Monday, December 31, 2012

The End of the World As We Know It - Winter Solstice Run

"You ran on the final solstice?!" demanded the shimmering shape of Bolon Yokte, the Mayan god of destructive creation.

"I wouldn't so much call it a run. More like a fast stumble through the woods..." I began. I was a bit confused about where I was, and why exactly I was lying face down in the dirt.

"Silence!" snapped Bolon Yokte. Looking disgusted, he sat on a nearby log and began tapping his nine feet impatiently on the dusty ground.

"You are an impertinent mortal. I must contemplate your fate." The last couple of words seemed to trail off as Boln Yokte's body shimmered in the darkness, slowly transforming to a shapeless, glowing fog.

The glowing fog bulged and expanded wildly, a time lapse Summer thunderhead in miniature. I shook my head to clear my seemingly blurry vision, only to have the imposing figure of Zeus emerge from the chaotic mists.

"I once knew a mortal like you, determined to outwit fate and to cheat death itself" boomed Zeus. "I would punish you as I did Sisyphus, but I see you have already chosen to punish yourself. Run little man. Run!"

So it was that I found myself lying face down in the dirt, having fallen only a few steps beyond the trailhead. I had planned this run to celebrate the Winter solstice, my favorite holiday of the year. To me, the solstice marks the true start of the new year. The days slowly get longer and the hope of Spring begins to replace the cool embrace of Fall and Winter in my mind. The solstice is the promise of new beginnings.

In the coming year, I promised myself I would be a better and smarter runner. I would have fewer goals and stop placing so much importance on measurable "improvement". I would run to enjoy friendships, to embrace nature, and to achieve more inner peace. I would cheat failure by simply slowing down.

Who knew irony would taste like trail dirt?

I'm not a law breaker by nature. Well, I don't break laws I think serve the greater good. My sense of duty for upholding the social contract puts too large a burden on my conscience. But I'm also a bit of a libertarian at heart. I figure if you aren't doing anything to hurt anyone else, you should be allowed to do it. So, I spun my decision to join Ryan on a planned illegal midnight run through "East Mud" park as a sort of civil disobedience. I was hurting no one and simply pursuing my own happiness.

Never one to shy away from a social run, I invited every runner I knew to join me and Ryan, expecting no one to actually show up. And that would have been fine, but I was pleased when a couple of others (Jay and Aline) showed up to join us. Of course, having more runners along to help drag my broken carcass out of the woods is always good.

This was my first night run of any sort, which was partially why I had agreed to run. I figured the practice would be invaluable if things fell apart during my planned adventure in the 40 mile Uwharrie Mountain Run, and I somehow found myself walking to the finish after nightfall. Eating dirt in the first few steps of the single track portion of the run was a good lesson. Pay attention. Be mindful.

The remainder of the run was uneventful. Our little group marked the end of the solstice with shots of cheap cinnamon liquor smuggled in by Jay. We ran under the light of the half moon for many miles sharing some quiet laughs and easy conversations along the way. Simply a gorgeous run, and one I vow to experience again.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Umstead Crazy 8's Death March

Ultramarathon runners, don't take this the wrong way, but you people are all f'n insane! As if 26.2 miles isn't enough pain and suffering (and glory) for even the moderately insane among us, you maniacs have to double down on that, or nearly quadruple down in the case of the 100 mile events. If running a marathon is the gambling equivalent of going "all in", you lunatics throw all your chips onto the table along with your watches, credit cards, mobile phones, and any clothing you happen to be wearing. And then you jump on the table and dance naked to music that only you can hear, all the while waiting for the dealer to play the winning card.

But just like Vegas, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose (DNF). The true difference is that win or lose, an ultramarathon is always a glorious human adventure.

Uwharrie Training
Already being insane, I decided to attempt joining the other patients in the ultramarathon insane asylum by signing up for the 40 mile Uwharrie Mountain Run. Of course this means that I have to stop saying "I'll never..." since I've consistently proven myself wrong. "I'll never run a half marathon!" I've run a half dozen of them now. "I'll never run a marathon!" I've run 4 of them now. "I'll never, ever, ever run an ultramarathon!" Sigh.

So, recently I found myself organizing a training run in Umstead in an attempt to somehow get my body ready for the 40 mile Uwharrie Mountain Run. I created a calendar event on Facebook and invited all my nutty running friends to come out and share a lap (or two, or three) with me on the Company Mill and Sycamore trail figure 8 route (about 9.5 miles of hilly, technical single track).

I figured I might goad a couple of my crazier friends into coming out for a lap, but just to show how awesome the trail running community really is, about a dozen people came out to run or just to show moral support in my first attempt at a distance beyond the marathon. You people just rock! Thanks to everyone who dedicated a bit of their Saturday to my insanity. In no particular order, Jay, Karen, Aline, Brandy, Ryan, Gene, Josh, Iris, Chris, Andrew, Anthony and Shannon. A special thanks to Karen and Jay, who ran all 29 miles with me. And to Gene who kept me laughing that last 5 miles, when I needed it most.

Aline, Jay, Iris and Josh at the start.

Lap 1 - This Is Easy!
I'm not bragging, but my fitness is pretty high at the moment. I came off Medoc Mountain Marathon in mid-October with a good aerobic base and have managed to maintain that base with little effort the past couple of months. So, 10 miles in Umstead on the first lap felt very easy. I had good company on the lap (actually true of every lap) and spent a lot of time joking and laughing. I ate one fruit snack (maybe 80 calories of sugar) during the lap, and then had a couple of peanut butter cups and some blueberries when I finished the lap. I drank only about a cup of water from the water fountain. This was a totally stupid fueling strategy, as I would discover on lap 3.

Aline made a custom shirt for the event.
Aline is awesome!

Lap 2 - I'm Done, Right?
Heading out on lap 2, I was feeling great. I tried to remind myself to walk all the hills, but I was still trotting up the first part of most hills. Again, I had only one fruit snack during the loop, and then a handful of blue berries and some raisins at the end of the loop. The temperature had gone up during the loop and I was feeling very thirsty by the time I finished the loop, so I guzzled down about 20 ounces of water at the fountain. I felt done. My body definitely did not want to go out for another 9.5 mile loop. I was behind in fueling and hydration, and at this point there was no way to make it up. But, dammitall, this is what I came for! The last loop was the important one. The loop where I would train my body to keep moving through pain and exhaustion. So, out I went.

Lap 3 - I Hate Running
The final loop started hard, and got worse from there. I was behind on hydration and fueling, and my stomach was now bothering me, so there was no chance of getting out of the hole I had dug for myself. I managed to choke down about half of a fruit snack (maybe 40 sugar calories) on the loop, but it was difficult to keep from hurling that onto my shoes for the next couple of miles. As my misery levels increased, and my energy evaporated like the fog from earlier that morning, my mood went straight to the crapper. I think the only thing that prevented me from giving up about half way through that lap was the company. Having four experienced ultra runners with me in those dark moments saved me. Their banter and joking kept me moving forward, although I walked a lot (I had to walk when my stomach did flips).

The Finish
With about 2 miles to go, standing on the stone bridge on Sycamore Bridal Trail, I entered death march mode. I would finish this run, even if it killed me (I'm stubborn like that). So, I used up nearly every last bit of blood glycogen that I had left in a determined shuffle towards the end.

Dizzy, nauseous and trying not to pass out
after finishing. Photo courtesy of Shannon.

Lessons Learned
So, what did my first trip into the nether world of the ultramarathon distance teach me? Loads. I have a pretty solid feel for how to prepare for and finish the marathon. However, that knowledge seems to only partially translate to ultramarathon distance.

  1. Go slow! No, really. SLOW! Especially early in the run. If it feel effortless to run up a hill, it really isn't. Save it for later, when you will desperately need it.
  2. Speaking of hills, WALK THEM! Even the itty bitty ones early in the run. Yeah, you'll feel like a total pansy for walking up a tiny hill on fresh legs, but trust me, this will pay off later.
  3. Eat LOTS! I'm a notorious camel when it comes to running. I rarely carry water and eat very little on runs up to 20 miles. This DOES NOT work for ultramarathon distances. The time on your feet is simply too long.
  4. The first half of the run just gets you to the starting line of the real run. I think this might apply to a run of any distance, but it's a lesson I have yet to learn.

So, I feel like I was only partially successful in my first run past the marathon distance. I did finish the run, but I learned some hard lessons. Worst of all, I screwed up the fueling so badly and threw my body into such a bad tailspin, that I wasn't able to eat my BBQ ribs afterwards.

Good times afterwards. But those ribs never did get eaten.
Photo courtesy of Shannon.

PS: Special thanks to Josh for helping me across the parking lot at the restaurant. And for giving me the sweater off his back when I tanked at the table and began shivering uncontrollably. I owe you!

PPS: More special thanks to Shannon, who made me take a salt tab in Umstead when I finished, and then made me eat lots of salt at the restaurant. After a sucking down a beer and some salty fries, I felt nearly human again.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Ghosts That Haunt Me - Run At The Rock 2012

You would think a total race failure would be a horrible experience, and I guess for some people it might be. However, I failed, horribly I might add, to finish the 14 mile Run At The Rock, but it wasn't so bad. True, I did suffer with some bowel discomfort (it felt like I might actually give birth to red hot demon babies when I finally made it to the toilet), and quitting the race was difficult when I was 5 miles from the finish line (and toilet paper), but hey, you play the hand you are dealt. Turns out, all five of my cards were deuces. Yes, that's a poo pun. Sorry. As usual, I'm getting ahead of myself. Rewind to earlier in the morning.

I Hate My Phone
I had arranged a carpool with several local trail runners who had agreed to meet at my house around 6:45AM. So, waking up to a knock on the door at 6:47AM wasn't quite what I had expected. I jumped out of bed and grabbed my cell phone, which should have sounded an alarm 47 minutes prior, and attempted to check the time. The phone was completely dead. I hate my phone. Hate, hate, hate.

Well, the kids had heard the knocking and were now out of bed, so I scrambled like a mad man collecting gear and putting on some clothes while my wife and kids entertained the carpool folks downstairs (my wife is a saint!). Ten minutes later, and we were off.

Where Is Everybody?
Arriving at the Cedarock Park (someone please buy an R for poor Cedarock Park!), it was quiet. Too quiet. I think the race was undersold this year, which is a shame considering it is such a good race. I parked in a prime position next to the portion of the course that follows the main park road and concentrated on just keeping warm (31F at the start on my car thermometer). It was great seeing all the usual suspects (in no particular order and apologies to anyone I may have omitted, AC, Shannon, Josh, Iris, David, Gene, Jeff, Dan, Steph, Jay, Matt, etc, etc, etc), but I really wish the parking field would have been full for this race. It would be a shame to see this race fade away due to low attendance.

Goals Are For Losers
Runners make runs?
Good thing I have laser like focus on ONE goal for this Winter - surviving Uwharrie 40, otherwise I might have set some crazy, unrealistic goals and metrics for this race, and pushed my body until it hit the ditch while attempting to achieve those goals and make those metrics. But I didn't set any goals or metrics, which was really, really difficult. Usually I have some sort of overall finishing metric in mind when the race starts, and perhaps a few haphazard goals to achieve, but this time, nothing. That was both freeing and concerning, but I tried not to worry too much and just run for run.

The Race
The race started innocently enough. I lined up near the front of the pack so I could get some decent pictures of the masses as they streamed by me like a river flowing around a fat boulder. And I had a great time for the first couple of miles. I slowly drifted back through the pack, saying "Hi" or giving hell to all my faster friends as they passed me by. The happiness wouldn't last.

Shirtless(?) douche bags at the start.
(Photo courtesy of Shannon Johnstone)

Mile, Number 2
Irony is my friend. And my greatest nemesis. Around mile 2, my bowels unleashed a small spasm of discomfort which rolled around my midsection like the waves of a miserable tsunami, amplifying with each footstep. The faster I ran, the bigger the waves. "It'll pass" I thought. "Just some temporary gas or something".

But it didn't pass. Like a rogue wave, it began building higher and higher with each pounding step through the forest. By mile 5, I was reduced a constipated walk. Running was risky since I didn't have a change of clothes, and there simply wasn't enough forest foliage to ape a bear. So I walked as fast as I could directly towards the finish, and the toilets.

Thanks to Gene for walking with me a while at
my most miserable point in the race.

Beer makes everything better. Well, maybe
not an intestinal virus.
That's right, I quit. I Did Not Finish. I had signed up for 2 loops for total of 14(ish) miles, but I managed less than one loop, ending with a very long visit to the toilet. Do I feel bad about this? Only intestinally. Anyone who has been running long enough knows that DNFs are simply unavoidable if you run enough races. Sh!t happens.

And the poor toilet - it Did Not Flush.

I could have won the whole thing
with this!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sisyphus Gets Smart

I've always loved Greek mythology, especially the myths surrounding King Sisyphus. Not that I liked or identified with the character of Sisyphus (he was an unscrupulous, although very clever, ass), but I have always identified with the overwhelming futility of the final punishment meted out by Zeus (arguably, also an unscrupulous, megalomanic ass). To endlessly roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down just before reaching the top is just such a fitting analog to the mindless, soul sucking, daily grind of modern life. More importantly, or rather more to the point of this blog, it's also a perfect analogy for learning how to run races.

Iris' latest race experience, and the lessons learned from it, got me thinking about the lessons I've learned over the past few years when running long races (marathons). By no means do I know everything, or even much of anything really, but I have learned a few hard lessons while rolling my boulder up the hill.

Lessons Learned?

So, what have I learned about racing, especially long races, the last few years?
  1. Have multiple goals for a race, and have some of those goals function as fallback goals for the others. Don’t be afraid to set a lofty goal, but don’t invest so much emotion in the goal that not achieving it robs you of the joy of the event, or worse yet, knocks  you right out of the race.
  2. Always, always, ALWAYS practice, and then stick to, a fueling plan for a long race. You may get lucky and skate through on occasion, but when you aren’t lucky, it's disastrous.
  3. Categorize the races you plan during a particular season. I have 3 categories for my races: 
    • A - most important, with one hard inflexible goal and perhaps a couple of fallback goals
    • B - would like to do well, but goals are totally flexible
    • C - just have fun 
  4. Limit yourself to ONE "A" race per season, a sprinkling of "B" races, mostly used as tempo training runs for the "A" race, and as many "C" races as you like (as long as they fit into your training schedule).
  5. Practice the last miles of the long training run. They are vitally important. Concentrate on those. Practice your target race pace at the end of the 20 mile training run. Let your body and brain become accustomed to the *normal* pain you will experience during those miles. Come to terms with the fact that things will be unpleasant if you are pushing the boundaries of your ability.
  6. Don't be a slave to the training schedule. Give yourself permission to take a day, or even a whole week, off from training. Of course this means including a couple of weeks of padding in your training plan for the "A" race, but that's a smart thing to do anyway.
  7. Trust in the training. I know this seems to contradict number 6, but it really doesn't. By "trust in the training" I mean to not fret about achieving your race goals because the training doesn't seem adequate. As long as you've chosen a sensible, tested plan that can get you to your goal, try not to worry about the details. Just because none of your training runs have you running the entire race distance at your goal pace doesn't mean you won't be able to do that come race day. Adrenaline is a helluva drug.
  8. Beware adrenaline! I know, again this seems contradictory with number 7, however adrenaline is a double edged sword. It can carry you through to a great finish, or totally blow your energy reserves in the first few miles of the race. Practicing your race pace in shorter training runs will help you keep adrenaline in check at the start of the actual race. Then, once you are into those final miles of the race, unleash the adrenaline dogs of war, and let them run!
  9. Learn from your mistakes! Everyone makes mistakes, so don't be afraid to admit them. All mistakes are opportunities for learning. How you deal with them says a lot about how successful you will be the next time you step up to the line. If you failed in making your goal, figure out why it happened and keep that in mind when training for future races. I know, easier said than done.
  10. There's no shame in a DNF (Did Not Finish) or even a DNS (Did Not Start). Your health, your family, and life in general sometimes serves up the unexpected. Don't stress about it. There will be other races. Life is short, and precious. And running is a gift, not a right.
Is any of that really useful? Hell if I know. But next time you are pushing your boulder up the proverbial hill, and it starts to roll back down just as you reach the summit, hop on that thing and enjoy the ride down! In the end, the fall can teach you just as much as the rise.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Trail Love - Altra Superior Shoe Review

I really hate buying shoes. Hardly anything fits my 4E width flippers and I seem to be constantly buying and returning shoes in search of that perfect combination of "fit, grip, drop, and pop" (tm Derscott Industries, LLC). So, for the most part, I just keep running in my slippers and try not to worry about it.

But back in February, I ran  the 20 mile Uwharrie Mountain Run and discovered the limits of moccasins. No, it wasn't the endless miles of hidden roots, rocks, and holes that was their undoing (they actually worked fine for that). It was the stream crossings. Turns out, loose fitting leather moccasins really suck on trails once they are waterlogged and full of dirt. The last few miles of that race were comical. I felt like Uncle Uwharrie had filled a couple of my grandma's old purses with icy, muddy water and then strapped them to my feet. I think he left some of grandma's 20 year old hard candy floating around inside them as well. Running with floppy, soggy, hard candy filled purses strapped your feet is just plain wrong.

I'm sure I also felt Grandma's car keys inside these.

So, when I signed up for the 40 mile Uwharrie Mountain Run this coming February, I knew I was going to need more suitable footwear.

For a small company, Altra makes some really good shoes. I own two pair of Instincts and have raced everything from 5Ks to trail marathons in them. After about 500 miles total, I can honestly say that the Altra shoes just plain work for my feet! I was pretty excited when my local shop, Bull City Running, sent their monthly email news flier out several weeks back and it showed they had a new Altra trail shoe named "The Superior" in stock. I wandered by to take a look, hoping for the best.

Cinderella's Ugly Step Brother
I wear a size 8 in Altra's Instinct, so of course I asked to try the Superior in 8 as well. The size 8 Superiors looked about the same as the size 8 Instincts I had worn into the shop, but for some strange reason they did NOT fit like the Instincts at all. There's a colorful old saying here in the South about the stupidity of wearing anything that is much too small for you - it's like stuffing 10 pounds of manure into a 5 pound bag. The size 8 Superiors were like a 3 pound bag. And my feet are at least 20 pounds of manure.

Turns out, I had to go all the way up to 9.5 in the Superiors to get a similar fit to my size 8 Instincts! I was so shocked by this that I left the store without buying them. Later, I realized that I had forgotten to take the insoles out of the Superiors, like I do for my Instincts. I went back the next day and spent about 30 minutes trying various combinations of sizes and insoles, everything from 8.0 to 9.5.

Just a quick aside about Bull City Running. What a great store! I had boxes and insoles and shoes scattered all around me and spent about 30 minutes walking around the store with various combinations of sizes and insoles on each feet. They never rushed me and were always helpful. If you are local, do yourself a favor and shop there.

The sweet spot ended up being size 9.0 with no insoles. Still a full size up from my Instincts, but not too bad considering I wear 9.0 in other shoe models as well.

Trail Love
Crossing the Eno in Superiors
Ok, so they fit me. I won't bore you with a bunch of shoe specs that you can easily Google, but I'm sure you are wondering how they feel on the trail. Well, after about 50 odd miles of running,  I can honestly say that I love the way they feel! In fact, I've worn them nearly full time (work, home, running) for the past month. I'll spare you any more gushing and just give you some random highlights.

  • They drain quickly following a stream crossing and my foot stays locked in position when the shoe is soaked.
  • The grip is good for the type of trails I run (rocky, rooty, leaf covered East coast forest trails). However, these are not mud shoes, so don't expect super grip in the very slippery stuff. I really like the blocky design of the sole. It feels stable and firm. A more agressive, cleated sole always feels unstable to me on flatter terrain. The Superior sole design is a nice compromise, in general, but a design I much prefer over more traditional studded or cleated trail shoe soles.
  • Rock protection is decent, even without the rock plate (it's a full length removable plastic plate), but if you are bombing down the rocky stuff, you'll want to have the plate in the shoe. I bruised my heel during the 11 mile race flying down a steep, rocky hill because I didn't have the rock plate installed. With the rock plate installed, I feel pretty bullet proof on even the nastiest rocky stuff.
  • After an 11 mile trail race with 4 stream crossings, and a 6 mile "mud" run with 5 cow crap crossings (including a full blown cow poop mountain traverse), the shoes handled several trips through the washing machine with no problems. They air dry in a day or so and look new again. I'm not sure if they will EVER smell the same again after the Misery Run.
  • I would say the shoes are not heavy. They aren't light either. At about 9oz they are acceptable (I'm used to wearing a 6 oz moccasin). But if they were any heavier, I probably wouldn't wear them.
  • They are GREEN! Green shoes rock. Period.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Son of Uwharrie - Eno River Run 11 Miler

Everyone has that one odd cousin that you loved to hang out with as a kid. You know the one. He was not quite right in the head, full of shifty ideas. But you were fascinated by his devil may care way of life. Spending a warm Fall day with that cousin guaranteed an adventure of one sort or another. Or possibly a trip to jail. But it was worth the possible penal time to see just what he had in mind for an afternoon of fun.

Eno River Run is that cousin. He's the son of old uncle Uwharrie, and it shows. Uncle Uwharrie has raised a son nearly as tough and gritty as his father, but with a wicked sense of humor born of years of trying to live up to the old man's expectations, but never quite making it.

Cousin Eno taunts you with the easy start, but then jumps out from behind a tree and kicks you square in the guts with a nasty, rooty, rocky hill. And when you've recovered from that, he pushes you into a an icy stream and laughs maniacally at the squishing noises coming from your shoes as you stumble over the countless roots and rocks of the next mile of the trail. But then, he laughs with you as you fly down steep hills and along the easy flat trail sections by the river. Cousin Eno isn't really cruel. Just slightly different. And FUN!

The Race
This is the first year of the Eno River Run trail races (there is a 6 miler and an 11 miler). I signed up as part of the Tough as Trails race series, mostly because I got a guaranteed entry into the Uwharrie Mountain Run 40 Mile Ultra (my number one goal for the entire Winter race season), but also because I had planned to run this race as well. Bull City Running really know how to put on a great race, so I knew this race would be good. What I didn't expect, was exactly how tough the course would turn out to be, and how much I loved the race when I finished.

Few's Ford. Crossed twice during the
11 mile race.

I intentionally avoided setting any sort of time goal for this race. I just wanted to enjoy the experience and have as much fun as possible. With that in mind, I set a few simple goals for the race.

  • Don't look at my watch. My watch is possessed by a small demon that taunts me mercilessly when I check my time. He's the cruelest, most evil little minion of self doubt and despair ever created in the bowels of Hell. Once he starts dancing around in my brain, I can't get him out. So, best not to even open the door for him.
  • Take as many pictures as possible. Not only will that slow me down and keep my pace sane, but I might actually get a handful of decent shots out of the several hundred that I snap along the way. (full, public album is here on Facebook)
Good Lies
I hadn't hiked the trails of the Eno River Run race course in several years, so my memory of them was foggy, to say the least. Reading the course description on the race web site led me to believe that there were two water crossings (at Few's Ford on the Eno River) in the 11 miler and none in the shorter 6 mile race. Well, that was a LIE! Within the first mile or so, we had to cross a stream. You could try to keep your feet dry by hopping across wet, algae covered stones, or you could just splash through the stream. Guess which route I took. Luckily, I was wearing my Altra Superior trail running shoes (review coming soon!) and they drained in no time flat. A few miles later, we had to splash back through that same stream crossing before heading down the trail to the "bouldering" area of the race.

The start.

You *could* try those rocks on the left, if you
want to get blood in the stream. ;-)

Good Truths
I did remember the bouldering section of the trail from a previous hike, so I knew that it was not runnable AT ALL. It was however very fun to clamber over giant boulders by the Eno River during a race. I did slip once on a rock that was wet and slightly muddy from the racers who had passed through before me, but I recovered without any serious problems. Overall, this was my absolute favorite section of the course. 

Yeah, we "ran" through here.
Ok, we did "run" through some of the bouldering area.

Good Times
The final big challenge of the 11 mile race was the crossing of the Eno River itself. I've been to Few's Ford many times with my kids so I knew this was a fairly easy, albeit longish crossing. The water was crisp, but not frigid and the crossing itself was made even more fun by all the people on the river bank cheering on the racers. Few's Ford is immediately next to the race start finish area, so spectators have an easy walk down to the river to cheer on the racers. Brilliant!

There were stair cases.
And then there were STAIR cases.
Too fun!

Great Race
I finished somewhere in the neighborhood of 1:47. I only know that because it was the first time I actually looked at my watch during the entire race (goal achieved!). Overall, I had a wonderful time. I got the chance to talk to another Scott during the race, who happened to be one of the organizers of the Medoc Trail Races (perhaps my favorite race in the entire state). I climbed big rocky, rooty, nasty hills. I crossed streams 4 times during the race. I never fell down. I finished happy. You can't ask for more than that!

Eno River State Park is simply gorgeous!

A stainless steel beer delivery device as a
finisher's award. Again, brilliant!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Better Half - Medoc Trail Marathon 2012

I've been one upped by my better half. Again! It's been all I could do to stay ahead of my wife in terms of speed and endurance since she started running again last year, but now she's closing in, fast. Sherri just ran her first marathon. A trail marathon at that!

While I was leaving chunks of my left nipple on the trail at Medoc Mountain State park, Sherri was somewhere on the same course not falling down. Not even tripping. Not even once! There are no trail gods. They are all goddesses. And they enjoy laughing at me. And unlike when I finished my first marathon, barely dodging the scythe of the grim reaper himself as I stumbled across the finish line, Sherri finished with a smile on her face.

Then to really rub it in, she took a whole week off and ran another half marathon! I could barely walk for a month after my first marathon.

Well, this post isn't really about me (yes, it is!). I just wanted to take the opportunity to publicly congratulate my beautiful wife on running her first (cough!) trail marathon with style and class. I was wondering who took all my style and class suppositories from the medicine cabinet. And then, to prove you could be even more stubborn than me, you ran a half marathon a week later with an aching knee. And now you are injured (although only slightly). I couldn't be prouder. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Shirtless and Shiftless - Medoc Trail Marathon 2012

I haven't had the wind knocked out of me since I was 10, following a failed attempt to jump my Huffy bicycle over a dodgy ramp my older brother and I had constructed from some rotting boards and a couple of cinder blocks. I remember the crack of the board as my bike hit the ramp at something approaching mach 3, and the strange sensation of my bike suddenly stopping, while my body continued the jump across the handle bars and on out into open space. I actually had a moment to ponder my situation then, but all I could mentally muster was  the 10 year old equivalent of "Oh SH*T!!". It's funny how memories like that come back to you 30 odd years later, in the split second that you are airborne, just before thumping the trail at Medoc Mountain State Park with your bare chest. Really funny.

But, I'm getting way ahead of myself. Let's back up a bit and talk about Medoc Trail Races.

Twice As Nice
This was my second year running the marathon at Medoc. I had a great experience last year, and promised myself that I would return this year. Medoc is fast becoming one of my very favorite races. It has just the right mixture of challenging hills, fun twisty, bumpy sections, and lots of wicked fast riverside trail. I also love that the race is comprised of three long loops. Covering the same ground might sound monotonous, but there's something comforting about knowing exactly what's ahead of you when you start that last loop. Knowing where and when you can push just a bit harder or slow down just a skosh really helps to manage the mental demons that invariably make the charge through my oxygen starved brain late in a race.

And then there are the organizers and volunteers who make the race happen. Top notch! From the fully stocked aid stations to the post race finisher "surprises"and the excellent red beans and rice at the finish, I was never disappointed. The aid stations were especially fantastic this year, with potato chips, sugary sodas, gummy bears, various cookies, boiled potatoes (that's real race fuel folks!) along with the normal gels, water, and Gatorade. I might have actually gained weight during this race.

If you haven't run this race before, you should put it on your list. It's a winner.

Another perfect weather start at Medoc.

Doubling Down
Last year, I had one serious, time-based stretch goal for the race - to finish in under 5 hours. Somehow, I managed to put everything together and made that goal, but only by about 10 minutes. Never one to shy away from the (nearly) impossible, and (mostly) insane stretch goal, this year, I set the bar a bit higher. I would try to finish in under 4 hours. Stupid - it's what I do.


  • Finish in under 4 hours. Yeah, stupid.
  • Run shirtless. Hey, Medoc Man is a shirtless monster, so I figured he might mistake me for one of his mutant spawn and leave me alone during the race. Besides, blinding other racers with my pasty, pale, puny pectorals is just good race strategy.
  • Don't fall down. Well, you already know how that goal turned out.

There seems to be a very bad trend of me catching some random virus the week before all of my big races. I think the viruses read this blog and only like the stories of defeat, failure, humiliation and injury. Personally, I agree with them, but that's beside the point. 

Right on cue, 3 days before the race, I got sick. Nasty head pounding, sinus pressure sick that put me in bed for a couple of days. In fact, I told myself the day before the race that if I woke up still feeling rotten, that I would just not run. The viruses must have caught wind of this, because I woke up feeling almost well. No headache and sinus mess, but very weak and tired. I decided I would run. I thought I could almost hear the tiny cheers of millions of viruses. Or maybe that was only the fluid draining from my sinuses.

Two Laps of Perfection
Weapon of Mass Distraction.
Yes, I run like that all the time.
(Photo courtesy of Jade Wei)
Well, the race didn't actually start perfectly. I was busying goofing off and talking to several friends in the starting corral and totally forgot to double knot my shoe laces (which *always* come untied if they aren't double knotted). So, 3 minutes into the race, I had to pull over and retie both shoes. In that minute I was passed by about 60 people, all of which I spent the next 20 miles passing to get back to the position from which I had started. Have I mentioned that I suck at racing?

But other than the shoe tying debacle at the start, the first two laps went very well. I ate a lot of boiled potatoes and drank a lot of flat soda and my stomach was very content. I ran what I thought was a solid 9 minute pace, only to find out it was really a solid 9:30-9:45 pace when I did the mental math. Unfortunately, that's all I could muster, but I'm used to disappointment. I think the sickness had really drained me the prior few days. I just didn't have that springy feeling in my legs. Once I realized that I wasn't (and more importantly, couldn't) make my ridiculous 4 hour goal, I decided to keep pushing as hard as I could just to see how close I could get. I was on course to finish in under 4:20 and that would still give me a big PR (previous PR of 4:31 if you care, which you shouldn't). So I slogged into the last lap determined to at least keep running and not start walking.

A Pair of Pummeled Pectorals
By mile 22 I knew I could make my time goal if I just stayed on my feet and dealt with the muscle pain that comes in that stage of a marathon. Easier said than done though. I'm slowly coming to terms with the fact that running more quickly means dealing with more pain, especially in longer races. And I really hate pain. I like to enjoy my running, and pain makes that so much more difficult. Unfortunately, I'm also a very stubborn person, and when I'm denied something, even by my own body, I just push that much harder to get it (DON'T be me! This has been the cause of all of my injuries!).

So it was that I found myself stumbling along around mile 23, pushing hard and not paying full attention to what appeared to be a smooth, pine straw covered section of flat trail, when something grabbed my right foot and stopped it dead. Well the rest of me was still moving at 9:45 pace, and since my foot seemed to have been mugged by an invisible tree root, I headed through the air on a steep trajectory towards ground. I barely had time for the "OH SH*T!!" childhood flashback before I pounded Medoc Mountain State Park with my mighty, meatless, shirtless chest. Luckily, I didn't have enough time to get my wrists fully extended, and so avoided snapping them like overcooked chicken bones.

I was back on my feet and running in a split second. Isn't adrenaline amazing? And then my field of vision began to narrow, and darken. Adrenaline was pushing me forward, but my spasming diaphragm was not allowing my lungs to bellow. I stopped and sat down on the trail. It was sit down or fall down really. To say that this scared me would be an understatement. A 170+ bpm heart rate and nonfunctioning lungs is a bad combination. But in a handful of seconds, I finally managed to take a shallow breath. And then a deeper one. And in a few more seconds I was breathing normally again. 

I got back up and continued my run, with the mad banjos and lyrics of Mumford and Sons "I Will Wait" running through my head. I have no idea why. It must have made sense to my shaken brain at that moment. And somehow it helped. I ran really strong and free after that, finishing in 4:18:46.

I learned a few things about myself during this race. First, I'm capable of more than I think. I am able to run hard for long stretches without completely falling apart. Knowing the line between hard and stupid-hard is something I've been trying to learn since I started running. Medoc has helped me get one step closer to that realization. And for that, more than anything, I am grateful.

I've also learned that nipples make very poor landing gear for the human plane.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

42 Laps of Irony - Too Hot To Trot Indoor Half Marathon

In honor of national trail running day, I ran a half marathon. On a track. Indoors. Yeah, irony - it's what's for breakfast. 42 laps of delicious irony.

I signed up for this race because I was intrigued by the possible mental torture of running a long distance both on a track and indoors. Also, I like the idea of running in 72F climate controlled air while everyone else slogs through the sweltering 90F air of mid August. I'll take mental torture over physical torture any day.

Also, I had a vague notion that perhaps I might be able to break my previous personal record for the half marathon distance (1:56). However, in general, I've given up on setting real race goals for myself. The disappointment makes my post race beer a bit too bitter (and I love bitter beer). I'll gladly give anyone else an arbitrary, unrealistic race goal though. I'm a giver.

The Course
Heading into the race, the only course info I had was the brief description from the race information flier, which claimed a U-shaped route on the track. I guessed that the u-turns required to run the track in a U shape would be tricky. However, I was totally wrong about all of this. Turns out the course laid out by the folks at JDL Fast Track wasn't anything like a U shape. The best description I can give you is one stolen from Iris, queen of Stet That Run. The course was like a "formula one race track" - some straight sections for speed and a bunch or tight corners to navigate. There was even a sweeping S turn in the middle. All of this combined for a crazy, curvy, hip-flexor destroying race track. I loved it!

Unfortunately, I don't have a true diagram of the course layout, so this Picasso inspired drawing will have to suffice.

This is similar to an upside down version of the
drawing my doctor made before my last prostate exam.
Signed copies available for 1 ZILLION dollars each.

The Race
The race directors were dead serious about starting on time. Before most people could make it all the way to the starting line, they sounded the whistle and we were off. I tried not to panic. We were bunched up so there was nowhere to go anyway. By the time the first lap was finished, the field had spread out enough to run your own pace without having to constantly dodge people. I settled into what felt like a moderately comfortable pace (2:30min for the 500m lap, whatever that equates to in American) and just tried to enjoy the run.

And it was really fun and enjoyable! The organizers had some good tunes pumping through the loud speakers around the track and the air conditioners were cranking out the 72F air. The looping course meant you got to see your friends multiple times each lap and cheer them on or give them Hell (your choice). After a few laps, I really started to enjoy the twisty-turny sections of the course. I made a game of leaning into all the corners and trying to clip the apex of each at exactly the right angle to minimize the distance. This kept me entertained and distracted for over half the race.

Bad Gas
And then I got a little thirsty. I felt so good about the way I was running, I actually drank a cup of gatorade. It just wouldn't be a normal race if I didn't do something stupid. That gatorade nearly destroyed me for the next 20 laps. I should have known better. Gatorade is my intestinal kryptonite.

Suspension Problems
Burping and belching my way around the track on lap 27, I felt the first slight twinges in my hip flexors. Turns out (Ha! A pun!), all the twisting and leaning around the corners was hammering my hips to hamburger. Over the course of the next 15 laps, my hips slowly disintegrated.

Skidding Across the Line
I kept the hammer down, as much as was possible with my dislocating hips and constant belching. With one lap to go, I went "all in" with a heel-striking, floundering, near drunken stumble around the track. My feet felt so heavy that I was tripping over every 2 millimeter imperfection on the course. I flopped across the finish line with a time of 1:48. A new PR and nearly worth the price of the invisible knives still lodged in my hips as of this writing.

Being a trail runner, I honestly didn't think I would enjoy an indoor half marathon, but it was truly fun. Of course I hear rumor of a planned FULL marathon on that same track next year. But I'm not sure if I can survive that much fun.

Monday, August 13, 2012

I Am Not A Runner

Runners are an insecure bunch. It's difficult to go more than a week or two without one of us expressing serious self doubts about our abilities, our goals, our training, or even our very existence as a  "runner". I'm as guilty as the next guy in the starting corral, that's for sure. But Frank over at a "Hurry Slowly ... but Hurry!" got me thinking about this again with his recent post about what it means to be an ultra runner.

What does it require to claim even the simple title of "runner"? Hell, what does being a "runner" even mean?

As with most complicated questions, I don't have an answer. I have thoughts and even more questions about those thoughts. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. We, as a species, do too little thinking and questioning these days anyway. So here are a few of my non-answers, and bunch more questions.

Do Measurements Matter?

Runners love to measure things, but does that really matter? For instance, is there a cut-off for pace or distance, beyond which you are no longer classified as a "runner"? I think not. And I don't claim that because I'm a slow guy (I certainly am), or because I almost never run for speed (my trashed knee and "speed" are friendly adversaries). I have a one word non-answer for anyone who claims there is a specific measure required to be a runner - Randy.

Ok, maybe a bit more detail is needed for that answer to stand up. Randy is my oldest friend on the planet. We've been friends since grade school. For those of you who don't know how old I am, that means we've been friends for over 30 years. Randy has always been a big guy. Not necessarily fat, just big. He's built like a human bulldozer, with broad shoulders and hips to match. If we were born 1000 years ago, he's the guy I would want by my side in battle. Actually, I would want Randy in front of me in battle. During the melee, I imagine myself cowering in the rear, flinging panicky arrows into the unknown, while ahead of me, Randy calmly bashed the heads of our charging enemies with his 40 pound war hammer. I say calmly, because Randy is such a nice guy. I imagine he would apologize after each skull crushing blow.

Recently, Randy decided to start running again. Like me when I returned to running, he hadn't run in many years, so the first few runs were a real shock to his body. I was fortunate enough to run along side Randy on a few of his early runs around the track. Being my height, but carrying 100 pounds more weight meant his pace was really very slow. In fact, I could have walked (although quickly) at his running pace. But trust me, Randy was running. He pushed his body to achieve that pace. His effort and pain level for his one mile runs were probably the same as my experience at mile 20 of a marathon. The pace and distance just didn't matter. He was running with everything he had in him. And when his heart would race beyond it's safety zone, he would walk for a bit. But that didn't matter at all to him, or to me. He was running again.

Do Motivations Matter?

Do our reasons for running matter? Are certain motivations required to be a runner, while others are excluded? Is my own "running for joy" motivation good enough to open the door to the "true" runners club? What about those who run purely to maintain a healthy weight? Are their motivations "impure" and if so, does that mean they are not true runners? The broader question is, do attitudes matter?

This is a tricky question, and unfortunately, I don't have a solid answer. It's difficult to say what the "right" reasons are for running in the first place. So, claiming that any one small set of motivations define a runner seems a bit stupid. Are my motivations any better than those of the diabetes patient who runs trying to heal themselves. Or the terminal cancer patient who is simply trying to enjoy the life they have left? Are the seemingly shallow motivations of shrinking your dress size or pants size any worse than my need to blow off the stress of a modern, fast paced life I have chosen to be trapped within? Is the desire to push your physical and mental boundaries through running, any better than the desire to "win" a race? Is any of this even relevant or comparable to the subsistence hunter who must run to feed his family?

True Runners

Does any of this matter at all if we can't agree on what defines a "true" runner in the first place. Lots of folks have tried to define what it means to be a true runner, and have been hit with a fecal hurricane in response (check out Vannessa Runs for an example of this). I don't think I'm even interested in trying. In the end I think it's all useless metaphysical masturbation. Personally, I'm tired of even thinking about it. Time to go for a run.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Pace Yourself - The Scream Half Marathon

One of my favorite Huxley quotes is about good intentions and their unintended consequences.

"Hell isn't merely paved with good intentions; it's walled and roofed with them. Yes, and furnished too."

Honestly, I didn't anticipate a life full of fiery blowback from my good intentions, but somehow that's what I got. I knew The Scream was coming. I knew that I needed to prepare for it like no other race I've run before. I mean, look at this course profile I stole from Running Down!

If I wear a wingsuit, run really fast, and jump at mile 2, maybe I can
free fall all the way to mile 12.
Unintended Consequences
So, I trained. I ran up and down the itty bitty hills in Umstead, telling myself that I was preparing for The Scream. I started track work in a vain effort to activate what little, gristly fast-twitch muscle I have left in my scrawny, middle-aged legs. And I even added some squats to my weight training routine in the gym.

And how did that work out, you might ask? Well, the hill work in Umstead made me almost puke on numerous occasions, and that's the only positive thing I can say about it. The track work resulted in a lovely relapse of metatarsalgia in my left foot. And the weight training just made me feel like a starved Sisyphus. I couldn't get enough to eat after sessions in the gym.

Approaching the race, I was a pudgy, limping mess. I decided that a vacation was what I needed. And what better place to take a vacation than in the mountains near the site of the race itself? So, I booked a house I found on the interweb which looked promising and was reasonably close to the race, and loaded up the family for a week of fun in the mountains.

Turns out, the house was a 100 year old Hell hole - rotted, moldy, dark and dingy. The promised hot tub was a fungal and bacterial science experiment gone horribly wrong. But the straw that broke my hump-like back, was the hornet's nest that was apparently hidden beneath the hot tub. Turning on the jets must have really irritated those hornets, because no sooner had I hit the button than an angry, little black and white beast from Hell itself, was injecting liquid fire into the tender skin on the top of my left foot. I packed up the van and left a couple of hours after arriving.

Luckily, AC and his better half, Shannon, run one of the best flop houses on the east coast, and graciously allowed me, my lovely wife, and my two crazy boys to sleep at their beautiful rental house while we sorted out new accommodations. A day later, my lovely better half, who is apparently a much better web surfer than I, booked a beautiful mountainside house near Blowing Rock, where we spent the remainder of the week.

Bored yet? Tough. Suck it up buttercup. I got more sad tales to tell before we get to the actual race.

More Sad Tales
The remainder of the week was great, unless you count the constant rain. But that wasn't so bad. At least the 70F temperatures were cooler than the 100F+ temperatures in the lowlands of North Carolina. Besides, hiking in the rainy mountains is actually a very beautiful experience. Exploring misty mountainsides with my kids is now a vivid, lovely family memory I'll carry to my grave. Unfortunately, two days before the race, and a mere 100 yards from the safety of my parked car, I slipped on a rain soaked trail rock and felt my previously injured left knee twist and contort like an angry, demonic, double-jointed mime.

I managed to limp to the car, but felt like any chance of running The Scream had washed down the mountain along with the cold rain now pounding against the windshield.

I spent the next 36 hours awash in the Devil's own rehab; a combination of hot tub soaks, thousands of milligrams of ibuprofen, and copious quantities of good beer. My colon may never be the same again.

Race Day - Pace Day
If you are still reading at this point, that's another unintended consequence. Even I gave up two paragraphs back. But, if you have suffered through to this point, I at least owe you some race related entertainment.

36 hours after dislocating my knee, my wife and I stumbled from bed at 4:30AM, groping wildly for coffee in the dark. I had decided that I would run the race in spite of my painful, swollen knee so that I could attempt to pace my gorgeous wife Sherri to a new sub-2 hour PR in the half marathon. I had abandoned all hope of my original sub-1:50 personal goal and hoped I could manage to limp down the mountain quickly enough to help my wife achieve her own personal record.

Last minute race logistic changes meant that we needed to somehow find a campground in the middle of nowhere during what appeared to be a possible Noahchian deluge. Of course, we got lost. The rain was so heavy that 6 inches of water was rushing across the road in spots. Eventually, I realized we had missed a turn, so I backtracked and finally found our way to the remote campground tucked near the base of the Blue Ridge in the Pisgah National Forest. With lightning splitting the mountain tops just above our heads, my wife and I splashed through the 3 inches of water covering most of the campground, running to catch the shuttle bus seconds before it departed for the race start. There's nothing like running a half marathon with soaked shoes.

The Course - Hellish Descents
Plenty has been written about The Scream course (see AC's preview, and Josh's race report), but I'll add a few words. If you've never run a long downhill race before, nothing will prepare you for The Scream. After the first couple of miles of winding paved road, you turn onto a steep, twisty gravel tractor path that descends for nearly 10 miles (cast your weary eyes back to that stolen elevation profile picture). This "road" is unrelenting. If you aren't flying down steep slopes, you are twisting around rocky, rutted, possibly muddy switchbacks, hoping you don't stumble off the side to cartwheel down though the twisted trunks of mountain laurel trees. There are spots where if you fell off the side and into the dense growth, you would never be found again. If you didn't die impaled upon some gnarled laurel branch, the opossums would surely eat you alive by nightfall.

There are only two short stretches in the middle of the big hill that are not descending, but unfortunately, they are not flat, instead ascending a couple hundred feet over a total distance of about a mile. The first ascent robs you of your legs and your momentum. The second ascent robs you of your will to run, leaving your body a soulless, flimsy husk flopping hopelessly down the final miles. Of course the final two miles of the big hill also happen to be the steepest. And if you make it to the bottom, you still have about 1.5 miles of lumpy, bumpy, hilly riverside road to the finish.

To summarize, this course was awesome!

Ok, we've established that it's a tough hill. However, it's also one of the most beautiful forest runs I've even done. The tall trees sometimes opened to misty views of the course twisting away below you. Other times, you are enclosed within a dark green tunnel, accompanied by nothing but the sounds of the crunching gravel beneath your feet and the twittering of birds in the canopy above. The final couple of miles run parallel to beautiful Wilson Creek. Simply a gorgeous course!

Steep, fast and beautiful.

Crossing Wilson Creek near the finish.

The Race - Pace Yourself
If you've read this blog before (my condolences), you know I stink at racing. I rarely pull everything together at the right time to meet any serious goals, and something (usually, my body) almost always falls apart during the race. I'm not sure why I thought I would be any better at pacing someone during a race, especially since that someone happened to be my own wife, but I did.

Let me tell you, pacing is stressful! I spent the entire race feebly attempting to calculate the pace we were running, the estimated finish time, along with the time we gained or lost for each mile of the race, all with only my wrist watch, the mile markers, and the wetware between my ears. Now add to that mental mathematical stress, the duty of encouraging and prodding your runner to maintain the pace required to set a new PR and the whole affair can go sour very quickly. At times I would find myself down the hill and around two corners, far ahead of my wife. I actually stopped running several times because I had shot too far ahead. Other times, I would be cutting directly across her path, attempting to clip all the corners. In short, I sucked at pacing. I'm terrible at pacing myself. I'm terrible at encouraging myself. I don't know why I thought I would be any good at either for someone else.

Sherri around mile 9, running
well despite my pacing efforts.

Not to say that the race was a total disaster as far as pacing goes, since my wife actually PR'ed by about 10 minutes. But we did miss the stretch pace goal of going sub-2 hour. By 2 f'n minutes! There's some new pavement in Hell with my name on it.

Would I race The Scream again? Definitely. It's a tough, unique race in a beautiful setting. I would love to run it again without a busted knee to see how far below 1:50 I could go. Would I pace anyone in a race again? Not a snowball's chance...