Monday, November 30, 2015

Run for the Diamonds Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 10; 24th Edition 
311.1 miles run; 16 miles biked; 800 meters swam in 2015 races
Race: Run for the Diamonds
Place: Berwick, PA
Miles from home: 2757
Weather: 50s; Dry; Sunny

Making a living that, in some part, incorporates running sounds wonderful. For the most part, it is.  However, when you are still in the "racing" part of your life, just running is not enough to keep the appetite whetted.  Nevertheless, with only so many weekends in the year, and a desire to experience as much as possible, in order to run all the races you would like you must accept that most of them will not be your "A" day. If you can swallow that pride, then you will be fine. Now, I haven't really been able to do that just yet. But I am working on it.

Fortunately, I knew that the Run for the Diamonds would not be a great race for me from the start. Having spent the most time home in quite some time, I have been putting in hard, longer miles. As such, I was aware this would be a very hard workout with an official time attached to it. More importantly, however, was experiencing this, little slice of racing heaven.

I have lamented often that the best and worst thing about running is how it is a participatory sport. So many people run and take part in races these days and their desire to do so is a wonderful one indeed.  With regards to knowing anything about the rich history of the sport, or its current stars, most runners draw a blank. When I mentioned I would be running this race to my running friends, 1 in 10 had even heard of it, let alone knew what it was all about. That is why I hope its inclusions in my newest book, which will detail the greatest races to run in North America, will help raise its profile to be included in every "must do" list for runners nationwide.

I will not get into too much of the history of the race as there already is a book dedicated to just that, but let's just say a race doesn't get run 106 times if they aren't doing something right. I will point out that the race is known for a couple of things, namely, the fact that the top runners are presented with diamond rings or necklaces and the big honking hill starting at mile two.

On the day before the race, I was given a course tour by the race directors. Couldn't have been more glad I accepted that as it ended up being not the course I thought it would be. Without a doubt there is a reason why so many who have run this race do better the second time they have run it.  Or, as so many do who are local enough to be afforded the opportunity, they run the course repeatedly on trial runs. In fact, the organizers put a few portapotties out at the start/finish a few weeks in advance so anyone running the race has a place to relieve themselves.  That sort of small town charm is pretty amazing.

As the dinner before the race wound down, I was scheduled to say a few words about some of my accomplishments and why I chose to be in Berwick for this particular race so far from where I live. In addition, I was pleasantly surprised to see friends I had known for years, run into people who knew high school teachers of mine when they were growing up, and make the acquaintance of more than a few people who I had only met through social media.  Always so nice to put a face and a voice to a name who you only see in race results.

First two miles:

This first two-mile stretch is the appetizer for the rest of the race.  Starting on the double-laned, tree-centered Market Street, runners slope slightly downhill through the main street heading out of downtown.  Then you slope ever-so-slightly uphill before turning right and leaving the friendly confines. One mile has passed and  you will not run a flat portion again for nearly seven miles.  The next mile winds you through a small cropping out neighborhood houses with a sizable crowd out cheering you on the lawns of their homes.  To your left you see a sprawling meadow with a few horses and a hill still high atop the Berwick Heights.  Above that, where you can't see just yet, is Berwick Heights and the hills you must climb.  You loop around, first to your right an then to your left and then the hills begin.

I ran the first two miles at a good but not great pace, hoping to average around a 6:25.  I was a little fast on the first mile and a little slow on the second one. It was difficult not to think too far ahead when I knew what was in store but I focused on the task at hand. More than a few runners had shot out in the first mile and were coming back into my sights. I think it would be great to have timing mats at the halfway point of this race to see how many people overestimated their ability to tackle these hills. A comparison of how much one died would be good incentive to not do it again once the memory of the pain has been erased by turkey and gravy and time.

To Mile 5:

If you read the history of the races and when it has been won or lost, it is rarely done at any other point than the middle miles. Even if you are not in contention for any sort of prize you can see why these miles here give most people the shivers.  First and foremost there is the hill for which the race is know. Second, there is the false summit of that hill, a small downhill and then a steep up again.  Following this you are treated to a screaming downhill to the point of the arrowhead (what the course resembles) before one last long but gradual uphill to the end of the 5th mile.

Many times in the previous years, the weather conditions for this race have been rather abysmal.  It is Thanksgiving in Central Pennsylvania. The old adage about having Halloween costumes designed to fit over snommobile suits makes us laugh because it is true. So for the temperature to be nearly 60 at race start (a late 10:30 a.m.) was obviously something different. I can only imagine trying to summit these big hills in slippery snowy conditions. However, with perfect footing, I have no excuse other than the 500 feet we climbed for an extremely slow mile. As the sun beat down and the smattering of fans with beer and other libations for runners cheered us on, I was simply trying to conserve energy as best as possible knowing this was not the only hill. As a journalist of the event as well, I was also doing my best to suck in the ambiance even as I sucked wind.

Throughout the first five miles I either stood pat with regards to where I was in the positioning of the race or passed people. Here and there a lone runner would streak by me which would only make me wonder if they started late.  But for the most part I felt I was running the course well, if not too particularly fast.

When we finally crested the 5th mile, I knew we at least had a little downhill running where I could feel like a half-decent runner. I find it so curious how different runners are and how we can excel at such different things. Time and time again I would have to work hard to keep up with someone on a flat or uphill only to fly by them like it was nothing when the course sloped down. Never ceases to amaze me how contrasting running styles can be from pair of shoes to pair of shoes.

Heading Home to the Diamonds:

While the well-intentioned folks along the course would repeatedly tell you the race was all downhill, they were incorrect or liars. However, for a brief period of time, there was a nice long downhill that those of us who are fortunate to run them well, could take advantage of.  Over this next mile I realized there was no way I was going to break an hour for my race as originally planned.  Yet, I knew if I threw a little of my back into it, I might not be much more than a minute over either. Being in that no-man's land of way off your initial goal but between two lesser-desired goals, of which neither will make you happy no matter how hard you run, is an uncomfortable place to be. You must decide how much pain and exhaustion you can handle even when you know the end result will still be rather unpleasing.  It is a balancing act and a bargain you have to make with your muscles and lungs. Throwing down my fastest mile of the race, I knew I just had three more miles before I could call it a day.

Of course there are a least three smallish uphill sections to contend with over the rest of the course: a small rise right before the 6th mile a screamer of a downhill at mile 7 before a quick down and up halfway betwixt that and mile 8 and an uphill climb right near the finish (positioned next to a graveyard.)  I saw at the mile 7 marker a camera set up on a tripod with a sign that said "Smile!" Not wishing to miss an opportunity, I leaned down into the camera with a cheesy grin masking my pain and exhaustion.  I only found out later that the camera is owned by the race director and my smiling mug was captured crystal clear.

Not soon thereafter, two women whom I had passed earlier, passed me in tandem. As we hit this mostly flat, but lightly uphill section before the turn onto the main drag to head home, I could see a battle brewing. As I have on other occasions, when my "A" race is out the window, I sometimes like to watch battles between other people. Racing is an awesome part of running. I enjoy the chess game that goes on as runners throw in surges and spurts and test the boundaries of those they are trailing or leading. As such, I decided to stay in contact with these ladies and see how their efforts played out.

Hitting the last mile I could see a solid effort would keep me in the 1:01 range but it would also give me a front row seat to watching these women battle. In addition, as we neared the finish, I could see that a third female, faltering slightly, was coming into the mix. Pushing myself, ignoring a desire to dry heave, I watched as one girl, wearing Penn State ribbons in her hair (so she was obviously my favorite) narrowed the gap. It came down to a sprint as this PSU fan nipped one runner by one second and the other by six.  I came in just a few more seconds behind, more than ready for this challenging race to be over and netted a 1:01:43 for this tough 9 miles. Finishing in 7th place in my age group I was a bit bummed I missed a diamond award plaque by two places (and about a minute).  Then I looked at the age group above and below me and realized I would have lost by much more in either of those groups.  So, you take what you can get!

Berwick is a town of roughly 10,000 people. I would say at least 3,000 were out on the streets cheering them on and another 1,000 were running the race. It is no great surprise that anyone running a race likes some crowd support. However, more than cheers warms my heart in this type of race. Seeing a small town continue to get behind a product that is 100% its own is an awesome feeling. This race used to be called the Berwick Marathon in spite of its distance not being quite 26.2 miles. While I am glad it doesn't have the incorrect moniker anymore the race does indeed deserve to have the town name in it because of how much it is a community event.  Runner after runner I spoke to was running their 12th, or 27th or 35th Diamond Run.  In fact, the overall female winner, Marina Orrson all of maybe 24 years old, told me this was the 7th time she had run the race.

But it is not just the locals who frequent the Run for the Diamonds.  A large contingency from Canada has made this race a regular pilgrimage for decades and for a time were the overall winners on many occasions. I was fortunate enough to get to spend a few minutes with a few of those Canadians including the incomparable Ed Whitlock. I would highly suggest you read up on this man and his unbelievable accomplishments.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the challenging hills in this race, one should definitely experience what it is like to race in this iconic event before your running days have passed you by. I cannot guarantee you will have the pristine, almost too warm weather we had this year but I can guarantee the local feel and flavor will warm your heart nonetheless.

You may also win a diamond.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Why Runners Will Live Forever/Die Immediately in the Zombie Apocalypse

Even after watching the steaming pile of dung that was Fear the Walking Dead and realizing that after six years of The Walking Dead virtually none of the characters have learned how to not be incredibly stupid, I still love zombie stuff. I grew up just 69 miles north of Evans City where the original Night of the Living Dead was filmed. Horror and slasher movies were my bread and butter growing up. Either my parents were horrible at raising children or realized that I was smart enough to establish between ridiculous gore and real life. I am going with the latter.
Regardless, while there have been plenty of quizzes about how long one would last in the Zombie Apocalypse, I, of course, see most things through the prism of being a runner. Which is why I realized that runners would be either the absolute best or excruciatingly worst at surviving when all hell breaks loose. Let me delineate my reasons for each.

Why Runners Will Live Forever When Brain Munchers Come to Town

1. Long Distance is Our Thing

Over and over again we see talk about something being "four miles away" from something else in these zombie movies. Then it takes the protagonists like eleventy-billion years to get there. I hear four miles away and think: "OK, so half an hour, even if the footing is sloppy, and I'd be there."

Even if we are dealing with the fast zombies of World War Z, chances are most runners have the cardio to outlast these sprinters. As for the slow lumbering ones? Zombie, please. I've shuffled faster at the end of a 100 miler than these cretins. Runners would have no trouble at all staying ahead of the herd.

2. We'd Blend

Ever seen a runner after a marathon? We shuffle and moan like we are the living dead anyway. Until we get to a shower, we smell like them as well. Our stiff leggedness and natural aroma serve as perfect camouflage against the hordes of the undead.

3. Already Have the Gear

We have our Camelbaks, packaged food, filtration systems, body glide and everything else all lined up. Throw it in the sack and away we go. No need to worry if we have the proper provisions to make it to the next town, which is only 15 miles away anyway. (See point #1.)

4. Lay of the Land

Want to know fourteen different ways to get around town? Runners know them. In fact, we have also already ran down every dead end street and traversed all the lesser known side streets and alleys. We've been GPSing every one of our runs for years now.

Then again, just when I was thinking about how our badassery is umatched, I realized runners have some seriously fatal flaws which would turn us into zombie food rather quickly.

Why We Are Toast

1. No Runner Left Behind

If you are a runner worth your salt, you never drop the slowest runner. That means you have to keep going back for Janice in Accounting, even though she clearly doesn't GAF. (Thank you, John Oliver.) Backtracking means we are inevitably going to get cornered. If we just didn't care about anyone else (like the way triathletes do) we would be good.

2. We Can Be Whiny

Sure, we can run 100 miles. If the weather is right. And we don't chafe. And all our pre-mixed liquids are where we want them to be. And if I don't have my plantar plantar fasciitis flaring up. You know what guys, go on without me. I'm just going to lie down here and get eaten.

3. Depression

With no power grid, how can we upload our workouts to Strava? Will anyone know how epic our vert was up that mountain if we don't Instagram it? What's the point of having abs unless I can show them off to adoring friends?! I see no point in going on.

4. Obsession

You know that even in an intense lockdown situation where the need for absolute quiet is essential, we would be out there making sure to get in our five miler. That's what the schedule called for, geesh.  "If they chase me I will just use it as a fartlek. Of course my watching is beeping. I need to know my pace!"

Conclusion: Maybe we will last longer and maybe we will die sooner. I guess we should just be like Carl and stay in the damn house. Otherwise the walkers will smell our bloody nipples.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Race Gender Equality: Let The Women Run

Your uterus will fall out!

As many a runner knows, this was what many (men) back in the day used as an excuse for why women were not allowed to run distances greater than the 800 meters. We laugh at it now and like to point to that insane thought as a symbol of how far we have come as a society. Look at those silly people from days gone by! They don’t know what they are talking about! We are now so enlightened! 

Here’s the problem: no one actually believed that would happen.

OK, maybe somebody thought it was a possibility. But some people think we faked the moon landing, too. So you can see whether some people thought something was true is not a good proof that it was accepted as common knowledge. But the fact remains that reasons did exist in the minds of many which kept women from running (or voting or anything else for that matter) many decades ago. Virginia Slims aside, we have come a long way, baby. But there is still progress to be had.

This past summer took part in the US Mountain RacingChampionship.  (FYI, if you ever get a little too uppity in your running britches, take on some of the elite in the country at the sport. You will remember why your age group trophy at the Dog n Dash 5k sits prominently on your shelf.) At this race, not counting talent, there was something distinctly different between myself in the men’s race and those in the women’s, and it had nothing to do with chromosomes.  Here on this day, the men’s course consisted of three loops of a hard mountain trail; the women’s course had only two. Why the difference? According to the race website, this was done to mimic the world mountain running championships format in order to give the women the best chance to compete. I can definitely agree that something can be said for preparing for what you will race. But the time has long since passed for the distances run by women to equal those of men, up and down the board.

Now, I am not pretending to be any great champion for women’s rights. I do, however, do my best to fight what I see is injustice in any form it may take. Also, when I am not a member of the class being potentially slighted, I do my best not to speak on their behalf.  Sure I can extrapolate feelings, but it it is best to go to the source. In order to see what at least a sample size of women might think about this issue, it would be best to have them gathered in one place. Fortunately, I had the right group here in front of me on race day to test out my theories. So I reached out to a few competitors to ascertain the situation from their viewpoint.

Kimber Mattox, who took third place overall in the race, has had little experience in trail racing. In fact, these However, while she liked the “shorter distance just based on my running background, there is certainly no reason why the men's and women's race distances shouldn't be the same.” Whether this mean to shorten the men’s race or lengthen the women’s, Kimber felt there was no reason to have a difference between the genders.
championships were her first ever mountain race.

Nancy Hobbs, founder and executive director of All AmericanTrail Running Association, who took the women’s title for 50-54 said there is some precedence for change here.  The World Long Distance Championships are equal length for men and women -- they run the same race.” Furthermore, according to Hobbs, it is also extremely forward-thinking to have the men and women run in a separate races, so that they can be viewed individually by genders.  

Unfortunately, getting the same distance for men and women is no new battle. There have been more than a few groups who have lobbied the World Mountain Running Association to make the changes for quite some time now. Obviously, they have been so far unsuccessful.

Even those who were not directly competing, but who have a stake in the world of racing, fell in line with the idea that change needed to be made. Renee Metivier Baillie, the former track star who has two marathons under her belt (including a 2:27:17 debut in Chicago) has recently moved to Bend, Oregon to open a training business. On hand to watch and cheer for some of her own athletes, Baillie felt it was long past time for the change. She cited the problem starting all the way back in high school cross country where women often only run two miles to the men’s 5k (3.1 miles.)

All told, it is wonderful that there are differences between the genders. We are each other’s yin to the other’s yang. Pretending we are the same is folly. Yet, while we are different there shouldn’t be any need to handle women with kid gloves. They have shown, when given the chance, to be made of a tough stuff (Ronda Rousey, anyone?) It matters not whether that stuff is “tougher” than men.  It matters only that women have shown they can handle much more than they are often even allowed to attempt.

Of course, with the talk of gender inequality in pay, there is a silver lining in the sport here. At least on this day, women only have to run 66% as far as men to collect the same paycheck.   

That’s progress, right?


Since writing this, there has been some movement to make the distances equal.  There has also been some pushback as well. None other than Paula Radcliffe said "Equality actually means Equal Rights and Respect for every person on this earth. It does not mean we must make everything we do exactly the same as men in the name of equality. Many things we already do better. Leave them be." 

While I see her point, I disagree for the reasons listed  above.  For those who may not know, the 8K has long been the standard distance for the women’s course at the IAAF XC World Championships - the men run 12K. Last year things changes and men and women run a 10K course in the “senior” (20 and over) race, though the “junior” women will still run a 6K course. the men still run8K.

Now, I don't think the 12K is special. And women needn't have to move up to that distance to make things right.  Heck, there would be nothing wrong with dropping the men to 8K. 

But it should be the same.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Stop the Embellishment

I read a cool story about an inspiring individual. Unfortunately, I am not sharing it because of two things which irked me.

1. The person is dealing with an illness. They finished a marathon in spite of their doctor saying "which mile do you want to die on?" How outrageous, right?

Is it possible this was said? Sure. Probable? No. First, the claims which people pin to their doctors has always fascinated me. Having many close friends who are doctors, I know their bedside manner and what they can and cannot say to people. Most of what people say a doctor has told them would be ethically, if not legally, wrong.

People telling stories and "journalists" writing them have used this lazy narrative for eons to encapsulate either their own perceived doubts or the accumulated doubts from naysayers they have experienced in their life.  Rather than lay that entire history out, it is easier to say "Susie G at Trader Joe's said I couldn't run a sub 2:00 half. This will show her!" and everyone rallies behind you giving Susie the ole what for.  It moves the story forward. I get that.  But it is often full of crap. (I touch on that method in an article about a writer who tells the tale of picking up and running across Spain just cuz.") I learned long ago that people will either be impressed with your story or not. Rarely does embellishing it make fall off the fence onto your side.  So many tales are fascinating without the added oomph from a fib and when the fib is found out, it kills the truth.

The cousin of this type of story is the "I didn't even train and wasn't even aware this race existed until I happened across it in the middle of a training run! So I signed up and beat everyone! Let's pretend I haven't been in intense training mode for months prior to this and congratulate me for my ability to somehow be oblivious about a 20,000 person race in my backyard AND my superhuman talents!" Think I am lying? I literally, while writing this, happened over to twitter and saw this:

Accountability is out the window. We see it in politics and now with social media, the little white lies you used to tell to 5 people are now things we share with the world. Again, perhaps this person did just set a new 13.1 PR after doing nothing for a week. Perhaps.

2. The runner says that “Racing wasn’t fun. I was there to get to the finish line as fast as I could.” This is something which has irked me for quite some time. The notion that running hard is not fun.   I wrote about that in Fast is Fun. Let's face it.  We live in a world where many runners are not running the races they run anywhere close to their potential. Completing is celebrated more than competing.  Now, I was about to say "That's fine" when I erased it and started over. It is not fine.  Sure there are instances when just getting to the finish line is admirable. But continuing to just get to the finish line, without remotely pushing your limits, should rarely be applauded. However, my beef is with the idea that running fast is mutually exclusive from having fun.

You can have fun at almost any pace you want. Watch this video of Deena Kastor winning the bronze in Athens and tell me if she is not the most overyjoyed person ever. (If you don't have time for 2:41 minutes of awesome, just jump to 1:45 in the video.) So wracked with happiness is she that she is in tears while still running the damn race!

Personally, when I set my marathon PR, I was so overjoyed I was waving to the crowd in the homestretch. I was fortunate enough to know the announcer who was aware of my goal. As I neared the finished he shouted it out to the crowd who cheered me onward. I had finally, after three 2:51:xxs, ran a sub 2:50 marathon. I was ecstatic.

My point here is not to denigrate the subject of the article.  In fact, I think it is wonderful what she did and when you read she set a new PR in what was probably her last marathon ever (because of her terminal illness), it is even more awe-inspiring. However, following the points I have delineated above, I know that the tale could be so much better.

I know it sounds like I am nitpicking. That is not my intention. But when you are watching a show or movie and the people in it do something glaringly wrong in a field you are a specialist in, it almost ruins the movie for you. That is how it is for me and reading other writer's articles. I am already happy to have my heart strings pulled. But I also know that the music is so much sweeter when the song being played is done so with defter hands.

(And because it is still a darn good story, and I have not exactly been vague and you could find it yourself, here is the link to the article itself.  I do that because I still wish to celebrate the runner and their accomplishments. )

Monday, November 9, 2015

Santa Barbara Veteran's Day Half Marathon Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 10; 23rd Edition 
302.1 miles run; 16 miles biked; 800 meters swam in 2015 races
Race: Santa Barbara Veteran's Day Half Marathon
Place: Santa Barbara, CA
Miles from home: 943
Weather: 50s; Dry; Sunny

Even though I surged hard in the second half of the Milwaukee Running Festival 13.1 last weekend, I was still not pleased with how I did overall. I felt good for the race and even with a tough course, felt I could have easily run a 1:25. As such, I was hoping for a little redemption at the Santa Barbara Half Marathon.

This is the third year that the race has been affiliated with Veteran's Day and the third year I have run carrying the US Flag. I have only run with the flag on one other occasion and that was on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. It is a wonderful feeling to have people cheer when you run by with the flag. However, I have limited running with it to those rare occasions because doing so feels, well, a bit unsavory. I am not a veteran (although my brother and grandfathers are and were) and running with the flag seems not exactly patriotic but a rather little pandering. This isn't saying others can't do it for their own reasons.  Just for me, there has to be a special particular reason for me to carry Old Glory.

Usually run in conjunction with a marathon, the half was a standalone event due to the cancellation of its bigger brother this year. About a month prior to the race, it appears that it would not be a fiscal possibility to put on the race so the organizers gave those who were registered three solid options: refund, deferment to another year or switching to the half.  It seems while there was some grumbling, most understood how things happen and moved on. Those who don't, well, I would suggest you try putting on a race yourself. You get all kinds of understanding after you have stood in those running shoes.

There was also a small course change to the half but the last 10 miles or so were unchanged. This meant the infamous Cliff Drive hill and its little sister hills earlier in the race remained. So, if I happened to hit my goal of setting a new personal best while carrying a flag, I wouldn't have to add an asterisk because it was an easier course.

As usual, I had an excellent time at the expo, meeting people running their first or hundredth race or everywhere in between.  Each expo is always an opportunity for me to observe the human condition in way that I never find unfascinating. Predictable in many ways, but still fascinating. Was happy to talk to people about my accomplishments, listen to their goals and go into detail about products I use such as ASEA. Runners are never short of curiosity when it comes to find ways to shave just a few more seconds off of their time.

Race Morning:

I got to the race with just a few minutes to spare. I was fortunate enough to be greeted by a woman who purchased my book the previous day. She was pleasantly surprised I remembered her name. We chatted for a bit while I stood in the portapotty line. CJ was her name and she was kind enough to hold my flag for me while I powdered my nose. Then there as just enough time to head to the start, hear an amazing rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner (I have to find out if that was an actual live performance) and virtually right on time, away we went.

First Four Miles:

Running with the flag is obviously not an easy task. If you are conscientious when you run, which is seemingly in short supply, it is even more difficult.  In the first few miles, I was doing all I could to stay out of people's way. Fortunately, one of the changes from the previous course was a first ever running along highway 217. This wide expanse of road was completely shut down for us scantily clad sweatmongers to traverse. It also made it easier to run on the side and away from others.

The entirety of this first section was new. It also gave the race a beach to beach feel it had been missing previously. I have now run the race six times and haven't run the same course twice. This is no knock on the race. I have run the Marine Corps Marathon five separate times and am pretty sure I haven't run the same course there either. But these changes might be the best ones yet and I hope they keep them for the future.

My goal for the race was simple: run the fastest time I have ever run on this course carrying the flag. This new section here in the first few miles, while beautiful, may have been mildly more difficult than the previous
course. I felt up to the challenge.

Some quick twists and turns took us from the UCSB campus out onto the highway and then onto a nice tree-lined parking lot. By the second mile, I was curious if my pace was off as the 1:30 pace group rocketed past me. (He would go on to run a 1:28:30 which if not, if you are scoring alone, a very good pacing job.) But a quick check on my watch had me going right where I needed to be.

I wasn't paying as much attention to my surroundings as I was during last week's Milwaukee Running Festival as I was doing what I could to run hard and not get in anyone's way with my flapping flag.

We turned out of this parking lot and onto the Obern Trail. Four miles in, I was still on pace to go under 1:30 for the race. But this is not the race course upon which to guess your finish time on how well you run the first third.

To Mile Nine:

I noticed immediately as we got onto the trail this this was the coolest temperature of all six of the races I had run here in Santa Barbara. Note I don't say it was cool or even chilly, but I was more than happy to not be sweating buckets. I don't recall being as much of a heavy sweater growing up or even playing sports in college. I am unsure if running has increased my sweat output or if I just became aware of it more given I hardy ever moved for over an hour continuously until I started running. But here as I pushed along I could tell it was going to be a good weather day.

This past week I posted my recaps of my previous races and I noticed a theme. I constantly spoke about how bicycle paths, like the one we were on here on the Obern Trail, always seem to give me a hard time. I have yet to really figure out what it is about them that slows me so.  In fact, even in my marathon PR at the Ogden Marathon, the last three miles had me slowing greatly on a bicycle path. Part of it was by design but part was forced.

On this day, however, I ran one of my better efforts on this path as I passed a few people who were in front of me and used the energy of a few who tried to pass me to help propel me forward.  One young fella who had been out way in front came to a stop on the side of the path. I had guessed he might have gone out way too fast but was hoping he was another prodigy as I seem to be running into them left and right this year. I offered some encouragement as I passed and he seemed to be at least in good spirits. I assumed he would be up and running any second again and thought he may just pass me.

One runner in this race, who was definitely younger but hardly a child, I had met at the expo the previous day. Peter from Denmark, now living in Santa Barbara, had asked me about the course. I told him I had heard a few friends set a PR on it but it might be tough.  He told me about his race results rather generally and I predicted a 1:19 for him. He ended up running a 1:18:05 for 10th place overall.  Kudos Peter!

After a bit on this trail we were finally spit out onto the back streets of a neighborhood that I feel like I know so well after so many repeated running of this race. I was happy to be out from the skinny bicycle trail and could roam a bit more freely. This neighborhood area starts a slight uphill portion which becomes full blown in less than a mile. While many know of the Cliff Drive hill coming up later, this portion here can make or break your race.

A very interesting thing has happened to me in the past few years. I used to be an excellent downhill runner. I can't say I have slowed that greatly but I have noticed my uphill running, at least when it is done on roads, has improved a great deal. As we ran along Modoc Road, I found myself, even without the full use of my arm holding the flag, powering up and passing more than a few people. Interestingly enough, right here, there were no less than five women all running close to each other in time. At least two of them seemed to be partially working in tandem but for the most part these women appeared to just be women running roughly the same pace. As they had passed me on the path earlier I was not expecting to see much of them again.  But up and down the hills of Modoc Road, leading to the downhill before Cliff Drive, I was able to pass most of them and get ready for the last four miles home.

While it appeared I had lost all chance to break 1:30, I was still well under the pace I needed to best my two previous times of running this race holding a flag (1:32: 57 and 1:32:35.)

Heading Home:

Making a turn off of Modoc Road on a short but steep hill, I knew we had approximately 1.5 miles of gradual downhill to shakeout our my legs. I expected to do better on this downhill than I did.  As I mentioned above, I used to be able to shred downhills. Perhaps I was saving myself a but as I knew that Cliff Drive awaited.  I know I didn't feel strained at all which was reassuring. while this section is normally
shaded by the sun for most of the run downhill, it still felt even a bit cooler than usual.  The wind was there as I could tell from the flapping of my flag but it was not as bad as in previous years. For the past few miles, I had been playing cat and mouse with a couple of women and one had pulled far ahead. Another was on my heels and we ran down this hill together. She also pulled away near the tenth mile, about .3 of a mile before we began our climb up Cliff Drive. I looked at my watch and saw it was going to be one of those races where my time was going to probably be close to the next minute. I have more races with 50-some seconds in them than any other time.  If I can, I do everything possible to not have a time that ekes over into the next minute. I know I am not the only one who does that.

I took a deep breathe and began to climb Cliff Drive. For some reason, even though this hill has almost made me walk sometimes, and has made me walk others, I felt strong today.  I powered up it with my eyes held high. I am not ready to say "before I knew it I was at the top" as it is assuredly a hill that makes its presence known.  But 3/4 of mile later I was on the top and breathed a sigh of relief. I knew a couple of turns through some neighborhoods and a small uphill was all that stood between me and the long beautiful downhill home.

Again I played cat and mouse with a some runners and again I was able to pull past them on the uphill. We made the turn and the Pacific Ocean exploded on our right. Soon thereafter, the mile of flags began with members of our military there to hand out small postcard-sized flags to everyone to carry to the finish. I politely declined as my hands were already full..

Here I also noticed that because I had run Cliff Drive far faster than I expected. I had an outside chance to run under 1:30. I would have never thought that possible a few miles earlier but wanted to give it a go. It would requite a 6:00 mile in this last mile, unfortunately. I lowered my head, and began to run.

As the final few yards of the race came into focus I knew I had run hard and had made up some time but that sub-90 minute half was not in the cards today.  I ran a 6:19 last mile and finished in 1:30:22. This was just my 51st fastest half-marathon ever but one I was exceedingly proud to run. (Also, for the third straight year, I had someone pass me very close to the finish line, with not a care in the world that they were passing a flagbearer. No major complaints as a race is a race but at least this one hadn't tried to trip me three times.)

Having now done this event six times in one form or another I think it might be time for me to move onto a different race.  I love coming here in November but with only so many weekends in a year and only so many miles in my legs, I want to see more of this country and world. I am presently accepting invitations from all races.

Until that time, however, my heartfelt thanks goes out to all veterans. By doing what you do, I am able to choose to go run around on weekend's knowing I live under the blanket of security you help provide.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Milwaukee Running Festival (13.1) Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 10; 22nd Edition 
289 miles run; 16 miles biked; 800 meters swam in 2015 races
Race: Milwaukee Running Festival
Place: Milwaukee, WI
Miles from home: 2063
Weather: 50s; Dry; Sunny

Taking on inaugural events is usually a mixed bag of happenings.  It is exciting to be on-hand for the "first" of a running event.  However, being the guinea pig for something in which you are also testing yourself physically can leave you hung out to dry. I have experienced both the pros and cons of being involved with inaugural races in the past and as such am more selective with those I involve me, and my legs, with these days.

Yet, with this race I knew I would probably be in good hands.  The race director, Chris Ponteri is not only himself a sub-3 hour marathoner but also the RD of the wildly popular Icebreaker Indoor Marathon held in Milwaukee in January.  I have heard rave reviews about this race from trusted friends and assumed that expertise from Chris in that race would carry over to this one as well.

What also intrigued me about this event weekend was the addition of a mile race to be held prior to the expo on Saturday.  Built more as a fun run for kids than a speed race for those looking for a fast mile, it was still nonetheless a mile race. The miles, as an event, used to be the stuff of spectator sport legen.  But it has fallen on hard times. That is why such companies like Bring Back The Mile were needed. which the country is sorely lacking in. A few months ago I wrote about witnessing my first ever sub-4 minute mile and how incredible of an experience that is.  Obviously, on a good day, while I wouldn’t come within 45 seconds of that time, I still love the idea of racing a mile.

I knew going into it would not be a fast race, regard. I told Chris that, as a race director myself, I completely understood the reasoning for the course design as it was. Shaped like a backward C, it ran around the grounds of the Harley Davidson Museum, where the expo took place.  As such, no streets needed to be blocked, no permits were needed, and all the other headaches which come from street racing were set aside. From  the perspective of an event manager, it was a dream.  From a runner’s perspective, making eight 90-degree turns was going to be a nightmare.When the morning of the mile race broke with cold rain, we knew a slick pavement was going to be likely. Like I said, it wasn't going to be fast.

I lined up with the “elites” of the day which was both flattering and laughable for me.  But I fit the criteria for the bill, so I accepted it. I had spent the hour before the race setting up my expo booth at the expo which, I am pretty sure, is not the proper warm-up for a mile. Nevertheless, I was excited to race. I felt on this course a 5:20 would be possible. But with the rain I figured ten seconds should be added to that to account for slowing down. When the gun went off I was briefly in the lead before I realized I am slow and it is almost impossible to convince a marathoner’s legs to run that hard for that long. The governor on my energy level simply is hard to override.  It cannot seem to understand that this will all be over in 5 minutes, not three hours. That said, about halfway through I was able to put a little more of a spurt of energy than expected and came in with a time of 5:36.  Definitely not what I was hoping for but I hadn’t fall and broken any bones on the pavement so let’s call it a win. In addition, there were some stunningly fast time with the winner running a 4:30, so who am I to say what is fast and what is not?!

After a day at the expo, I had a good night’s sleep and felt excellent for the race.  The weather was marvelous with a starting temperature right around 49 degrees.  People kept saying it was perfect to which I have to disagree. It was rather windy in spots and with bright sunshine, that doesn’t make for "perfection."  Do not get me wrong: it was pretty darn good. I just reserve my superlatives for when they should be used. Which is why virtually nothing is “epic.” (Take note, millennials. Your salad is never “epic.”)

My goal for the day was to run right around 6:30 per mile which I felt well within my wheelhouse. I knew there were two long hills and a series of shorter ones in the middle of the race but I felt prepared. I was ready to get underway.

The gun went off and while I felt like I was really running hard, I could tell by using clues of the runner around me, I wasn’t going as fast as I would like. The first mile went by in 6:46 and I was rather perturbed. I thought perhaps I would settle into a groove and recoup some of the time in the next mile.

Apparently, many of the races in Milwaukee make use of this shoreline road, alongside Veteran's Park and a marina near McKinley Park. But for those who don’t race here often, or are from out of town, this was a beautiful setting.  The sun was casting diamonds off the water and it was simply gorgeous.  Then next thing I know there was the sand from Bradford Beach Park and I felt like we were running in Florida. It was
visually stunning.

I ran another 6:46 at mile 2 and realized, with the race barely underway, that race-wise it was probably over for me. As the course continued down this flat stretch, I knew we would just finish the third mile before climbing up the biggest hill of the day. A group I was running with pulled away from me effortlessly. I could only hope they were speeding up but knew that was not the case.  When we passed the third mile and I clocked a 6:56, I felt like the course was breaking up with me but in reverse fashion: “It’s not me, it’s you” it said. I couldn't have asked for a better start to a race and my legs simply were to having none of it.

I mentioned in my Twin Cities Marathon recap that one of the more difficult things about long-distance racing is knowing early on that your goals for the day are shot. You still have an hour (or two or three) more of running and all it will do is end up with you being disappointed anyway.  It shows one’s true character if they can accept that disappointment and just move on the best they can. For me, I felt it would be best to jettison time goals and turn this into a day where I was a running spectator. Obviously, I was not going to be just jogging alone but if it is not your day, well, it is not your day.  That is what makes racing so special. It is not what you "can" do, it is what you actually do. Furthermore, while I know many read my recaps to hear about my experiences, many more read them to learn about the race itself. So, I became a journalist with a 140 pulse rate at this point.

Cresting the big hill at 3.5 miles I was rather surprised that my mile split was just ten seconds slower than the previous mile. I figured it would be far worse. Perhaps accepting the inevitable slowdown had somehow helped me. We turned from Lake Drive to Wahl Ave and were visited by the twin visions of beautiful Lake Michigan on our left and some stunning homes with price tags I am guessing in the millions on our right. Unsurprisingly, there were few spectators here. I have run numerous races through ritzy sections of towns and I can count on one hand the number times the 1% who crawl out of bed in the mornings to cheer on the sweaty masses.  No hate here.  If I had 3000 count sheets it might be hard for me to get out of bed to cheer on runners as well.  No, that's not true. In fact, any time a race goes on near me and I am not racing, you will see me out there trying my best to give back.

As I finally felt human, I thought perhaps the first few miles were an aberration. With a mild downhill section for the next two miles, I might be just able to turn up my speed and salvage this race. However, my next two miles stayed in the same time area of the previous miles in spite of my intense efforts to pick up the pace.  Here is where I knew the full re-evaluation from earlier about this not being my day was spot-on.  As I ran, I laughed as I saw a sign for the Oak Leaf Trail.  This trail was part of a shakeout run I did on Friday morning when I first arrived in town.  However, I noticed the Oak Leaf Trail seems to sprawl all over Milwaukee.  In fact, it doesn’t necessarily seem to be connected to itself yet maintains the same name.  This could definitely lead to some confusion if people were trying to meet on it somewhere. Getting jolted back to the run from the previous day, as I explored some of Milwaukee helped break up a slight pity party for me on my less-than-stellar day.

What was stellar, however, were the beautiful trees surrounding us as we left Back Bay Park and into some of the neighborhoods of town. Here the crowds, hardly teeming but still quite vocal, began to have a presence. One woman loudly clanged on a dinner triangle and shouted “Thank you for coming to Milwaukee and giving us a reason to drink beer at 8 a.m!” I fully felt that she would have gladly toasted the sunrise as a reason to drink but appreciated the enthusiasm nonetheless.

After a couple of rolling hills we crossed underneath the Marsupial Bridge to traverse the Milwaukee River.  If you have read my second book, 138,336 Feet to Pure Bliss you will know about my love of bridges. While there was an ankle-breaking 180-degree turn section here, I loved the footpath we crossed to get over the river.  Some road construction on the other side made things a little tight for a bit here as we forced up onto the sidewalk but it was short-lived. After a couple of quick turns we ran briefly on the Riverwalk, another section I had run on my shakeout run previously. Then we ran through downtown past my hotel and where I had eaten dinner the previous night.  I thought perhaps I should have looked at the map a little closer to see how many places I was going to see twice!

The last big hill around mile nine loomed ahead.  Nothing too high but rather a long sloping tilt brought us out of the heart of downtown and passed numerous architectural treats. Stone buildings which now house banks and buildings of finance but whose outward appearance was that of fortresses were on both sides. Churches and the spires rose above the skyline. The wind picked up here a bit in this little tunnel and I found myself falling in behind a few runners to let them block the wind. I was fully expecting to have continued to slow through this section as my “A” goal was gone for the day. The odd thing was not that I was tired but that my legs simply refused to respond to my yelling at them to go forward. I wasn't out of breath either per se. Simply nothing would fire.  In hindsight, the fact I had run the second highest mile month of the year in October and raced the mile the day previously should have been enough reason to expect a slight slowdown.  However, I wasn’t ready to accept that. I just assumed I could will myself faster. I assumed wrong.

As we closed in on Marquette University, the stone buildings and their ornateness continued. I have only been to Milwaukee a handful of times and I have enjoyed being there every time.  It is one of those cities where you just feel like people are doing things right. Sure they like beer and are mostly Packers fans but I can forgive that. It was also rather coincidental that Al from Happy Days, set in Milwaukee, had just died 48 hours earlier. This has nothing to do with the race or the city per se but it is what was on my mind as I simply
wanted to be at the top of the hill.

I passed a rather exuberant chap wearing a November Project shirt right before the half marathoners split from the marathoners. Someone he knew asked him what he was running that day and he told them he was going the full way. I mentioned I was also going the full way but my “full” was going to take significantly less time than his. There were more than a few people with these November Project shirts on which have become rather cultish in certain cities in the ways those who are involved support the others. This guy seemed to have no fewer than three different people running certain portions of the race with him for a few miles. He had been around me for most of the race so far and I marveled at those who seemed to be supporting him and he supporting them. If that sort of support is what having a team project like this is about then I am all for it. Good for them.

I left Marquette University and headed toward the last 3 miles. I somehow, also, was speeding up.

Mile 10 was hardly a pretty mile but if you run a race in a city not everything is going to be roses. People don't want to say ill of the NYC Marathon which just happened to be run on the same day but a vast majority of that course is hardly "pretty" or easy.  It is the character and organization of the race which allows it to thrive, not the foliage or buildings (although they don't hurt.)  But as non-eye-pleasing as this mile was, I saw it as exactly what it needed to be: a connector mile to have the half marathon join the marathon for the last two miles. When you have done more than just run races, but spent time directing them, designing them and all the nitty-gritty as I have for the past decade, you completely understand why some things are the way they are. I didn't see it as anything other than an opportunity to take on long, flat, straight stretch in which I could really shake out my legs. For the previous few miles, a few runners and I had been duking it out as I seemed to find a second wind. I kept thinking I was surging ahead only to have them get into my peripheral vision again. Here on the bridge however, with no need t think about hills or turns or anything else, I finally began to separate myself from some of them. The "ugliness" here was a thing of beauty to me.

As we left this overland bridge and went onto the surface streets, I have to share a funny story about the volunteers at the aid stations. They were extremely helpful and very vocal so there is no complaints whatsoever from me. Rather, the fact they were telling runners what was in each glass is where the story is.  Some of the tables had water and some had the electrolyte supplement Nuun (pronounced “noon”.)  I am a big supporter of Nuun and have been drinking it for ages. While my partnership with them is currently on hiatus, I still love the drink.  But I digress. As is often the case, the vast majority of tables are on one side of the road. Occasionally in races like this a table will be on the other side, less stocked than others but to be used in case there is a bit of a loggerjam or maybe for left-handed runners, I am never quite sure. While the other tables are set up in a fashion so you know they contain one drink or another the singular table often has both.  One volunteer, wanting to make sure I knew what she had to drink, held up both hands and said:

 “I have water in this hand and None in this!”

It took me a second to realize that she mispronounced “Nuun” before I let out a big laugh.  At first I thought she was just making sure that her one hand had nothing in it.  I told her the correct pronunciation as I passed, grabbed the drink and thanked her for the laugh.

With two miles to go, I began to notice I was still speeding up.  In fact, I was most assuredly going to negative split the race. There was no way I thought this was possible just an hour ago. I was still going to be minutes off my project finish time but at least I hadn’t fallen apart.  I began zeroing in on a few runners behind me and started to reel them in. We turned onto Erie St and I smiled as I always do seeing the name of the biggest town close to my hometown. In quick succession I passed two runners and had two runners pass me. It was a weird juxtaposition of feeling good about having caught two people but feeling bad two others had passed me. I looked at my watch and realized if I picked it up a touch I could salvage a decent day out of what had started so poorly.  I narrowed my eyes, pinned back my ears and gave it all I had.

I crossed the finish in 1:30:52, good enough for 54th place overall in my 84th lifetime marathon. It was only my 55th fastest half-marathon ever but I was pleased with how I bounced back from a horrendous start. I quickly went back to my hotel, showered and came back down to help with the race. I hopped on the announcers mic for a bit and welcomed in runners for 30 minutes or so while talking shop with the organizers. Then I passed out water and finisher's medals to runners for a few hours. Finally a little tired, I called it a day. Both courses seemed to be a little tougher than what people were suspecting from the race but over and over I heard about how well-organized the event was. From my own experience I can only echo those sentiments.  I fully expect to return again next year and can't wait to be back in Milwaukee.