Friday, November 23, 2012

Indiana Trail 33.3 FA Results (Or: Course Familiarization is a Good Idea)

1/9 overall (but it doesn’t really count)

      In April of 2013, I will be running the inaugural Indiana Trail 100 (aka, the IT100) in Albion, IN. The race director for that race is trying really hard to pull of a great race and has been having several training runs on the course. He decided to have a 50K(+) Fat Ass race the day after Thanksgiving and invited people to come down and do two loops of the 16.6 mile course. Next spring, we will do the loop 6 times for a total of 100 miles, but this time it was just twice around for a cool 33.3 miles. Had it been be, I would have called it the Indiana Trail Vinyl Race. If you have ever owned a record player, you should get that joke.

I have several friends in southern Michigan who are planning on running the IT100 next year as well and they also wanted to come down for course familiarization. We decided to make a big fun road trip for five of us.
So with the race a pleasant two hour drive from my house, and a 9 am start, friends Catherine, Ryan, Andrew and Mark all met at my house a little before 6 am Friday morning fresh with ‘turkey hangovers’ and headed out. The drive down was fun as we talked about running almost the whole way, often giving details about our bowel movement history associated with trail running. We all decided that marathoners almost never discuss such topics, but it is an amazingly common topic amongst ultramarathoners. I have no idea why, but it probably has to do with our general quirkiness.

We arrived about an hour before race start and did our usual pre-race stuff. We chatted with other runners, laughed about the weather, prepped out feet and places we chafe, and even took a group photo. One of the most fun things was that several runners who I didn’t know but knew me came up and started chatting. That pretty much never happens. I guess I am starting to get some ‘street cred’ in the ultrarunning community which is something I never really thought I would ever get. It made me feel warm and fuzzy inside, I must admit.

While this was a FA race, it had all the trappings of a real (albeit small) trail race. It was chipped time to test the entire system (including timing mats at all the aid stations for splits) and the aid stations were totally legit with many standard choices of food. At the start/finish point there was lots of food as well as some free samples of a blister guard product. This was by far the most awesome free race I have ever participated in.
The race took off right at 9 am and the wind was howling already 15-20 mph with the temperature in the mid 30’s. We were told that once in the woods, the wind was not too bad. They people were wrong as it was very windy for about 75% of the run, maybe more.

I was in the front very early but was passed within the first mile or so by 4 people who were only planning on doing 1 loop. I would eventually pass them all at about mile 13 as they stayed near each other at a good clip. I slowed down a little that first loop, so that means they slowed down more than I. Nobody was looking for fast times, just out for a good run, so no great shakes there.

The course was absolutely beautiful. The scenery reminded me of Flying Monkey and the course itself reminded me of Burning River. A zillion little ups and downs and lots of small turns but every once in awhile you had a long straight section where you could actually pick up some speed. This is NOT a PR course, for sure.

When I got to the start/finish line after 1 loop I went to my drop bag that was prepared as if I was running a Hundo complete with chia seeds and individual jello/fruit cups. For whatever reason, I was in the mood for cookies and sure enough, that was the only solid food I would eat all race. I never eat cookies at ultras. They seemed to sit well in my stomach this time, so I was happy.

15-20 mph winds, mid 30’s for temperature and light snow on the second loop made for a not-too-pleasant race conditions which is why many people decided to drop after only one loop. There were 34 starters and 25 of those stopped after one time around the horn. The nine of us who finished both loops was composed of 4 of the 5 crew that I came with from Michigan. Andrew has been having knee issues and never planned on doing both loops anyways. I would find him sleeping in the ‘team’ van when I finished my second loop. The second loop was a little tougher as the weather got worse, not better. The temperature was actually dropping and the light snow falling was, while beautiful, depressing from a runners standpoint. I felt 5 degrees colder just seeing that white stuff fly around me.

While I ran this as a race, it was also a test of sorts. I like my training runs to have some element of race-specific training and while running the actual IT100 race course for familiarization was my primary goal, I also came into this race kinda tired and beat up. I had run a total of 100 miles in the 6 days leading up to this event, including a sub 40 min -barefoot- 10K the day before. That race had my feet beaten up pretty good and left my ankle sore.

I have had a sore ankle for a few weeks now and refuse to drop training mileage to allow it to heal and when I started this race, it was sore from step #1. I taped it pretty good and put some tape over the sore parts of my feet to prevent things getting worse, and sure enough, my ankle never got worse even after 30+ miles of trail running. I call that a small victory.

There were a total of 3 aid stations along the 16.6 mile loop and one aid station was a double-duty aid station, at the mile 4ish and mile 13ish point. As I came up to this mile 4/13 aid station as a mile 13 aid station (second loop), Mark and Catherine were coming up to the same aid station as their mile 4 (second loop) aid station. I got to chat with them for a few moments and while they looked tired and beaten down, I knew they would finish just fine.

Being only about 3 miles from the finish, I finally turned on some techno and picked up my pace as I knew I had plenty of energy left. I rolled into the finish line a hair until 4:45, which I thought was pretty good considering the toughness of the course. After some tortilla chips and a cold beer and conversation with another runner and the timing guy, I had to get out of the wind as my body was starting to get REALLY cold.

Instead of heading home with the rest of the crew, my lovely wife met me at the finish line and we made it a nice romantic weekend together staying at a local bed & breakfast for the remainder of the weekend. It was a great ending to a good running weekend.
I did not follow my normal food routine for ultras, I came in beaten down after a solid week of running, had a tough race the day before, but I still managed two loops in under 5 hours. While I will not make any predictions or cocky statements about the 100 on this course next year, I will say I hope to do well here. Too bad I have to wait until April.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

2012 YMCA 10K Results (Or: Barefoot!!)

39:15 (5/76 overall)

While you might think that this is just another boring race report of my local Thanksgiving morning 10K race, you would be wrong. Yes, it was my local Thanksgiving day 10K race (along with 5K run and 5K walk events) but I would be doing this one without wearing shoes.
A few months ago I started the slow transition to the minimalist/barefoot philosophy. While I ran my first ever marathon in a minimalist shoe (Merrell Road Glove) a little over a month ago, this race was my first time racing without any protection on my feet, and on asphalt no less. Even barefoot running ‘purists’ warn that while humans ran barefoot for eons with little problem, our cave-person ancestors were not running on asphalt.

Before I signed up for the race I needed to decide if I was going to run the 5K or the 10K, entries fees being the same price, a mere $20. I knew I was going to run it barefoot so I thought I should maybe beg off and just do the 5K, especially since I was going to be doing a tough 33.3 mile trail race the next day in minimalist shoes.

As I was trying to decide which race to do, I mentioned the idea to my 12 year daughter and she said to me “If you’re gonna do something crazy, go all out, Dad”. So with that little conversation, I decided to go for the 10K race. It seems only my mother would have told me to do the 5K. Actually, my mother would have told me to not do it barefoot at all. When I told her later I was going to run is sans-shoes, she gave me that 73 year old mother heavy sigh over the phone. So predictable she is sometimes…

When I showed up to pick-up my race packet race morning I found out it was a chip-timed race. Ya know, one of those things you string through your shoelace? Yeah, I didn’t have one of those, so I ended up taping the chip to the side of my ankle. A position I later found out was not optimal. (read: it didn’t work)

The reigning 10K winner (2 years running, actually) was local phenom Joel Medina. Not only is Joel a great runner and a former student of mine, but he is also a really nice guy and a person I am proud to say is a good friend. We ran the 3.1 mile loop with another local running legend, David Swarts. Actually, David is a race walker and completes at the national level winning all sorts of awards including several national championships. Great guys that I am glad to know and so of course our warm up run was fun as we talked about our training amongst other running related banter.

I ran the warm up in my VFF’s but tried very hard to watch the road to make note of any areas I should be careful of come race time when I had nothing on my feet. Asphalt is pretty crappy to run barefoot on, but with rocks, potholes and broken glass it can really suck. Luckily I saw no major areas of concerns, though all the turns seemed to have quite a fair share of small pebbles which are annoying. I would end up taking them all very wide and gentle.
As race start got close, the air temperature was in the mid 40’s, but the asphalt was probably closer to mid 30’s. My feet never got numb or even that cold except when standing around before and just after the race. While waiting for start, I found my lovely wife and chatted with her while as I stood around in my homemade huaraches ( while people stared at them. About a minute before the gun I took them off and gave them to Misty as I would see her a few times during the race. She would hold onto them just in case something went wrong (if I stepped on a piece of glass for example) and I needed to put coverings on my feet.

The balls of my feet was very tender before the race so I put a strip of duct tape on them to give them just a hair of protection, but that was it. My only real goal was to finish still barefoot and not hurt myself. If I finished under 45 minutes, that would be even better. I certainly did not think I would break 40 minutes. You have to remember, I never train for races anywhere near this distance. I still think of marathons as ‘sprint’ races.

When the gun went off, I just tried to get into a comfortable stride, knowing that every step was going to be a little uncomfortable. About a half mile into the race, I realized how easy it was feeling and decided right then that I might as well try to ‘race’, meaning put some real effort into the run. My bare feet didn’t seem to be actually slowing me down so I bore down and took off. I need more practice with the faster leg turnover and I certainly never want to run this fast in training, so why not?

My daughter was staying at her mom’s house the night before which was only a block away from the racecourse, so she decided to come out and see me run. That is always a great motivator. She is a really good cheerleader, actually. It was her fault I was having to run 2 loops, so she should be out there suffering in the cold, anyways. :)

As I came through the first loop in the low 19’s, I was welcomed with a lot of cheering. Many people had seen my bare feet before the start, but now they were excited as the barefoot guy was near the front of the pack. About halfway through my second loop I came upon the 5K walkers so I had to do a lot of slaloming which was tough because of the ground and how I didn’t want to run in potholes. Some people were kind and sortof gave the 10K runners an open column to run by, but others who were walking in large groups which took up most of the road. I have heard many a marathoner complain of similar instances in larger races. No offense, but just because you got your entire family to join you for the walk, doesn’t mean you can take over the entire width of the course.

I had forgot my stopwatch in my car, so I did not have my run time, but the race clock (zeroed to the start of the 5K race ~3 min after I left) read about 36:15 as I crossed the finish line. I had looked a few moments before I actually crossed so it was certainly not exact. No problem, I had a chip on my ankle, right?
When results come out, there is nothing listed. Not only was I nowhere to be found, Joel wasn’t listed even under the 10K results and he won the race. Again. Turns out they were having horrible issues with the timing system with people’s time being put down for the wrong race and such. My timing problem was because the orientation on my ankle (on the side) made it such that the timing mat never saw me. After some detective work and photographic evidence provided by my lovely wife, it was determined my time was close to 39:15. No prize money or records broken, so I was ok with a small error bar on my time. It was way faster than I had expected to run, so who was I to complain.

My feet did quite well and were just really tender afterwards. After some parting goodbyes to friends, I headed home to a hot shower, lotion on my feet, and a wonderful turkey dinner with my lovely wife. Truly a most thankful day!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Mental Weakness, Overcome

I am not a good racer, and never really have been. When I was in High School, I always ran stupidly and at the first sign of pain or discomfort, I would back off. When I started running again in my early 30’s after more than a decade of sedentary life, my mental toughness was even below the low level I had when I was younger.

When I ran my first marathon, I trained hard and did quite well, breaking 3 hours. I trained some more and eventually got my PR down to 2:49 and thought I could get even better. But every time I would shoot for a PR, something would happen between my ears. At mile 15 my leg might start to cramp. At mile 17 I might felt tired. At mile 21 my ankle started giving me grief. In all cases, I would back off and roll in with race time closer to 3:10 rather than 2:50. I stopped telling people I was shooting for a sub 2:55 at races because I was tired of coming up with excuses as to why I failed in those goals, which was happening all the time it seemed.

I have read zillions of articles and books talking about how to get through such issues, using mantras like ‘keep moving’, thinking about how Chuck Norris never ran a marathon, focusing on just getting to the next tree on the trail. Not one of those thing ever worked for me. No matter what I tried, my mind could never be fooled. I could not ‘block out’ anything. The more I tried to block out the pain in my calf, the more my calf hurt and made me want to quit outright.

I have never DNF’d a race in my life (with one small exception, a 50 mile race where I dropped to the 50K distance but I was really really sick so I should have not even started) because if I know that if I DNF once, especially in a Hundo. it will be tragic for my running career. Now obviously, if I fall and break an ankle in a race, I am gonna drop out, I am not that dumb. What I mean is a race where my body is able to finish, but my mind tricks me into stopping.

Nobody’s body wants to run a 100 mile race, and we have to overcome the body rebelling everytime we attempt that distance. When you stop because of stomach issues, cramps, tiredness, you are giving into your brain telling you what it always tells you after a long duration of physical exertion. Please stop, it’s time for a break.

Why is a DNF so bad? Well, for me it is because I know how my mind works. Let’s say I am at mile 75 of a 100 mile race and I have been running for well over 10 hours and my body is beaten down and tired. My mind is also tired, trying to stay focused. I come to an aid station and sit down. This is what my brain has been telling me to do for hours. Sit down, take a nap, have a nice bowl of soup and curl up with a good book. Just stop, it’s been a long day already. Blah blah blah. As I sit, my legs and body cramp up and any pain I was suffering gets worse. My body protests more and next thing you know I choose to not continue.
My body instantly is happy as it knows it gets to go into recovery mode. I eat lots of delicious food and don’t have to worry about expending any energy anytime soon. Yes, I am disappointed about not finishing the 100 mile race, but lots of people DNF, right?. My friends will give me words like ‘You’re in inspiration for just trying!’ or ‘You did more than I could ever do!’ or equally reassuring words to blunt the magnitude of my failure.

Fast forward to the next Hundo. Sure enough, at mile 75, my body will again be tired, my body sore. This happens at this point of every Hundo, and I know that. But now, my brain, who remember is trying to get me to stop, has some new ammunition. “Remember that last race? You felt really bad at this same point? You stopped then, why not stop now? Remember how great it felt to sit in that chair and relax?”

That memory of giving up will come back into focus and it will be very hard memory to refute. Remember, I am a mental weakling when it comes to racing and I know it. If I had the memory of a previous DNF I would have to fight that very hard at the end of every Hundo I ever do. I could not handle that and I would wilt more often than not. That is why I absolutely must do everything in my power to never DNF.

The closest I ever came was the 2012 Winter Beast of Burden in Lockport, NY. I had run this race the year previous and finished 2nd overall so I was prepared for the cold, snow, and dark that is the hallmark traits of this race. My second time around was not so good, but it started out great.

I passed the 50 mile mark at 7:41, a mere 3 minutes out of 2nd place. Then the sun went down and my brain decided to go to sleep, literally. While I won’t go into detail here as to what happened, I just want to mention what happened at mile 75. I had walked most of miles 50-75 and it was horribly dejecting. I was dead tired and it was already very late, past 11:30pm. I came into the mile 75 aid station which was warm, and had friendly aid stations workers, unlike outside the tent which was well below freezing, snowing, and windy. I knew I had to get out of there quick or I was going to DNF, like many before me already had. I sat and changed my shoes and had a bit to eat. After only about 2 minutes I got up to make my way back into the snow and as I stood, I almost passed out, I was that weak. I knew not to tell anyone because they might try really hard to convince me of stopping. I decided to quietly sit for just 2 more minutes resting and then I got up very slowly, turned off my brain, and went back out into the cold wind. Every ounce of my soul and body wanted to quit, but I was on auto-pilot now. I just had to get back out on that trail and start moving again and let muscle memory do the work. Don’t think, because if you do, you will stop. I am mentally weak when it comes to racing, so I removed the weak link, I stopped thinking about how I felt and just moved. I finished the race in over 21 hours, my worst ever 100 mile time, but I learned a whole lot, especially about how to mentally train.

‘Train as your fight’ is a familiar mantra, stolen from military leaders. Basically it comes down to prepping everything you can before a race such that there are no surprises on race day. Most of the preparation is obvious and long known. What your stomach can handle during hot days. What clothes you should be wearing depending on the conditions. What shoes to wear and how often to change them. What to carry with you and what to have access to in your drop bags. That’s all important and I had figured out all that stuff a while ago but I knew I needed to work the hard parts. Training differently made my weaknesses (little mental toughness) less tragic. Play to your strengths, and minimize or nullify your weaknesses, that is the key to success. I am sure someone famous said that at some point in history. They say that ultrarunning is 10% physical and 90% mental. I successfully changed those figures to my advantage not because I wanted to or because I like training hard. I changed the system because I had too.

In 2012, I managed to focus my training and built my body up such that on race day, I could turn my brain off and use it only as a notepad for doing no more than thinking about what I had to do at the next aid station. There were no feelings going on in my head at all, which meant there was never any mental discussion of DNF’ing whatsoever. Sure, I hurt and was tired, but nobody was listening to my body complaining. It was more like a hard-nosed and heartless coach that when you complain they say “Whatever. Get back out there and try harder!”

After my personal disaster that was a 21:02 at the Beast of Burden, I came back and did a 16:59 and 15:27 to round out my 100 milers for 2012, in both cases without trying that hard, meaning I had more to give in both cases. It seems my methods actually work. I have high hopes for my 2013 season, but I promise, I am not thinking about it too much,.