Watch for Puking Mules: The Winter Switchbacks 5K

SO IMAGINE YOU’RE PERUSING A RUNNING WEBSITE, and you come across the following race promo:
Winter Switchbacks - Part of the PromoNo pre-race registration, no bathroom facilities, no food or water, and the only award you might get is frostbite. And when you get there, you hear this from the race organizer:

Up the Final Hill - Others 2“The race ends at the top of the hill. So you get to go uphill four times, – and you only have to go downhill three times.”

Sound like fun?

Somehow, some way, it was.

I’d gotten a flyer for this race a few years ago, but had other commitments and let it pass. But last week, while looking over the website for the new Ann Arbor Running Company store, I came across the 2015 flyer. Yep, same race: the only text that had changed was the date. So I blew off my assigned 12-miler on Saturday morning and drove to the Waterloo Recreation Area in search of adventure.

Methinks someone didn't like the sign.

Methinks someone don’t like being told when he can and can’t shoot.

With only the flyer as my source, I was half anticipating a group of bearded, fur-clad survivalists. And just a few hundred yards from the gathering place, I spotted three orange-clad guys with rifles heading into the woods. Their eyes were on me as I went past. Hmm..., I could hear them thinking, I wonder if he’s good eatin’.

This was as close to fur as anyone got. Yes, I could make the obvious joke, but I'll let it go.

This was as close to fur as anyone got. I will save the obvious “fox” jokes for another time.

So imagine my surprise to find that the majority of the runners were Chelsea and Grass Lake high schoolers in track clothes and sweatshirts. Turns out the race is run by the Chelsea High School cross-country coach. There were even kids as young as 4 there. They all seemed remarkably unconcerned about running 3.5 loops on trails covered in snow and lined with fallen branches, and a monster climb times four. Ah, the innocent nonchalance of youth! But I wasn’t too fazed; I’ve climbed worse hills, and run through deeper snow. Just not both at the same time before.

Winter Switchbacks - Start

At 10:00 a.m. sharp, after a briefing about the course (“Just keep turning right”) we were off. Each loop climbed up the switchbacks, with the steepest part just before the top of the hill. Fortunately right after that there was a steep downhill, so there was a chance to catch my breath, and I finished the 5K in a respectable 28 minutes and change, even managing a reasonable charge up to the finish line.

Just in case you were wondering what "switchbacks" were...

Just in case you were wondering what “switchbacks” were…

Funny, that wasn't there the first time. (We'd been warned about "surprises".)

Funny, that wasn’t there the first time. (We’d been warned about “surprises”.)

Finish line ahead! Please pass the oxygen, Sir Edmund.

Finish line ahead! Please pass the oxygen, Sir Edmund.

And the winner is...the guy in shorts. (I was only 8 minutes behind him.)

Me with Tom, the winner, who ran this race about as fast as I can run a 5K on a flat road. With a tailwind.

While the race was tough as promised, it wasn’t really so bad. With temps around 30 degrees I stayed quite warm, and the promised mush and horse poop never materialized. And I saw no puking, mules or otherwise. The race organizers seemed disappointed.

“Last year,” they told me, nostalgia misting in their eyes, “the snow was twice as deep and we ran this thing in a blizzard.” Better luck next time, guys.

Finish - Wiped OutPredictably, many of the high schoolers kicked my butt, but I still managed to finish in 10th place, and that with taking pictures along the way. That four-year-old never knew what hit him. Just wait till next year, when I take all those pre-teens to school. Yeah.

Oh, and I have at least two more snow races coming up – the Super 5K this Sunday, and the No Frills All Thrills 8K in March. Can’t wait!

 

Guest Post: Running, My Life Saver

Today’s guest post is from Myla Miller, one of my readers, who wanted to let us know how life-transforming running has become for her. It’s the kind of story I’m hearing and reading about more and more. Could anyone do what she did? Myla thinks so! Here’s her story.

Running is not only a great form of exercise, an excellent weight loss solution, and an activity extremely beneficial to overall health, but to me is also a life saver.

Throughout childhood I was always very active, playing sports and participating in almost every extra curricula that a young girl could, playing outside on every single one of those warm summer days. (Yes, us folks used to go outside and play when we were young – hard to believe these days, thanks to Playstation, Xbox, and Facebook).

Fast forward to my late teens through twenties, and I became less and less active for various reasons such as school, boyfriends, and a few other reasons that, to be honest, were just poor excuses.  The food I ate on a consistent basis was of poor nutrition, my quality of sleep was horrible, and the care I really gave about myself as a whole declined day after day.  During this time, I gained quite a bit of weight and became very unhappy, to put it mildly, with myself and my body.

So a once very active and happy young girl turned depressed, unhappy, and I guess you could say lazy. Lack of self confidence, and shame, were everyday problems.  To this day when I think back to those darker times, I get an overwhelming feeling of anxiety and a sense of, ‘what the hell was I doing to myself?’

At the end of my rope, I sought out help to get my out-of-control self back on the paved road.  It took months to woman up and take this step, but it was the best decision I have ever made.  After a short period of time, I began to bounce back and get those oh-so-great feelings I once had as a little kid.  My depression began to lift, my self-confidence began to grow, and I was starting to feel much, much better.

This enabled me to start putting my life back together and in that plan was exercising and healthy eating.  Healthy body and healthy mind means healthy overall being, and that is what my number one focus was.

Then I sat down and put an exercise plan together.  It was wintertime, so I would start out by simply walking and going to the gym.  My plan consisted of walking a mile on the treadmill for the first month and going to the gym for weight training 3 days a week (those leg days were killer in the beginning).

After the first month I extended my time on the treadmill to 2 miles and then 3, and after that I got the urge to pick the pace up.  After about 2 months it was starting to get nice outside and the flowers were popping up, so it was time to take my activities outside.

Being a long distance runner in my early years of high school, once I got back into the swing of things, walking just was not cutting it anymore.  The urge to step up the pace grew more and more as did the feeling that I could get much more out of my body.

And I discovered my true love, running.

I started with one mile the first week and then 2 miles a day for the next 3 weeks.  After that I stopped keeping track; I would just throw the ear buds in, hit play on the iPod, and run as far as my little heart desired. This, coupled with a great diet, allowed me to shed 25 pounds in the first 4 months of my new life, and my confidence began to soar like an eagle high in the sky.

(Jeff here) My mom once said runners never smile. I just had to prove her wrong!

(Jeff here) My mom once said runners never smile. I just had to prove her wrong!

And during those summer months I was able to get a few of my friends out of the house and turn them into runners like I was becoming.  This was actually a pretty big goal of mine, which was to not only look out for their health, but to get us all like-minded so we could motivate and be there for each other.

It worked out perfectly, to the point where we all grocery shopped together and shared some great healthy recipes with each other.  We all were feeling amazing and our bond really grew a lot that summer.  It really is true that if you surround yourself with great people, you will become great, and that summer we all found this out firsthand.

To this day we still go on our daily runs, share recipes, take turns cooking dinner for each other’s families, and grow each and every day.

I got back to my old self 100% and then some.  I was and still am the happiest I have been in my entire life and I have running to thank for that.  It not only has helped me lose weight, but it has made me feel great overall, grown many friendships, mentally repaired me, and allowed me to get back to that young girl.

Very few things can match the thrill of finishing a goal race!

Very few things can match the thrill of finishing a goal race!

I wrote this to show you how powerful exercising and a healthy lifestyle truly can be.  A diet change and running has brought me out of the depths of depression and has put me on top of the world.  I know that this same exact thing can happen for anyone who is willing and committed.  And it does not have to be running – it can be walking, weightlifting, inter-mural sports, swimming, anything that you personally can do and enjoy doing.  It will be hard to get started, but once that ball gets rolling, you will find yourself disappointed if you miss a day, or are too busy to do your daily activity.  It becomes an obsession. It is funny how it goes from dreadful to desirable!

Don’t be afraid, stop putting it off, there is no better day than today to get started with your routine.  So sit down, come up with a plan, start slow and build up, and before you know it you will be a machine.

Good luck and I’m rootin’ for ya!

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About the author:

Myla is an avid runner who enjoys all things healthy.  Her true love for running started at the age of 23 and has not slowed down since.  Myla runs a website where she reviews running shoes, and shares her favorite pairs.  As you can probably imagine, she has been through a lot of running shoes.  To check out her site go to womensrunningshoereview.com.

Big Feet, Cold Hands, Hot Shoes

“HERE’S THE WORLD’S MOST PROLIFIC RUNNER,” I heard over the loudspeaker as I charged across the finish line. As much charge as I could muster wearing snowshoes, but I tried my best to make it look good.

Saturday was the Bigfoot Snowshoe 5K race in Traverse City. One year ago here I began my quest to run every Running Fit event in 2014. Now one year later I was getting public props for continuing the streak. It’s fun to be notorious!

Me with Bigfoot Costume Guy - 2015Course conditions were good, with plenty of snow on the trails at Timber Ridge. The temperature was about 20 degrees but with a bitter wind, so it was damn chilly in the starting queue. My fingers were already numb from putting on my snowshoes and stayed cold throughout the race, even in heavy gloves. Took my feet over an hour to fully recover afterward, too. But hey, it was a fun time. Right?

Racing snowshoes come in several types of length, width, and style, but they all have an anchor at the toe and a floating heel. You slip your running shoes into the bindings and use a rubber strap around the heel. The running form is slightly wider so you don’t hit your ankles, and there is more knee lift. And snow flies everywhere from your shoes and those ahead of you, so wearing a waterproof outer layer is a really good idea.

The super snowshoes I wore for the race. See below for how I got them.  Also notice the ice balls on the socks!

The super snowshoes I wore for the race. See below for how I got them. Also notice the ice balls on the socks!

A good set of racing snowshoes starts at around $200, so like many racers I rented some and picked them up at the resort on race morning. Last year I really liked the pair I got. This year I was handed a set with odd bindings that came loose during a test run. I went back in to see if a different model was available.

The race director, also named Jeff, was standing near the shoe table. “Having a problem?” he asked me as I made the exchange. “Let me know if those don’t work for you. I have a pair you could use.” I thanked him but figured the second pair would work. They laced up just fine, but out in the deep snow the toe on my right shoe dug under the rim and locked up. That was a recipe for a multitude of face plants in a race.

Jeff noticed my trouble and beckoned me over to his van, where he pulled out a sleek red pair with sneakers already locked in. “These are the fastest shoes in the West,” he said. The shoes were a size larger than mine but fit fine with my heavy socks. I had no time to try them out; the race was about to start. I got in line a minute before the gun. But here I was, wearing the race director’s top-notch snowshoes. Incredible!

For me, the toughest part of a 5K is the first half mile – it takes that long for my body to catch up aerobically. In snowshoes, I’m going nowhere near as fast as a road race, but the effort has the same effect. Last year I started near the back and ended up behind a lot of walkers. This year I started farther up and was able to go as fast as I wanted, and after the first mile I felt good and began passing other racers in earnest.

On the trail (actually from 2014, but it was pretty much the same).

On the trail (actually from 2014, but it was pretty much the same this year).

I crossed the finish line in 35:40, over seven minutes faster than last year. (It helps to not get lost and climb an extra hill.) I had hopes of winning my age group but settled for third, and #17 overall (out of 417). The 50-54 group is tough – the top three (including me) beat all but three of the 40-49 racers, and most of the 30-39 too. And a 55-year old came in second overall. Just wait until next year!

I thanked Jeff profusely for helping me out and being so generous with his best snowshoes. A box of homemade truffles just might be headed his way. (Don’t tell him.)

In the men's room at the resort. I'm not sure why it appealed to me so much. Frozen brain, maybe.

In the men’s room at the resort. I’m not sure why it appealed to me so much. Frozen brain, maybe.

2015: Back From the Moon – Now What?

“Once you’ve gone to the moon, staying home just isn’t good enough.”
- Astronaut Eugene Cernan

THERE I WAS after the Holiday Hustle last month, innocently enjoying the completion of over 30 races in 2014 and becoming the first person to run every Running Fit event in a year. Then I got asked the question.

“So, Jeff – what do you have planned for next year? Are you going to do the entire race calendar again?”

Well, that was a definite “NO.”

Here's the 2015 events, if you'd like to take the title from me! (Click to enlarge.)

Here’s the 2015 calendar, if you’d like to take the “Most Valuable Runner” title from me! (Click to enlarge.)

Now I had a really good time last year – even better than I thought I would when I set up the schedule last January. But do it again? Not a chance. Some races I will do again, starting with the Bigfoot Snowshoe 5K in Traverse City next week, and maybe one or more of the Dances with Dirt ultras. Other than that, I’m taking a more relaxed approach to scheduling stuff for 2015. But there will be stuff.

Apparently it’s fairly common for people to suffer a letdown after finishing their first marathon. They spend all that time in training, invest their emotional energy in preparation, anticipation, and running the thing, and now it’s over. It didn’t happen to me after my first (Chicago, 2011), and it hasn’t happened now that 2014 is in the books. In fact, I’m fired up about 2015 and its possibilities.

Sure, I'm ready for another 26.2! Just let me finish this beer and take a nap - for a month or so.

Sure, I’m ready for another 26.2! Just let me finish this beer and take a nap – for a month or so.

Like what? Well, there’s that 100K I didn’t finish, so another attempt is definitely on the agenda. I’m looking forward to resuming long bike rides, maybe even some multi-day, multi-hundred mile trips like in 2012. And there’s that black belt in Aikido I’d still like to get to – someday.

In addition, 2014 was a mixed year overall. One of my wife’s favorite cousins died from cancer, my wife got very sick (fortunately, she’s fully recovered), and my mom passed just after Thanksgiving. So as a family, we’re all grateful to have that behind us. A “new year” may be an arbitrary convention, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make use of it.

Above all, I will be sure to stay active. I think that whether or not you have a specific race or other goal, being active can’t help but keep you “plugged in” to life and forward-looking. To pull Newton out of context, a body in motion tends to stay in motion. In the best case, exercise stops being a chore and becomes a part of your life.

Take this morning, for example. It was 13 degrees at 8:00 a.m. in Ann Arbor, and over 30 people turned up at the PR Fitness studio to go for a run of up to 14 miles. Some of them are training for the Boston Marathon or other spring races, but others just came out to get some miles in. Why? It’s something we do to stay healthy and fit. And that’s one of the best goals of all.

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Are you a non-runner who’s interested in starting, but you’re not sure you have what it takes? Here’s a great post by running coach Sarah that says. yes, you can be a runner!

The Choices We Make – and Don’t

At a writer’s retreat some years ago, I was asked to read a favorite poem. I recited Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. Having learned it in high school choir, (where we performed its musical arrangement), I thought I knew something about what it meant. A guy goes for a walk, sees two virtually identical paths to take, chooses the less worn one, “Oh, I kept the first for another day!” but doubts he will return. He reflects upon his choice in the final verse:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

“Interesting poem, isn’t it?” our instructor said. “He isn’t saying, ‘I am telling this with a sigh.’ He says, ‘I shall be telling this with a sigh.’ That’s in the future. How does he know that choosing that path will make him sigh, or that it will make any difference?”

While we were pondering that one, he tossed out another. “Notice the title of the poem. It isn’t ‘The Road Less Traveled’ – it’s ‘The Road Not Taken.’ The narrator took one path, but the title refers to the one he didn’t take – about which he knows nothing. And he ‘kept the first for another day’ but then said he was unlikely to ever come back. So what’s that all about?”

"When you come to a fork in the road - take it."

“When you come to a fork in the road – take it.”

He then told us that Frost had a friend who was obsessed about the choices he hadn’t made; he was always wondering, ‘what if I’d done this or that instead?’ So this poem is a jab at that kind of thinking. On the surface, it’s a poem about making a choice, but it’s actually more about the choices not made, and the regret that you can’t go back and make them again.

How often have we fallen into this trap? I sure have. I’ve wasted plenty of time wondering ‘what might have been’ as though I might be richer, or more famous, or have more free time (i.e. somehow happier), if I’d made certain decisions differently.

I could have married a different woman (or remained single), or made different investments, or chosen a different career, or bought my dream car 20 years ago, or done any number of other things. But why I should sigh over any of that? How do I know my life would be better or not? Such thinking devalues the blessings I have from making the choices I did – my family and friends, and the fulfillment I get from my job, running, Aikido, and other activities.

What “makes all the difference” is how we build on where we are right now. That road is always available to us. And if a different life vision appeals to you, then I agree with Joseph Campbell: Follow your bliss, and don’t be afraid. But no empty regrets.

Happy New Year!

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P.S. For an interesting twist on the subject of choices, I recommend Roads of Destiny, a short story by O. Henry, which should tell you it won’t be ordinary.

‘Tis Better to Do than to Receive

At the start of my Monday evening yoga class, we lie flat on our mats, lights dimmed, and our instructor tells us to “go to a favorite place.” This is necessary preparation; we must relax and think happy thoughts while attempting to turn ourselves into pretzels.

I take myself to hanging out at our campground up north, or running the Vasa Trail, or most often, on my bike on a beautiful summer day, riding from small town to small town just to see what comes next. Like coming across this doughnut shop in Durand, or the Civil War camp in Jonesville, or the synchronicity of riding straight to a bike shop in Ionia I didn’t know about just in time to avoid a catastrophic mechanical breakdown.

All right, my Dances with Dirt medals ARE pretty cool.

Okay, my Dances with Dirt medals ARE pretty cool.

These experiences, and the memories from them, mean far more to me than medals, or race swag, or most any “stuff” I get, whether from events or presents or whatever.

Which those dearest to me find very frustrating this particular month.

Not because of anything I’ve done, but by what I don’t. My birthday and Christmas are just a couple weeks apart, and when I’m asked, “what do you want for your birthday / Xmas” I don’t give them a lot to work with. Online wish lists have been some help, when I remember to actually put items in them.

Recently I got a desperate text from DD #1 – “WHY IS YOUR WISH LIST EMPTY?” and DD #2 texted, “Your wish list has one item! And I can’t get it til the 26th…” Even my DW pitched in, using the word “plea” in a phone call to me. I went there and added a few more things, but frankly, my heart wasn’t really in it. I was doing it more for them than for me.

I do NOT understand Christmas. The humans put up all these great toys, then tell me I can't play with them!

I do NOT understand Christmas. The humans put up all these great toys, then tell me I can’t play with them!

I came across an article online that pretty much summed up my attitude toward all this. A study found that while pleasure from getting a new “thing” fades after a few months, people place more value on their memorable experiences. That is, what they did is more important than what they have. For most of my life, other than my mandatory greedy kid phase, I’ve found it more fun to give stuff, or do stuff, rather than get stuff.

Only 500 PB&J sandwiches to go!

Only 500 PB&J sandwiches to go!

2014 was the most memorable running year I’ve ever had. And not because I filled a drawer with shirts, or a box with age group awards, or got a camp chair and cool jacket at the volunteer party. It’s the memories of the events themselves that give me the warm fuzzies, and allow me to survive yoga classes. It’s the sense of accomplishment from finishing the events, from talking to people I met on the trails, and working with the terrific events staff at setup and registration. And from many “living the moment” experiences and the feelings of gratitude from being healthy and fit enough to run, and run well.

Go and do!

Woodstock Saturday Finish (JW) - 2018

(Disclaimer: if anyone feels like sending me a gift card to my favorite running store, you won’t hear me complaining. You might even get featured on someone’s blog – which, by the way, just made the “Best of Ann Arbor Area Blogs” list for the second time.)

Seriously (for once) – I hope you all have a safe and wonderful holiday, in whatever form it takes. God bless us, every one!

Honored Beyond Words – But I’ll Do My Best

MOST VALUABLE RUNNER of 2014.

All I can say is – WOW. And thank you all so much.

Yesterday when I crossed the finish line at the Holiday Hustle 5K, I accomplished my goal of competing in every single event on the 2014 Running Fit calendar. It was a total of 23 events from January through December, including a snowshoe race, three triathlons, and six ultramarathons. Here’s the calendar (click it for a larger, more readable version):

Running Fit Calendar of Events 2014

No one has ever done this before, and throughout the year the wonderful staff at Running Fit Events cheered me on. And at each event I collected the little button pin. At each year’s Holiday Hustle, you bring your pins along, and the person with the most pins wins a prize. Since I had every 2014 pin, I was pretty sure I’d win, and I wanted to something more than just dump a pile of pins on them. So I put them on a posterboard along with some photos, to have something to display later in my man cave – when I get around to having one. So here’s what I made:

Collage - 2014 Running Fit races

Well, it received oohs and aahs from the staff, and they said they’d put it on display after the race. Little did I know how polite they were being, as they made an oblique reference to a “special award” for me.

So I ran the race, and got congratulations all round. Then they showed me what they’d prepared for me as the first-ever “Most Valuable Runner”. Not only had they come up with that awesome title, I had been out-postered! Check this out.

RFE poster - 2

And I got a couple of free race entries, too!

I was speechless. This has got to be about the coolest thing I’ve ever received. This is going up on a wall even if I never get around to that man cave. Thank you Randy, and Mandy, and Dawn, and Joanna, and everyone else at Running Fit Events for helping make this year so memorable for me. And special thanks to my family and friends who helped me reach the goal despite some challenges in other areas of life this year. I love you all.

Coming up soon, I will recap the year in running, cycling, and Aikido, including the highlights of a truly remarkable and unforgettable experience. And lowlights too – those are more fun to read, aren’t they. Until then, thank you all very much once again.