Monday, July 30, 2012

Ultrarunning Matters (and will an Ultra ever be in the Olympics?)

This weekend the Speedgoat 50K was held near my last place of residence in Sandy, UT. A veritable who's who of ultrarunning was there with names like Kilian Jornet, Max King, Anton Krupicka, and Rickey Gates on the men's side. The women's side, while not necessarily as star-studded, contained a talented group of ladies with Anna Frost besting the competition by over 30 minutes.

However, a slight bit of controversy cropped up at this mountainous 50K. Kilian Jornet was the first to the finish line but it became clear that he and a few other runners may have cut some of the switchbacks in the course. Something completely allowed in European trail running, it is, for the most part, all but enough for a disqualification on any race on U.S. soil. To be clear, it appears that Jornet might not have been aware of the rules with regard to the race, which left RD and amazing trailrunner himself, Karl Meltzer with a difficult task. In the end, it appears Meltzer has awarded a tie for first place between Jornet and second-across-the-line Rickey Gates, giving Gates the actual prize money for the victory.

So much has already been said about the decisions made my Jornet, Meltzer, et. al. on the iRunFar recap page here and I am adding nothing more to that. What I am talking about is how happy I am that so many people are actually talking about it.

Ultrarunning used to be a sport of a handful of extremely hearty (mostly older) (mostly male) folks with almost no recognition and even less sponsorship. Well, that's not entirely true. ultrarunning or ultrawalking used to USED TO be a sport where there was considerable attention paid to these events which would be done around inside tracks with copious amounts of betting and wagers being placed. Then it went farrow as baseball and football took over. THEN it became a sport of mostly old men.  But I digress.) Now, runners of ever increasing youth are populating races which sell out in minutes where the winners take home thousands of dollars. This is simply fantastic. It also, in light of the current Olympics, brings to mind a conversation I had with some elite ultrarunners a few years ago about the possibility of an ultra ever making it to the Olympics.

This doesn't seem as far-fetched as one might think, especially if we think about having the race run during the Winter Olympics. As the Marathon itself is the focal point of the Summer Olympics (not necessarily in popularity but it is the finale of the games and the reason they even came into existence), it is hard to see an ultra ever cracking into those games. But in the Winter Olympics? Maybe.

The Winter Games always seem to be the proving ground for some more eccentric sports and where else would an ultra feel most at home but amongst them? Stealing a page from the longer cross country skiing events, an ultra could definitely take place in a looped course providing spectators on the ground (and television viewers at home) the chance to see the race unfold without having to traverse massive distances. This looped course aspect proved beyond pleasing to spectators at both the 2008 Olympic Marathon trials held in Boston and New York and the 2012 Marathon trials held simultaneously for men and women in Houston. The only question remaining would be what distance for an ultra.

Personally I think the 50 mile distance is ideal. "Only" doing a 50k would have many people claiming that it is only five mile longer that the marathon and the difference would be negligible.  (N.B.: This article is overlooking the 50K racewalking event in the Summer Olympics, not because it is not something to be noticed - the WR is a sub7 minute mile, which is amazing -  but rather to concentrate on running events of greater distances.) But if we nearly double the distance and a whole new race has been born. A 100 miler or even a 100k might not would work, simply because of time constraints on the attention span of television watchers. Of course the question remains for an ultra of whether a television watcher even stay around for the full 5-6 hours it will take the elite runners to run the 50 miler? Perhaps not. But they don't have to.

This longer time frame will allow many who wish to watch from the beginning and many others to hop in and out throughout.  Americans routinely spend a solid three hours watching an NFL game. Then they do it again, sometimes twice on playoff weekends. It is not hard to believe they could be enticed to watch something for a few hours, watch another event and then tune in to the end of the race to see where everything is shaking out. I fully envision, just like in cycling or, again, in the longer cross-country skiing, a leaderboard with chase packs being designated as being +1:20 behind or something along those lines.

Over the course of many hours the drama that develops will bring many in and will also allow viewers to get to know the runners. Six hours is a lot of time to fill with commentary and if there are interviews with the runners, with backgrounds and personalities poking through, these runners can become more than just a number. Story lines can develop, fan favorites can be created, and the next line of ultrarunners can be watching and planing their own first ultra.

Staging it during the Winter Games might make it more difficult on the ultrarunners than necessary, especially if it gets a little cold and too much bundling up might take away some of the individuality of each runner.  However, bad conditions and near symmetry amongst the looks of competitors doesn't stop the Tour De France from taking over televisions every year in June and July. And if there is a group which handles adverse weather conditions, it is ultrarunners (e.g., Badwater, Arrowhead 135, et. al.) (As a side note, holding a multi-day stage event ala the TdF over the course of most or all of the games would also be something to think about. The Decathlon is not decided in one day, nor are all the heats of the various track and field events.  Stretching one event over seven days would allow even more time to get to know the athletes involved.)

All told there is much to be worked out and I have only scratched the surface. But with all the hubbub that was percolating over the SpeedGoat race this past weekend and the Olympics on the tube, I couldn't help but think that soon an ultra might make its appearance in the Winter Games.

At the very least, the time is now for there to be a National Championship event which brings together all the amazing talent out there running on all different types of surfaces and terrains.  There could even be something akin to the tennis grandslam with some runners being road specialists, some being mountain experts and still other prevailing in deserts or muck. If it makes sense to have court, clay, and grass in tennis, then it makes sense to do the same with ultras.

The sport simply needed an influx of young talent, a passionate fanbase, and the ability to disseminate information about the race in real-time.

Well, guess what we now have in 2012.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Not-As-Thirsty-As-They-Say Industry

What I love about the internet is the ease with which one can find information. When the internet first came into my consciousness around my freshman year of college, I thought it was just the most unbelievable thing ever (and still sorta do.)  I had an inkling of a thought that perhaps the instant access to info could be bad if it ever got to the point where just about everyone could say whatever they wanted.  I wasn’t against opinions and the like but realized that some people know what they are talking about and many, many do not. Yet, here we are today where any and every thought can be broadcast out into the ether.

Undeniably twitter and facebook and social media have created revolutionary change.  They have also increased, exponentially mind you, the turds with which we must wade to get to the facts. One of the latest I have seen has to do with the consumption of water that goes into raising animals for food. As the spokesrunner for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, I get things likes this sent to me all the time. This doesn't really fall into the purview of my normal ramblings on this website but as it falls central to the food choices I make, and those food choices fuel my exploits, I felt it was important to address it. Check it out here:
“Nearly half of all water used in the United States goes to raising animals”. 

Oh, for the love of Christ. 

First of all, what “industry” is raising ALL “animals for food”? The chicken/pig/cow/fish industry? Can I buy stock in that? Second, as nearly one-half of the water used by Americans is used for production of electrical power or thermoelectric power generation (link takes you to the 2005 U.S. Geological Survey) that means that somehow, if we are to believe the infographic, there is next to no water left in America for drinking, showering, brushing teeth, cleaning dishes, watering lawns, washing clothes, filling swimming pools, water balloon fights, wet t-shirt contests, etc. 

Then we read that more than 2,400 gallons of water are used to produce one pound of meat. According to whom? I don’t see any sources cited.  However, if you want sources, according to a UC Davis study, it takes just 441 gallons of water to produce one pound of boneless beef—or about 110 gallons for a quarter-pound hamburger.(Beckett, J. L., and J. W. Oltjen. 1993. Estimation of the water requirement for beef production in the United States. J. Anim. Sci. 71: 818-826.) This study takes into consideration the following: 

* Water the animal drinks
* Water used to irrigate pasture land that the cattle graze
* Water used to grow crops that feed the cattle
* Water used in the processing of the beef

Monday, July 23, 2012

No Respect for Olympic Marathoners

When I was doing research for my book, 138,336 Feet to Pure Bliss, I came across one unassailable fact - organizers of events often have their heads firmly placed directly up their butts, at least when it comes to the marathon on the grand stage.

Time and time again, the marathon, an event which has to be the most grueling held in the Olympics every four years and is treated as its cornerstone event (quick history lesson: the Olympics exist because of the marathon) is handled with all the care of a bull in a china shop.

Lest you think I do not understand economics, let me lay that to rest here at the beginning. I understand sponsor dollars pay for events and viewers have to be able to watch the event in order to convince sponsors to pony up their dollars. I also understand that events worldwide are slated to fit into the best Must See TV timeslot and athletes are just pawns in that game and the Olympics are not alone in this game (e.g., I would love to have the skill to play in the NBA as the constant night games fall right into my circadian rhythm but I bet many players would much prefer to play a game at noon or 8 AM.) However, when an event is going to take two hours, completely exposed to the elements, being run at speeds around 13 mph on average, perhaps we should throw a bone to the runners.

Yet, looking at Olympic Marathon history, no bones are thrown. From races run in the heat of the day, to runners having to run behind horses or cars kicking up soot and dust and exhaust, no quarter is given. Fortunately, when heat, humidity and pollution concerns wracked the most recent Olympic marathon in Beijing, they had the foresight to do the best they could by starting at 7:30 a.m.

But in London in a few weeks, the race will begin at 11 a.m. As Amby Burfoot writes "August is the hottest, sunniest month of the year in London; both previous London Olympic marathons (1908, 1948) were held on days described as 'hot and muggy;' and both resulted in on-the-track collapses by an obviously depleted race leader." Yeah, I see no reason why we shouldn't start it as close to possible as to when the sun is at is apex.  Should be no problems.

Without a doubt there are reasons I am not considering as to why the race is starting so late - there are always "reasons". There is also a little bit of crankiness on my part as, if I wish to watch the marathon live, being that I live in the Pacific Time zone, I will have to get up at 3 a.m.  Ouch. Actually, given I am a night owl, I will just simply stay up another 30 minutes more than usual. Now it doesn't seem as bad.

Let's just hope for some cool temps for the runners.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Dealing with Setbacks

The problem with injuries is that human bodies are not like machines. Well, they aren't when you are 36 years old, at least. A car breaks it, well, whatever (I am not a car guy) and you replace that part. After replacing that part, 99%of the time the car works exactly the same as it did prior to that part breaking. However, if you break something in the body, once the part is healed (which is never as easy as putting in a new muffler) you have to deal with whatever backstep you have taken during the healing process.

I am currently in the throes of that healing process. With my shoulder having been beaten up a touch in a bike accident recently, I can say I am rather close to where I was prior to that accident in that department.  This means I have a relatively full range of motion and my strength is returning. Everything else, however, is sort of in the crapper. I wasn't expecting to bounce back immediately but I definitely wasn't expecting for the recovery process to take this long.

When you throw in the fact that just when I felt I was getting back to some semblance of my running-self, I had a setback with a calf twinge (Dane note: which ended up being a partial achilles tear, I learned much later), that complicates matters even more. Fortunately, I have oodles of perspective not only from doling it out for years but by so many personal examples I see and interact with daily.

Here's the thing - setbacks suck. In fact, the majority of people who try to get into shape do not fail from their lack of desire to do so. Rather, they fail because setbacks are very difficult to deal with. Crawling your way out of a hole, only to slide back some every now and then just makes a person want to give up and keep sliding.  The thought process is why should I have to work so hard just to get back to where I was already when not working hard at all is easy as pie. So we have to come up with ways to make sure we can deal with setbacks.  Here are a few.

1. Involve others - Whether it is by including friends in a running group into your goals or letting your loved ones know what you are doing, do not go it alone. Rarely does one's plan go from A to B without detours. If others know what you are doing then when you have setbacks they can remind you of your end goal. I often state my plans and goals publicly, not because I seek the attention but because I can be held accountable. I do not mean this in a negative way but I know if my own motivation fails, those who wish me well will remind me of the end goal.

2. Allow for change - If you realize that your straight line planning is going to have more turns than San Francisco's Lombard Street, you will be less likely to be deterred when you hit a curve. In fact, sometimes a setback will push you in a direction beneficial to your endgame. With me, I have wanted to become a better cyclist. Yet, I don't particularly enjoy cycling and if I was able to run would probably avoid it. Now, instead, I am forced into the saddle. Perhaps all of this will lead me to not only excelling on the bike but enjoying it as well. Only time will tell.

3. Manage expectations - Running long distances is more or less an exercise in injury management.  Staying as injury-free as possible is an entirely difficult article. However, realizing that in order to succeed you'll have to have a healthy dose of reality is good thing. Obviously, keep pushing for things beyond your grasp, but don't go too crazy all at once. There is plenty of time to go crazy in little bits over a long period of time. They call it "ultramarathons."

Basically, as with all things we simply must keep a positive attitude. Positive thoughts may not make a bone heal any more quickly but negative thoughts just make you a miserable bastard to be around. Then you will be alone which violated rule #1 above.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Reducing the Difference in Boston Qualifying Times Between Men and Women

A recent discussion on a running board sparked a debate about how the time standard between men and women in qualifying for Boston seems way out of whack. At 30 minutes (full times for males and females are listed here) the times seem a little out of touch with the fact that the normal winning times are usually separated by less than 20 minutes and the world records are just 12 minutes apart.

Back in 2009, I stated how the times needed to be made faster as the race was filling too quickly- evidence that it was getting too easy to get into the race for both genders. In 2010, I wrote another article saying it was still needed as the race was filling up in record time again.

Boston did make the qualifying times harder and they go into effect fully for the 2013 race. I feel pretty proud about that prognostication. However, the disparity in times between males and females remains. When they made the changes to make it harder to get into the race, I think it was the prefect time to remedy the error of thinking that females need to be coddled more.

In my latest book, I talk about the things I have learned about women in my first 100 marathon. One of the things I touch on is how good women runners have become. When given the time and opportunity to excel, many of them do. Shocking! As such, the need for this gloved approach to female runners is rather insulting actually.

Are there general differences between the genders that call for a necessity in a difference between qualifying times? Absolutely. Just not this wide gap that currently exists. Perhaps there is evidence that exists that the median times call for the 30 minute gap.  But I tend to believe that if it were 25 minutes, or even 20, women would step up their game and men would love that they did.

It was Kathrine Switzer herself that said the most welcoming people at the Boston Marathon on her historic run were the other male runners she decided to run with.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

I Heart Running

When I finally made the decision to move to Portland this spring, one I had been debating for years, it was because of a multitude of factors. Unfortunately, some of them did not happen the way I wanted to and if I had waited I probably would not have pulled the trigger.  But I did begin the planning for that move, made the move, and I could not be more happy.

As a person who loves to run so much, I chose a place of residence that had many different things. One of those was easy access to a plethora of different running areas. As my eyes scanned areas and neighborhoods using maps and realtor sites as jumping off points, I saw something unique about one area of one neighborhood.  It definitely had some odd curves to it.  I wondered; "Could I...?"

It turns out I could. So I went on a run that looks like the following.

Given that I routed this course before moving to Portland, and before my recent bike accident, it is pretty poignant that my first run back of any real length was this exact run. I sure do love running and I sure do love Portland. Having had the former taken away for me for even a short period of time drove that point home ever harder.

If you are in the Portland area or plan on visiting, and want to know the turns for this course, just drop me an email. It's actually a quite fun little 6 miler in spite of all of the turns.