Monday, July 23, 2012

On Paces, Races and Beautiful Places

“We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, [ ] the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain.”
- Henry David Thoreau

Dolly Sods Wilderness - July 6th through July 8th

Since returning from California and the Western States Endurance Run less than four weeks ago, I've have the good fortune to spend more time in spectacularly beautiful places - blissfully large doses - while in the company of the highest-caliber people - in small and medium-sized doses.

After the Independence Day holiday, I accompanied Meredith into the Dolly Sods Wilderness, for my first multi-night backpacking adventure in as long as I can remember.  The purpose and timing of the trip had profound significance, and I got to see a wonderfully unspoiled and remote part of the East Coast.  Just reaching Dolly Sods was a journey in itself, while hiking its spectacular trails was a unique experience, as the area boasts varied ecosystems, flora and fauna, mesmerizing rock formations, expansive views and dense forest, not to mention a bounty of sweet, ripe wild blueberries at this time of year.  A few photographs which don't really begin to do justice to Dolly Sods are available here.

While the trip presented myriad challenges (physical and otherwise), it was a gift to get away from cars, computers, phones and - mostly - other people.  And, as with so many trying experiences, confronting the difficulties and getting through them has resulted in a welcome Nietzchean adaptation, as I feel stronger (about a number of things), than I have in a long time.  I hope to go back to Dolly Sods someday, and navigate the terrain more gracefully than I managed this time, . . . assuming I'm invited to do so.

Training & Nutrition

So far, working with a coach and following his prescribed training plan has gone pretty well.  I have permitted poor planning and sloppy scheduling to get in the way of full compliance with the plan, but the consistency and overall arc of training is much-improved over what I've experienced in the past year.  The most notable fail on my part was missing a scheduled 20-miler on July 15th (and aborting a re-try on July 16th), but it feels like I've been doing enough long, slow, time-on-my feet runs/hikes that missing a single long run shouldn't make a huge difference.  My weekly mileage is starting to creep up into the 60s, and I very much look forward to settling into higher mileage once again.  Getting a break from one of the more relentless heat waves of my adult life should also have a positive impact on training.

That said, the most exciting development in the health and wellness sphere has been that a change in diet has produced dramatic positive changes in my GI system.  Having met a former pro triathlete who's a certified Nutritional Consultant, I looked into what he promotes in terms of how endurance athletes should eat.  The result was a long questionnaire - and even longer personalized analysis - of my "metabolic type", which dictates not only what foods I should and shouldn't eat, but also provides for specific food pairings and macro-nutrient ratios.  I began this new regimen two weeks ago today, and have likely been somewhere around 75% faithful to the plan (zero beer simply ain't gonna happen).  The results have been so dramatically positive so quickly that I have not only had better runs overall, but have also experienced improved sleep quality, better mental alertness and lesser dependence on caffeine.  My energy levels have been consistent, and I've been notably more productive at home and at the office.  There's no "one-size-fits-all" nutritional approach, which is a key component of the Metabolic Type plan.  Anyone who's had fueling/GI issues might want to consider looking into it.  If you're so inclined, send me a comment and I'll put you in touch with my guru.

The Vermont 100 - 2012 Pacing Report

On Friday, July 20, 2012, I set off for my third consecutive year of helping out at the Vermont 100 mile race.  As this blog has contemplated in the past, my "purpose" in the running world seems to be more about serving others as a pacer than about achieving much by way of personal glory and accomplishment when racing in my own right.
The predictably spectacular summer sunset over Silver Meadow in Brownsville, VT
So, I agreed to pace my new friend Kelly this year, as she sought to improve upon her formidable 2010 time of 20 hours and 50 minutes.  My schedule leading up to race weekend was extremely hectic, with unexpected travel and work complications resulting in little downtime and not much sleep.  Still, as soon as I got close to the race HQ at Silver Meadow on Friday evening, a sense of serenity, belonging and happiness came over me.

It was great to see my close friend Nate as he revved up for his first 100-miler of the year, and to find John, Andy, Joe W., Chip, Laura, Pete, Brett and Joe H., just to name a few of the familiar friendly faces which took part in this year's race.  Kelly seemed good on Friday night, and - after being admonished for being too loud in the campground at the advanced hour of 8:45 pm - it was time to turn in for the night.

For me, Saturday brought a questionably achievable itinerary, as follows:
  • 3:45 am - wake up to catch the start before going back to sleep
  • 5:40 am - wake up again to set out to volunteer at the Pretty House aid station
  • 9:00 am - leave Woodstock, VT for Greenfield, NH to see my two younger kids get out of sleepaway camp; in proud New England tradition, it was a case of "you cahn't get the-ah, from hee-ah"
  • 1:30 pm - back to Silver Meadow
  • 2:00 pm - get to Camp 10 Bear (aka, Mile 70) and wait for Kelly
  • 4:30-5:00-ish pm - expect Kelly and settle in for 30 lovely miles in the woods and on country roads
Things went mostly according to plan, though I missed Kelly and Nate at the Pretty House aid station, which left me to wonder if they were okay.  After a brief cot nap amidst the cacophony of 10 Bear, I arose and got ready to run.  I met Kelly's excellent crew of Gene and Gene (son & father).  Kelly rolled in at about 5:15, looking pretty strong for someone with 70 miles behind her already.

We headed out of 10 Bear, only to confront one of the toughest segments of the course.  Kelly ran what she could and we power-hiked the rest.  Once we reached rolling dirt roads and single-track downhills, Kelly got down to business.  She was moving well, with no significant ill-effects from her earlier spill, blisters or the shear wear-&-tear of this massive undertaking.  We got in and out of Seabrook and The Spirit of 76 (a.k.a., West Winds, at Mile 77) smoothly, with the Genes providing fantastic, efficient support.  Kelly drank, ate and otherwise seemed to be holding up admirably.  The sun was setting, and the conditions were lovely as the temperature dropped.

Things took a turn at around Mile 80, though, when the course cruelly brings the runners within mere yards of Silver Meadow, with an all-too-appealing view of the campgrounds, and the cozy sanctity of sleeping pads and bags just waiting for someone to use them.  Kelly got a bit cranky at this point, and we agreed that she needed food (STAT!).  She moved well enough as we approached the Cow Shed aid station, but she just couldn't take in anywhere near enough calories.  Kelly's stomach simply wouldn't settle down, and it was tough to watch helplessly as the wind leeched from her sails. After an unsuccessful bathroom break, we made Bill's Ban into the goal.  There, we'd see the Genes, and Kelly would eat, ditch her hydration backpack and - hopefully - get a second (or sixteenth) wind.

It was, however, not to be.

Kelly arrived in the throes of abject exhaustion, still unable to get any substantial food into her system.  The medical volunteers flagged her immediately, and Gene the Younger and I quietly debated whether to push Kelly to get back out on the course.  Kelly complained about feeling hot, but her skin was cool to the touch.  The volunteers explained that this was a common sign of exhaustion.  In the end, reality became undeceiveable, even though Kelly might have been able to walk the last ~12 miles in 5 or so hours. That was not what she had come to do on this particular day.  So, while Kelly battled nausea and acute fatigue (she was literally falling asleep in a chair), and the clock hit 10:00 pm, the head medical volunteer (a very, very nice doctor) "made the call".  Kelly had to accept the dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish) and we promptly evacuated her back to the safety and comfort of her tent.  She'd run almost 89 miles, but these events are not evaluated on a grading scale.  They are pass/fail, with a single criterion determining whether the day was a good one, or not.

Upon getting Kelly into her tent, I grabbed my cooler full of tasty beer and a folding chair and headed to the finish area.  It was just past 11:00 pm, and I decided to wait for Nate to finish.  I found Charlie Z., a wonderful 60-something with whom I'd had a completely delightful time chatting last year.  Turns out that he paced Victoria Arnstein to the overall female victory in the 100K race.  Victoria is the wife of 2011 VT-100 winner Michael Arnstein, who put in a mere mortal performance this year (finishing a bit under 19 hours), just a couple of days after finishing the torturous Badwater Ultramarathon (135 miles in Death Valley).  An accomplished ultrarunner by the name of Dave James (who paced winner Brian Rusiecki to within 50 secnds of a course record) also joined us, and - despite the unabashed display of elite athlete ego and bravado (I heard A LOT about big victories, course records, national titles and how some other runners are poseurs), along with the Arnsteins bantery marital bickering - it was an entertaining way to pass the time as finishers came in.  It was especially amusing to tease Michael about how it was a good thing that Victoria performed well, lest the Arnstein family leave Vermont without a victory this year.  He didn't seem to find that as funny as the rest of us did.

Finally, as the race clock approached 22 hours, I saw Joe H. come in with his pacer.  I congratulated him and asked about Nate.  Joe told me that he'd dropped at Mile 70 due to a lingering PF/ankle issue.  That was all I needed to hear to empower me to call it a day, and I got to sleep at around 2:30 am, wondering about those intrepid souls who would be making their way through the dark for many more hours.  I slept pretty well.

The awards and lunch on Sunday were a tad chaotic, and Kelly was beleaguered by post-DNF remorse.  I tried to console her by pointing out that if she HAD walked to a 23-hour finish, she'd be similarly disappointed in herself.  And, so - on a gorgeous sunny summer Sunday - it came time to break camp and wrap up another Vermont 100.  On the heels of Western States, though, my mind wandered into previously unexplored territory: I actually started thinking about how I'd approach running the Vermont 100 in 2013 . . . . Meredith called the idea "stupid".  The fact that she's undoubtedly right is not impacting my decision.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Little Bit (or A Lot) of Most Everything - Pacer/Crew Report Westerns States 2012

For the middling amateur athlete such as yours truly, being a part of a world-class sporting event usually requires buying a ticket and watching while others do the "heavy lifting".  In the case of the Western States Endurance Run, though, the only ticket I had to buy was a plane ticket, and the "seats" I'd reserved would involve being part of Kami Semick's crew and then pacing her for the final 20 miles of what is arguably the most prestigious race in ultrarunning, a race where last year Kami finished second to Ellie Greenwood, thanks in part to a grumpy grizzly bear blocking Kami's way in the final miles.

After a long day of traveling - loaded with beer and gear, marred by travel, traffic and construction delay - my friends Jay (who was celebrating his birthday) and Holly and I finally made it to Squaw Valley late Thursday night.  We went out for a drink with Jay's runner, Ryan, and finally turned in at about 1:00 am (aka, 4:00 am EDT).

Friday would bring seeing and meeting more friends, as well as the complimentary Montrail 6K Uphill Challenge and Fun Run, taking participants up the steep climb out of Squaw Valley along the first few miles of the WS trail.  It was humbling to "race" at altitude, so I ran/hiked it, and then added some mileage, topping out somewhere around 9000 feet.  It was exhaustingly exhilarating to cover nearly 10 miles at that elevation, but it was a worthwhile experience.

  • Kami is one of the nicest, most-down-to-earth people I've met, though her gentle nature does not mask a burning intensity to compete at the highest levels of a very demanding sport
  • Co-ed sleeping arrangements involving leaky air mattresses are not that fun, a sure sign that I'm pretty far along in metamorphosing into a cranky old man
  • I have some friends who are amazing runners, some who are talented drinkers, and at least one who is both
  • Asthma and cold rain are a rough combination, as Kami had to drop out at Mile 30 because of the niggling inconvenience of BEING UNABLE TO BREATHE.  She ended up in the hospital, but was discharged the same day
  • A 100-mile point-to-point course which traverses mountains and crosses rivers appears to be considerably longer than a 100-mile loop course
  • A great way to make and cement friendships at this more "advanced" stage of life is to crew an ultrarunner, or just hang out at a 100-mile race
  • I'm addicted to pacing, apparently, as I seemed to suffer withdrawal symptoms when it appeared that I would not have a runner.  I was so sure that I would not be pacing, that I started drinking a tasty Colorado brew hand-delivered by a friend.  I had about 10 minutes' notice to change out of street clothes and get ready to run.  I climbed, descended and crossed a very cold river.  I had a blast.
  • Ultrarunners are a little bit crazy; I like ultrarunners
  • Despite some notable negatives, California is a remarkable place in many ways
  • Lack of oxygen and sleep, coupled with supranormal alcohol consumption, leads to repeated and extended bouts of giddy silliness, punctuated by short periods of hungry, tired crankiness
  • 100 miles is a long way to run, but the 100-mile running community is small . . . and some people seem to have been around and around it
  • That a person is toting the distinctive WS winner's trophy should be a dead giveaway that that person won the race (oops!)
  • After having no interest in doing a 100-mile race myself (really, truly, sincerely), WS has made my mind wander; though, as I've said to some friends, "I just can't imagine sucking at something for so long, with the more I suck, the longer it'll take" [insert clever word play here]
Looking back, Western States 2012 was like a time-defying dream sequence, where I slept in a different place with a different combination of people for 5 nights in a row, and during which I encountered countless folks who were all drawn to the same place for the same reason.  I also got to bear distant witness to some remarkable athletic feats, as the Men's and Women's Course Records fell, and the Men's Masters' Record was also re-written.  In a world where many of us may doubt our inborn capacity for doing extreme and extraordinary things, 100-mile races show that with hard work, persistence and commitment, virtually anything is possigble . . . and that when we (as a species) reach a seemingly unassailable benchmark, it's just a matter of time before someone comes along to assail it. :-)

Happy running, or whatever it is that you do which challenges and motivates you.


Monday, June 11, 2012

The Three R's: Running, Racing & Rejuvenation

Despite my Liberal Arts background and lack of rigorous mathematics or scientific study, even I know that grand conclusions require more than limited data samples.  So, just as a single month of job growth does not mark the end of an economic recession, nor does a solid couple of weeks of running mean that all training-related woes are now a thing of the past.

I have just completed my first week since engaging the services of a new coach.  For now, we'll keep his identity quiet, lest his association with yours truly end up being bad for his business.  And, despite a VERY SIMPLE schedule for Week #1, I still managed not to follow it to the letter.  Still, all told, it was a decent running week, with my third race in 4 weeks last Saturday.  The week ended up looking like this:
  • MONDAY - scheduled cross-training , with elliptical, steep treadmill walking, weights and core
  • TUESDAY - 5+ miles
  • WEDNESDAY - 10+ miles, caught in a major thunderstorm
  • THURSDAY - 5+ miles
  • FRIDAY - 0.18 miles (yes, 18/100, having turned around due to having a crap day); pushups and core work
  • SATURDAY - 5K RACE in 19:53, plus warm-up, cool-down; 5th place overall out of about 150 runners; 1st in the M40-49 age group [though beaten by two 50+ year-olds and one 11 year-old]
  • SUNDAY - 16+ hard trail miles in 2:53, with my most excellent ultra-runner friend Nate
Total for the week ended up being around 45 miles, but with the 5K and the somewhat epic trail run (involving heat, dehydration, a major face-plant and gunshots), it felt like a solid week of training.  This week's focus is to stick to the plan as written, while focusing on getting a bit more sleep, stretching (!!!) and improved diet.  It's all about planning and organization, really.  Oh, with a bit of discipline thrown in.

Since one aspect of my renewed running mojo involves regular blogging, we'll be seeing more prosaic, shallow, minimally informative posts such as this one.  Hey, no one's forcing anyone to read this. -Ron/ESG

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Back from The Waste Land

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding   
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing   
Memory and desire, stirring   
Dull roots with spring rain.

T.S. Eliot, "The Waste Land"


As best as my very brief research shows, T.S. Eliot was not a runner.  Yet, if one trait of great literature is that it speaks in universal truths, the above-excerpted opening to Eliot's master work "The Waste Land" applies to those of us who look forward to April not because of rising temperatures and blooming lilacs, but for the opportunity to run 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Boston.  For many of us, April can be simultaneously wonderful and cruel, sometimes on the same day, within mere minutes, on a well-worn route trod by countless distance runners over the last 116 years.

For me, the past year has been full of months (along with hours, days and weeks) both wonderful and cruel, as I have figured out how to make my way in the world since getting separated in February 2011.  Overall, things are quite good.  Work is going very well; the kids are thriving; and Tina and I are finding a way to be positive co-parents, and - quite possibly - friends.  That said, running has been a struggle, and thus blogging about running has seemed like a more frivolous and pointless pursuit than usual.

The training malaise which started some time in the summer of 2011 lasted all the way through Boston 2012.  Unlike during all my previous training cycles, I took unscheduled days off, bagged workouts, paid less attention to diet/nutrition, and essentially lost sight of how the consistency of daily action influences the achievement of long-term goals.

The historic high temperatures in Boston this year derailed many runners.  For me, though, it was a gift, as I now got a "free fun run" out of a race for which I was undertrained, and would thus have underperformed even in the best of conditions.  So, I set out with my friend James (a 2:55 marathoner coming back from an injury) and we jogged in the 90-degree heat, finishing with smiles on our sweaty faces in 3:53.  It was the slowest I've run since my first marathon (4:03 in Chicago 2007), but possibly the most fun I've had on a course, taking in the sights and sounds, high-fivin' the kids and turning around at Mile 25.5 (!) for an eternally memorable kiss from Meredith (yes, that friendship has blossomed into a whole lot more).


With Boston "out of the way", I decided to pull myself out of the running funk by setting an ambitious running agenda for the remainder of 2012.  Here is the Master Plan:


Pineland Farms would be my second official ultramarathon race.  It's known as a moderately hard course, with no giant climbs, but with an unrelenting rolling profile, along with the challenge of running through unevenly cambered/tufted mowed paths in farm fields.  This graphic may overstate things, but the dearth of flatness definitely comes through:

Pineland Farms Elevation Chart (25K loop)
Without putting too much scientific thought into goal-setting, I thought I could run the first of the two 25K loops in about 2:30, then hang on and do a slight negative split in order to sneak in under 5 hours.  As with so many of life's plans, the idea sounded quite good in my head.

We lined up at 8:00 a.m., with the day's 50-mile runners having had a two-hour head start, and the 25K runners waiting until 10:00 a.m. to begin their quest.  Given the mild morning temperature and net downhill of the early miles, I quickly settled into what felt like an easy pace, running well under 9-minute miles with little effort.  I drank, took gels and ate a Clif Mojo Bar as planned, along with taking an Endurolyte capsule every hour or so.  The humidity was pretty high, and I noticed that I was sweating . . . a lot.  Still, I figured I had nutrition and hydration under control, so I was not especially concerned.  Perhaps I should have been.

At about the 10-mile mark, the course brings runners around the start/finish area.  I ditched my disgustingly sweaty shirt, and pressed on for the last 5+ miles of the first loop.  I was moving well, and approached the mid-way point in about 2:18, well ahead of my arbitrarily projected pace.  I saw a race official and asked about the drop bags, which I thought would be in the start/finish area.  Turns out, I had run right by them at the Final Mile Aid Station about a mile earlier.  That was a regrettably dumb mistake on my part.  I should have researched EXACTLY where the drop bag (with my additional gels and food) would be.  With the potential consequences of that error in rattling around in my head, I also answered nature's call at the portapotties in the start/finish area.  Despite the slight setback, I was still feeling strong, steady and hopeful.

At the beginning of the second loop, the miles continued to tick off pretty quickly, and I started thinking about the possibility of a pleasantly surprising finish time.  No sooner did I start doing the "best-case-scenario math", though, than I started to struggle.  I lost energy.  I tried eating (mostly boiled potatoes with salt) and drinking (mostly Gatorade) more at and between the aid stations, but it was not helping.  I went from being tired, to being listless, to cramping up each time I forced myself to run.  I finally found my drop bag at about Mile 22, but at that point it was too late to fuel myself out of trouble.  A textbook embodiment of ultramarathoning inexperience.

After about Mile 24-25, I walked each uphill, the very same hills which had seemed quite slight on the first pass.  I tried to run the flats and downhills, but my left hamstring and right calf resoundingly vetoed that idea.  the race thus evolved into a proverbial distance running "death march", where the sole goal is to keep moving forward in order to complete the dastardly undertaking that seemed like a wonderful idea just a few moments earlier.  I bled time; I got passed; I passed some people (mostly slower 25K and 50-mile runners), and basically wrote off any specific time goal.

Of course, the Running Gods almost always have the last laugh, and as I rounded the final curve in the mowed field nearing the finish, I saw that I was not as far back from the 5-hour goal as my under-fueled, overtaxed brain had believed.  I gave it a final push, but it was for naught, since my official chip time was 5:00:58, good for 41st overall (out of about 200) and 14th in the ever-competitive Male 40-49 Age Group.

Not exactly smiling after 5+ hours of running.

Still, seeing a number of friends before during and after the race and just being part of such a wonderfully positive, life-affirming event was more than enough to soothe the sense of disappointment at not having executed a solid race.  My friend Nate broke 8 hours in the 50-miler, despite a pre-race hamstring strain and having a rough day out there.  My friend Kate won her age group in her very first ultramarathon, despite running with broken ribs.  Nate's brother Matt ran his first race ever, putting in a strong 25K.  I saw Chip and Scott and Joe and second Joe.  I brought my own good beer to share once the Smuttynose ran out.  It's truly a blessing to belong to the ultrarunning family, a close-knit group of pretty eccentric folks who constantly prop each other up.  If only more other realms of life could mirror this sort of communal kinship, the world would be a better place.


Now it's time for me to return running to a place of honor in my life, to remember the physical, mental, psychological and emotional benefits it provides, and to remain mindful of the way in which it can benefit others, both directly and indirectly.  Indirectly is through the apparent motivation and admiration others find in my recreational pursuits.  Directly is in the form of getting back to the fundraising-for-a-cause aspect of this whole lifestyle which helps break of the all-too-common box of self-absorption.  In the fall, I will seek to raise money for Achilles International and/or the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, combining the two marathons and 50-miler into a "we-can-all-do-more-than-we-think-we-can" pitch for people to support these two very worthy causes.

I'll make no grandiose promises about blogging (or not blogging, depending on one's perspective), but I will be more intentional about running, training, eating and racing from now until the end of the year, when further major life changes may take place.

Thanks for reading.  Happy running to you and yours.