Sunday, February 8, 2015

Breakthrough: Virginia Beach Distance Series 100k

For a while now I was wondering if I was ever going to have that breakthrough performance I knew I had in me. Most of my PR's are fairly old, but I knew my fitness and endurance are better now then when I set them. My 50 mile PR was a 7:35 from 2010, my 50k PR a 4:22 from 2012, and my 100k PR of 10:28 was also from 2012. 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 really showed what I was capable of.

Today, that changed.

The Virginia Beach Distance Races, the brainchild of local ultra 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. Plentiful sunshine also meant we were treated to some unique mid winter tan lines.

I was originally signed up for the 50k, 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. 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 ultras on roads 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 with a 7:30 and then try to run/walk the last 12 miles in 2:30 to sneak under 10 hours. Easier said than done.

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 35 seconds per mile 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 of the mentally and physically toughest 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 extremely heavy and my muscles constantly felt on the verge of cramping, but I dug deep those last two laps.

Into the pave cave. I'm not going to lie, those last miles hurt. All I wanted to do was walk, or find a reason to walk, but knowing I had a shot at a big goal overpowered all my excuses. One foot in front of the other. Just. Keep. Moving.

59.9 miles down. 8 hours and 32 minutes elapsed. One last lap to go. I was already in the pain cave during the previous lap, but on this one I dug in a little bit deeper. The only consolation was being able saying farewell to the course I had gotten to know all too well. I turned into the final stretch past the golf shop and made a hard right turn for a sprint finish. I tagged the stop button on my watch and glanced down. 8:53:45.

(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. 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. 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. As the race progressed I stopped thinking about what my pre-race 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 a in the waning miles of a race can become a self fulfilling prophecy. So much of running is mental, especially late in a race. I used to think I could not run a marathon without walking, or an ultra without walking and slogging through a significant portion of the run. 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. On another fast course, could I possibly run a sub 8:30 100k, or a sub 6:45 50 miler? Maybe even faster? Those are times I would have never entertained before this race, but after a few years of sub par running, I am ready to step it up and think big 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
50k: 4:07
50 miles: 6:59
100k: 8:53:45
Time at aid: About 10 minutes, half of which between mile 45 and 55. Those short breaks didn't seem like much, but they added up, and probably weren't needed.
Overall pace: 8:35
Overall 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 aid station was better than most races I've been to and the wooden awards were refreshing and unique. 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. Lastly, you'd have a hard time finding an ultra with cheaper entry fees. 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)

Other non exciting details

-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)

Mostly water and about one small cup of soda or sports drink each lap during the second half.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Honey Stinger Hive 2015

I am pleased to share that I have been added to the Honey Stinger Hive for 2015. Located in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, Honey Stinger makes nutritious and great tasting honey-based foods including energy bars, protein bars, energy gels, organic waffles, and organic chews made with Organic Wildflower Honey. A lovely bonus is that I have regularly used, and enjoyed, Honey Stinger products at many of my races. I first used Honey Stinger in 2010 and went through roughly 20 packs of Honey Stinger for, at the time, my second 100 miler. In 2012, during another 100 miler, my stomach started going South after 70 miles, but for some reason Honey Stinger waffles were one of the few foods I could tolerate to ensure much needed calorie consumption in the waning miles of a race.

Let me be clear, I am not an elite athlete, and I consider this more a grassroots partnership than a sponsorship. Seriously, my V02 max is a 51, and in any given local 5k or 10k the winner will be fed, showered, and napped before I cross the finish. That said, while the Honey Stinger Hive does include some very notable and competitive elite athletes, it also includes more "average" athletes like myself who are just getting out there and doing our thing to the best of our abilities. To that, I genuinely appreciate Honey Stinger giving a less talented athlete like myself the opportunity to have a partnership without necessarily having the elite skills. The Honey Stinger Hive is a wonderful assortment of people of varying ability representing a vast range of sports. I'm excited to be part of the group.

I look forward to enjoying Honey Stinger in 2015. Sting or Bee Stung! Yeah, I went there :-)

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Lazy Man's Gear Guide, But Only Stuff I Use(d)

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 on the Minimist, 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.

Cons: The breathability of the back area, especially with 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.

Score: 9 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.

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)

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Rear View: The Back of the Pack

(Luanne Turrentine. The last finisher of the 2009 Freedom's Run Marathon. She finished in 8:40, though her personal best is 3:30. Photo credit Michael Theis)

Let's all be honest. We as a society are enamored with speed. We are enamored with the fastest runners, the most physically gifted athletes, and experiencing the view from the front of the pack. The front of the pack can be awe inspiring to watch, but it's not the only place where amazing happens.

However, like myself, most of us fall into the large gray realm described as the "middle of the pack" which encompasses the majority of those who partake in running events. However, even in the middle of the pack, you can find some amazingly inspiring stories and run with folks trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon or compete for age group awards. There's no shortage of blogs like this one about people's race schedules, race reports, gear reviews, nutrition advice, training, and all sorts of topics that we, the middle of the pack, can relate to. Most races logistically cater to the needs of the elites, but also the needs of its largest demographic group, the mid pack runners. The middle of the pack, in sheer size alone, can influence how a race is operated.

Then there's the all too forgotten group.....the back of the pack. These are the folks fighting to make the time cut offs and often finishing marathons in 6, 7, and 8 hours, or more. But, in recent years, I have learned that the back of the pack might just be the most inspiring place to be.

The back of the pack is an amazing group of people. I fully admit, in my first years running, I assumed and created a caricature of what the back of the pack runner was. After a decade of running in front of these people, and then with these people, I learned my assumptions couldn't be further from the truth.

First, I learned what it was like to be a back of the pack runner from my own struggles. I have been a middle of the packer most of my running life, but not everything goes to plan. I have gotten severely lost at races where I lost hours of time and finished near the back of the pack. I gotten food poisoning the day of, or the day before a race, and again ended up one of the event's last finishers. Then, on other occasions I was just very out of shape, or got injured during a race and similarly finished hours and hours slower than expected. I knew then, that sometimes being a back of the pack runner, for some, can be just a momentary period when a lot of things didn't go right at the same time. The silver living is that during these sub par races I had the opportunity to meet and run with fellow back of the pack runners. Their enthusiasm, toughness, and demeanor reminded me that the back of the pack was a far more upbeat place than I had envisioned, despite whatever struggles they may have also had.

I learned that sometimes the back of the pack is both a temporary place and sometimes it is permanent, or becomes permanent. Some back of the pack runners might be the bigger runners you might expect to see at the tail end of the crowd. However, what lies beneath the often judged exterior is a lot of unseen grit and determination. What your eyes will not see is that some of these people may have been much heavier than what you witness on race day. That 300 lb person might have been 400 lbs last year and and unable to walk a few hundred feet without getting winded. Their 15 to 20 minute miles might be a pace they never dreamed they could ever do, but they are now out there doing it. These folks may have once been faster, but perhaps due to health reasons, raising a family, or the accumulation of years of inactivity they gained weight. These runners, however, are the ones who had the guts to do something about it. Setting and achieving goals is not always about the clock.

I learned that the back of the pack is made up of many different kinds of athletes. Some runners are just not genetically meant to be fast, or like me, they would rather run more casual and have fun. Some were late bloomers who started running when their kids were older, or even when they retired. On the flip side many older athletes have done things that we would have never guessed based on the slow and steady gait we've become accustomed to seeing. You'd be amazed at the some of accomplishments and PR's that older runners are too modest to boast about it. From personal experience, there are people I will do easy runs with whom I later find out were once 2:20 marathoners, or former elites back in the 1970's and 1980's. It's a humbling reminder that some of the back of packers we casually interact with were once very fast front of the packers.

(Local legend Ed Demoney circa 1979. Photo credit: Ed Demoney and the VHTRC)

(Ed Demoney more recently. Still doing ultras at age 80. Photo credit: Ed Demoney and the VHTRC)

I've learned a lot about the back of the pack, but certainly not everything. I've learned a lot about who they are, what drives them, and how they came to be in the back of the pack. I've learned that the back of the back is full of some of the most determined souls. I've learned that the back of the pack is a tough group of folks who stick together and work together. They are parents, siblings, someone's child, and also someone's inspiration. They are usually the ones fighting the most against the tide and they remind me how easy I have it. I also learned one big sobering fact....

The back of the pack is overlooked. It can be a lonely place as the number of runners start to spread out over the waning miles of a course. The crowds that greeted the 3-5 hour finishers with exuberant cheers have long since gone home. When a race begins at 8am, few people remain in the early and middle hours of the afternoon, although runners on the course continue to forge on. When the going gets tough and back of the pack runners hit their walls and low points, they can't rely on boisterous fans lining the streets for a boost. They must dig deep and typically only with the company of their fellow back of the packer. In some cases course markings are taken down prematurely, traffic is no longer blocked off for runners, and aid stations supplies "run out".

Having recently paced friends finishing marathons in 6 to 7 hours, I honestly feel they do not get the same experience, though they paid the same entry fee, and trained just as hard. Aid stations, if still there, are dwindled down to a few cups and snacks as most of the luxury foods that welcomed other runners have been packed, or eaten. The local bands have gone, or at least stopped playing for the day. The only glimpse the back of the pack might get is seeing a few band members as they break down their sets. This familiar scene continues to play out as what was once a lively party just a few hours before is now nothing more than a quiet street. Water stops powered by hundreds of peppy volunteers before are now just a cluttered and wet mass of empty cups littering the road. The finish line isn't much different. The best case scenario is the finish line still stands, but even then the roar of spectators become a sparse cheer of a few loyal friends and family members. The worse case scenario, the finish is has been taken down, and there is no epic inflatable archway to cross under and no clock to even display your finish time. Your post race meal is whatever little food is leftover, but at least you get a medal and a finisher's shirt, assuming they didn't run out of your size. Several times now I have stayed until the very end of a marathon to volunteer and cheer people in, and I've always made sure to make a ton of noise, because my cheer might be the only one the runners get.

Some of the greatest running/sports/life stories I have ever heard have come from the back of the pack. I hope race organizers wake up and realize that the race experience needs to be the same for all runners, regardless of speed. An 8 hour marathoner or 3 hour half marathoner, though they may not seek it, does not deserve less fanfare and less pomp and circumstance for their efforts. They don't deserve better, but they definitely do deserve equal. If you advertise a marathon as having a 7 hour limit, and the remaining runners are within the established time cut offs, do not start taking things down prematurely. Runners have the rightful expectation to a fully serviced event all the way through, and race management should have the expectation to serve ALL the way through. Instead of taking down aid one to two hours too early, place the expectation on race staff and volunteers to be out there a full 7 hours, and then another 1-2 to breakdown the course. I know managing races events take months to prepare, but with that in mind, what is an extra few hours of work? The bottom line is this, never cut corners at the expense of your participants. They are working hard to finish, you need to work hard to help them finish.

To the back of the back. Respect.

(Caroline Williams finishing the 2010 MMT100 with minutes to spare. Photo credit Ray Smith)