to seize up completely. I am experienced enough to know the difference between pain that I can run through and pain that is telling me, "Hey you, stop, right now, and I mean it!"

So I walked back home, slowly. Sigh.

The pessimistic view would be that I'm just not going to come back from this latest injury. It's not healing, even with medical intervention. I'm done.

The optimistic view would be that it's just a little too early for me to try jogging. The piriformis is still not settled down, and perhaps there are still some underlying issues with my balance and alignment that need to be addressed before I can run again. I am simply not yet healed.

I prefer to be an optimist, but I will admit it's getting harder and harder to maintain that perspective.

I think what I'm going to do for now is limit myself to cycling for the next few weeks. I've used the bike to help bring myself back from injuries a few times before, so I'm hoping that it's going to be an effective method once more.

The bottom line is that I'm not going to be running the races I'd hoped to in August and September (the NYRR Club Team Champs, and the Reach the Beach Relay in New Hampshire, along with a couple of trail races). I feel pretty lousy about this. It's been a depressing summer in terms of running, and I'm not convinced that much is going to change this fall. I am going to take the pressure off completely, and not even think about racing for the rest of this year. I have to face the fact that I'm not even anywhere near jogging at this point, much less being able to run hard in competition.

I guess that 2009 was simply not my year for running, and I should just stop worrying about it.

Yeah, right.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Needle

I've just returned from the Physiatrist's office, where two things happened:
(1) he did a nerve conductance test to verify the exact placement of the injured, inflamed muscle
(2) he shot me up three times with cortisone and marcaine, right into the piriformis muscle on my left side.

I have these comments about each:
(1) Apparently, when the piriformis was put into a stretch (rather uncomfortable), the nerve response was nearly zero. The thing is in spasm and swollen so badly that it's almost shutting down my sciatic nerve on the left side. It's a wonder I don't just fall over when I try to walk on my left leg.
(2) Ouch. Ouch ouch ouch. Did I mention ouch? Picture this: I'm curled up in a near-fetal position in my underwear, and the Dr. is inserting this big 5 inch long horse needle into my hip, to deliver the meds right to the injury. I'm sweating bullets and trying just to breathe. He tells me midway through that I'm "doing well", but what he can't see is that I've begun to grind my teeth into small bits, my eyes are beginning to pop out, and I have a miniature version of Niagara Falls made of perspiration running down my back. When he would actually hit upon the injured muscle with the tip of the needle, it would sort of "snap" in a painful reaction. Man, eye-watering pain ... luckily only for a few seconds.

Now, take all of that, and multiply it by three.

My advice if you ever get this shot: do not, under any circumstances, actually look at the needle. Trust me.

The plan:
I start physical therapy later this week, and hope that I can learn some new stretches and/or strengthening exercises to get this thing under control and then keep it that way. The Doc said I could start running very slowly and gingerly in "about a week", depending on what the Physical Therapist said. However, he said my first runs should be only 1-2 miles long. Ahem. That's not really a "run", but what the heck, I must not complain at all if this is getting me back to running, even if on an extended timetable.

My summer is a complete wash anyway in terms of running. Once again, I now attempt a comeback. When you get to be my age, you look back at your running career and realize that it's really just a long series of comebacks!

But, you know what they say, there is no shame in falling down, only in not getting back up again.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Back to the drawing board

Sorry, dear readers, I have been off the grid for some time. This is due to a combination of things: (1) injured, so not running still, (2) stress at work, (3) two weeks vacation in the gloriously unpopulated woods of northern Wisconsin.

My summer of 2009 has been without running so far, which is horribly depressing. Just before I departed for my vacation, I saw a recommended "Physiatrist", who diagnosed my problem as piriformis syndrome. That label scares the heck out of me, because my best friend had his running career essentially ended because of piriformis problems. Not good. Now that I'm back at home, I'll go to a follow-up appointment this week and undergo whatever aggressive treatments they recommend (I assume this will include an injection of cortisone/lidocaine to the muscle itself, followed by physical therapy). If all goes well, I might be back to running in 2-4 weeks. If all does not go well ... who knows?

It sucks not to be running, I'm sure you'll all agree. What's ironic is that when I'm running well, I take it for granted and/or even sometimes feel a bit resentful about getting out there everyday ... but now that I can't run, I would do anything to be able to jog even a few steps without intense, shooting pain in my left hip and hamstring. My 2009 running goals are all out the window at this point. All I want to do is be able to jog again.

Hope that your running is going much better than mine!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Pins and Needles

Still not running, which is no fun.
Yesterday I had my first-ever acupuncture treatment. It was interesting. I’ve typically put myself in the hands of sports med doctors, but in general I find that they lack imagination and the treatment is always the same:
1. Stop running.
2. Go to physical therapy twice per week for two months.
3. In PT, they stretch, massage, and apply ultrasound to the injured muscle. It won’t work.
4. After two months, we'll give you a shot of cortisone and you’ll be fine.
5. However, we won’t ever discover any underlying issues and you’ll be injured again soon.
6. Go to Step 1, repeat.

As far as acupuncture, well, at least it’s not going to make it worse, right? And perhaps it will work. I think, after all, that the problem is a gluteus muscle in spasm, which is irritating the sciatic nerve and causing me to favor it, which in turn messes up all kinds of supporting muscles.

Nothing else has worked so far, including:
· Complete and utter denial, pretending that nothing is wrong
· Stretching
· Not stretching
· Taking anti-inflammatories
· Not taking anti-inflammatories
· Running
· Not running
· Cycling
· Not cycling
· Moping around feeling sorry for myself
· Grousing, whining, complaining, grumbling, etc.

After one acupuncture treatment, I have no idea if it’s working. It was kind of fun though. I laid face-down on a massage-type table, and the practitioner stuck about 25 needles into my lower back, legs, and hip. None of it hurt at all; in fact I could barely feel anything except when he put the very last one into my hip, near the injured muscle. That one caused a kind of twinge … not painful, but sort of uncomfortable, only for a moment. Then I lay on the table, a heat lamp shining on my lower back and backside, soothing music playing, for about 30 minutes. I have to say that part was nice. I slipped into a relaxed semi-meditative state, and just concentrated on breathing slowly and deeply.

Today my hip is still sore, but I think the pain may be a little less site-specific, so maybe the acupuncture did something good. I will go back for two more treatments over the next four days, as recommended. What the heck. I also think I could use a chiropractic adjustment, I know I’m not aligned properly even if only because of my slightly gimpy right leg (following Achilles tendon reconstruction in 2003). I don’t want to add another variable, so I’m going to stick with the acupuncture for the time being, look into chiropractor afterward.

My plans for early summer racing are basically cancelled at this point. Oh, well, I always run better in the fall anyway.

Monday, May 18, 2009

On Being Injured

If you are a runner, you are going to deal with being injured. I hope that you are very durable, or at least a fast healer, so that your need to cope with running-related injuries is minor. But, trust me, if you are in this for the long term you are going to get hurt. Like I am right now.

Left hip, back side, probably gluteus medius. It’s inflamed, and in spasm. Therefore it irritates my sciatic nerve, so I get the occasional shooting pain down my left hamstring and ITB. Running more than a couple of steps is painful. Sigh.

As an endurance sport, running is essentially a long series of physical stresses followed by periods of recovery. In order to be a runner, you will be testing your body’s capacity to adapt to your workouts and races. That repetitive process, whether played out over minutes, hours, days, weeks, or years, will eventually lead to a break down, or two, or three or more. It is inevitable.

In her seminal 1969 book “On Death and Dying", Elisabeth Kubler-Ross first introduced the now-famous concept of the five distinct stages of grief. At first she intended to apply these stages to those with terminal illness, but she later postulated that the very same coping model applied to anyone suffering a loss that was felt deeply on a personal level. I can’t imagine a better definition of how we runners react to injury.

Stage One: Denial.
You think that the pains you feel couldn’t possibly indicate an injury; after all, this can’t be happening to you. You run, you recover, you do it over and over, so this just can’t be an injury, and it will just go away if you ignore it. You keep running.

Stage Two: Anger.
Of course, the pain intensifies, to the point where you can’t ignore it any longer. You think (and maybe even shout out loud, enraged), “Why me?” At this point your fellow runners and loved ones find it difficult to deal with you. You simmer and seethe; words of encouragement sound as if they are mocking you, and anyone who is running is subject to your resentment, envy, and displaced rage. Of course, you keep running, with gritted teeth and an edge to your attitude.

Stage Three: Bargaining.
Whether you are religious or not, you begin to negotiate your case with a higher power, muttering things like, “Please, just let me get through the next race, then I promise I’ll take some time off and I’ll start stretching regularly and eating right and everything else I should have been doing.” At this point you also start impulsively improving other habits, in the desperate hope that doing right by your body in other ways will magically heal the running-related injury. You make sure to brush twice a day, you eat better, you remember to take your vitamins, and you get to bed earlier. Eventually, you try taking one day off from running, as if you can trade just one workout for a clean bill of health. But, of course, you go right back and you keep running.

Stage Four: Depression.
The pain of the injury has now compromised your ability to run. You take one day off, then two, then suddenly a week has gone by and you haven’t logged a single mile. You stay in bed a little longer in the morning, thinking “That’s it, I’m finished, I’ll never run again.” You find yourself lingering in the ice cream section at the grocery store. Your running shoes are now tossed into the back of the closet; you can’t stand to see them. The latest issue of your favorite running magazine arrives, and you toss it into the recycling bin without even opening the cover. Nothing can cheer you up. You’ve stopped running and you think you don’t care.

Stage Five: Acceptance.
Finally, one day, you look at yourself in the mirror, and you admit, “It’s true, I’m injured.” You feel slightly ashamed at having taken all this time before admitting to the obvious … again! You also start to listen to your family and friends, who have known all along that you probably just needed some rest, or maybe a visit or two to your physician/chiropractor/acupuncturist. While you don’t quite see light at the end of the tunnel, at least you admit that you are in the tunnel. And you stop despairing, and start making the adjustments necessary to get back on your feet. After all, you haven’t lost your identity, you’re just injured. That’s right, JUST injured. You know you need to be patient, and you finally begin the healing process.

Ironically, I’ve been through this more times than I care to count, and yet I fall victim to the same pattern almost every time. You could take my running log, page back through it, and discern the stages as I plodded through them over and over again. Take this latest injury, for example. It was over eight weeks ago that I first wrote “left hip tight and sore”. Did I change anything? Nope. That’s stage one. Then you see the tone of the log entries change, and the stray comment appears such as “damn hip still sore, WTF?” Yep, stage two. Then there are some embarrassingly sincere comments like “need to stretch more” and “taking anti-inflammatories”, and (rolling my eyes as I type this), “just need to get through the 50k at Bear Mountain”. Right … stage three. Of course, I managed to get through the 50k race, despite limping along the entire way. Immediately thereafter I stopped running entirely. Sure, I got on my bike and did some half-hearted pedaling last week, but I also “overslept” a couple of times and missed the bike workout completely. My wife tried to be sympathetic, but I was moping around and detaching. Tsk, tsk, stage four. Then, at the end of last week, I finally faced the music and just admitted that I’m hurt. I also began to recall in more detail the time two years ago when I had a very similar injury in my right hip. I eventually overcame that one, and my right side is completely fine now. Given the right amount rest and easy stretching, I’ll get the left side back in shape someday too. Made it to stage five.

Kubler-Ross emphasized that not only is there nothing wrong with going through these phases, but in fact it is necessary, on a psychological level, to move through them as part of the normal process of coping with loss. She also pointed out that not everyone experiences all of the stages, and not everyone goes through them in the very same order, but to my estimation they remain an elegant and resonant way to describe a very common experience.

May you never be injured. But, if you should fall victim to the rigors of our running lifestyle, try not to beat yourself up too badly for being, well, human.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Bear Mtn Trail Races: Another Look Back

The race organizers of the North Face Endurance Challenge trail races at Bear Mountain did finally get results posted on the web. Scroll down to find the Bear Mountain races from May 9, 2009, each distance listed separately.

I wanted to make sure to recognize a few other performances by friends of mine that I failed to mention in my last blog post:
Cassandra Miller, 1st female in the half-marathon
Clint Earnhart, 3rd overall in the half-marathon
James Redmond, 21st in half-marathon
Bobby Hutton, 23rd in the half, the only other New York Harrier .
Lou Pahnke, 79th in the 50k (his first 50k, I believe, same as me)
Carrie Gatlin, 95th (15th woman) in the 50k
Two other friends of mine, Eric and Mark, were pulled from the 50 miler at about 34 miles for not making the time cutoff. They were disappointed, but seemed to take it in stride. It would seem that the time cutoffs for the 50 miler remain rather aggressive, given the technical and difficult nature of the trails in use. Nice work, everyone. I'm sure I missed a few other Reservoir Dogs who were running, there seemed to be a lot of them out there, that's only because I just don't know everyone on that team.

I've been analyzing my own race over the past couple of days, trying to see if my subjective experience matched my actual performance. Here is a breakdown of my splits from aid station to aid station, along with paces for each and cumulatives:

It's obvious that my pace varied quite a bit, probably in correlation with the terrain and technical nature of the various sections of the race. I also spent more time in aid stations progressively until after 21 mile station, where I ate so much that I felt full the rest of the way (so I paused only briefly for a quick drink at the last two stations). Obviously, I struggled to get from 25 to 28 miles. This section of the course included the climb up and over the Timp Pass, which was the steepest in the race. I walked most of it, and I was so tired that I ran poorly on the rocky descent (sort of race-walking , more than running). Once I got past that section, I rallied a bit on the final 3 miles or so, running my second-fastest miles splits on the day (admittedly, that section was less-technical, although it did have three uphills worth note and I was definitely plodding along with neither grace nor style at that point).

I liked Ben's comment to my last post, that these races are more about mental anguish than physical pain. I wish I could claim it was true for me. If you look at the photos of me nearing the finish line (from my previous post), you can probably notice that I'm favoring my left leg, limping slightly (hips dropping in, lower back a little stiff, shoulders uneven). I wish that my hip had felt better, then I could have faced the mental pain differently ... as it was, I was all-too-focused on dealing with a nagging injury (physical pain with every step).

I feel a little better today, in retrospect, about simply finishing the race. I can't say that I'm measurably proud, because I honestly think I should have been running at least a minute per mile faster ... but I can admit that there is something to be said about not giving up. I also have to be sensitive to the fact that, despite feeling like I struggled all day long, I managed to finish 25th out of 161, which comparatively is not all that bad. Plus, I'm sure those behind me were giving it their best, and suffering with their own injuries, demons, doubts, and challenges.

Funny (ironic) that I can truly say that everyone who completed that course should be proud, and yet not feel quite that way about my own performance. I suppose it's part of the character trait that makes us runners: always hungry, never quite satisfied, always anticipating a better race next time.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Race Report: North Face 50k

Thanks to Andel and Dima from the Reservoir Dogs for these photos

“Oh, I’ve had better days”

That was my response to the question, “How’s it going” at the 21 mile support station during Saturday’s North Face Endurance Challenge 50k trail race. Admittedly, I was playing the line for mild comic relief, but I also have to say that it was the truth.

I suppose we’d all prefer that our experiences could be easily classified into clear, separate categories, such as: unqualified success v. abysmal failure. The fact is that my race on Saturday was neither, or maybe both … but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

I am not the superstitious sort, but even I have to admit that I was surrounded by portents of doom that morning. When my alarm fired at 4:20am, I stole a furtive glance out the back door to see that it was absolutely pouring rain, with occasional flashes of lightning. Of course, my left hip (which has been stiff and sore for over a month) was tight and bothering me already, not a good sign. I wolfed down some breakfast, grabbed my gear and a large umbrella, and managed to speed walk to my car without getting completely drenched. The northbound Westside Highway was partially flooded, and certainly had more traffic than one would expect for 5:00 am on a Saturday ... all of us creeping along in the middle lane, except for the homeless guy pushing an empty shopping cart up the highway in the dark in the pouring rain ... only in New York. I managed to get across the George Washington Bridge okay, but the Palisades Parkway heading north was shrouded in dense fog, a dangerous accompaniment to the still-pounding rain. My hands white-knuckled on the steering wheel, I kept telling myself to relax, go with the flow, I’d get there eventually, etc. Luckily, as dawn began to break, both the rain and fog let up, so I managed to arrive at the Bear Mountain parking lot more-or-less on time. However, as I pulled in, four vultures were standing on the ground just in front of my car, staring at me. I could only imagine that they had heard about that day’s race schedule, and that they had made plans to feast on the carcass of any runner who would fall exhausted upon the trail … perhaps they were sizing me up for a potential meal later in the day.

After the requisite pre-race rituals (bathroom, petroleum jelly, re-tying shoelaces, bathroom, loading up the Fuel Belt, bathroom … you know the drill), I headed to the start area and greeted several friends from the Reservoir Dogs, a ‘sister team’ to my NYC racing team the New York Harriers. It was nice to know that I’d have friends out on the course, and it was a bonus to see that a few others had come along to spectate and support (thanks for the encouragement guys, it made a huge difference on such a long day). I was also pleasantly surprised to be approached by a couple of you who said that you’d been following this blog! Thank you, kind readers. I hope to continue to interest and inspire you.

I was determined to start slowly and run at a pace that I could sustain for about six hours, but this is new territory for me so all I could do was take my best guess. As the eager leaders bounded up the first hill, I hung back and relaxed, chatting with a couple of happy if sarcastic lads from Ireland, who eventually disappeared up the trail never to be seen by me again.

From the gun, my left hip and hamstring were bothering me so much that I could sense myself limping slightly. Not good. The fact is that I limped all day, not really what you want to be doing for an ultra. Sigh. I caught and passed an old teammate, Mike V, who was doing the race with his son. We ran together for about a mile, but eventually lost contact and I was surprised not to see them as the day wore on. I hope they had success and finished strong.

The course was, as expected, wet and rather mucky in parts. While the rain had stopped, there was still a bit of fog and mist in the air, and the trees continued to drip for most of the day. Lovely, really. The overcast skies were a godsend, because the air was quite humid and felt rather warm … sun would have led to overheating and dehydration. I enjoyed the first 16 or 17 miles, running slowly, walking the steeper uphills, trading places back and forth with a few other runners. With the exception of the lead female runner, most of us knew we weren’t competing for any prizes, we were just looking to go the distance.

Results from the race still aren’t posted (almost two days later – c’mon guys, get it together), so when they are I’ll come back to this blog and do a more detailed analysis of my race. For now, I can say that the aid stations were positioned perfectly, and well-stocked with both goodies and volunteers. I broke my race up into sections based on making it efficiently from aid station to aid station, monitoring my effort level and any potential problems along the way. I am proud not to have hit the wall or suffered a major bonk, which I chalk up to having had a large pre-race breakfast and to making sure to top off calories at each chance I got. Between aid stations, I sipped Cytomax, nibbled SportBeans, and sucked on Rolaids (good for keeping the stomach settled and for preventing muscle cramps). At the mile 21 aid station, as I tore into my drop bag and refueled, I apparently won the award for the most-food-eaten-at-an-aid-station-all-day, at least according to friends from the Reservoir Dogs.

But I’ve left out the negatives so far, I suppose I’d rather not even mention them, but then the story would be only half-told. Simply put, my left hip hurt all day. I couldn’t run normally, I had to shorten my stride and concentrate a lot of energy to prevent myself from limping. That was no fun. As the day wore on, I started to wear out. Honestly, I was good for about 20 miles. No, I didn’t drop out of the race, but after mile 20 I was clearly not the same as I was before. I was walking more frequently, my legs were feeling a bit dead, and I was basically in the just-keep-moving mode.

We never like to admit our limits. I think there is a deeply-ingrained aspect of the American ethos (mythology?) that is instilled in us from the moment we arrive: you can do anything you want if you just try hard enough. The question: is that really true? Or, more poignantly and philosophically, how could we possibly be so naïve to think that it could be true?

I’ve run 15 races of marathon length or longer. In all of them, without exception, I find that I can hold everything together pretty well until about 20-22 miles, then it all starts to unravel. The objective observer would ask, “When are you going to admit that your physiology just isn’t made for going past 22 miles?”

Someday, perhaps.

As I get older, and slower, I have begun to hang my hat on the thought that I can just move up in distance, and still be competitive. You know what? It’s not really happening.

I completed the 50k race on my feet, a bit stiff but still moving. I think I can take pride in having finished a tough course on a wet, muddy day. Okay, so it took me 6 hours and 13 minutes. Not exactly what I had in mind. I really don’t know what place I finished, but I’d guess around 30th to 40th. Hopefully they’ll get results posted before too long, because I’m curious about it. When they do finally get published, make sure to take a look at the excellent races run by Ryan and Ben from the Reservoir Dogs, who garnered first and second places overall, and by their teammate Silke, who was third woman overall. Truly impressive running, and results they can be proud of for a very long time.

Post-race, I sat at a picnic table with those three and other enthusiastic friends, and we recounted our experiences in short bursts between sips of water and bites of salty food. I had ambivalent feelings about the day. I’d made it, that was an accomplishment. But I’d walked more than I’d wanted to, and I’d just plain felt tired and worn out for the last third of the race. I wondered then, as I still do now, if perhaps I’m just not cut out for doing events of this kind of distance and duration. Truth be told, I enjoy more, and have had more success, at trail races between 15k and 25k in length … and if I just had enough sense to remember that I’d be in good stead, right?

Ah, but I’m just another stubborn runner. I’ll quite probably never learn.

Congrats to everyone who conquered that course yesterday, whether fast or slow. You deserve to feel good about what you accomplished. I’ll be back with more on this event once results are posted.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Hip pains and anxiety dreams

With only three days to go before the 50k trail race at Bear Mountain/Harriman State Park, the clock is ticking loudly. Meanwhile, my left hip is tight and sore and I find that I’m plagued with anxiety dreams … you know, like when you dream that you are suddenly thrust into a situation that you should have prepared for, but you didn’t, and you start to panic because you don’t know what to do – even though you should – and everyone is looking at you with disdain … and then you realize that you forgot to wear pants.

I know it’s just pre-race jitters, and you’d think after over 700 races in my running career that I would never feel this way anymore. But I do. And to be honest I kind of enjoy it. It’s actually uplifting in a way, energizing. I don’t wake up from those dreams in a cold sweat; instead I wake up and start chuckling. Pre-race jitters means that I still care, truly and deeply, about the race that is pending. It still MATTERS to me. I think that’s kind of cool, and I think it keeps me young.

My hip: I don’t think it’s anything major. Just all the miles I’ve run in the past six months and the fact that I’m all out of whack. The reconstructive surgery on my Achilles tendon 5.5 years ago has left me unbalanced, and it shows when I pile on the miles. Right after the 50k, I’ll get back to some cross-training and see if I can calm down that hip/hamstring over time. For now, I’m just taking it very easy pre-race (a couple days off even), and dropping some ibuprofen and bromelain.

It’s been raining all week, and although the latest forecast says 20% chance of rain on Saturday (race day), it could be a bit wet and muddy out on the course … that’s to my liking. I’d much rather have overcast skies and wet shoes than the opposite: hot sun with a dry, dehydrating wind.

I’ll be back to blog my race report next week. Good luck to all of you on your individual running adventures this weekend. Wish me a bit of luck too, seems clear I’ll need it.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Race Report: 2009 Leatherman’s Loop

Helter skelter in a summer swelter

An angry sun rose over Pound Ridge Reservation yesterday morning, squeezing every bit of burning heat from its nuclear furnace, hell bent on sizzling the flesh of we mortals as we lined up to start the 23rd edition of this great tradition of prancing through the mud. As I did my final pre-race sprint to try to awaken my aging legs, I gazed back at the assembled horde crowding the line under the flapping plastic flags. I’d never seen so many folks at this race, and the summer-vacation-like weather added a significant number of supporters in a concentric ring: spouses, kids, dogs, friends, and assorted curious onlookers. What a scene!

We jostled cordially for starting position and listened to the long list of stars (past and present) who were venturing once more into the fray. Then the traditional blessing was recited (… beauty above me as I run, beauty within me as I run …). I felt a rivulet of sweat already trickling down the nape of my neck and knew we were all in for a hot one. The scene felt so incongruous, because I associate the Loop with windy, gray, cold, rainy weather and shivering competitors huddled together for warmth and freezing cold, black, soupy mud … not smears of SPF 70 sun block and dry hot gusty breezes.

Just as my skin began to sizzle like cheap bacon, the horn sounded and we were off, in the most-chaotic start I can remember in years. I was pushed, elbowed, and stepped on repeatedly, while the sprinting masses closed in from both sides, shutting me off from contact with the lead pack. Uh oh. My work was going to be cut out for me in the woods. We turned downhill into the first muddy (barely) patch, and that bunch of macho dudes who shot out at the start all suddenly downshifted in unison … so I ran right into them, literally. Sorry, my fellow Loopers, no ill will intended on my part, I didn’t plan to bump and touch any of you at that point in the race, but these old legs of mine were still actually accelerating (it takes me awhile!), and all of you suddenly slowed down. I managed to weave through without major incident. My two older sons were counting runners at the first little stream crossing, and they had me at around 20th place, give or take a few.

The next mile or so of the course stays fairly narrow, with rocks and roots, and goes up and down a couple of times before hitting the first river crossing. I found myself trying to pass one particular runner who was already wheezing with effort, but he just would not let me go by. I tried three times to get around him, but each time he accelerated (wasting both his effort and mine). I backed off and waited about two minutes, until the river, when I shot past him and hit the water hard. I actually passed 4 runners who were wallowing about in the water (although one other guy passed me, nicely done). Up and out over the slimy rocks, and into mud we went. On this warm day, I was already cotton-mouthed and red in the face. Ugh.

The sand hill was just a tough as ever, with an added ‘bonus’ this year: the sand was palpably hot! With the unbroken blazing sun on our backs and the steaming sand radiating heat from below, it was like trying to climb the wall of a sauna. It was so hot that my visual cortex malfunctioned, I swear, all I could see was about 2 feet in front of me as I tried to find footholds and get over that monster.

I had been working my way through the field (“on your left, thanks … on your right, thanks …”) steadily, and there was Tony at the top of the sand hill announcing that I’d managed to get back to 9th place. Okay, not bad, but I’m melting!

The second half of the course is less technical than the first, and it’s all about maintaining your power as long as you can, and trying to reel in those in front of you. I could see old friends Steve Calidonna and George Buchanon up there, and did what I could to join them so that we could be a merry trio. I also assumed that my old pal and teammate Stephen Marsalese would eventually pull up on us from behind, and maybe we could call ourselves the Fearsome Foursome. But alas, on this day Steve was feeling the heat (and hallucinating that the course was somehow stretched half a mile too long), old Cannonball was busy chasing a young guy just ahead of him so I never did close that gap, and Stats Marsalese had his own duel going on behind me and never quite caught up with us. We were all doing our own thing, together but separate.

I was looking forward to the final river crossing near the finish like never before. In fact, for at least 10 minutes prior, I had been fantasizing about performing a perfect belly flop into the cool waters, then maybe spending 5-10 seconds underwater, anything to cool off my core just a little. That day-dreaming might have been just what I needed to motivate me to stagger through the final stretch of tall meadow grasses and jump into the not-so-raging torrent. An impressive gaggle of spectators had gathered, all hoping for us to trip up and fall flat on our faces in the murky water, cheering mercilessly. It’s funny, in trail racing you never expect to have any noise like that. If you are lucky there might be half a dozen hearty souls clapping politely along the home stretch. This was more like the crowd at a high school cross country meet, complete with screaming and clapping and shouting. Brought back some very old memories.

I pushed the final uphill stretch to the finish (into the relentless sun) the best that I could, somewhat confused that so many people in attendance actually knew my name as they urged me on to the line. Of course, post-race, I remembered that race organizers had printed our first names in bold letters on our bib numbers. Duh. It was a tough, hot day, but I had somehow managed to finish in 7th place overall out of 955 finishers (see results here). That gave me first place in my age group, but only because Tommy Nohilly won the race outright (he’s 42), and George Buchanon just turned 50, so both were removed from my age group technically, even though they finished ahead of me. Rest assured, that technicality will not hinder the enjoyment I get from eating the cherry pie that was my reward (yes, pies as prizes, not silly trophies … after all, you can’t eat a trophy, or share it with your family … all races should give baked desserts as awards).

No amount of water could slake my thirst after the finish, as I tried in vain to rehydrate. But once my stomach was sloshing about adequately, I wobbled over to the nearest stream bed with my sons. While they waded around barefoot, I sat right down in the cold water and soaked my weary legs. My older son Max remarked about how calm and peaceful it was to just sit in the woods, with no distractions and no reason to rush anywhere. Well put, my boy, well put. The truth is, even while racing in the woods, and even while giving it all I’ve got, I don’t actually feel “rushed”. In fact, and this may sound odd, I often find myself wishing the race could go on longer. I know that’s not a practical thought, and the truth is that my effort-level yesterday was geared toward a distance of 6.2 miles, so I would have completely unraveled if my wish had come true. So it’s not really about wanting the race itself to suddenly, magically be longer, it’s just the feeling of wanting the EXPERIENCE to continue, the wish to capture the moment and surround myself with it, the old dream that was expressed in song with “… catch a falling star and put it on your pocket, never let it fade away”. Corny and sentimental? Yes, but still true.

A huge thanks to the race organizers and everyone else involved with this great event. I heard a rumor that there might be an autumn race on these trails, I hope that it turns out to be true. Count me in. My one suggestion: use the entire set of trails available in that area and make it a nice and LONG race!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Race Preview: Leatherman’s Loop

This Sunday (April 26, 2009) I’ll head north to Ward Pound Ridge Reservation to take on the Leatherman’s Loop, one of the most-popular (and muddy, and wet) trail races in this area. Shockingly, this race filled up with it’s limit of 900 entrants only 16 hours after online registration opened this year. I wonder if race organizers will need to start going to a lottery system soon.

It’s well worth browsing around the race website, it’s a bit irreverent and includes a video of parts of the course shot from the runner’s perspective. The most ironic thing about the video is that it doesn’t even really show how difficult some parts of the course actually can be on race day. Crossing rivers and splashing through mud aside, it’s that darned sand hill climb that really does you in. I used to run up the thing (in fact, years ago there were TWO of these, but one was found to contain a rare species of plant and is now off-limits), now I power-walk it (and sometimes pass people ahead of me who are trying to run).

I’m not sure how many times I’ve run this race, the online archive of results is sadly incomplete. I’ve got all my races recorded in my running log, I should go back through and count them up. It’s got to be close to ten times (update: I counted ... it's actually only five times, which surprised me, seems like I've run it more times than that ... maybe just because I like it so much). I’ve managed to slip into the top 10 a few times, and I think I won the masters division once or twice, but I don’t expect anything like that this weekend. Not only am I getting just a wee bit older, but my training is focused on longer distances right now, and my left hip has been rather tight lately. At this point, I’m no speed-demon and I won’t be able to keep up with the young turks who can attack and accelerate for this short distance of only 10 kilometers. But I’ll give it my best shot.

One worry is the heat. Looks like it could be record high temperatures this Sunday, possibly near 90 degrees F. Horrible. Stupid global warming. I can’t recall ever running Leatherman’s Loop while wearing sunscreen. Usually it’s rainy, windy, and miserable (i.e., perfect). I’m not well-adapted to running in the heat, especially when it comes on suddenly. At least it will make the river crossings feel deliciously cool!

My favorite memory of Leatherman’s Loop? One year I was running strong and working my way through the field. At about the halfway mark, I put in a 300 meter surge and barely managed to pass three runners just before we dipped left down into a particularly swampy section (just before the sand hill). No sooner had I made my move when I found myself face down in a mud puddle, maybe 5-6 inches deep : black, slimy, stinky swamp mud. I had tripped over some hidden obstacle, probably just a root. I didn’t even really have time to get my arms out, so I was literally flat on my belly and slurping mud. Of course, all three of those guys went right past me while I was lolling about in the mire, so all that work I’d done to reel them in and pass them had gone for naught. What could I do? I just got up and got after them again. I managed to reel them all back in, one at a time, the last one right after the sand hill. But I finished that race with black mud caked all over me, even in my hair.

I look forward to this race every year for the spirit, the course, and the friends I see at the start and during the race. Of course, I’d like it even more if it was 10 or 12 (or more) miles longer …

Monday, April 20, 2009

Happily felled by a crafty stone

Trail running is my passion, my play time, my challenge, my inspiration. For me, a 20 mile run on the roads, even in perfect weather with great companions, is at least part drudgery. So repetitive, so leg-deadening. I always feel sort of hungry and bored after the first 90 minutes or so, and just want to head home. Sigh. But yesterday, I ran 22 miles on trails, back at Bear Mountain/Harriman State Park again for probably my last recon run prior to the race on May 9. The weather was rather glorious, typically histrionic meteorological predictions of gloomy precipitation never reaching fruition. The park was as crowded as I’ve seen in awhile, with lots of hikers (many proudly stomping about in squeaky-clean new boots) probably out for their first woods excursion of 2009. Some were a bit stunned by me; admittedly, I must have been a rather stark contrast to the sunny, quiet spring woods as I came thrashing along, dripping sweat and slurping out of my energy drink bottle.

But most folks were friendly and happy, displaying that kind of peaceful glee that getting out of your car/house/office and spending time in the woods will do for you. It’s something not only joyful, but also broadening … I’m finding it hard to put into words. People are friendlier when they are out on trails, water bottles bouncing and trail mix in their pockets. It’s almost like it becomes difficult to be in a bad mood when you are walking in the woods. I think this also applies, at least to me, about running in the woods.

I bumped into a few fellow runners who were also out checking the course. In fact, I passed the same two guys three times, they must have been using shorter routes than I was … you’d think they’d have been annoyed by it, but in fact each time I caught them they were grimly studying their trail map, trying to figure out which way was up. So I think they were glad to have me come huffing and puffing past each time, saying hello once again and pointing them in the right direction.

Long trail runs aren’t without their perils, of course. It was warmer than I expected yesterday, and I did not really bring enough liquids with me. During the final 7 miles of my run I must have crossed 4-5 streams of babbling clear cold water. I was just dying to plop down and drink deeply, but alas one can no longer do that because of giardiasis. I should have brought something to purify the water. I also didn’t eat enough (again!), so I was bonking a bit for the last hour, but I struggled through.

The laugh-out-loud moment came at about 18 miles, when I had just finished a long and gruelingly technical descent on a rocky trail, and finally hit an easy section of fire road. Within 15 seconds, I was face down in a small cloud of dust. I had tripped over the only stone within at least 50 meters in any direction (isn't that the way it always happens?). There it was, clear as day, about the size of a loaf of bread, sitting in middle of the trail and seemingly mocking me. I swear I never saw it. In fact, I think it may have been hiding behind a small shrub, plotting its attack, and then executed its plan perfectly, catching me on the toe and dropping me immediately. I had hit the dirt with a solid thud and a sort of neanderthal grunt which echoed off nearby boulders and came right back at me. It sounded so cartoonish that I guffawed like a teenager at a Seth Rogen film.

I ask you this, how many times do you think you have fallen down clumsily, bloodying your knee in the process, and then responded by laughing hysterically? You see, that is the magic of running on trails.

However, I do hope that rock picks a different victim on May 9.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Complain, but take nothing for granted

Complaining is a time-honored tradition among runners. We complain pre-race (tired, under-trained, not enough sleep, bad day, etc.), we complain mid-race (too crowded, idiot in front of me can’t keep steady pace, volunteer dropped water cup on my foot, etc.), and most of all we complain post-race (sore/injured, disappointed, should have run harder, should have gone out faster/slower, wore the wrong shorts and got chafed, feet blistered, etc.). We engage each other in a subtle game of one-upmanship at each stage, to us it’s just part of the ritual. To others, of course, it’s just more evidence confirming that we are out of our collective minds.

I ran a 10k road race on Saturday. I could complain about it for a paragraph or two without even thinking too much. But if age and experience were to bring you only one thing, it should be a sense of perspective. Once in awhile, I actually find some.

It wasn’t that long ago that I was in a hospital emergency room with a completely severed Achilles tendon, the result of an ill-timed leap for a rebound in a rec league basketball game (what was I thinking?). The thing was just shredded, like a rope that had been pulled too hard and just ripped apart. The on-call physician stood shaking his head and told me that I’d probably never run again (yes, all I was asking about was running, I didn’t really care about much else). Okay, it did happen more than 5 years ago now, but the terror of that on-the-spot prognosis still sends shivers down my spine.

Running has been the one constant in my life. Running has been there for me through the turmoil of adolescence and the ambivalent emotions of growing older, through successes and failures at jobs and relationships, through times of loss and grief, through times of growth and celebration … I’m not certain who I would be without running. The threat of losing running as part of my life was nearly overwhelming.

Luckily, I found the right surgeon, who promised me that my Achilles would look rather lumpy and ugly but that he’d put me back together so that I could run, IF I followed all of his advice on accelerated rehab. I did, and I’m here today running and blogging about it. Thank you.

So, about that race … okay, so it was cold and rainy and windy and way-too-crowded, and my training has been all wrong for this type of short road race. Okay, so I only finished in 143rd place. Okay, so I used to run much faster when I was younger and I always feel just a little bit embarrassed at my road race times these days. Whatever. In the end, I was able to run hard for just over 37 minutes and cross the finish line strong (I actually finished 6th out of 348 in my age group) then stumble into the warming glow of the bright smiles of my teammates who were all happily and breathlessly buzzing about their own races. As one after another crossed the line and joined the impromptu huddle, there was a clear sense of pride over having ignored the elements together and given it our best. How can I complain, really, when so many people couldn’t even dream of doing what I’d just done, and when I myself have been threatened with losing that ability forever?

I think it’s important not to take for granted this running thing that we all love so much. It can be snatched away at a moment’s notice. It is precious, like so many things in our lives that we value deeply but too often treat as if permanent and not worthy of acknowledgement. We should never forget that everything is temporary, which is why it is so vital to embrace each moment of our lives.

The next time you hear me complaining about some silly little thing (“that fourth mile marker was at least 4 meters short!”), look me in the eye and smile knowingly. I’ll shut up fairly quickly. Then again, if only I hadn’t gotten that little blister on my heel during the race I think I could have broken 37 minutes …

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Why race?

I occasionally meet other runners who seem to train all the time but never race. If asked about it, they either say that they just don’t care to race, or that they don’t like racing. If you press them, they sometimes will claim that they are not competitive and/or dislike people who are. Hmm. I suppose that I can accept that for some people running is a kind of meditative experience and that jumping into a race would feel uncomfortable. On the other hand, life is filled with uncomfortable experiences, some of which are not only important, but lead to deeper self-awareness and personal growth. If you never challenge yourself, then how can you know who you really are? You say you don't like people who are competitive? Good luck with that one, because it's human nature to compete (Disagree? Observe a group of children for an hour and get back to me). Furthermore (and leaving the psychobabble behind) putting a few races on your calendar is likely to make you a better runner, period. Here are some of the reasons that I think all runners should plan to participate in at least a few races every year:
  • Racing is honest. It provides you with an objective measuring stick for your fitness. The clock does not lie. The results of your races can be used to establish the proper training paces for your workouts, which will lead to improvement.
  • Racing provides focus to your running. It guides your training cycles (weeks of build up, peak, race, recover, repeat), which in turn makes you a better runner and reduces your risk of injury. With no races on the calendar, you can get into a rut, do the same workouts week after week, eventually tire and feel burned out.
  • Racing provides focus to your lifestyle. When you have a race planned you are likely to eat better, get to bed earlier, spend more time at home with your family, limit your distractions and vices.
  • Racing inspires. You are inspired by those around you, and they in turn by you (that goes for your fellow runners as well as spectators and supporters).
  • Racing motivates. This is especially true if you are a member of a team or have friends in the same race. There is something about a race that I call the pull-push phenomenon: The fastest runners at the front of the race “pull” the rest of the field along and help everyone to better performances … but in addition the back of the pack, by running hard and doing their best, also "push" the front of the pack to faster and better performances.
  • Racing is exhilarating. It is a peak experience. Racing is an opportunity to challenge yourself and your boundaries, to feel truly and completely alive.
  • Racing is satisfying. George Sheehan said, “Happiness is different from pleasure. Happiness has something to do with struggling and enduring and accomplishing.” Pleasure is cheap and readily available, you can get pleasure from a good ice cream cone ... but you get true happiness by pushing yourself and battling your inner demons until you have succeeded, and a race is a perfect crucible for that experience.
  • Racing is self-affirming. By completing a race, you realize the reward for the preparation. You feel the glow of having reached for a goal and achieved it.
  • Racing is a fun and social activity. It is a chance to see your friendly rivals and to meet potential new ones. It is a shared experience. In a race, you have become part of a community. We’re all in this together, after all.
  • Racing is ACTIVE, not passive. In a race, no matter your pace, you are doing instead of just watching. In an of itself, doesn’t that just feel good?

So, sign up for a race soon. See if you can prove me wrong on one, some, or all of the above. Then again, you might discover something I’ve missed … if so, send it along.

See you at the starting line.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

North Face 50k Recon, Part 3

With the North Face Endurance Challenge 50k Trail Race coming up on May 9, I have been making time to get to Bear Mountain/Harriman State Park to traverse the entire route as preparation. In previous postings, I described some of the challenges of the first 7 miles and last 9 miles of the course. That left the middle 14 miles as unexplored (at least for me). My chance to cover those miles came last Sunday afternoon, following the short trail race I ran that morning.

It’s somewhat hard to decide how objective I can be about this latest recon mission. First of all, I was a bit tired from running all-out in mud that morning. Second of all, it was a cool, breezy, misty day, which left the course a bit sloppy and the rocks quite slick; I didn’t fall, but I came close a couple of times, very close. Still, even taking all of that into account, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the middle 14 miles of this race course include the most technical and difficult (and in two cases actually a bit dangerous) portions of the course.

I actually ran 17 miles of the course, from the 3.9 mile mark to the 20.9 mile mark, according to the race booklet. Having run a race earlier in the day, I think I took on a little too much in the afternoon, because I ended up running out of fuel and bonking at about 14 miles. That made for some slow slogging and uphill walking during the last 3 miles, but I suppose I should be glad that it was my energy level and not my legs that gave out on me. Even my sore right hamstring, which had really bothered me in the race, seemed to hang in there just fine at the slower pace of this trail run.

As far as the course, it’s pretty easy from the Anthony Wayne Recreation Area for about 3 miles until you pick up the Ramapo-Dunderberg/AT trail. This is technical singletrack folks, with typical east coast rocks and roots and the need for you to choose carefully your every foot fall. You ascend, then descend, and the last hundred meters down to the shelter at the next trail intersection is very treacherous: on this wet day, it was downright dangerous. You basically hop down some boulders, but they are scattered at odd angles and there are no good hand holds anywhere … be very careful here, a fall is possible and injury likely if that happens!

The next couple of miles, ending up at Silvermine Lake, are nice, and especially a short section just after the lake along soft pine needles. After you cross Seven Lakes Drive, it’s a long slow climb on a fire road to hook up with the Long Path, which puts you back into technical singletrack and several significant climbs and descents for a few miles. The danger zone comes right after passing the Stockbridge Shelter (on your left at the top of a large rock outcropping), where you once again have to hop down and around a few boulders … on this day those rocks were wet and slippery, and the hikers who were holed up in the shelter shook their heads at me as I slipped and skidded down. Eventually, you hook up with the AT again via a short unmarked trail, and emerge on Arden Valley Road. You plunge downhill on the road (ugh!) to Tiorati Circle, then head right back uphill on the road straight across. Navigation got weird at that point, as a completely unmarked and unmapped trail is supposed to take you into the woods to hook up with Ramapo-Dunderberg again … I don’t know if I took the right trail, but I managed to get there. You aren’t long on the RD before you turn off on another unmarked trail, and this one is a bit of an adventure. It’s completely overgrown with underbrush (looks like blueberry bushes and other low bushes), and there must be at least 20 trees that have fallen down across the trail that you have to jump over (update: ran that section of trail again on 4/5/09, and simply counted the downed trees that I had to step over ... 74. No kidding). Luckily, it trends almost entirely downhill. Lucky also that the race will be taking place in the spring, because by summer that trail is going to be so overgrown you won’t be able to see it (although snacking on the blueberries would be nice).

The remainder of this part of the course is actually quite nice and very runnable … of course, as I mentioned earlier I simply hadn’t eaten enough pre-run so I ended up speed-hiking parts. What I’ll need to remember is to stay relaxed and on pace through this area during the race. As I’ve written before, my common mistake in longer trail races is that I tend to pick up the pace mid-race, not because I’m trying to do so, but because I’m just enjoying myself so much and I get into a sort of rhythm that is just a little too fast. Because this section of the course, which will be from about 17 to about 21 miles on race day, is fairly easy I will have to be careful to hold back.

So, at this point I’ve seen the entire 50k course, and I am both impressed and a little nervous about the race. There are a few really difficult spots, and certainly a half-dozen places where a navigational error would be very easy. Hopefully, the course will be marked well enough for that not to be a real problem, but only race day experience will answer that. If you are running one of the races on May 9, best of luck to you. I hope we all have decent weather and great races.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Race Report: Mudders and Grunters, March 29, 2009

March 29, 2009: Mudders and Grunters 5 mile trail race

Following some late-week rain, there was the promise of mud (glorious, stinky, swamp mud!) on race day for this year’s Mudders and Grunters race in Westchester County. The organizing Taconic Road Runners Club does a great job maximizing the use of the relatively small footprint of Franklin Roosevelt State Park, snaking runners through fire roads, single-track, swampy back lots, and even a couple sections of bush-whacking. The popularity of this race seems to grow every year, and runners come from farther and farther away to be a part of the fun.
I decided to run the race this year as ‘part one’ of an epic day of trail running, which would include an additional 17 miles of tough trails in Bear Mountain/Harriman State Park post-race … but that story is for another blog entry (coming soon).

Because Mudders and Grunters gives out not just the usual overall and age-group awards, but also recognizes top teams, most-muddy, bloodiest, etc. the race gets it share of nutty costumes and fringe lunatics. I love it. While warming up, I saw three women in bunny costumes replete with puffy tails and floppy ears, as well as a young couple dressed as French maids (yes, one woman and one man). There was a smattering of chattering high schoolers, nervous but keen on grabbing attention, along with the more-typical: the gazelles, the grizzly vets, the happy mid-packers, the hungover … you get the picture. And there was a large contingent of my friends running from the Reservoir Dogs, another NYC-based running team with a great subset of enthusiastic and adventurous trail runners. From my team, the New York Harriers, only myself and the ageless Bobby Hutton showed up. Too bad, the rest of you just don’t know what fun you are missing. According to the race results, there were over 400 finishers this year, which must be a record.

At the starting line, I bumped into old friends and rivals, including George “Cannonball” Buchanan (one of the toughest guys to race because he never holds back), Steve “Stats” Marsalese (who knows my running history, well everyone’s running history, better than we do), and Kevin Shelton-Smith (who is capable of flying across the Atlantic, missing the start of an ultra by 4 hours due to airport delays, and still placing in the race). Because this race is so short, I knew I’d have to run hard and fast to finish ahead of any of these familiar faces (some of whom I’ve been racing for over 20 years), much less to keep up with the dozen or so very-fit young guys limbering up nearby.

The start seemed to come suddenly, and we were off. The young lions loped to the front, the rest of us battled for early position in anticipation of the single-track and mud to come. I felt a slight twinge in my right hamstring from the beginning, not a good sign for an old fogey like me and something I’ll have to keep an eye on over the next few days. Back to the race: The first section of wading through deep, odiferous muck begins less than a mile in, and starts with a sharp left turn downhill after crossing a park road. I could see arms flailing in front of me, a sure sign of poor footing. I made it through the turn unscathed, but immediately ran into (literally) some young dude in front of me who was clearly in over his head. He actually apologized to me (well, we apologized to each other simultaneously, funny). Slurping through the slimy shin-deep black bog, I could see Cannonball already at least 30 seconds up on me. This is the way we race each other time and again: he gets out fast; I try to reel him in.

Over hill and dale we rambled, criss-crossing the park in search of mud wallows and thorns. With each technical section, I’d pull some time back, but with each fire road those ahead would pull away again … we were yo-yoing around the course. We came to another nasty swampy section, and I heard someone splashing through behind me, a quick glance confirmed that it was Stats and he was gaining on me. Luckily for me, there was a large tree that had fallen right in front of us. Me being the sneaky rabbit, I ducked under it and continued my assault. Behind me, I heard Stats groan a large "OOF!" at the tree (later I learned that he tried to go over it, but had thumped his belly on the trunk; and in fact the same technique had resulted in a moment of feeling stuck for Cannonball).

With half a mile to go, there is a stream crossing that never looks so bad … until you jump in and it’s twice as deep as you expected, muddy, weedy, and cold. I managed to struggle out of the water as quickly as I could, still chasing Cannonball who was now within range. But he still has such quick feet for a recently-turned-50 year old, and he just kept dancing along there in front of me, tantalizingly close. I gave it all I had, but just could not catch him. I would wager that he ran the first half of the race about 45 seconds faster than I did, and then I ran the second half of the race about 35 seconds faster than he did … so do the math (more-or-less) and he got me by 7 seconds at the uphill finish, with Stats just behind me by 8 seconds. We’d finished in 13th-14th-15th places overall, not bad for a threesome of old dudes. Oh, and Kevin was right there too, finishing in 17th. Of course, some barely 40 year old speedster from the Albany area had traveled down to the race and smacked us all convincingly by finishing over 2 minutes faster. Ah, well, that’s running: the strongest runner wins, period. I love that. No whining, no bad calls by the ref, no coach playing favorites. Just you and the course.

My prize for finishing second in my age group was one of the coveted, pink-frosted piggy cookies, which I consumed gleefully on my way back to the car before heading off on my second trail adventure of the day.

I’ve run this race a number of times, once even finishing 2nd overall. I often find myself a bit ambivalent in telling others about it. On the one hand, it is so much fun and challenging and hilarious, I feel like every runner should get a chance to experience it. On the other hand, part of what makes these cold, wet, sloppy trail races so much fun is that they are the polar opposite of mainstream: with small fields, crazy characters, joking race directors, familiar faces, and the camaraderie that comes from sharing something relatively obscure and zany and hard. I don’t want races like this to get too popular or crowded, but I clearly understand why more and more runners seek them out. May we always find the happy medium!

Great job, Taconic Road Runners Club, keep up the good work. And congrats to all of my fellow competitors, you earned it on that course. By "it", of course, I mean a long hot shower. With lots of soap. Please.