Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Dashing Through the Snow

The Winter Trail Race Series Race 2 that took place last Saturday was quite an adventure. Running 10 miles on single-track trails that were covered with several inches of loose snow was one of the most physically-challenging things I've done in many years. Even today, three days later, my legs remain sore (especially calf muscles, hips, and the arches of my feet). Despite all of that, there is a certain level of satisfaction at having completed the race, and at having done much better than I expected. Ironically, my very slow-looking pace of just under 9:00 minutes per mile actually represents the hardest effort that I've put into a run in a very long time, in fact it has been nearly two years since I got after it with such intensity. I wonder what my pace would have been if there had actually been some traction out there.

It was a cold morning, about 15 degrees F I think. I somehow managed to convince Xiao Wang and Diane Kenna to come along with me. Of course, Xiao needed to exact some revenge for going off-course at the December race, but for Diane this would be one of her first real trail races. I knew it would be hard, but I also know that she is a very tough runner.

On my brief warmup jog, I tried out the first half-mile or so of the course. The snow was deep enough to present problems, plus it was that sort of gritty, loose snow (not the nice packable snow) that makes you feel like you are running in dry sand (except for the obvious temperature difference). From my perspective, it wasn't going to make much difference what shoes you wore, or if you opted for ice cleats or spikes - this stuff was just too deep, and it wasn't going to offer up much traction, period.

The field was a bit smaller than the December race, but no less enthused. I was one of only 3 to be wearing shorts (hey, it's a "race", right?). We started just about on time at 9am, and headed across the parking lot to the trails. There was a bit of jockeying for position in the first 1000 meters. The race combined those running one lap for five miles and those running two laps for 10 miles, with no real way to know the difference. In addition, you had the option of stopping at the five mile finish and calling it a day, even if you'd signed on for 10. I wouldn't call it chaotic, but I was surprised to have a couple of guys literally sprint around me just to get to the singletrack more quickly. Truth is, I passed all of those folks back eventually, except for one guy (who I believe finished 3rd in the five mile, and must have simply gotten a slow start before cranking it up). I have no qualms about people running this way, unless they downshift markedly when the single track starts, which thankfully no one did on this day.

I was sitting in about 12th place overall at the 10 minute mark, a bit better than I expected. The young horses were already off the front, and I could see that Xiao was among the top 3 - good for him. He had opted for lightweight racing flats, and I wondered if he was getting any traction at all. I had my Inov8 Flyroc 310s on, and except for the gritty snow I was doing okay.

Around the first lap we went. I was yo-yoing a bit with two runners in front of me. They were clearly faster on the downhills, but I was reeling them in on the uphills. I've often referred to myself as a tractor among sports cars when it comes to racing, I think that's why trail races suit me better. Seemed to be ringing true in this race.

After a brief respite on a gravel road with hard-packed snow (about a mile, from 2.6 to 3.5 miles of the loop I estimate), we were about to re-enter the single-track when two of the young guys completely missed the turn in front of me and one other runner who looked familiar from the December race (I think it was Jim Sonneborn). We shouted out to them, and they sprinted back, offering thanks ... only to fade back quickly - I never saw or heard them again. For the next 3 miles, Jim and I kept up the same rhythm: he'd pull away on the downhills, I'd catch up to him on the uphills. After about 1.5 miles of the second lap, I decided to pass him - surprisingly on a downhill section. I'd been running on his heels for the previous three hills, and I think he was tiring a bit. I surged by, and then tried to put some distance on him (because I can't outkick anyone anymore, and also the last half-mile was mostly downhill where he was clearly better than me). I thought I had him gapped, when I heard someone moving up behind me along that gravel road again. Entering the single-track, I glanced back to see that it was someone new (I think Jon Sellers). He must have been running the second loop much faster than the first. In fact, the results showed that he ran the second loop more than six minutes faster than the first. Either he was holding back, or he missed the start!

The second loop was just a bit more runnable, because more than 150 pairs of feet had mashed the snow down a bit, and stirred up just a few leaves and flecks of dirt. Anything for a little more traction!

As I hit the final downhill, with its switchback trail, I saw Xiao only about a minute ahead of me. Too tired to cheer him on, I just kept plugging away. At this point we were passing the back of the five mile pack, and most of them were incredibly generous to step off the trail and cheer us on as we went by. I love trail runners for this kind of thing. In a road race, lapped runners throw elbows and crowd the aid stations - but in a trail race they actually stop and let you go by. Amazing. Thank you.

In the final 600 meters there is a trail that runs along the edge of ravine, which forces you to deal with a sideways angle. In the slippery snow, this was almost funny. On the first lap, I'd slipped badly a couple of times, but I had not fallen. Now, on the final stretch, I was a bit more weary, and I finally fell for the first time all day - not spectacularly - just a slip on an off-camber trail that made me stick a hand into the snow to right myself. Cold!

I continued on to the finish line, managing garner 5th overall out of 64 hardy souls. I ran negative splits, but I think most everyone did because the trails improved slightly with traffic. Still, on a course that by all rights should have been used for a snowshoe race, I have to be pretty happy.

Grabbing a cold beer (brrr) post-race, I had a nice chat with second-place finisher John Montgomery, who's an old dude like me (maybe not quite as old, but we are from the same era). He's a talented runner, obviously, I'll have to see if I can get in good enough shape to give him a run for the money someday soon.

Xiao grabbed third overall, and Diane ... well, I think she found the day adventurous and kind of peaceful. I was afraid she'd cross the finish line and slap me dead in the face for dragging her out there. But she finished with a smile, grabbed a beer and a pretzel, and told us of having run alone for most of the day, fearing she was in last place! Not so, my friend, you ran strong. And I promise that most trail races aren't quite that hard!

Now I'm motivated to run the remaining two races in this series. These races have provided the perfect way for me to ease back into competitive running after so many months away. Friendly people, single track trails, physical challenges, bad conditions - the kind of stuff I love to run in.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Back to Lewis Morris Park on Saturday

I'm planning to head back to Lewis Morris Park in New Jersey on Saturday to have a go at the 2nd race in the 4 race series put on by the NJ Trail Series folks. This time, the distance is 10 miles and there is a strong likelihood of messy snow on the trails. Sounds like fun. I expect the field to be smaller than last time, but we'll see.

By the end of this week, I'll have 14 consecutive weeks of fairly consistent running in the bank. Finally starting to feel like myself again. Well, at least my nearly-50-year-old self. As I approach a new age group, time to re-set all the personal records again and start over. That's fine, I know I'll never be as fast as I once was (although I can dream, can't I?). When I really think about it, 30 years ago I'd run a 5 mile road race and be aiming to break 5:00 per mile pace, while now I'd like to think I can manage the same distance at just a hair under 6:00 pace by this summer. That's only one minute per mile slower after 30 years, not so bad right?

Apparently, as we men age we are supposed to gain about 5 pounds per decade, and our race times go down by about 6% per decade. If I apply these rules to my sample set of one (me), I come in right about where I should:
  • I weighed about 145 lbs in college, and I'm around 156 lbs now (the formula says I should be 160 lbs, so I guess I'm slightly ahead of the curve a bit on that one).
  • I ran 5 miles at 5:00 pace in college, and I'm hoping to run just under 6:00 pace now (the formula says I should be able to run 5:57 pace). Okay, there's a goal.
I know that there are some runners who just seem to go on and on, never losing a step, and others who actually get FASTER in their 50s (I want what they are having for breakfast) ... but I'll take my 6:00 pace goal gracefully, knowing that I haven't come apart at the seams ... at least not yet. Time will tell. Literally.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow ...

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Okay, I will say it aloud ...

After 10 weeks now of fairly consistent running, I'm going to claim that I am actually living a Running Life once more. Whew. That was a long time being lost in the dark woods of injuries. May I never take that path again.

In fact, it was early December when I realized that I had not run a race of any kind during 2010. I'd been injured most of the year, and then simply out of shape. But then it occurred to me that I had never failed to run against competition at least once per year, every year since 1973 (yes, that's right, the pre-disco era, and the final full year of the Nixon Presidency, when he uttered the infamous "I'm not a crook"). Well, this just would not do. I had to race in 2010.

So I scoured the internet for some kind of low-key race that I could enter and enjoy. I found one, a nice little trail race in New Jersey, put on by the NJ Trail Series folks. A 10k on the hilly trails of Lewis Morris Park, the old high school stomping grounds of my pal and fellow Harriers coach Kevin Horty. The previous year they'd had a relatively small field, and the times were reasonable. I could finish mid-pack and not completely embarrass myself!

I asked a few friends, and found a pair of adventurers who were willing to come along: my old friend Peter Masullo and my new, young friend Xiao Wang (both Harriers). Off we drove in my decrepit old Honda in the cold morning of December 11, 2010.

We found the venue just fine, and stood in the registration line a bit long, which gave me pause. These little trail races are exploding in popularity, I wondered if the field was going to be bigger than expected. As we completed our warm-up run, I was proven right. The Race Director (great guy, totally honest and doing his best) announced at least a 20 minute delay to get everyone registered. That led to quite a crowd standing around shivering. Xiao and I just kept jogging around. I think we had nearly 3.5 miles of warm-up running by the time we could line up at the starting line.

Finally, we were off, and attacking the first steep uphill. I felt surprisingly good, actually. Probably in about 25th place right away, better than I'd planned. The race had the 5k and 10k fields combined, no way to know who was in which race. The 10k was simply two 5k loops, simple enough. After about a half mile, we hit the first section of single-track. This is where technique comes into play, and the wisdom and experience of wily old vets like me can actually make a difference. We hit that uphill single-track, and within 1 minute I'd passed 10 other runners. They were tip-toeing along, staring at their feet, perhaps terrified of the rocks and roots below. Me, I'm a tractor, so I just chugged on by. Pretty funny, at least for me. Luckily, there was enough room to get by on the sides, and it was December so there wasn't much underbrush to trip me up.

Despite no racing in my legs and no speed training to speak of, I was doing all right. Well, admittedly I was huffing and puffing noticeably, but that was to be expected. For the next couple of miles things settled in. Xiao was off with the lead pack, Peter was bouncing around in the over-crowded trails somewhere behind me, and I was basically running along with the lead woman, who was a terrific climber but a bit picky on the descents, so we kept yo-yoing back-and-forth.

I hit the first 5k in about 22:10. Yeah, that's slow, but I was running pretty hard to achieve that and the course was fairly technical and featured a lot of turns (plus, just like an inexperienced high schooler, I had a little side stitch - yeesh). As I started my second lap, I feared that I would fade badly. But I actually hung in there. Trading the "lead" with the first woman definitely helped me, although during the final 1.5 miles I decided to stop passing her on the downhills so that she could be left alone to run her race and not have to keep passing me back on the uphills (after all, she was winning her race, I was just trying to hang in there). Over the final 400 meters she kicked it in and pulled away, while I just got across the line in one piece. I finished in 44:39, so my second lap was 22:29 and not anywhere near the crash and burn that I'd worried about. I'll take it!

All three of we Harriers had to pack up and leave before the results were posted at the race site, but I was thinking I'd been about 15th place in the end, out of maybe 150 runners. Xiao had been up with the leaders and had even moved into first place at one point, but he took a wrong turn and ended up finishing behind me. I know he was disappointed in that, but he seemed to enjoy running on the trails nonetheless. Peter was happy to be out in the woods, but his traditional start-slow-finish-fast had been impossible with so many people all over the single-track, so he just settled in to enjoy the day.

I was quite surprised when the results were posted online. I was 8th overall in a field of 145, and (on a technicality) given first in my age group (the technicality: they eliminated the top three overall from the age-group standings, and two of them were in their 40s, plus one other runner ahead of me was in his early 50s). So, really, I consider myself 4th in my age group. Like I said, I'll take it.

They posted some photos from the race (and amusingly enough from the warm-up laps too) online here. If you plug in my bib number of 40, you'll see some proofs - including Xiao and I doing some warm-up miles.

In retrospect, I am really happy we trundled out the NJ on a cold morning so that I could keep at least one streak intact. There are three more races in this series during January and February, and I'm hoping to do at least one if not all three of them. Maybe I can convince a few more Harriers to come along next time.

To the Race Director and crew: fantastic job, really. I am assuming the field was much bigger than you expected, but you were clear about it and kept things together. You helped set a fun and positive tone with your pre-race announcements. The course was well-marked and just challenging enough to make it a real trail race. Too bad it was a dry and cold day so that we had no mud, but maybe next time. Having the automated timing system was a real plus for a trail race, and a pleasant surprise. I wish I could have stuck around for post-race fun, because I saw some tempting snacks and libations. You definitely made me want to come back for more races.

Happy New Year everyone. Hope it's a good one. Let's ALL remain injury-free this year, shall we?