Monday, September 10, 2012

Holding Pattern

"You don't drown by falling in the water; you drown by staying there" Edwin Louis Cole

Right ... but right now I'm just treading water!
Excuse the crude frankness of the expression, but running injuries suck.
I've been battling the recurrence of an old lower hamstring injury for more than two months now. It seems to improve, but then flares back up again as soon as I try even the shortest jog. I'm broken!

I'm sure I've got some kind of imbalance going on, the problem is that it seems as if everyone has a different opinion on what to do about it. These include:

  • Rest (makes sense, been doing it, helps a little, probably only treating the symptoms and not the cause)
  • Drugs (I suppose, and I've popped some Ibuprofen, with little impact)
  • Cross-train (yeah, good idea, as long as I go easy on the bike my leg seems okay)
  • Stretch (hmm ... I worry about stretching an area that is already inflamed, but it is possible that tight hamstrings are contributing to this problem, so I'm trying to do light stretching - carefully)
  • Massage (sure, but who can afford it?)
  • Acupuncture (I'd used it for other pains before, it helps a little, but again seems to treat symptoms not causes)
  • Yoga (I'm an old stiff runner, I'm afraid I'd snap in two!)
  • etc.
The bottom line may be obvious: I don't really have a coherent plan, so I'm just treading water impatiently and hoping that something breaks in the right direction at some point. Re-reading that sentence, it seems a bit passive. I keep "testing" it, to see if it's improving - but I may actually be re-injuring it every time I do that. Running very gently on soft trails hurts the least, so I try to limit my jogs to that description. Otherwise, it's a lot of biking and hoping the cold autumn weather holds off for awhile.

I hope your running is going much better than mine. Appreciate it, you never know when it might be stolen away from you. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

When the Injury Bug Bites Hard

Runners are terrific whiners. I do my best too.

July has been a disaster for my own running. The injury bug has bitten hard. It's as if my warranty ran out, and everything starting falling apart. Eerie. Literally, July 1 arrived and I woke up with a right hip that hurt so much it was hard to walk, hell it was even hard to sleep for a couple days. That lasted only about 3 days and then simply went away (weird), but just as suddenly two old injuries arose to slap me back down again: my left hip (probably piriformis syndrome) and my right hamstring (probably irritated scar tissue from a strain to the semi-tendonosis and/or semi-membranosus). The left hip thing has been a recurring problem for years, and has knocked me down for months at a time twice before. The right hamstring thing was my first truly debilitating running injury, and dates back to 1993, when it basically stopped me from running competitively for almost 3 years. Both scare me more than they should, because both have caused me to sit on the sidelines extensively.

Needless to say, I'm frustrated and impatient (of course). I've tried to do a bit of cycling, but frankly I'm not sure that it's not prolonging the problems. Therefore, I've taken the past few days off entirely. We runners really hate this, but at this point it's probably my only hope.

My right leg was feeling better over the weekend, so I strapped on my running shoes and tried to jog very gingerly. No good. My right hamstring hurt immediately and hurt a lot (not just a dull ache, but a stabbing pain), so after one lousy city block of slow jogging I stopped and walked home, head hung low.

I wouldn't wish the injury bug on anybody. Oh, it's not the physical pain of the injury, because that's short-lived and certainly tolerable. It's the psychological anguish of not being out there training, of knowing that my hard-earned fitness is seeping away by the day, of not having that one hour per day of fresh air and physical movement to help set a positive tone for the rest of my waking hours. I miss all of that, and more .. and it's only been three weeks! Argh. I just hope that August will be better, somehow. For now, I think I'd better brush up on my swimming technique (or lack thereof, to be more-accurate).

I was doing okay in two local grand prix series, but these two nagging problems will dash any hope for one of them (the MDRA road race series, because there are two races this week and I am not in any position to run a race right now, so I will skip them and thus I will not have enough total races to be able to compete with the other grand prix runners at the end of the series - darn). I still have some hope for the UMTR series, as the next race I plan to run is not until August 11, so I still may be able to get to that one if I can somehow heal fast. Fingers crossed!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Train Kept a-Rolling ...

Race Report: William O'Brien 10 mile Trail Race, Marine on St. Croix, MN. 

My recent racing continues to be a theater of the absurd. But let's not get ahead of the story.

I raced the trails at William O'Brien State Park last Saturday. Conditions, at least for mid-June, were not too bad. Overcast skies, warm but not steaming hot, slight breeze. The course consisted of a "fat lollipop", with a section of trail covered during the first 1.5 miles, then a big loop, then back to the finish on the same 1.5 miles in reverse. Nothing too technical, but a couple sections that were nothing but rolling hill after rolling hill, enough to batter the legs a bit. One big puddle on the course, but otherwise totally dry. Once again, a trail race for the fleet of foot, and once again about 10 of them jumped out ahead of me during the first mile.

Patiently, I began to pull them back, as I slowly wound up the pace and got into the race. Between miles 1 and 6 I actually passed exactly one runner per mile, so as I approached mile seven (yes, they had mile markers on the course) I was sitting in 5th place and feeling good, thinking about hunting down a few more. That's when the absurdity appeared.

As I rounded a bend in the trail, I could hear a train chugging along to my right. "Please, please let there be a tunnel or a bridge" I pleaded to no one in particular. Nope. Dead stop. Freight train, slowly lumbering along, and the trail requiring me to cross the tracks. Nothing I could do about it, but just take some deep breaths and stand there, while runner after runner arrived behind me. All of the hard work of the past 4 miles, running them down, passing, pulling away ... evaporated. The race changed from a 10.5 mile trail race, to a 7.1 mile warmup followed by a 3.4 mile sprint race to the finish line.

I lost more than two minutes standing there, chatting a bit. Sigh.

Finally, the last car rolled by and I took off again, determined to pull away for a second time. I admit I was fueled a bit by frustration. According to my GPS watch, I was running sub-6:30 pace over that last 3+ miles, quite a bit faster than I'd averaged up to that point (admittedly the course was more downhill than uphill over that distance).

As I crossed the finish line, I couldn't help but smile and report the train crossing. At first, the timer thought he'd make some kind of adjustment, but I said, "No, no, there's nothing to be done, that's trail racing." And I meant it. You can't cry over spilled milk. I added, "I should have run the first 7 miles faster to avoid the darn train!"

I ambled over to my car, grabbed a towel, then took a quick and cooling swim in the waters of Lake Alice. Early results were posted, and if you subtracted just 2 minutes from my time I would have moved up to third overall. Double sigh. At least I won my age group. Results.

Bizarre, you say? Well, what would you say if I told you it happened to me once before? It was a road race, back in the late 1970s, and a train ruined my day then. The frustration I felt on that day, stoked by ample amounts of adolescent testosterone and self-righteous indignation, would sting me for months ... but also provide motivation to train harder and race faster. Now, with more than three decades behind me, I just find it rather funny and absurd. Or maybe I should have turned when that black cat ran across my path the other day when I was out for my morning run ...

A plea to any and all race directors: Please, never ever under any circumstances route your course across railroad tracks that have even the slightest chance of being active. Find a bridge or tunnel or change your course. At William O'Brien Park, we could have run an extra mile or so and used an underpass - it would have meant using a short section of trail twice, but that little detail pales in comparison to the potential risks of hundreds of tons of train pounding along steel rails and some skinny runner maybe tripping and falling in front of it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The (Sour) Grapes of Wrath

Race Report: Sour Grapes Half Marathon trail race

I took the long-ish drive up to Brainerd, MN this past Saturday morning (2+ hours) to run the 5th race in the UMTR Trail Series in the Northland Arboretum. Theme of the day was the heat: relentless sun, and temperatures headed toward the 90s, with a dash of humidity just for kicks. Probably not great weather to race 13.1 miles, but at least we'd be in the woods for most of the race, where we'd have slightly cooler temps and shade (thank goodness).

A few notes about the race itself: the course was a non-technical XC ski trail loop that we ran twice, after sharing the start with the "half-half" runners; that is, competitors doing only one loop (about 10.5 kilometers). Editorial aside: I don't like races that mix multiple distances together for any major portion and especially not at the start, it makes things confusing for everyone and you just don't know who you are actually racing - but maybe I'm in the minority on that front. The course had no single track at all (darn), rolling hills, a bit of sand at times, was fairly wide, had no roots/rocks/mud to speak of - although there were two very short sections that were soft underfoot, so I suppose if this race took place on a rainy day there could be some swampy bits. The course was very well-marked, and they cleverly placed an aid station right at a complex intersection that was used at least a couple of times each lap - very smart move. Thankfully in the hot conditions I was able to grab plenty of water during the race without carrying any myself. Race organizers and volunteers were all friendly folks, and there were quite a few spectators for a trail race. It was chip-timed, a bit slow to get to the awards ceremonies (but I know that can be a bit tricky when racers are covering 13+ miles at paces ranging from 6 minutes to over 11 minutes per mile). All in all, a nice venue and a race worth running, but don't get your hopes up for a difficult course requiring real trail-running technique, this is just another speedster's course (although the sandy sections would slow down even the fleetest of foot).

At the start, I let those speedsters fly off while I tried to settle into something in the "comfortably hard" effort range. I knew it was going to be a long day when the first couple of miles went by well over 7:00 minute per mile pace, but I was already huffing and puffing like the big bad wolf. It was probably the heat + humidity, and those two demons were simply variables to be dealt with on the day. I suspected those faster starters up ahead of me would be falling off their aggressive pace before too long, just because of conditions. I counted about 10 runners in front of me at about the half-mile mark, but then got passed by 2 more in the next half mile. No way to know if they were in my race or not, and way too early to fight it, so I let them go and focused on my own pacing and effort level.

There are many disadvantages to growing older. For example: you get slower, recovery takes longer, you lose that spring in your step, your elbow skin sags, etc. But there are a few advantages: experience, self-awareness, guile. I tried to use those to their full advantage on this day.

I started passing other runners by mile 4 (already?). The first two *seemed* to be running the 10k, judged by the intensity of their breathing and their unwillingness to let me pass. Both of them spit and sputtered and wheezed and battled me for at least 2 minutes before finally relenting. I made no attempt to surge or "race" them head-to-head, I just kept plugging along at the effort level I believed I could sustain. By mile 5 I'd gotten 3 more, one of whom was WALKING, and asked me to reassure him that he'd not missed the 10.5k turnoff. I told him he still had more than a mile to go, and trundled on.

Passing the finish area at the end of loop one, I had no idea what place I was in for the half-marathon. I could see only one runner who seemed to have just finished, maybe, and looking up ahead across the field there was no one in sight. I tried to pick up the pace on the second loop, but it was just too hot to maintain anything much faster than I was already doing. By the end of the race, my watch would say that I ran the second loop about one minute faster than the first, so I did manage negative splits, although not by much.

The second loop was a rather lonely slog for awhile, until I started passing the slowest of the 10.5k runners/walkers who had still not finished their first loop. However, with about 2 miles to go, suddenly there was a runner in front of me who looked to be struggling on a hot, sunny uphill. As I tried to muster at least a little bit of a surge, he suddenly started walking - heat will do that to you. As I passed, he offered a word of encouragement and I told him to hang in there. I started to feel the effects of the heat, sand, and pace at around 11.5 miles, and from there on out I was just doing my best to maintain form. I crossed the finish line and someone told me I was third place, which surprised me a bit - I didn't think I had passed that many runners, but then again some of them may have been in the 10.5k and others may have been dropped out or been walking along with the 10.5k walkers and thus I didn't notice them? Guess I'll never know for sure.

I kept dousing myself with water, but it was pretty hard to cool off. I decided to walk my cool down instead of jogging it, my legs were tired and I was already so over-heated. Back at the race site, I grabbed a few snacks offered by a friendly horde of volunteers, and waited for the awards. I did finish 3rd (results), although I was way behind the guys in first and second place. I'm pretty happy with it. I think I made some good choices on the day, hanging back and doling out my effort wisely while others used themselves up early and bombed out. Every now and then we old guys manage to play our cards pretty well, I suppose.

Now I'll await the updated Grand Prix results to see how things come together. I'd been tied for first overall, but only third in my age group, through some vagaries of scoring (that escape me) and the fact that the series is still not quite half complete. We'll see how the rest of the year goes. Thanks to the organizers, volunteers, and everyone else at Sour Grapes. You put on a great race. I'll come back next year for sure if you promise cold rain!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Tractor Makes a Rather Poor Race Car

I took my best shot at a 5k on Memorial Day at the Brian Kraft Memorial 5k around Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis. It didn't go so well. I have no speed in these old legs. I watched rather helplessly while over 120 others ran away from me. I was barely hanging on to average 6:00 minute per mile pace. I finished in 18:36, good for only 11th in the 50-59 age group. Results. 

I don't have a lot of excuses. It was a flat course, and a rather competitive field up front, so that should have pulled me along in the current. It was a bit warm and humid for me, but frankly even under ideal conditions I'm not sure that I could have gone more than a couple seconds faster per mile. I have to face the music: short and fast stuff is simply not my forte (as if it ever was). I was wheezing like an old plow horse the entire way, as I performed the infamous slow-fade - running every mile slower than the one before.

Bottom line: A tractor doesn't make a very good race car.

Kudos to those 10 old guys who buried me. Nice running, gentlemen, you have my admiration and my envy.

I'm heading back to the trails for a couple of longer races in June, the Sour Grapes Half-marathon and the William O'Brien 10 miler, much more to my liking - especially if they are run in torrential rain and wind through deep muddy puddles.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The New Prague Polka

Race report: New Prague Half Marathon, May 12, 2012 in New Prague, MN.

Back on the roads this week, hammering out 13.1 miles on rolling country roads. This was race number 5 in the MDRA Grand Prix for 2012, and I was hoping to move up in the standings a little with a strong run. Quaint small-town setting, complete with a DJ spinning either classic 70s rock tunes or old Czech polka songs – with the latter seeming to get a better rise out of the crowd. Pretty funny.

I’d been coughing just a bit earlier in the week, so I knew I would have to hold back a bit in the early miles to save some precious energy for later in the race. The day was pretty ideal for running, no real wind and cloudy skies for the first hour, with temperatures in the mid-50s and slowly rising. The course itself was a bit boring, just a big old loop outside of town on very straight country roads. Lots of rolling hills, nothing steep, with a few that seemed to go on forever. One of those races where you can see everyone ahead of you for miles (which can be a bit discouraging, I must admit). When faced with uninteresting courses, I think you have three main choices:
  1. Hate it and stress over it.
  2. Tune out, ignore the course, focus on your running.
  3.  Tune out completely, daydream, lose focus.

I prefer choice number two, and I do my best in that regard. It allows me to run negative splits and maintain form better throughout the race. The other two choices lead to poorer performances, at least for me. Your experience may be quite different, if so post a comment below.

I was sitting about 14th place during the first half mile of the race, but as we turned up the first long rise, I quickly glided up into 10th. I sat there for about 3 miles, running just over 6:30 pace and feeling slightly uncomfortable doing it. Not a great sign, but I also know that when I’m tired it can often take me a good 20 minutes of racing before I get into any kind of groove. I started feeling it around the 3.5 mile mark, and I ran pretty strong through 10 miles, passing a couple of runners along the way and holding sub 6:20 pace. The final 5k was a bit of a slog, although I was still running in the mid-6:20s, I was working a lot harder than I’d been only a couple miles earlier. Like I said, tired.

There was little reason to kick it in at the end, as I was completely isolated for the last 3 miles. So I just maintained as best I could and crossed the line in 1:23:49 (chip time), good enough for 8th overall and 2nd in my age group. I’m still just getting to know folks around here, so it’s tough for me to judge how I’m *really* doing, but I’ll take a good strong race any day.

I’ve moved up into 4th place overall in the MDRA Grand Prix, at least for now. I won’t be running 2 out of the next 3 races, so by total points I’ll slide way back down over the next month. You don't need to run all of the races, of course, only your top 10 out of 14 races count at the end of the year. If I can manage to run enough races, it will all even out a bit (although I might not make 10 races this year, 9 seems more likely, so I need to look carefully at the calendar again). It’s fun just to track how I’m doing against others, even if I haven’t met any of them just yet!

I’m a bit sore today, that’s what 13 miles of pavement will do to you. A couple of recovery days and we’ll see how I’m feeling then. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Rant Against Online Registration "Processing Fees"

I love the convenience of signing up for a race online. It's quick, it's easy, and it should result in much easier work for the race organizers because YOU store all of YOUR personal information in a database, presumably spelled correctly. By contrast, sending a race registration via snail mail requires finding/printing and filling out a paper form, writing a check, addressing & stamping an envelope, finding a mail box, postal delivery, and for the race director: opening mail, hand-entering registration information, depositing checks, dealing with checks that bounce, coping with postal delays or errors, etc. Big hassle.

Therefore, one would assume that a race director/organization would greatly prefer online registration, because it makes their lives easier.

Then why on earth is it acceptable to charge an additional fee for online registration? This baffles and frustrates me. Look, I would *expect* to pay a premium fee for a mailed entry and/or for day-of-race/onsite registration - because these require from the race director an investment of human resources, time, and can be error-prone (particularly the day-of-race process, which is by nature rushed and completed under some bit of duress).

In other words, I'm okay if you charge me more for being late, lazy, or a luddite ... but why would you charge me more money for doing some of YOUR work FOR you?

Oh, I know one of the refrains will be, "But the online registration companies charge race directors a fee!" Okay, I hear you, but try shopping around a bit (some charge much lower fees, and there are even some services that offer fee-free processes - sometimes in trade for race sponsorship or recognition) and here's an idea: just build the fee into your regular registration amount! At the same time, charge EVEN MORE for those who mail in their forms, thus moving more and more registrants online where their time and effort help you with accurate and timely information.

Make us feel like we are getting a deal by registering online, instead of being PUNISHED!

This one seems a no-brainer to me, but until race directors figure it out I'll be printing the darn forms, scrawling my information in the little boxes, digging in the junk drawer for a stamp, and forcing them to deal with snail mail. It's frustrating.

This rant has been brought to you by Molehills-into-Mountains, a proud sponsor of petty grievances all over the globe. Have a pet peeve that will have almost no real-world impact, and is purely based on your luxury, first-world leisure pursuits? Then Molehills-into-Mountains is for you!

In other words, I realize that in the context of the world in which we live, this concern has no place among war, famine, crime, disease, hatred, neglect, violence, and about a thousand other more-important things. But I reserve the right to be human and spout off now and then about something that just plain irks me. I find it cathartic. Sigh. Back to real life now ...

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Whole Lotta Racing Going On

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I've been doing a fair amount of racing lately. Here are quick summaries of each, just in case you are curious:

March 24, 2012: MDRA Lake Johanna 4 mile road race, Arden Hills, MN
Only one week after the brain-melting heat of the Human Race, I tried to get a shot at redemption by doing a low-key four miler on a cool, humid morning. Despite feeling a bit better and thinking I was running faster, I still only managed a 24:21 (6:05 pace), and faced the reality of having some guy pushing a baby stroller beat me in a race. While I would say hats off to him, I do note that the course was *not* closed to traffic, and I'm not sure I would have risked pushing any of my sons that fast under those conditions. Not my place to judge, of course. I finished 9th overall, and 3rd in the 50-59 age group.

April 1, 2012: Urban Environmental Challenge 10k Trail Race, Van Cortlandt Park, Bronx, NY
During a short visit to my old stomping grounds, my old pal Matt Rosetti talked me into a reunion race: it was 10 years ago that I dragged him to this race, which he ended up winning back then by an inch after a long, hard kick. I took fourth on that day. Now, ten years later, Matt won again, but I managed only 7th overall on the day - I guess those ten years took more of a toll on me than on him! The course has a few technical bits, and I managed to run 42:34 for the 10k-ish distance. I was happy to win my age group, and thus earn a delicious Lloyd's Carrot Cake, which I've praised lovingly before in a post about this race last year.

April 21, 2012: Trail Mix 25k, Hyland Lake Park Preserve, Bloomington, MN
The first race of the UMTR Trail Race Series didn't go too well for me. I guess I had one of those days when you just don't have it. I felt tired and lethargic throughout the race, and struggled to maintain pace and form the entire way. Could it have been some kind of reaction to the Tetanus booster shot that I received a couple days earlier during my annual physical exam? I suppose I'll never know. At any rate, I stumbled through the race, got passed by no fewer than six runners in the final two miles (embarrassing) to finish in 1:48:12, good for 22nd place and 3rd in the 50-54 age group. The course itself is very easy, with wide grassy trails, no single track and no technical sections at all, not exactly my forte, but at least it wasn't just another road race.

April 28, 2012: Get in Gear 10k, Minnehaha Park, Minneapolis, MN
Feeling tired from so much racing, and thinking I would be more focused on the UMTR Grand Prix Series race the following weekend, I approached this race as a hard tempo run. On a cool, drizzly, breezy morning, I was very pleasantly surprised to feel pretty strong, so I just went with the flow. I ran the first 5k in 18:47, and finished the race in 37:33 (easing up during the final mile to save something for the following week). My 6:03 pace was my fastest 10k in a few years, so I really could not complain. I just missed cracking the top 100 overall in this race, which to my understanding is one of the area's most-competitive events, coming home in 101st and ending up 8th in my age group. Nothing to brag about, but at least a fairly solid performance for my current state of fitness. 

May 5, 2012: Runnin' in the Ruff 10k trail race (see yesterday's post)

Next up:
May 12, 2012: New Prague Half-marathon, New Prague, MN. Back to the roads and back to the MDRA Grand Prix series. Fourth race weekend in a row, probably not too smart. I wish the organizers of these Grand Prix things would not load up on races in bunches, and I also wish that the distances did not vary so much ... but if wishes were dollars, we'd all be rich, right?

Monday, May 7, 2012

Confused at Confusion Corner

I've been racing frequently lately, probably too frequently to be honest. I admit that I'm a bit compulsive about racing - perhaps impulsive too. I enjoy exploring new places, running new courses, and trying to meet people. It's especially true this year, having relocated to the great north and (at least so far) not having really connected with the running community. I know it takes time, but I'm trying to add frequency to the mix in the hopes of making friends and potentially finding a team with which to train and race.

I've been aiming toward two Grand Prix series, one on the roads via MDRA, and the other on the trails via UMTR. What better way to meet folks than to make at least a little splash in my age division in both?  Each series will base its final standings on the "best x races out of y", so the early scoring is a bit hard to fathom. I've missed one race in each series already, so I'm behind in the standings on current total points, but a bit better on average points per race. It will all come out by the end of the year, of course.

My most-recent adventure took me about 70 miles north of the Twin Cities to Milaca, MN - home of the Runnin' in the Ruff 10k trail race. Touted as technical and muddy (hooray), it is the third race in the UMTR Trail Race Series for 2012.

I truly enjoyed the race. It had a classic small-town, small-budget vibe. People were generally friendly and enthused. The race director spent nearly 10 minutes going over both the two mile and 10k courses in painstaking detail, making many of us chuckle (how on earth would we remember all of that information?). My ears did perk up when he was discussing "Confusion Corner" - a spot on the course where a number of trails came to an intersection. However, he promised that there would be a person at that spot who could be trusted to make sure everyone headed in the right direction. I believed in that trust - and that was my first mistake.

After walking across a footbridge over the Rum River, we took up starting positions and hammered off at the sound of the gun, with 10kers heading one way and two milers another. Some young fella (or do they all look young to me now?) took off like a bat out of hell, and sprinted into the single-track with a substantial lead after only perhaps 400 meters. I was sitting 2nd, and probably running way too fast, but didn't want to get stuck in the narrow trails early in the race if I could avoid it. Another runner was right on my heels, and it was less than one mile in when I moved right to let him go by. Shortly thereafter, another runner pulled up behind me, and I let him go too. I was definitely gasping for air way too hard for this early in the race, so I decided to settle in and enjoy some mud, let the top three run away from me. Not to mention, I had a slight side-stitch, an indication of being tired (too much racing, this was my third weekend in a row).

I was able to keep third place in sight as we dove and wove the trails. Gaps would open up to about 50 meters at times, but when it got technical or flat, I would get back to only 10 meters behind. There was some mud, nothing too deep, and some water, just enough to make it fun. No stream crossings, too bad. by about 2.5 miles, I was starting to pull right up on the heels of third place on the downhills, but he'd pull away on the uphills, so he was clearly stronger than me. He did seem to be breathing pretty hard though, and I've long-employed this bit of race strategy: let 'em go a bit on the uphills, then glide down the other side to close the gap. This approach works in a number of ways, but the most important are: (1) the runner in front of you senses that you are dropping back on the uphills, which encourages him to push harder - thus using more of his energy - you are wearing him out by baiting him, (2) it's much easier to run downhill, so if you crest the top of the hill a bit fresher and think "quick feet, quick feet", you can make up 20-30 meters on a runner rather quickly, because he is likely to be easing off the gas a bit to recover from the climb, (3) it's a bit demoralizing for the runner in front, he's worked hard to drop you on a hill only to have you right back on his heels when the trail turns downhill. If you keep the pattern going for a couple of miles, it can really get in the head of that runner in front of you. Try it, see if it works for you. Oh, also recognize it when someone is trying it on you, so that it doesn't work on you.

At about 4 miles, I was feeling better (breathing deep finally relaxed the stitch), and I could tell that number 3 was laboring a bit, so I made a quick move - this time on an uphill/downhill combination. It only took about a minute to get a decent gap, and with the trails twisting and turning part of my goal was to get out of sight in order to discourage any chasing. I was actually feeling better than I had the entire race, and suddenly I could see 2nd place up ahead, and he looked a bit knackered. I had a shot at 2nd, if things went well. They didn't.

Next up: Confusion Corner

So, this is how it played out:
I came running up to Confusion Corner at full-on race pace. The main trails form a T intersection, so I could turn 90 degrees left or 90 degrees right. There was a tiny little gray sign in the ground, very hard to read, but I did see an arrow pointing right. The course marshall was standing to the left, so if I were to try a left turn, I would have had to dodge him a bit to do so. This gave me two visual cues to turn right, so I did. Then I hear:

Course Marshall: "Which race are you in?"

Me, still running away: "10k!"

Course Marshall: "mumble mumble"

Me (now 20 meters up the trail, slowing way down and glancing back over my shoulder): "What? Which way is 10k?!"

Course Marshall: "mumble mumble" and no hand gestures at all.

Me (now at full stop, turned around, palms turned skyward): "Which way is the 10k??"

Course Marshall: "mumble-mumble" something that sounded like "this" or "yes" and again no pointing motion, in fact he's sort of staring at his own shoes.

Me: (giving up, I turn back around and continue running hard on the trail I've taken. I assume if I'm heading the wrong way he'll start shouting at me - and he doesn't - so I assume I'm right on track and accelerate to try to catch 2nd place).

So, let's count: that's mistakes two, three, and possibly four all in the space of about 15 seconds.

At the next corner, the trail is marked with orange flags so I assume I'm on the right path. I keep hammering as hard as I can, still hoping to catch 2nd place. I head up a couple of steep hills, and eventually emerge from the woods onto a gravel road. I recognize the footbridge leading to the finish. I'm at the top of a hill, and I've got maybe 600 meters to go and there is nobody anywhere in sight. I think to myself, "That guy in 2nd must have really been flying the last mile, and buried me." Oh, well.

I kick it in home and cross the line, assuming I've gotten third place, and assuming I'm the first old geezer to finish. Because I had to leave almost immediately to head to a business lunch back in the Twin Cities, I started a slow cool down jog right away, heading back along the course. First thing I notice is that the runner who had been third is finishing very close behind me. Right behind him is Joe, the runner my wife and I had met back in February. I saw him at the start, and he assured me that I'd be way ahead of him. I figured he just had a great race, and cheered him in.

Then I looked up and saw runner after runner coming to that footbridge, but NOT from the same direction I'd come. Uh oh. I tracked down Joe, who said that I'd definitely blown it, I was supposed to turn left at Confusion Corner, and come in along the river. Clearly, I'd gone the wrong way at the aptly-named intersection. Argh!! I guess I followed the second half of the two mile course, by mistake.

Let me make one thing clear: I blame myself, at least mostly. I have very little sympathy for trail runners, myself included, who go off course and then whine about it. Take responsibility for your own actions, I say. In retrospect, as soon as I knew there was a "Confusion Corner", I should have taken it upon myself to memorize which way I would be turning. My fault, period. Of course, I also trusted the course marshall, and I do think that he should have been shouting and pointing for me, which would have saved me from my own foibles. He was probably the most low-key course marshall I've ever witnessed. Darn. But, like I said, I have only myself to truly blame for this one - that guy was a well-meaning volunteer and he may have actually told me TWICE that I was going the wrong way, I just didn't hear him or understand him. He probably thought I was an idiot! (and he's probably right).

Next year: Maybe I should make them a really big, bright, day-glo sign indicating that the 10k and 2 mile turn different directions at Confusion Corner.

As I said, I had to depart the race site to head back to Minneapolis right away, so I had no time to find out the final standings and whether I'd held third despite running a longer race than everyone else and having to go uphill and back down when everyone else just ran along the flats by the river. I feel pretty dumb, but I take some solace in that I ran a pretty good race even though I wasn't feeling great early on. I made a good strong move, and I was making up ground before I decided to add a bit more distance. Yeesh.

As far as going off course: I should have known better. I'm not a stumbling rookie here. Duh. Live and learn?  Hope so!

I'll post a link to results here when they are up (assuming they even will be, I can find absolutely nothing online yet).

In sum, I really enjoyed the race and hope to make it an annual event now that I'm a Minnesotan. I also hope I can stick around next year to get to know more runners, which is one of my main goals anyway.

Note: Nice blog post including some photos here:
I actually took the shot of the three runners at the starting line - she handed me the camera and I obliged. Cheese!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Soundly Thrashed

Ran a race today, ran poorly. To mix in a boxing metaphor: I got knocked down and dragged out of the ring.

The race was the 2012 St. Pat's Human Race 8k, a road race in St. Paul, MN starting at the campus of the University of St. Thomas (which was very nice).

I'm a runner, so I can list excuses with the best of them. My complaints today:
1. After training in the cold weather all winter long, today's race was run in the burning sun at about 80F. Really, in mid-March? Truly awful.
2. I run at my best in the morning, this race started at 1:25pm. Ugh.
3. I am not doing any speed work of any kind, and I haven't run a race this short in several months.
4. I probably let it get into my head a bit too.

End result: I ran a terrible race, so much so that I feel embarrassed even writing about it. According to the results, I finished in 97th place (it felt more like 970th), and I managed only 9th in the 50-54 age group. Ouch. I ran slower and slower every mile, as the heat overwhelmed me. I know everyone is different, and a lot of folks love the sun and the warm weather. For me, I feel as if I can barely stay focused on the ground just in front of me. I can feel the heat radiating through me and out of me, and I sweat like a broken hose. I cross the finish line and feel woozy and nauseated. It's no fun.

My performance on the day was barely managing 6:08 pace for a 30:36 final chip time. I really stunk out there. Figuratively, and probably literally too!

Ah,well, even in my last post I was acknowledging that I am not really in tip top shape right now. Running today against some real competition, I got creamed. I can't say it wasn't fair. I got what I deserved.

Back to the drawing board.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

History Repeats Itself?

I seem to be caught in some kind of eerie version of Groundhog Day. Ran a race this morning - we'll get to that later - and once again ended up in the results as 2nd place to some mystery guy who is 58 years old, and who totally kicked by proverbial butt. The difference this time: it was an out-and-back course, and I led the 10 mile race the entire way, so it was even more of a shock to see the results post-race and learn that I somehow came 2nd.

It was pretty obvious that it was some kind of error, to everyone who was standing around looking at the printout. First of all, this 58 year old was running what would be a world-class age group time, almost 5:00 pace for 10 miles. Heck, his time would have beaten my all-time personal best by over two minutes! Hmm.

To be honest, it was probably a bit of a bear to time this event, because they had a 10 mile, 10k, and 5k, race all out on the same roads at the same time, with finishers streaming in and no obvious way to know which race anyone was in. It's possible that the 58 year old was actually in the 10k and got mis-scored, or of course it's possible that he cut the course by turning around before the actual spot to do so. Anyway, as we mulled about chatting, they started the awards ceremony and sure enough, announced me as second place. I hate this experience: now I had to walk up to receive my award and applause, only to bring everything to a pause as I chatted with the organizer, "Um, I think there might be a little error in your results". I feel like I'm being selfish, but, you know, truth is truth. Luckily, the guy who actually got 2nd place came up too, to say so. Luckily for us, the jolly race director accepted our story immediately at face value and made the announcement for all to hear.

The Sweetheart 10 mile race was held in Mahtomedi, Minnesota, which to my recently-moved-here eyes looks to be a suburb of St. Paul. The course had some rolling hills, but the two notable details were the dirt roads (maybe 30% of the race, with no mention of this on the race website) and the 800 meters (or maybe more) of packed snow and ice out on the course (rather slippery!).

The turn-around spot was particularly slick, and I decided not to fall down (some others weren't so lucky) by simply slowing to a complete stop, turning 180 degrees around in place like a dancer in pirouette (I wish), and then resuming my running. Funny.

I'll be honest: there wasn't a lot of competition. I don't want that to sound insulting to anyone. I've said many times over the years: It's a race, and the other people were racing too, it's not like they all forfeited the victory. We all did our best. On this day, I managed to win. But if any young hot shots had shown up, I'd have been soundly thrashed.

Friendly folks, not a big race, but a nice event and a nice venue. I'd do it again. The results now up on the web seem to be corrected (thank you). I'm not sure if the course was exactly 10 miles, and I'm not sure why the time on my watch was about 51 seconds faster than the time they gave me ... but whatever.

The big question: when will this odd string of losses to phantom runners of 58 years of age ever end? It is some sort of odd curse?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Icy Trails and New Friends

This past Saturday, my wife Monika and I headed south of Minneapolis to meet up with a few fellow trail runners at Lebanon Hills Regional Park. Since our arrival in the great north-upper-midwest (or whatever you want to call this location), I've been digging around the internet looking for a group or team or some folks who we might connect with around off-road running. Finally, on, I found a local group who might fit the bill. Organized by John, they were offering an introductory run at this park of about 7 miles, staying off of the ski trails. 

After working out some babysitting details so that we could both join in the fun, Monika and I found our way to the parking lot and met John, Joe, and John. Yes, it was a little confusing, but probably only to us. Nice guys, and primed to show off a park they loved to run. Admittedly, the unusually mild winter this year made this possible, as John #1 admitted that he'd much rather be on XC skis this time of year. Ah, well, to our advantage I guess.

After quick introductions and a bit of shivering in the brisk air, we headed downhill to the trails and immediately faced our first section of sheer ice. The light snow cover has been melting and re-freezing night after night for the past week or so, and back in the woods this made for some slippery going. It would be a theme all day, and we often ran along the very edges of the paths, seeking just a little traction in the remaining snow or even tip-toeing through the brambly underbrush on either side of the trail. I realize those who love to run on roads will never quite understand this, but there is a kind of primal joy in picking your way along a trail in this way. It's a combination of testing your agility, practicing careful balance, focusing your concentration, and just plain proving you are tough enough to do this that make the action more rewarding than yet another plodding slog around on cold asphalt. At least in my opinion. And well worth the little scratches on your ankles and the effort to pick the burrs off of your socks.

We must have hit just about every possible hiking-only trail in that park. Along the way, we heard about the Upper Midwest Trail Runners, enough to convince us to join soon. That group organizes three different Grand-Prix-style racing series, using area trail races. That's exactly the kind of connection we are looking for, and we hope to join them for as many races as we can over the coming months.

The run, despite the slipping and sliding and waiting for each other, seemed to go by very quickly.  Before we knew it, we were back in the parking lot, being handed chocolate chip cookies and basking in the after-glow of running in the woods. To my knowledge, no one fell down, although I think we all came close repeatedly. 

Unfortunately we had to bolt out of there to get back to our son and the babysitter, because it would have been fun to stay and chat. Maybe next time. I'll say this: nice guys, clearly loved the park we ran, full of facts and opinions about the place and area races, and obviously eager to have more of these kind of casual, let's-go-run-a-trail kind of mini-events. Count us in!