Thursday, April 17, 2014

Untold Stories: Life, Death, and Marathons

(Cameron Gallagher at the 2014 Shamrock Half Marathon)

The 2014 Shamrock Marathon was held on a typical chilly March morning, but sadly the day was marred by the tragic death of 16 year old Cameron Gallagher from Richmond, VA. Cameron, a healthy teen and stand out swimmer, collapsed and died moments after crossing the finish line of the half marathon. Who knew that the finish line of the half marathon would also be the finish line of her life? Not long after her passing the news of her death made headlines around the country.

The sad truth is that there have been many other deaths in the US at marathons and half marathons that have gone largely unnoticed. I'm sure Cameron's age had a lot to do with increasing the depth of the tragedy, as well as social media being flooded with heartwarming images of her and her family. But, the other runners who died had families too, and many were also fairly young with much of their lives seemingly ahead of them. Cameron's death came quickly on the heels of another incident still fresh in minds of many. In January, Meg Menzies, a talented and well known runner also from Richmond was killed by a drunk driver while out for a run. Her tragic story made ripples so far reaching that people in other countries were running Megs Miles in her memory. But, I also had to think of all those who we never hear about. What if this had happened to a black man out for a casual run in Detroit, Compton, or perhaps a middle eastern Muslim in New York? Fact. It does happen, but nobody will ever hear their stories. Sad as it is, but Meg was a gifted runner, she was attractive, had three beautiful kids, and her husband was a police officer. She became an easily acceptable poster child for tragedy, unlike any of the hypothetical individuals I just mentioned. So, here I would like to acknowledge three things; those who have died in US marathons and halfs since 2009, all the untold stories of the "Meg Menzies and Cameron Gallaghers" of the world we never hear about, and the alarming increase in deaths in recent years.

Here are some sobering statistics I was able to compile.

From 2000-2008 3,718,336 people participated in marathons/half marathons in the US. Of course, many people run multiple races, so the individual number of participants is actually much lower. During this span 28 runners have died during the race, or complications shortly after. However, it is from 2009 on that the stats become even more staggering.

Marathon/Half Marathon Deaths since 2009 (There are likely more, but this is what I found)

Mark Austry, Rock 'n Roll Half Dallas, 2010. Age 32
Sean McCarthey, Rock 'n Roll Half Virginia Beach, 2010. Age 27
Cameron Gallagher, Shamrock Half, 2014. Age 16
Larry Wegner, Rock 'n Roll Half Virginia Beach, 2013. Age 50
Erik Wellumson, Rock n' Roll Half Virginia Beach, 2009. Age 23
Derek Myers, Rock 'n Roll Half Raleigh, 2014. Age 35
unknown male, Rock 'n Roll Half Raleigh, 2014. Age 31
Katie Joyner, Run Like a Diva Galveston, 2014. Age 27
Jake Zeman, Savannah Marathon, 2013. Age 35
Kyle Johnson, Pittsburgh Half, 2013. Age 23
Joy Johnson, NYC Marathon, 2013. Age 86 (she was the oldest female finisher ever and died the day after race)
Jeffrey Lee, Philadelphia Half, 2011. Age 21
unknown, Philadelphia Half, 2011. Age 40
Kenneth Spears, Berkeley CA Half, 2013. Age 49
3 runners at the 2009 Detroit Marathon. Names and ages unknown.
Erin Lahr, Dallas White Rock Marathon, 2009. Age 29
Benjamin Pigman, Country Music Marathon, 2009. Age 25
Peter Curtin, Baltimore Marathon, 2009. Age 23
Brandon Whitehurst, Rock 'n Roll Half San Jose, 2009. Age 35
Rose Lo, Rock 'n Roll Half San Jose, 2009. Age 34

Most of these deaths only made brief blips in small local newspapers, or the nightly news. There are probably many others that never made any headlines, and obviously many others from around the globe. Honestly, the US marathon mortality stats are very troubling. There were 22 known deaths that I could find from 2009-2014, and we are only in April, compared to 28 deaths total from 2000-2008. Many of the runners were known to be very healthy, and based on the ages all within their physical primes. Almost everyone was between the ages of 21 and 35 with athletic backgrounds. Not exactly the overweight 50 something I sometimes picture in my head. Also, a majority of the deaths occurred in half marathons. The Rock 'n Roll half marathon events had the highest death rate of any race. Warm weather was a factor in some of the events, but with temps in the low 80's at the highest, most deaths still occurred when the weather was ideal.

What is it about the half marathons specifically causing so many deaths? Is it the race? Is it the accessibility of getting into races, and the enormous increase in the number of events? Are the longer time cut offs more inviting to untrained runners? I doubt it, again given most of the deaths occurred in fit and seemingly prepared runners. I did, however, discover that that between the years 2000 and 2013 the number of half marathon finishers has increased from 482,000 to 1,960,0000, thus meaning that the overall death rate has dropped. With so many runners, it seems an increase in the number of deaths was inevitable. I don't think there's a feasible way of regulating who participates either. Case in point, I ran my first 50 mile ultra with basically no running experience, and still finished. Based on qualifications alone I had no business being at a 50 mile ultra marathon. But, given the opportunity to test my limits I found that I could dig deep and finish 50 miles, regardless of how unlikely it seemed based on my zero experience. I would have never had discovered that if the race had determined for me, by qualifications, or by a stricter time cut off, that I was not allowed to run. So, there is a fine line between wanting runners to explore their limits, and being safe. That being said, I again reiterate that most deaths happened to trained, healthy, and prepared runners.

So, why have we, as far as I know, not had any casualties in ultras? We have races like Hardrock held at elevations exceeding 14,000 feet, the Barkley marathons with 56,000 feet of vertical, Nolan's 14, Badwater in temperatures exceeding 125, and races that cross a thousand miles of the frozen tundra like the Iditarod 1,000. Given all the trails, weather, and ridiculous geographic locations, nobody has yet to die, and yet these are often considered the most "dangerous" events. Similarly, when watching UFC mixed martial arts, despite how brutal the sport is, nobody has died in a UFC fight. So dangerous, and yet more people die every year running seemingly benign half marathons. I will note that the pattern of participant increase is melting over into ultras. 20 years ago there were only a handful of 100 mile races, 10 years ago probably less than 20, and today there are over 125 in North America. Factor in ultra distances of 50k, 50 miles, and 100k and the grand total of new ultra events has likely increased ten fold in the last decade. Though we have thankfully never had any deaths at an ultra, one can only predict it may not be far off.

So, again, the question is this.

What is happening in our sport? Is there something avoidable that we are doing to our bodies before, and or during the races? Are heart issues in younger adults ticking time bombs that we simply cannot predict in a healthy person until it is too late? Could it be the increase of caffeine consumption at races as some medical professionals and myself have witnessed? It seems nowadays that most in-race nutrition products contain caffeine, or a caffeinated version. Many gels contain 20-40 mg with some even higher. So imagine if you unknowingly grabbed a handful of gels during a race containing caffeine, you might consume 100-200 mgs when already at an elevated heart rate. The abuse of caffeine, among other things like NSAIDS, is becoming a shockingly unhealthy trend that most people aren't entirely aware of. In the mean time, I hope the number of race related fatalities decreases, and I hope we can figure out a way to manage it sooner than later.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Running Weaknesses


Often times, I only focus on the outcome of a run, or a race, and not necessarily all the processes leading up to it. But, in the past few years I have been making attempts, with much trial and plenty of error, at correcting my weaknesses as a runner. On the other hand, I have also made sure not to neglect what strengths I have, because it is also possible that too little focus on strengths can lead to them deteriorating altogether, but that will be another post.

My weaknesses:

1) Running Continuity

Because my running life started with trails and ultra marathons, I learned to go at a very slow and steady pace early on. I practiced walking the hills and pretty soon I found myself stopping to hike any little incline that I came across. I hadn't learned to run through climbs, or run long stretches without stopping like you would in a marathon, so while the endurance to be on my feet a long time grew, my ability to run prolonged stretches did not. I have seen similar occurrences in marathon training programs where runners build up from an 8 mile long run to 20 a mile run, but they often have water and snack stops every 4-5 miles. Rather unknowingly, the runners are giving themselves a several minute break to refuel and then they finish their long runs with sometimes 10+ minutes of down time. It's usually these same runners who, when reaching mile 20 on race day, can't understand why it felt so much easier in training than it does now. The answer is that while they trained for the distance, their bodies had not adapted for 26.2 miles of truly continuous running.

2) Food Intake

For distances under a half marathon, I can likely forgo the consumption of water and calories. Most runners can rely on fat and carbohydrate stores to last them through a couple hours of physical activity. However, running your max effort at marathon distances and longer does not often allow the luxury of being able to eat the same foods as you would when going slower. Your body has to train to consume calories on the run, and the types of foods you can tolerate may be completely different at race effort. I'd like to think that I've gotten over the hump as far as this particular weakness goes, but I am still figuring out what fuel sources work best at particular race distances. In many ways, when I was running 50 milers in over 10 hours and marathons in 4 hours, it was easier because I could basically eat and drink what I wanted with little stress on my stomach. However, in order to run a sub 7 hour 50 miler, sub 3:50 50k, and sub 3 hour marathon, it won't be nearly as easy a task when all my body's resources are being used to run, and less so to digest calories. Many elite marathoners can subside off several small cups of water and Gatorade with no additional calorie consumption. Much of their incredible fuel efficiency is due to the fact their bodies are trained to operate on no fuel, they have far less muscle mass burning additional calories, and their extremely low body weight does not need as much to perform. The crazy thing is that at 154 lbs I am far from being a large person, but I have had to consume 500-600 calories during each of my marathons to feel strong in the later miles. In my most recent marathon, I consumed 500 calories and probably 20 ounces of Gatorade and was still feeling like I was on the verge of a massive bonk with several miles left in the race. Had I not stopped to grab a handful of pretzels and water, I may have been reduced to walking to the finish.

3) Hiking and Walking

I have always been a notoriously slower walker and hiker. Let's face it, in the later miles of ultras, especially 100 milers, we do a lot of walking. Because walking can compose such a large portion of our final hours of a race, I have found that being able to walk fast is incredibly important. Think about it this way. Let's say you are at mile 85 of a race. You and another runner are both physically reduced to walking the final 15 miles of the race, but while you are doing an 18 minute mile (pretty much what I'd be doing), and the other person is power walking 14 minute miles, they would end up finishing an hour ahead. ONE hour! And to think neither one of you ran a step. The same applies for people like me who are not strong uphill hikers. I may be able to run climbs well when I am fresh, but late in a race it will probably come down to who can hike the best. Again, if my hiking is a 22 minute mile, and someone else is doing 17-18 minutes per mile, they could easily put a hour on me in a 10-15 mile stretch with a lot of climb. Factor in power hiking and speed walking to the last 30 miles of a race, and the weaker hiker/walker might lose two hours to someone else. The humbling fact is that none of this has to do with raw speed. An older experienced mountain runner can gain significant time on a much younger and faster runner based on these two skill sets alone.

4) Pacing

Though I have made some big corrections in this area, based off some big mistakes, I will still address it. Going out too fast can cost you not just a good race, but can lead to an early DNF. This is especially true in 100 mile races when everything you do wrong early in a race is amplified by the extreme distance. A very experienced runner is more likely to hold pace later in a race, and already has a good idea what they can maintain. If your 50 mile personal best is 8 hours, and you run 8:30 for the first half of a 100, you probably went out too fast, unless the 50 mile time is soft, on a much harder course, or outdated. This could lead to running the second half in 12:30, and hypothetically finishing in 21 hours. Not bad, but room for improvement. But now, let's say you slowed down and ran the first half in 9 hours, which allows you to run the second half in 11 hours. Now you just ran an hour faster, though you ran 36 seconds per mile slower in the first half. Assuming the first and second half of a 100 miler is not significantly different, elite runners usually run the first half an hour slower than what they could do for 50 miles at full effort, and the second 1.15X the time of the first half. Look at Liza Howard's 15:07 and John Dennis' 13:41 from this year's Umstead 100. Dennis' first and second half ratio were exactly 1 to 1:1.15, and Howards's was also 1:1.15. Is this just coincidence? I think not. Look at Mike Morton's course record splits from 2012. He ran the first half in 6:08 and the second in 7:03. Guess what the ratio was? Again exactly 1 to 1.15! Novice runners, however, can expect something closer to 1:1.3.

When Zach Bitter ran 11:47 for 100 miles, he ran his first 50 miles in 5:47, which is a pace exactly 10% slower than his 50 mile PR of 5:12. His second half was in 6 hours flat, which is much quicker than the predicted 6:40 based on the 1.15 multiplier model. What does this mean? It likely means that Zach was incredibly dialed in and his pacing was down to an exact science. It could also mean that he could run faster than his 5:12 PR, possibly low 5's, or even sub 5 hours, and that there is a good chance he could take another 15-20 minutes off his 100 mile time. 20 minutes, btw, would put him under the current world record for 100 miles.

So, why is this even important? While not every runner is capable of achieving the ratios of elites, they can hopefully provide a good idea of what is possible for 100 miles, or longer. For example, my 50 mile PR is 7:35 (from 2010), but I think I am currently capable running under 7:15 on a fast course. If I apply the 10% slow down from my PR to my pacing for the front 50 miles, it shows that my most efficient pace might be around a 9:30 mile, or nothing faster than 7:55. Again, if I now use the 1 to 1.15 elite ratio, it shows I could ideally run the second half in 9:06 for a finish of 17:01. Now, since I am not an elite, but I am experienced, maybe I give myself a 1 to 1.25. This puts my second half at 9:54 and a projected finish of 17:49. Looks pretty close to what I could picture as a goal time for a fast 100 mile course. Then again, it's one thing to see it on paper, and another to deliver on race day.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

100th Blog Post: In Search of Boylston

This blog turned six years old on March 24th and this is my 100th blog post. Crazy to think that this all started as a training log, suggested by my mom I might add, so I could recall the details of my misadventures in running. Wow, where has the time gone?

Onward!

You may, or may not have noticed I have been bringing up the Boston Marathon more frequently in my posts. It is interesting that when the thought of getting into a particular race is so far off, the desire to run that race fades as well. During the five year duration from 2009 to 2014 where my marathon personal best stood frozen at 3:33:41, I was so far off the ability to achieve a Boston qualifying time, that the concept eventually faded off into the realm of "nice to haves", "maybes", and possibly "nevers". After all, I could do okay at mountain ultras, but always seemed to fall short in road races.

I absolutely believed 2013 was going to be a make, or break year in my relationship with running. It became very apparent that doing nothing but ultras, as pretty and scenic as the locations may have been, was zapping the mojo out of my running. The effect was amplified by being often injured, out of shape, and just generally feeling lethargic at every race. It was a nasty series of unfortunate events as I would do lousy at one ultra, sign up for another in hopes to rebound back, do even worse, sign up for a longer race in hopes I could compensate for lack of speed with slow endurance......and do even more worse. After slogging through the Massanutten 100 in 31:38, slogging through Mohican in 28:55, slogging through Leadville only to time out at the last aid station, it was either time to hang up the shoes, or revamp my whole outlook on what running is.

Ask yourself why you run any given day, and the answer may be different each time. As a hobby runner, my answer for why I run 99% of the time is going to be so I can have fun. Testing your physical limits can be fun too, but pushing through 100 mile race after 100 mile race just to get a cool buckle sacrificed more fun than it should have.

Needless to say, spending my summer and fall in Colorado couldn't have come at a better time. Seeing the beauty of the our earth is quite aw inspiring, as well as feeling reconnected with the natural world. Though I put in a lot of high mileage weeks in the high country, they weren't out of obligation to fulfill a training routine, or to prep for some upcoming race. It was simply about me taking time to run, hike, walk, or even peacefully sit to listen to the whispers in the wind and echoes from the deep canyons and passes. THIS is the relationship I had strived to have with running, because it wasn't even about running. It was a symbiotic and purposeful harvesting of my need to be a part of the creation around me.

Thus, moving to Norfolk a few months ago, needless to say, was a bit of a culture shock from Colorado. I admit I was concerned that my running would suffer for two big reasons; the winter was unusually snowy and cold and not conducive for high mileage running; and how would I react to running without being constantly surrounded by epic scenery?

The Boston Marathon was the resounding, yet unlikely response. I figured if I wasn't going to be able to run trails on a regular basis, why not test the road running chops and see if I could gain a little "speed" in the legs. After the tragic events of the 2013 Boston Marathon, my mind really jumped at the idea of one day being able to run the historic course and experience the culture that is the city Boston. But again, with that 3:33:41 PR, it still remained an afterthought. However, my body reacted well with the transition back to roads after a five year lay off and I ran a respectable 3:10 at the Shamrock Marathon. Not that fast, but still a big PR. While it wasn't a Boston qualifying time of 3:05, it bridged the seemingly insurmountable gap that had previously existed between my lack of road speed and a Boston qualifier. Even more surprisingly, less than two weeks after Shamrock, I ran another marathon just for fun, and ended up with another PR of 3:07. I think being able to knock over three minutes off my marathon in a non focus race means I am certainly capable of taking additional time off. This is a pretty good starting point.

So, who would have guessed that my romanticized hunt for a BQ, via road running, is what has brought some much needed excitement back to my world of running? I can just imagine running up heart break hill, meeting the girls of Wellesley, making a right on Hereford, and a left to into the finish line crowds on Boylston. In addition, my desire to run ultras, especially 100 milers, has dropped significantly. 100 milers can wreak havoc on your fitness since you taper for two weeks, and then it's another two weeks to a month before you feel recovered, and by then you've lost six weeks of training. Seems to me less is more these days.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Art of Pacing

(pacing my friend Ryan at the Old Dominion 100)

The art of being a effective pacer is a very unique craft. It is entirely different than being a good runner, a good crew member, or even a volunteer. Since my first pacing assignment in 2006, I have paced roughly 20 runners of varying ability and experience at distances ranging from 10 to 100 miles. In the many hours spent on roads and trails, I have found that there things that make a good pacer, and things that make make a bad pacer. Good pacing can save a runner's race and enrich the experience, and bad pacing can destroy it. I've seen plenty of both over the years and have made numerous notes about what it takes to be a good pacer, and what to avoid.

1) The skill level of a pacer- Your speed should be not significantly slower than the person you are pacing. If you decided to pace a faster runner, oh let's say the final 30 miles of a 100 miler, it's probably not a big deal that you are slower than them. Even very fast runners will be significantly slower in the final miles of a long ultra. However, you still need to know you can hang with them if they get a sudden burst of energy, or if they are going to be pushing hard to have a competitive finish. If you are pacing someone the last 50 miles of a 100 miler and they intend to run it in 10 hours, but your 50 mile personal best is 12 hours, it's probably best you leave the pacing up to someone else. Getting dropped by your runner does sometimes happen, but it can be avoided if you plan accordingly. After all, it's your job to look out for your runner, and not the other way around. Lastly, though not entirely necessary, it does help if the pacer has run the same race, or distance the runner is doing. Having a shared perspective of a race can pay dividends.

1a) Inversely, if you are significantly faster than the runner you are pacing, realize their "fast" may still be slower than your slow. Allow your runner to dictate the pace, and don't push them unless they ask you too in order to achieve a particular finish time, whether it be a PR, sub 24, or just breaking a certain hour mark. Also know that if you are not used to jogging at someone else's slower pace, it may be very uncomfortable for you. Sometimes it can actually be tougher for a very fast runner to run with someone much slower. If that may be the case, give the duty to someone who is feels better at the slower speeds.

2) Listen to your runner- This means listening for both verbal and non-verbal commands. The verbal commands will be easy to understand, but it's the other signs you need to notice. Body language will say a lot about your runner's energy, level of fatigue, and general attitude about how the race is going. Know that runners tend to put on poker faces, and though they may say they are doing alright, their body will show you something else. A pacer needs to be able to read the bluffs. If your runner is acting very differently than their typical behavior or personality, something may be up. It could be general tiredness, which is to be expected, but it could always be something more. Pacers aren't substitutes for doctors, but knowing what to look for can help your runner.

3) Know your runner- Most people we pace will be friends of ours. If you have run with them before, then you probably have a better idea how the distance will effect their body and demeanor. If you are pacing someone you don't know (or know well), be sure to use those first few miles, or hours, to get a read on their personality. If somebody really enjoys talking during races, then be sure to engage them in conversation. If you are a super quiet person, pacing a very social runner may not be a good idea, and vice versa.

3a) Know your runner's preferences- Learn what your runner's preferences are, and if you don't know, simply ask. Figure out what clothing makes them comfortable, what foods they enjoy, and what foods they are still able to eat if their stomach goes bad. If your runner is comfortable in cold weather clothing when it is 80 degrees out, just roll with it, and if they like going shirtless in 30 degree weather while eating nothing but avocados and listening to Pearl Jam, then so be it. Just keep an eye out for what is practical, and if their preferences are adversely effecting their performance.

4) Be the backup brain for your runner- Runners are entirely responsible for themselves and the predicaments they end up in, but the presence of a pacer can alleviate much of that. Understand that a tired runner usually does not think as clearly, and sometimes they are working through numerous thought processes to the point they may overlook seemingly simple details. Know what your running will be needing in the near future in terms of both gear and nutrition. Ask if they are hungry and thirsty because even basic things like eating can slip a runner's mind. If our runner's strategy is to eat and drink at certain time segments, be sure to remind them, but also know when to tweak the plan if it isn't working well. Don't force your runner to eat, or drink, unless it is vital to them finishing a race. If you can, try to know what items are in your runner's upcoming drop bags, or what items their crew and/or aid station may have. Keep an eye on the environment, research the forecast, and track the time of day so you can effectively prepare night gear and clothing for potential shifts in weather.

4a) Know the race- If possible, find out what you can about the course. Know the distances to each aid station, time cut-offs, and where drop bags and crew access may be. If you've run the race before it's an even bigger bonus. Some runners don't like being told every upcoming turn, or climb on a course, and some will take whatever advice they can get. Be familiar with turns and areas where it may be easy for runners to go off course. Remember, your runner is tired, and may not be looking where they should for markings. Also, though rare, course flagging goes missing. Sometimes locals remove markings by accident, sometimes it's just plain vandalism, and sometimes wind and storms rip down and wash things away that were there earlier. Know the course, as your runner should as well, but also keep a turn sheet available for a back up.

5) Keep moving forward- This is as simple as it gets. Most races are made, or broken in the second half. If your runner can keep moving in the latter parts of a race, then they have the opportunity to finish well. Motivate your runner. Tell stories, use tough love, and remind them why they are out there. If you know your runner can handle you being a drill sergeant, then I have no problem pushing buttons to get them fired up. After all, if tough love is the only thing that can light a fire in your runner, use it.....but, ONLY if you know them well enough to know it will work (see part 3). The last thing you want is to say something that makes your runner feel worse, sad, or guilty that they are going so slow. Otherwise, our main goal is to get them going in a forward direction in however small increments they can manage. Set smaller goals. Perhaps try to cover a particular stretch of the race in a certain time. Urge your runner to only think about getting to the next aid station, the top of the next climb, or just making it to a tree a few hundred feet away. Every step gets your runner that much closer to the finish. Encourage your runner, and tell them they are doing well. Novice runners may not be used to shuffling along at a 13-15 minute mile, and may view it as a failure. Let them know that what they may perceive as agonizingly slow, is actually a very good pace late in a race. If your runner needs to lay down, set a goal time for how long they can rest, then get them up as soon as possible.

6) Don't take things personally- Your tired runner may not have much to say to you. They have just run 80 miles, and still have 20 to go, so forgive them if they don't jump into your conversation with elated enthusiasm. They may snap at you for something as simple as putting Gatorade in the bottle they only wanted water in, for not closing the lid on their camel back correctly, or for not grabbing ice when you passed the last aid station. Toss it all out the window. What people say in ultras, stays at the ultra. A very tired runner can often act exactly like a drunk person, so don't take what they do, or say personally. It's your job to keep everyone's heads level, and if needed, just let your runner vent and get it out of their system. I have only ever had one runner who never thanked me for pacing her, but 99.99% of everyone else will be grateful as soon as they are back to their normal selves.

7) IT IS NOT ABOUT YOU!- This is the most important aspect. I have heard pacers grumble about how slow they had to go, how it took 15 hours to go 20 miles, and how all they did was walk and stop every ten feet. When it comes time for someone to pace your tired and beat up ass for 40 miles, you'll be thanking them for the company. Deal with it, and know that signing up to pace could be a crash course in patience. Your pacing duties should not be part of your training. I've seen this scenario play out as well. The pacer was going to do a 30 mile long run anyway, their friend asked them to come pace, and they figured it's the same distance, so why not? Then, they get upset because it wasn't as quality of a workout as they had hoped. Pacing is not your workout, it's not your training run, and it most likely won't be up to par with the training you had hoped to do. NEVER take on a pacing job, because you see it as a way to kill two birds with one stone. It should always be about helping the runner, and not you. Don't project your goals onto your runner. If your runner's goal is to run 100 miles in 25 hours, but you want them to break 24, stick to their plan, not yours. I'm sure if they realize a sub 24 is in reach, they might be willing to go for it, but respect the game plan that is already in place.

7a) Though pacing is not about the pacer, remember to take care of yourself too. Some pacers can get so unselfishly focused on their runner, they forget to take care of their own needs. When Geoff Roes won Western States in 2010, his pacer, elite runner Dave Mackey, had to drop out for a while because he did not watch out for himself. You need to be healthy enough to stay with your runner and think with enough clarity for the both of you.

8) Get your hands dirty- Fact. Runners will be very dirty and gross, especially given the distance and terrain they must cover. You need to be okay with touching your runner's sweaty dirty packs, slimy gel covered water bottles, and salt drenched clothing. The idea of blood, sweat, and tears is often just a cliché, but in ultras you will likely deal with all of it. While you are not expected to do surgery, though you may have to pop big juicy blisters, you can't be fussy about dealing with the grime that comes from another person's hard effort. When you are in their position, you won't want your pacer being afraid to touch you. You will also deal with your runner's other bodily functions. Some people will have bad body odor, they will fart in front of you, pee on themselves, shoot snot rockets, and many other things you tend to not see in every day life. Be cool about it. Whatever keeps them comfortable is what is important. Sometimes runners just need the physical reassurance of a pat on the back, a hand shake, or a big hug. They deserve better than you wanting to stay clean. Remember point number 7. It's not about you.

9) Celebrate your runner- It may be their 800th race, or first ever. Celebrate their journey and the fact you had such an integral part in it. Celebrate if your runner achieves all their goals and more, and if not, celebrate them overcoming their obstacles to still finish. Succeed, struggle, or fail, embrace the time with your runner as they experience a special part of life. When the day comes for you to be paced, celebrate the fact that somebody is willing to join you on your journey as well.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Trashing the Trends


I have never liked trendy things. In middle school I wore silk shirts and jeans because it is what all other other kids wore. Keep in mind, just a few years before this I was sporting Starter jackets, Hypercolor shirts, and Zubaz pants. And now a days, it seems as though Uggs and North Face are the official sponsor of college females across the country. Every facet of life has accumulated its own trendy characteristics, and thus twenty years after middle school, within my own hobby of running, I am still fighting the trends.

Why do I hate trends? Well, first of all it seems like every day some doctor, or other professional is telling you about some research that profoundly changes the way you should live. Diets and exercise come to mind first. In the last 15 years we have all heard ad nauseam the various kinds of diets we should have, what we should eat, and what we shouldn't eat. The Atkins diet, low carb, paleo, vegan, South Beach, using fat for fuel, gluten free, wheat free, on and on, and on. It gets so convoluted, restrictive, and confusing, it's no wonder people jump from one fad diet to another. And although a lot of these diets are based in science, much of them contradict one another to the point of utter frustration.

The same goes for running gear and running techniques. Do I use pose method, chi running, to heel strike, or to land forefoot? Ugh. In 2009 a book about barefoot running comes out, bashes Nike's bulky shoes, and presto, you have a instant trend towards minimalist footwear. And again, minimalist footwear, like the diets, has some benefits proven by scientific testing (albeit potentially biased). The following years saw the shoe market explode with minimalist everything, and people flocked to the stores to buy them. Folks, it's all a marketing gimmick to make people money. For a few years, the shoe companies had everyone picturing themselves frolicking in the mountains like Tony Krupicka in a tiny little pair of six ounce shoes. The ensuing years, however, were followed by a lot of overuse injuries acquired by runners who were too overzealous in ramping up their high mileage running in shoes their bodies were not used to.


Enter Karl Meltzer and Hoka One One. Funny, just a few years ago people dreamed about scampering over rocks with nimble proprioception in their Vibram Five Fingers. Now, runners who have been dealing with years of aches and pains all of sudden find themselves floating along in the new "clown shoes". Recovery times have never been quicker, and the "time to fly" is now all the time. Now having a fully cushioned ride is all the rage, and people can't seem to get enough of the puffy stuff. So how exactly, in less than two years, did the minimalist movement lose ground to the current maximalist movement? Marketing strategy. Nothing more and nothing less. This doesn't mean minimalist and maximalist don't have scientifically proven benefits, but neither is the end all be all of shoes. People tend to dive 100% into the new fads, dump their money into unproven products and theories, which they will probably change in a year anyway.
(photo courtesy of Ultraspire)

Shoes and gear will not compensate for your genetics, or make you heal faster. Kids in Africa run barefoot all the same, but that does not mean you can. Most of us sit behind desks, go to work in dress shoes, and at best run on a regular basis. Buying a new pair of shoes will never compensate for a lifetime's worth of a style of life unless you can truly commit to years, and decades of going barefoot. On the other hand, bulky shoes like Hokas feel amazing, especially if you are someone who has had chronic injuries and are tired of feeling like running beats you up too much. However, your ideal stride is designed for the natural dimensions of your body. Adding another inch of cushion means you are very unnaturally altering your stride impact points, regardless of the heal to toe drop on your shoes. I believe this inhibition of the natural stride will cause hip, lower back, and other injuries. The fact that people practice little sense of moderation with new shoes will exaggerate this effect. Moderation does not mean easing into a pair of shoes in a few weeks, or even months, but possibly in terms of years. However, nobody is patient enough to want to comprehend that.

Other things I have learned:

1) Compression gear is a placebo. Wearing tighter clothes with specific pressure points has never been proven to promote better performance. The idea of enhanced circulation and oxygenation to the muscles doesn't add up. I could do a whole separate post about compression gear, which I do own (along with yes Hokas and everything else mentioned), but it will be for another day.

2) All bodies are not created equal. We all "know" this, but fail to practice it. What works for others may not work for you. The quicker you can be okay with that, the less money you will waste on things that will never benefit your body type.

3) Gear will not make you faster. Running faster will make you run faster. If you weigh 250 lbs and think dropping from a 9 ounce shoe to an 8 ounce shoe will make you faster, you might want to reconsider where your weight really needs to come off.

4) Gear will not increase your endurance. Running farther and at a higher intensity, as well as sound in-race nutrition is what will increase your endurance. Trust the training, not the product.

5) You will race the way you train. If you never run harder in training, it certainly won't happen on race day. If all you do is long slow trail runs, all you will be able to do is long slow trail runs.

6) Well planned use of gear and logistics can help cut time during longer events. Sometimes a good strategy can make up for speed. Just don't rely on it all the time.

7) Elite athletes don't need the gear they are sponsored by to be fast. Remember, they were fast first, sponsored second. It's never the other way around.

8) You don't need a long run every week. Runners can tend to be super OCD about training schedules and mileage. A solid long run every other week trumps a so-so, maybe fatigued and forced, long run every week. If you are tired 3 miles into a planned 20 miler, cutting it short is smarter than pushing to a crappy 4-5 hour slog. Despite what others may think, a long slog may actually hurt your training and set you back.

9) There IS such a thing as bad miles. A few good days of rest can do more for your training than a bunch of tired runs. We need to kick the idea that active always equals good and sedentary always equals bad.

10) More miles is not always better. Some of the best distance runners only run 50-70 miles per week (less than 3k per year), even when training for 100's. A well devised 60 mile week can provide better training than 100 mile weeks of constant slow stuff, and with a lesser chance of overuse injury. We read about elites and their sexy 150-200+ mile training weeks, and think surely bigger is better. Nope.

11) HAVE FUN! Running is our hobby, our privilege, our passion, but not our job. 99.99% of our elite runners have other jobs. A 15 minute 5k runner, a 2:20 marathoner, or even a sponsored ultra runner is not going to make much money off running. Lighten up and enjoy it!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

2014 Graveyard 100: Little Known Race Drawing Big Time Talent

Let's face it, there are a ton of ultras in the country these days, and yet you only hear about a few of them. It seems that only the big named events like Western States, or the big prize money events garner any kind of attention to their starting fields. Well, I am here to tell you about the talent that has been showing up to the Graveyard 100, and it may surprise you.

The Graveyard 100 is the brain child of North Carolina runners and residents Brandon and Heather Wilson, the founders of RacENC. The inaugural event was held in 2012 as a point to point race that traveled roughly 102 miles of the Outer Banks from Currituck to Hatteras via route 12. In the 2013, the race was re-routed to a 50 mile and back due to road closures on the course. However, weather permitting, the 2014 event will see runners follow the long lonely roads of the OBX once again. While the race consists of flat roads, it is by far anything but an easy event. However, for some of the most talented runners around, it has become an ideal location to show some of their speed.

So let's take a look at some of the names that have run, or will be running, the Graveyard 100 miler, and the sister event held the same day the Graveyard 100k. Some of the names you will not recognize, and some you will.

Valmir Nunes- Valmir is one of the greatest runners of our time. He won Graveyard in 2013 in a course record 13:48 at the age of 49. He has a 100k PR of 6:16, holds the Badwater course record, was the 1991 100k World Champion, and won Spartathlon in 2001. Listing all of his wins and records would require a whole separate blog in itself. The guy is a legend, and also one of the nicest folks you could meet.

Mike Morton- Unfortunately Mike was injured and did not run the 2013 as planned. Mike has a resume that includes a course record win at Western States, 3rd overall at Western States 16 years later, 13:11 course record at Umstead, 13:18 course record at Long Haul, 13:42 course record at the keys 100, winning Badwater, the American 24 hour record, 13:14 course record at Iron Horse, and numerous other wins at various distances.

Brenda Carawan- Brenda won the inaugural 100 mile event outright in a breakthrough time of 16:33. That time would go on to be one of the fastest female 100 mile times of 2012. Considering it was run on a course slightly longer than 102 miles, it was very impressive. Brenda, who has also finished Badwater, has since gone on to win the Keys 100, Graveyard 100k, and finished the famed Spartathlon.

Donna Utakis- Donna is entered for the 2014 event. She has consistently been one of the top females at most events she runs. Some of her highlights include wins at the Grindstone 100, Laurel Highlands, Hellgate 100k, Cascade Crest 100, and TARC 100.

Andrei Nana- Andrei was 2nd overall in the inaugural Graveyard 100. Andrei is known for his intense workouts, and logged over 8,000 miles of running in 2013. He has since gone on to finish near the top at almost every 100 he has run including the Lost 118 Miler, Iron Horse 100, Keys 100, Long Haul 100, Ancient Oaks 100, winning the Peanut Island 24 Hour, and completing Spartathlon with an impressive sub 31 hour finish.

Olivier Leblond Olivier's time of 14:33 from last year's Graveyard 100 was one of the fastest 100 mile times in the country. However, Valmir Nunes also decided to run that day, and he settled for 2nd. Olivier won the Old Dominion 100 in his first attempt at 100 miles. He has since won the inaugural C&O Canal 100 in 16:06 on a course that was said to be 105 miles, won the Desert Solstice 24 hour with 152 miles (100 mile split of 14:36), and won many other ultras.

Joe Fejes- Joe just won the Across the Years six Day event with 555 mind blowing miles. In the process he finished ahead of the legendary Yiannis Kouros, the greatest ultrarunner of our time. Last year Fejes broke the 72 hour record with 329 miles. A former member of the US 24 Hour team, Joe has won numerous other timed events and ultras.

Connie Gardner- Connie has been one of the most consistent female ultrarunners in the past 15 years. She won the 2013 Graveyard 100 in a time of 15:33 at age 49 (coincidentally the same age as Valmir), which was one of the fastest female(or male) 100's of the year. She has won numerous 100 milers and ultras throughout her career, run sub 7 hours for 50 miles, was a member of the US 24 Hour team and 100k team, and was also the previous female 24 hour American record holder with just over 149 miles.

Jonathan Savage- Jonathan was 4th overall at last year's Graveyard 100 in a time of 17:38. He was a member of the US 24 hour team and has numerous wins in 24 hour events. Other highlights include running 146 miles at the North Coast 24 hour, winning the Keys 100, Bethel Moonlight Boogie 50, Hinson Lake 24 Hour, and many other finishes near the top of the field.

Tatyana Spencer- Tatyana won the inaugural Graveyard 100k in a time of 8:16. It was one of the fastest female, or male 100k times of 2012 (or since). She has run 3:47 for 50k, 16:12 at the Keys 100, won the Keys 50, and Peanut Island 12 Hour

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Paved to Waves: Maysville to Macon 50 Miler

(Courtesy of M2M website. Race director Brad Mitchell on the M2M course)

One of my biggest desires in upcoming years is to run new unique and challenging events. I've never had a desire to be a 10 time, 20 time, 30+ time finisher of any event. With so many great concepts popping up in the running and ultrarunning world, I believe life is too short to do the same races over and over again.

That very idea is what got me to the starting line of the Maysville to Macon 50 miler. Initially, I saw that there was a brand new 50.3 mile race in North Carolina, it was reasonably close, inexpensive, and I would probably get to catch up with some of my runner friends. But, as I learned about the details of the race, that's when my interest really piqued. The event had a 12:01am start, just like the Hellgate 100k, and it would be run on 23 miles of roads (route 58) before turning and running up 27 miles of sandy beachfront (Emerald Isle). So much for the idea of a nice easy 50 miler....

On to the race!

After nearly a 5 hour drive through traffic, I finally arrived in Atlantic Beach, NC. When I got there, we still had an hour long shuttle ride to the cozy little town of Maysville, NC. I was pleasantly surprised how the town went out of their way to make us feel welcome. The mayor, the police commissioner (Dan Ryan, the man behind the idea of M2M), and a local mascot all came out to our starting point, a small diner in the middle of town. It occurred to me that this was my first 50 miler in about a year and a half, and only my second in the past three years. 50 miles is a fun distance because you can definitely blow up if you go out too fast, but you also don't want to go out too slow either.

12:01am. After the Pledge of Allegiance the race finally began. The 23 miles of roads were basically broken up into several segments. I ran the first couple of miles up front, but sure enough two other guys caught up and eventually passed me. The first 10 miles to the aid station went through dark county roads, but seamlessly passed by in an hour an twenty minutes. The eight minute pace was a bit faster than the 8:30's I had planned, so I backed off a bit more. By the way, we had a police escort that stopped oncoming traffic the first ten miles which was pretty awesome!

13 miles. I caught up with one of the guys who had passed me earlier, and he ran behind me for a mile, or so. His bright headlamp directly behind me was causing some awkward shadows so I picked up the pace just to get a little bit ahead. A few miles later I glanced back to see how he was doing, and didn't see a soul in sight.

ERROR number 1 (+0.5 miles, 5 minutes): At around 17 miles I realized I hadn't seen any signs for route 58, which is the road we were supposed to be on. Apparently, by running on the left side of the road, I naturally followed where it went and completely missed a fork in the road where I was supposed to bear right. It wasn't a huge mistake, but I added a half mile, and five minutes trying to find my way back.

About twenty five minutes later I crossed the only "hill" on the course, which was a pretty bridge going over into Emerald Isle. Though short, the uphill and downhill of the bridge was a nice change of pace for the muscle groups. From there we made a right turn and ran for three miles until we reached the oceanfront.

3 hours and 14 minutes. The 23.3 miles of road were done, and I can honestly say I was glad to be switching over to running on the sand. As soon as I passed through into the beach area I was welcomed with a massive oceanfront of white that stretched beyond the view of my headlamp. The area was so wide and open that it was a bit disorienting to figure out where you were supposed to be going. Since I knew to go left, I just followed that until the shoreline narrowed down to a more defined strip of sand with the ocean to my right. From this point to the finish the pace of running, aside from fatigue and weather, would be dictated by the type of sand we were on. It would either be very loose granular sand that you would sink ankle deep into, or wet packed sand that was ALWAYS off camber closer to the water.

The first "marathon" of the run went by in 3:43 as I arrived at the aid station overseen by RacENC mastermind Brandon Wilson and his son Andy. This was mile 25.8 on the course, but actually my mile 26.3. Subsequently, the lead runner already had a 12 minute gap on me, but I viewed the next 24 miles as either an opportunity to close the gap, or let it grow. The next six miles to aid station 3 were by far my sloppiest. I struggled to find good footing as the tide was a bit higher and shrunk down the running path options to mostly the deeper sand. My slow pace during this stretch was mostly due to the soft sand and spending too much time zig zagging from hard packed sand to the flatter stuff when the hard packed got too slanted to run on.

31.8 miles. I arrived in 4:50, which is a decent time (31 mile split of 4:42), but it looks faster than is was due to all the road running at the beginning. The slowest part of the course was still to come, and there were still 18.5 more grueling miles of sand to cover. From here, the next two aid stations were both 7.5 miles apart. I figured a 10 minute mile pace, which was much tougher than expected to maintain on sand, would get me through each segment in 1:15, and give me a good shot at breaking 8 hours. The passing of time through the night and early morning wasn't as bad as I expected. The dark beach was certainly quiet, but I had some good tunes playing on my headphones, and I just settled into a rhythm. Every mile or so I would take a moment to jog backwards and take the strain of my left side. Running on a constant angle can cause major muscle imbalance problems, so I figured to take some time to relieve the physical monotony.

6:30am. Almost 42 miles covered and the ambient light from the sunrise meant I could ditch the headlamp. However, a chilly rain was already beginning to fall, and made the 38 degree morning all that much cooler.

Entering Fort Macon: I entered the Fort Macon beach access at 7 hours and 30 minutes, and had a little over three miles to the finish. I knew if I pushed it, I could break the 8 hour barrier, which would have been a great accomplishment on this tough course. However, the last few miles of the course were not how I pictured, and I found myself rather uncertain as to where to go. I followed my gut and found both of the hole punches we needed to prove we ran around the outer most portion of the fort beachfront. As I made my way into the fort area, that's when I got confused.

ERROR number 2 (+1.8 miles, 18 minutes): When I arrived at Fort Macon, I had only seen one sign that said "this way", which was located in a parking lot. I assumed it was pointing me to run down the only paved road in the fort area. And so I did. After almost a mile I saw nothing and realized I was running AWAY from the fort. It didn't seem right, so I stopped, asked a few passing cars if they knew where the finish was, but they were all employees and didn't know. I then ran back up the road to see if I had missed any signs, and when I was almost back to the beach area, a volunteer told me to turn back the way I had JUST run. I was literally a quarter mile from the finish when I had turned around. (f-bombs everywhere)

Needless to say, I was pretty pissed off at myself for adding 1.8 miles and 18 minutes at the very the end of a 50 mile run. Had I just trusted my gut, as wrong as it felt, and run another 0.1 miles I would have seen the turn sign into the finish area.

Finish Line: 8 hours and 21 minutes. My anger over the added miles subsided quickly after finishing. The third place runner came in three minutes after me, which was way too close for comfort, given that I was 20+ minutes ahead of him at mile 49. The winner, elite Iron Man Rob Hilton, finished his first ultra in a blistering time of 7:36. Rob is a 2:30's marathoner with an Iron Man PR under 9:20 (beastly), which explains how he just floated by me with such ease. Anyway, given the added 2.3 miles over the entire course, and 23 minutes of lost time, I am certain I would have been under 8 hours. Why so much fuss about breaking 8 hours, you ask? Well, breaking 8 hours was my goal from the start, and although just a number, I really wanted to know that I could achieve a goal I set forth to conquer. The good news is, the added distance did not cost me the win, nor second place. In the end, sometimes you just have to laugh it off, and realize that 8:21 over 52.6 tough miles is still a solid day. Other than that, I essentially ran every step of the race, aside from a few moments where I walked a few seconds to eat something, which means my endurance has finally bounced back.

Final Thoughts: Thanks to race director Brad Mitchell and all the volunteers for putting on this event. Running in the rain, when temps are in the high 30's was cold enough, so I know standing out there all night and all morning to volunteer was even colder. It was certainly a unique and tough challenge. A 12:01am start, 23 miles of dark roads, followed by basically a 27 mile ultra on sand was definitely something I had never considered doing before this weekend. Congrats to all the other runners who endured hours and hours of freezing rain and wind, including my buddy Dave who gritted it out despite some muscle issues. Those conditions were just miserable, but the runners did what they do best, and that is endure. What an awesome day (or night) with a fun group of the toughest SOB's I know.

Thanks!

Mike Bailey