Thursday, November 3, 2011

Patience is a virtue

I have plenty of stories to tell about dozens of races in which I tore out from the start, hell bent for leather, only to crumble well before the finish line. One would hope to learn from such experiences, but I suppose mistakes are part of being human - including repeated ones. In fact, prior to last weekend my most-recent race was the Surly Trail-Loppet Half-marathon in Wirth Park here in Minneapolis. It was a hot September day, I over-estimated my fitness and started too fast. By the final three miles, the heat and exhaustion had overwhelmed me - I was walking about half of the time, and being passed left and right. Finished in 24th, after having been top ten early in the race. Went home really embarrassed and disappointed. Only found out later in that week that I'd actually won my age group. I guess getting older can have a few benefits, because I ran a terrible race and sort of felt like I didn't deserve the age group win.

That might be an odd introductory paragraph for this post, because in this case - a trail race I completed last weekend - I was able to practice real patience and self-restraint, recognizing the distance and difficulty of the course and understanding that every step was included in the final result. And it paid off.

The race: It's called Surf the Murph, and it was actually three separate races rolled into one event: 50 miles, 50 kilometers, and 25 kilometers. The actual loop in Murphy-Hanrehan Park (Savage, MN) was 16.7 miles in length, so while three of those loops would hit 50 miles nearly exactly, you can do the math to see that the other races were more like 54 and 27 kilometers each. Well, that's trail racing. You want accuracy, go run on the roads or the track.

My current fitness ruled out the two longer races, so I entered the 27k. I arrived, after getting lost just once while driving in unfamiliar territory in the morning darkness, about an hour after the 50 mile racers had started, just in time to see the 54k racers take to the course. The 27k would be the final start, one hour later. It was brisk, about 30F with a clear sky but no real winds. Shivering in the bathroom line was a common denominator for all of us. Of course, if you know me you know I like to race in the cold, so this was good news for me.

Having never run in this park before, I didn't know quite what to expect. I'd been fore-warned by a couple of friends that there would be some sharp ups and downs, and the "Surf" in the title was an easy clue to the way the hills just kept coming, like ocean waves. I was determined NOT to repeat my fiasco at the Surly Trail-Loppet. No fast starts today.

As the starter sent us off, I tried to focus all of my attention on myself, how I felt, and ignore the runners around me - not always easy, this race taking place on Halloween weekend, and having several costumed competitors, including a sandal-wearing Neanderthal running just in front of me. Of course, it's still a race, so as we sloped down and around the first corner, I quickly tabulated thirteen bobbing heads on the trail ahead of me - putting me in 14th place.

The first 3 miles or so included some relentless ups and downs. None were more than maybe 100 feet, but they were steep and frequent. Running up is just guts, but running down is about form and efficiency. Downhills have never been my forte, but I stayed relaxed and tried to allow gravity to help.

Without trying at all, I slowly wove past three runners, and hit the first aid station just before 3 miles sitting in 11th place. I was happy with that, figuring that I was probably doing just fine in my age group, and knowing that I'd been holding back a lot - so hoping for a stronger run in the final miles of the race.

The second aid station was said to be at about 5.5 miles, and I'd moved to 9th place by then - again, not trying to run anyone down, just staying relaxed and doing my thing. I didn't have any more runners in sight ahead of me, so figured it was unlikely I'd catch anyone else on the day. At that point, I was averaging over 9 minutes per mile (I told you it was hilly - we did some walking on the uphills).

During the next 30 minutes, we began to catch the tail end of the 54k racers. This surprised me - they had a 1 hour head start, and I was about an hour into this loop. If I was running 9:00 miles, this meant that they had taken about 2 hours to "run" the first 7 miles of their race - something like 18:00 mile pace. Ouch. Those guys were in for a very long day. they still had 25 miles to go!

Things started getting more confusing after this. I was catching and passing people, but which race were they running? I tried to use logic: if I saw someone, then caught and passed them within a minute or less, I assumed they were in the 54k. If I saw someone, but had to run them down over a few minutes before going by, then they must be in my race. But what about the guy walking and stretching his hamstrings? And what about the three guys standing at the aid station at 12.4 miles - which race were they in? Hmm.

Making some assumptions (playing games in my head), I figured I could be anywhere from 5th place all the way up to 2nd, but there was no way to tell for sure. The final 4.3 miles to the finish flew by, and I had finally opened up the throttle and gone into full-on race mode, running as hard as I could to pass as many people as I could. I had to thrash through the underbrush a couple of times, as some 54kers - at least I THINK they were 54kers - refused to move to the side - sigh. To be honest, most of them were totally cool and polite and encouraging, it was just two dunderheads who refused to yield the trail to me, despite my asking politely more than once. Yeesh.

I pushed through to the finish, a very casual set up, with a table of friendly volunteers. No idea what place I'd garnered, I asked a volunteer, who said, "I don't know, second maybe? I think some guys are in already". All right, but what does that mean, and what if runners in the 54k had dropped out at the end of their first loop? Hard to tell.

I decided that it didn't really matter. I'd run a MUCH better race than last time, finished very strong, and felt like I could have gone another mile or two if I'd had to do so. I grabbed some snacks, made sure to thank the volunteers, congratulated the race director for a great event, then headed home.

Waited for several days for results to be posted, which was a bit frustrating. Finally, they were up, and I saw myself listed as 2nd place - okay, that was more-or-less what I expected. What I didn't expect was that the winner was a 58 year old from St. Paul. Fifty-eight?? Dude, I want to know what you have for breakfast! Beat me by 11 minutes too, stomped me. I was curious - this guy had to be an outstanding age-grouper around these parts - so I searched the internet for the name and race results. Nothing, except one of those Mud-Warrior events from last summer, showing a mid-pack finish. Wow, this 58 year old guy came out of nowhere and won a 27k trail race? Then I finally found some links to the name - and the right age - but it was related to some guy who lost almost 100 pounds using some special intense training regimen - didn't look like a runner. Hmm. Weird. Well, kudos to you buddy. Nice run.

The next day, just out of curiosity, I took another look at the results. Lo and behold, I was listed as first place! I guess it was a scoring error or something, but that other guy was now way down the standings, and there I was in first. Hey, I'm an old codger now, I don't WIN races! Or, do I? If I'm patient enough, run to my strengths, build momentum and come flying home in the last miles ... maybe I do!

I last won a race back in 2008, and I was convinced it would be the very last race I would ever win. I was wrong. To say I'm on cloud nine right now would probably be an understatement. Let me bask in this one just a little while, I'm sure I'll be shot back down to earth the next time I toe the line. But I'll enjoy this feeling while it lasts.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Do cats always land on their feet?

It's been MONTHS since I posted. And a busy-stressful-intense-changing few months at that.
In late June, a rug was pulled from beneath my feet, and my 14 year career came to an abrupt point of change. Like so many others in this stumbling economy, I was looking for work. Not an easy prospect.

In these situations, one can tumble headfirst and go splat, or one can be the proverbial cat, and land on one's feet. I suppose ultimately the choice is up to each of us. I'm not claiming any special powers or dexterity, just a doggedness. Can I claim that this attitude was developed over 30+ years of running, or is it a chicken-and-egg problem ... did my determination make me become and sustain myself as a runner? It's likely I'll never really know.

The deepest truth is that I have a supportive and helpful network of friends and colleagues who jumped into action at my call for assistance. If I was trying to be the cat - land on my feet - then I was a cat with many helping hands on my way down to the ground.

Those who helped - and I mean helped in so many different ways, from job leads to compassionate words and everything in between - have my eternal gratitude.

The end result? Well, I'll just say that I'm in a new city in a new time zone, and this morning I was running in the dark frosty pre-dawn, considering how lucky I am. New job (best one I've ever had, and for the best boss I've ever had), new house, new friends, new start, loving wife, great sons. I think it's safe to say I've landed on my feet.

Now I just need my feet to keep me running along. I've ambled past my 50th birthday, and now take aim at a new age group. Hmm, better get in shape again.

I will do my best to get back to posting more regularly. Have a 16.7 mile trail race coming up in just over a week, that should provide some grist for the mill. Good running to all.

Friday, June 24, 2011

700+ Races

I promised some time ago to blog something about my long racing history. I've hesitated, because really it's just a long list of statistics. Maybe I should just share the master file as a google doc or something. We'll see.

In the meantime, skip the rest of this post if you really don't care. I won't mind, really. There is no way for me to summarize over 700 races in one blog post. Nearly every one of them has some kind of memory attached to it, the best and the worst and all in-between. I really do love running races. I love the challenge, the camaraderie, I even love the early mornings and the pre-race jitters. I suppose you already surmised that, because 700+ races is, well, a lot.

The truth is that I've run even more races than that, but I only started recording them in 1978. Before that, I'd run at least couple dozen races in track competitions while in Junior High School. I have no record of them, but it's fair to say that I was a bit of a late bloomer when it came to running. What I can recall from those halcyon days was getting my tail kicked by other kids of the same age who developed - physically - faster than I did. They all seemed so big and strong, and I was just a little tadpole next to them. It really wasn't until I was about 17 that I started to catch up physically (and actually had to start shaving, but that's another story).

My first recorded race was a 10k road race in Reedsburg, Wisconsin called The Butterfest Run. It had a popular reputation locally at the time, and many of the area's high school runners used it as a sword-crossing event mid-summer. I managed to record a time of 39:28 and finished in 37th place out of 104 runners - resplendent in my white cotton t-shirt and shorty-shorts.

The first race I ever won was in September 13, 1979, when I crossed the line first in a high school cross country meet run on my home course in Baraboo, Wisconsin. That course, now completely gone and made into suburban tract homes, was a bear, with two killer hills and one really steep downhill. I ran 17:51 for three miles, and beat the other 27 guys for my first-ever win. I think I sort of roared as I crossed the finish line, somehow at that young age it had seemed a long time coming. But it was also validation and redemption for that little boy who had been left in the dust only a few years earlier. Hard work had paid off. I could do this, and I could do it well. For an awkward teenager, that moment was enlightening and I guess I could say reassuring. You're gonna be all right, kid.

Since those early days, I have now managed to run at total of 706 races, at just about every distance from the half-mile up to 50 kilometers - for a grand total of 4493 miles of racing. I've raced on roads, tracks, trails, golf courses, and even in deep sand. I've raced at all hours of the day and night, and in every kind of weather you can imagine. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

I've had some success, and of course I've had abysmal failures. I've crashed and burned out of marathons on more than one occasion, and simply had to admit that 26.2 miles wasn't going to be my forte. I've taken wrong turns and gone off-course. I've had races cancelled mid-way by horrendous thunderstorms, and I've had races in which I fell down more than once and still did well. In the end, at least to date, I've had my share of top finishes:
Together, that adds up to a top-five finish in 44% of my 706 races. I admit, most of those successful races happened years ago, and these days it only happens in low-key trail races.

My best times are also from years ago. Here's a summary chart of my personal records:
You can see that my glory years were in the mid-80s, and I've never quite been able to match those performances. Of course, matching those times can no longer be the goal as I approach age 50.

I can say that I still run races with the same combination of joy and determination that I had back in the 80s. I'm older, I'm slower, and I'm not trained as intensively ... but put me on a starting line and tell me to go, and I'll be off with all the effort I can muster on that day. I probably won't win, but I'll do my best.

If you don't write down your races, I suggest you start. It's a fun way to look back over the years, and to re-kindle some fond memories.

Do you think I can make it to 1,000 races some day? I can promise you this: if I fall short of 1000, it won't be for lack of trying.

Monday, June 20, 2011

That's a little better, at least

Following Wednesday night's debacle of a run, I toed the starting line for the NYRR Portugal Day 5 mile road race last Sunday with more than a bit of trepidation. If the 6:10 pace I managed to struggle through for 1.5 miles on Wednesday was all I had in the tank, then 5 miles on the roads of Central Park were quite likely to be rather embarrassing.

Jogging to the starting area, I felt awful. This actually encouraged me. Let me explain.

For decades I've had this experience over and over again: how I feel while warming up for a race is almost always in total inverse proportion to my race performance.

I have no explanation or even theory about this odd phenomenon. Seems rather unlikely, and definitely counter-intuitive ... but if I feel like crud during a warm up jog, I seem to race better than average. Go figure. But maybe you too can use this stranger-than-fiction to keep your mental attitude positive even when the first couple miles of a workout, warmup, or race feel horrible: It could actually be a good sign!

Back to the race. The crowded corrals at the start - a now-ubiquitous experience with NYRR races - actually didn't help at all (no surprise there). I find it just plain difficult to be forced to line up almost 20 minutes pre-start for a short road race. Standing in a crowd, literally feeling my diligent warmup and stretching routines fade away, is really frustrating. I can cope with this when it's a long race like a marathon, but for a five mile road race - where you need to get moving at the gun - that's close-to-impossible after standing still for so long.

Be that as it may, I did what I could.

First mile: Slow start as usual, and I saw many of my teammates up ahead as I managed a 6:09 for the first mile. Good enough. I figured I'd fade from there.
Second mile - 5:56. Oops! Too fast, darn. But not feeling awful. And I was passing people. Hmm.
Third mile - Back to 6:09. The legs don't lie. Again, I figured I'd start fading at this point.
Fourth mile - no idea. Where did they hide that mile marker? I recall that there was a hose spraying mist onto the road, and several tables with water cups, and as I navigated the crowds around that point, I glanced at my watch wondering where on earth the 4 mile mark could be. My split time read 5:59, and in retrospect I must have been past the mark already. Never saw it.
Final mile: did my best to run hard, but started feeling really HOT and my legs starting to seize up a little. I covered the last two miles in 11:59, so I'm figuring about 5:57 for mile 4 and 6:02 for the fifth mile, but those are just guesses.

Finished in 30:12, which was actually kind of satisfying. Searchable Results here.

The fact that I am currently doing zero speedwork shows in obvious ways (I'm a tortoise!), but I did not suffer a repeat of Wednesday night, when even one mile at 6:10 pace felt really difficult.

I'll take it, and I'll see if I can build on it.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

You Get What You Train For

Ran the JPMorganChase Corporate Challenge 3.5 mile road race in Central Park last night (with over 15,000 of my "best friends"). I've run this darned race 24 times, dating back to the early 90s. I used to like it, but it has grown to such an enormous size that's it's become difficult to enjoy.

This year, I had a plan. First, I would be honest about my potential time. That was mistake number one. They seeded runners into corrals, and I received a green bib number, putting me in the 2nd corral. Watching the dozens of people who clearly are much slower than me pile into the red corral in front me was rather frustrating. My favorite: some dude, about 195 pounds, basketball sneakers, chewing a wad of gum and talking into his cell phone as they started the race - yeah, he was at least 10 rows in front of me. What do you think, did he break 8:00 pace for the race? 9:00 pace? I doubt it. He probably walked most of the way. Yeesh.

Back to the plan: regardless of how crowded and frustrating, I was going to run slightly slower than tempo pace for the first two miles, and if I felt okay I would open up and run the final 1.5 miles harder. Aiming for 6:45, I ran the first mile in 6:37; for the second mile, I was aiming for 6:35 and ran it in 6:34. Okay, not bad. However, as I tried to increase the pace, I found I was really laboring. At the three mile mark, having run a 6:10 mile that felt much harder than I expected, it dawned on me: YOU GET WHAT YOU TRAIN FOR.

This year, in an effort to avoid injury and get back to running consistently, I have forgone almost all types of fast workouts. Oh, I do a little tempo running now and then, but mostly I do good old LSD. The result: I'm fairly strong and I can run 6:35 pace and be able to chat with those around me a bit. But drop the pace just that little tiny bit (25 seconds per mile, that's only about a 6.5% change), and I'm wheezing like an asthmatic and feeling weak in the knees. I am simply not adapted to running that pace right now. I'm not trained for it, and it shows immediately.

I wobbled the final half mile in 3:04, and finished something like 250th on the night, with my second-worst time ever for this event. Sigh.

I'm not going to complain, or at least not too much. With me leaving my current employer at the end of this month, where I've been the Corporate Challenge team captain for the past 13 years, it means that I may never have to run this race again - and frankly I welcome that. I'm not so fast anymore, but I am still aware of proper race behavior - and this race is the worst example of race behavior you will ever see. In a field dominated by hacks, wannabes, and has-beens (guys who might have been decent jocks in high school but are overweight and untrained now), what you get is a mess. I was pushed, cut off, kicked, tripped, jammed, boxed, and just about any other bad descriptive racing term you can come up with. Running with a bunch of inexperienced and overly-macho guys is a nightmare. Of course, they push and shove and zig zag all over the course in the first mile to get way ahead of me, then I have to weave back through all of them during the next mile when they seize up and slow way down. And what's really great: they are aggressively pissed at me when I pass them, often giving me a little shove and some "words of encouragement" usually referring to me in colorful-if-not-totally-original terms. Morons. Dangerous morons.

So, I bid adieu to the Corporate Challenge. Used to be fun, now it's just frustrating. When can I get back to the trails?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

When the Walls Come Tumbling Down

Okay, I know it's been awhile since my last post. Apologies for that.

My "running life" is going fine. I ran a nice 10 mile trail race, the final race in the NJ Trail Series Spring line up. Results. What the results don't show: the early pace was fast, and I sat in 7th place for the first couple of miles. Then, we hit a very technical downhill section followed by a very rocky stream-side trail. I picked up the pace, and moved all the way up to 4th overall. There was also a 10k on the day, and during the final 3 miles of my race we were weaving our way through the 10k field (including my sister, who enjoyed the race despite getting lost and adding a mile or two). Before I realized it, I had run up to and passed the three runners in the front. Moving into first overall, I heard one of them shout, "He's in the 10 mile", and immediately I had two of the three right on my heels. I pushed it as best I could, but couldn't shake those young legs. With 500 meters remaining, they shifted gears and left me in their dust. Still, 3rd overall and actually leading the race in the final miles was pretty satisfying. Next up: silly Corporate Challenge tonight (which I will run as a workout), then a 5 mile road race on Sunday (my first road race in a long time - I wonder just how painfully slow I will actually be).

But enough about running. The tumbling walls I refer to in the title of this post are the walls of my career. After 14 years at The Metropolitan Museum of Art here in NYC, I will be leaving at the end of this month to seek my next venture. In essence, the department in which I am currently working is going through a restructuring, and that plan does not include a position suitable for me. Ouch. I've become another statistic of this nutty economy. Ugh.

So, I now enter the job market for the first time in a very long while. I'm rather rusty. I'll be trying to add some shine to my resume, and keeping an open mind about what to do next. I had never planned to work in an art museum, and I have to say it's been a great 14 year ride. I've learned so much, met so many incredible people, and been a part of many, many interesting projects. This is just "one of those things" in life - a forced change, but frankly not a total shock. I could see that my role was a bit unclear looking to the future, so the time had simply come.

Wish me luck. With the support of my loving wife, great friends, helpful colleagues, and of course my old pal Running, I believe I will see this through and find something soon - maybe even something really exciting and satisfying. At least I hope so.

Chin up, as they say. Or "Keep Calm and Carry On".

And, hey, if you are an employer, I'm all ears!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Beers and Bloggers

I agree that "Beers and Bloggers" sounds both typical and potentially embarrassing (for all involved), but in this case neither element reared its ugly head.

I was invited to attend an event last night, hosted by NYC Runs and JackRabbit Sports. The invite stated, "Join fellow NYC Running bloggers for a short run followed by beer and pizza ... We'll talk about our blogs, and for many of us have the rare chance to meet face to face".


I can't say that I spend an inordinate amount of time blogging, or reading every blog I can find. In fact, I've always felt a little bit that most bloggers - including me - are at least somewhat infected with an inflated sense of self-importance. I mean, ultimately, who really cares about my barely-top-20 finish in some obscure trail race?

That being said, I do think that there are really smart folks out there who blog in very clever ways - and I met some of them last night. I'm not saying any of us are literary geniuses, but I do come across posts that make me think, or laugh, or both - with a fair bit of frequency. And my own posts, which I know can vary rather significantly in terms of quality and level of interest, might occasionally engender some intriguing comments or emails.

In the end, perhaps it is worth something to put your thoughts and experiences out there for the world to see. You just might inspire, entertain, and/or make a small difference for a reader or two - and that alone seems worth the time. When I was in graduate school studying psychology, I remember one professor saying something like, "If your ambition is to change the world, good luck with that one. But if your goal is to HELP change the world by doing something good for ONE person TODAY, well now that's something you can accomplish."

I don't mean to imply that anything I've ever posted here is actually accomplishing something special. In fact, I often think that most of what I write is rather dull and potentially sleep-inducing. But I do think that all of the bloggers that met last night - combined - have a shot at doing a few good deeds now and then.

I think I have digressed a bit here. Back to the event last night.

We met at the new Jack Rabbit Sports store on West 72nd on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Nice new store, friendly staff. About a dozen of us in attendance, and Steve Lastoe of the afore-mentioned NYC Runs serving as emcee. We headed over to Riverside Park for a short run, and of course ended up breaking up into pairs and trios pretty quickly - our connection is because we are bloggers in the NYC area with a running focus, not our common running pace. I was able to run and chat with a couple of folks I'd never met before, and they were great. I've added their blogs to my list on the right (you may need to scroll down).

After the run, we retired to the basement of the store to a nice new common room for beer and pizza slices. No formal presentations or announcements, just chatting and connecting. All in all, the event was a nice grass-roots-community-low-key-get-together kind of thing. The time passed too quickly, and soon we were saying our good nights and disappearing into the night.

I hope that we can do it again sometime soon. It was great to meet face-to-face, and now those blog posts will carry a deeper personal significance for me. I hope that statement applies to all.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Race Report: Soapstone Mountain Trail 24k

After reading my friend Steve Wolfe's description of this race last year, I knew I wanted to run the Soapstone Mountain 24k trail race someday. Luckily, someday arrived this past weekend - thanks to my wife's kindness and generosity, because it's a long drive from NYC to Northeast Connecticut and she knew I'd be away for most of the day.

I recruited my sister and her son to join me and my 10 year old son for the day's fun. We expected some rain, and it poured on us for the first half of the drive. Not a great sign, because the weather generally flows from the SW to the NE, so we were getting a preview of what would likely be arriving at the race site later in the morning.

Arriving about an hour before the scheduled start time, we parked in a wet field and headed for race day registration. They weren't quite in the groove yet, and there was a funny little exchange when I tried to sign up for the 24k but they got confused about which bib numbers were for which race (they also have a 6k "sampler" race that my sister was running, with handicapped start times). Eventually we got it sorted out, although I felt I had to keep apologizing because I had to ask two or three times if they were signing me up for the right race, and only on the last query did they realize their mistake. No big deal. In fact, I like these sort of mix ups in a funny way, because it shows that the race is a local, grass-roots event and not some big corporate undertaking. I'm not bashing those big sponsored races, I'm just saying I prefer the opposite.

The rain was holding off as we lined up for the start. There were about two dozen serious-looking dudes up front, then a little gap back to the rest of us. It's funny how different people handle those moments just before the gun. Some are dead serious, game-face on, focusing and ignoring everyone else. Others are non-stop chatterboxes, blathering on and on about something or other (shoes, amount of sleep, running this race several years ago when there were only a few guys showing up, etc.). Others are prancers: they dance and jump around, endlessly repeat their wind sprints, turn into infinite motion machines. I try to absorb it all, and take a moment to remember that I'm lucky just to be able to be there and take part. Well, that and swat at the mosquitoes.

We started a bit late, something about timers and laptops, again no big deal, and no one complained about it - cool. When the "Ready-Set-Go" was finally uttered, I settled into my usual start: falling behind immediately. Sigh.

Actually, I was a bit stunned at how fast these guys were hammering at the beginning of a 14.5 mile race. Granted, the gravel road was wide and trending down hill, but I couldn't help but believe they would pay later. I tried to count the runners in front of me, but there were too many - more than 30, maybe even more than 40. I jockeyed around a little with a couple of guys, but eventually we hit the first steep climb and formed the single file line for the day.

I actually passed two guys scrambling up that first steep hill. Not on-purpose, but because they wanted and asked me to pass them. I guess my being right on their heels made them push too hard, or maybe annoyed them - though I hope not, I think that I'm a pleasant fellow to climb muddy hills with. Oh, well.

The rain started to come down lightly about 30 minutes into the race, for me that was around the first aid station, which I exited at 32:10 after grabbing some water. I was trying to hold back my effort and save something for the second half of this race - partly because I know I'm not quite fit enough to push a 14.5 mile race right now, regardless of how technical the course might be. Adding in hills and rocks and mud, that only makes the effort that much harder.

I was running just behind two others at this point and had been for 2-3 miles. Unfortunately I don't have any names, but they were strong and consistent, and seemed to know the course. I was being patient, waiting, breathing, relaxing. I was catching them on the uphills, they were descending faster than me.

As we neared the second aid station at about the halfway mark, the skies turned dark and the rain picked up. I took one quick sip of water to wash down a gel, and exited at 1:01:18. That time seemed slow to me, but I was trying to be patient and run within my current abilities. Within a couple of minutes, it was absolutely pouring rain, and that would continue nearly without interruption through the rest of my race.

The fact is that I like running in the rain, and I like mud and water on my trail runs. Partly because I know I'm better at running in that stuff than most people, and partly because of the sheer childish joy of splashing around in mud puddles (without getting yelled at by my mother). But this was tough. The course became a combination of wet rocks and deep muddy puddles - not only tough to run in, but frankly a bit dangerous - the rocks were slippery, and the puddles were hiding both their actual depth and any obstacles within (rocks, sticks, mud). We had to run with more control and less abandon than we otherwise would, which probably slowed the overall times.

I started to pick runners off, one by one. First, my two companions. Then, slowly but surely, I started reeling in the fast starters in front of me. By the third aid station, which I hit in 1:41:33, I thought that perhaps I'd passed about 6 - 10 other runners (I wasn't counting, it was definitely more important to concentrate on the course than on the other runners). with about 3 miles to go - I think - it was now or never. I did my best, given conditions, to open up my pace and finish strong. I was passing runners every 2-3 minutes. I'm not sure how many I finally managed to pass, but I ended up 19th overall with a time just under 2 hours and 4 minutes. Not great, but not awful. My quads were beginning to cramp slightly during the final 10 minutes, so I think I probably ran as hard I as I could on the day.

After changing into dry clothes and grabbing a cup of hot chili (man, that was really good chili), I saw a print out of the preliminary results. The winner (Jim Johnson, I think) had run 1:36, which I understand may be a course record. (Update: Found results on CoolRunning). Impressive, especially under those conditions. In 19th place overall, I was only 7th place among the over-40 crowd: those guys are tough. My only consolation prize: Everyone who ran faster than me was also younger than me. Good enough at this stage in my career, I'll take it. If I can get back to this race next year after I turn 50 years old, I can aim for a higher age-group place. Time will tell.

My sister enjoyed the sampler, and my son and his cousin enjoyed getting wet and muddy while playing around in the woods for a few hours. We all devoured veggie burgers post-race and then trekked the 3 hours back to NYC, driving through even more torrential rain. Nasty weather, but a great race. I wish it was a little closer to home!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Happy Mother's Day

I'm certain that I'm one of the very few husbands in the world whose wife requests this for her Mother's Day gift: Let's go to a trail race and run together!

I'm one lucky guy.

So, we hired a babysitter, piled into the car, and drove out to Lewis Morris Park in New Jersey on Saturday morning to run the NJ Trail Series Spring Race #3 - half-marathon. It was a gorgeous morning, sunny with no real wind, birds singing, a great day for a fun race.

Footnote to other parents out there: the little guy didn't get car sick this time - thank goodness. And he had a ball with the babysitter, throwing rocks into a stream, and even seeing a snake, which he reacted to with both sheer joy and utter terror. Funny.

Back to the event: I've sung the praises of Jennifer and Rick McNulty on this blog before, so I won't repeat myself too much. Why do I like their races so much? Because they are just-challenging-enough, low-key, friendly, attract a small but strong field, welcome experts and beginners with the same enthusiasm, and - of course - there's a cold one waiting at the finish line.

This was my wife's first race in this series, and she just wanted to "run, not race". We were definitely going to stay together throughout the 13.1 miles, and enjoy the chance to run with each other, something that's been rather hard to do since our son was born 2.5 years ago - especially on trails where the jogging stroller just would not be appropriate. When we were on our honeymoon in 2007, we spend the penultimate day running together in a trail race on Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay. It was a beautiful day, and we were just in it for the fun and the spectacular views. Of course, by the halfway point we realized that the top two women were mere seconds in front of us, and I asked Monika if she wanted to catch them. She said, "Go!", and a few miles (and one screaming descent) later she had won the race.

Deja vu? Pretty much. As the race started and the small field did a short 0.7 mile lap before heading into the single track for two 10k loops, we could see the lead woman (Jessi) just a bit ahead. For the first 2 or 3 miles, we were just running along. I think maybe I was talking too much, but I was excited to be with Monika in the woods, and the pace felt perfect for me. I'm not all that fast right now, but I'm feeling fairly strong. I noticed that we were typically making up ground on Jessi during the uphills, then losing time on the descents. She was a smooth and fast downhill runner.

Around the 5k mark, the single track opens up onto a fire road for maybe 800 meters. The road slowly rises, and this time we caught lead woman. I could sense that Monika wanted to push a little - despite our plan to "just run", she can't help but be a little competitive, she is a runner after all. Because she generally wants me to lead on single track - calling out obstacles and doing the navigation while she can just concentrate on running - I picked up the pace just a little. We still had nearly 15km to go, so no need to get anxious yet.

Finishing the first lap, we stopped for water briefly at the start/finish. Couldn't spot the babysitter and the boy, they were hiking around the lake somewhere. As we started running again I could see Jessi maybe 15 seconds behind us. This could be a race after all.

On the second lap, I kept asking Monika if the pace was all right. She kept wanting me to turn it up a little, and in fact on one descent she actually passed me and opened up a small gap! I was occasionally glancing back, and I could no longer see anyone behind us.

As we neared the finish, I wanted her to finish ahead of me, she said the opposite - a good couple, right? In the final 50 meters I slowed to let her pass. We were celebrating Mother's Day after all. She earned a strong first place as part of that celebration, and we came in 6th and 7th overall. Results. We ran the second lap a bit harder in terms of effort, but in fact the split for the second 10k was a bit slower than the first (the lap one split time includes the 0.7 mile loop, so split one is for 6.9 miles - 8:00 pace - and split two is for 6.2 miles - 8:20 pace).

It was a great day, and my wife was all smiles. Happy Mother's Day my love.

And Happy Mother's Day to all mothers out there.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Race Report: Leatherman's Loop 2011

In my previous post, I mentioned that there is always a bit of adventure in the Leatherman's Loop race. This year was no exception.

Little did I know that my adventure would start pre-race. I'll spare you all of the disgusting details, just suffice it to say that my youngest son got rather intensely car sick on the way to the race. Ugh. Had to pull over a couple of times to try to clean him up and help him settle down. It was stressful, and made us arrive late to the race site.

That's a bad choice with the Loop, because it's a crowded race and there is a narrow entrance road, with a slow process of parking your car. Needless to say, it made the pre-race hour a blur of action - cleaning the car, getting bib numbers, establishing meeting points for the babysitter, trying to find a port-a-john, running around in circles ... you get the picture. And all of this on a day that turned out sunnier and warmer than expected. In retrospect, I was perfectly set up to have a disastrous race.

With each passing year, and as I continue to get slower and slower (see bottom of this post), I come to the crowded start of this race, look around, and have this immediate thought, "I will never be able to compete with all of these young, fit, talented athletes!" Mind you, that's not me being humble, it's me looking around and seeing a lot of guys who look like they will simply run away from me at the start, never to be seen again.

Two friends and teammates were on hand to try their first Loop. Matt Rosetti, hoping to be with the leaders, and Morgan Thompson, who downplayed his plans (but had that competitive twinkle in his eye). I found my wife in the crowd for a good-luck kiss (she was not planning on racing, she just wanted to have a nice run in the trails), and I could tell she was still stressed about our little one's problems in the car.

The Start.
After the customary race greetings and blessings, there was a rather confusing start, with Tony Godina saying something like, "Okay, let's get going" and then having to repeat himself and wave his arms before the hesitant and confused field finally charged across the damp prairie. I didn't get a bad start, considering. In fact, at about 150 meters I think I was holding around 20th place, but as we began the sweeping left hand turn to head into the trails, another dozen or more guys went right past me. I could tell that I was on the anaerobic edge at that moment, and just had to let them go. Hmm, not so good.

As we tip-toed through the first little stream and ensuing mud, a familiar voice said, "Hey, Douglas, you're supposed to be at the front!" It was Eric Scheffler, long-time friend and powerful ultra-runner, right on my shoulder. I couldn't think of anything witty to say, and blurted out, "This IS the front!" or something like that. Maybe I was actually trying to convince myself.

As is my custom, I set about the task of trying to weave through the pack over the next few miles. Post-race, Eric thought we'd been around 50th place, but I think it was more like 30-35th. Anyway, it was clear that it was going to be hard work.

It's also common in my experience at this race to have that one guy who is absolutely killing himself to stay ahead of me in the first couple of miles. This year it was some guy in a yellow shirt, who I kept passing every time the trail got technical or downhill, but who charged up every hill or flat spot to pass me back. His breathing was really labored, and I tried to ignore his tendency to bump into me every time he went by - maybe it was unintentional. This went on for nearly a mile, including the first water crossing (a fast-running stream, not quite waist-deep), which was rather slimy underfoot and not easy to clamber out of on the opposite bank.

Eventually, I managed to get by him and stay there, so that I could focus on my own race and what lay ahead. Looking forward, there was literally a line of 8 runners who I was pulling back slowly. I had no idea what place I was in at that point, I was thinking just inside the top 20, which matched my pre-race expectation. Hey, not so bad after all.

The next couple of miles included the "new" water crossing, which was the deepest of the day. I had pulled up onto the heels of the pack of eight, and we all hit the water rather clumsily within seconds of each other. George Buchanan, just in front of me, tried taking a dive and swimming across. Looked good to me, plus I was feeling rather hot and could use the cool dunk in the water. I executed a perfectly terrible dive, and thrashed away for a few strokes. I'm no competitive swimmer, that's for sure. Then again, none of us were. We must have looked laughable, really. A bunch of skinny guys flailing away, making a lot of noise and splashing like madmen, but barely moving forward. Comical.

Half way across, I was putting my feet down looking for rocks to push me along, and found that I could barely touch the bottom! Gulp. But through a combination of thrashing arms and hopping on my toes, I somehow managed to scramble out of there and pass three guys in the process. As I cut across the road and back into the mud, I thought, "My wife is going to kill me over that water crossing". She is a talented trail runner, but she likes RUNNING, not wading, and certainly not swimming, and if that water was up to my chin, she was going to be in over her head.

I managed to get past two more guys in the next half mile or so, leading up to the notorious sand "wall". This is impossible to run, you just have to hike it, and maybe use your hands to help you along. I do have a technique for this: use short, quick steps, and place your feet carefully. Most guys tend to lean too far forward, over-stride, and as a result lose traction at the moment of push-off. I was doing well until just near the top, when my right foot slipped on a push-off and I came to a dead stop. Argh.

Once over that hill, there was a bit of technical stuff remaining, then mostly fire roads until the third and final water crossing just before the finish line. I tried to push myself on the single-track, knowing that each guy I passed was probably capable of running me down on less-technical trails.

Pride cometh before the fall.
With about 1.5 miles to go, I made a typically human and stupid mistake. I started feeling good about myself. I thought, "Hey, I'm having a pretty good race!" and I stopped concentrating for just a few seconds (on a non-technical, double-track fire road). The next thing I knew, I was face down in the gravel. I must have clipped a small rock at just the wrong moment. Nearly knocked the wind out of me, but I'd managed to catch myself with palms, elbows, and right hip, so I hadn't smacked my knees or ribs. I hopped up, did a quick check, no major bleeding, no protruding bones ... okay then - run! Yeesh.

Shortly after that, old George came flying past me. He must have been saving something for the last mile. I did all I could, but I just could not match his pace. We have dueled on these short trail races for years, he usually gets the best of me, and he did that again on this day.
Approaching the final river crossing, I tried to muster a kick, but with no real speed training it was probably not noticeable to anyone who was watching. Pushing across the river and struggling uphill into the sun, I somehow managed to grab 9th place overall. Results.

In front of me, Matt had garnered 3rd place, and Morgan 4th. If it had been a team competition, we'd have done all right. Matt talked about how much he'd been in oxygen debt throughout the race, even on the downhills. I talked to him briefly about the trail runner's need to detach breathing rhythm from running rhythm, not an easy task but one that can separate champions from pretenders.

Jogging back to the river crossing, I watched for my wife to finish. Along came our friend Cassandra (5th woman, first in her age group) and Heidi Schaller (6th woman, doing her first trail race, "fell down only a couple of times"), and then Monika. She splashed across with our friend James Redmond, then headed uphill. I could tell she wasn't in the mood to kick it in. Still, she finished as the 7th woman overall, not bad for "not racing" the event!

By a stroke of luck, I somehow managed to win my age group (and the story is nearly identical to this race two years ago). The overall winner Tommy Nohilly is in his 40s, and of course actually "won" the 40-49 age group, but they eliminated the winner from the age-group awards (which is appropriate). George Buchanan is a old guy like me, but he's in his 50s, so his 8th place overall gave him first in his age group, leaving the 40s to me (the last time that will happen in this race, I'll be 50 years old this fall). My prize: a delicious fresh blueberry pie. Perfect.

Post-race, tracking down my family and chatting with friends, the warm sun shining ... a pretty good day. And Monika didn't seem too angry with me about crossing three rivers, partly because the people around her had been helping each other through the obstacles (trail runners rule!). I suppose I really should not complain. But I'm a runner, so I will, just a little. My left foot is sore and slightly swollen. I hope I just twisted it a bit and will recover this week. Think I'll do some cycling for a couple of days to let it rest.

The best news of the day? The little guy didn't get sick in the car on the way home. Whew!

My history at the Loop:
Year Time (Place) Notes
2000 40:22 (2nd) My first loop at age 38, much too late. I should have run this race earlier.
2002 40:51 (6th) Very competitive year.
2003 41:54 (4th) Getting older, getting slower.
2005 43:45 (6th) 1.5 years after reconstructive surgery on my Achilles.
2006 44:23 (3rd) Year of the raging river detour, and my now-wife Monika won the women's race.
2007 49:39 (30th) After only 2 weeks of training following months off with hip injury.
2011 45:05 (9th) With the added water crossing, I think the time compares well to 2009.

Found an awesome gallery of photos online here:

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Next Up: Leatherman's Loop

My next race is one of my favorites in the area: the Leatherman's Loop. Taking place in Ward Pound Ridge Reservation in Westchester County, this event is a 25-year tradition. It's a 10k trail race featuring two water-crossings, some sections of nice thick mud, an impossible uphill sand climb, and usually a few downed trees/ brambles/ eroded spots that add to the fun.

Of course, I prefer longer courses, especially at this stage in my career. The Loop begins much like a college cross country invitational: everyone seems to think that they deserve the holeshot, so they sprint the first 600 meters trying to get to the trails first ... then most of them slow way down to try to recover from the oxygen debt they've just created. This means that the, ahem, more-reasonably paced starters have to weave in and around those eager beavers for the next couple of miles. That's fine on a cross country course, where there is usually ample room to pass - but back in the single track trails of the Rez, it's not. One of my personal challenges on Sunday is to try to get out faster than the last time I ran this race, and then practice patience while getting past what I assume will be at least a couple dozen guys who've pushed the first half-mile too hard.

Besides, let's be honest: it's not like I have a chance to be up with the leaders anymore, so losing 20-30 seconds because of difficulty passing a few runners isn't going to be as significant as it once might have been for me.

The Loop sells out quickly these days, with many more hopefuls than the 1,000 runner limit that is rightfully imposed on the field. Both my wife and I are going to be running (she actually won the race once in the past, the best I ever did was 2nd place). Neither of us are at the top of our respective games these days, but I think we'll both do all right. I'm hoping to sneak into the top 20 overall, and I think she'll be top 5 among the women. We'll see, won't we?

Forecast calls for pretty nice weather, which is actually a disadvantage for me. Ah, well, it is what it is. Good luck to everyone else out there. Check back next week for a race report, there is usually some element of adventure to the Loop.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Epilogue: NYC Running Show

Had a blast yesterday afternoon hanging out at the NYC Running Show and expo. Many top vendors, most with spacious booths, talking about their latest gear. Nice crowd of runners and triathletes on a rainy afternoon, milling about and chatting. I hope that they are able to make this an annual event.

Near the end of the day, I participated on a panel up on the main stage, with Steve Lastoe, Matt Lebow, Joe Garland, and Karla Bruning, who served as our moderator. We did our best to get the seated audience involved, by asking about their experiences and interests. Then we'd take that ball and run with it a bit on the panel. Not only was it good fun, but I'd like to think that we informed and inspired the attendees a bit, and frankly I learned a few things myself.

I wasn't surprised that there was quite a bit of interest in discussing trail running. The first question from the audience was about running trails in NYC. Each of had a slightly different take on this, from me discussing some of the great technical single track available in and around the city, to Matt extolling the virtues of the dozens of miles of trails on Staten Island, to Joe sharing his passion for the great carriage trails in Rockefeller Park.

I won't try to summarize the rest of the hour here, it would take far too many words and it's not like I was taking notes anyway. For those in attendance, I promised that I'd post a list of links to many of the things we were discussing. I'll try to group them in some semblance of order below. It's my hope that you might find something interesting or engaging by clicking through one or more of these links. Enjoy.

Trail Racing (Series, or sites where you can find great races put on by great people):
Western Mass Athletic Club (check out the Grand Tree race series)
NJ Trail Series (I've been enjoying these races lately, really great atmosphere)
Pretzel City Sports (For great trail races in Eastern PA)
Finger Lakes Road Runners (Upstate New York)
Trail Runner Magazine (large race calendar)
New York Adventure Racing Association (for those looking to add some variety beyond "just running")

Races (A few gems - some of the links are to the organizing clubs, check there for race entry info):
Mudders and Grunters (Westchester) March
Urban Environmental Challenge (Van Cortlandt Park) April
VCTC Summer Series (Van Cortlandt Park) all summer long
Mt. Toby 14 mile trail race (Sunderland, MA) link is to Grand Tree Series, check back later for race site
Conestoga 10 mile Trail Run (Pennsylvania) September
After the Leaves Have Fallen 20k (Minnewaska Park) November
Staten Island Greenbelt 25k & 50k (Staten Island) December
Pete McArdle 15k (Van Cortlandt Park) December

Relays (Not a comprehensive list, but some great races at a variety of distances, many mentioned yesterday):
Green Mountain Relay (Vermont) June
River to Sea (New Jersey) July
Catskill Mountain Relay (New York) August
Ocean to Sound (Long Island) September
Reach the Beach (New Hampshire) September
Ragnar (several races in many states & many months of the year)

Parks (with technical singletrack trails - not for beginners):
Highbridge Park (in northern Manhattan - go to this one as a group)

Get these maps (they cover many of the major trails in the immediate area):

Meet other trail runners here:

Blog posts about our panel (from the Panelists themselves):

If I can think of other useful links, I'll add them to this list soon. Hope that this helps of few of you get out there and enjoy the woods. Remember: ease into trail running by starting with the less-technical stuff, then gradually upping the difficulty.

One last little tip that we forgot to mention yesterday: tick repellent. There are plenty of deer ticks in the woods of the northeast, and you just simply do not want Lyme disease. Use the stuff liberally, and check for ticks immediately after every venture into the woods.

Remember: If it can be hiked, it can be run.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Running Clubs: The Dark Side

As I've been cogitating on the upcoming NYC Running Show panel discussion (4pm this Saturday April 23), I've also been mulling over an old post of mine about the benefits of joining a running club. I boiled it down to four major factors:
1. Connecting - with others, across many walks of life
2. Learning - from experienced runners, coaches, leaders
3. Improving - by training with a group, perhaps following a plan
4. Supporting - club members are there for each other, through thick and thin

As I wrote that post, I made an unstated assumption: the club you would belong to is essentially a good organization, led by good people. This basic rubric would describe the vast majority of running clubs that I've known or been a member of over the years. However, I have seen exceptions to that rule, and I thought I'd throw a few "beware of" factors out there for anyone who is considering joining a team, or who is feeling a bit uncomfortable with their current team.

1. The "We Rock, You Suck!" Syndrome. Beware of any team or club that revels in itself too much. It's only natural for folks to feel like the club they joined is definitely the best club out there, but watch out for clubs that take this a little too far. A strong, confident team with the right attitude should have more of a "We Rock, and You Aren't So Bad Either" approach to others. In other words, just because your club is great, that does not mean that all others are terrible.
2. The Animal House Complex. Some clubs get a little too gung-ho about their partying (and possibly their initiation rituals). Don't get me wrong, I'm all in favor of good parties. But I'm less in favor of drunken slobberfests and the proverbial lampshade-on-the-head antics (or worse, but let's not go there). Having fun is great, being an embarrassment is not.
3. The Crossing Swords Problem. In my earlier post, I wrote that you are more likely to get the full benefit of a hard workout if you run with a group. While that is true, it's also important not to train with a group that tends to turn every single run into a race. Workouts are for improving your fitness, not competing. Save the competition for the race course. If you are part of a group in which everyone's ego is on the line each time you get together, your risk of crashing and burning is very high.
4. The Isolationist Manifesto. One risk of any group is its tendency, over time, to be increasingly inward-focused. Beware of a club that spends all of its energy and capital only on itself. Each club should recognize that it is part of a larger community; as such it should be both a participant and contributor to that community. If you find yourself on a club that has no interest in anything but itself, then know that all the others in the community probably refer to your team as "those jerks".
5. The Autocracy Model. Beware of clubs that concentrate all power in one individual (or a small set of "royalty"). As a member of a club, you should be entitled both to some transparency into how club leadership is making decisions, as well as some say in those very decisions. In addition, any coach worth more than a penny should be happy to answer the "why this workout today?" question. Coaches who start with "because I said so" are, well, lousy coaches. A good training plan stands on its merits, and a good coach can tell you exactly how and why each workout fits into that plan.

Before closing, I want to reiterate a few main points:
- Nearly all running clubs are led by great people and offer many positive benefits to members. I encourage runners to join clubs, but I also encourage them to evaluate a club before making a commitment.
- The list of potential pitfalls (above) can help you sort out the wheat from the chaff as you evaluate the team you will join.
- Finally, if your current club is headed in the wrong direction, speak up and see if you can help get it back on course. And no running clubs that I know of require you to sign lifetime contracts, so if you find that your club is not what you want/need/expected, you have every right to jump ship.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Grete: The Greatest

Dear Grete,
We miss you, already. You were, and always will be, the epitome of grace, power, humility, focus, and gentle friendliness - the ideal runner. You represent what we all should strive to be as runners, and as human beings.
With Love,
From everyone who has ever run, will ever run, or has even hoped to run.

I "ran into" Grete Waitz three times in my life. Each time it was during an early morning run in Central Park, usually near the lower loop, and on the Bridle Path. Let's be honest: I'm a nobody, and Grete Waitz is arguably greatest runner of all time, male or female. Thus, she would have no reason to notice me, give me the time of day, or (honestly) to treat me as anything but an annoyance - some rabid fan, or worse yet some creepy stalker. Nonetheless, each time she smiled widely and said, "Good morning". We were just fellow runners, simple as that. I wonder how many others got the same friendly greeting. My guess: everyone she saw.

The time I remember most was after she had run the NYC Marathon alongside Fred Lebow, who was in the final stages of his own heroic battle with cancer. Fred finally got to run his beloved race, but every mile was painfully slow. Grete stayed by his side for every step, offering encouragement, smiling. I saw her in the park shortly after, running easily. I caught up to her, and we exchanged hellos. I'm sure she had no memory of me from other times. I asked her about the marathon, she said that she had never been in so much discomfort during a run - after over 5 hours of slow jogging, her legs were cramping up and she was struggling to finish herself (by the way, look at any photograph or video of that race, and you can't tell that she was in pain). She said all of this with a chuckle, and then said that she had new-found respect for the people who were not winning marathons, but were out there for 2 or 3 more hours, just getting one foot in front of the other, just keeping at it until they finished. She said that those people were the real heroes, not her. Amazing. She started asking me about my running - but really what could I talk about - my latest set of tempo intervals? Would have been far too egotistical. I just told her that I loved running, whatever my speed or fitness, and hoped I could continue forever, or at least as long as I could. She laughed and nodded. We ran together in silence for about a minute, then I told her that I had to turn back home. She actually thanked me for running with her, which was absurd of course because it was I who had the privilege and the honor of running with her ... but just tells you what a fantastic person she really was.

In more-recent years, I'd see her from afar. Perhaps at the start/finish of her namesake race put on by NYRR. Sometimes at the Corporate Challenge. Even though she was clearly weakened by her private battle with cancer, she never stopped smiling or praising others - and most notably I never heard her utter one word of complaint about herself or her condition.

I will always respect and admire her.

Rest in peace Grete. Or maybe I should say: if there is a heaven up there somewhere, Grete is out for a run in its cool mountain forest, probably encouraging others along the route, always giving back, making everyone else feel special.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

NYC Running Show, April 22/23

I will be attending the NYC Running Show coming up on April 22 & 23 here in NYC. At the event, I will be joining a Panel Discussion (4:00pm on Saturday). The Panel is titled "NYC Running Scene with", and I've been informed that our goal is to provide a broader picture of New York area running than one might get otherwise, especially those NYC runners who tend to get a bit focused only on the NYRR. We will discuss area clubs, why you might consider joining one, and what you might gain from doing that. I actually blogged on this topic about two years ago, and I think that post still remains relevant.

In addition, we will be talking about our favorite races throughout the "area", which I take to mean essentially any place you can reasonably get to during the morning hours pre-race (at least that's my definition, anyway). The Panel will include:

Karla Bruning - Moderator, Harrier, Running Blogger. Self-described Running Nerd. Serious Journalist.

Joe Garland - Runner and racer in NY for over 40 years, every distance on tracks, roads, and cross country courses. Warren Streeter. His website describes trails in southern Westchester Co.

Douglas Hegley - Competitive runner since 1978 (700 races and counting), trail running nut, Athletic Director/Coach of the New York Harriers - and former team President. Blogger.

Steve Lastoe - Owns a website that supports area runners and races ( Hasher. Hudson Duster. PPTC.

Matt Lebow - Active member of NYARA. Owner of Bad Ass Academy. Big-time Staten Island runner.

I hope that those of you in the area will join us and participate in the discussion. In fact, check out the two-day schedule of events, and I think you will definitely want to be there.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Race Report: Urban Environmental Challenge, April 3, 2011

Yesterday, I took the subway north to Van Cortlandt Park, and raced the 10k Urban Environmental Challenge trail race, organized by the Van Cortlandt Track Club (VCTC). The day dawned bright and sunny, if a bit windy. Conditions for the race were dry - frankly, not my cup of tea! I've done this race before, and it's selling point is that it takes you off the "regular" trails in Van Cortlandt and into the urban woods, seeking some mud and brambles for your trail running pleasure. Unfortunately and despite some mid-week rain, this year's course featured almost no water or mud whatsoever. Sigh. At least there were a few downed trees, a couple of which required some hands-on scrambling to get over.

I ran a couple miles of the course while warming up, and knew that the day would result in some faster-than-usual trail racing times. I've posted here recently that I'm not really trained for that kind of racing right now. My main goal for the year is to stay injury-free, so I'm being very cautious about doing any kind of harder workouts. I'm not going to push myself too hard right now in training. The end result: I've got no leg speed!

As usual, the start was too fast for my old legs. I convinced myself to get out faster today, if nothing else it would be good training for the upcoming Leatherman's Loop race, at which a fast start is rather vital (with 1000 other runners all thinking the same thing). Despite my best efforts yesterday (and my immediate heavy breathing), I counted 16 runners in front of me as we made the sharp left turn and headed for the first short section of single-track (a rocky uphill). For the remainder of the race, I'd be the guy trying to charge from behind. Like I said, as usual.

The race mixes some technical single-track with some wider, crushed-gravel trails. This makes for very uneven pacing, which can wear some runners down. Knowing that I'm better on the technical stuff, I approach a race like this in an unusual way: I actually hammer the single-track, and when we hit the gravel paths I slow just a tad to catch my breath. That led to some back-and-forth with two guys between miles 1 and 3, with me leaping past them in the woods, and them coming back around in the clearings. Eventually, as we completed the first loop and had to cross a couple of muddy sections (the only mud of the day), I left them behind and moved into the top 10.

Rather than repeat the first loop, the second time around moves runners onto a long, gradual downhill section that is clearly rarely-used. By this point, I'd gotten past a couple more runners, and had my sights set on a guy at least a minute ahead of me, wearing a bright orange t-shirt (an old Mudders and Grunters shirt, actually). That orange shirt became my target, and I knew that we had to climb back up eventually, and that's when my non-fast but somewhat-strong legs were going to help me reel him back in. The plan worked, and I got past him just as we crested the hill.

From there, it was a mad dash through about a mile of technical stuff, until the final 800 meters on an easy gravel path. I knew I'd have to put time on those who were chasing me, because once on the flats they were likely to out-run me during the final kick. I did what I could back in the woods, and hit the flats with enough of a lead to hold onto 6th overall (out of 326 finishers) in 41:50 (my slowest-ever time for this race - ah, well). Here's a photo near the finish line, you can see that long, flat stretch at the end - not my favorite part of the race.

As they posted results after the race, I was delighted to have won my age group, because there are no trophies for this race: instead, you win a carrot cake from Lloyd's. At first glance, that may not cause you any pause, but it should. In my humble opinion, Lloyd's makes the best carrot cake on planet Earth.
The stuff is pure heaven, really. The bakery is located right across the street from the finish line at Van Cortlandt, and after the race there was a line of runners stretching out the door and up the sidewalk - and not one of them minded the wait. I don't know what Lloyd's secret might be (although I understand that they work by hand and invite you to watch them), but those carrot cakes are just incredible. Winning my age group garnered me a pastry box containing one entire cake. All I wanted to do was to tear it open and devour the thing in a few bites, but I wanted to share it with my wife, so I made a bee-line back to the subway and toted it home.

Here is a photo of me right after receiving my carrot cake - you can see me carefully cradling the priceless contents in the elegant box. I seem to be whispering softly to it as I caress the container:

Kudos to the VCTC for another great race. I must say that the VCTC folks are truly friendly and welcoming. They manage to get a lot of volunteers out to support their racing schedule, which seems to me to be growing every year. Their races have an old-school, down-home feeling - reminds me of why I fell in love with racing so many years ago.

Speaking of racing and so many years, this little trail race yesterday was the 700th race of my running career. I celebrated it by sharing carrot cake with my lovely wife when I got home. I'll look back on those 700 races in another post soon.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Dances with Mud

The 2011 edition of the Mudders and Grunters five mile trail race is in the books. Organized by the Taconic Road Runners Club, this fun little race has been on my calendar for ten years. It has grown from a tiny club event into quite a competitive race with nearly 500 runners, some travelling hours to get there. For a taste of the race, here are some photos I culled from the internet:

I also found a short home-made video someone posted:

My race ended up being about exactly what I expected: I did not get a great start, because the young bucks just move too fast for me. However, as soon as we hit any technical stuff, I can reel them back in. I was about 30th at around the half-mile mark, closer to the top 20 by about 2 miles, and passed a few more during the remaining 3 miles to finish a fairly respectable 17th on the day, out of 423 runners. That is actually my worst-ever placing in this race, not surprising given my current state of fitness and my age. However, ironically it wasn't my slowest time ever on this course - I ran almost a minute slower way back in 2001. So I haven't lost it completely!

There were more downed trees on the course this year than I remember from years past. In fact, we twice had to sort of wriggle our way through a tangle of branches laying across the course. That meant coming to a near-stop twice and crawling/scrambling/pulling ourselves over/around/through the limbs. Fun, but definitely not helping with overall elapsed time. Ditto for some of the muddy sections, which were appropriately goopy and stinky, as only swamp mud can be.

The water crossing was about average in depth, but rather darned cold this year - or is that I don't manage to remember how darned cold that thing is every year? I do think that I am not aggressive enough leaping into that stream - check out Ben's aerial hi-jinks in the slideshow above. There is another funny aspect to that water crossing: somehow it doesn't feel all that cold when you're IN the water, but a few seconds after you get out, it kind of hits you ... and hard. My toes curl up, I start breathing in shallow gasps, and I almost want to rip off the cold, wet clothes I'm wearing - only that sounds cold too! It takes me about 30 seconds to get re-focused on the simple of act of running the final half-mile to the finish, on my cold-numbed and thus wobbly legs.

I wanted to send kudos to a couple of old friends who ran great in this race. Kevin Shelton-Smith, who at age 51 has been running lifetime personal bests on the road, finished 12 overall and first in the 50-59 age group. Nice work. Not far behind, George Buchanan was 14th overall and second in that division. At 17th overall, I am actually lucky to be still age 49, because I'd have been 3rd in their division, but managed second in my YOUNGER age group. Those two guys are really strong trail runners - and lest I forget to say so, Kevin had actually raced a 30k trail race on the day before, and had come in second overall in that event. I can only envy that kind of fitness right now, because my only real goal for 2011 is to avoid the injury bug. That requires me to take more easy days, and not to push my hard workouts too hard. I'm not willing to take the risk of hurting myself in order to maximize my fitness, at least not yet. Maybe later this year, maybe next year, but not right now. I'll keep at it and do what I can, but I'm not pushing myself back to the sidelines again if I can help it.

A final note on this race: my 17 year old son Max came along and gave it a shot. I was slightly worried that he'd lack the fitness to make it the entire way, but he seemed enthused. I lent him some gloves, a hat, some trail shoes, and he stomped through the swamp like the rest of us. By the end of the day, he finished in 157th place out of 423 runners, on literally no training whatsoever since last October. I'm proud of him for that, and as we stripped the muddy clothes off of our shivering selves back at the car, it really made me happy to hear him already plotting to come back next year and bring friends. Now that would be really, truly great.

Update: I found another video of the race, featuring the Race Director and some of the craziness. Enjoy:

Monday, March 21, 2011

Bring on the Mud

Next up: Mudders and Grunters 5 mile trail race in FDR Park on Sunday, March 27, 2011.

Yes, I prefer longer races (can't keep up with the speedsters anymore - I have no speed at my age), but I've had so much fun at this race over the years that I just have to go back. It's raining today, and more rain is predicted during the week, so I'm hoping for a real slop-fest on Sunday morning. Mud, mud, glorious mud, nothing quick like it for cooling the blood.

As an added treat, my 17 year old son has decided to leap into the mire this year. I don't think he's race-fit, but I do think he can manage to have a blast wallowing around in the mud with everyone next weekend.

People ask me about running these kind of races, particularly about special gear, techniques or other tricks. Actually, I think it's pretty darn simple:
1. You need shoes with some traction, preferably lightweight ones because they're going to get wet and muddy. Trail shoes aren't that expensive, get some.
2. You shouldn't wear extra layers of clothes, even if it's pretty cold out there. Once those extra clothes get wet and muddy, they just become heavy and cold. Keep it light & tight, move fast.
3. You need to tie your shoes tightly. You don't need to duct-tape them to your ankles, or any other crazy technique. Just tie them tightly and attentively. And skip the socks, they just get wet and heavy. A quick slathering of petroleum jelly on your feet will do.
4. Run with quick & light feet. In muddy conditions, you need to get up on the balls of your feet, chop your steps a little, and just keep churning along. Drop your heel into that quagmire, and it can bring you to a near-stop, and possibly suck the shoe right off of your foot.
5. Turn corners with your feet, not your torso. That probably sounds funny, but it's important on slick surfaces to keep your center of gravity over your feet, and run around the corner, as opposed to leaning hard and just having your feet come along for the ride (like you can on a track).

It's spring time, so that means time for some muddy, messy trail running. Enjoy.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Slip Sliding Away

This song was stuck in my head throughout this race - read on to learn why.

Last Saturday February 26, I headed back out to New Jersey for the fourth and final race in the NJ Trail Series Winter Races - this time at the half-marathon distance. I've mentioned before that I really needed a low-key, uncrowded set of trail races this winter to help me transition back into running hard after so many months being injured and unable to run at all. At the risk of being a bit effusive, this series of races could not have been any better in that regard. Friendly people, well-organized races, just-long-enough distances, and fairly challenging trails. Nice.

Back to the race: the weather during the week leading up to the race had turned warmer, melting the snow on the trails and then adding a bit of rain on top of that. However, overnight on Friday night the temperatures dropped back down under freezing, and all of that wet stuff froze solid. At about 8:15pm that night, the Race Director sent us all an email warning of icy conditions and imploring everyone to wear some kind of cleats for the race. He wasn't kidding.

I actually pulled out my trail "screw shoes" and added a few more short sheet metal screws across the area under the ball of my foot, bringing the total screws up to 12 in each shoe. It was a wiser move than I knew at the time.

I arrived a bit early for the start, and headed out on the trails just to see how bad they could be. The answer: pretty bad. Obviously, they had been run/hiked when melted, so the re-frozen trails were covered with uneven ice pocked by footprints. Even the few snowy patches were frozen fairly hard, so I was running on top of slippery stuff with each step, not really penetrating it to find any traction. Definitely a need for screw shoes. I jogged back to the pre-race traditional port-a-potty line and nervous discussion forum. Most everyone was fretting about footwear. I was a little worried for those who planned to run in just their shoes - some were wearing road shoes even. They would be in for a frustrating run.

The event included a 5k, 10k, and half-marathon. To spread the field, the three races would start at different times, but we'd all be out on the same trails. The half-marathon consisted of one flat "lap around the lake" - about 0.7 miles on flat gravel roads with no real ice - then two laps of the 10k course, which was about 80% single track and 20% fire roads. As usual, my plan was to start conservatively, and try to run negative splits. On icy trails, the second time around was likely to offer a bit better traction, especially because the sun was out and temperatures should be rising by the hour.

At the start, we received ample warnings that the trails were marked with orange flagging, and that we should be careful not to follow the orange paint still out there from previous races. That's the kind of thing you need to listen to carefully, folks.

The gun went off and familiarity reigned. Seven runners blasted away and flew around the lake. I felt like I was going about as fast as I could, and I was simply losing ground with every step. As those 7 entered the single track as a single-file unit, I was sitting isolated in 8th place but almost a minute behind already after only 0.7 miles! The first thought that went through my mind: oh, well, 8th isn't so bad. Then I tried to reassure myself that they'd come back, this wasn't a race that would be decided in the first mile, and after all I am a Harrier, bred to track down those rascally rabbits, with patience, guile, and determination.

About a mile later, the first pair of those rabbits came into view. We were climbing up and down a series of short hills on a very icy single track trail, and neither of them were wearing any kind of ice cleats. The poor fellows were slaloming back and forth between the outside edges of the trail, desperately seeking some kind of traction, arms flailing and legs slipping out at all kinds of odd angles. They were struggling along in tandem, which made it a bit hard to pass them - not to mention I was afraid one of them would knock all three of us down in the process ... but soon enough there was an uphill stretch of ice, and I just chugged on by with my screws clinging to the surface. As I passed, I heard one say to the other, "This isn't worth it, we're both going to get hurt". He was probably right. I felt bad for them, and hope they found a way to finish safely. I was now in 6th place, and could see the leaders up ahead. They still had some time on me, but maybe less than a minute now. My mantra: Here comes the tractor (me).

Over the next two miles I reeled in 5th place (a young and clearly faster-then-me dude who was running very hard but slipping all over the place - I said, "Hang in there" as I passed him and I think I heard him chuckle in response). Then came 4th place - along the first stretch of fire road, which was basically a sheet of ice. As I passed him, and I think it was Jim Sonneborn, we shared a laugh about the inanity of trying to run uphill on an ice rink. Let's just say we were making progress, but rather slowly. Slip Sliding Away ...

I could see John Montgomery up ahead, he looked to be running strong and had settled into 2nd place (or so I thought, read on). I'd chatted with him pre-race, and I knew he had added some screws to his shoes as well, so I would not be able to rely on beating him due to simple traction. The race was on. I was closing the gap, but then I saw him come to a complete stop up the trail. I first thought he'd stopped to drain the radiator, but as I came around to catch him he asked "Which way?" with arms extended and palms up. The trail had two options, one marked clearly with orange painted arrows and the other with orange flagging. "Follow the flags!" I shouted, and we were off again (remember those instructions?). Maybe it was the adrenaline of stopping-then-starting, but he shot up the trail and put a minute on me again, as we came around to the end of the first 10k lap. We were both flying by some of the back-of-the-packers from the 5k race at that point, most were nice enough to make room for us. I stopped briefly for a sip of water, while John charged ahead. Going into the single track for the second loop, I figured I'd settle for third on the day, and I was happy with that. Still, I continued to push myself, it was a race after all.

The next 4 miles were relatively uneventful. The trail was slightly roughed up from the other runners, adding just a tiny bit of traction. We did pass a few runners who were clearly lost out there - probably from the 10k race, some even going the wrong direction! People: you need to listen to instructions!

With about 2 miles to go, John almost missed a sharp right hand turn (I shouted to him from behind) and that allowed me to catch him. He said, "Let me know when you want to pass" and I thought to myself "Yeah, well, only if you slow down a bit". Truth was: I was running at my limit. In fact, in retrospect, my biggest mistake of the day was running a bit too hard on the first lap. I fell so far behind so early, that I'd gotten anxious, pushed it the pace a little too hard, and caught too many runners in the first 4-5 miles of a 13 mile race. I think if I'd held back a little over those miles, I could have pushed the second lap harder and maybe overtaken John. But, we'll never know for sure.

The hard-packed snow on the trails was melting at this point, and we were starting to sink into some wet stuff. That made the last mile and a half a bit of a slog. There as one last section of icy road, and I used that to make one last run at John. I got within about two meters of him - and now we were dodging in and out of the tail end of the 10k pack, but he was clearly the better runner on that day, because he just pulled away in the last half-mile and beat me by nine seconds at the finish line.

At that point, I heard someone say that I had finished second overall. Huh? Where was the guy who had the overall lead on the first lap? I was puzzled, and simply chalked it up to a mistake on their part. But when the results were published a day later, there I was in second place. Cool.

I've finished 2nd plenty of times in my racing career (in fact, something like 75 times out of nearly 700 races). On some level, it's frustrating to be so close and fall short. On the other hand, on most days the truth is that I did my best and just got beat by one runner who was better. Period. Of this race, I could try to say something like, "If I'd known we were racing for first overall instead of for 2nd overall, I'd have gone harder" but I'd be lying. Even now, three days later, my legs are still sore which is probably proof enough that I was doing the best I could. After the race, sharing a cold one with John, he said, "I had plenty of energy left at the end, and when I heard you behind me I just had to take off" - which is the final fact here: he had energy left, while by comparison I was doing all I could just to stay close to him. He won. I kept him honest. Good race.

For our efforts, we walked away with commemorative pint glasses, much better than another trophy or cotton t-shirt. Over the course of the series, I managed to bring home an ear band, a technical shirt, gloves, a blanket, a pair of socks, a sweatshirt, and three pint glasses - plus my placings allowed me to have discounted entry into the latter races of the series. I couldn't be more pleased with the entire experience. A big thank you to Jennifer and Rick McNulty, who put on a great series in cold conditions with constant smiles - even when complained to by people who went off course because (I'll write it again) they can't follow directions! I told Rick after the race: look, if the lead runners, who are going as fast as they can and are thus the most-likely to go off course, can navigate the race properly, then anyone else who gets lost has only themselves to blame. Besides, this is trail running, it happens. I've been off-course plenty of times in trail races, you just have to suck it up and get yourself back on course. So you ran an extra mile, it was probably good for you!

With spring on the horizon I'll be plotting out a few more trail races in the near future, and looking forward to some deep sticky mud instead of ice and snow. But, next weekend I'll be the babysitter for our son and enthusiastic spectator as my wife races the first NYRR points race of 2011. Go Monika!