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, but I'd like to think my cumulative experience with all kinds of running gives me a good starting point to offer 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.

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 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.

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 keep 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 overage 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 a 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 pace 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 if 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.

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 but 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. 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.

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.

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.

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 and a Spartathlon qualifier!

(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 am 172cm tall and 69kg. Essentially, based on those stats, Dean and I should be almost identical in stature......strange.....Moving on. Depending on the brand, my shoe size is either as small as an 8.5 or as large as 9.5. Brooks shoes tend to run large on me, hence the 8.5, and brands like Nike and Adidas tend to run smaller, hence wearing up to 9.5. In clothing, my shirt and jacket size is small in standard clothing, and medium in more athletic cut attire, or running specific outfits. All my shorts are a medium and my waist is 31 inches.


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: Fairly lightweight at roughly 8.3 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.

*Update 5/15/15. So, my N1's have about 120 miles on them now. I think they have a break in period of about 50 miles, but they still feel very firm. I have, however, noticed the shoe is more forgiving the faster you run. It is not forgiving for slower recovery runs, or if you have poor mechanics. The better your foot strike, the more responsive the N1 is. Though harsher on pavement, I found the N1 to be a good shoe for the treadmill, where cushioned shoes aren't quite as efficient. Still, it's probably the last shoe I'd consider using when going for a run.

Score: 6 out of 10 (previously a 5/10)

(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 I'd say they are closer to 7. 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: Lighter at 9.7 ounces (but probably closer to 10) 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 liner offers a nice sock like fit, which feels like it hugs the shoe around your foot 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 sometimes feel a bit high off the ground. Sometimes it feels like too much of the shoe's weight is centered in the sole. The Energy Boost is probably still too heavy to use for shorter road races like 5k and 10k's.

*Update 5/15/15. My Boosts have about 200 road miles on them and they are only showing light wear near the heel. Boost material has held up, and I suspect these could be a 500-600 mile shoe for lighter runners with good mechanics. Very pleased with durability.

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 lighter shoe. Hoka advertises 7.7 ounces for the Clifton, though my men's size 9 came in at 8.1 oz. It reminds me a lot of the Saucony Kinvara, another supposed 7.7 oz shoe that came in at 9 oz, 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 at $130, though cheaper than most Hokas. 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 lack of a top lace can also make the heel feel a bit loose in the shoe. Again, this can be fixed by simply making two holes on your own. The ink on the tongue will also bleed onto your socks, so don't be surprised if your white socks look a bit tie dyed.

*Update 5/19/15. My Cliftons have about 350 road miles on them now. The rear outsole is wearing a bit thin, but overall I expect another 100-150 quality miles out of the shoe before it would compromise my foot strike. After that I may trim down the sole to balance out the wear pattern. Better than expected, though keep in mind if you run trails, even gravel or soft dirt, the life of the outsole could be considerably shorter. The thin upper material seems to have stretched a bit, so after 6 months the shoe feels about a half size larger.

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 body types, 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 closer to 12. 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.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

My First 5k

Yup, you read that correctly! After 102 marathons and ultras, I completed my first official 5k race on New Year's Day 2015.

Given that my race reports for ultras don't end up that long, one could rightfully assume a report for a 5k would be a mere handful of sentences. But, instead of a five sentence recap, I added some flavorful details to what would otherwise be a bland story of a 3.1 mile slog on pavement. So, without further adieu, here is a 5k race report. Drum roll please!

My first ever 5k was the Hair of the Dog 5k in Virginia Beach. The race, however, offered a formal wear division that meant we could race in typical New Years attire, or pajamas. Anytime I can dress like an idiot, or in this case a very stylish idiot, and run at the same time I jump at the opportunity. I figured the option of wearing pajamas would be too much of a cop out for a "formal wear" division since most pajamas are fairly lightweight and pretty easy to run in. No, no, no. I had to be Formal if I wanted to stay true to thine self and thy formal wear division.

Pre-race day I paced back and forth through my wardrobe. So many choices, so little time. Ah, I spotted a black suite that I hadn't worn in years, but it still fit and looked brand new. "007 reporting for duty", I rehearsed to myself in the mirror. No time for games though as I paired it up with a white and blue striped Ralph Lauren dress shirt and a Sponge Bob tie. The pairing was indeed odd, like Simon and Garfunkle, peanut butter and jelly, Elaine Page and Susan Boyle, but it said I'm fashionable, and I live in a pineapple under the sea. Everything looked good, but it was not yet complete. I added the razzle dazzle of a striped tie, some leftover Christmas spirit with a Santa hat, a jazzy pink plastic wine cup, and some cool shades that declared "For those about to rock, we salute you."

The race itself went by quick. When you are used to running up to 10 hours at a time, 20 something minutes goes by quicker than the flutter of a hummingbird's wings. The first quarter mile was way too fast, and I discovered just how much a pain in the ass running in a suite is. The scarf blew into my face, my suite jacket slid off my shoulder every 3.8 steps, and wearing 4 lbs of dress clothes is akin to running with 500 helium balloons. All of that while running half the race into a 10-20 mph headwind and trying not to look like an ass clown sliding over patches of frozen bike path. Still, I managed to persevere and pass runner after runner that each echoed the similar sentiment "Damn, I just got passed by a guy in a freakin' suite!".

(Photo credit Mettle Events. Passing yet another overwhelmed and unsuspecting victim despite wardrobe malfunctions that would make Janet Jackson proud)

The miles wore on and I swear I spent more energy trying to constantly adjust my wardrobe than on actually running. There was much waling and gnashing of teeth. "Crap, this stupid Windsor knot is coming loose!". At mile 2 a strong gust of wing sent my scarf flying off 100 feet behind me. For a split second I wondered whether to run back and get it, or just to let it go, let it go (insert Idina Menzel cameo, or as John Travolta would say, Adele Dazeem). I made up my mind and ran back to salvage my beloved wool partner in crime. 20 seconds lost. Not much if running any other distance, but cataclysmic in a 5k. At 2.5 miles we hit a wall of wind, crossed a raging 5 foot wide puddle, and veered into the final home stretch.

With one final push, one last adjustment of my outfit to look good for finish line photos, I crossed the finish line with glorious purpose. The sky opened up, a beam of golden sun poured through the clouds, and cherubs showered the earth with the manna of victory. First place in the formal wear division. All my wildest dreams had come true, and out of a whopping 8 people in the formal wear division, I rose from the ashes like a great Pheonix and indulged in glory.

Yeah.....So, that's kinda how my first 5k went. Oh, and I got a medal and a t-shirt. Booyah!(R.I.P. Stuart Scott)

(The spoils of victory)

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Last Loop Around the Sun- A Look Back at 2014

2014 was a good year, but not without it's sobering reminders that life is both short and fragile. After the Boston Marathon bombing rocked the global running world in 2013, the deaths of Meg Menzies and Cameron Gallagher created waves that rippled through local communities and expanded to unfathomable distances. In death, as in life, we remembered why living life to the fullest is essential in a world where tomorrow is never a guarantee. I was also reminded that running is just....running. A mere part of life, but never life itself.

2014 was the year I decided not the pursue anymore 100 mile races for foreseeable future. As part of my desire to be a better steward of my body and be able to run 40+ years from now, I made an ultimatum about the quantity of races I do, but more importantly the distances of said races. Too many 100 milers, in my opinion, are the gateway to many preventable future injuries. In the past five years I have literally watched healthy runners decompose into people that are either barely able to finish races they once did with ease, or not finishing at all.

This past year I also made a conscious decision to disconnect from the ultrarunning scene. What I mean by that is this: In the past I have found myself too caught up in what others are doing, whether it was reading race reports, blogs, facebook, or just wasting time looking at ultrarunning websites. In doing this, I found myself comparing and contrasting my life as a runner too often, and eventually coming to the realizing I was losing touch with my own personal convictions for running. Some might think I've been giving the ultrarunning community, which I was very involved in at one point, the cold shoulder and I am just being unfriendly. It might also seem hypocritical that I still ran 5 ultras in 2014, but alas, most of them were well off anyone's radar. In recent years, I've also witnessed a huge increase in the number of running clubs, teams, cliques, and subgroups that make trying to find a seat at a pre-race dinner feel like trying to find a seat in a middle school cafeteria. My only issue with all these groups is that for every person that gains a sense of family, inclusiveness, and comradery from a group, someone else probably feels exactly the opposite. This observation would only be mere assumption, except for the fact I know people who feel excluded and unwelcome for those same reasons. It used to be that just being an ultrarunner was enough to feel like part of the family, and I hope that hasn't been lost. Of course, I still like to chat and catch up with friends if I see them at races, but hours and hours of ultra/running talk probably won't happen. These days I'd rather just enjoy the experience of being out in nature during a race, calling it a day, and then going home to relax and have a beer before bed.

In 2014 I stepped out of my comfort zone and tried some new things. Becoming an Ironman was a huge bucket list item, and it's something I am very proud of. With essentially no experience in the water, or on a bike, it took a different kind of focus to shift from 9 years of just running to working my way into becoming a capable, albeit not fast, cyclist and swimmer. Four months of hard work paid off, and now I can officially call myself an Ironman for the rest of my life. In addition to the Ironman, I also mustered up the nerve to attempt my first road marathon since 2009 and also successfully lead my first marathon pace group. Who knew that going into the year with a 3:33 marathon PR that I would be pacing a 3:45 group by November as a fairly relaxed effort.

In total, 2014 will end with nearly 2,600 miles of running (well short of a PR), a marathon's worth of swimming, and almost 1,000 miles of cycling. For comparison, prior to this year, in 32 years of living, I had probably not swam more than 5 cumulative miles in my life, nor ridden more than 150 total miles on a bike. I also completed 8 running events I had never done before and completed an epic 47 mile Rim to Rim to Rim double crossing of the Grand Canyon. One of my unintentional, but frequently reoccurring themes of 2014 was to try new things. In doing so, I think it's helped enable me to enjoy running and sports it a more complete capacity than I had in a while. There were also some big milestones this past year. I completed my 100th ultra/marathon and also celebrated the 10th anniversary of my first ultra. Putting into words and thoughts what I have learned in just over a decade of running and life brings me to what next year might look like.

So, what goals do I have for 2015? Historically, coming off the exuberance of a good year, I have overtrained, overraced, and ultimately had a bad year. This pattern, sometimes affected by a series of freak injuries, has been fairly consistent since 2009. With so many interesting races popping up I need to be wiser about listening to my body and letting go of temptation to run every cool event that piques my interest. I also need to remember that our bodies don't have much more than 4-5 full out race efforts (tops) in them per calendar year, especially when the races are 26.2 miles or longer. Following my own advice, I will probably run at most two harder efforts in the spring and fall, and maybe one during the summer. Any other event will just be for fun, but even just for fun events will probably be limited to a handful of 50k, or shorter races. That being said, I have nothing of note committed to my calendar for 2015. I may try to achieve a few running goals like a sub 4 hour 50k, or qualifying for Boston, but again I am not putting pressure on myself.

Speaking of myself, I am planning on focusing much less on me in 2015 and much more on others. I hope to volunteer, cheer, crew, or do photography at more events than I actually participate in. For a good solid year, I'd like to not making running all about my goals, my running successes and failures, my training, but instead lifting up others to be the kind of runner/person they want to be. This will also mean another big list of "firsts" in that I will be immersing myself in the world of "shorter" local road races. While I have mostly dwelled in the subculture of trail ultrarunners, I am excited to be a part of a different subculture of the sport I love. While in previous years I have increased the amount I volunteer and crew/pace, I really want 2015 to set a precedent for the future.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Make a Wish- Hellgate 100k

When you see a shooting star, it is usually tradition to make a quiet wish to yourself. The Geminid meteor shower, caused by debris from object 3200 Phaethon, gave runners on a certain magical night plenty of opportunities to make such wishes. Of these, some included just wanting to finish the Hellgate 100k, finishing the Beast series, wishes to the family of a fallen soldier and friend, or the simple wish to make it through another journey. Like Cinderella once said, a dream is a wish your heart makes.

It was a late autumn eve, and one could say it was the kind of night that could bring back the nostalgia of childhood campfires, scary stories, and smores. The time was moments after midnight in a silent stillness that only a secluded mountain forest could provide. It was chilly, but not cold, and actually a bit warm compared to other years. The only noise to be heard was the frantic and excited clammering of 148 hearty souls and a cluster of volunteers and crew people. Though being dropped off in the middle of the night, in the middle of Nowheresville, VA could be hauntingly ominous to some, for me it was a warm homecoming to the Blue Ridge mountains that I called home for over one third of my life.

I've run over 100 marathons and ultras, but none of them were the Hellgate 100k. I've been a sweeper at Hellgate, a crew member and pacer at Hellgate, and I've even applied twice and been accepted twice to run. However, twice I've had to withdraw before even starting the race. Deep in my gut, I knew 2014 would be the now or never year for running this fabled race, and so for the third time I mailed in my entry. My mail in application was initially the standard 8x11 form from the website, but was noticeably closer to an 8x9 when I actually mailed it. What happened to those bottom two inches of my application, you ask? Simple. I cut them off. In hopes of beefing up the possibility of getting selected to run, I originally wrote that I wanted to run sub 12:30 and claim a men's top 10. Then, the reality of several things occurred to me which changed my mind. One, I have not run a mountain trail in over a year, and two, I live in arguably the flattest part of Virginia. I could run 20 miles in any direction from my apartment and never gain more than 100 feet total. Not the best training for a race with 13,500 feet of climbing and technical running. I've also never even come remotely close to a top 10 in any of Horton's races, so that part was also a bit of a reach. So, instead of reprinting my application, which I couldn't do at home anyway, I got out the scissors and removed any delusions of grandeur from my application. In my personal opinion, Dr. Horton had no good reason to let me into the race given my two previous Hellgate withdrawals and the fact I haven't done anything in a while that suggested I could finish. Much to my surprise, for the third time, my entry was accepted.

If you wanted a race report full of details about what food was eaten, what clothes were worn, or what the splits were, this probably isn't the report for you. I'm sure in the ensuing weeks plenty of other runners will share their stories in the kind of detail that will cover all these bases.

As an aside, this year's Hellgate started on what would have been my grandmother's 95th birthday. Her inspiration exactly 10 years ago, while she was battling cancer, is what pushed me through my first ultra. She was the first inspiration that allowed me to dig deeper than I ever physically thought I could. Her spirit is much of what I believe the spirit of Hellgate, ultrarunning, and to a greater degree running the good race is about.

I will say that my Hellgate experience was much like the pursuit of a beautiful woman. A beautiful woman named top 10 male that is. At first she was the unapproachable beauty across a dimly lit ballroom. We exchange quick flirtatious glances. Surely she's out of my league, but I've never been one to shy away from a challenge. However, the crowd between us was far too dense and there were far too many eligible suitors to make any kind of move plausible. I could only admire her from afar as I became a second tier bystander to the symphony of roots, leaves and rocks. Behold, a serpentine trail of lights leading up to Petite's Gap. This orchestra is just tuning up. The dances and partners were many and the element of the dance floor ever changing. With the bitter windy chill of Floyd's Field she takes a step back. A brisk Paso Doble over leaf strewn rocky trails, a slow Mambo with the a gentle climb, and a Rumba with the dipping and sweeping trails entranced by the curvature of the mountain. 37 miles in and the sunrise reflects a familiar twinkle in her mysterious gaze. "13th male" she whispers to me, but laughingly taunts with a "But, you are still a distant arm's length away." I work to find the footing, to find a groove, and never once unlock eyes with the dame so close.

Sacrebleu!? What dost appear before thine eyes but the beauty herself. 46 miles into this dance and she has shrugged off not just two, but three bachelors. From far across the room she has made her way through the masses and into my arms. I finally have her. 10th male. For the next hour we float along in a harmonious Tango. Up close she's more beautiful than I had previously pictured, but, something was off. I could see it in her eyes that their was a vacantness, a lack of empathy, and she was beginning to distance herself from me. Though we continued to Waltz hand in hand, I knew I was losing her. Over 11 hours on our feet, and just as swiftly as she swooped into my arms, another man had just as easily stolen her away. Beauty can be both cold and fleeting, and perhaps more so when so unceremoniously left for another.

And just like a banshee in the night, the mystical temptress of a men's top 10 dissipated into an ephemeral mist. The multitudes came and went, and by multitudes, I mean 9 people. My energy was still surprisingly strong, but the legs had grown weary. Up a final mountain and down a final hill. The orchestra was now playing its final notes. One last stretch of road into Camp Bethel and into the outstretched arms of the composer himself, Dr. David Horton. The dance was over.

As I looked back at the night and day, I realized that like Cinderella at the royal ball, it was only a matter of time before my chariot turned back into a pumpkin. I also realized that while I was momentarily enamored by the deceptive charm of a top 10, that the only dance that really mattered was the 66.6 mile duet with myself and the Hellgate 100k. She was the real beauty on that Van Gogh(esque) starry night, and one that never left my side no matter what mountains were crossed, what streams were waded, or what cold mountain roads traversed.

But who was she? Who is Hellgate? I'd like to believe she is many things. She's the culmination of a year's worth of running, races, life, and the people who make it. She is the reminder of why we push ourselves, why we keep doing what we do, and what it takes to dig deep. She serves as that reminder for all those who finished, as well as all those who could not. In future years I look forward to spotting Hellgate at the royal ball and asking for another dance.

Bonus Question. Did I get lost during the race? Answer...sorta. I Had some trouble finding the trail in the deep woodsy section after Floyd's Field. I chose to wait and run with another runner, rather than go ahead and get super lost. I also got turned around during a potty break just before Bear Wallow and ran backwards on the course a few minutes before I realized I was back at a creek I just crossed. Small mental error due to lack of sleep, but thankfully no major blunders. Hellgate was a course so well marked even I could follow it with 99.7% accuracy.

(Photo credit Frank Probst. Finishing my first, but not last, Hellgate 100k)