Sorry, Conditions Are Too Good Today

RIDDLE FOR YOU: What goes up four times, but comes down only three times?

Here's a hint.

Here’s a hint.

ANSWER: The Winter Switchbacks, an evil little 5K on the trails near Chelsea, MI.

The writeup makes it seem like the worst race ever

Facebook promo - Winter Switchbacks 2016

Truth is, it’s mainly cross-country runners from the nearby high schools, and also a fair number of veteran trail runners. About 60 runners showed up, including kids as young as three (!) giving the bill hill a try. The race is put on by Eric and Mike, who coach the Chelsea teams.

That said, it is a “no frills” event. The entry fee is only $5.00, which goes to support the cross-country teams. There’s no bottled water, no porta-potties, no race bibs, and no finisher’s medals – you know, all the stuff you get for free at a $40.00 event.

The hardened veterans prepare for the grueling contest.

The hardened veterans prepare for the grueling contest.

The race is named for its singular feature, a climb up a very steep hill accomplished by weaving back and forth in a gradual climb, just like what trains do to get up steep inclines. The race begins at the low point of the loop, with the finish during the fourth loop at the top of the switchbacks.

Race day conditions were too good for Eric’s likings. Last year there was a fair amount of snow on the trails, and the roads were iced over and slippery. With practically no snow or ice this year and temps on the warmer side, the worst he could do was toss some large branches and logs across the trail (which he blamed on “localized winds”). I saw a few slips, but as far as I know there weren’t any “agony of defeat” spills.

Link to Agony of Defeat Video

If you have never seen the “Agony of Defeat” clip, you must. Click the image.

With all the hill running and ultras I’ve run in the last few years, I figured I was in good enough shape to run the inclines without too much trouble. Reality slapped me upside the head the minute I hit the switchbacks the first time. I’d run this race last year, but had forgotten how much of a lung-draining, life-sucking grind it is up that thing. I was able to recover on the downhills, though, and actually ran the final lap faster than the others.

Final climb!

Final climb!

What’s really annoying is that it doesn’t look all that hard when going uphill. You need to look down from the top and watch the runners behind you gasping and slogging their way along to really appreciate what you’ve just done.

"Ouch" prize winner!

The “Ouch” prize winner!

The winning time was just over 22 minutes, but glory is all you get for winning! There were only two awards: the first to the top on the first loop (but you have to finish to claim the prize) and the “Ouch” award for the person with the most spectacular fall.

My time of 25:56 was good for 8th place, and I admit to some self-pride about beating many of the cross-country runners. Coach Rob of PR Fitness may be “hill happy” when it comes to our group routes, but the payoff is undeniable. And I’m getting to the point now where I see hills as opportunities, not obstacles; in races I pass many people on them. So I think I’ll be back next year. Hopefully there will be subzero temperatures and whiteout conditions!

When this happens to a teenager, you know it's a good workout!

When this happens to a teenager, you know it’s a good workout!

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P.S. I earned an award for running the entire way. I don’t put a whole lot of stuff on my car’s bumper, but this one went on for sure.

Bumper Sticker - I RAN the Switchbacks

P.P.S. There is a summer version of this race, and I was told that some runners can finish it in under 17 minutes. Now that is practically superhuman.

BONUS PHOTO: I didn’t see any puking mules, but there may have been some foxes puking from exhaustion! Check out the fox hunters!

Fox Hunters - 2

Must be the Shoes! Bigfoot Snowshoe 5K Recap

“So am I giving you my shoes again this year?” Jeff asked me.

I was at the south Traverse City Running Fit, picking up my Bigfoot Snowshoe Race packet. Jeff is the store manager, and before the 2015 race he’d seen me struggle with the rental shoes. He’d very generously loaned me his own top of the line pair, and in them I’d finished in the top 20.

I wasn’t sure if he was joking, but I told him I was renting again. Jeff shook his head. “Why don’t you just buy a pair?” he said.

Bigfoot 2016 - New Snowshoes

They will pay for themselves in 5 years, after all.

Well, good racing snowshoes start at around $200.00, and I said it didn’t seem worth it for one race per year. Jeff pointed to some shoes on the wall. The store was going to stop carrying them, so they were half off. And I’d get credit for the $20 I’d paid for the rental.

“How about the quality?” I asked.

“Not as good as mine,” Jeff replied, perhaps reflexively. “But way better than the rentals.”

Well, then – deal! I took them back to my hotel room and strapped in my running shoes. This year there would be no numb fingers fumbling with bindings on race morning! When I got to Timber Ridge I just slipped on the pre-strapped snowshoes, tied the laces, and I was good to go.

Ready to rock in my brand new snowshoes!

Ready to rock in my brand new snowshoes!

Race conditions were near ideal; dry, powdery snow and temperature in the low 20s. I wore just one layer, my Brooks Heater Hog, with a windbreaker over it. Some of the racers wore even less. You may start cold, but trust me, you get warm really fast.

After the 10K, the guy in the cowboy hat was down a short sleeve shirt.

After the 10K, the guy in the cowboy hat was down to a short sleeve shirt.

After a quarter-mile warmup I got into the starting queue. The 5K (my race) and the 10K start together. Randy, the race organizer, got on the mike to send us off, telling us that with over 500 runners, he believed it was the largest snowshoe race in the country.

“Did I mention this is hard?” he said. “There’s no such thing as starting out too slowly here.” The winning 5K time at Bigfoot is usually around 26 minutes and top 10K times are around one hour, roughly double what road race winning times would be. Randy’s advice was good for first-timers and the fun runners, but my strategy was just the opposite.

The race begins on wide, groomed trail but then switches to singletrack, squeezing everyone into single file. In 2014, my first year, I started in the middle of the field and quickly found myself in a conga line, where passing requires pushing hard through deep, ungroomed snow. Better to start fast and get ahead of most of the field. So I hit the opening stretch pretty hard.

From 2014. The racer in red is trying to pass people. Not so easy!

From the 2014 race, where I got stuck in the conga line. The racer in red is trying to pass people. Not so easy!

A few hundred yards down the trail, Mandy, one of my friends from Running Fit Events, saw me as I passed her. “How are you doing, Jeff?” she asked.

“Already out of breath,” I told her. But I recovered on the singletrack, and the early effort paid off, as I was able to run my target pace most of the way. It wasn’t a perfect race; I face planted twice (hey, this is hard). But the new snowshoes felt light and stable, allowing me to sprint when needed, and I continued to pick off other runners throughout, including a few right before the finish.

Charging to the finish! Thanks so much to Timber Ridge for this photo!

Charging to the finish! Thanks so much to Timber Ridge for this photo!

My time this year (34:12) was over 90 seconds faster than last year’s result. I improved from 19th place overall to 14th place, and only 30 seconds or so away from cracking the top 10. Must have been the shoes!

The only bummer? I was the sole representative of my running group up there. This must change! It’s too much fun to have it all to myself.

And for anyone who might be considering a snowshoe race? Just do it! No previous experience is required. If you can run, you can showshoe. And it’s a real change of pace, both figuratively and literally.

Yes, even dogs and monsters can snowshoe!

Yes, even dogs and monsters can snowshoe!

Oh, and Mandy won the 10K. Another notch in the belt for, “Iron Mandy.” Congratulations!

P.S. If you’d like to see lots more photos of this event, check out the Timber Ridge Resort Facebook page.

Age is Just a Group

WELL, THAT WAS QUICK.

Seems like 2016 started yesterday, and already it’s near the end of January. They say time speeds up as you get older. If that’s the case, by the time I reach 70 I’ll be afraid to blink. But for now, it’s time to enjoy every day of being 54, just as I did at 53, 52, and before.

DCS_8876

On the other hand, time slows down as you speed up. So I just need to run faster!

Not that I focus overmuch on my age, or should. After all, it’s “just a number,” right?

 

Well, not so much for runners. For us, age is more of a group.

Rather than using calculated handicaps like golfers have, most events divide runners into five-year age groups (such as 40-44, 45-49, 50-54, etc.) or ten-year groups (e.g. 30-39, 40-49, etc.). Awards are presented to the top finishers in each group.

Overall winners and top placers still get the lion’s share of the glory (and all the money), but for the rest of us, age divisions provide a little recognition beyond a finisher’s medal and a pricey photo. It’s a way of leveling the playing field, giving older runners a competitive focus if they wish. And I think that’s good for the sport.

Wrong Age Group - highlighted

I’m not quite sure how I ended up in this age group. And I finished *second* in it?

I began competitive running just as I turned 47, so for my first few years I was in the 45-49 group. Mainly it was a positive experience, as I watched myself improve in speed and distance, culminating in my first marathon just before turning 50.

 

But there was one source of frustration; despite coming close many times, I never made the top five in my age group and got an award. If a tie is like kissing your sister, coming in 6th is her serving you a restraining order. The chase for an award wasn’t my only motivation to keep training, but it did contribute, and I’m sure it helped make me a better runner.

I read a blog post around then from someone who downplayed her awards, saying she had “a drawer full of them.” That’s a problem I’d like to have, I thought. So what if I had mugs spilling out of my kitchen cabinets? I wanted one from a race.

Xmas Tree 2011 - Running Ornaments 2

2011 – my first age group award! (Actually, this is the replacement. I dropped the first one.)

As they say, be careful what you wish for. After turning 50 I broke through and got that mug, and did the same in many more races after that. Now I have a full drawer too, and I better understand what she meant. In the end, they are mainly trinkets that take up space. (I still like to get them, though.)

Various Age Group Awards

Some of my more – um – interesting – age group awards. Yes, that is a spray-painted running shoe, a boot-shaped glass, and printed toilet paper.

I know what some of you are thinking. It’s selfish and materialistic to worry about awards. Why not just go out and race for self-satisfaction and the joy of participation?

 

Good points, and to an extent I agree. I race mainly to test my own limits, and to push past them. I’ve run in big races where I didn’t have a prayer of getting an award. And when I pace events, my focus is on encouraging others instead of pushing myself. An age group award is usually just a nice bonus.

And yet there are a few times it’s more than that.

Such as the Leap Day 4-mile race this February 29. Four years ago, at the 2012 race, I won my age group for the first time. And this year I’m still in the 50-54 age group. So I have a title to defend!

I’m freeing up some more room in the drawer.

29Feb2012-small

Feb. 29, 2012 – #1 in the 50-54 age group. (The other guy can’t believe it, either.)

Why Am I Doing This? Oh, Yeah, the Payoff

During a flatter part of last weekend’s long run, I chatted with a guy who’s big into triathlons. He’s doing Ironman Boulder this summer, and part of his preparation is a trip to an Olympic facility for two weeks to work with top coaches. He’s about my age and the two-a-day sessions are, to put it mildly, brutal.

“You’re killing me!” he told a coach after one particular grueling session in the pool. “You’re used to working with athletes thirty years younger!”

“The payoff comes in June, Michael,” he was told.

The coach was correct, of course, and those of us in the throes of training know it. But there are two issues with just accepting that, “the payoff comes in X” and moving on. It doesn’t make training any easier, and it assumes we survive to get to the payoff.

Jim Mora Playoffs Rant

Payoffs? Don’t talk to me about PAYOFFS!

The conversation came back to me while reflecting on this past week of training. While I train and race year-round, January through March is technically my off season, so this is the time to hit it hard. I’ve stepped up my weekly mileage and added an extra session at Body Specs, and boy, am I feeling it.

My coach and gym trainer are keeping an eye on me so I don’t overtrain. But see above for how that makes me feel.

Assuming that I do get through this and end up stronger and faster, my payoff begins as early as April 9, when I join the Martians for a marathon through the streets of Dearborn, in an attempt to qualify for Boston next year. After that, trail season begins, with another April marathon, a May 50-miler, and my first-ever 100-miler in June. I’m still working out plans for the second half of 2016, but for now I think I have enough to train for.

If you’ve read this far (and if you have, thank you!) you may be wondering why all this training and racing is worth the payoff. After all, what’s to gain? A couple more medals? And is the satisfaction of finishing these races worth the time, the effort, and the pain?

My brother perhaps expressed it best once when my wife was telling him about my latest ultrarunning exploits. “Does he enjoy torturing himself this way?” he asked her.

Richmond Half 2015 - middle

I’m up to 287th place! Yes!

I’m tempted to quote Mark Twain, who said, “I hate to write, but I love having written,” but the analogy doesn’t really apply. Yes, there are times during a race or in training for a race that are no fun (last week’s hills come to mind), and yet there is something fulfilling about the act of running for me that is hard to describe.

Mark Twain quote about exercise

Yesterday’s run was a good example. It was a fifteen-miler, with a good portion of it at marathon pace, on a cold, windy day. But I distinctly remember thinking, somewhere in the middle of that run, today, right now, there’s no place I’d rather be.

DWD LM - 099

Dances with Dirt – Hell, 2014. Payoff, baby!

Train on, everyone! The payoff is ahead – and right now.

Perspective Regained: Hills are Hard, But . . .

“I want you to push yourself on the hills,” my Saturday running assignment read. “Dig deep and crest the hill before you let off the gas.”

Saturday’s route would be a 14-miler that included several of the more punishing hills in the Ann Arbor area. In particular, the climb up to the Barton Hills Country Club is a soul-sucking slog even on good days. And after a week of stepped-up training I was feeling less than 100 percent from the start.

Coach Rob Morgan

This man (Coach Rob) was responsible for today’s route. He’s also married to Coach Marie. I sense a conspiracy here.

It was my own fault, of course. I was dumb enough to tell Skip, my Body Specs trainer, and Coach Marie that I wanted to work on getting stronger and faster over the winter. They have taken on the task with alacrity; on Thursday I actually heard an evil cackle from Skip as I groaned my way through one particular torture involving hand dumbbells.

And the Saturday long run? Normally I look forward to it. But this one was more like a trip to the dentist; you know it’s in your best interest, but it ain’t gonna be no fun. I was fretting too much about it, so I went to bed early and read a chapter about the Battle of The Bulge from Killing Patton, which my father-in-law loaned me over the holidays.

And those few pages were enough to restore my sense of perspective.

In December 1944 the men of the 99th Infantry Division faced a surprise onslaught from the German army, digging foxholes and defending themselves in freezing weather without winter clothing, waterproof boots, or sufficient weaponry.

American infantrymen of the 290th Regiment near Amonines, Belgium. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

American infantrymen of the 290th Regiment near Amonines, Belgium. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

They suffered intensely and took heavy casualties. But they blunted the attack and played a key role in preventing the Germans from reaching the key port of Antwerp. And they did it because it was their job, and it had to be done.

And me? I was going to have a challenging run the next morning, but it would be done with warm clothes, good shoes, and plenty of sleep beforehand. And I could stop early, or even not run at all, if I chose.

So long, worry and self-pity. Which was a good thing. (*)

The run went about as I expected. Per instructions I ran the level parts at a steady 8:15 to 8:30 pace. Then when a hill came up, I took off hard and tried to sustain the effort until after I crested the top.  I didn’t always make it, and many were the times I was bent over gasping for a bit. But a funny thing happened. Despite very tired legs I kept up a solid pace the entire way, and I even repeated a hill on the way back to see how my time differed from early in the route.

Coach Marie was at the studio when I returned. “You look good,” she said. So much for any attempt to complain that it was too much for me. This spells trouble for next week. I can’t wait.

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(*) I have more thoughts about the contrast between that generation and ours that I will save for a future post.

2016: New Year, New Dreams

I WALKED AROUND WITH A GLOW OF SATISFACTION. I had just won a race – a 5K trail race, as I recall – and I was trying to figure out how much to brag about it and to whom. Wouldn’t do to be overly immodest, after all.

Then I felt something nudge my head. My cat was telling me it was time for breakfast. And I remember thinking rather forlornly as I woke up, I suppose this means I didn’t really win a race.

That’s okay, though. What a wonderful holiday it was, with both kids at home and get-togethers with loving families and the best friends you could ever hope for. Chocolate and other goodies abounded, with my wife’s incredible carrot cake and about five tons of homemade caramels, and my daughters helping me make truffles. At least I burned off a few of those extra calories keeping up my tradition of running on Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day.

New Years Day Mileage 2016

Back to training as usual next week. Big plans for the year ahead! And the wonderful people who read this blog can rest assured I will tell you all about them, especially when life doesn’t quite work out according to those plans. And who knows – just maybe there’s a race to win out there yet.

Happy New Year to one and all. May at least one of your dreams come true in 2016!

Jeff

“The New Marathon”? Oh, Please

I WAS INNOCENTLY BROWSING the magazines at the running store one afternoon, when my eye fell upon the following headline on the cover of Running Times:

Is 100 Miles the New Marathon?

Now I’m fully aware that a question-posing headline like this is designed to grab attention and sell magazines. It doesn’t mean the related article actually answers the question, or even makes for thought-provoking reading. And what a silly question, too. Who would even consider comparing a one hundred-mile run to a lousy little 26.2?

Naturally, I bought the magazine.

The point of the article, as I suspected, was that the marathon has become so popular over the last 40 years that it no longer inspires awe and wonder. It has evolved in the public eye from an extreme test of endurance to a mainstream event that anyone who’s anyone has on their bucket list.

“P. Diddy, Oprah, and Pam Anderson have done [a marathon],” the article helpfully points out, “but there still aren’t a lot of people you meet that have run 100 miles.”

Well, I guess that depends on the crowd you hang out with.

Ironman athletes

Quiz: identify the people in this photo who have completed one or more Ironman triathlons – 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, 26.2 mile run. (Answer: they all have.)

I’ve met plenty of people who have run races of 100 miles or more, and so can you. Just show up to any ultramarathon and start asking, “So, what have you run lately?” and you’re just about guaranteed to hear about Western States, Leadville, Hardrock, Run Woodstock, Badwater, and the Spartathlon. Sometimes the same person has done them all.

But the article has a point that the 100-miler still evokes the wide-eyed, head-shaking reaction from most people that the marathon no longer does. Most ultras also differ fundamentally from marathons in that they are run on trails instead of roads. This requires a different style of running and training, making an ultra an even more exotic type of beast.

That said, the growth of ultrarunning since the year 2000 does somewhat imitate the growth of the marathon since 1976 or so, when marathon running was a fringe sport attempted by a select few die-hards. Here are some numbers to chew on:

Marathon Finishes 1976-2013

Source: Running USA and vox.com. (Note: the actual number of marathon runners is lower, as many people finish more than one marathon in any year. But the point is the overall growth.)

Ultrarunning magazine - growth of ultras by year

Source: Ultrarunning magazine

Note that while both types of races have grown substantially, the raw numbers are different by orders of magnitude. For example, while there should be several thousand marathon runners in my home state of Michigan, according to Ultrarunning’s data there are only about 500 ultra runners, and even fewer 100-mile finishers.

So will ultrarunning ever become as popular as marathons are now? I doubt it. Running on a trail with rocks and roots, mud and standing water for up to 24 hours or more is, I think, less intrinsically appealing to people than three to six hours on paved roads with lots of company and spectators. That said, I encourage anyone interested in an ultra to come and check one out. You could start out as I did, running five-mile trail races to get a feel for what the ultra is like without the full commitment. Or you could join a trail running group in your area.

And as to whether 100 miles is now needed to match that sense of “you must be crazy to run that distance” the marathon used to inspire? I don’t really care. I run ultras because I enjoy them. And having conquered the 100K in 2015, I will be attempting my first “new marathon” in 2016. Watch this space for details!