Monday, August 25, 2014

A Hood to Coast Recap: Fighting Squirrels Edition

If you want to see what the elevation profile of what runner number 10 (my leg) of the Hood to Coast Relay is, this is not the recap to read.  Looking for detailed descriptions of planning and executing a flawless transition between all runners with secret shortcuts to get your vans where they need to be before every one else? Yeah, you won't find that here either. Nor will you hear about how many people I may have passed during each of my running legs. Details surrounding the exact specifics of the race itself can not only be found more handily in many other places but they can be told to you by people who have experienced the HTC, five, ten, even thirty times. As for how I ran specifically, for the most part, not many care.

This is, instead, a recap about intensity, gratitude, kindness and fun.

To begin, in my very first leg of this relay, it appears I aggravated/created a partial tear in my Achilles tendon/gastrocnemius. Not the end of the world but a definite end to my immediate running plans. While I finished my other two runs, I did so gingerly and paid close attention to any potential damage I would cause. No race ever is worth long-term health. Fortunately, I was able to finish without much worse for the wear, especially since I was such a late addition to this race.

I was asked on the Wednesday before the event by my friend Shawn if I happened to be around Portland and willing to join his team. For a variety of reason, I was and I did. So when the leg reared its ugly injury head just 2-3 miles into this day, I was obviously bothered. The reasons for the injury, however, went beyond the usual. I did not wish to let my team down, nor did I want to potentially cancel other running plans with other friends. It really didn’t have much to do with my own health and well-being, but rather the promises made to show up to starting lines in due time. However, you play the hand dealt to you.

Relays are fantastic because of the intensity one can have during their own running and the silliness which can happen when they are not.  The seriousness each runner takes with their own leg is balanced by how little others actually care about their teammate’s performance during those very same legs. Didn’t run your projected time? So? As long as you had fun and gave your best, the team is happy. Very few will berate their buddies who gave what they had that day.  And if they do, I have a feeling those people are the ones who never get invited back.

Don’t get me wrong: people take this race seriously, even if they are sandbagging how much they actually do care. This is because people do not want to be the weak link. They want to be the one who can be depended upon. Need someone to run an extra mile (or four) because van traffic is so bad that vehicles take over two hours to go two miles (this happened and as of yet there is no real explanation as to why it did)? Well, pretty much every runner is happy to add to their total for the sake of the team. The team comes first.

In fact, the “team” becomes this amorphous entity which takes on a life and presence of its own. Even within the two separate groups of runners who barely interact, an ego and an id can rise and fall to balance one another out. One van is more stoic and anal; another is more wild and flying by the seat of the pants. Then that ingrained irrevocable identity can switch magically in the middle of the night from one group to the other. The “team” is finding its own yin and yang.

My team, the Fighting Squirrels, was comprised of 11 other great guys. It was an honor to be amongst them on this journey. In a little over 25 hours, we experienced lost runners, mixed up exchanges, nearly overturned Chevy Suburbans, tremendous gastrointestinal distress and more inside jokes than normal people gather through months of being around each other. (“How many is a Brazilian?”)

In the end, crossing the sand to the finish line (albeit a tad hackneyed in its manufactured-ness even if I understand why) was not a spiritual experience. But it wasn’t far from one. I knew just one of my teammates before the race started. Now five of them are good friends and the six in the other van are, at the very least, close cousins.

The Squirrels put on a great show and ran well. More importantly we had a great time doing it. In addition, it sure is nice to know I picked up eleven more local running buddies. I can't wait to go searching for nuts with them.

Wait...that came out wrong. Where's the damn delete button?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Hood to Coast - Last Minute Tips

So you are running Hood to Coast this weekend? Fantastic. Let me share with you some final thoughts to help you get through this 197-mile relay. Now, granted, I have never run Hood to Coast.  But I watched the movie, so that’s good enough to give you advice, right?

Kidding.  I have not only run a 200 mile-ish relay with some great friends and the awesome name of Postfontaine (7 years ago?!) but have also done the relay thing solo. So I know what it is like to be up and moving for long extended periods of time. And since I will be a last minute addition to a team of runners taking on this iconic race, I thought I would share what I have learned about relays to get you through.

1.    Start training for this months ago

That was all kinds of helpful wasn’t it? But seriously, while running three times in less than 24 hours is taxing, most can do it with aplomb if they have put in the miles. If you haven’t, well, you can still do it, even if it might hurt a bit.  Just don’t let anyone see you walk the next day. Luckily, the Pacific is cold and you can jump in after to wake up your sore muscles.

2.    Take care of yourself when you are NOT running

This includes eating properly, remembering to relube your body (I recommend Body Glide) and resting. There is no shame in a catnap here and there and it won’t detract from the fun you are having along the way. In fact, a little sleep here and there will make you much more fun to be around and your runs will go much better. Also, while it is good to have some quick hits of PowerBar or Gel blasts along the way, it will behoove you and your team to actually grab a real meal somewhere during the day. Trust me on this one.  Having 6 hangry (so hungry you are angry) runners in van will make no one a happy runner.

Bring comfy clothes to change into when you are not running. You do not want to be in your sweaty running gear for an entire day. Also think about some compression of some sort. I will be bringing my SKINS socks for my weary legs and it will make them feel so fresh when I start the next run.

Have fun and don’t stress too much. Unless you are the Nike elite team, you are probably not going to win this thing. You are also all but guaranteed not to be last. So when you are not running, treat it like the awesome vacation it is. That said, don’t lollygag and mess up your team’s vibe. The last thing you want to do is NOT be at an exchange when a runner comes in. No friends will be made there, believe me.

3.    Take care of yourself when you ARE running

Remember to bring a visor or a hat and some sunglasses (I recommend Julbo.) The weather for this race is almost always bright and sunny so a hat will help keep the sun out of your eyes. Obviously, sunglasses will also protect your eyes from the sun. In addition, since you are running on roads not closed to traffic, the possibility of debris getting kicked up into your peepers is greater than other races.

Drink. (Not alcohol.) It might only be a 45 minute run but don’t try to be a hero when it comes to hydration. Take a small handheld with you (such as the CamelBak Arc Grip) and if it gets a tad warm, you won’t be dying when you finally get to your exchange.

Change at least your socks, and possibly your shoes, for each run. You might only need two pairs to alternate but you will be surprised how wet that first pair will still be when the second leg starts.  And don’t even think about wearing the same socks twice. Smelly, disgusting and rife with blisters opportunities they will be.  You can push through any quad pain but chafing and blisters will knock you down immediately.

4.    Bring more gear than you think you need – within reason

Don’t bring things you absolutely know you will not need. But having a second reflective vest or another SPIbelt for a teammate who happened to forget theirs is always nice. You can also make a brand new friend from another team. Running is about camaraderie and helping others out.  Here’s your chance.

Also, while the weather will start out warm through Portland, it will drop as much as 20 degrees once you head through the mountains and onto the coast. Having run the entire 350 miles of the coast myself, I know how much chillier it can be just 90 miles from Portland. So bring clothing which will allow you to be comfortable running in differing weather conditions.

5.    Familiarize yourself with your legs - thoroughly

Nothing is worse than making a wrong turn in the middle of the night in an area where you are a stranger and other people are not only looking for you but waiting for you. Also, knowing what is ahead of you will make each turn on the road that much better.

6.    Get to know your teammates

Many teammates will be meeting for the first time. Try to get to know what they are like, where they are from and what brought them to running. We all have our stories and we want to share them but there is plenty of time. Knowing that Steve likes to share and Mary is quiet will help you in the long run when you eventually regale everyone with your amazing PR stories. These people are going to be your lifeline for the next day and
maybe friends for the rest of your life. This is a great time to start to get to know them.

There are only about 8 million other things I could tell you but I think these few last minute tips will make people want to have you in their van again for the next relay.

If not, well, you can alienate a whole new bunch of runners next time.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

OK, that was an attention-grabbing headline.You really shouldn't be afraid, per se. But if you are nervous or excited or anxious or any of those other emotions before the start of your race (regardless of the distance) that is a very good thing.  Let me explain why.

When I am doing my usual routine of book signing and answering 18 quazillion questions at a race expo, I can almost immediately identify many of the first time runners. They more or less are biting off their bottom lip. Whether they are freaking out about what it is they are about to try, are simply anxious to just get the race started, or a combination of all of those things, I can always tell they just want to get rid of the nervous feeling. I say do not even try.

I have found that the biggest part of being nervous about running event has to do with actually being nervous. By that I mean, it is the nervous feeling itself that is making the runners wig out, not the actual event itself. I try to tell them that I have run 149 marathons and at the starting line of every one, I have felt butterflies. Heck, if I go more than two months without a marathon, I am a virtual wreck when I toe the line (which has happened a lot the past few years as I try different races and give my body a break.)  Next month I will be taking on just my third marathon this year. I am going to be an absolute mess.

But here's the thing - I want that feeling. As an adult, how often do you get to experience the feeling of nervousness and anxiety and trepidation that does not fall before something that is probably not good? Called into the boss' office, get a call from the principal, listen to your carpenter/auto mechanic tell you what whatever you are going to get fixed is going to cost? That's about it, right? There are no more proms, first kisses, graduations, or Friday Night football games, for most of us.  But every starting line is filled with so much promise and hope.

What you do need to do is be aware you have that nervous feeling for a reason.  For a first-timer, you have never run that far in your life.  For a seasoned veteran, you know what it takes to get to the finish line and are aware it takes pain and sacrifice. For everyone in between, there is the knowledge that this could be a day when you set a personal best or it could be a day of horrific flopping. But until you start running, you are unsure what, if any, of these things it will be.

So embrace the nervousness. Know what it is and refuse to let it take over your mind. Know it is there to keep you alert and on the edge.  Hopefully it will remind you that you shouldn't done stupid things right now like eating spicy Thai food you have never had before in your life 8 hours before you get up to run.  Or you might be getting up for the runs.

My point is, the answer to a question someone posed to me "How do you keep from being nervous about stepping to the line and not feeling ready for the race even though your are properly trained and have been down this road before?" is "I don't." Or more accurately,  I do not want to.

Imagining what can happen is part of the wonderfulness of this sport.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Camelbak Quick Grip and Arc Quick Grip Review

I began a partnership with CamelBak last month after many years of wearing and using their products.  As a continued public service I am reviewing some of their products for you, the runner, so you don't have to try them out for yourself without any firsthand knowledge. This review will be about two seemingly simply products but ones most people will use most often: the handhelds.

I had experienced a variety of different handhelds over the years, even though I (as I mentioned in my review of the CamelBak Marathoner vest) for the most part hate to carry anything when I run. I'd rather push through 90 minutes in the hot sun with no water than carry anything with me. I am lazy. But I know that is not wise, especially when the temps get pretty darn warm or if you are going to be in an unfamiliar place with no access to water. The latter rarely happens for me but the former hit home when the temperature broke 100 degrees in Portland the other day. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to test out the CamelBak Arc Quick Grip.

Out and about on the Portland waterfront I took the 10 ounce bottle. It is super lightweight (.35 oz) with two separate pockets. The first has a Velcro flap so you could store the more important items in there. The second, closer to the hand, is open and allows for easier access for things like a PowerBar Gel or some  Shurky Jurky. The curvature of the bottle fit nicely into either hand and I tried switching it back and forth to see if there was any noticeable difference. I felt none. The stretch binding held tight to the bottle and did not slip off the end like some other ergonomic bottles. While I didn't need it on this sunny daytime run, it was also fitted with reflective tape. It was simple and effective, topped with the awesome CamelBak jet nozzle. Love that thing.

With only a 10 ounce capacity, you aren't going to run across Death Valley with the Arc but it is perfect for a mid-distance run in warm weather. The lightweight nature of the bottle means it is thin and doesn't keep water as cold as you would like for as long as you would like. Then again, my test run was in 100 degrees, so take that as you may. The liquid inside stayed cool for about 45 minutes before I could tell my body heat and the sun totally cooked it.  So, not too shabby at all.

The Quick Grip however, is a freaking marvel. It is insulated so it keeps your drink colder much longer than a normal bottle. In additional it carries a whopping 21 ounces of liquid which will be more than enough to get you through a tough 20 miler.  I have worn the Quick Grip in numerous races that required runners to carry their own supplies and have never been disappointed.

Even though it is indeed larger than most handhelds, and as such is a little longer, it never felt bulky or cumbersome.  For a 6'1'' guy I have tiny hands so I thought perhaps it might feel a little overwhelming.  That wasn't the case. Even when my hand would get a little tired for me to clasp the bottle, or perhaps the liquid got light and made it feel like it was jostling a bit, a quick tug on the strap held the bottle firmly in place. The strap also has a cool little function that keeps it from flapping around when there is excess at the end. (I am not exactly sure how it is done but the guys reviewing it in this video make mention of it as well.) 

For a larger bottle, the pocket is a little on the smaller side, but you can still easily fit in a PowerGel, keys, ID or camera. Again the self-sealing Jet Valve has a quick turn dial that allows you to tightly close the nozzle when you are sure you aren't drinking it.  When in the open position, you still won't get much leakage at all, even when you are running. Regardless, I have yet to find a water nozzle that more efficiently sprays the water into your mouth than Camelbak's. I can't say enough about how much I like that top.

All told, these products are ones you might not put much thought into but the good thing about them is once you have them you no longer have to think about them.

Get your hands in or around these.  You will thank me later.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Mental Aspect of Taking on an Ultramarathon

The great ultrarunner Ann Trason was asked how she runs 100-mile races. This was not a deep philosophical question posed by an experienced runner looking for that last little tidbit of information which would finally give them the edge to win a race. Instead, it was one posed in the format our NRF (non-running friends) ask us about any race longer than about 100 feet. It was more along the lines of  “How can you possibly run 100 miles?!” Her answer?

“One tree at a time.”

Very akin to the old joke about how you eat an elephant (one bite at a time), Trason detailed her strategy for taking on an event that would comprise 185,000 steps (give or take a hop, skip, or a jump.) Her point, more or less, is you can’t see the finish line when you start so don’t worry about it until you can. It was the mental aspect of the task that she was trying to impart upon the one who asked the question. Her response could not be more true.

This article comes from a question posed to me about how the mental aspect of an extremely long run  comes into play. Like Trason said, the mental aspect is paramount. I made my bones in the running world when I ran 52 marathons in 52 consecutive weekends back in 2006. Unlike now, when I started that endeavor I knew very little about running long distances or how to handle those types of events. But I grew up quickly that year. While each race was its own event, I soon realized that the endeavor itself was the completion of the entire year's worth of marathons, not just one particular marathon.

I had made it abundantly clear to those following me that nothing short of an actual marathon race each and every weekend would do. No doubling up. No treadmill runs. No running the course prior to the day of the race. I started when everyone else did and (hopefully) finished quicker than most of them. Because of that, I made each 26.2-mile run into its own subset of the total 1362.4-mile adventure. Each marathon became, mathematically, one-half of a mile when compared percentage-wise to the overall goal. It would never make sense in an actual marathon to sprint for one-half of a mile three miles into the race, so I kept that same mindset with my 52 marathons task. Why did I do this? Because each marathon was my “one tree at a time.”

On three other occasions, I have taken on an event that goes longer than even the most traditional longest of ultramarathons out there, the 100 miler. In 2010, I ran the 202-mile American Odyssey Relay, from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to Washington D.C., solo. In 2012, I ran the entire coast of Oregon, from the California border to the Washington border, over 350 miles, in seven days. Last year I ran 165 miles in three days from Dane Wisconsin to Davenport, IA, then taking part in the Quad Cities Marathon the next day in an event dubbed Dane to Davenport. These events required me to not only push myself in ways that I had yet to do physically but included aspects of mental gymnastics the likes of which I had never attempted.

For the 202 miler, I had to wrap my head around the fact that I had never run continuously for longer than 87. The 87-mile mark was where I had dropped out of my first 100- mile attempt at the blistering hot and humid 2007 Old Dominion race. Of course I did not think I needed to run anywhere close to 202 miles to do it as it is not really uncommon to run far less than the race distance in training, even for ultras.But you must run far somehow.

For instance, the great Karl Meltzer, who once ran run the entire length of the Pony Express Trail, states he rarely runs more than 20-30 miles while training for his 100-mile races. He just happens to run those distances two to three days in a row. However, the difference between a 100-mile event and running 202 miles solo is more than just doubling the distance. There comes a point when the amount of miles begins to add up exponentially. But it is not just the miles run that takes a toll.

For example: with my 350-mile run up the coast, running more miles in one week than I had in any month in my life was quite an undertaking. But if the feat had just been running lots of miles, that would have been infinitely easier. How is that possible? Let me explain.

Now, when I picture doing something like running 50 miles a day for seven straight days, I no longer do what I used to do and what I know most people still do. The immediate inclination is to picture a place where you can comfortably run at a moderate pace somewhere near your home that is familiar and safe. You then picture the weather being perfect and supplies always at hand. Further thought is not wasted on where you will be sleeping because you immediately think that you will stop running and be back at your own door, with your own foods and your own bed and your own toiletries. You’ll drop off your dirty running clothes and pick out fresh ones from the endless supply of things you have in your closet. Your brain does this so it can think of the easiest way to go about doing something harder than anything you have ever done. It is self-preservation.

But that was not what I did in either the 350-mile run, the Dane to Davenport or the 202 miler. In the 202 miler, I was running from point to point with an ever-ticking clock, and I had to deal with ever-changing weather and topography. When I finished the 202 miler in just a hair over 50 hours, I was stunned. I hadn’t expected to come anywhere close to that time. Not because the time in that distance is astounding (my friend Phil McCarthy set the US record for a 48-hour run with 257 miles in 2011) but that I was able to do it in this sort of race. In McCarthy’s race, and in other races of similar ilk that I have done, much of the thought is removed by doing multiple loops of 1-mile courses over and over again. This sounds horrible until you realize how nice it is to not have to think. In all three of the events I have described I was not so lucky.

The 202-mile run is probably the hardest physical task I will undertake for quite some time, even more physically difficult than the 350 miler. But it was dwarfed by the mental energy and preparation needed for the Pacific Coast 350. Sure, the weather was brutal on some days but, given what the Oregon coast had been beaten with that winter/spring (even just one week prior), the weather was a relative non-factor. Even the topography was far from the biggest challenge. Going from sea level to 900 feet in just a few miles on many occasions was not exactly ideal but this wasn’t what made each day difficult. Pounding 350 miles on pavement definitely put some strain on my feet but the surface of the road wasn’t the addition that made everything so challenging.

The hardest part of each day was quite tellingly the most rewarding as well. Stopping in mid-run and addressing a student body at one of the many schools along the coast, sometimes with runners in attendance and sometimes to just the general assembly, is what made this adventure what it was. Starting in Gold Beach, moving to Bandon, heading up to Lincoln City, stopping off in Tillamook, and then eventually talking to inner-city Portland schools, I probably had over 1,000 kids in front of me. These were impressionable, eager-to-learn children, many of whom were wondering how the guy in the salt-encrusted shirt had the power to get them out of class for a few minutes and what he was doing or had just accomplished.

Eventually, they were won over and the questions flowed. Some questions were about the run itself. Other questions centered around how I could possibly fuel myself properly to do this much running…and still more curious, brave souls wanted to know if I shaved my legs. I am not sure why but that was asked on a number of occasions.  I am just, thankfully, not a hairy guy.

Almost without fail, I began one of my speeches to the kids within 15 minutes after many hours of running. Almost without fail, I was pretty exhausted when I started. Almost without fail, I left more energized than when I began.

Which brings me back to the mental side of preparing for these types of events. Obviously, undertaking one long run or a longer run over a period of days requires a different set of calculations, crewmembers, and tactics specific to that run. So to tell you how to prepare for all of them without knowing what you are planning to do would be folly on my part. The best thing I can possibly say is to know you are not alone in trying to ignore the impossible. If you think you are the first to worry whether you have trained enough, prepared your crew enough, or done the right homework, you are wrong. Many have been in your exact situation. There will be setbacks before, during, and most definitely after.

The finish line does not mean you are done. When I finished the 202 miler, I jumped right back into racing as soon as I could (just a few weeks later where I took 3rd in a half marathon) as I had no specific or obvious problem. However, while nothing was major or telling, the 202 miler left me with a deep-seated exhaustion that hung with me for months. When I undertook the 350 miler, I reminded myself that, chances are, the same thing would happen again. To no one’s surprise, it did and knowing it would has allowed me to handle the let down much better. The key word here is “better.” 

Last year, I took on one of the last of the long-distance stage events I plan to take on for quite some time- the Dane to Davenport. I put to use all that I had learned from the previous long distance runs. When crushing heat wilted me in the second day of running, I put to use all my tricks of the trade. But it was what I had learned that helped me not only prepare for the race properly and run it wisely but recover afterward. I also knew while I might know a great deal there was still unexpected to come. The mental aspect of running very long distances is something I now completely understand takes precedence over virtually every other thing.

It reminds me of what Bill Rodgers once told me, and I am pretty sure he wasn't misspeaking. "Running is 90 percent mental. And 10 percent mental.”

He was so right.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Lake of Death Relay Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 9; 13th Edition 
165.1 miles run in 2014 races
Race: Lake of Death Relay
Place: Henry Hagg Lake
Miles from home: 35 miles
Weather: 70-90s; bright sun; hot

The Lake of Death Relay was a last minute addition to my schedule. It was akin to my entering the Elijah Bristow race in June in such that I know I needed a long run, it was going to be very hot, and I know I wouldn’t want to do it solo. So, the best way to handle that dilemma is to sign up for a race and get that long run catered (at least to some extent.)

The LODR was put on by Go Beyond Racing headed by Todd Janssen and Renee Seker. Todd was one of the first people I met when I moved to Portland and I have run at least one of his other races. He puts on good events and I like to support good people putting on good events, even if I disagree with some of his food choices for ultras. (Seriously, Todd, bring some cheeseburgers.)

The premise for this race was relatively simple. There were two route options: an 11 mile road or a 14 mile trail loop which circumvented Henry Hagg Lake. You could run it as a solo competitor or up to 8 team members on either a 12 or 24 hour version. When I moved to Portland, given how much people here speak about running in one of a handful of places so often, I figured I would be out at Hagg Lake all the time. But the thing is, I despise driving to run and when I have plenty of runnable areas in my back yard (even if it requires some loops) I don’t see the point of wasting gas and time in a car. So while I have run in Forest Park (both as a race and an ill-fated attempt to traverse the whole thing brought down by REALLY bad chafing in my man region) and the Columbia Gorge, I have only done so a handful of times total. As for Hagg Lake, well, I had never once been out there.  I decided to remedy that.

I knew I did not want to run the entire thing solo and was trying to figure out whether I wanted to do trail or road or what. Lots of options. I spoke to a couple of runners about forming a team but nothing came to fruition. Then time passed and the event sort of slipped out of my mind. When my best friend Shannon mentioned the event again I realized it would be a great two-person event for both of us to get in some nice long runs. So the two person team of Doc and Sweaty was born! (Name origins: She is a surgeon; I perspire profusely.)

We decided to enter the two-person 12-hour road-only option. We had heard how difficult the trail portion was and figured the road would be better. Shannon had previously done a marathon out here called the Hybrid named as such because it ran on both trail and road. She thought the trial wasn’t too bad so if the road was easier than that we should have it made. Let me state unequivocally: the road was NOT easier.

Shannon started things off and the idea was to have both of us do two loops each, take a small break, possibly have us switch up the order to have me go next and that way she could finish out the day.  That would give us 66 miles in what was going to be some very warm sun. On the drive in we had taken the long way around the lake which let us see what we later learned would be the back half of every lap. It was hilly, exposed to the sun, and challenging. It would be a good workout indeed.

A little bit after 8 a.m. the race was underway.  Immediately almost all of the teams and solo runners hung a left and headed toward the trail. Shannon and just two other runners took to the road. I could tell this was going to be a lonely day of running for both of us.

With the sun already overhead and making things warm, I tried to hit the shade in the car and take a nap. I figured she would come in, if she ran conservatively, around a little under two hours for what we thought was a ten mile loop (measuring it later showed it was 11 on the nose.) Well, I lay quietly for about 30 minutes until I realized that no such thing as sleep was going to happen. So I headed over to the exchange area. In the shade it was relatively cool and I talked with and met some of the other runners. It was calm and serene and I really did not want to be running. I would have enjoyed some boating in the lake behind us.

Shannon did come in right under 2 hours as I suspected and I chatted with her briefly before heading out. She told me the course was indeed hilly and felt longer than 10 miles. I took the baton/bracelet and off I went. Wearing the Camelbak Dart water hydration system, I felt a little silly. There was an aid station at around the 5th mile and then again around the 8th. However, I wanted to do some further product testing on some Camelbak products in different conditions. As I would later learn, it was not silly at all to have some extra hydration on my side.

Within a little over a mile I had passed one of the relay teams in front of us. I said good morning and good luck but I think the fella had headphones in. The road was not closed to traffic but the cars were giving us a relatively wide berth, which was nice. Almost immediately I felt the quick rise and fall of this course. I knew the backside was going to be more difficult which told me this run was going to be on the tough side.

A little over three miles into the loop and the course took all runners across the dam for Hagg Lake.  The trail runners would jut in and out of the road popping onto the pavement briefly before disappearing into the woods again.  Here they had to cross the narrow shoulder of the dam like all of us. All day long, I only saw one single trail runner. I barely saw any road runners. This was, unfortunately, what I had been trying to avoid in races lately: running by myself in basically a training run. But even though I had no visible competition, I knew I was running on a team. It is amazing the reserves you find when others are depending on you.
My iphone

On the east side of the lake I began a steady climb after zipping through the aid station. I didn’t even bother to stop which I think threw the volunteers off a bit. I pointed at my Dart on my back which was really working wonderfully. I had already taken it for a handful of slower trail runs but here I was going in the 7-minute mile range and it still was performing excellent. I was also plowing through the two liter bladder inside and was so glad I brought my own water. Here I took a quick Gel and instantly felt better.

About 50 minutes into this loop I could look across the lake and see the exchange zone. It looked very close and I wondered if I was going to finish the loop in a little over 70 minutes. I felt I must have cut the course as I was definitely not running that fast. However, as the course had to dip around a few skinny fingers of the lake later on, I would learn I was right on track.

About five minutes later I saw the other member of one of the relays we were running against. Finally something to chase! When I caught him about ten minutes later I was impressed that such a tall guy (easily 6’5’’) was running so well. He was impressed I was sweating as much as I was. Actually I have no idea if he was but he should have been. I was drenched.

As I raced by the second aid station and up some major doozies of hills I was looking forward to being done. I wanted to just have one loop under my belt so I could know what was in store for the rest of the day. I came buzzing in about 83 minutes feeling really good. Shannon took the baton and away she went.

Not even noon yet, I was completely scorched from the sun. I found my way down to the lake’s shore and jumped right in.  The cold water was beyond refreshing and I waded around for a little bit.  I knew this meant I would need to reapply all my BodyGlide but it was totally worth it. I ate some Shurky Jurky and drank some chocolate milk and was feeling just grand. I sat in the car and blasted the AC but the above 90 degree temperature made everything just too damn warm for comfort. As I munched on some cheddar cheese blocks I had cut up and drank some Mountain Dew, I knew my original plan to break after the second leg was going to be very necessary (ala Salt N Pepa – bonus 90s rap reference for all of you. You are welcome.)

I headed back up to the exchange point and started chatting with some of the other runners and volunteers as well as those from Cornerstone Chiropractic who were kind enough to donate their services to runners. In attendance was Paul Nelson, an ultrarunner who also takes some pretty fantastic photographs as well. He was also playing around with his camera drone which kept most of us fascinated. One runner named Drake who I had met earlier was lamenting his lack of sunglasses even though he was running on the more shaded trail. I lent him a pair of my Julbo Dust as I was wearing another pair for the second lap. They served him quite well and he was more than pleased with them come the end of the day.

Right around the time I expected Shannon to be finishing her second loop she texted me. (Seriously, technology is truly a marvel). She was going to be a bit slower on this lap as she was burning through her own liquids. The sun was baking everything and being on the hot asphalt was no different. She had stopped at both aid stations and was having ice put in her hydration unit. We were both pleasantly surprised that the race had ice available for the runners. Often, even if the event knows it will be quite warm, they are lacking in the ice department.

When she rolled down the hill to hand off, she looked far better than I thought she was going to be given the warm day. I made sure she had a nice cool drink and reiterated my plan for a break after this loop of mine. I laughed internally as a bunch of us had pointed out how these handoffs often were little powwows between teammates.They were never hurried. There was no real sense of urgency. It was a like a small family reunion every few hours to check to make sure all were OK and then the fresh runner would simply jog away. I tried to look good when I heard the whirl of the drone behind me.

Now that I knew what the course was my main goal was to simply run as close as I could to my first loop. It was much hotter now so I was making sure to leave no water in my CamelBak. It is always interesting to me how a course can change simply by lighting. Here, hours after my first run, the shading was different, the angles of the shadows painted a different picture on the ground and it seemed like I was running a slightly different course.

I had brought my CamelBak PowderBak to wear for the second lap but decided to go with the Dart again. I had my phone on me just for safety reasons but decided to pop on some music and just let it rock out old school boombox style in the front pocket of the hydration pack. I rarely listen to music when I run but it just seemed like a fun thing to do.

At the halfway point of the loop I was only about 90 seconds slower than I was the first time.  I was quite pleased with this since I was running completely alone. I think I saw a team in front of me nearing the first aid station (where they could also hand off to a fresh teammate if they wanted) but by the time I got in and out of the exchange, there was no one to be seen. So I just kept pressing. I had a great deal of time to think about a lot and nothing all at the same time. Before I knew it I was passing the second aid station, rocking out to Tina Turner’s “You Better Be Good To Me” and laughing at the thought of Paul Rudd lip synching to it on Jimmy Fallon.

I finally saw another runner with about half of a mile to go. I caught up to him as he was having some difficulty getting up one of the many consarnit hills. I told him it was just up this one, down another and then onto the finish. Then I did Textbook 101 of Passing Someone in a Race and refused to let him keep up with me. I wanted him to do well but I also wanted to beat him. Nothing wrong with that.

As I cruised into the finish, just a mere 3 minutes slower than the previous loop in 1:26, I knew that I was either done for the day or done for a while. The runner behind me came in a minute or so later and I was more than pleased to shake his hand. He thanked me for the encouragement.

Shannon mentioned she was experiencing some heel problems and I talked her into getting her leg worked on by one of the Cornerstone people in attendance. They worked on it for quite some time while she tried to remember why it might hurt. Then a twisted ankle, high heel accident from the previous week came to mind.

We debated taking a food break, hitting the lake to cool off and then maybe splitting some laps halfway. But none of the food seemed to be the kind which would sit well with our bellies, the lake was just a little too far away and well, we were done. We both had two longish hard run loops under our belt in very warm temps. Pushing forward to get more meant very little to us in the grand scheme of things. It was better to call it a day, head home, grab real food from our houses and be pleased with the day.

As it ends up, even this effort was good enough to capture the most miles run by any two-person team on the road. Granted there may potentially have been zero other two-person teams on the road but I think that says more to our intestinal fortitude than anything else.

No one else could deal with Doc and Sweaty.

Friday, August 1, 2014

To The Edge: A Man, Death Valley, and the Mystery of Endurance - A Book Review

I first heard about the book To The Edge when I watched the movie about the running of the Badwater 135 mile race, Running on the Sun.  I saw that movie right around the time I ran my first marathon in 2001.  Even though I had no desire to ever run further that 26.2 miles (or after that disastrous first marathon, to ever run again) I still became very curious about the Badwater race.

While I still hope to run the race someday its popularity has soared in recent years. Simply getting into the race is probably as difficult as the race itself. As such, when simply gaining entry into a race is made difficult, I often desire to do it less. Let everyone else fight over entries. I will just go for a run. However, for Kirk Johnson, getting into Badwater wasn't all that tough in 1999.  In fact, he might be one of the first to admit that he probably shouldn't have even been there.

Johnson talks about how a tragedy helped propel him to taking on the NYC Marathon and how dealing with that brought together the tattered remains of a family that seems to be on the edge of disrepair. The book reads well as Johnson himself is an actually writer who happens to run a bit, not the other way around.  Also, unlike many popular running books, it wasn't ghost-written.

Do not buy this book if you are looking for a how-to.  It is not one which describes the course itself in an any in-depth ways.(As an aside, I have often heard people say they wished my first book, See Dane Run, has better described what I had done for training, for preparation, etc. Since Johnson seemed rather neophytical when he was training he probably didn't make note of the minutia. I know I didn't. I do know that if See Dane Run had been nothing but stats it would have been an awful book.  As for course descriptions, heck, courses change all the time.  Why waste pages describing that tough hill at mile 18 if it is going to be gone next year? But I digress.) Rather, Johnson's chops as a writer are best shown when he is describing some of the participants involved in the race: Curt Maples, Lisa Smith Batchen, and Marshall Ulrich, who Johnson fawns over like a teen girl over Justin Bieber. Although, if you know anything about Marshal you know you probably should fawn over the man.  He is amazing.

What I did not find particularly enjoyable to read was something I have seen quite prevalent in story-telling about races and training today. People like to underplay their own readiness for races so that when the event is finished, they could put forth a face of "Look how amazing I am for having undertaken this with no planning at all!"  For the most part that is bologna. Example: tomorrow I am going to run in 12 hour relay with a friend. Even though I am going to sign-up for it tonight, and really only decided to do it yesterday, I have heard about it for over a month. To act like I heard about it, signed up for it and ran it in less than 12 hours would be false. I learned long ago that if someone is going to be impressed with what you have done, you telling them to be impressed will not matter. And if they aren't going to be impressed, well, same thing. That is how some parts of this book read. Badwater is tough. Very tough.  If someone doesn't get that, well, they aren't going to get that because Kirk keeps telling us it is. Then again, it is tough as hell.  Maybe he should keep driving that point home.

I can say, having seen the movie, that some of the more dire circumstances Kirk describes are not done with hyperbole. His near-seizure early in the race, the storms throughout, and his quote of  "I'm alive. I go on." near the end are true to form. No real embellishment. That I appreciated greatly.

Since the book is 12 years old, one of the questions I had was whether Kirk continued to run races. One does not get the sense that Badwater turned him into an avid ultrarunner. With a name as common as Kirk Johnson I couldn't really find any definitive proof one way or the other.  I sent him a message at the NY Times but heard nothing in return. Maybe he will see this and reply. I'd love to hear where running has taken him in the last decade. 

As it stands, this is an enjoyable book and definitely harkens back to a time when ultras where much more fringe.