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: