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!