Monday, May 29, 2017

The Road to Sparta - A Book Review

Dean Karnazes and I are essentially clones.  Also, Dean and I have nothing in common.  Let me explain.

When I first started getting into running I came upon a cover of Runner's World that had Dean on it. Bulky, muscular, tanned, he looked nothing like the other runners usually on the cover.  While I was hardly anywhere close to as chiseled, seeing what looked like a linebacker being lauded for running prowess gave me hope that my 6'1"180 lb frame might be able to do something solid in the sport. I was a fair runner in high school (for the two years I ran) then moved to rugby in college and even amassed a Golden Gloves record of 1-1 in law school (I lost, then won and then said, enough of that.) But running is what I turned to in my mid-20s as a way to stay in shape. It just so happened all the runners I knew at the time weighed about half my body weight.

As fate would have it, I would meet Dean a few months before my 52 Marathons in 52 Weekends journey. That same year Dean, who didn't tell me at the time we met, would be undertaking his 50 marathons in 50 States in 50 days expedition. I had already begun to find my niche when we met but it was amazing to meet him in person.  I also noticed the first of our differences: height. While down the line many casual runners would get the two of us confused (similar first name, long indecipherable last name, many of the same-type running feats) in person no one would mistaken the 5'8'' Dean for the 6'1'' me.  As I later did to runners, he inspired me here.

Part of the inspiration for me to do my solo running of the 202-mile American Odyssey Relay was Dean. I had worked briefly for a company that put on these relays and they asked me to use my connection with Dean (which was at the time something I would classify as a step below friends but definitely more than acquaintances) to get him to run their races. That connection between Dean and the company never transpired but in talking with him about it, the idea was planted. I wanted to try one of those myself.

So why in a book review of Dean's latest book am I talking about this? Because, when I read Dean's books I see them as an extension of so many things that I have done and also want to do.  I am highly critical of the way he writes, the stories he tells, the events the tackles etc., because I look at them through my own eyes. Arrogantly or misguidedly, I see us as very similar. Which we are and aren't.

Dean's book The Road to Sparta: Reliving the Ancient Battle and Epic Run That Inspired the World's Greatest Footrace is, essentially, a race report. A race report about his taking on the Sparthalon, a 153 mile ultramarathon race held annually in Greece since 1983, between Athens and Sparta.  That's the simple explanation of both the race and the book. Obviously, there is much more.

Dean gives an account of his own history, both in running and in life. I know most of this history, having read his other books. He doesn't repeat much in the book of his past from the other books or when he does he says it in such a way that makes it fresh. This personal history is where I learned how different Dean and I are.

The crux of this book is how Greek Dean is and how much he wishes to connect with his roots. He mentions his ridiculous calf muscles and how they are present in everyone in his family. (He is also not bragging- his calf muscles are ridiculous.) His running heritage is undeniable and since an early age it was quite clear he was a cut above others when it came to running. He is tied very much to his heritage and the exact places he comes from. With myself, I haven't been a runner from the start and while I love my family, stories have not been passed down through generations. I don't identify as one heritage. I am German, Irish, and English at least. In addition, I have not been a runner who anyone knew was going to do anything of note, even after my first few marathons. So, while Dean and I may have done many of the same things but we undoubtedly diverge here. And it this connection to a people, to a place, to a specific race is what drives this book and is its hook.

Dean writes with passion. He also writes very entertainingly. In addition, he does a thing that I absolutely love and have found I do in my own writing. He will recount a story that seems a bit far fetched. One might even be inclined to believe it is exaggerated a bit or he tied a few instances together to make for a more cohesive tale (I can totally understand this. You have multiple conversations with many people and for the sake of brevity it is Steve from Poughkeepsie who asked all of those questions.) But then he produces a picture, photographic evidence of the exact thing he was talking about. Every time I see it I smile.

There are many moments where he lays himself bare. He talks about his failings. He mentions internet trolls and dealing with people who just want to snark on his achievements (again, Dean, feel ya there.) Most importantly he takes the reader along on this race and even though you may have zero desire to take this race on, you are rooting for him to complete it nonetheless.

Then, at the end of his race report, he makes this History major and knowledge sponge so excited by talking about the actual and literal history of the events which transpired to set this race up in Greek history thousands of years ago. Again, akin to my second book where I talked about my own experiences but also showed how running has played a major part in momentous occasions throughout history, Dean shows how one runner might have changed the course of the entirety of the human experience. That seems a bit of a reach until he lays it all out in black and white. It truly is hard to argue with his logic. Even if you do, you are engaged nonetheless.

This book is a totally enjoyable read. If you are even a casual runner I think you owe it to yourself to grab a copy. Part history lesson, party inspirational tome, and part tale of Dean's life, it is all rolled into one solid piece of work.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Pure Austin Splash and Dash Series (2 of 6) Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 11; 9th Edition 
130.6miles run; 1500m swam in 2017 races
Race: Pure Austin Splash and Dash Series
Place: Austin, TX
Miles from home: 13
Weather: 80s; overcast; humid

I was barely home from my half-marathon in Winnipeg 48 hours previously when I found myself driving to the Pure Austin Aquathlon near my home. (Read about my first foray into this event last month here.)  After I had finished that first aquathlon, I had decided I needed to hit the pool and getting into swimming shape. So, in between two trips to Utah and Minnesota/Canada, I got in 6 swim workouts.  Hardly enough to prepare me for the Tokyo Olympics but better than "having not swum in 7 months" like the last race. However, as I had my number written on my arm and prepared to get ready for this quick burst of energy, I knew that the travel, a 50km race and a half-marathon all in the past 16 days, were definitely not going to make this effort easy.

Not the race but the exact outfit.
Control what you can, they say. They are smart. They should run for office and ix our bridges and roads. Having now done this race previously, I knew one thing I could work on greatly was my transition. I put my gear in a different place, wore a form fitting top to swim in (in lieu of trying to put on a singlet over my wet body in a hurry - never a good ting) and figured this would help me could cut some serious time down. My run might be slower but my swim should be faster.

Last month there were only 34 male finishers in this race.  This time there were 56. Definitely a more crowded field. I cut it a little close this time with traffic but was still in the water ready to go with time to spare  The weather was cloudy with a serious wind creating a little bit of a chop on the quarry's surface. There was actually a little bit of a chill in the air. I felt surprisingly good.


I positioned myself in a spot I felt would be more advantageous to avoiding other swimmers but still swim as straight of a line as possible.  Unlike last time in the middle of a washing machine, I was almost immediately out of the thick of things and swimming on my own. While I could tell I wasn't exactly cutting through the water like a hot knife through butter, I still felt like I was going fast and more importantly, felt quite relaxed. In fact, at no time during the whole swim did I feel all that tired.  That tells me I definitely should have tried to swim faster. Alas.

For what seemed like at least the last half of the swim I was right next to two other guys.  We were swimming in unison in a bit of a goose V-formation. I couldn't quite pass the guys and they couldn't pull away so I just sat in their pocket. As we neared the shore I wondered if they were good runners and not just good swimmers. I had half of a mind to try and pull ahead to at least beat them out of the water but decided to save my effort for the run.

While I don't know my exact swim time last month the combination of my swim and transition was 12:52. This time it was 12:27. An improvement for sure but I know a great deal of that came in the transition. It was a very smooth and quick one and I think I have that portion down about the best that I can.  I now know my spot and what to do and will repeat it for the next race. The time on my watch for this race had me at 11:46 for the swim. From the water to shoes to up the rocky hill to starting the first loop was just a mere 39 seconds. It can be better but that was pleasing.


A gentleman I spoke to earlier in the race who had beaten my by 1:10 last month was right in front of me. Oddly enough, while I never saw him in the last race he had been exactly 7 seconds faster than me on the 1st and 3rd of the three loops of that run while we ran identical times on the second loop. I didn't know this at the time but when he didn't immediately pull away from me in the run, I thought perhaps I might be able to reel him in.

We made our first loop on a relatively empty first half. As we trudged up the back side of the loop, over the loose gravel and up the twisty turn hill portion, he began to pull away. However, I hung onto him long enough to pass a rather large muscular fella who must have been an amazing swimmer but was not so hot on the run.  Unfortunately, I had no idea if I was running fast or slow.   I just knew I didn't seem to have much zip. But right before I hit the end of the first loop a fella passed me by.   Well, damn. I wasn't expecting that. I ran the first loop in 4:28 (compared to 4:25 last month) and was pleasantly surprised.  It felt much slower.

Right before I started my second loop I saw one of the many female wunderkinds in this race start her own first loop.  The women in this race started a few minutes behind us which is a blessing as this path is narrow enough as it is.  When I do the aquathlon championship race here in October, where it goes run, swim, run, this is going to be a ridiculously crowded course. I am already not looking forward to that, especially with the twists, roots, gravel and uphill on each lap.  But I digress.  I had only beaten this tiny little girl by 38 seconds last month so I was determined to make sure I did it by more now. On the back half of the loop I passed her, meaning that, given I was running a ~4:30 loop, and we had a 3:00 head start, at least I would beat her by a whopping 90 seconds this time if I kept up the pace. I hit the second loop in 4:25 just two seconds slower than last month's 4:23.  Not too shabby.

As we began the final loop it was now fully crowded with men I was lapping and women just starting out. I had not much left in my legs but felt like I was pushing. I didn't have the zip to verbally give my usual "attaboy"s to anyone I passed. I was just was looking forward to being done and not getting passed by anyone else. (I learned afterward the the fastest runner fo the day was breathing down my neck.  Thanks goodness his swim was worse.)  Around the loop I went one final time and headed home. I was passing guys in groups of three or four now and unfortunately had to adjust my stride accordingly.  With one final push, I hit the last straightaway, pushed past a few runners, and ended this lap in 4:28 (compared to 4:20 last month.)  My time last month overall was 26:02.  I hit my watch at 25:49.  I finished 7th overall in the men as compared to 9th overall last time.

Honestly, in spite of the chop on the water, the races run and the miles traveled, I was still disappointed. I felt I had been much faster in the swim and that was where I could make up the most time. 13:21 for the two miles of running (the course says it is 3k or 1.8 but it is wrong) is hardly bad but another thing I need to work on. I should be a minute faster than that.

As I write this my total place is a bit unknown for men and women. There was some snafu with the women's time that had a batch of them ahead of men they didn't beat and I think one man wasn't listed. More than handful of the same guys ran this race and I was one of only three who improved their time. So while I feel I have much to work on, especially in the swim, this is not a bad barometer. I only have one race (a half marathon near my home town) scheduled between now and the next aquathlon and that is ten days prior.  There should be no reason why I am not at least two minutes faster next time.Well, except I am old, fat, and out of shape.

But I won't let that stop me from pretending otherwise.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

MEC Winnipeg Race Two Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 11; 8th Edition 
128.6miles run; 750m swam in 2017 races
Race: MEC Winnipeg Race Two
Place:Winnipeg, Manitoba
Miles from home: 1495
Weather: 50s; Windy; Partly Sunny

This race happened because I like maps.

When scanning the map for places I wanted to go see, the Northwest Angle came across my screen. If you don't know about this place, read more here.  Suffice it to say, as I have already been to a number of exclaves in the US, if an opportunity arises to check out a new one, I jump on it. I was planning a random trip to Minnesota anyway so I knew I had to check out this geographical anomaly. While tooling around on the net learning more about it, I came upon the story of the last oneroom schoolhouse in Minnesota. I was beyond intrigued.  Before long, I had booked not only a trip to the area and a cabin to enjoy it but was going to give a talk to the kids at the Angle Inlet School. Meeting them on an absolute beautiful May day, in their tiny haven of education was an absolute joy for me even though.  Unfortunately, because the Goulets were out of town, half of the school's population was missing when I was there. (I am not using hyperbole.)

In my planning, I decided after vising the Angle, I would want to see a little bit of Manitoba. While I could spend weeks doing just that, my time was short so I decided I would head to the lovely city of Winnipeg.  I then, as I do anywhere I am going to go, looked to see if there was a race that weekend. Sure enough, the extremely blandly named MEC Winnipeg Race Two was on the docket. (This is not an insult.  In fact, I found the simplistic name very relaxing. And for $20 CAD, that is a price you can't beat for a half-marathon virtually anywhere.)  MEC (the Canadian sorta-equivalent of REI) sponsored the event and after a few emails exchanges with them, I was soon signed up for the half-marathon in the "the most popular Race Series in Manitoba." Here, I would like to give a special thanks for the RD of the race for helping me solve a logistical issue with a park pass, necessary in order to enter the area we would run the race. Although, honestly, I have a feeling that no one really checked if we had those passes in this large but still somehow quaint park we would traverse.

Upon looking at the race website, I expected the sort of low-key race that has become very familiar to runners who don't participate in one of the events that boast 20,000 or more runners.  It seems there are far more races on the two ends of the spectrum these days then a heart bell curve midsection.  It is either over the top huge or Frank, Suzy and their nine pals.  In other words, this race looked like it would be big on camaraderie and making people feel good and very low on any other frills. I have said before that when it comes to racing, I like frills. But it is ok to not have them.

Race Morning:

I debated eating or drinking anything prior to the race. If you have read my recaps, you know I get by fairly calorie free way.  For  example, in my 50k two weeks ago I drank water, had one swig of coke and a corner of a corner of a PB&J sandwich during the race and nothing the morning of.  This is not because I think I am a badass who doesn't need calories but more along the combination of I feel a heart meal the night before should suffice and I don't process food very well at all in any sort of speedy way.  If I eat something and go for a run five hours later, I am still tasting it.  But I thought I might want to try a beverage beforehand this race,  as I do at least process liquid calories somewhat well. I came to detest that decision and will refer to this recap in the future when I make similar decisions for races that are only going to take 90 minutes.

I drove from my hotel to the Birds Hill Provincial Park about a 15 mile jaunt.  I realize "Provincial Park" is just the Canadian version of "state park" but it sounded so regal. It added a little zest to the race in my mind.  Like maybe there would be people regaling all participants with long horns adorned wit the flags of the various families of the crown.  (It was early. I was tired. I don't think straight then.)

Arriving earlier than normal to this race mostly because would because I was unaware of how the park was laid out, what the traffic situation would be, and other intangibles, I was unhurried. I am glad I did as it was definitely a more populated race than I as expecting with both a 5k and 10k joining our half.  With just a singular one-lane road (which would serve as our race course as well) in the interior of the park, it would definitely get crowded later.

I parked my car and ambled toward the finish.  After a quick bathroom break, I meandered toward the start which was a few hundred yards away.  On my way I eavesdropped on the Canadians around me and just reveled in their accents. I jokingly asked if anyone knew what the exchange rate was on time and if I could run less because I was American. At the start there were what appeared to be close to 100 or so other runners who milled around rather lackadaisically even though were were just about two minutes from the start of the race. I had no designs to win the race, but hoped for a top 5 showing.  We were called to the start and when no one else moved to the front, I decided I wasn't going to run any further than necessary and literally toed the painted line.  A quick countdown happened and we were off.

Loop 1:

The loops were just a hair over 5k each and we would do four of them to complete the course.  Upon doing so, we would add another bit at the end of the fourth loop, taking us to where the 10k started. A sharp left off this ten foot wide paved path would have us thirty yards from the arch finish (a nice touch I wasn't expecting.)

Within a few yards I found myself behind a handful of runners. At first blush, the loops look relatively flat but they were anything but. There was a tiny rise, then a downhill, then a flat section, then a bump, then a nice sloping downhill, then two flats separated by one long gradual uphill. I would become intimately knowledgeable about every inch by the end of the race.

After another few hundred yards a few other runners passed me and I think I counted I was in 8th place. My stomach was not happy at all but I figured it would settle. The course had no mile markers (we were in Canada) but had most of the kilometers marked. Those come much faster than mile markers (brilliant observation, Dane) and the fact that there were markers for the other races as well meant there was always a marker on the horizon. It was either cool or annoying to have so many reminders of how far you had run, depending on how well you felt.  When it became quite clear by the second mile that I wasn't winning or placing in the top three, I sort of settled into a rhythm.  I had hoped that this race would be a springboard back into fast racing. I expected cool temperatures to help me suss out my progress.  However, it was 50 degrees when we started, there was bright sunshine, and it was a bit humid. Then we hit the back side of the loop.

A stiff breeze stood me up a bit and I heard some footsteps. A runner passed me (named Derek) and even though he got a few yards in front of me, he just sorta stayed there. I figured that I would use him to help set the pace and maybe break a little of the wind for me. Not only had the cool weather I had hoped for had not appeared but I could feel that I wasn't quite rested from my 50k two weeks prior.  All the traveling from the previous week, as well as adding some swim workouts (I had an aquathlon race in Austin just 48 hours later) and I guess today was not going to be the day that I spring boarded back into "fasthood."

We approached the end of the first loop and I had hoped for 22:00 even.  I ran 22:25. Not bad.  Not great, though.

Loop 2:

I am reading Dean Karnazes latest book and he touches on how runners can become thoroughly familiar with random pieces of nondescript land. Already, after one loop, I felt I could tell you where
every nook and cranny was on this trail. I couldn't remember what pace I wanted to run each kilometer in but I knew I should hit this one hump near the aspen tree in 8:30 per loop if I wanted to stay on pace.

About halfway through the second loop we were already dodging runners from the 5k and the 10k who had started after we started our half.  Suddenly the guy in front of me, who had ebbed and flowed and was now just inches in front of me, pulled over to grab a glass of water.  I accelerated.  If he was going to pass me again, he was going to work for it. He gave what seemed to be a bit of a chase and then fell back. However, I don't know how far back he fell as the other runners' footsteps masked his progress.  I would just have to run hard and hope. The wind on the back part of the loop was present again and appeared it would be here each time. I tried to slingshot from runner to runner in an attempt to use their bodies to block the wind. Shake and Bake!

Any major acceleration I attempted was met with a revolt from my stomach. The speed I was running was apparently the governor my gut  had put on my legs today.  As I was not wishing to see my food from the previous night in reverse, I paid it heed. I approached the lap and hit my watch.  22:28.  Well, that's consistent.

Loop 3: 

On this loop some of the runners who had pulled away seemed to come into focus again. I had passed one runner before the end of the first loop and another right at the beginning of the second.  I thought I might be able to reel some of the runners in ahead who perhaps had gone out too fast. But this entire loop I would spend running in the exact same position, inching forward on the runners before me.  I mean, "centimetering" forward.  I'm sorry, Canada.

Hardly hot, the sun nevertheless was shining down from above and I was, as per usual, pretty dripping wet. I grabbed my first and only cup of water around what I think was mile nine. This was the only time all day the table was on the side I was on, there were no other runners in the way, and I felt it was time to drink. My mouth had become quite dry and I couldn't believe I would end up running 13.1 miles on just one mouthful of water.

This loop felt pretty awful even though I felt I was gaining on the runners in front of me. I knew with just one lap to go, if I could close in on them a bit, my racing instincts might kick in. Passing the starting point in 22:39, I was surprised once again, how metronomic I had been even on an "off" loop.  Only 14 seconds different over 3.2 miles.

Loop 4:

I was really hoping to turn it on and catch some of the runners in front of me but instead of getting closer, they had moved further into the distance. Now I had a decision to make: should I work extra hard to move up from 8th place to 7th to run a time that would still be far slower than I had hoped or should I just hold my ground, keep the pace, and lived to race another day. With about two miles to go I decided on the latter.  Just then I heard footsteps and a runner went flying by me.  I later learned that Jin had showed up late and was making up time the best he could. I made an attempt to fall into his slipstream for about 100 yards but that was all I could muster. I glanced behind me and saw not a soul as far back as the turns of the forest would allow.

The only question which remained was whether my time would be 1:30 or 1:31. I did the math and figured if I ran close to the same loop again I would be right over 1:31. As I passed a few remaining 10k joggers I could hear the finish line megaphone in the distance. I slipped by the starting point for the final loop in 22:27.  I laughed at the exactness.

A handful of runners had gathered on the last turn I mentioned previously and cheered me as I made the left. I passed a few 10k runners in the final few yards while the announcer said my name and that I was from Austin, Texas.  While here was a sizable gathering of runners, hardly a hand was clapped as I finished in 1:31:38. Guess they don't like Americans!

About a minute or so later, however, the next half marathoner finished,  and he too was met with stone cold silence. I was quite surprised actually.  As I stood there and chatted with this runner, Derek, a few more half-marathoners and a smattering of 10k runners came in.  I clapped for everyone of them and I might have been the only one doing so.  I am not saying that one must lose their mind for strangers but when you are literally inches away from where they are finishing, it is almost awkward not to cheer for them. This is hardly a big thing but just something I recognized.

At the awards ceremony, I donated a few DVD copies of  the documentary of my solo running of the 202 mile American Odyssey Relay which were given as door prizes.  I signed the copies, spoke to a few runners (including Jin where I learned of his late arrival) and then headed toward my car. 

I was at least the fastest American. Also, let's hear it for the old guys. This was not the race I was hoping for but wasn't too bad. It was also my 98th lifetime halfmarathon. I might need to start making plans as to what my 100th will be and carry a handful of confetti with me to toss at the finish.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Ten Tips for Beginning Runners

I have the great fortune to meet, on a weekly basis, runners who are completely new to the sport or still learning the ropes. One would think with the wealth of information at our fingertips, runners could inform themselves about the ins and outs of being a newbie runner. Unfortunately, separating the wheat from the chaff can be hard. The good information is hidden out there beneath a swirl of falsehoods, harebrained ideas, and anecdotal experiences which are often couched as overarching fact.

However, I have put together some tips I have culled from more than 15 years of running and more than 150 marathons under my belt that are guaranteed to help you advance. In my opinion, information not shared is wasted. The greatest thing about knowing something is to using it to help others get to an understanding quicker than it took you to get to that same point. So, please use these nuggets to help you get out the door and stay running safely and healthily.


So many newbies are afraid of putting a zero in their log book. They see it as weakness or as wasted opportunity to do better. I understand this feeling, especially if you are trying to get back into shape. The desire to do it as soon as possible is high. But the only way your body will repair itself is if you give it a chance to do so. Any good training plan sees rest as paramount.


A great way to stay accountable to your workouts is by joining others in a group. You should definitely do some solo runs, but having the knowledge and energy of many people available to you is extremely helpful to all, especially those who are new to the sport. You can glean so much in such a short amount of time. Plus, surrounding yourself with people who share your interest is so much better than listening to your aunt tell you that running will destroy your knees.


Most running injuries come when those, flush with the desire to better themselves, try to erase 10 years of neglect in 10 weeks. Take your time. Allow your body the chance to remember what it is like to exercise again. And the amount of miles you do is not nearly as important as how well those miles are run.


Slowing down can actually build strength and endurance to benefit your running. In fact, it is amazing what a few seconds of walking can do, even in races like a half-marathon. Once you graduate to marathons and ultras, the key to success often is knowing when and where to walk for a minute or two. Or ten.


Just as you shouldn’t be afraid to put a zero in your training log for a day of rest, you shouldn’t be
afraid to have a training log in the first place. And there is literally no excuse not to have one anymore with all of the ways of doing so online. Or just use an Excel spreadsheet. (Mine is legendary for the details it has. I can seriously tell you where I have been in this world on any day since January 1, 2006. But I digress.) The best way to look at trends in your running is to have the information available. This becomes very important when you feel you haven’t had a good run in a very long time just because the last three have been sub-par. Your log may tell a different story.


If for no other reason, cross-training allows you to exercise when you are not running. But it is also a good idea to work on non-running muscles to help balance out your total workout. No one needs to run all the time.


Break down your aspirations into daily, weekly, and monthly goals. And then view them as such. Keep both the big picture in mind while looking at the daily picture. It is cliché to say that Rome wasn’t built in a day but, well, it wasn’t. And that new PR in your 10k won’t be made after one week of running. Also, once you have set your goals, allow yourself the ability to change them if you underestimated yourself or, as is often the case, maybe you bit off a tad more than you can chew at first. Re-assessing is a sign of an intelligent runner, not one who has failed.


Find the foods that work for you and eat them. Don’t buy into fads or diets or anything like that. You know eating a pound of chocolate is likely not going to help you, so don’t do it. But most importantly, don’t deprive your body of the fuel it needs in even more demand now that you are running. Furthermore, as you will be much hungrier than you are used to, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can outrun a bad diet. We overestimate how many calories we burn and how much we eat all the time. Keep count, not to limit yourself, but to know what you are consuming.


The only bad mistakes you make are the ones you make over and over. We are constantly learning and processing information. If anyone tells you they have it all figured out, it is because they are trying to sell you something. With over 300 races into my career, I am still learning from doing things that weren’t right for me.


Not once you set a PR. Or when you get that new Timex. Or after you finally run a marathon. Right now. Before even putting on your shoes. Humans are made to run. You are a human. Ergo, you are a runner. The speed you run and the distance you go just tell you the type of runner you probably enjoy being. But nevertheless, if you haven’t had an official welcoming, let me be the first to do so.
“Hi, Runner. I’m a runner, too.”

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Breaking2: How Sub-2 Hour Marathon Almost Happened

Nearly three years ago I wrote about how a Sub-2 Hour marathon would happen. Following in line with what I thought would occur, the athletes lined up to try and do so this morning in Italy. They almost succeeded.

Saturday’s attempt was engineered by Nike researchers and involved three runners: Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge, with a PR of 2:03:05 and won the gold in Rio last year; Eritrean Zersenay Tadese, the world record holder in the half-marathon; and Ethiopian Lelisa Desisa, a two-time winner of the Boston Marathon.

Because it was put together by Nike and not run during an otherwise free-standing race, immediately it was decried as "not a real race." A publicity stunt. Nothing but a shoe advertisement. And I heard all of these from runners. God damn it, runners, this is why we can't have nice things.  Running supposedly has 30 million people who claim to be runners in the US alone but most couldn't be bothered to even care about this attempt to push the body to the utmost limit. Even so-called ambassadors of the sport, who only pretend to care about running when others are paying their way to
run in prestigious races like Boston or London, couldn't be bothered.

But I am focusing on the negative. I don't mean to but it seemed to be everywhere. Even as I followed along on the live feed on Twitter (the first time I and many others had also done so) there were many who felt the need to hedge their bets. "I don't think they will, and it isn't a real race, but here's hoping they do it." Thanks for the support JogStrap2017!

If you didn't follow it like a runnerd did (myself) the attempt would be done on the nearly flat 1.5-mile Formula One race track in Monza, Italy. There was an elaborate set up with pacers to help keep the cadence, a pace car which helped the pacers, and some fairly decent weather as well (53 degrees, cloudy, and at low elevation, with almost no wind when the race started at 5:45 a.m. local time.)

The race began mostly as planned, with runners keeping fairly close to the necessary 2.51 minutes per kilometer (4:34.5 minutes per mile) pace for the first five of the marathon’s 42.195 kilometers. But by the halfway point, Desisa and then Tadese had fallen off the pace and dropped behind the pace group. The naysayers then were out in full force. The runners falling off didn't have nearly as much to do about "Science" (sic) as it did with the fact that it just didn't happen.

I have often said that 75% of runs go nowhere near as good as we would like. The remaining 25% fall into smaller categories of close to what we like, what we would like, and succeeding what we would like. The chances of one of those days falling on race day are small indeed.  Throw in a longer-distance race and now we are talking infinitesimally small percentages. Chances are good that three days from now, any of the other two men who did not have a "good day" would have been the one nipping at two hours.

But Kipchoge ran alone as the only man with the attempt still possible. With each step he took he was still making history.  It was inspiring and gripping. As I tweeted I noticed I had sweaty palms. With 5km left it was still a reality he would break two hours. Then it wasn't. The last 5km ended up being just too much for Kipchoge to do.

Kipchoge ended up running a 2:00:25, which is less than one second per mile off of the amazing 1:59:XX. Not a world record because he had pacers and was handed liquids. In my opinion, that is ridiculous.  I keep seeing people say he had a pace car and to some extent that is correct.  There was a Tesla in front projecting a light back onto the ground that showed where the runners pacing the competitors had to stay.  Pacers rotated in and out to run with the competitors to try and keep them on target. But the car was far enough in front of the runners to have zero effect on drag. Any runner trying to drag off of another knows that if you fall even a few feet back, the assistance their body gives is almost nil. As for handing the runners drink? - C'mon man. What's the difference between handing them drinks and them grabbing drinks of of a table?

(I am reminded of the story of Josh Cox attempting to break the world record in the 50k by running the Rock N Roll Phoenix Marathon then immediately hitting a nearby track for the extra mileage.  He forgot his sunglasses and had his wife give them to him. But not really. She had to overturn a garbage can, set the sunglasses on top, and then Josh had to grab them off of the top of the box. Because handing them to him would be against the rules. Our sport is stupid sometimes.)

So on the day we celebrated the anniversary of Roger Bannister breaking the 4-minute mile (another highly "manufactured" non-race we seemed to have no problem with - could it be because Roger is white?) we almost saw a human being run 13.1 mph for two hours. That's simply awe-inspiring.

Me, with the only view of Mac I ever saw in a race.
Will this happen in a "real" race? I think so. I always have. I remember in high school, when I ran track for two years and was at best a third stringer on an insanely talented team of a bunch of farm boys, we had an excellent runner named Mac Knapp. He primarily ran the mile and 2 mile and kicked everyone's ass doing so. However, we all wanted him to take down our school's 800 meter record as well. So Mac, who rarely ran this race, decided to run it in one meet. Word got around and a competitor from another school volunteered to pace him through the first loop, simply out of deference and wanting to help.  He paced him well, Mac set the record, and kept it for another decade or so. (I am convinced he would have kept it for forty years if he ever actually trained for the 800, but that is another story.)  Now, that was a real race. But someone had helped him "manufacture" a time he might not have otherwise achieved that day.  Does it make it any less of a time than what he ran?  Not in my eyes. Same with this breaking2 extravaganza.

Call it a Nike commercial if you want. Like somehow there is someone who hasn't heard of Nike but somehow watches live-steaming running endeavors on Twitter. I saw runners, in a sport that has a little too much back-patting for mere completion for my tastes, doing everything possible to run as fast as they possibly can.

Pretending that a race is anything but that is pure fallacy.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Salt Flats (Adjacent) 50k Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 11; 7th Edition 
115.5 miles run; 750m swam in 2017 races
Race: Salt Flats 50k
Place: Salt Flats, UT
Miles from home: 1410
Weather: 40-50s; WINDY; Partly Sunny

Taking part in a race in today's world is interesting for a variety of reasons. The biggest intangible is weather. And if any climate change denier wanted to simply look at what has been happening in races all over the country the past few years, they would probably at least raise an eyebrow.

Two years ago I ran the 50 mile race here in Wendover and helped convince the RD to hold a 50k entirely on the Salt Flats.  Biblical rain covered the flats that year and we had to run an alternate course.  (I will say, off the bat, regardless of climate change, weather in the salt flats is always a little touch and go.  Especially in a long race that encompasses 24 hours or more, through a variety of geographical areas, the hodge-podge of weather is a mixed bag at best.  But I digress.) It did not appear that would be the case this year and running an entire race on the flats looked like a possibility.

Then that changed. We received an email a few days prior stating that it looked like, while not as deep, water would again be covering significant portions of the course. I know no one was as bummed as the organizers but we runners definitely would have preferred to run on this amazing surface. Personally, my training had not gone as well coming into this race as last year and while the alternative course isn't exactly hellacious, it is obviously more hilly than the flats. I had been looking forward to not dealing with any climbs at all, especially here at elevation. Alas.

This not only required a change of attitude but a complete change of gear. Gone were the Icespike-clad shoes and regular ole running shoes were on my feet. This alternate course is so runnable that I am sure most hard-core "trail" enthusiasts would scoff at it. The biggest obstacle we would face was going to be the wind. And that is an understatement!

Race Morning:

One of my athletes that I coach, Sonia, was going to be taking on her first 50k at this race. Her training was going stellar and I had high hopes for her.  She and virtually everyone else were at the starting line decked out like a snowpaclypse was upon us.  Granted many runners were doing the 50 and 100 mile version of the race so warmer clothing was necessary. With a 39 degree starting temperature, my warm-blooded self was in heaven.  But all these heavily-clad people began playing with my mind.  Then I remembered when I ran the Around the Bay Race in Canada and crowd mentality got me to abandon what I was sure I should wear and I overheated like crazy. So I went with what got me here, knowing that if the sun came out as predicted, I would soon be warm, sweating, and covered in salt.

And with one of the least amount of fanfare possible, away we went!

First Aid Station (9.5 miles) 1:11:37

From the start, two guys jolted out of the gate like it was a 100 yard dash. I had looks at the sign-ups and saw one gentleman who had times right around mine in the 50k.  I assumed he was one of the sprinters.  The other was an unknown.  Regardless, I wasn't going to try and match their opening speed. IF they were going to keep that up, I did not have it in me today. 

Within a few hundred yards, last year's 50 mile winner (Joseph), last year's 100 mile winner (Steven) and the 50k winner (me) were running side by side.  This is how we did it (with a few others) in one of my all-time favorite race photos ever last year.  A first time event runner, Dave, from Pennsylvania had joined us and this is where we were. The wind, off the bat was ridiculous.  Swirling at times but mostly from the side, it was gusting far higher than one would expect for this time of day.

As the front runners faded into the distance, Steve fell back a few feet to run with Dave and Joseph and I moved forward. It appeared that Joseph would once again have no competition for the race as he went for his third straight win (he kicked my butt in 2105; helped by me taking a big ole wrong turn around mile 40 or so.) We turned north off of the paved causeway and were immediately blasted by the wind directly in the face. We went silent as we trudged up the largest hill of the course (for the 50k) and the win pushed us back.

Turning right a mile later the wind abated a bit as the mountains tend to block it but not as much as in previous years. The next stretch was me trying to see if the runners ahead would come back to us at all and Joseph wondering if he was going to a bit too fast. He was, for all intents and purposes, running a time trial with no competition so sticking together helped us both. I might be running a bit conservative and him a touch fast but it was better than running alone.

We approached the aid station where he took off his pack and quickly handed it to the volunteers and I jumped in the portapotty happy to see I was still rather hydrated.

Second Aid Station: 26:03
Sliding down the backside of the hill that led to this aid station was nice indeed.  I recalled how this was a cruel surprise coming back last year when I was having some stomach issues. I would remember it was here this time.

Joseph and I swapped some stories but by and large just ran in lockstep with each other, feeding off
the other's energy.  Doing so had us clip off some uncannily even splits. While he was using a watch which told his average pace, I was just running by feel.  Regardless, he wasn't looking at it much.  We just seemed to be in a nice little zone.

The wind was unrelenting however.  As soon as we think we figured out what direction it was coming from, it just would switch and hit us a different way, this time with a vengeance. However, I found running with a person who is going to run 19 more miles than you to be a great way to keep your own complaints in check. Nevertheless, A few "Oh, come on"s popped out of my mouth when the wind lifted us both and put us on the other side of the road.

Before long had passed we saw the next aid station ahead.  Now, just seeing an aid station doesn't mean it is close by. The open desert plays tricks with you and we knew it might be another ten minutes of running before we got there.  That being said, it snuck (it's a word, Jennifer Garner) up on us quicker than we expected. Joseph filled his pack and dropped off some gear and I hopped in the bathroom again. Very hydrated today.  Good job, Dane. *self-five*


Turn around: 21:04

We knew it was a short two and a half miles left together before I turned around and we parted ways. Joseph would run further down the road before heading back as well but we wouldn't see each other any further. 

I was expecting to see the two runners ahead of us coming back any minute now.  But as each minute passed I have both elation and dread.  Elation thinking perhaps I had closed the gap a bit; dread as perhaps the turnaround was further away then I recalled. There were no mile markers out here and the race was run on a rather spartan existence. This is fine for many but I do like just a little bit more guidance so to speak. Call me a road runner, like it will hurt my feelings. (If you follow me on twitter you will see I am called far worse.)

Finally, one runner appeared on the horizon and he was the one who had been second of the two going out.  As we passed by I noted time on my watch to see how far ahead he was of me. We exchanged "waytogo"s and I was more than impressed at his turnover. He was definitely crushing it.

We turned the corner and crested the hill. I gave Joseph a fist bump, didn't even bothered to stop, turned around and began the trek back. I was 8 minutes behind the leader. Probably insurmountable.

Second Aid station Part Deux:

While I would be running alone for the second half of this race, at least the next 5 miles or so would spent running in the opposite direction of other competitors. This would allow me to see how close my competition was as well as cheer on every single other runner in the race.  I love stuff like that.

Last year I was surprised how close one of the competitors was behind me. This year there was no repeat. I did see the two 100 milers I was running with earlier in the day and wished them both the best of luck. Then a few others runners passed me. Then I saw Sonia. I was beyond thrilled with how well she looked and she appeared to be on a stellar pace.

One of the nicest fellas running this race is a guy named Andrew Jensen. I met him a few years ago and love watching his spirit and resolve in the pictures he posts.  Andrew's brother, Matt, is out on the race course taking amazing pictures. (Most of the ones I have posted form the last three races come from his lens. Thanks, Matt!)  I saw Andrew and gave him a high five.  He was, as always, smiling.

I was feeling good, thought that perhaps the worst of the wind was literally behind me and I might run a negative split on this course. As with the last aid station, I didn't even bother to stop here. I hit my watch and was already ahead of my time on the way out.

Final Aid station: 26:34

I knew I basically had about 90 minutes of running left. In my mind I broke that up into three segments. The first would be to the next aid station.  The next would be to the top of the long downhill we climbed near the beginning.  The final would be from there to the end.  Amazing what you can convince yourself in an ultra is doable.  Double digit mile totally can be broken down into bite-size portions.

It wasn't long after this aid station last year when I began having some stomach troubles. I was hoping to stave off any repeat of that but often it is beyond your control. For the most part, the race weather had been rather ideal for me, not counting the wind tunnel.  It was chilly, dry and rather cloudy.  In fact, Joseph had mentioned how funny it had been on the way out that it seemed we were running as fast as this one cloud covering the sun was traveling.  However, ever since the turn around the sun had been ever-present.  I could feel it was warming me up and any thoughts I had previously entertained about another layer were obviously way off.  Having not made that mistake actually buoyed my spirits.

I haven't mentioned the wind in this section because it was, well, palatable.  I kept trying to determine which direction it would be coming from in order to see if it would be at my back on the final road stretch, but it was ever changing.  As I approached the final aid station what appeared to be the last 50k runner appeared to be leaving it. I definitely hope he wasn't injured as being 9 miles in at approximately three hours seemed like it might not be what he was hoping for.

Clicking my watch I saw I was just half a minute slower than the way out.  I took a quick break in the bathroom then sauntered over to the aid station. I felt that for this last hour plus I might need some calories - my first of the race. I took a small sliver of a toasted PB&J sandwich, washed it down with a gulp of coke and walked out of the aid station.  About 50 yards down the trail, ready to set a negative split, I took off running.

To the Finish: 

Even with no mile markers, or any rather discernible landmarks to tell a runner who hasn't run out here too often where they are, there are still a few places that if you pay attention you can use to help guide you.  I knew from the aid station to a sharp turn with a big boulder it had taken me eleven minutes to go out earlier in the morning.  Then from there to another sharp turn next to a crested butte it was another 13 minutes. From there to the last downhill of the course was another 11 minutes.

When I got to the first of those landmarks, I was 13 minutes behind where I had been on the way out. That included, however, the bathroom break and walking break. I figured that with the wind at my back I would make up this and more. Last year I had begun what was a series of walking breaks as the stomach problems worsened the longer I ran. This year, however, all was well in Tummyville and expect for one break to take in a sip of water as I was trying not to run, drink and battle the wind at the same time, it was smooth sailing, running-wise.

Hitting the butte, I had knocked a minute off the time from the boulder and was feeling good.  Then the wind whipped in like I had insulted its mother. Stood me straight up and took my breath away.  Then it would shift to the side.  Then it would stop.  Oof, enough already.

I soldiered on knowing that the one way the wind had not blown yet was due north.  Since the downhill was south facing, I would at least have a mile of good running. I hit the downhill, and knew it had taken me 36 minutes to get there from the start.  My time was 3:24.  I could still break four hours for the race even if I didn't exactly negative split the course.

The wind didn't seem to aid me much as I ran down this hill but at least it wasn't hindering me. Up ahead on the road a race official was painting a white line across the road for the 50 mile runners to follow. Or something.  It didn't pertain to me so I ignored it. I turned the corner onto the paved causeway and just had 3.7 miles to go. It had taken me roughly 29 minutes to get here when I started. I was immediately picked up by a wind from behind. Let's rock this!

LOL JK the wind said half a mile later and switched directions 180 degrees.  BAM, right in my face.  And just like that, any chance of having a strong finish was, well, finished.  I spent the next 30 minutes trying to find a place to breather as the wind sucked the water out of my mouth and the air out of my lungs.  I was all but assured my bib number was going to be torn from my shorts and my sunglasses blown off my face.  If this race had not been the windiest I had ever run, it was on the short list.

As the finish line came into sight (like a mile and a half away) I was just content to run out the string.  I finished second overall in a time of 4:04:44 breaking my course record by over 8 minutes.  But when you finish second, breaking a course record means you still got beat.  As I finished, the winner was there to greet me and we spoke for a few seconds.  He then congratulated someone else and my head spun around. The third place runner had finished not too far behind me.  How?!

I had the chance to check out his Strava data and saw he ran an unbelievably fast second half. In those last 3.7 miles alone he made up over five minutes on me. I was running 8:15s and he was running 6:40s. Steven Evers was his name and at just 18 years old he appears to have quite a running future ahead of him.

Fully expecting Sonia to come in anytime I took a small breather in the car and then got ready to cheer her on at the end. Then another person finished who was behind her previously.  Uh oh, I thought.  As it turns out, that marking I ignored because it had nothing to do with me caught Sonia's eye and she followed it. All told she ran off course and added 2-3 miles to her first ultramarathon. When I drove down the causeway to see if she was OK, I saw her walking.  Tired and spent both mentally and physically I could tell she just wanted to be done. All told, she ended up winning the race nevertheless and I was super happy for her.  I saw someone mocking how running coaches seem far more proud of their athletes than say Super Bowl winning coaches and I found the analogy to be quite-off base. Helping a runner find their stride and help push them to new found heights is so much different than coaching a position player in a team sport. When you happen to be running the same race and know the same trials and tribulations your athlete is going through, it is even more poignant. So huge kudos to Sonia on her first ultramarathon and her first ultramarathon win!

The race was a little more barebones than usual this year and for many looking to run relatively unimpeded in a relatively "easy" place, the Salt Flats is it (at least for the 50k).  The further distances, however, get incrementally more difficult as the miles go up. Even the flat Salt Flats (when you can run on them) only account for 16 miles of the 50 mile and 100 miler.  In addition, the weather out here can be very tough which is one reason why the organizers are thinking about moving the race day forward a week or so. I would concur that doing so greatly increases the chances you will actually be able to run on the Salt Flats. 

I count myself lucky indeed that I did back in 2015. You should definitely not miss your own opportunity to do so.