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.