Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Rim2Rim2Rim Recap

Writing this recap is mildly bittersweet.  My original plan was to run from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, to the North Rim and then back again. Called the Rim2Rim2Rim, it is on the must-do list of many runners. However, I made the executive decision halfway through that this would only be a Rim2Rim run. While I still know this was the right choice I wondered if it would leave just a little pang of, shall we call it, guilt? Yet, it wasn’t a race, there was nothing riding on it, and without a doubt I made the right choice. Sometimes you fail.  That is what setting lofty goals can sometimes do to you.

What bothered me most about not having the day I was hoping for was how the conditions for crossing the canyon were just about as ideal as one could wish. I joined a group of seven other runners (one planning on doing a Rim2Rim, one joining us on the North Rim to do a Rim2Rim in the southerly direction and five others), most who had attempted or completed this run before. In fact, some were back on a revenge trip, so to speak, from a run last year when temperatures topped over 100 degrees in the bottom of the canyon. The predicted high for the bottom of the canyon for us was not even supposed to hit 80 degrees.


I had seen the Grand Canyon once before. Well, actually, as the long-running joke would go, I had never actually seen it. Thirteen years previously, on a cross-country trip, I made a 100 mile detour from the planned route to see the canyon.  One cannot pass up an opportunity to see this marvel when they are so close, right? Well, foggy conditions basically made the canyon look like a 100 foot pit that ended in grayness. So on the day prior to our run, when sleet and rain and brutally chilly conditions surrounded us, we all decided to take a peek at the rim we would be descending the next day.  What did I see? Basically a mixture of grey on beige with a smidgen of taupe thrown in with the canyon ending 100 feet below us in clouds and mist.
There is no Canyon. Only Zuul.

The Canyon is fake, I declared.

This trip was spearheaded by my friend Dean Schuster. We met virtually way back in 2007 when we were both contestants for an all-expenses paid trip to run a marathon on the North Pole.  Literally, the Magnetic North Pole.  I ended up being the runner-up which might be the worst bridesmaid analogy in the world. Considering the chap who won the contest was friends with the organizers of the trip and while qualified to take on the challenge, his victory seemed ordained from the beginning, it was a bitter pill to swallow.  Dean and I bonded over this simmering failure on both of our parts to explore the most amazing of places. 

We later serendipitously met at a variety of races from Pennsylvania to Kentucky to North Carolina to Oregon. When I saw he was planning a return trip to the Canyon, I asked to join. Running an adventure like this with someone who I knew was a fastidious planner was something ideal for me, someone who really enjoys running a long way if someone else is planning it. Well, that’s not really true. I have planned out many an adventure.  But sometimes I leave little details out. Like triple-checking if you can take a rental car across the Costa Rica border so you can run across the Panama Canal. Nevertheless, joining a group of runners with experiencing crossing the canyon was rather enticing.

In order to beat any potential heat that would possibly occur, we were going to begin our run at 3:59:59 a.m.  If you know anything about me, you may know that hour of the day is not too long after I have usually gone to bed. I am, without a doubt, built to function in the evenings and nights. I am not a morning person. Five years of doing a paper route, six days a week in high school where I was up at 5 a.m. did absolutely nothing to change the circadian rhythms of my body.  It is what I am. When I was told we were getting up at 2:30 a.m. to get ready and make the relatively short drive from the hotel to the canyon, I was less than pleased. More so than just a preference, I absolutely believe this inability to function so early is something which has hindered me in a variety of adventures I have undertaken. That said, I was in bed, with the lights out, at 9 p.m. the night before which was a rather herculean task. I did what I could to be ready to take on the canyon.

Most of the logistics of the run we were undertaking I could not have provided to you beforehand.  It was not that I did not have Dean’s luxurious dossier to look at to do so. Rather, I was trying to remain as blissfully ignorant as possible.  This ignorance in no way led to me not being able to complete the run. In fact, I was about as prepared as I could hope to be.  I had run the Salt Flats 50 miler race just three weeks prior to get some miles (and more importantly, time on my feet) under my belt in preparation for this journey.  I felt quite ready even if until 48 hours prior I could not have told you which trail we were taking, which direction and what the route looked like. I can now, however and plan on doing so in great detail.

South Rim to Indian Garden Campground: (5 miles in 1:02)

Starting 37 seconds late (seriously, we were teasing Dean already about this) 7 guys headed down the pathways into darkness. While the order and packing of us runners would change throughout the day, we would essentially be broken into two groups: Dean, Kenneth, Drew and myself were in the first pack with Big Jeff, Little Jeff and Jim in a trailing pack not too far behind.  What made this trip so appealing to me was what can be a logistical nightmare for others.  Kenneth’s wife and his parents were going to meet us on the North Rim. Brooke was going to run back with Kenneth while his parents were going to provide the rest of us with support and any of the food and clothing we had left in their vehicle. This was no small feat or task as Kenneth’s parents dropped them off at the South Rim and then drove to the North many miles away (How Far? I will get to that later.)  The support and potentially "out" for those who weren’t having the day they hoped for was unbelievably appreciated. (This is what we in the writing business call “foreshadowing.”)

I would be remiss to not mention that I was the outsider amongst this rather tight-knit group of southerners
hailing from Columbia, South Carolina. Dean was originally from Connecticut and Little Jim from Upstate New York but they were all good friends in the Palmetto State. I was lucky to be included in their ranks and was happy, for the most part, to follow-along (except when it came to dinner. I just want food, damn it and now.). This made the fact that about five minutes into the run our making a wrong  turn that much more funny. It is fairly hard to make a wrong turn on the trails in the Grand Canyon but somehow we skipped off the path and onto some rocky outcropping.  Only when the “Hey, wait a minute.  This is nothing at all like last year!” light went off in some of their heads did we backtrack.  I told them I was counting this extra .25 of a mile on my entry into Strava. (I was, of course kidding.  Not about counting the mileage but about entering it into Strava. I have an account there and have about 200 friends but have never entered a workout.  Why anyone is following me is beyond me.)

The previous days rain had dampened the trail and laid waste to any dust which may have been kicking up.  With the temperature barely 40 degrees we were all beyond pleased with how the day was starting. Nevertheless, I was already sweating (natch).  In addition, barely two miles into the run I had already stopped to pee three times. I tried to use this as a reminder that I was going to need to hydrate but I was a little worried.  I have had similar experiences in ultras where the same set of circumstances has occurred (not thirsty and evacuating liquids constantly) and I knew it was not a good sign. I knew I could only take in so much liquid before it would slosh in my stomach. So, in order to combat this, I have to remember to sip small amounts but do so constantly.

We spent the first hour of the run galloping down the multiple switchbacks, dodging a puddle here and there. This was a quick descent with a lot of elevation lost in a short period of time. The trail often had logs underfoot, as these trails do, to provide stability and footing. On a descent like this, however, they force a runner to take choppy steps and this can add a little more pounding to the quads which you are definitely going to be using often.

The sun quickly began to brighten the darkness and 45 minutes unto the run most of the guys had turned off their headlamps. Me, not being as sure of my footing or the terrain kept mine on.  I somehow found myself at the front of the conga line and pranced down the steps.  Finding myself a little ahead of the group, I would stop here and there and let the spring recoil. I too eventually turned off my headlamp and the growing day revealed to me what I said didn’t exist: the canyon.

Superlatives are thrown around today like a rappers’ dollars at a strip club. But please believe me when I say this was absolutely breathtaking. More so because of the fact that I had never actually seen the canyon until I was here, deep down inside of her and enveloped in the splendid awe-inspiring wonder that was the crevasse. We had watched a relatively hokey IMAX movie about the Canyon the night before and made fun of the line about “fading into insignificance” delivered by Prospector Joe (or whatever the hell the one-armed narrator of the video was called) but it was certainly true. Dean, who will and does, talk to anyone, kept prodding me for a reaction.  My silence was half sleep-induced, half dumbstruck.


We sauntered into the first place to refills our water and packs. It was barely 50 degrees. The previous year it had been 20 degrees warmer at this point. Granted it had been nearly 45 minutes later (they had gotten a later start) but I was counting my blessings. That said, it took us an hour to go just 5 miles. Granted it was dark, we made a wrong turn, we took quick breaks for pictures or regroupings but I made the mental note that nothing was going to come easy on this day.

To Colorado River and Phantom Ranch (9.9 miles in 2:24)

When we began, I knew Phantom Ranch was the somewhat halfway point of the run.  At just about 10 miles, you had already crossed the Colorado River and skedaddled up the trail a piece beginning your ascent. But it was a good place to call halfway nonetheless. I had figured in my head we would get there around 100 minutes after we started, give our take. I could not see that was a misunderestimation even if we had not stopped to take a variety of pictures.  The pictures, however, were a necessity. The problem with trail running is, for the most part, the vistas and view trail runners like to say is the reason this running is the “best”, cannot be actually enjoyed while you are running. If you pay too much attention to your surroundings and not to your feet, you are bound to leave the latter and become part of the former. So, stopping to take pictures and simply be laid silent by your surroundings was a necessity. If it added some time to what I expected, so be it.

As we scampered deeper into the canyon, the sun began to fully illuminate all in front of us. However, because we were now close to the bottom, none of the sun was hitting us directly. It was truly the best of both worlds. Following Big Jeff and Drew, I scampered down the trail with Dean using his Go-Pro behind me. I was still waking up, still in deference to those who knew the way, and running in silence. The footing was impeccable, even in the slightly technical regions, regardless of the fact we had to occasionally dodge some burro droppings here or there. In the distance, echoing through the canyon walls I could hear the great cleaver of this canyon. The Colorado River, ravaged by the drought in this area, was still mighty and forceful. Long before I could see it I could hear it.  The anticipation was fantastic.

Turning one last corner in one last nook of the canyon and the muddy river lay ahead of us. The previous
year the river had been green and clear but with the previous days rain and slow, it was churning and sooty. I could have sat for hours watching it take away the earth chip by chip. But after a few pictures we were on our way.  In the distance we could see the narrow suspension bridge crossing the river. I had seen many pictures of this bridge but now I was finally going to cross it myself.  A surprise series of rolling hills here had us making our way to the bridge. I was hoping we would make it there under two hours (for no reason other than to say we had) but it took us about 2:05. Narrower than I thought, we waited a bit while hikers coming the other way filed across it in single file.  I am not quite sure why they would not have made the bridge just a little wider to avoid such congestion, but I guess I should be happy we had a bridge at all.

Once on the other side, we met a few more hikers and our first wildlife of the day. Deer, completely unmoved at our presence nibbled on barely budding bushes.What sustenance they could possibly get from these was beyond me. Then again, lots of people eat kale so who is the dumb animal here? *Rimshot* We chatted with a few people who were impressed we had made it this far this quickly and then trotted off.  Not long after we hit a bathroom and I, now at least mostly awake, had innards that followed suit. I needed to take five.

We filled our packs again, even though I hadn’t taken a sip from my Camelback marathoner pack and had probably only drank one full bottle of my handheld (a bad sign). I nibbled on some Shurky Jurky I had stowed away in my pack but felt neither hungry nor thirsty.  I took a couple of sips of ASEA and headed out after the guys, this time pulling up the caboose.

Our contingency soon found ourselves in Phantom Ranch where many were camping, getting ready for their hike to either side of whatever rim they were going to go or just milling around. We spent just a few seconds getting some group shots and then we took off. With a time of 2:24 minutes to get here, I re-evaluated how long it might take to do the whole run. I thought when we began I could run it in 10 hours.  I figured that 11 was probably more likely.

To Cottonwood (16.6 miles in 4:19:20)

I expected a much more abrupt uphill climb then this next section provided. We were beginning to pass hikers and other runners here and while I know we were going uphill, it felt good. Kenneth had now taken the lead and as he was expected to be the strongest runner, I thought I would stay with him for a bit. An untied shoelace, however, had me jumping in front.  I led for a mile or so, not realizing I was putting distance between myself and the others.  The last thing I wanted to do was have yet another long solo run in the wilderness, as I have on many occasions in actual races so I pulled over to the side. As Dean, Drew and Kenneth caught up, I fell to the middle of the pack.  Beside a glimpse here and there, this would be the last I would see of the Jeffs and Jim until the North Rim.

Dean and I began to run together and Drew and Kenneth pulled ahead. I expected this section alongside Bright Angel Creek to have far more uphill than it did. However, it was extremely runnable not only because of impeccable footing underneath but cool temperatures. Helping keep the temperatures low was the fact that there an intermittent cloud cover always seemed to pup up whenever we may possibly be heading into the sun. To state how unequivocally perfect this weather was for this time of year would not be using hyperbole. Unfortunately, I was beginning to feel that today might not be my day to take advantage of it.

My stomach did not feel quite right here and it was seeping forward into my head.  I began to think about how I didn’t really want to be out here for another six hours with a belly not feeling that great. I cannot say for certain that I did not feel wonderful because of the ridiculously early starting time (a necessity, don’t get me wrong) but there is no way it helped my situation. Here I was mostly chatting with Dean and getting immense personal satisfaction out of not only experiencing this amazing canyon but by hearing how happy Dean was that the weather was not like it was the previous year.  Dean had been forced to call it quits halfway across and one could tell it was going to take much more than just being a bit tired.

As we trudged forward, we could see Drew coming back into our sights. Kenneth, however, we would not see until much later. The three Ds would spend the remainder of the trip up the North Rim in somewhat tight-knit fashion with all three of us leading the pack at various points. We were a good team, feeding off of each other’s energy and when one person felt good, surging ahead to set the pace. At Cottonwood we rested, filled our packs and chatted with other runners. I sat at a picnic table and wondered where my day was going to end.

To Roaring Springs and the North Rim

I am combining the next two sections for a couple of reasons.  The last four miles or so are barely worth
recapping, at least from any sort of running perspective.  Except for a few short occasions when the trail flattened or I have an inexplicable burst of energy, this was nothing but a hike. From Cottonwood to the trial head the trail climbed over 4200 feet in less than 7 miles. Not only that, that 4200 feet of climb started at 4000 feet above sea level to begin with. In addition, somewhere in here my left quad really began to cramp. It wasn’t an injury.  It wasn’t the end of the world.  But with tons of climbing to go even after we finished the loop, I was pretty sure it was the end of my day.

My stomach had settled from earlier and that gave me pause as to calling it quits after just a Rim2Rim.  But I knew the last thing I wanted to do was get started again, get down into the canyon and have a leg which was not functioning.  I had thoroughly enjoyed the trip, with unbelievable visages. Good camaraderie and a general all-around good feeling.  I had nothing to prove to anyone with regards to making the complete return trip. Perhaps some miracle would make everything feel great near the end but barring that, I was done.
The final few miles sealed the deal for me.  Much more narrow and treacherous than the South Rim’s trail, the last thing I needed to do was worrying about cramping up as I (hopefully) traversed this downhill portion on the way back. My final hurrah or attempt at making it all work was as I approached the Supai Tunnel which according to varying reports is ~1.5 miles from the top. A park ranger asked me how I was doing and I asked him how far left I had to go.  He told me about a mile and a half and then added the dagger: “It is only about 16000 more feet of vertical change to get to the top.”  You might have been able to knock me over with a feather. 

So I pulled over to the side and waited. I could hear Dean and Drew below me chatting away. It wasn’t too long before they conquered the switchbacks betwixt us and we started once again to head to the top as a group. While not hot the temperature was indeed warm.  However, it would not be long before that would change. Whether there was simply a different weather pattern we were hiking into or the elevation topping out at nearly 8,300 feet but regardless the temperature plummeted.  Our feet occasionally hit snow.  The dirt trail underfoot became increasingly muddy and chopped with flecks of ice and snow.  Hikes coming back down toward us, including Kenneth and his wife Brooke, who would be doing a Rim2Rim on the “easier” portion, were all dressed far more warmly than I.  It was not that I wanted warmer clothing. At this point I was still sweating buckets. I realized since the peeing extravaganza at the beginning of the run, I hadn’t had the need to go once.  That wasn’t good.


Knowing that I was going to be cutting this trip short by one “2Rim”, I did my best to balance a bit of disappointment with the gorgeous views around me. Sure I wanted to make the trip back but for what? Pride? To impress people? I came to the realization it was none of those things but only rather because I said that was what I was going to do.  I like to do what I say I am going to do. I take great pride in the fact that people can trust me at my word. In fact, later, when I was sitting in our vehicle at the North Rim, waiting for the others to come in before Kenneth’s parents would start the long drive back to the South Rim, I waffled on my decision to stop about eleventy-billion times.  I knew then, like I have come to accept now, it was the right decision to stop. Sure, I would have loved to make it back under my own power.  The weather was ideal, I was here already, so why not go back? Well, because it wasn’t my day to go back.  Or at least it wasn’t my day to go back and enjoy much of it at all.

Instead, I turned into a good teammate. Little Jeff, who had originally planned to run Rim2Rim and myself joined the Ebeners on the drive back to the start.  The Rim2Rim run is roughly 23 miles or so.  As the crow flies it is 12 miles. Via car? 215.  On that trip back Little Jeff and I talked about our adventures along the trail and it was extremely neat to see how we had experienced such different things even being so close together. Taking the ridiculously long trek back via car allowed us to see some wonderful visages we would have otherwise missed. I began to regret my decision less and less.

Getting back, I was happy some of use would be in good shape to welcome the others. Jeff and I hiked down the Bright Angel Trail about a mile or so to see if we could find Drew and Dean. They had passed Brooke and Kenneth around the halfway point. Big Jeff and Jim, however, decided at the Colorado River to take the shorter but steeper route up the South Kaibab Trail.  When we finally saw the two Ds, we could tell Dean was not in a good place. Drew, however, was a rock star. I can’t imagine how tired he was but you could tell he had been lending support to Dean along the way.  I know I am not a good crew member. I am not the best at knowing exactly what to say when a runner is tired. I am usually the one on the receiving ends of both. So I did what I could to help the guys up the cliff face.

Finally, as they approached the top, I scampered ahead to grab a quick finish line photo. Seeing exhaustion go to delight was one of the best parts of the trip for me.  I did not get to see the others finish as I turned into Dane’s Taxiing service for the rest of the evening but Little Jeff and I were the first ones who did get to see Jim and Big Jeff after they finished their own trek. It felt it was pretty ballsy for them to take on the unknown after such a long day.  Nevertheless, they looked like they were simply tired.  Not exhausted, not destroyed as I am sure I would have looked. It was quite awe-inspiring.

Dinner was scattered amongst the group that night and it wasn’t really until the next morning that we reconvened. Taking in the North Rim with all of my new teammates and friends was fantastic to say the least. We made our way back to Phoenix via Sedona and enjoyed some lunch and more conversation there.

Later that evening and even today I wondered if I would ever come back.  I am sure it will happen at some point, maybe even sooner than I expect. However,  I do not feel the draw like I thought I would. I did not leave something uncompleted.  Rather, I changed my desire and am happy with that decision. My quads are a little sore and I have a few cuts from some sawtooth cactus but other than that I am no worse for the wear.  However, after 13 long years, I finally got to see the damn Grand Canyon. 

Not sure how I will top that.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Salt Flats 50 Mile Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 10th; 8th Edition 
125.3 miles run in 2015 races
Race: Salt Flats 50 Mile
Place: Salt Flats, UT
Miles from home: 730
Weather: 50s; overcast; windy

Running five races in twenty-seven days can be taxing enough. Having all five of those races be nowhere close to your home makes it a tad more difficult. Finishing with a challenging 50 miler? That's probably a bit dumb. Well, no not really dumb. Dumb is taking your health for granted or not trying to see what is possible. Or thinking vaccines cause autism. Or that there is no climate change. Or Ted Cruz has a shot at being President (There.I have probably alienated every sect and/or group by now. Still reading? Cool. Not the typical, smile-and-nod athlete with no opinions recap you are used to reading, huh?) But it wasn't exactly the best planning of the schedule.

We often neglect the wonders in our backyard in search of the awesome other out there somewhere. I touched on this on my recap of the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile run from two weeks ago. Four years of living in DC and I never once ran that iconic race. It took me moving across the country (twice, mind you) to somehow finally go back. The same happened with this past weekend running a the 50 mile race at the Salt Flats 100.

My first time ever encountering the Bonneville Salt Flats was in pitch black. I was driving across country and racing to get back to my final semester of law school before classes started. I zipped through all of Utah and slipped into Park City under the cover of darkness. Could not find a hotel. Didn't realize I had arrived during the Sundance Film Festival.  I somehow smooth-talked my way into a decent rate (it was 2 am after all) and crashed. A few hours later I caught a flick (Bob Hoskins in Where Eskimos Live- not a bad movie, actually) before heading out, never knowing I drove right past this geological wonder.  I once again went out the way of the flats with my car, fully intending to see how fast I could go on these roads but never worked up the courage. Last thing I needed was a broken car in the middle of the white desert.

So, after sending some time talking with the RD of the event, an affable and altogether pleasant chap named Vince Romney at the Endurance Expo Show in SLC earlier this year, I know my time had finally come to check out the area. With my upcoming running of the Grand Canyon in May, I knew I needed a training run of this length anyway. What better way to train for a 40-something miler than by doing a 50 miler? So I signed up for the race and promptly put it out of my mind.  I had four other races to run in the preceding four weeks.

However, I did not forget about the race completely. I just knew that there was not a great deal I could learn online. I could pepper the RD with questions about every inch of the course but really the only way to learn would be the run it. I felt I had done enough research going into the race to know what was in store for me.  I was incorrect.

My friend Shannon joined me on this trip and it was so cool to share this unique area with someone close to me. She was going to be trying for a 50 mile PR which in retrospect was a little silly. This is not an easy course. It is not the hardest course in the world but it is not one in which one should try to running their fastest. But I will get to that in a moment.

When I attempted my first 100 mile race, the Old Dominion 100 in 2007, I was upset at how little information was out there about ultras.  Even today, light years away from that time in internet days, ultras like to hold their secrets from the masses. Still thinking of themselves as pure (no sport is pure) ultra races and their participants enjoy sharing how awesome their events are with pictures of the terrain and their finishing medals but at the same time, like to keep much secret.  So, while I recap this race, I am also going to tell you, as much in detail as possible, about what the event itself is like.  Hopefully this will serve as a great "go-to guide" for how to run (or not run) the Salt Flats 50 mile. (We joked, when asking what hashtag we should use for pictures and posts and were told "#saltflast100" that only in this type of event could we be running 50 miles and refer to it as "only".)

To Aid Station 1 (Mile 10)
My time: 1:22:42 (8:16/mile)
My Place: 2nd

Credit: Lucid Images
Run straight. For 10 miles. It really doesn't get much simpler than this.  But in the simplicity there is a magic quality. This is the portion of the course where you are truly experiencing the Salt Flats.  Six feet deep, the salt deposit lying in front of you is ready to be tramped upon. The surreal nature of the landscape has been the setting for many movies where the mood needed to be, well, surreal.

Now, obviously, the weather can make any footing different on any type of surface and that is no different here. However, salt does not act like dust or dirt, for example. One rarely will have to worry about it blowing into your eyes. In fact, if the winds are strong enough to blow this salt into your eyes, you have other problems to worry about.

For our race day, the conditions were just about as ideal as possible. The first few miles had the salt nice and crunchy underfoot. If you are used to wearing gaiters (or something to keep dirt and such from going into your shoe) I would say go right ahead. If not, well, you are probably fine without it. I didn't wear anything and just had a little bit of salt going into my shoes in spite of how much got kicked up onto my legs.

There were three different terrains I remember running across during this section. One was the crunchy kind of salt you would expect. But unlike you would expect it was very sturdy, easy to run on, and did not slip out from underfoot. (Imagine crusty-East Coast-type snow. You know, the kind which lasts until like May and never fully goes away but clings to your rear bumper until it drops off while driving, nearly killing the people in the car behind you?)  The middle section, a tad more wet, stuck to your shoes a bit more and could possibly weight you down.  But this lasted no more than a mile and before long you were kicking all the excess off your shoes simply by running. The third and final section was an even drier portion, with less crunchy salt and more cracked surfaces you'd expect to see in dried lake beds (which is essentially what you are running on anyway!)

For my race, all I wanted to do was keep an nice even keel. I knew that I had a chance of placing high in the race but this was simply the training to get me ready for the Grand Canyon.  As I found myself in second place, this holding back strategy was harder and harder to keep in mind.  At one point there were four 100 mile runners in front of me and just one lone 50 miler. As we neared the first aid station, only one 100 miler and one 50 miler remained there as I had passed the others when they seemingly remember they were running 100 miles. But the two that remained were so far in front of me I could only wonder if they were uberhuman or going to crash and burn. Yards before the aid station (as I stopped to relieve myself for the fifth time, all while barely taking a sip of water) two hundred milers passed me.  One barely stopped at the aid station and the other lingered while I grabbed a glass of Mountain Dew. As he ate some food, I was off with barely 30 seconds of rest.



To Aid Station Two (mile 16) 
My time: 2:08:31 (8:02/mile)
My place: 2nd
 
Then first ten miles were marked by a slow haze of the sun, barely peeking out here and there. These next six were where that haze burned off and the day finally began. With the temperature barely breaking 60 degrees it was a fairly perfect day weather-wise at this point. That said, it was exceedingly humid for the desert. I found beads of sweat dripping form my hair down onto my Julbo Venturi sunglasses.

Throughout these first 16 miles, runners are essentially heading toward Floating Island in the middle of the flats. Actually, the island itself is in the middle of the mud flats, with the actual salt having finally burned off a few miles before. Nevertheless, in spite of this 16 plus mile run to the island (which is just a mountain peak that looks like an island due to optical illusions) you always feel like you are going to be there in just a few more minutes. But those minutes and many more pass and the land is seemingly no closer at all.

Here is where a runner must simply keep their eyes on the ground in front of them and follow the markers left out by the race organizers. With nothing to gauge your bearings it is amazing how un-straight of a line one can run. Plus it is a bit defeating to be running and have nothing get any closer to you in the distance. The random branch or debris you see seems so foreign. Those interruptions form the stark white are so few and far between that you can't depend on them to help gauge your pace. You must simply trust in your training.

This section might be the most flat-out runnable section of the entire course. In only a few places are you running over some softer mud or dirt and that is still rather hard-packed. In fact, this portion was so runnable I made it a point to tell Vince that the race needed to seriously consider running a 50k simultaneously as well. A simple out-and-back on this coolest portion of the race (no offense to later portions, and honestly, those later portions can suck it, as you will see) would easily bring another hundred runners out with virtually no change in logistics. I told Vince if he does that, he can expect me back next year to run it.

As these miles worn on, the three runners in front of me continued to put more and more distance between us. According to the time cards, that first 50 miler was 8 minutes ahead of me by the time I checked in at 16 miles.  At our current pace, he was a full mile ahead of me and I had picked up the pace in the last six miles. It was hear I reminded myself that I was using this as a training run. I might be in second place and sure my ego wanted to win but I needed to make sure to be smart. Crushing this course was not my goal. With me not having run over a 50k in 1.5 years, I knew completing the race was far more important that competing in it.

Ambling into another great aid station filled with warm, friendly and helpful volunteers, I asked for my Camelbak Marathoner pack to be dumped and refilled.  Something skunky was in the water and I wanted it to be fresh. After a brief two minute stay, I took off again. By now, I was virtually alone.

To Aid Station Three (mile 23)
My time: 3:07:35 (8:09/mile)
My place: 2nd 

Coming out of this aid station I could see one of the 100 milers in front of me named Steven. I couldn't believe how many of the guys running the 100 were going out at what seemed suicide pace. Perhaps they were just taking advantage of these flat miles and making hay while the sun shines. I neither regard, it was nice to kinda sorta see someone else.

This seven mile stretch was, again, extremely runnable. The footing was solid as you traversed the final bit of the mudflats. Then a quick right angle turn has you running on some well-packed jeep trail. This was a twisty-turny bit with a few gentle rolling hills and maybe even a bit dusty for the first time in the race.  In addition, the sun had now come out and was beginning to make things a little warmer. I was doing my best to take in salt tabs, eat little bits of Shurky Jurky and drink wholeheartedly from my pack. Nevertheless I could see the salt was forming on my upper shoulders. Whenever I sweat heavily in a race and become a bit dehydrated, this is the first place I see it. I am not exactly sure why but I do.

By now I had lost sight of the runner in front of me. I turned back and saw no one. Yet another race in many where my position often leaves me feeling like I am doing a solo training run. I lost myself in the moment and looked around a bit. It was rather gorgeous.. But, contrary to what many say, you can't take it in for too long. Uneven terrain will make a faceplant fool out of you soon if you don't watch where your feet are going.

The aid station appeared out of nowhere. I was so happy to see it and sit down.  I could tell I was going too fast and needed to slow.

To Aid Station Four (mile 32.5)
My time:4:46:46 (8:49/mile)
My place: Tied for 2nd

When they volunteers told me the 50 mile leader was a good 15 minutes in front of me, I decided to no longer attempt to track him down. There was no point. Not that I couldn't catch him (maybe I couldn't)  but rather because pushing myself when I was not trained to do so was idiotic. So, instead I sat and cooled my heels a bit. I kept waiting and waiting for some other runner to come in to keep my company or at least to chase. When none arrived I realized I needed to get going. Getting up finally after about nine minutes of sitting, my legs were a little shaky. I deiced to walk for about a mile and get things going.

As I was walking, finally, another runner passed me. I let him get a little ways in front of me and then eased back into my own pace. I wanted to stay more conservative on this nearly-10 mile leg. I knew that soon after this leg ended the climbs of the race would begin. This section was another series of rolling hills, a little bigger and longer than the last section. I used some of the uphill portions for small walk breaks to take in as much water as I could. I spent the next few miles playing cat and mouse with the runner in front of me, not wanting to pass him.  Eventually I did and could see the next aid station in the distance.

In hindsight, this makes me laugh because even though I could see the aid station, it was at least another 30 minutes of running away. I also could tell that in spite of my best efforts to stay hydrated, something was amiss. The ridiculously frequent bathroom breaks in the first 10 miles should have told me something but if not, the ever-increasing salt on my shirt was the telltale sign.  With about a mile to go before the aid station, in a walk-break, the runner behind me leapt in front again. I followed him into the aid station and collapsed in a chair. I looked at my shirt and realized I might be done for the day. Although, I do see a horsehead over troubled waters. What do you see?

To Aid Station Five (Mile 39.3)
My time: 6:49:15 (10:24/mile)
My place: 9th

I sat in the chair here at this aid station for over 25 minutes. I was drinking and eating and debating. If I pulled out here my day would still be a nice long training run. But then I would have to somehow get a ride back to the start. By the time any vehicle came out here to do that I could be a few miles of walking down the road, even if I went the slow route.

So after a change of clothes I finally got my butt out of the chair. Seven other people had come and gone while I sat there. Oh well. I was moving forward. In fact, earlier in the race I was curious if I would even get this far. Right after the first aid station at mile 10 and then again around mile 18 I had experienced some uneasiness in my groin.  When it went down to my knee I was more than a bit concerned. I promised myself if it hit my Achilles or ankle I was done.  It hadn't and in fact had disappeared altogether. At this point that seemed so long ago as to be in a different race.

The next portion would consist of the hardest portion of the course for the 50 milers. For about two miles you would climb a large but not ridiculous mountain.  What made it very tough, however, was the footing. A mixture of some technical but mostly sand underfooting made me want to scream. I hate running in sand and was not prepared for this type of running, especially after I was so close to deciding to DNF.  Yet now that I had made the move forward, I wasn't going to turn back. From the minute I left the chair to when I finally crested the mountain, I ran not one step. Even if I had the energy I don't think I would have run or could have run very much. Some of the ruts were so deep a small child could have easily been lost in one. Heck a large child. Or a medium sized human.


After finally cresting the mountain I was looking forward to running down the other side. Unfortunately, the same sand and technical footing was on this side, too. If my energy and bearings had been a little better I am sure this would not have been as treacherous. But as it were, I was becoming very wary of my balance and footing. Last thing I wanted to do was take a tumble in an effort to run a few minutes faster and finish 9th overall and not 10th.  Regardless, even in my conservative approach, I had to stop a few times on the downhill to walk out a side stitch. That was a tad demoralizing.

We finally popped out onto a road and I expected it to be a short jaunt to the next uphill climb.  From my memory, the elevation chart showed we ran for just a bit and then began cresting another big mountain.  Unfortunately, my memory was not too good at this point.

I pulled over to the side of the road to shake out the sand and rocks from my shoes. In reality, it was an excuse to sit down. One runner passed me and asked me if I was OK. I gave him the thumbs-up signal.

After fixing my shoes and socks I began moving again. I could see the runner up in front of me and saw the road continue to snake up ahead.  Realizing we must have ways to go on this road actually rejuvenated me. I began to pick up the pace and run actually miles again. The road here was extremely runnable if a tad bit dusty. Fortunately, at this point, not many of the crews for people running the 100 miler were barreling down it kicking up the dirt. Later, I would hear it would get a little cloudy out there.When you are running at elevation and in the latter miles of a race, the last thing you want is dirty air.

I finally saw the aid station ahead and what I thought was the trailhead for us to begin our next climb.  I pulled in and while I did not collapse like I did at the last aid station, was happy to cop a squat for a bit.

To Aid Station Six (Mile 45)
My time: 8:24:42 (11:12/mile)
My place: 10th

I again pounded some Mountain Dew, Shurky Jurky and ASEA at the aid station.  I could tell I wanted solid food but chewing was an exercise in exercise I did not wish to do.  But after only about nine minutes I was ready to go again. I was ready to get these last ten miles done and call it a day. In spite of a rather terrible day I saw I could still finish right around 8:30. Not great but not bad.

As I ran along the road, a little more dusty now and with a few more cars, I kept wondering where in the heck we would climb the next mountain. As I pondered this, a large truck with a trailer appeared in front of me.  He didn't look like he was going to get over and with a very small shoulder on my side I decided in the preservation of my own body I would simply run to the other side.  He passed in a hail of dust and I turned my head the other way and ran that way for about 10-15 seconds.

Now if I was just telling this portion of the story I could go into great detail of what happened next. Let's suffice it to say I ran the wrong way.  You see, right when I crossed over to the other side of the road and turned my head was the exact moment when the truck passed between me and the road telling runners to turn left and start heading over the mountain. When I eventually realized my mistake and doubled back I could see the large marking.  The organizers had done a very good job of pointing it out. In fact, if I had noticed when I missed the turn that the small pin flags were green only (100 milers) and no longer doubled with the blue (50 milers) I could have reversed curse after 100 yards. But I didn't. So, if I can tell you how to specifically run this portion of the course my number one advice tidbit would be "Don't miss the turn."

After the race, piecing together where I finally turned around, the RD figured I ran an extra five miles (2.5 out and back.)  I was cursing myself for missing this turn and realizing I added an hour to my day, but right now, during the race, I simply had to get to the top of the next hill. In hindsight, in and out itself, the climb was not that high.  But again, it was a sandy mixture that made running it rather impossible. So I resigned myself again to simply walking. And swearing. Out loud. A lot. I was rather defeated at this point knowing how much more mileage I had done than necessary.

I pushed forward and finally crested the last hill of the day. I took solace in the fact that no one from behind had caught or passed me.  They too wanted none of this mountain. When I took in the view below, for a second, forgetting the Salt Flats were in front of me, I thought it had somehow snowed on the other side of the valley.

Fortunately, I was able to run fairly well down the other side of the mountain. The sand was not as slippery and the route not as technical as before. When we cleared the view of one of the mountains blocking the way you could actually see the finishline some six odd miles away.  To my right I could see my hotel about 5 miles away. I began wondering if I should just run to the hotel.

The course as this point took a turn off of the actual road we were blessed to finally be running on (I know my trailrunning friends probably blistered at the idea of pavement like possessed children to holy water) and started to go away from the finish. NO!  Not AWAY!

We hit a salty parched patch and it just broke me. I began walking. It was flat and very runnable but I could see the aid station ahead that would signify five miles to go and knew I should be done. Suddenly two runners passed me who had been in front of me.  My quizzical look made them both say: "We got lost."

"You, too, huh?" We nodded in shame, disbelief, slight anger and weariness.


To Finish

As you approached the aid station you actually had to walk like 20 feet in the wrong direction. Then, once done, you headed back on the course. I asked them why they did this and the volunteer said it was placed by the sign for the hundred milers. I pointed out the 100 milers had to also go go the direction we were going and it was cruel and unusual punishment to make us 50 milers walk an extra 60 feet total. I was mostly kidding but it still didn't make any damn sense. I wanted to see if he would just pick up the table and move it but I knew if I sat down I was not getting up again.

These final five miles leave little to tell. You are once again on the salt flats heading toward the back end of where you started. It is flat as a board. It is runnable. Yet this portion can be quite taxing as it appears you are not going anywhere. For me, it was a place where my body was finally refusing to work with me. I was dying of thirst but every drink sloshed in my belly.  My stomach revolted with some dry heaves. I was worried until I realized I had very little in my body to throw up.

The organizers very nicely put out mile markers for the last four miles. This added touch here helped s muchs so much I cannot even begin to tell you.  Even though you could see the damn things for about half of a mile it at least gave you some perspective in this perspective-less landscape.

As I finally had a goal that I could see, I began running. In fact I passed one of the runners who had passed me earlier, in spite of my desire for him to run alongside me. I was catching up to the overall female leader who I had talked to briefly a few miles back. She walked beside me for a bit there and we lamented taking wrong turns. When I told her she was still the female leader a fire lit under her. She quickly put half a mile between us. The fact I had finally closed that gap meant I too was ready to be done.

Ideally, I would have liked the three of us wrong-turners to have finished hand-in-hand.  Unfortunately, I was too fast for the guy behind me and the gap too big for me to catch the female in front of me for this wonderful picture opportunity. Instead, I finished about a minute behind Erin and five minutes in front of Mark. Their presence in those last five miles meant so much to me.


In either regard, I finished 7th place overall in a brand new personal worst of 9:26:34. But I finished in a rather healthful manner. I didn't have to push through broken bones and felt no need to test the limits of my kidneys or anything else particularly stupid. Furthermore, when you have a bad day, it is fantastic to be able to come back and see your friend have a great day.

Shannon, in spite of hating the sand as much as I did and dealing with lots of rain and wind (we all got it somewhere- it just depends on the severity and location) set a huge new personal best. Bad days are made quite OK when your friends have good ones. Some of those friends were people I had just met that day as well. Seeing people finish their first ultra or cheering on grizzled vets of makes for one damn fine day in one damn unique portion of the world.

I would highly recommend this race for those looking into running an ultra, especially if I can convince Vince to add the 50k.  It is challenging for sure, but hopefully this recap will help you prepare for it a little better than I was. The volunteers and aid stations were beyond friendly and well-stocked.  The cutoffs for the race are rather generous. The scenery is second to none and the feeling of elation when you finally wash all that salt off your body is pretty nice indeed.

Plus, if you are lucky, your body will decided to act like you tasered it without actually needing to taser it!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Camelbak Powderbak review

I am trying to fit a lifetime of running into a short period of time.

Starting running later in life, I am happy to not be burnt out or possibly suffering from an overuse injury by the time I was 30. However, it leaves me wishing I could do more, see more, and run more as soon as possible. That is why I cram in lots of cool races in a short span of time, even though I know it won't produce the best results possible. (See Cooper River Bridge Run, Around the Bay Race, Crescent City Classic and Cherry Blossom Ten Mile)  But thems the breaks.

Similarly, I would love to product test all the products in the world but my running still is, for me, a means to produce the best race results possible. I can't do that while simultaneously trying out every new product under the sun (be it supplement, shoe or what have you.) That said, if I can fit some products in without being too obstrusive to my schedule, I am glad to do so. That's why last summer, even when the heat was high and not really conducive to what the product was meant to convey, I tried out the Camelbak Powderbak.  I wore it a few times and was quite pleased.  But I wanted to wait until winter to give a full test since that was what the product was designed to be used.

Then Portland never had winter. Hell, we barely had a chilly fall. As such, I never really got an opportunity to put it to the full test. Then I realized using a product for its not-intended purpose is the perfect way to give something a proper test. If it performs where it shouldn't, it most assuredly will do much better where it should.  (As always, in the interest of disclosure, I am a Camelbak sponsored athlete.  However, nothing I get from Camelbak is predicated on me reviewing it, positively or negatively. So take what you read, as all things, on a "This was his opinion. Let me try it out for myself" line of thought.)

At 6'1'' 180+ pounds, many things don't fit me that well. I am not a huge guy but bigger than many, especially runners my speed. In addition, I have a long torso, so many products just don't fit me well. I live with it and move on.  The Powderbak, however, seemed just long enough to feel nice and snug.  That snugness is on purpose, as well, considering the product is meant to work as a compression-type shirt. Hugging close to your body, it uses your body heat to keep your drink from freezing. Again, I never got to test how effective that was during SunFest 2015. However, the insulated pack and hose kept my drink cold even in the warm temps so I think that is a good sign.

The reservoir is completely removable from the back pouch for easy filling and cleaning of both the reservoir and vest. The pouch gives you a little bit of a hunch, especially if you are wearing it as a baselayer with other clothing on top of it. But who cares? Are you out there for a fashion show or do you want a product which works as it is intended.

I was told this was not the best-selling product they had and I am not exactly sure why. The full-zip vest is made from a very thin and breathable polyester/spandex mix. It has a shorter bladder hose which I wish was in more of the packs I have. It's wicking, quick drying and is the perfect definition of "wearable hydration."  Was it tighter on my body than expected? Well, yes because I had nothing to go by in forming that opinion. Plus on my initial test runs I wore it over my Skins compression top in order to try and see how uncomfy it would be.  (Look at me sacrificing for you. I should win a Nobel.)

All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by the Powderbak.  Looking at cons sections I saw some say it sized a little small or that it could do with a small zippered pouch. I think a small pocket on the vest couldn't hurt too much but it is not a make or break type of thing. It is not supposed to be the outermost layer you are wearing, or if that, the only one. Pockets should come in some other form, for the most part.

In reading other reviews I found some runners wearing this in California in the heat and they experienced the same problems I did with finding cold weather to test it out in. Like me, they also were surprised to see how well it kept their drinks cold in the insulated pouch and tube.

Retailing for an even $100 (and I am sure you can find it cheaper online) this is a tidy little product. I think you would like it.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run (sorta)

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 10th; 7th Edition 
75.3 miles run in 2015 races
Race: Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run (sorta)
Place: Washington, DC
Miles from home: 2798
Weather: 40s; Sunny


Concluding a whirlwind tour of four absolute must-do races in 15 days, found me in my old home of Washington, D.C. this past weekend. We often overlook the most wonderful things under our noses in search of the fantastic elsewhere. The Cherry Blossom Ten Mile definitely fits that bill. To my credit, I did know the race was wonderful when I lived here. I just never made the time to run it. However, with a new book in the works talking about cool races, I knew I finally had to run this iconic race.

I spent the previous days before the race speaking at the expo with noted running legends Bill Rodgers, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Jen Rhines and others. This is the second time in two weeks I got to see my friend Bill but unfortunately we couldn't carve out time for a run together as we have on other occasions. Would have loved to have taken him to some of my old running haunts here in DC if we could have, not unlike when he visited Portland a few years ago. We did get to share a book signing/autograph session, which was quite fun. I hope the 3 or 4 fans I had did not deter the This is Sparta!-esque legion he had waiting for him.

The weather forecast promised to be absolutely perfect and it did not disappoint. I was staying a few metro stops away from the start of the race and very boldly attempted to use this system to get to the start. I say bold because I probably rode the metro ten times in the four years of DC living. Fortunately, my metro adventure worked out just about perfectly for me as I got to the starting area about 7 minutes before the start. Unfortunately, I had very little time to locate the bathrooms. I also assumed the lines would be beyond long to get in them once I located their whereabouts.  However, as I was thinking about potentially violating 14 DC laws to find a bush and TCB, I happened across a bank of porta-potties which were essentially unmanned. In I went and with 3 minutes to spare was in my starting corral.

Mere seconds before the race started, the organizers announced that just minutes before, an accident involving a pedestrian and a motorcycle occurred on the course.  Because of this, the race needed to be re-routed.  It appeared the course would fall .25-.5 of a mile short of the intended distance.  My two emotions were as such:
1. Well, there goes my attempt at running my first ten mile race ever.
2. Holy mackerel, that is absolutely amazing that with mere minutes to go before the start, the organizers were able to make use of what had to be a contingency plan they probably hoped to never use.

So while the wind was sucked out of my sails a little bit, I was still in awe of the race organization. For a race just shy of 18,000 finishers, THIS is the sort of thing that makes a race a must-do. Forget the bling and the bands. If you know anything about racing, you want people running it who pay attention to the things which matter.

First 10k:

Even with two 10Ks and a 30K prior to this weekend under my belt since April 4th, I was still feeling rather fresh. In fact, I was feeling oodles better than I was in New Orleans last week when I ran a personal worst in the 10k at the Crescent City Classic. I knew the culprit (cat allergies from staying with a friend in Canada) but was unwilling to believe that something so "innocuous" could destroy my lungs so much. Runners, especially those who go pretty far, like to believe in their invincibility. Which is funny because when weather or the course or anything else isn't ideal, we can often become whiny babies. So, while I was feeling better, I knew I wouldn't be running anywhere close to my potential. In addition, while running a 9.5 mile race is just as arbitrary as running a 10 miler, I could tell my heart wouldn't be in this very much. So instead of "racing", I decided to simply enjoy as much as the race as I could, while still putting in a hard effort.

As we ran down the first stretch of road, I pulled to the side a bit. I really don't like to have people around me when I am racing. There is something about wanting my own personal space which is paramount to me. I would probably have been terrible in track meets with more than a few runners. So even in crowded races I find my way to the areas where people are not most of the time.

Once over out of the crowd and after a guy inexplicably decided that he needed to run around me and then immediately cut in front of me (getting a "OK come on." from me) I noticed another runner also seemed to enjoy getting out of the crowd at the start as well. Then I noticed that other runner was Joan Benoit Samuelson. We chatted oh so briefly and then, after running a 6:10 first mile and realizing I didn't wan to run that fast today, I bid her adieu. She ran, at age 57, a fantastic time of 58:56. Dang.

The unaltered portion of the course took us down Independence Ave with the Washington Monument in the background.  After that we passed over the Memorial Bridge toward Arlington Memorial Cemetery. Before even getting two miles into the race, watching the leaders already a full minute or more in front of you can be both awe-inspiring and disheartening at the same time. I went with the former so my ego didn't take too big of a hit. Heading back toward the Lincoln Memorial, massive hordes of people filled the other lanes on the opposite direction. They were just where I had been. I hoped someone was silently cursing me for being so far ahead of them.

Down Rock Creek Parkway and under the Kennedy Center we went.  This overhang for the Center has always struck me as an odd addition limiting any truck of any large size. Perhaps that was the purpose. But it seems to be superficial, overwrought and gets far more attention than it deserves. Hey, just like JFK himself! (These are the things I think about while running.) Pondering this overhand kept my mind off the 180 degree turn we had to make a few hundred yards later. I don't really mind these turns much when I am not too crowded. But in big races, too many people don't seem to understand physics and the two objects can't occupy the same space at the same time theory. That said, going through the 5k in a sub-20 made me feel a little better.

Another 180 degree turn after mile 4 meant we were now going into the area where the course was slightly changed. To be honest, I will have to look up someone else who used their Timex GPS to see where we went because I never turned my on. In fact, I rarely do in races. I am not exactly sure why. I guess I just want to go by feel and run without being hooked up to whatever crutch is out there. It makes me feel more in tune with a race.

Before I knew it, we had run around the Tidal Basin and up the smallest of hills.  I remember this bridge from the 3k I had run on two different occasions when I lived in DC. Memories. Then the mile 6 mile marker appeared and I realized that even accounting for what ever additional mileage which would be added on, my 10k would be faster than both my Crescent City Classic and Cooper River Bridge Run 10ks by over a minute. Crescent City I can blame on cats. Cooper River had me slowed by the bridge and knowing I was running a 30K the next day.  But to best both those times barely halfway through a race shows how odd this sport can be.  It is a fickle mistress, running.

Final 4-ish miles

I knew three of the final four miles were on Hains Point.  I have a love/hate relationship with Hains Point which started when I first began running the Marine Corps Marathon. It is lonesome and fairly exposed to the elements.  In addition mthis portion was always the point where I would begin to tire in the MCM.  But I loved how it had the Awakening statue at its furthest point. That is, of course, until DC moved the statue.  When it was happening I tried to be civic-minded and express my distaste for this. I went as far as to look up the info on the creator and see that he actually had final say on where and when the statue could be moved.  All he had to say was "nay" and it stayed put. Even though I had moved from DC when it was to be moved, I felt a connection to the statue.  Often it was the only thing getting me through this part of the race.

So I wrote to the creator, his agent or publicist and told them how much  I loved where it was.  No answer. Then it was moved.  Bollocks. So now I had no Awakening to look forward to and I was actually dreading this portion of the run.  However, then came the Cherry Blossoms.

Wow.

To say this changed not on my perspective on this portion of DC, let alone solidified my thoughts that this is a
must-run race, would be an understatement.  For the most part, I do not not care one bit about the scenery of a race. If I am racing hard, I care about where the runners are and where me feet are landing.  The rest of everything is, at most, something I notice for a second.  But as you run down a corridor of cascading petals from hundreds of cherry blossom trees, it felt like a dream. Or the movie Legend.

Here I would have loved to have been racing. I would have loved to be pushing hard.  You see, in a race of this relatively short distance, you should be relatively uncomfortable to mildly uncomfortable and then really uncomfortable at the finish.  The problem with running so many longer distances races it is that it is almost impossible to convince my mind that it is OK to hurt for 30 minutes or so as I will soon be done.  My body puts a governor on pain and says "Nope. We can't do this for 3 hours." The hardest part for me in a race that is shorter distance, other than the complete lack of fast twitch muscle fibers, is overcoming that governor. Fortunately, because I was not racing per se, I afforded myself the opportunity to fully embrace this 5k of beautiful running.  It truly was soft and serene, with sun flitting in and out through the branches, and a slight breeze moving he fallen petals at our feet.  I was almost sad to see it end and take us into the last mile.

But I was ready to be done. I saw if I ran a faster than what I had averaged last mile I could end up with a time of 1:01:xx.  But I saw no real point. I had no idea what the real distance was and whatever it was, it was not the time I would want as my first ten miler. Instead, I waved, high-fived little kids and the enormous headed Presidential mascot of, I think, Thomas Jefferson.

Another really cool aspect that I don't recall in any other race I have run was that in the last mile there was a 1200 meters to go sign, an 800 meters to go and then 400 meters. I am not sure how much that would help many runners who seem to avoid any sort of track workouts at all but I thought it was a fantastic touch.

A slightly cruel but hardly substantial hill with about a quarter of a mile ago loomed in front of us.  I passed more than a few people here and stretched the legs out a bit.  Even when you are supposedly taking it easy, there is something about seeing the finish line that makes you pick up your heels and get your ass going. It was too late for a 1:01 but I was glad to finish in 1:02:12.  This gave me 439th place overall.  But more importantly, of the four Danes in the race, I was tops.  My streak of being undefeated against guys named Dane is still alive.

And that's really what matters.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Crescent City Classic 10k Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 10th; 6th Edition 
75.3 miles run in 2015 races
Race: Crescent City Classic 10k
Place: New Orleans, LA
Miles from home: 2507
Weather: 60s; Chilly; Windy

Three races in 8 days with thousands of miles flying in between is tough. I have done it before.  Many have done it before. Doesn't make it any easier. What makes it hard is when you have ridiculous airline snafus which cause major delays. I could go on and on moaning about these atrocities but we all know the saga. Instead I would rather talk about an event and the wonderful people I met during it.

For starters, I ran my slowest 10k time ever. In fact, it was almost the exact 10k time that I ran in the first 10k of the Around the Bay 30k last weekend. There are a multitude of reasons why it was so slow. Some I know, some are unknown. I do know my lungs are still messed up from allergies last weekend but I thought a few days away from that would make everything better.  I have learned, however, that I need to take better care of these lungs.

While there was a two day expo, I essentially only met people for one day. The airline snafus kept me from being fully engaged on Day One. However, I did get to meet an varied assortment of people by the end of the two days. Speaking at the expo allows me to tell my story and let others tell me theirs. Sure I get many of the same variances of people getting their life on track but it never gets old to hear so many are doing so. Often, I am blown away by the stories of self-improvement.

I often balk at the idea of mentioning some people by name because I am not sure if they wish for their stories to be shared.  Plus, I could list dozens of people who would just blow you away and still neglect to list dozens more. However, one group of runners names Team ASAP out of Lake Charles, LA deserve mention. Just a fantastic group of guys and gals who I had the pleasure to run into on multiple occasions over the weekend. This is a shout out to them in hopes that they continue to ignore their own impossible. Plus they dress really snazzy.

Weather-wise one could not ask for a better day in New Orleans in April.  It was in the low 60s with a chilly wind.  I guess one could ask to not have wind blowing them around but with low humidity, cloud cover and good temperature, it was hard to beat.

I lined up way further back than my bib allowed me to do so because I didn't think I would be all that far back form the start. I was wrong.  It also didn't really matter.  When the countdown hit zero and we shot out of the gate, I realized within half of a mile, this was going to be a slow day.  I had hoped for a nice 38 minute 10k on this super flat of courses but when the first mile felt like a 5:55 but was a 6:27 I realized nothing good was going to come out of my legs on this day.

As we left the central business district of New Orleans and ventured into the French Quarter, I hoped perhaps the first mile marker was off.  Plus, I got out of the pack a little bit and was passing people left and right. Assuredly this mile would be extremely fast and prove me wrong about the dead feeling in my legs.  However, as we turned off of the well-known bead-laden streets of Mardi Gras Town and ventured under the Spanish moss covered trees, the second mile revealed to me I was indeed going quite slow.

I now had a dilemma. What to do with a race that is basically over just two miles in. Do I struggle through and try to run a still-slow time? Do I full engage in the revelry that is the Crescent City Classic with its costume-wearers and beer drinkers?  Or something in between.  As I continued this debate, a couple of things entered my mind.

First, I came upon a woman with a completely hairless head. Obviously someone who had recently undergone chemotherapy or was still going through it, she was cooking along. Her spirit and verve absolutely made me feel horrible for giving anything other than my best.  I knew I could not jerk around and play fun on this race course.  Even if my time ended up being horrific I had to give what I had on this day.

That's my arm behind bright green shirt guy.
Second, as I really began to contemplate jogging it in, I heard the pitter patter of little feet. I looked beside me and saw a shirtless young fella, who looked like he weighed about 50 pounds if lucky. I had seen him near the start of the race and actually fell behind him right at the gun. At the time I figured he was just running near the front to feel good about himself.  But here he was.  For the next mile I watched him carefully try to pick his way through people.  Most were polite or cheered him on but only after they passed him.  Until that point, no one would really hear or see him.

Finally, right around the 4th mile, I slid up next to him and asked him if he wanted a little help getting through the crowds. I don't think he knew exactly what I meant but I basically told him to tuck in behind me.  as I made moves and passed people here and there, this tiny charger stayed right on my heels.

For my ego's sake I would like to say I slowed down to run as a fullback for Little Stone Smith (I would later learn his name) but he was simply running as fast as I was on this day.  For the next two miles, Stone and I began to cut a swath through runners. I kept imagining I would either have to slow down for him or maybe I was running him ragged. But with every step I took, he was right there. It is fun to be both physically exhausted and mentally blown away by the skills of someone else.  This little runner made me think back to the article I wrote about what is the appropriate age for a person to start running.

Unskinny Bop
As we neared the finish, I told Stone the race was all his.  We separated as the lane got a little wider and the runners got a little thinner.  Ironically, we passed one of my new buddies from Team Asap.  Nice mesh, Geoff!

The only thing pleasing about my 41:14 10K time was it was a palindrome. Without a doubt we should be happy for every opportunity we have to move forward by our own power.  However, we can still be disappointed when things do not go right.  Being glad and wanting more are not mutually exclusive.  For me, chances are I didn't help young Stone one bit.  Yet, while I am sure he gets plenty of support from home, I hope he also found a stranger helping him out as well, as something to remember.  His awesome effort, breeze of motion and seeming love for the sport stuck with me.

My best friend Shannon accompanied me on this trip and she too went through the same travel exhaustion.  She didn't run a personal best on the course but she too had a good experience. Was cool to see the French Quarter with someone who had been there before. My contact for most of the weekend Gini Davis, not only worked the race and expo tirelessly but also ran a 57:54 10k.  she is also 70 years old.  So on one end of the spectrum we have Stone. On the other we have youthful people who just happen to have circled the sun a few more times than most of us.


This was the third race which I declare is an absolute must-run for any runner out there.  Like the Cooper River Bridge Run I ran last weekend, you might not run our fastest time here (although it is absolutely flat so if you can avoid the crowds it is possible) but the experience itself is absolutely worth it. The warmness of the people and the spirit of one of america's great cities should be experienced on foot the day before Easter.

Take some time and go run the Big Easy, everyone.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Around the Bay 30k Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 10th; 5th Edition 
69.1 miles run in 2015 races
Race: Around the Bay 30k
Place: Hamilton, ON
Miles from home: 2582
Weather: 20-30s; Sunny; Windy


Some races I study meticulously and some I barely look at prior to turning them.  The latter usually only happens when I have no particular time goal or when I just happen to be a tad too busy to put forth the energy.  And I was most assuredly busy the days leading up to the Around the Bay 30k.  A hectic travel and work schedule (including a 12 hour expo book signing before the Cooper River Bridge Run on the day before this race) left me with little time to delve into the minutia of this particular race. The CRBR had left me uncharacteristically wrecked in my legs.  While the race was tough, it was merely 6.2 miles. I also hadn’t run anywhere close to hard enough to warrant this soreness I felt in my quads. But nonetheless on the plane ride to Buffalo, NY, my quads were destroyed. 

Fortunately for me, a great deal of the race morning planning was being handled for me.  I was the guest of Kris Graci, one of the 17 women featured in my book, Running With TheGirls. Suffice it to say that you should get the book if only to read about her incredible story. But for me, it meant that I didn’t have to find where the race was, find parking or everything else one has to do on race morning. This was the exact opposite of the day before in Charleston, SC for the CRBR. That had been a fiasco of parking, shuttles, running back to my car and getting back to the hotel so I could fly out.

Unfortunately for me, I neglected to remember (or ask, I forget which) whether Kris had any pets.  She had three very friendly cats in her lovely home.  The problem is, allergies do not care about the disposition of that to which you are allergic.  I found out I had no medicine to treat myself either and given the late nature of my arrival had no way to get any from any store. Hopefully, I would not be too affected before the race.
Morning of:

Kris and her boyfriend Manfred, an Austrian by birth who has been in Canada most his life, took me to the start of the race. Kris was also running the race, as was a litany of her friends. We joined some 11,000 of our closest friends in the FirstOntario Centre where they play hockey (natch) and hold other events.  This would serve as the holding ground for us before the race as well as the finish line afterward.  It was going to be a chilly day for sure which the temperature hovering right around 25 degrees (or -4 Celsius for my Canadian friends. Side note: I absolutely love Canada.  I think it was just a marvelous place and have never come back from a trip there unsatisfied. I would love to spend a month there learning and living with the people and seeing how we, separated by the thinnest of borders, and looking so much alike, are so very different. But I digress.) 

I met Kris’ friends and watched all the others milling around dressed like they were Floridians dealing with 60 degree mornings.  Why were they wearing so many layers?  This is Canada!  I was wearing a simple pair of Skins shorts and a short-sleeve Skins top.  I had a Craft long sleeve half-zip on that I fully intended to throw off right before the start. However, I assumed the Canadians knew more than me about their own weather and looking around at all the heavily-clad runners decided I should keep it on. This later revealed to be a painful mistake.

Corrals were loaded with people by their estimated time, snaking around the block.  By the time I got to my intended area, the race was just some three minutes from starting. I had been given an unseeded corral bib which I intended to honor until I saw the thousands of people in front of me in that corral. So, I did what I normally detest of others and move as far ahead as possible in the corral after everyone else was in place.  I found the pace group for the time I was quite sure I would have no problem running and filed in about 20 meters behind them. I looked back at all the people I had passed, and most of those still in front of me, and knew I was still far too back. Runners may be the biggest hypochondriacs out there outwardly to the world (“Oh, I am so sick and this is so sore and I am so out of shape!”) but they seem to be irrationally confident when it comes to correctly placing themselves in race corrals. I definitely was not in the wrong place. 
Surrounded by all these bodies, even with the chilly air, I could tell I was dressed way too warmly.  Alas.
At the precise time when the race was supposed to start, the gun was fired. Go Canada!

 First 5k: 20:38

I realized quickly there would be no mile markers for this race, only kilometer. Not to tax my brain too much I decided to only keep track of my 5k splits.  That was something I could do math around to see I was on target. As these first three miles took us out from the stadium, through the slightly rundown neighborhoods surround it ad out onto a four lane highway, I was feeling very good.  My first kilometer was in 4:04 which meant as much to me as a trombone playing a sandwich does to rhino astronauts. But then I did the math to equal five of those kilometers and I thought:  “Hey, not bad.”

The next km was even faster and I was feeling good. I was also feeling hot.  I had already rolled the sleeves up of the long sleeve shirt. A kilometer later I undid the zipper.  Now, as half zips are wont to do, one of the lapels was rhythmically slapping me in the chin and neck. So I took the collar and tucked it inward.

Kris had advised me the first few miles had a series of overpasses to go over.  As I did no reconnaissance on the race, I was hoping she remembered correctly and there were only three. The bright sunshine lit our path as the empty streets and backyards of Hamilton, ON industry were our only spectators. Occasionally a few people would dot a bridge we ran under but we were out here on our own. The first 5k went by much faster than expected and I felt good in spite of my quads still be more sore from the previous day’s 10k race than they had been after running 26.2 miles at the Phoenix Marathon a month prior.

10k: 20:35 (41:16)

On our way to the first 1/3 of the race being over the race was more of the same. Lonely not-so-pretty streets with little to look at. I say that because people sometimes care about scenery in a race. I personally could not care less.  As I said in 138,336 Feet to Pure Bliss, a beautiful and majestic moose on the green hill above, eating daisies and playing with the birds on his antlers does not make me run any faster.
Kris had correctly remembered there were three overpasses and for that I was grateful. We did, however, have one onramp to take us up and over the street we were on at the 10k to deal with. Prior to that I was playing cat and mouse with a slew of runners. On the flats sections I would fall back.  On the uphills (never my specialty but something that still allows me to put distance on many runners) I would push by them.  Then on the downhills, I would put even more distance between us. After that, the flats would allow them to catch up to me again and we would rinse lather and repeat.

I was shocked to see I ran this 5k faster than the first and only 12 seconds slower than the entire 10k race the day before. I didn’t know exactly what that said about my effort today or yesterday exactly but it sure was telling about something.  If only I knew what.

15k: 21:21 (1:02:35)

The next 3.1 miles can basically be summed up as one long, flat stretch where the houses appeared, a few spectators came out and I fell into a little bit of a funk. I found it hard to maintain pace and was generally tired. I simply tried to concentrate on my stride and focus inward thinking only about how at 15k I would be hallway done.

Every kilometer was marked with an inspirational quote or saying.  It was a nice touch out here especially where there weren’t many crowds to motivate you. One of them said:
”You can learn everything about yourself by running a 30k.”

I turned to the group of guys next to me, nodded at the sign and said “What if I am not that curious. Can I just stop at the halfway point?”  The muffled laughter made me feel a little better about myself and jolted me out of my slump.  Right at the halfway point, passing over a grated drawbridge helped even more. I freaking love bridges.

I saw if I repeated the same time for the second half I would run 2:05:02 for the race. That would have pleased me. So I settled down and concentrated doing just that. I have run a faster pace for a marathon than that but that is not where I am right now. Accepting where you are right now and not being too discouraged about it is the key to getting through running.  Or life, really.

20k: 21:49 (1:24:25)

When racing I have an impeccable memory. I remember street signs, spectators garb, quarter mile splits and a slew of other information. I cannot, for the life of me, remember much about this 5k at all.  I know I was happy with my split at the halfway point. I remember running down the little ramp from the cool bridge and I remember finally turning off the little slide of land which protected the Hamilton Harbour. But that is about it.  I knew I was getting tired and I just wanted to get to where I had 6.2 miles of running left.  I vaguely recall the nice house on our right with Lake Ontario behind them.  There is the smallest recollection of the Harbour on our left and me occasionally passing and then being passed by some of the same runners as we played cat and mouse.  But other than that all I have is vague memories. To be honest, it is a little weird for me.
One thing that sticks out fervently, however, is right as we approached the 20k mark, I remembered Kris telling me this was the section which had rolling hills in it. For some reason, I had a feeling she was not properly painting what these hills felt like.

By now, also, I was drenched in sweat, with my sleeves rolled up, and the zipper down on my long-sleeve. In fact, I had tucked the unzipped collar inward before even hitting the 5k.  The painful mistake I mentioned earlier was that the zipper rubbed my collarbone raw.  I learned this later in the shower.  Ouch.

25k: 22:55 (1:47:20)

A big to-do was made about how this year, due to construction, the biggest and hardest hill of the race was not part of the course. Undoubted to return next year, it’s removal made some feel cheated. People might not like obstacles but they appear to want them in their way so they can brag about having overcome them later. I was more than happy to find out this news.

Unfortunately, because so many were focused on this big hill being gone, they neglected to mention that series of undulating beasts that the course still contained from 20-25km. No less than 4 of these sat between me and what had been promised to be nothing but flat or downhill for the final 3.1 miles.

Each one of these hills took more and more out of me. Not knowing they existed, how long they were, and how much they climbed, made my legs weak. In a beautiful area around Hamilton Harbour, with homes which had to cost many a loonie, I normally would have at last glanced around to appreciate what was there.  But today, as the road twisted and turned, hiding the summit of each of the hills, my already weak legs failed me.  On more than a few occasions I walked. But each time I did so, I was buoyed by the fact that I caught and passed all those who had passed me when I was walking.  Of course, if I had been running the pace I wanted or had been earlier, they should have been around me in the first place.  But when we flag or waver we reach for small victories.

I knew I was in no way going to get a 2:05 anymore. But I thought perhaps a 2:08, the equivalent of running the pace of a sub-3 hour marathon, was still in the cards. With the hills finally behind me and a nice long gradual downhill promising to help sweep me into the finish, I knew I just had to run a 21 minutes final 5k to do just that. Not impossible but not easy.

30K: 22:41

Unfortunately, while the hill might be gone, the wind was not.  A stiff breeze which had swirled a bit earlier in the race, and had been blocked some by those very same hills I cursed earlier, was now full on in our face as we turned to head home. A group of guys numbering at least 12 went by me working together.  I fell into this pack knowing I did not wish to fight the wind alone.  But their pace was too quick. I had to internally debate whether I wanted to slow down and fight the wind alone or continue to run harder than I felt I could in order to stay sheltered. I decided too late to ease off the throttle and when I finally slowed my pace, I came to yet another walk. Bollocks.

As I geared up running again, I heard some in the crowd mention the 2:10 pacer was coming up behind me. Double bollocks. I didn’t really expect to be pushing hard to stay in front of him with 4k to go. Sure enough, however, he soon passed me with another group of guys. Like before I fell in behind them. Unlike before, however, their pace was more maintainable.

For the next mile or so I hung tight until the group started to break up. Some fell off the back, others smelled the barn and began pushing for home. As I had started the race behind the 2:10 guy I knew I had some time to spare. As such, if I kept up, I should have no problem breaking 2:10. Hitting the 29k mark I had exactly 5 minutes to go under the desired goal time. I knew that even a slow kilometer was 4:30 and with this downhill finish, I thought I might actually push hard and salvage a 2:08:59.

As the stadium came into view I noticed I couldn’t see where the runners entered for the indoor finish. I looked at my watch and realized this was going to be much closer than it should be.  Finally I saw runners turning and heading down a ramp.  A clock outside showed me I had only 25 seconds to break 2:10. I gritted my teeth, made the turn down the tunnel and was immediately made blind by the change from bright sunshine to indoor darkness. My Julbo sunglasses adjusted as quickly as one could hope. However, I can see how this could be very dangerous if the smooth cement was icy even if you weren’t blinded. At the bottom of this double-tiered ramp with a flat section in the middle, we had to make another quick 90-degree turn onto the field.  I felt I probably had no chance to break 2:10.

I gave it everything I had in the final yards and hit my watch well after the finish.  It showed 2:10:02. I knew I had some leeway but I didn’t know how much. When I finally got the official results I found out it wasn’t enough.  My time was 2:10:00.4. Oh well.

Given I have never run a 30k, my positive spin was this was an instant PR. Or, since we were in the Great White North, a PB (“they call it a “personal best”, here in Canada, ay.) I finished 268th out of 7,277 finishers. That is a ton of fast people in front of me. I also have a new race to recommend to people. 

The volunteers were top notch, the signage on the course was very well-done and the overall logistics of the race were extremely accommodating. Also, I neglected to mention, the Around the Bay race is the oldest road race in North America. That’s right, as it proudly claims, it is “Older than Boston”.  In fact, I have no doubt most of the people where were using this race as their final tune-up for Boston.  In Pure Bliss, even though I had never once run a 30k I said defiantly that it was the perfect distance to tune-up for a marathon. In the U.S., few runners do anything beyond a half-marathon in the states before jumping to 26.2 miles. I can know unequivocally state my assertion about how a 30k is a great race to test yourself before running a marathon was 100% right. You owe it to yourself, as a runner, to run more 30Ks. I would suggest you start with this one right here in Hamilton, Ontario. 

It’s aboot time you did.