Monday, July 29, 2013

A (Partial) Guide to Running Road Relays

Author's note: This - rather long - post is meant to help my fellow runners plan for and accomplish a point-to-point relay race. It is based on my personal experience, and I've shared one version or another of this content through various channels since 2005 (wow, that's a long time ago). Also, As with a lot of the advice-related things I write, this guide is meant to be both informative and (at times) irreverent ... and hopefully occasionally entertaining. The goal, as always, is to combine a zest for life with a passion for running, and to express it not only with our feet but also with our smiles and laughter. Along the way, we collect life-memories that, well, no one else will really understand, you-had-to-be-there kind of stuff. So, try to read this with just enough attention to remember most of it, your teammates will probably be grateful (or at least they’ll hit you on the head less often).

What exactly is a point-to-point relay?
Essentially, you take a carload or two (or six, or whatever) of runners (and ‘temporary runners’ as needed) and you get them from a starting line to a distant finishing line. One-at-a-time, each runner is logging miles while the others drive, support, guide, chide, photograph, tease, get lost, flirt with the competition, eat, argue over radio stations, nap, etc. While that may not sound all that tough, believe me, these things can come unraveled quickly without preparation. There are numerous obstacles to overcome, being prepared will vastly reduce the headache factor and allow you and your team to focus on enjoying the race, instead of on throwing bananas and empty Gatorade containers at one another. A point-to-point relay isn’t your run-of-the-mill race: It takes considerably more planning and shared resources to organize a relay team. By comparison, for an individual race it’s you alone who will or will not be on time, have a decent race, forget your pants, etc. … if things go wrong, no one ‘suffers’ except you, so no big deal. Well, friend, now you’ve got actual teammates who depend on you to be there, do your best, and help them do their best. I’m not going to lie to you, this does add a bit of pressure, but it’s also really fun and exciting (trust me, you’ll see). We’ve all done our share of boring road races that are forgotten a month later, but you will remember your relays, forever. That’s pretty cool.

Getting There (Registration, Transportation)
Team captains will collect information and signatures to get teams entered, please respond quickly and accurately when they bug you for this kind of stuff. Oh, and send in that entry fee check you promised! Team captains (hey, here’s an idea: volunteer to be one next time!) will also be organizing (read: begging and pleading for) cars or vans for race day, and will arrange meeting points for transportation and pre-race gathering. On race day, here is how you can help the most: Be there on time (or even – gasp! – early!), and if you are a driver show up with a clean and fully-fueled car. It is simply not an option to saunter in late for one of these events … I think I’ve belabored that point enough, right?

Wait! What do I bring??
At the end of this guide, you’ll find a basic gear list. Pretty simple. Your team captains may or may not provide you with a more-specific list, but this is a decent starting point. You’ll notice that there are several items on the list that are shared. “Aha!” you say, nearly spilling your bowl of corn flakes, “So that’s why they keep bugging me about this team meeting thing!” That’s right, we will need to get together well before the race to decide who’s bringing what, among other important things.

Team Meeting Thing
That’s right, there are many good reasons for a pre-race meeting, the list of which is too long and varied (and boring) to include here. However, there will always be some sort of logistics to iron out, so when your team captain(s) set up a pre-race meeting in the weeks before the event, be there.

Race Rules
All of these relays have rules, some similar and some quite unique. The races typically have websites listing all of the details, best if you look them over (preferably while relatively sober). At the Team Meeting, team captain(s) will highlight the most-important rules for your specific race. Some rules will apply to runners; some rules will apply to support vehicles. If you violate these rules, your team can be penalized or even eliminated from the race, both of which would, well, totally suck. So don’t blow it for others.

Driving and Supporting
Yeah, okay, it’s a race and all, but that does not give you carte blanche to ignore traffic laws (or the laws of physics). Not to mention, you will probably spend time driving someone else’s car, so be cool about it. Drive sanely, keep it safe. And keep an eye on the gas gauge, nothing worse than sputtering out halfway to the next stage, and stranding the entire team. When you decide to stop and support your on-course runner, find a legal spot to pull over, and please respect the local residents. If you hand your runner a drink cup or bottle or a gel pack, then it’s your responsibility to pick it up after they’ve dropped it. Best approach: as you stop, decide on one person to provide the refreshment, who walks back up the course about 100 meters, and one person to gather the refuse, who walks the other direction down the course 100 meters. Simple, right? Lastly, some runners like to be screamed at Vince-Lombardi-style, others prefer a quiet word of support, some like to hear loud disco music, others just want cold water thrown on them every half mile … do you know how you find out someone’s preference? You ask! Amazing, isn’t it? Be a good teammate, and find out how to help the others on your squad. Oh, and say thank you when others help you … like I said, simple.

Check the forecast, and bring the right stuff. And remember that driving in bad weather is harder, so prepare for it. Hints: in cold weather, a thermos of hot coffee, tea, or cocoa is a miracle. In hot weather, bring one or two of those big ‘super-soaker’ style squirt guns and have fun blasting each other to stay cool.

Communication and Emergencies
Everyone with a cell phone should bring it, fully charged. Team captains will collect numbers for each support vehicle. Stay in touch, and when two or more support vehicles cross paths, exchange any updates that might be helpful. Please keep your team captain up-to-date on anything of importance (well, unless he/she is currently running, then you can wait until the next leg). As far as emergencies, just keep in mind that people are always more important than a race; if someone needs help, from your team or even from another team, the race immediately becomes a lower priority. When in doubt, get help via calling 911.

Most of the point-to-point races cover so much territory that it is impossible to block all traffic or to mark the course perfectly. Therefore, it is the job of each runner and each support vehicle to know the route. Best approach: each runner should bring copies of his or her stage maps in ziploc bags folded carefully so they can be viewed (stuffed into your shirt while you run). The support vehicle should carry a master copy of the entire set of course maps. In the support vehicle, one person drives and a DIFFERENT person reads the maps. Hint One: If you are in the support vehicle, and you notice an unmarked or tricky intersection, then stop nearby and get someone over there to direct your runner. Help each other! Hint Two: Zero out the vehicle’s trip meter at the starting line, this helps keep track of the race miles and thus simplify navigation.

Running Part One: Pacing and racing
Warming up: You won’t have a lot of time to get ready, so a complete warm-up (like you’d do before a typical race) is unlikely. Try to get in at least a 5 min. jog and 5 min. of easy stretching before you run, but don’t fret too much over this, you’ll be so fired up that it will be easy to get going (trust me).
Pacing: This is the hardest part about running a relay. You usually have to run more than once, so pace yourself accordingly. Typically, you try to run "tempo pace", which is about 85%-88% of your maximum effort (add about 7.5% to your per mile 5k race pace to come up with splits, but adjust for terrain, weather, time of day, etc.).
Competing: Relay teams vary in the types of runners they put into each stage. Try not to ‘race’ the runners immediately around you, just establish your pace and stick with it. If you can use those ahead of you for motivation, okay, but don’t freak if you get passed - that runner could be from a weak team with one fast person, you never know. Do your own thing, ignore the others, we’ll sort it all out at the end. If you start chasing someone, then blow up and lose five minutes in the last couple miles of your stage, then you’ve let your entire team down.
Cooling down: Just like the warm-up, finding time to cool down can be a problem. Here are some hints, but please inform your team before you jog off, disappear, and confuse everyone:
- After handing off to the next runner, continue on up the course for a mile or so of easy jogging, tell your support vehicle to pick you up enroute (cover up your race number if you do this, we don’t want to be accused of any strange-doings).
- or - After handing off, just jump right into the support car. As soon as the car makes its first support stop, you jump out and jog around to cool down and loosen up.
- or - Ask your support driver to drop you off one mile from the beginning of the NEXT stage, then jog in ahead of the upcoming runner to join back with the team (cover up your race number on this one too).
Handing-off: Every team has their own style of handing off from one runner to the next, just make sure to agree ahead of time. Most races give the team a wristband to pass along, my advice is don't try to be fancy, just take it off and hand it to the next runner.

Running Part Two: Recovering, running multiple stages in one relay race
Assuming you will run more than one stage, follow this routine after each:
1. Cool down, as you prefer (see above)
2. Towel off, and immediately change clothes – do not sit around in wet gear!
3. Store your sweaty gear in a sealed bag, your teammates will be grateful
4. Hydrate: replace what you’ve lost, and use drinks that sit easy on your stomach
5. Eating: re-fuel, use foods that you know you can digest appropriately before you have to run again
6. Hint: petroleum jelly can work miracles, use it on any skin surfaces that tend to chafe or blister
7. Wear a new set of running clothes and shoes for each stage that you run

Running Part Three: Finishing
It's common practice for the entire team to jump into the race just before the finish line, to accompany the "anchor leg" runner across the line. Plan ahead for it, get there on time, and enjoy the moment. One word of practical caution: If your last runner is engaged in a tight race with one or more other runners, don't get in the way, just jog in right behind and enjoy watching the competition unfold.

Team Etiquette
Attitude: It’s not always easy to be with the same guys and gals all day (especially if one of them has really old running shoes!), but do your best to maintain the peace. (Vehicles have roof racks or rear bumpers, tie the shoes there!). Find out how to help your teammates and do it. And if someone annoys you (for example, say, oh, an overly enthusiastic and obsessive writer of team guidelines), then just let it go. Finally, you are part of a team now, so you are respected not only for dishing it out, but also for being able to take it. After all, we’re all silly, fallible humans, might as well laugh about it. 
Smells: Yes, it’s going to be many hours in a car or van with people perspiring all around you … hmmm, why do we do this again, exactly? Anyway, at least for those of you with functioning nostrils, things can get a bit ripe, so everyone please adhere to these basic principles after each time you run: clean up, change clothes, store old clothes in ziploc bags. One last thing, if a teammate is in need of, say, a bit of improved hygiene, it is considered rude to remark “you stink” followed by faked gagging and vomiting sounds. Instead, use the the code words: “Man, I didn’t realize they had so much livestock in this state!”
Support: Things that no runner EVER wants to hear from a teammate:
a. “Are you all right? No, really, are you okay?”
b. “You’re not doing all that bad, really.”
c. “Why is everyone passing you?”
d. “The fat old guy is catching you again, hurry up!”
e. “It’s all uphill from here!”
f. “No, no, we’re not laughing AT you, we’re laughing WITH you!”

Woo-Hoo, Yippee, Hooray, etc. Hey, have fun, okay? The reason for this guide is to get all this silly junk taken care of ahead of time so that you can just let it all hang out on race day. Don’t fuss over these things, just take care of them and then relax. Isn’t that the point?

Don’t Panic! (or, Here’s what to do if …)
Things will go wrong, such is life. Here are some situations I’ve seen or been through myself, and what to do about them. Main thing is to keep your head on straight and stay calm (although it is possible to imagine situations for which hysterical screaming, bawling, tantrum-throwing, and general carrying-on might be effective … we’ll leave that up to your discretion).
1. “Uh oh, my vehicle just pulled away without me”: Walk along the route, they’ll be back for you, at least we hope so. If they don’t show after 20 minutes, start hitchhiking, other teams will pick you up. Explain the situation to them. Allow them to chuckle knowingly.
2. “I’m lost!” (while running): Pull out your course map, check. If needed, backtrack to nearest intersection and check again. Watch for other runners and support vehicles. Backtrack until you are on-course again if you have to.
3. “We’re lost!” (while driving): Stop. Check course maps. Are you sure that you are lost? If so, backtrack until you are on course. Call your other support vehicle and ask for help. Allow them to chuckle knowingly.
4. “We’re out of drinking water!”: Most relay maps will show service stations and grocery stores, plan to stop at one as soon as you can. Next time, bring more water!
5. “One of our runners is hurt!”: This is the nightmare scenario. First, get that runner any help he/she needs. Once that is dealt with, IF you can get the team back in the race, here is the usual scenario: The next runner jumps in to finish the stage for the injured runner, then the other runners all move up one stage, in serial order. This will leave the last stage ‘unoccupied’. Consult race rules for what to do about this (some races require a specified runner, others will allow any runner to serve as the substitute). The bottom line is that someone is going to have to run more than they planned, or the race is over for that team.

Basic Relay Packing List - you will likely need more than this, but start with:

Other great resources
Here are a few links to other great resources available online for planning and accomplishing a road relay. Have a ball out there, folks, maybe we'll cross paths at one of these events in the future!
So you want to/are/got roped into running a relay
Why Team Road Relays Are Flourishing
Relay Packing List - another version

You probably have something to say too
Please add your Relay-related tips, links, funny stories, etc. in the Comments below.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Pain in the Knee

Recently I've had a few runner friends contact me to ask about pain in their knees. It's a pretty common complaint, especially for any runner who is ramping up his or her training by increasing frequency, mileage, intensity, etc. As the autumn marathon season approaches, this includes a rather large percentage of runners out there.
Pain in the knee is really annoying for runners. Of course, I'm assuming here that we are talking about so-called "ordinary pain": your knee is hurting, but there is no discoloration or obvious swelling, and you did not bang your knee into something hard or fall down/twist your leg to cause the problem in the first place. In fact, you can't really pinpoint the exact day that the pain started, but it's there now and it just won't go away. And it's begun hurting so much that you can't really run on it. Most likely the pain feels like it's in the kneecap (patella), or just under the kneecap - although the pain *may* radiate a little bit up or down the front of the leg to the patellar tendon or the tendons that attach to the lower quadricep.
In other words, it's probably a classic case of "runner's knee", which isn't serious but could set you back for a time. And runners do not like being set back!

Caveat 1. I've written it before and I always mean it - I'm NOT a doctor, not even close. I am a runner of many years who's seen a lot - and personally experienced a lot - of injuries. I've coached and supported hundreds of fellow runners, and my home-spun advice has seemed to work in the past, but it may not work at all for you. Really. So promise me that if the pain gets worse (or the knee becomes discolored or swollen or you really can't bend it without wincing), please ignore my advice and go see a real physician.

There, there ...
Caveat 2: If you have different symptoms than described above, it could be another problem entirely. In that case, stop reading this post and go see your doctor!

In the meantime, try this:

1. Ice your knee, 2 to 4 times per day, for 20-30 minutes each time. Do this for one week. Ice wraps are great, so are ziploc bags full of ice cubes. The old runner's trick is to buy a cheap bag of frozen peas and just use it over and over (but I don't recommend eating them later, yuck - so mark the bag with permanent ink just to be sure).


2. Take at least 48 hours off of running, walking fast, cycling, or other leg-intensive exercise. After two days, cycling might be your best bet as cross-training. You may need to take up to two weeks away from running (let pain be your guide here, if it hurts don't do it).

3. Go to your favorite natural vitamin store and buy some Bromelain in pill form. This is a natural substance from pineapple that helps to reduce inflammation. Take 2-4 of the pills per day for 1- 2 weeks, then re-evaluate based on pain. Please don't take the stuff year-round, of course, it's for treatment not maintenance.

4. Strengthen your quadriceps. Do the exercise shown at the very end of this Runner's World article .
You can also do simple leg lifts (just straighten your leg and hold it for a count of five, 10 times in a row, a few times per day) when seated at your chair at work. The key is to work your quadriceps - when they get stronger your knee cap will track in the appropriate plane and the pain should go away. This is the most-important thing you will need to do, so be diligent about it. You are a runner, diligence should be part of your middle name!

5. Runner's World also has a short video that demonstrates several exercises that can help runners prevent knee pain. Some of these may seem almost silly, but taken as a combined set they essentially create strength in several muscles which can then take some of the strain away from the knee area. Well worth a try.

Be patient, work those quads, and you will get back out there quickly. If you ignore the pain and refuse to stop running (try to "run through" this injury), I predict that it's going to set you back even longer in the near future. Yeah, I know you hate to hear that, but truth hurts sometimes. What's the old adage? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure? That's similar to the case here: when runner's knee arises, quickly nip the injury in the bud or suffer with a very long layoff and possibly lots of appointments with doctors and physical therapists.

Good luck!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Paying it Forward (while being torched at Torchlight)

I ran the Torchlight 5k earlier this week in downtown Minneapolis. This event wasn't about me trying to blast through a fast paced race, it was about paying it forward. I love running, have for more than three decades now. And I love sharing that passion with others, whether it's during a morning training run with experienced runners, or it's chatting during a brown bag lunch Q & A session with co-workers. The latter, which took place a couple of months ago, gave me an opportunity to invite more folks into our world, encourage them to stick with it, and to aim for an event together. I hope that I was able to convey my enthusiasm and sense of personal satisfaction to them, as well as to answer their many questions about training, injuries, gear, and how to do their first-ever race. (Quick note: not all of them were first-timers exactly, but racing wasn't a habit for any as of yet)

In the weeks that followed, we all planned to run the Torchlight as Team MIA. Unfortunately, it was a steamy, hot, humid night - I was a bit worried about my teammates, but tried to share some common wisdom during the day (hydrate, slow down, etc.). It was really hot out there, and I know that I backed off any ideas of "racing" and just tried to run a steady tempo pace (even then I was fading a bit during the last mile). Luckily, everyone on the team made it through the event and finished smiling (and sweating)!. Results, although the website with the results seems to be offline intermittently. I enthusiastically high-fived them all, feeling proud of them, but also soaking up their own sense of accomplishment. I've run nearly 750 races in my career, and I suppose it would be easy to take them for granted now ... but sharing the experience with runners who are relatively new to the whole concept can re-invigorate you, help you remember what it was like the first time you entered a race and finished it. Very cool. Here we are, on our feet and sharing the feeling.

George Sheehan said, "The difference between a jogger and a runner is an entry blank." While that may be an oversimplification, what I like about the quote is that it sets an achievable goal and shows the world that our sport is welcoming to anyone who is interested. We're all in this together guys, even though we all face our own internal demons that threaten to hold us back, make us give up, and glue us to the couch. We battle those demons alone, ultimately, but during the battle it's sure nice to know that we've got allies all around us.

Keep up the good running all, and remember to welcome everyone, always.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Product Review: Go ID

I just finished evaluating a new product: The Go ID Personal Emergency ID Kit. 

This is a small, make-at-home tag that you can attach to your sports watch, shoe, backpack, zipper pull, etc. so that vital information about you is readily available should you be involved in any kind of emergency situation. 

What I liked best about the Go ID:
  • It's REALLY EASY to set up. I'll be honest here, I was slightly worried about "getting it right", and about possibly messing up my "one shot" to align everything properly. My fears were totally unfounded. All you have to do is follow the online instructions, which walk you through the process easily. Not only did I get it right on my first try, I'm not sure I could have gotten it wrong without working hard to do so.
  • You don't have to remember it! Unlike other personal ID products that I've used over the years, once you've attached the Go ID to your sports watch, it's with you whenever you work out. You could also attach it to mobile phone, or key chain, or to anything else that you are most-likely to have with you when you leave the house. Very convenient.
  • The kit comes with extra supplies. This simple fact, so often ignored by many manufacturers, really makes a difference in my humble opinion. If I actually did mess up my first try, I'd have a couple more passes to nail it. And, should my Go ID suffer a bit of wear and tear over time, I can generate a new label. Nice. Finally: If you have a temporary health situation (e.g., post-op rehab, or maybe pregnancy), you can make a specific tag with that information - then change it later when the situation is different. Voila.
  • Comes in sizes - you can measure the size of your watch if that's where you want to put it, or you can order bigger/smaller simply on your own preferences.
  • A portion of the profits from the sale of Go ID will be shared with first-responder units. Those are brave people who are willing to risk their own lives to help all of us in any situation, they certainly deserve the recognition and support.
What I liked less about the Go ID:
  • It adds a little bit of bulk, if you are picky about such things. I use a Garmin Forerunner 110, which is already a slightly big wrist watch. Adding the Go ID underneath the watch (using small velcro-style stickers) did add to the feeling of bulk while running, but honestly I stopped noticing it after only a few minutes. And it's most certainly less of a factor than the water bottle I'm sometimes carrying on hot days. Note: I didn't even notice it when I was wearing it while cycling.
  • Attaching it to a shoe is a little complex for my tastes (unlacing, threading, re-lacing, etc.), but I'm not sure how to improve that one. I rotate my shoes every time I run, so I'd have to be dealing with this over and over again if I attached the tag to my shoe (which means I'll attach it to my watch instead). I suppose this is not an issue if you wear the same shoes all the time - but I strongly recommend against that in the first place, because if you are out there on run-after-run, mile-after-mile in the same pair of shoes, your risk of injury increases, period. But that's a topic for another post.
What I don't yet know about the Go ID:
  • Durability: I've only used it a few times and it shows no signs of wear, but I just don't know yet how it will fare over time. Jury is still out on this one.
  • Availability: Not sure these are distributed widely, you may not find it in a store in your area, but you can order it online right now.

Overall, I liked the product and would recommend it. We all live in a bubble of denial when it comes to accidents and emergencies, so it's easy to think you don't need any kind of identification when you slip out the door for your workout - I was guilty of this for many years myself. But I recommend that you make sure to provide a way for emergency personnel (or even assisting bystanders) to know quickly who you are, whom to contact on your behalf, and any health issues that should be taken into account. You might be the safest, least-accident-prone person in the world, but you can't control what some other bonehead might do that could result in you being hurt. Be safe out there!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Race Report: William O'Brien 10 mile Trail Race (June 22, 2013)

It was a muggy morning at William O'Brien State Park for the annual 10-ish mile trail race, the 7th stop on the 2013 UMTR Trail Race Series. I was already dripping with sweat during my pre-race warm-up jog, so I believed we'd be in for a survival-of-the-fittest type of race (that is, those who planned to go out hard and then hang on for dear life would likely be fading fast). 

For this year, the race organizers moved the start/finish area from the river's edge to a spot with more parking a bit higher on the hillside. It made the course just a tad shorter than last year, but still more than 10 miles (about 10.3, they reported and my Garmin confirmed that). The change to the course also put the hilliest section of the loop later in the race. The new start/finish didn't make much difference from my perspective, with the exception of one short (and only) section of single track that paralleled the park drive heading down to - and back up from - the river. The front pack made it through that area with little stress, but I can imagine that the larger group behind got rather squeezed. 

Competition was stronger than my most-recent races. Out front, Jason Finch from River Falls, Wisconsin set a blistering pace in leading the race from start to finish. He must be able to float in mid-air, because he ran sub-6:00 miles on a course that - while not technical - is simply not "fast": the footing is uneven, there was a bit of mud, and there are plenty of rolling hills, particularly during the second half of the race. I found an older post about Jason here. Clearly a talented runner.

Having that one race leader flying out front tends to pull along the entire field, and this race was no exception to that rule. As my dear readers know, I'm not much of a speedster, so I was not surprised to find that I was sitting barely inside the top 25 as we pounded down the hill and through the first couple of miles. I assumed that I'd make a move when we got to the hills, but even on the first couple of them I was losing ground to those ahead. I was running as hard as I could reasonably sustain, so I began to feel settled in my fate when I failed to pass ANYONE in the next three miles. Halfway home, sitting in about 22nd place, and not making much headway. Sigh.

Finally, we hit some rolling hills on grassy terrain, and the over-eager runners ahead began to come back, albeit slowly. The fact is that no one whom I managed to pass was willing to give up without a fight, and I had to work very hard over the final three miles to reel in and move past just a few competitors. I wasn't exactly zooming home, but I did manage to crawl and battle my way slowly up to 12th place by the finish line. Results.

The top 10 runners included three teenagers (wow, nice work guys) and an array of strong runners in their 30s and 40s. I managed to capture the old guys' division, a point of pride at this point in my racing career. And unlike last year, there were no bizarre freight train incidents! A good race at a good venue, with very friendly volunteers and race organizers. I recommend it. Hope it stays on the Grand Prix circuit next year too.