Monday, April 13, 2015

Pace Group Leading 101

I have been asked quite a bit in the past month what it is like to be a pace leader and how one can take on such an endeavor. Becoming a pace leader isn't very hard, as all one typically needs to do is inquire with the race management. Other venues include joining and applying to formal pace teams, some of which are specifically affiliated with individual events, or a brand. However becoming a pace leader, and being a successful pace leader are two very different things. In addition, being a pace group leader is entirely different than being a pacer, which I wrote about in a March 2014 post called The Art of Pacing.

I am by no means an expert on pace group leading, nor have I actually lead that many groups. But, I'd like to think my cumulative experience combined with the insight of numerous pace group leaders I've met has provided me with a solid platform to share sound advice. Pace group leading is incredibly rewarding, sometimes challenging, and at other times very straightforward. Though I have fun when I run, I personally view each pace leading assignment as a job, and my ongoing pace results as my resume. In reality, a proven track record of success could lead to being a part of a sponsored team, so it's worth while to take your duties seriously. Plus, you have the hopes and goals of your fellow runners on your shoulders, and you owe it to them to give it your best effort. So how does one become a successful pacer? Well, here's a general list, and I hope it helps anyone aspiring to become a pace group leader, of any distance, or be better at what you do.

Apologies that this is long, but I think it hits most of the main topics and then some.


Fitness Level

- Be able to run at least 20 minutes faster than your pace group time. In other words, if you are pacing a 3:35 group, you would hopefully be capable of running a 3:15 on race day. If you ran a 3:15 two years ago, and haven't run anything that suggests you are near that fitness now, it does not count. I've known former sub 2:40 marathoners who have blown up pace leading groups much slower than their PR's. You need to be at that current fitness level when you take on your pace leading assignment.

- Be in race shape, not pace shape. Some people think, oh I just need to be in enough shape to run my pace time. If you do this, your pace time will start to become more and more a max effort. The pace group you lead should feel fairly comfortable the entire time, and the effort level is easier the better shape you stay in. Bottom line, keep your fitness in that 20 minutes, or faster zone.

- Be fit enough for the course. For example, the Charlottesville Marathon is a very hilly course, and this past year it was very windy. Between the hills and wind, the course probably ran 5 minutes slower than a more typical flatter course. This means running a 3:45 in Charlottesville would have been a 3:40 effort elsewhere. If you factor in the fact we recorded 26.72 miles for the marathon, our actual 26.20 mile split was under a 3:40, and subtract 5 more minutes for wind and hills, now you are at an equivalent effort of 3:35. If you showed up in 3:30 marathon shape, despite it being 15 minutes faster than the supposed 3:45 pace, you would have ended up running within 5 minutes of a max effort. Hence, why it is important to understand the difficulty of your course. Not all pace times are the same effort at different races.

- Lastly, it may not be a good fit if you are significantly faster than your pace group. A 3:00 marathoner will find it very unnatural to pace a 4:15 or 4:30 and slower group. An ideal pace group would be one that is at least a minute per mile slower than your current marathon ability, but probably no more than an hour. Running too slow can actually lead to injuries and be a painful experience since a faster runner's economy and natural technique can be compromised at slower paces.

Why is it necessary to be significantly faster than your group?

- You will hopefully be talking with your runners, giving them advice, and cheering them on. It's tough to do that out of breath, or while very fatigued.

- You might be carrying hydration gear and nutrition, which adds weight and slows you down. In fact, I even encourage carrying your hydration and nutrition, especially if pacing alone, so you can maintain an even pace through water stops. If a pacer slows down for water, and your runners also stop, you can throw off the visual pacing cue that a pacer provides. It can be easier for your runners to catch up and know that once they are back with you, they are on pace, instead of both the runners and pacer trying to re-calibrate pacing.

- You might be carrying a pace sign. You might be surprised how much carrying a pace sign, especially a larger one, on a very windy day can zap your speed. Being in shape can help negate these effects. It is, however, okay to ask another runner to carry your sign if you need to eat a gel, drink, or stop briefly for whatever reason. Your co-pacer can also take turns holding the sign, assuming they aren't already carrying one.

- It helps your runners be confident in you, the pacer, to know you are under control and not on the verge of a blow up. A pacer who looks relaxed and at ease can seem more "reliable", and can also make surrounding runners feel relaxed. In contrast, a pace group leader that is panting and sounds exhausted is not always the best moral booster.

- You may have to catch up for various reasons, whether it be a bathroom break, to stretch, eat, or tie your shoes. Even a 2 minute bathroom break means you will have to sprint a half mile to catch your group. You don't want your runners being alone much more than a few minutes, if at all.

- In case you blow up. It happens. A pacer is so focused on their group that they don't drink enough or eat enough and boom, they are in the midst of a full on bonk at mile 19. If you are in very good shape, a bonk should not effect you the way it would someone else running at full effort. That said, if you blow up to the point of dropping back, be sure to tell your runners. You might even be able to recruit a stronger runner to be become the unofficial pacer in your absence.

Take Your Pace Leading Seriously

- Show up rested and in shape. Taper if you need to, but remember that people are counting on you. Some are trying to BQ, some to PR, win awards, or just finish. All are influenced by your performance, or lack thereof.

- Respect the distance. It doesn't matter if you've run 1,000 marathons. 26.2 miles is still 26.2 miles. A lot can happen, so never lose respect for the marathon.

I've Never Run a Marathon That Was Exactly 26.2 Miles

- A marathon is 26.2 miles......if you know and run the exact tangent lines that the course was measured with. In other words, you will always run more than 26.2 miles.

- Plan to run anywhere from 26.4 miles to 26.7, and make sure to adjust the pace accordingly. It still frustrates me that most marathon training plans don't account for this.

- Communicate to your runners the difference in pace. Sadly, people are told a 3:45 marathon is an 8:35 pace, a 3:30 is 8:00, and so on. Yes, but again only for an exact 26.2 miles. If you know a course is going to be 26.45 miles, it means you will be running 5 seconds per mile faster than what they are told. Our overall pace at the Charlottesville marathon was an 8:23, and we finished in 3:44:07. If you showed up thinking you were going to be running an 8:35 pace, you were in for a rude awakening.

Do you run consistent mile splits throughout the race?

- Yes and no.

- Yes, if it is a flat course, like Shamrock, where the first and second halves are about the same in terms of difficulty and geography. On these courses, each mile split should be no more than +/- 5 seconds of goal pace.

- Yes, if you know the mile markers are not significantly off and both halves are about the same distance.

- No, if the course is very hilly. You are guaranteed to drop your runners if you try to maintain your pace up a steep hill. Sometimes you need to budget some slower miles to account for big climbs, and faster miles for downhills. Trying to pace too mechanically can hurt your runners, and it's best to run the way they would run the course, which is slower uphill, faster downhill, and even on the flats.

- No, if the course is like Richmond, where the first half is a net downhill, and the second is a net uphill. In this case, it is okay to allow a positive split by several minutes.

Wear a GPS....AND a Watch.

- A gps is a great tool for tracking distance, pace, and splits. It will also let you know if a course is running long.

- I use an old Forerunner 305, and have several screen views stored specifically for pace leading. My primary screen of choice shows current pace, average pace, and distance. My secondary screen shows elapsed time, distance, and average pace.

- I wear a watch so I can view mile splits between course mile markers, and not just the mile splits on my gps, which might be different.

- I wear a watch because my gps has died during a race, and there's nothing worse than trying to hold a steady pace with no data.

- I wear a watch because sometimes my gps loses signal and isn't always trustworthy for pace.

- Just remember that gps data is not infallible. You might run side by side with another runner an entire race and finish with different distances and paces on your gps devices. Stick to the data on YOUR gps, as constantly trying to factor in what someone else is getting will throw you off.

Have Experience with Road Marathons

- Your pacing job should not also be your first marathon, even if you are fast enough. I've seen several novice marathon pacers who missed their goals because they did not have the experience to account for things like a long course, or hills.

- If your pace leading is your first marathon, see if you can team up with a co-pacer.

- If you are a trail runner, keep in mind that running 26.2 miles at a consistent pace on pavement is very different than running various paces on undulating trails.

You set the pace, not your runners

- I have seen pace leaders who end up pacing off the runners around them, but you need to be the one setting the pace. Picture yourself as a steady island floating along while the other runners are boats around you. You are meant to be the constant and the physical and mental fixed variable in the race.

- Show restraint. A pacer can not get caught up in the excitement of the crowds and music and lose track of the pace. Don't get too caught up in conversation, because your conversational pace may be much faster than someone else, and you may accidentally start going too fast, or even too slow without knowing it. Don't be tempted to follow your runners when they kick to the finish and stick to the goal pace.

Be Visible

- Most pace groups provide shirts and signs to carry, and some do not. It doesn't hurt to add a little flare to your sign, or attire to make you easier for your group to spot. This past spring I added orange duct tape and a Hawaiian Lei to several of my signs so I could be seen. At one race, I was surrounded by a half dozen guys that were probably all over 6'3", which meant I was not necessarily easy to see in the middle of them. Having a sign on a 3 foot stick enabled me to be visible among my tall fellow runners.

- Keep your pace sign visible. I've seen pacers who trim down the pace stick to make it shorter and easier to carry and then don't keep it raised high and visible through the run. In a crowd of people, you can't even see the sign. Be sure to use a longer stick and if needed reinforce it so it doesn't break when it's very windy. I used a carbon fiber hiking pole at the Charlottesville Marathon because a typical dowel rod would have easily snapped in the 20-30+ mph wind gusts. A longer stick also means you don't have to keep your arm raised, which can put a lot of strain on your shoulders. Alternating arms also helps.

- Don't cover your pacer shirt and/or bib. If your pacer shirt/bib has a big PACER logo on the back, don't wear a hydration pack that covers it. That kind of defeats the purpose. Wear a waist pack, or handheld, just be mindful of the logo. If you are carrying a sign, then it doesn't matter as much if you cover the shirt, as long as something is easily visible. Having both the shirt and sign is ideal.

Do Your Homework

- Learn what you can about the event and logistics. Your runners will have a lot of questions for you, and you can give them some much needed assurance by having answers. Figure out where the water stops are located, if there are porta potties and gels, or any major hills and notoriously tough stretches. It even helps to find out any quirky details like if a certain mile is long/short, or what typical race day weather will be like.

Learn Race Specific Math and be Flexible

- This helps for projecting accurate finish times and knowing whether you may need to speed up at the end of a race, or have the luxury of slowing down a little. It's also nice to be able to share with your runners what their projected finish time will be if they hold the current pace.

- In regards to projecting finish times, don't over think it, but know ahead of time where you want to be. It doesn't hurt to have goal times for the 10k split, 10 mile, half, and so on. It all helps keep you on track. Pace charts are a great tool too, but they don't always account for the specifics of a course.

- Example: If you are pacing a 3:30 group and running an 8:00 pace when you reach mile 25, it means you have roughly 9:36 to the finish (1.2 miles at 8:00 pace). If you are at 3:20 elapsed time at mile 25, you are spot on. However, if you are at 3:18, or 3:22, you have a little last minute tweaking to do, and if it means speeding up, you could hurt your runners.

- Example: You're pacing a 4:00 group and you reach mile 20 in 3:00. You have 6.2 miles remaining, which should take roughly 56 minutes at current pace, but that would bring you to a finish of 3:56, which is too fast. You now have the "luxury" of slowing down to a 9:30 pace, which could allow some runners to catch up. However, as you are running, you see miles 24 and 25 run a little long at 1.07 and 1.05 miles. Now you have to adjust back to a 9:15.

- Being flexible means taking into account long/short miles and things like hills and wind. If you reach mile marker 5, and your gps says 5.08 miles, that's a good sign the course will run long. If you reach mile marker 10, and your gps reads 10.16, it reaffirms you need to run a slightly faster pace to hit goal. You can extrapolate and predict that if you are already 0.18 miles over at the half, you will finish with 26.56 miles. Sometimes you'll notice the distance balance out, where you were 0.22 miles over at mile 15, but only 0.17 over at mile 20. Again, be flexible and adjust the pace mile by mile if needed. Communicate with your runners if they ask why your pace keeps changing. They will most likely appreciate the fact that you are capable of micromanaging the pace a mile at a time to keep them on target.

Communicate and Listen

- Before the race, communicate with your runners. A marathon may be just another day at the office to you, but your runners might be fighting off the nerves and jitters of their first marathon, or a potential BQ. You will likely get asked a lot of questions on race morning, and leading up. Do your homework about the event and course, so you can answer. Communicate your pace strategy and water stop strategy. All of these things can help calm nerves and enhance your runners' marathon experience.

- During the race, communicate. Talk about notable course details and things like turns and mile splits. You can establish a lot of trust just by being consistent with your pacing, but also lose trust if you do a poor job. If a mile split seemed too fast or too slow explain why, whether it was wind, hills, etc. When I was pacing a 4:00 group, a couple runners thought we were going a little too fast, but I assured them it was the pace needed to account for the extra distance I was getting between mile markers. I said my goal was to get them to the half in just under 2 hours, and when we crossed the half in 1:59:53 I knew I had established the trust of my group.

- Know how much, or how little to talk. Small talk, introductions, and jokes in the early miles are a great way to break the tension and make the miles go by easily for your runners. However, excessive talking can be mentally distracting and tiring to some people. There are, however, instances where runners will request you to keep talking to take their mind off their fatigue and discomfort.

- Continue to reassure your runners. Later in a race, you might be running the exact same pace as earlier, but it will feel like a harder effort as your runners tire. They will ask if they are still on pace, and you need to assure them that you are. Say mile splits out loud, or say something like "Last 3 miles were all between 8:28 and 8:35 pace" or "5 miles left, we'll do it in 42:30, which will bring us in just over 3:44".

- Communicate with your co-pacer(s) if you have them. Talk about how to manage water stops, bathroom breaks and race/pace strategy. Try not to separate too far from each other as it will become confusing for your runners. If one pacer runs ahead, it will freak out runners who are, in fact, still well within their target pace. Stay as a team.

- Never, ever, wear headphones during a race.

Stick to the Plan

- It doesn't matter if you've been running alone the final 8 miles of a race, stick to the plan, and maintain an even pace. You'd be surprised the number of runners whose only goal is to keep you in sight, or keep you from passing. If you speed up, assuming nobody is with you, you may completely discourage a runner a half mile behind you who can no longer see you.

- Don't slow down either, as it might be tempting to provide company to people you pass. You slowing down to be supportive of a struggling runner, barring medical emergency, might cost another runner their goal.

- More often than not, you will be the one catching and passing many runners, especially after mile 20. Encourage them to stick with you, but if they can't, you just have to move on.

Your Chip Time vs Your Runner's Chip Time

- Again, remind runners, especially ones trying to BQ, that your times may be different, even if you finish at the same time.

- This applies even more to runners you catch up to who started the race in corrals ahead of you. Their times might actually be 30 seconds to several minutes more than yours, based on when you started. In a larger race with 30,000+ runners, this time gap could be over 3 minutes.

- Example: If a runner's BQ is 3:40, but because they are much faster, they are lined up in the 3:05 corral, they may cross the starting mat 3 minutes ahead of you. If the runner has a bad day and your group catches up, the runner is now on 3:43 pace, not your 3:40 pace, and would thus have to speed up to BQ. Though this scenario is unlikely, it's not implausible, and you could potentially save a day from going from bad to worse.

Crowds and Volunteers

- Get the crowds excited for your runners. Crowds tend to cheer louder for pace groups, so take advantage of it and encourage them to make even more noise for your group. It never ceases to amaze me what a crowd can do to boost your energy. Plus, it keeps it fun for your runners and for you as a pacer.

- Thank your volunteers, race staff, and law enforcement. They may not remember a random runner thanking them, but they will remember the person with the big orange pace sign.

- Be friendly to the locals and try to wave and smile at them when you can. It can help build good repore between the race and the community.

- Wave and smile (non sarcastically) to people in traffic that are stopped because of the race. It's inevitable that people will get agitated and angry sitting in traffic caused by a marathon. When this happens, I try to make eye contact with the drivers and give them a nod and wave. It's my way of saying "Sorry we caused you to be stuck in traffic. Thank you for your patience." Almost 100% of the time they smile and wave back. Hopefully, this helps alleviate, however temporary, any kind of stress caused by the event on their travels. People remember the little things.

Keep it Classy

- Anything you do will be magnified when you do it as a pace leader. After all, you are a pace LEADER. Lead by good example.

- Remember you represent more than yourself when donning the pace sign. You represent a race, a pace team, and potentially a brand.

- People will look up to you. Other runners will regard you as an experienced and seasoned veteran, and kids will look up to you as as you guide other athletes, or even their parents/grandparents.

- Be a role model. Pacers are regular people, but on race day, we need to live at a higher level. Try to refrain from cursing, complaining, bad mouthing other events, or even gossiping, which can sometimes slip in amidts the casual race day banter.

- Don't be stinky. Shower, wear deodorant, refrain of eating a pound of garlic the day before. Whatever, just don't smell bad. This sounds silly, but nobody wants to be around a pacer that smells bad. On the plus side, it may get your runners to run faster. "Hey Tom, congrats on the huge PR! How did you do it?"..."Um, well, I was just trying to stay as far ahead of that stinky pacer."

- On the flip side, don't be all Rico Suave and show up smelling like a discount cologne isle. In other words, be mindful of those around you. They will appreciate it.

Encourage Your Runners to Go Ahead

- This is especially true if you have runners who want to run Boston. Keep in mind, wanting to run Boston, and just wanting to qualify are very different. To qualify, you just need to run under the qualifying time, even if by 1 second. However, to gain entry into Boston, runners will likely need to run 1:15 under their qualifier, but I always say 2:00 just to be safe.

- Example: If I am pacing 3:45, and that is also a runner's BQ time, I remind them that my goal is to finish close to 3:45, not 3:43, which is what they will need. I try to remind runners trying to BQ around miles 10, 16, and 20 that they need to run ahead to bank the extra time. If you are still with the 3:45 pace group at mile 24, it is not likely you will run the last 2.2 miles at a 7:30 pace in order to get into Boston.

- Sometimes, however, runners only care about qualifying for Boston, and not running it. It's more a goal to say they did it, or to continue a streak of qualifying times. I still remind my runners that my goal is to get near my target time, which is based on MY chip time, and they need to be aware of any difference in our start times. My watch might read 3:44:55, but if you started ahead of me, we may cross the finish together and your chip time might be 3:45:06, and you missed a BQ. I actually had this happen at Richmond last year, but my runner simply did not have the energy to push ahead. It was a gamble for her to stick with the 3:45 pacers through the finish, and when her clock time showed over 3:46 (3:44:55 my chip time), none of us knew if she made her BQ. Thankfully, it turns out she BQ'ed by 3 seconds, but it was a big risk.

It's Okay to Finish Alone

- I have finished most of my pace leading assignments alone, and this is normal. It may initially feel awkward to run with people all day, only to come through that boisterous finish chute all by yourself. It's the name of the game. You may have a pack of 50-100 runners behind you the first 10 miles and it's an incredibly empowering feeling. However, it could be half that number by mile 16, and by mile 20 you may be down to 5-10 runners tops. At least 60-70% of your initial group will fall behind, while the rest will eventually kick and finish a few minutes ahead. Other times, you will absorb a few runners you catch up to, or finish with runners who just want to hang at your pace as long as they can.

Gauging Success

- A successful pacing job is finishing within 2 minutes of your target time without going over. There are exceptions, like when I had to stop for traffic two miles from the finish at one of my races, which cost me nearly a perfect pacing job. A very good pace job is getting within one minute of your target time.

- A successful pacing job includes not deviating more than 5-6 seconds per mile of your goal pace, assuming a flat course.

- A successful pacing job should also not see more than a 1-2 minute difference for each half, assuming a consistent course profile and half distances.


- You may never know what your pace leading meant to someone. However, this past spring I got many thank you's from people who BQ'ed for the first time, thought they would never BQ again, ran their first marathon since giving birth to a child, or finishing their first marathon. While running a 5:00, or 3:05 marathon may be a piece of cake to us, for some it is the culmination of something far greater than we can wrap our heads around. Pace leading allows you to participate in the midst of other people's struggles and triumphs. Realize what a privilege it is to be part of that.

Hope this helps and happy running!

Monday, March 30, 2015

March/April Madness

Well, the past three weeks were certainly a fun stretch of running. I lead pace groups for four marathons in a span of 20 days and was within 42 seconds of my target time for all four. I also never positive split a course by more than 18 seconds, other than Charlottesville, which was intentional due to the nature of the course.

Newport News One City Marathon. 3:45 pace leader. This was the inaugural year for the event.

(Early part of the One City course. Photo credit Newport News Daily Press)

Distance: 26.69 miles
Total Time: 3:44:38
Pace: 8:25
First half: 1:52:10, 13.35 miles
Second half: 1:52:28, 13.34 miles
Weather: Low 40's at the start. Low 60's at the finish.

Course Difficulty: A few small hills in the beginning and around miles 15-16. Not much shade the second half, and some wind in the more exposed places. Overall, a pretty flat and fast point to point course.

Course Scenery: Quiet and pleasant roads the first half and then opening up to a more city like feel with some scenic stretches by the water.

Crowd Support: Honestly, better than expected. The first 10 miles are fairly quiet, but the final half felt pretty energized with schools, clubs, and bands cheering along the course.

Logistics: Not bad, though there was some confusion with shuttle buses in the morning. Some volunteers seemed inexperienced to handle typical marathon related questions. A couple finish line volunteers came across a bit snappy and rude to tired runners. Not fun running 26.2 miles and the first volunteer you meet has an attitude. Otherwise, 99.99% of the volunteers were amazing.

Pre-race: Chilly wait in a parking lot with no place to stay warm. Some people waited 90 minutes due to the time gap between getting dropped off by shuttles and the marathon start.

Post-race: Very windy and chilly by the waterfront. Not fun if you are cold and sweaty. Free beer and pizza hit the spot. Layout was good, but very muddy due to rain the day before. Live entertainment was good, but far too loud.

Bling: The medal was fairly nice. It's a runner going through the victory arch, which is exactly how the finish looked. A nice nod to the city of Newport News.

Highlights: Giving a high five to Elvis, helping a 63 year old man named James qualify for the Boston Marathon, and being a part of an inaugural local event.

(Photo credit One City 26.2)

Shamrock Marathon. 3:45 pace leader.

Distance: 26.46 miles
Total Time: 3:44:18
Pace: 8:28
First half: 1:52:01, 13.30 miles
Second half: 1:52:17, 13.16 miles
Elevation gain: 102 feet
Weather: High 40's to mid 50's. Winds 7-15 mph.

Course Difficulty: Flat and fast, with the exception of sometimes heavy wind. However, this year, the wind was a non factor for most runners. The only hills are the short climbs over the Rudee Inlet bridge at miles 2.5 and 9 and some slight inclines in Fort Story. The final 10k of the marathon is a net downhill with a fast finish on the boardwalk.

Course Scenery: A nice mix of oceanfront board walk, open road, military bases, and downtown Virginia Beach. Good variety, though some will find places like Fort Story a bit mentally draining.

Crowd Support: Pretty good, aside from the quiet six mile stretch on Shore Drive and Fort Story. Even without spectators there are enough fellow runners, soldiers, and volunteers to keep you energized all day.

Logistics: Good. Parking is still a bit rough, and expo parking can be an adventure, but still better than what you'd see at a race with 30k runners. The mile from 4 to 5 is still long at 1.20 miles and the mile from 5 to 6 is short at 0.90 miles.

Pre-race: It can be a cold and windy wait for folks, though many people huddle inside hotels and around a few fire pits to stay warm.

Post-race: Fantastic. Free beer, good food, and awesome live music inside a huge beachfront tent. Honestly, it's one of the best finish line parties I've experienced.

Bling: The medals were unique this year, but still nice, and plenty big. The black and glittered green looked better in person than in photos. The challenge medals were simply beautiful, especially the King Neptune.

Highlights: Shamrock, aka J&A Racing, treat their pace leaders extremely well and granted us access to the VIP tent all weekend. I had a lot of fun hanging out with the rock star pace team from Minnesota, which included talented runners Dan LaPlante, Jim Winkels, Don Sullivan, and Ben Drexler. I also got to hang out with running luminary Bart Yasso, US Mountain Running Champion Joseph Gray, and one of the owners of Yuengling.

(Chilling in the VIP tent. Photo credit Bart Yasso).

(Myself and Ben Drexler showing off our Whale Challenge bling. Photo credit Ben Drexler @_6run2)

(The sweet Running Etc. pace team shirts)

Emerald Isle Marathon. 4:00 pace leader.

(I'm somewhere in the middle of that pack. This was when we merged with the half marathon, and only 8 runners with me were marathoners. Photo credit SOS Photography)

Distance: 26.50 miles
Total Time: 4:00:03 (Had to stop for cars a mile from the finish, otherwise I would have been under 4 hours)
Pace: 9:05
First half: 1:59:53, 13.22 miles
Second half: 2:00:10, 13.28 miles
Weather: Hi 30's to low 50's. Wind 10-25 mph.

Course Difficulty: Surprisingly hilly, especially through the neighborhoods from miles 2-7. The out and back final 10 miles are mostly flat, but still lots of undulations where the running path overlaps entrances to stores and shopping centers. Strong head wind the final 8 miles, and the last mile is a rather hilly and windy bike path. Far hillier than you'd expect so close to the ocean and lots of turns the first half.

Course Scenery: A bit disappointing considering how beautiful Emerald Isle is. The most pleasant parts were watching the sunrise over the huge houses in the beginning and the few miles along the oceanfront road from miles 12-18. However, running the bike paths and main roads was fairly uninteresting, and you never actually see the ocean or beaches from the course because they are always obstructed by houses.

Crowd Support: Non existent, other than the friendly volunteers. The marathon only had 200 runners, which meant we were extremely spread out. We did merge with the half for six miles, which was the only time we ran with a substantial crowd, but after they turned back we were alone again. Other than some locals, runner's friends and family, and curious people who came out to their yards, there wasn't much crowd support. If you run the full, just plan for a fairly quiet day.

Logistics: 6:30am start meant we ran the first few miles in the dark. Not super safe on an unlit bike path, and several runners tripped on bumps and/or ran into dividers on the path. Parts of course were not closed to traffic and you have to be mindful of turning cars and traffic lights the final 5-6 miles. Other busy intersections and crossings were, however, managed well by volunteers and police officers. Mile markers were spray painted on the ground and sometimes easy to miss, though there were a handful that were marked with small signs. Lots of turns on the course, but volunteers were at all of them, and the combination of color coded arrows and signs made the course easy to follow.

Pre-race: They had a tent with heaters to stay warm which was nice. Parking was close to the start/finish, which meant a nice short walk.

Post-race: No food at the finish, other than water, bananas and mini Cliff bars. The only "real" food was a burrito truck you had to pay for. Granted the burritos were good, but it didn't thrill runners that their only option for food was buying something from a vendor. There was a post-race banquet, but it was at 5pm, which was a good 5-7 hours after most people finished their events. Unless you were staying the entire weekend, and staying nearby, it was not feasible to stick around and come back at 5pm. They should have just had the reception going as runners were finishing so we could have access to food and entertainment right then. Hopefully they didn't waste a lot of food on no shows, because it didn't seem like many people went.

Bling: A fairly traditional medal featuring runners and a colorful beach theme. Not small, but small compared to what medals look like nowadays.

Highlights: Running with a steadfast pack of 8 runners for 16 miles. Of that group only one, Catherine doing her first marathon, was able to stay with me. We ran the final 8 miles together until I urged her to run ahad at mile 24. Her goal was to finish her first marathon under 4 hours, and she did so by finishing 30 seconds ahead of me. Well done! I also loved the guy with the hand crank bike. Despite all the hills and half dozen speed bumps he was always grinning.

Charlottesville Marathon. 3:45 pace leader.

(Charlottesville Marathon Finish. Photo credit

Total Time: 3:44:22
Distance: 26.72 (actual 26.2 mile split was just under 3:40)
Pace: 8:23
First Half: 1:51:10
Second Half: 1:53:12
Weather: Low 50's to low 60's. Very windy, with gusts of 35mph.
Elevation gain: 1,210
*Thanks to my co-pacer Scott Adams for managing the pacing after my gps died one mile in. I also worried we went out to fast after we split 1:51 for the first half, but he assured me the second half hills would catch up and the pace was good. Sure enough, between the hills and wind, we came in right on target pace. It also helps that Scott is a speedy veteran of numerous marathons and also knew the course well.

Course Difficulty: It's a tough course. Compared to courses like Richmond, Shamrock, and Marine Corps, people should be aware this course significantly more challenging. Total elevation gain is 1,210 feet for the current course, compared to Richmond with 550 feet of gain, 845 for Marine Corps, and a little over 100 feet for the pancake flat, but often windy Shamrock course. Some of the hills are short and steep, or as long as half a mile. With all the out and back sections, just remember that what goes up, must go down, and vice versa. The race starts with a steep downhill followed by long uphill, which is basically a prelude to the rest of the course. There is a climb with switchbacks around mile 15, a half mile uphill at 16, another short steep grunt near 18, the notorious hill at mile 24, and a few more smaller hills just before the finish. There aren't many true flat sections, so you are either going up, or down most of the race. The heavy wind on race day made the 2015 event harder than usual. Expect the course to run at least 5 minutes slower than your typical marathon time, unless you excel at hills, and possibly more if you have windy conditions like today. Also, with all the twists and turns, expect to factor in an extra 0.3-0.5 miles.

Course Scenery: It's a pretty course and provides a good tour of Charlottesville. You pass through local parks, the Rivanna River, and some of the more popular areas of downtown. The time of year also means you get a glimpse of the first blooms of spring, and the dogwoods and flowers were gorgeous along the course. The course has three distinct out and backs, so you get to see fellow runners and front runners most of the day.

Crowd Support: Not a ton, but there were enough clusters of enthusiastic volunteers, students, and locals to keep you feeling good. Don't expect live music or marching bands on the course and the town can be a little quiet earlier in the morning.

Logistics: Very easy, and race day packet pickup was a breeze. Parking, the start, and the finish were all within a block of each other, which meant very minimal walking. Access to and from was very easy. Traffic support by police at intersections was amazing and as well managed as a big city race. However, despite numerous markings and volunteers, we saw at least 3 half marathon runners miss their turns and accidentally join the marathoners.

Pre-race: Very easy access with parking close to the start. The only downside is that parking is expensive at $2.50 an hour with a max of $20 for the day. Richmond Marathon parking was only $5, and all other races this spring were free. Grabbing packet pickup items was very fast if you showed up earler, like before 6:15am, and there were no porta potty lines if you showed up 30-45 minutes before the start. You could easily wait in your car to stay warm and only be a 5 minute walk from the start.

Post-race: A pleasant and cozy atmosphere in court square. They had a small band playing which was nice, not too loud, and fitting for Charlottesville. The free beer and pizza tasted good, and I enjoyed some ice cream from the ice cream truck. Getting to relax, catch up with runners, and enjoy the spring sun was quite pleasant.

Bling: Charlottesville has been notorious for its small finisher medals, but this year was different. The medal this year was much bigger with a solid brass design. It was a nice tribute to UVA, with orange being used for the full medals and blue for the half. The UVA Rotunda building, or something that very much resembles it, is featured on both the medals and shirt design. The back of the medal is also a bottle opener. Shirts were a blue short sleeved technical with a similar logo as the medals.

Highlights: Running with a fun group and joking about UCan, Eye of the Tiger, and tackling the tough course with some humor. We got to reel in a few runners towards the end and got them into the finish looking strong.

Anyway, I had a fun 20 days. I realized my body is definitely capable of running marathons at easier efforts every weekend if it wanted to. But, that's not my goal. My only objective was to help other runners reach their objectives and I hope to continue that by pace leading many more marathons and halves to come.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Graveyard 100- A Very Special Race

Good races are not hard to find, but truly special ones are far and few between. Sure, there are plenty of fun and well organized running events out there. There are events that hedge more on their history and lore to drive the race experience, rather than the experience in and of itself. But, once in a blue moon you find an event, sometimes by accident, that ends up being the diamond in the rough we all hope to find.

I wholeheartedly believe that Brandon and Heather Wilson's Graveyard 100 is such an event. I think great race experiences comes down to the elements of challenge, course beauty, creativity, and race support. All too common these days is the culture of seemingly valuing the bling and swag of an event more than the personal journey that transpires between the start and finish lines. I totally get it if people are all about cool medals, chip timing, aid every two miles, and live runner tracking, but sometimes it's refreshing to see an event that values the "test" of what running a 100 miler is, and not all the glitz. If you want to voyage into the unknown, where the reward is in the miles in between, by all means the Graveyard 100 is for you.

The Graveyard 100 is not meant to be an easy race to finish. Many ultras, not that it is a bad thing, now cater to runners to ensure nearly everyone finishes. I've even witnessed established older ultras adding more aid and tweaking logistics to make it easier for runners. Don't get me wrong, but isn't one of the alluring factors of an ultra supposed to be that it isn't easy? And yet, some people seemingly have the attitude of wanting to do something hard, but in the easiest way possible. Again, there's nothing wrong with that, but one reason the Graveyard 100 is special is because it is not that kind of race.

I like that regardless if you are an elite, back of the packer, or prior champion, there is no certainty you will finish this race. It all comes down to risk versus reward, and in that sense the Graveyard 100 offers some incredible rewards. I think if you ask any person, myself included, how they felt when presented their Graveyard buckle, they would say with a tired satisfied smile, it was well worth it.

I love that Graveyard is the hardest "easy" 100 miler you will likely encounter. People see the flat elevation profile and say "piece of cake!" Crewed runners see that they can receive aid from their crews every 4-9 miles at water stops, and think "this shouldn't be too bad". There are no big climbs, no mountains above 10,000 feet, no technical rocky sections or river crossings, and yet the percentage of people who drop is higher than at most "harder" one hundreds. Why is that you wonder? For those that have been on the course, well, you know the answer.

This race is a crucible in numerous capacities. It will test your mind, and for some it will torment their mind. You will start at the north end of Currituck, see sunrise as you pass Currituck sound to your right, and run through small coastal towns like Corolla and Duck. You'll think "this isn't too bad". Then as your legs start to experience the initial onsets of fatigue you will pass through Kitty Hawk and Nags Head. You can see miles down the road and miles behind you. This is usually when it hits you that this is going to be tougher than you thought. Runners ahead fade into nothing more than little dots on the horizon and you'll swear those mile post signs can't be accurate. But, they are.

After 45 miles you will exit the creature comforts of society and begin your adventure into the land of dunes. This is where the isolation begins. You will pass the Bodie Island lighthouse to your right, cross over the iconic 2.5 mile long leviathan that is the Bonner Bridge, and into Pea Island. After this, you are in the second half of the race, but the hardest is yet to come. You'll see mirages on the road that look like shiny wet spots, but as you continue on you'll see nothing but more road. Depending on the year, you may be running on sand, into a flood plane, or completely dry asphalt. You might get hit with a light sting of fine sand swirling through 20 mph winds or intense sun radiating from the blankets of off white dunes. Embrace this stretch that transports you from the land of the ordinary and into a magical world of sand and ocean. Ten miles later you will finally get a faint glimpse of Rodanthe in the distance.

For most runners, Rodanthe is where reality starts to set in. This is where most drops occur, and at 100k into the race, this is where the real journey begins. At this point, the long miles have started to take their toll, and 9-16 hours of exposure to the sun, pavement, wind, and cold have depleted even the heartiest of souls. This is also where good planning can mean the difference between a finish and yet another DNF. Warm dry clothes are invaluable, but the lack thereof can mean a turn for the worse. Uncrewed runners have even bigger thoughts to consider. They've gone 18-22 miles between full aid all day, but now must endure the longest stretch without aid at just over 24 miles. The mental battles to quit, or keep going rage on. For some it's an easy decision to end their day, and for others it's a long debate whether they want to venture back out into the chilly night for another 8-12 hours. Time to get some hot soup, patch up those blisters, grab that extra layer, and adjust the headlamp one more time.

From Rodanthe to Hatteras it's a long lonely dark road. Runners battle to stay positive and deal with the monotony. Salvo and Avon provide slight respite from the tunnel vision developed by running a solitary strip of tar while being guided by the small light of a headlamp. Local cars that previously whizzed by every few minutes, some alarmingly too close, are a now a rare sight. Every once in a while you'll see headlights in the distance and swear they aren't moving. Believe it or not, that "stationary" car in the distance is actually moving towards you at 55 mph, just from five miles away. If you are lucky enough to have a clear night, take a moment to look up and soak in that splendid night sky. It's amazing how many stars you can see when there's no ambient light around. Then, you'll see lighthouses and the blinking lights of water towers on the edge of your view and you now know to absorb the fact you will not get there for another two hours.

(Hatteras night sky. Photo credit coll100ertexample.blogs)

If your brain hasn't numbed by the time you reach the final aid station at mile 87, it might by the time you finish. After leaving Hatteras lighthouse, which will feel like forever to reach, you will experience more of the same in regards to never feeling like you are getting closer to objects in the distance. It's a double doozy if you are not familiar with Hatteras as it will seem like forever to reach the finish, even when you know it's less than 5 miles away. At this point, you pretty much just want to be done and off your feet. For some it will still be night and for others it will be the next day. Years like this one you'll get to witness a rare sunrise accompanied by a setting full moon and be reminded of what a special journey you are about to finish. Finally, before you've even realized it, you will be at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum and be handed your buckle by race director Brandon. You will likely be too tired to assess what you just did and only be thinking of getting warm, getting a shower, some food, and going to bed.

(2015 Champion Marco Bonfiglio with race director Brandon Wilson. New course record of 13:01. Photo credit John Price)

The next day you will wake up sore, have some new blisters, and probably a few less toenails. Then you'll remember everything that you went through to lose those toenails, to get that winter sunburn, that gritty sand in your socks and those two swollen feet. Then, you'll take a glance at that buckle and hopefully you'll give a little smile and realize it was all so worth it.

(Ultra legend, past Champion, and 2015 2nd place, Valmir Nunes. Photo credit John Price)

(photo credit Brian Burke)

Like I said, the Graveyard 100 is a special race. I think anyone who has ever finished it will say the same. It's the reason I have been involved with the event every year since its inception. I have been an inaugural year solo participant, a staff member trying to recruit talent like Mike Morton, Valmir Nunes, and Olivier Leblond, a race photographer, aid station volunteer, pacer, and crew member. I can honestly say I am thrilled to see how far this grass roots event has come along. For Brandon and Heather this event truly is a labor of love for you, the runner and running community.

The Graveyard 100 also has drawn a wide variety of athletes locally and internationally. The event has now had four different champions representing four different countries; the US, France, Brazil, and now Italy. This year's event also saw America's 2nd fastest non track 100 miler with Marco Bonfiglio's incredible 13:01. Only Ian Sharman's 12:44 at Rocky Raccoon in 2011 is faster. Valmir Nunes also ran one of the fastest American 100 milers by someone age 50, or older with his 14:20. It should be noted that Marco recorded a distance of 161.9km on his gps, or 100.38 miles, and he stopped for ice cream during the race, which means he most likely could have run under 13 hours. The bottom line is, whether you finished in 13 hours or 29:59, amazing things are bound to happen at the Graveyard 100.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Virginia Beach Distance Races 100k

It's been a while since I could say a race went well, or surprisingly well. All of my ultra PR's are fairly old, set between 2010 and 2012, but I knew my fitness and endurance are better now then when I set them. However, instead of improving on those I've had a lot of lackluster results due to poor strategy, not being recovered enough for races, or just being out of shape. Ultimately, I had a lot of "okay" races, but nothing that stood out.

The Virginia Beach Distance Races, the brainchild of local running guru John Price, consisted of a 50k and 100k distance. The course was designed to be fast and circled a USATF certified 2.31+ mile loop around a local golf course. The 100k would do 26 laps, plus a 1.64 mile out and back at the beginning. The 12 hour cut off was the same for both races and gave runners ample time for the 50k, but made it challenging for the 100k, which was probably why only three people finished. Though flatter than any trail ultra I have ever run, the course had enough little bumps and turns to keep you from getting lulled to sleep. For reference, the course was definitely fast, but not as fast as a typical road marathon course, or a place like the Dismal Swamp bike path. Per usual for Virginia beach, we also had a stiff headwind for about a mile of each loop. To top it all off, the weather couldn't have been more beautiful for a February 8th day. Morning temps were in the mid 30's and rose into the 60's by the late afternoon.

I was originally signed up for the 50k, with the goal of breaking 3:50, but switched races the day before to test my chops at a quicker 100k. 100k courses are hard to come by, and finding a fast course is even harder so I jumped at the opportunity. I did, however, wonder if I was going to regret switching, given my training was for the 50k, and not nearly specific enough for a 100k. In the past year, I have transitioned from 9 years of exclusively running trails, to exclusively running roads purely due to geographic location. It's funny how I used to be the trail runner who would suffer at road events, but now I believe I am actually stronger at running road ultras than on mountain trails. I guess part of switching to the 100k was to see if that was true.

As for my race, I didn't really have any concrete goals. But, if I did have a last minute goal, it was to qualify for the legendary Spartathlon ultramarathon, which required a sub 10:30 100k finish time. The qualifier is good for three years, but since the qualifying time drops to sub 10 hours next year, I figured to make that my makeshift goal. If anything, I figured my strategy would be to at least PR my 50 mile time and then shuffle through the last 12 miles and hope to get under 10 hours.

6:30am arrived and we were off. Sunrise had not yet arrived, but it was just bright enough not to need headlamps. For the first 20 miles I was on autopilot and tried to stay smooth and relaxed. I did start out a little fast and gradually pulled back the effort to around an eight minute pace. Things were good until about mile 20 when I started to notice I was developing some tightness in my hamstrings. This forced a handful of short stretch breaks, which continued all day, though I still managed to reach my marathon split in 3:29. I had plenty of time in the bank, but the increasing discomfort had me strongly considering stopping at 31 miles, as another 35 miles no longer looked appealing.

The battle with the doubt monster lasted a few more miles and I decided to just get to 50k, reassess how I felt then, and reminded myself that this was nothing uncommon for this distance. Looped courses can make dropping so inviting that it can cause people to quit when they don't have a good reason to. So, I ran a few more miles and hit the halfway point in 4:07, which was a 50k PR, and it helped put some much needed mojo back in my race. Typically, it's never good to PR a shorter distance within a significantly longer race, but the pace was a good 17 minutes slower than my goal 50k time, so I wasn't too worried. I'm just glad I was able to push through the temptation of bailing early.

(Photo Credit VA Beach Distance Races. Getting in some quicker miles early in the day)

(Photo Credit VA Beach Distance Races. Coming through the start/finish checkpoint)

The rest of the miles just rolled by without much thought. Sometimes thinking too much is worse than thinking too little. My hamstrings were still fairly tight, and every few miles I would stop and stretch a bit. I spent a lot of time just enjoying the nice February weather and seeing my fellow runners on the course. 40 and 45 miles had passed, and after six hours my primary motivation was now to set a 50 mile PR. I briefly considered pushing the pace to see how fast I could hit my 50 mile split, maybe in the 6:55 range, but realized it wouldn't be prudent to jeopardize a solid 100k time by running a fast 50. Not worth the risk of a blow up with 12 miles remaining. I came through lap 21, roughly 50.6 miles in 7:05:05 for the big PR, but still had five laps to go.

Those last couple of hours were tough. Most of the 50k runners had finished, so the course was very empty and we weren't allowed to have pacers. You couldn't rely on a lot of distractions or fellow runners to help push you through the discomfort. It really became a battle between me, my thoughts, and the solitary strip of six foot wide pavement. Just four laps to go. Now three. 57.6 miles completed in 8:12. I do some quick math. If I could cover the last two laps in 48 minutes, I could break 9 hours. I was shocked! For most of the day, I had been anticipating a significant slow down, maybe a 9:30 finish time, but I had been chugging along. My legs were getting pretty heavy and at times my muscles felt on the verge of cramping, but I dug deep.

59.9 miles down. 8 hours and 32 minutes elapsed. One last lap to go. I was already feeling it during the previous lap, but on this one I had to dig in a little bit deeper. I'm not going to lie, those last few miles felt a little rough. All I wanted to do was walk, or find an excuse to walk, but knowing I could break not just 10 hours, but also 9 was enough motivation to stay moving. One foot in front of the other. I turned into the final stretch past the golf shop and made a hard right turn for a sprint finish. I crossed the orange cone marking the finish line and tagged the stop button on my watch. 8:53:45. A 1 hour and 25 minute 100k PR. Three ultramarathon PR's in one day.

(Photo Credit VA Beach Distance Races. Finishing 62.1 miles and realizing I had just run under 9 hours)

I knew I had it in me, but this was still a pleasant surprise. I had needed to run the last 4.6 miles in 48 minutes to break 9 hours, and I ran them in 41. To put it in perspective, this was like running back to back 3:43 marathons and then a 10 mile cool down in 1:27. The crazy part is my marathon PR was a 3:33 only 11 months ago, and today my marathon SPLIT was 4 minutes faster.

Obviously, I know there are guys out there running faster than this in the mountains and at altitude, or folks like world 100k champion Max King running 100k in 6:27, which is at my 5k pace. Even the top women are running 7:30 to 8 hours. However, for me, it was the first time in the past few years I had seen progress, and it reminded me that after a decade of running, I am still capable of improving.

I also know I can run faster, as I admittedly went into the 100k with a slight mental block thinking 10 hours was where my ability was, and never considered running sub 9. I didn't specifically train for a 100k either. As the race progressed I stopped thinking about what my split goals were, didn't worry how much ahead of them I was, and ran based on how my body felt, not my brain. I think sometimes the expectation that we are going to fatigue, slow down, and even walk a lot in the waning miles of a race can become a self fulfilling prophecy. Now that I have broken through that mental barrier, at least up to 100k, I am somewhat curious what I could do if I focused from the start on running fast. I can already think of 4-5 minutes lost that weren't necessary (ie talking and stopping to eat vs running and eating), and another 4-5 if I had a crew, which seems really trivial, but it's good to know fitness wise I was probably capable of a low 8:40's time. Good to know for future goals. Perhaps on another fast course, with more specific training, I could see possibly running 20 to 30+ minutes faster. That's a time I would have never entertained before this race, but after a few years of sub par running, I am ready to think bigger again.

(First time off my feet all day. A well earned little break)

(With race director John Price just a few minutes after finishing)

The approximate splits:
13.1 miles: 1:43
20 miles: 2:36
26.2 miles: 3:29
31 miles: 4:07
50 miles: 6:59
62.2 miles: 8:53:45
Time at aid: About 10 minutes, and mostly in the second half.
Overall pace: 8:35
Running pace: 8:25

Thank you to all the volunteers who were out there today, Running Etc. for their support, John Price for directing a fun new event, and my friends Jon and Virginia who stayed to see me finish. If this event continues next year, I definitely encourage runners to come check it out. The looped course wasn't as monotonous as anticipated and you got to give and receive a lot of support to your fellow runners during the day. Time for a beer, and then a nap. In that order :-)

(Love this photo of me and my friends Jon and Virginia, who ran the 50k, enjoying some post race rest and unseasonably warm winter sun)

-Gels every 25 minutes (Honey Stinger and GU Roctane)
-S Cap every hour after 4 hours (4 total)
-A few handfuls of pretzels
-Approx 2,200 calories consumed during race
-Pre-race Little Debbie brownie (530 calories)
-Post-race Samuel Adams (150 calories)
-water, Gatorade, and some soda

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Short Gear Reviews of Stuff I am Using

Basically, this is not a comprehensive gear list, but rather some short blurbs regarding products I have used the most in the past couple of years. These are not full reports on each item, but simply quick recaps of my thoughts after using them. On the plus side, everything I will mention has been already put to use, so you'll actually be getting a post performance review of the products. Also, I am not a sponsored athlete, so other than being a fellow runner, I have no biased agenda in favor, or against any brands. As far as product pricing, I bought most of my items online, so they were most likely bought at a significantly discounted price compared to retail. So prices are unlisted. Lastly, there may be some items that are discontinued, but you never know, I have had some good finds on ebay.

First off, some size referencing. Below is a photo of myself and Dean Karnazes. Dean is listed at 5'8" and 154 lbs. I typically tell people I am about 5'8" to 5'9" and between 150-155 lbs. Essentially, based on those stats, Dean and I should be almost identical in stature. Interesting... Moving on. My shoe size is typically 9 or a 9.5 and most of my athletic attire is men's medium. As for speed, I am a middle of the pack runner.


Quick note on pack selection: In 10 years of running, like many people, I have probably gone through a half dozen hand held bottle designs and just as many for hydration packs. My preferences seem to change from one month to the next and I have gotten frustrated trying to figure out what to use. Today, I have a more refined methodology of choosing my hydration and it really comes down to four questions to ask yourself before going for a run.

1. How long will you be running? This is not a matter of distance, but rather time. On a 40 degree road run, I might carry 10 ounces of water for a 15 miler, or none at all for distances under 10 miles. However, a 15 miler on a 95 degree day in the mountains might require a 40-50 ounces of water, as you will be losing fluids at a higher rate and for a longer time.

2. Will you have access to water? Self explanatory. If you are on trails, is there a reliable source of clean water available like a stream, or natural spring to refill? If you are in a city, or town, are there water fountains, or bathrooms you can use? If it is during a race, how often are the water stops, 3 miles between, or 10?

3. How much weight do you really need to carry? I see this scenario often. A race has water stops every 5 miles, but people still wear 70 and 100 ounce hydration packs. I understand for some it is easier not to fuss around with refilling, but in reality, the amount of energy you are using to carry the extra weight will slow you down more than stopping to refill. Also, consider this. When you carry too much water, you will work harder, sweat more, and thus require more liquids. It's a cycle that ultimately leaves you more fatigued and has you keeping excess weight on your legs. Carry less, sweat less, and work less. Sounds easy, but it can be tough to find a balance.

4. Other than liquids, will you need to carry other items? Common sense. Bigger packs with additional storage will weigh more than minimal packs with less storage. The question is what will you need to carry? Is there a need for rain gear, or additional clothing if the weather changes? Will you need to carry a headlamp, extra food, a cell phone, or even a camera? If it is a race, will there be access to drop bags, so you don't need to carry everything all at once, and will you be able to discard any items you no longer need?

(Salomon Skin Pro 10+3)

Pros: The pack was lightweight, durable, and had a decent, but not a ton of room for gear. It had straps for poles and the mesh side pockets were easily accessible, even for someone with poor range of motion in my shoulders like me. The pack could also hold a 50oz bladder, and/or two 20oz bottles in the front pockets like the Ultimate Direction packs. If you chose to just use bottles in the front, the storage capacity in the rear could be expanded so you could stash extra gear. The pack had a secondary compartment, so even if a bladder was used, you had another place to stow things. Salomon packs do an amazing job with having a more vest like fit, which is very snug, yet comfortable.

Cons: The price. Salomon stuff ain't cheap. I had issues with the strap clips coming undone, loose, or sometimes falling off completely. Also, adjusting the Velcro shoulder straps was a chore, and not fun if it came lose during a race. Thankfully, it never did, but adjusting for added clothing layers took some time. Wearing bottles in the front pockets can also get really uncomfortable after a while. I had bruises on my ribs after a few races because the tightness needed to keep the pack from jiggling too much was too tight for the round contour of the bottles pushing against me. Salomon and Ultimate Direction need to pad the part of the bottle holder on the chest side, and also come up with a better ergonomic bottle design, so a round bottle isn't pushing against your chest. Lastly, nothing on the pack was waterproof.

Best uses: Longer runs over 15 miles, trail running, and mountain running. Good for races, especially if you need to carry extra gear/clothing, where you might have 2+ hours between aid station.

Score: 8 out of 10

(Out There AS1 day pack)

Pros: Tons of features for a day outside, or a 47 mile day in the Grand Canyon. It has places (some waterproof) specifically for mountaineering gear and can hold a tent, helmet, axe, and more with room to spare. The pack's frame balances well and makes use of both the shoulder and hip straps for added storage. Most packs sadly neglect this opportunity. The AS1 easily holds a 100oz bladder, perfect for when I did rim to rim to rim in 110 degree heat, and has slots for 6 additional 20 ounce bottles. The small waste pockets are removable, but also big enough to hold a lot of food, and also something heavier like a camera. Even with a full pack, the weight distribution is great, and I found my shoulders and hips still felt good after 15+ hours in the pack.

Cons: Hard to find. I got lucky and saw this on a clearance rack in Telluride for $25. It retails for $170. Getting the right fit takes a little while, and I don't know how well it would work for someone with a smaller build and narrow hips and shoulders. It's also comfortable enough to run in, but wouldn't recommend it for more than a couple miles at a time.

Best uses: Longer day hikes of 20+ miles, or multi day hikes.

Score: 9 out of 10

(Ultraspire Kinetic)

Pros: Really innovative design and light weight. The pack moves with your body and is one of the most comfortable packs I have ever worn. Maybe more so than my old favorite the Nathan HPL20. The two bottles hold 25 ounces each, which nice in place of a 1.5 liter bladder, but also nice if you want just water in one bottle, and a sport drink in the other. I like bladders, but you have to commit to only one kind of fluid. Probably the best feature of the Kinetic is the use of storage on the waste strap and shoulder straps. Again, I don't know why companies don't utilize these places more for pockets. Essentially, you can access all your food and hydration without ever having to take off the pack. Also, after some experimentation, I found you can put little 10oz bottles in the top two shoulder pockets, still have the hip pockets available, and use the empty bottle slots in the back for additional storage. Finally, this pack breaths incredibly well with the open shoulder area, and the lesser known fact the fabric is stitched in a way that leaves a nice gap at the small of the back for air. You can also run with just one bottle if you aren't going as far.

Cons: Bottles are hard to access, especially for someone like me who does not have a great range of motion in their shoulders. I have to use two hands and twist the pack to make it work. I would have liked to be able to retrieve and put back the bottle with one hand. Maybe if they placed the bottles higher, like the Orange Mud Hydraquiver packs, access would be less an issue? Also, a slightly larger back pocket would be nice, or at least one big enough for a jacket in case the weather turns.

Best uses: Runs up to a marathon, or 50k in cool weather, and 20 miles in warmer temps (half those distances if using one bottle). Good for day hikes of 20 miles in the cold, or 15 in warm weather. Also well suited for races where aid might be 1 to 2+ hours apart and specifically 100 milers where carrying extra food is necessary.

Score: 8.5 out of 10

(Amphipod RunLite)

Pros: I used to only run with hand held bottles, but stopped after realizing that years of running with 20 ounces of water in one hand was probably causing some issues with my mechanics, and perhaps leading to injury. The RunLite offers a nice hands free alternative, which I like especially on technical trails where I can balance better, but also to have less hindered running mechanics, as stated above. The RunLite can also be accessorized with add ons like additional bottles and storage pockets. It's great to have access to everything you need all on your waste. Grabbing water and food on the go is probably the easiest with this belt than any other option.

Cons: The bottles slid around the belt too much and sometimes were a pain to get back into position. The belt as a whole also slid around a lot and sometimes only stayed in place if I was sweaty, or the belt was secured too tight to be comfortable. As the bottles age, mine are less than 11 months old, even when they "click" into place, they can still come undone. I recently lost a bottle, and never even noticed it had dropped off my hip, and it's not like I was wearing headphones, or zoned out. It was just that unnoticeable. Finally, though one "pro" is that the belt can hold 5-6 bottles, anything more than 3 of the 10 ounce bottles is too heavy and jiggles too much. No storage for clothing, but obviously a waste belt won't have much, or any.

Best uses: Two bottles: Runs up to 20 miles in cool weather, or 10-15 in warm weather. Good for races with aid every 45 minutes to 1 hour and for when you want to run faster with less weight.

Score: 7.5 out of 10

(Nathan Firecatcher)

Pros: Incredibly lightweight at 10.6 ounces. It is essentially an improved version of the Nathan Minimist vest, which had less storage and where using a 1.5L bladder was less practical than advertised. The Firecatcher is better designed for compatibility with a 1.5L bladder and also has 2 straps, instead of one, for added support. If you choose to only use the two 10 ounce bottles, the empty bladder pocket is big enough to stow a jacket, and you still have an electrolyte pocket and mesh pocket surprisingly big enough for 4-5 gels. If using a bladder, you have ample storage space in the front. Good for nice hands free running, and it doesn't bounce around as much as most waist packs. The flatter bottle design is far superior in comfort to the Ultimate Direction front bottle set up.

Cons: The top strap comes loose way too frequently and I found myself constantly adjusting it. The breathability of the back area when using a bladder isn't great, but still better than the Nathan HPL20. Not sure how well it will fit smaller runners. It does not come with a bladder and it might have been nice to move the electrolyte pouch up and have a second mesh pocket underneath it. Some people will not think two 10 ounce bottles merits wearing a vest and/or wish the bottles were larger. However, larger bottles will fit into the front pockets.

Score: 8 out of 10

Best uses: If using just the two small bottles: Runs under 15 miles and races with access to aid under 45 minutes to 1 hour. With 1.5L bladder: Urban runs up to 50k, mountain runs up to 20 miles in warm weather, and races where access to aid is 2+ hours. Good for ultras where you want to run faster and carry less weight.


(North Face Ultra Trail Guide)

Pros: Only 9.6 ounces, but they have held up well on rugged terrain. I wore these for rim to rim to rim, and although my quads were shot from 11,300 feet of climbing and just as much descent, my feet felt good, even while carrying a days worth of supplies. The traction is good and the gusseted tongue provided some comfort and help keep debris out. I see these lasting beyond the average 300 miles for sure, and after 150+, they still feel new.

Cons: Not super comfortable on roads, but they are not a road shoe anyway. If you use them in a trail race where you transition onto a section of road for a while, these will do the job, but not ideal.

Score: 9 out of 10

(Pearl Izumi E-motion N1 Road)

Pros: Pleasantly lightweight at roughly 7.7 ounces and very breathable material. The low profile and 4mm drop encourages a nice forefoot landing. Use of firmer rubber that runs length wise down the outsole allows for a nice natural roll through each stride.

Cons: The outsole is very stiff and the shoes definitely slapped around too much for my liking. The N1 reminds me a lot like a wider version of the first generation New Balance Minimist Road, and it just doesn't cushion the way I would have liked. Also, the super soft fabric in the toe box makes the N1 feel bigger than it really is, or maybe it actually does run a half size too large. Normally, I don't mind firmer shoes as long as you feel like the energy is being given back, but I don't sense that in the N1. I want to like these, but honestly, I don't.

Score: 5 out of 10

(Nike Lunaracer 3)

Pros: A classic lightweight and well cushioned road shoe. I wore these and set back to back marathon PR's in 2014. The cushion is light, but also provided substantial relief from 26.2 miles of pavement. Nike states they are 6.3 ounces, but they don't feel much lighter than my 7.7 ounce Kinvaras. After 3 marathons and roughly 300 miles, I expected the lightweight sole to wear out and the upper to start ripping, but they held up.

Cons: Laces could be better, and I felt like I had to adjust them too much for a good fit. The shoe also tended to run a little narrow, which was fine for me, but maybe not for others.

Score: 9.5 out of 10

(Adidas Energy Boost 2)

Pros: Fairly lightweight at 9.7 ounces and ideal for a half marathons to ultras. The "Boost" foam, which at a higher heel stack height, actually absorbs enough to create a nice forefoot strike. Very efficient forefoot strikers, however, probably won't see much return on energy. The flexible upper is very comfortable and literally seamless. The Energy Boost is one of the most comfortable shoes I have ever worn and both of my pairs are holding up well after 100+ miles on each.

Cons: Expensive. Sometimes the arch feels a bit narrow and the shoe can get a little tight near the toes due to the thicker, but stretchy fabric in the upper. Heel to toe drop is a bit high, and the shoe does not have a low grounded feel. Though light, the Energy Boost is probably still too heavy to use for shorter road races like 5k and 10k's.

Score: 8 out of 10

(Hoka One One Clifton)

Pros: Very light weight, and a nice deviation from the heavier clunky Hoka models. Even the Bondi B Speed, which was once advertised as Hoka's "fast" shoe felt cumbersome and unsuitable for faster runs. Thankfully, the Clifton can be used for fast runs as well as long casual runs. While the cushioning isn't like the original Hoka designs, it is still surprisingly good for a 7.7 ounce shoe. It reminds me a lot of a Saucony Kinvara on a slightly higher and more plush platform. The rocker design offers a nice stride transition and although the shoe looks like it has a massive heel, it's merely an illusion from the design, and the actual heel height is fairly reasonable.

*Update" 2/22/15* Wore the Cliftons for a road 100k. It was my longest run in the shoes, which now have about 200 miles on them. The Clifton felt comfortable all 62 miles, and I never once considered changing into another pair of shoes. The lightweight, combined with extra cushion, helped my stride feel light early on, but also protected after 40, 50, and 60+ miles of harsh pavement. With now 200 miles on them (all road), they have actually held up better than expected. I anticipate getting at least 400 miles out of them. Makes me feel slightly better about paying $129 for them, though I wish Hoka made a sub $100 shoe for American markets. Hoka and Salomon have gotten us too comfortable seeing $130-$170 as an acceptable pricepoint for shoes.

Cons: Expensive. Questionable durability with the soft foam outsole. I am already seeing wear on the heel, and I don't heel strike, and things like small pebbles are starting to wear out the bottoms. While my Bondis and Stinsons easily eclipsed 600 lifetime miles each, I am doubtful these will see even half of that, and less if you attempt to use them on trails. Also, the lacing is very narrow and lacks a top lacing loop, which I fixed by simply added two new holes at the top. The ink on the tongue will also bleed onto your socks after the first few runs.

Score: 8 out of 10

(Montrail Rogue Fly)

Pros: This shoe is actually what I had hoped for in the Rogue Racer. At 7.7 ounces it's one of the lightest trail shoes on the market. The hex shaped lugs provided better traction than expected and the cushioning feels more like that of a road shoe. Actually, it's pretty much a road shoe with a slightly more traction friendly sole. It's even quite comfortable for road runs as well. The Rogue Fly was my go to shoe for 2014 and I wore them for three 50 milers, a trail marathon, and a 100k. It wasn't until after the 100k that the shoes developed a tear in the side that ultimately led to their retirement. The Rogue Fly is versatile enough for a 10k cross country race, or even a 100 miler. Probably my favorite trail shoe since the discontinued Pearl Izumi Peak 2.

Cons: Not good on rocks, wet, or heavily technical trails. The cost of the light weight is at the expense of foot protection. Though they lasted through races like the Hellgate 100k, they would not be ideal for something like the Massanutten 100.

Score: 9.5 out of 10

(Brooks Ravenna 4)

Pros: Not much, other than they are a generic stability shoe that can be used as a fill in when I don't want to put mileage on my other pairs. The Ravenna is probably better suited for heavier people, or for use as a cross trainer.

Cons: Poor cushion given the thickness of the heel and forefoot. The shoe is advertised as 11.1 ounces, but my guess is that they are at least an ounce heavier. The shoe is clunky and the higher stack height has no benefit other than added weight. Not a good shoe for running faster and honestly it felt uncomfortable even jogging in. If the additional weight provided more cushion, I could see using the Ravenna for recovery runs, but it doesn't, so it's been designated only for walking, casual wear, and going to the gym. Honestly, it's built up shoes like these that weaken people's feet and led to the minimalist post Born to Run craze of a few years ago. They also run a half size too big.

Score: 2 out of 10

Coming soon, a review on clothing n such.