Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Innovation, Micro-funding, and Seeing in the Dark

We Minnesotans are finally going to say aloud, "It's Spring 2013". It was a long, cold, lonely winter. We had snow beginning in October of 2012, and basically added more every single month including early May 2013! Yeesh.

But the world keeps turning, and it seems we're finally going to see some green again. It was a long wait.

That being said, I'm always on the lookout for ways to deal with winter running. I am an early morning runner, which means that I'm out there at 6am even in the dead of winter. It's cold, it's lonely, and most of all it's DARK! I've tried many ways to deal with that last one. I always try to wear light-colored outer layers, with reflective strips. And I'm a big fan of screw shoes when things get icy. But illumination is problematic for me. I've tried head lamps, but they are not very comfortable and anyone wearing them (including me) has an annoying tendency to look at other people, thus blasting a blinding light into their eyes - not exactly a nice move, but it's a human instinct to look at each other and very hard to stop oneself. I've tried a backpack that has a chest light on it, but who wants to run every morning with an empty backpack? I've attached a headlamp to a belt, and that is probably the best solution I've found so far, but it's hard to keep the darned thing aimed at the ground in front of you. What to do?

Necessity is the mother of invention, right? Into these gaps in functionality come innovations. There's an opportunity here, isn't there?

I just heard about these: Night Runner LED shoe lights. Hmm. Maybe they've nailed it? Hard to say until I can actually run in a pair, but notice that this is a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds necessary to move toward production. Kickstarter is one of the most-successful micro-financing operations around. You add some money to the pot, you often get some small benefit in return, and you help Innovators to realize their dreams. Very cool.

I'd like to be able to see in the dark while running. No, I don't mean night-vision goggles, I'm not hunting anything. I just want to see the path in front of me, and do my best not to wipe out on icy patches or trip over snow piles lurking in the shadows. Maybe these Night Runners are the answer. I think I'll go lend a bit of financial support to the product right now. Join me if you are so inclined. I realize their timing is a bit odd (hey, guys, where were you last October??), but innovation is rarely a carefully planned thing.

Now, if only they could invent some kind of magic pill that fixes all running injuries ... sigh, a guy can dream, can't he?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Back in the Mud Again (some of it rather frozen)

I've been lax in posting for fear of jinxing myself, because I've actually been able to put together a couple months of consistent training lately, and (gasp) managed to run the first three trail races of the UMTR Grand-Prix-style Trail Run Series.

On April 21, I ventured to Wirth Park to run the 2013 MDRA Mudball Classic. As the starter joked while we lined up, they should have re-named it the Snowball Classic in this year of endless winter. The entire course, a loop of about 0.9 miles that we were to run 4 laps around, was covered in about 4-6 inches of slushy snow. I was smart enough to bring along a pair of trail shoes with 10 sheet metal screws inserted at various key spots. I don't think they made a huge difference, because everyone was slipping all over the place, but I do think that the third and fourth laps were better for me than for many others because of that little extra grip. I'll never be sure, of course. In my typical fashion, I started out fairly slowly, and watched the young and the restless dance away during the first mile. One striking difference this time though: two of those youngsters simply sped away and never came back - in fact, the brother/sister duo won their respective races, with 15 year old Garrett Williams finishing first overall and his 19 year old sister Kaelyn finishing 4th overall and first woman. Wait, a 15 year old won the race?! Nicely done young fella, I think you've got a future in this sport. Same for your sister. Wow, impressive. As for me, I slipped and sloshed my way around in decent if much-less-impressive fashion, passed 1 or 2 runners each lap and ended up 6th overall out of 69 runners, first in the 50-59 age group. I'll take it. First race in several months.

Found one photo of the race online that shows us heading downhill right at the start, there I am number 818 tying to stay upright in the midst of the fleet-footed young!

The following weekend (April 27) I ran the Chippewa Moraine Trail Run "10k" near New Auburn, Wisconsin (it is actually about 7 miles long). Taking place on the true single-track of the Ice Age Trail, I was looking forward to this one. At the same time and place, a 50k trail race was taking place - they departed about 25 minutes before we did, and we would share the same trail for the first five miles. Not a good idea. More on that later. The start was a massive downhill double-track, steep and grassy. I'm not a big fan of downhill starts, they only magnify how slowly I come out of the gates. Sigh. Anyway, after a jaunt around a meadow, we dove into the woods for some great single-track. I actually passed about 5 runners in the 500 meters or so before the trail - I didn't really accelerate, they just slowed down. The footing was treacherous. Almost all portions of the trail that were shaded from the daytime sun were frozen - not necessarily slick ice, but frozen and re-frozen snow that had a thin top layer of slush. I had my screw shoes on again, but during the steep downhills (the race director told us to walk these, but of course we didn't listen) it was very slippery. At one point, maybe 1.5 miles in, I actually did a sort of inelegant jump-stop because I simply could not get enough traction to slow myself. I jumped slightly, turned my feet and body sideways, then planted both feet and did a very poor imitation of a downhill skier stopping at the base of a steep slope. I honestly skidded at least 10 feet, but managed to stay upright. Not so about a half mile later, when a little mud puddle turned out to be much deeper than I thought, and the unexpected "sploosh" into the deep quagmire put me right down on my elbows in the snow. Oof! It was my only fall of the day, luckily, because I could have gone down at least 6 more times. Most of those times took place when we (inevitably) caught the 50k runners who were out on the course, and appropriately running at a much slower pace. I felt bad for them, because we were simply flying past and there really wasn't any room to do so. Several times I had to go off-trail and high-step it through the wet snow in order to pass. Not cool, but what could we do? (Memo to Race Director: You've got to start that 50k at least 30 minutes earlier, it's just not safe to have that many of us faster runners weaving in and out of those running much farther on the day. Please!) Anyway, I ran down a couple of guys and managed to finish 5th on the day overall, first in the 50-59 age group (results here). The final mile included a jog back up the same hill we stormed down at the start. I'm not sure I've ever run that slowly in the final mile of a race. I thought I might hit my chin on the ground in front of me. Still, I'd certainly run this race again.

Finally, this morning (May 4) I drove south to near Mankato, MN to Seven Mile Creek County Park to race the 7@7 Trail Race. This was another of those races where I really had no idea what to expect, except that the race website mentioned that the course was entirely double-track. It rained during the drive down, but luckily for everyone it let up for the most part during the race. Again, this race had another event sharing some of the same trails. But this race director made sure that the 5k started just 5 minutes after the 7 mile, and the last mile of each respective race was slightly different, so I think I only actually overtook 2 or 3 of the 5k runners, who were very gracious to move completely off-course to let us run past (thanks!). This race course is HILLY! And several of the hills were very steep, both up and down. Not my forte these days. On the very first hill, about 0.4 miles in, I faded back from 8th place to 12th place in the space of a quarter mile. Ouch. But I set my chin and worked my way back up to the top 10 by about two miles, where I slipped past a small clutch of 4 runners. One came along with me, and we ended up jockeying back and forth for the rest of the race, picking off a few more runners until he sped past me in the final half-mile to come in 5th and I came in 10 seconds behind in 6th (first in 50-59 age group, but not by very much - results here - you can see that another runner my age was bearing down on me from behind). Did I mention that there were hills? In fact, I think everyone (maybe not the overall winner) ended up WALKING up two of the hills, that's how steep they were. Walking up a hill in a seven mile race! Unbelievable. But practical. Despite those two sections, which perhaps accounted for about 4 minutes in total, I averaged under 7:20 pace for this trail race, showing you how non-technical the course was. But still a fun day in the wet woods, and I ran as hard as I could.

Three weeks, three trail races, three age-group wins = success, at least by my measure, considering I've been battling hamstring injuries for 9 months and I'm still barely running 25 miles per week - with every other day dedicated to cross-training instead of running. I'm not in the shape I was last year - not even close, and I know I'd get creamed in a road race right now. But on the muddy trails, where technique and experience can make a difference, I'm still hanging in there. Knock on wood!