Ten Years of Racing!: A Celebration, and a Lesson Learned

Last Saturday’s Holiday Hustle in Dexter – a fun and otherwise ordinary end-of-season 5K – was memorable for me. Ten years ago, the 2008 Holiday Hustle was my first-ever official race.

That’s right! A dedicated non-runner until my mid-forties, I’d begun with just a few short runs here and there to supplement bike rides and Aikido training. Then, finding out about the Holiday Hustle just a few miles from my house, I said what the hell and signed up.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Last Saturday I joined the crowd in the starting queue with over a hundred races to my name, from 5Ks to marathons and beyond, including two 100-milers and my (current) longest distance of 150 miles, accomplished last June at the Veterans Memorial. Had anyone predicted this back then, I’d have laughed and said they definitely had the wrong guy. Well, you know what they say about truth and fiction.

So there was definitely something to celebrate and enjoy about this year’s race, and I did, although like any 5K I run, it was a sufferfest for all 3.1 miles. I finished in just under 21 minutes, and claimed second in my age group. On paper, a good solid result, especially because I went right back to work heading up the event’s Zero Waste team. No sense going all out and killing myself over this race, right?

“Santa, I want a worm composting bin for Christmas!”

Except that’s not how I felt.

I wasn’t expecting a PR (personal record) because I’ve trained this year mostly for ultramarathons, and not for short races. And given I set a PR for the 50-mile distance, and got two podium finishes, including a win, I have zero complaints about that.

Third at the Dogwood 12-Hour race in March

1st at the Veterans Memorial 150 in June.

 

 

 

 

 

 

But at any race, competitive runners (at any level) should give themselves the best chance to do well, whatever that means that day. And I didn’t do that at the Holiday Hustle.

How so? First, I didn’t warm up thoroughly, contenting myself with a quick half-mile jog followed by a few strides. To best prepare my body to run hard on a cold day, I should have run at least a mile easy, coupled with dynamic stretches to get fully loose. And I should have lined up much closer to the start than I did, because I knew I’d be weaving around other runners for the first half mile otherwise.

Why did I sabotage my chance at my best effort? I’m really not sure. Perhaps subconsciously I wanted to give myself an “out” if I didn’t run up to my expectations. Which, as I well know after all these races, doesn’t work anyway. Compounding a poor run with poor preparation, or lackadaisical attitude,  doesn’t help. So much better to think, “I didn’t meet my goal, but I gave it my best shot. And that’s all I can ask!”

I can’t do anything to change the result, of course. All I can do is change my attitude going forward. Even a fun holiday race is still a race, and there’s part of me that wants to do it well. So – chalk up a lesson learned. And, Lord willing, there will be plenty more chances to apply it. Ten years is just the start of what I hope are many, many more years of running adventures. And I’ll be sure to share them with you right here. Thanks, as always, for reading!

 

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Pizza and Life Lessons

Life lessons can turn up when you least expect them.

Last Sunday I went to the Ann Arbor Track Club annual meeting and dinner. I was expecting a low-key, pleasant evening – pizza, salad, a few awards, socializing – and it was. But the evening was made special for me by two people who brought words of wisdom to share, not just about running, but about life, too. And I’d like to share some of it with you.

The invited keynote speaker was Ben Flanagan, a University of Michigan student who won the NCAA title in the 10,000 meters last June. His win was particularly remarkable because he’d had to come back from foot and back injuries that had sidelined him for the entire previous season.

Ben regales us. Seated to his left is Erin Finn, a member of the U-M women’s track team who Ben specifically named as a great teammate and friend.

“That brought a complete change of mindset,” he told us. He was a team captain, accustomed to leading by example and actively helping the team. Injured, he had to rely on others to help him recover, find a way to motivate himself through the rehab workouts, and change his goal from winning events to just getting back to the starting line. Which he did, and the following year earned a place in the NCAA finals.

At race time Ben was ranked 23rd out of the 24 runners there. You couldn’t fault the guy for just being happy to be there. Not Ben. He thought he could win. And he said so to Kevin Sullivan, his coach, preparing himself for a response like, “Well, let’s try for something more realistic.”

But Coach Sullivan said instead, “Yes, you can win. I know you can.” And he did, outkicking favorite Vincent Kiprop on the final lap to win by a half-second, and, incredibly, beating his previous best 10K time by over 30 seconds.

The key to his success, Ben said, “was having someone believe in him.” And he listed many – his  coach, his teammates, and perhaps above all, his mom, who he called for right after winning. (You can see the video below.)

Then a very pleasant surprise occurred during the awards presentation, when my friend and fellow PR Run Club runner Michael Mester was awarded Male Athlete of the Year for his dedication to the AATC and participation on its Masters team (which, by the way, also wins a lot of events).

From the 2014 Dexter-Ann Arbor half marathon. Left to right: Michael, me, and Aaron (another kick-ass masters runner).

A humble and selfless guy, Michael was a bit overcome by the award, but was able to share what he called four “takeaways” that he’d had from the previous year that relate both to running and his life in general. I think they ring particularly true to those of us over 50, who have had the time to acquire some perspective on life, the universe, and everything.

  1. “Have fun with running. If what you’re doing isn’t fun, why do it?”
  2. Embrace the social aspect of running. Solo running is fine, but running with a group has its own rewards. The same is true in life.
  3. There will always be someone faster than you, and someone slower than you. And in life, there will always be someone who can help you, and someone who needs your help.
  4. Commit to something and see it through. “When I signed up for a marathon, I was going to finish it even if I had to crawl across the finish line,” he said. And in life, if he tells someone he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it.

My congratulations again to both of them. Sometimes good people get the recognition they deserve!

An Ultra Like No Other: The Black Rock City 50K

How many running events are you aware of that have a) whiskey, b) hugs from random strangers, c) a course that takes you through a dance party, or d) shameless nudity? And the only “entry fee” is a gallon of water and a few snacks for the aid stations?

Well, as far as I know, the Black Rock City Ultramarathon is the only race that offers all of the above.

The race is hosted by the Pink Lightning camp, which provides bibs, timing chips, medals, T-shirts, and refreshments – all for no charge to the runners (excepting the crazy expensive Burning Man ticket, of course). About 250 people sign up each year.

From Pink Lightning the course runs clockwise along the Esplanade, which separates BRC from the “deep playa” containing The Man, the Temple, and the other major sculptures. Out to and along the trash fence, with an aid station at its “peak” (top of the route map). Then down the other side and back along the Esplanade and return to Pink Lightning.

Each loop is seven miles, so you run four of these loops, then do a quick 3-mile out & back to get you to 50K, (31.1 miles), more or less.

Since it’s impossible to describe everything I saw, heard, and experienced running the BRC 50K, here are a set of vignettes that hopefully give you a sense of it.

Sorry about lack of photos; my phone was nearly dead and my solar charger didn’t work. Besides, at Burning Man you are encouraged to, “be a participant, not a tourist,” and taking photos takes you out of the moment. However, at the end of this post I’ve provided some links to photos and videos others have taken.

Okay, here’s one. Yes, this “art” is an actual 747, and we ran past it during the race.

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Tuesday August 28, 4:30 a.m.: Crawl out of warm sleeping bag, put on clothes and gear meticulously laid out the night before. Ready to go – except I can’t find my headlamp. I rummage through my clothes bag, gear bag, and everywhere in my tent before I find it around my neck, tucked under my shirt. Slap head and bike to Pink Lightning as fast as I dare. They start late, thank goodness, because I don’t know BRC well enough to understand the course map. I follow the crowd until I get oriented.

Starting in the dark means we see an amazing sunrise, with the sky turning from red and yellow brush strokes into bright blue. And the temps stayed cool until late in the morning, which helped explain some very fast finish times (the first five runners were under 3:35).

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Loop one: Pain in my left big toe, like something sharp is pressing on it. It gets worse, so at the aid station I find a chair and peel off my shoe and sock. I don’t find anything, so I remove the tape on the toe – and the nail comes off with it.

No big surprise, as I’d damaged it at an earlier race. I cover the bare area with a Band-Aid, retape, put sock and shoe back on, and I’m good to go. A volunteer shakes his head. “Hard core,” he says admiringly.

Not really – just standard ultra fare. And now I’m running pain free. Never been so happy to lose a toenail.

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Loop two: I catch up to a guy wearing some really unusual shoes. Under the soles are metal bands acting as springs. Along with the bouncing stride, they add about four inches to his height. He tells me they’re “rebound shoes” with the springs providing a large energy return, and that he likes them a lot. He’s not sure if they’re “race legal,” but hell, this is Burning Man, so who cares?

Here they are. Photo from Flickr.

Here’s a link to the website if you’re interested in finding out more. They also make a brief appearance in the video below.

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Loop 3, approaching the Esplanade: a woman waves a bottle at us. “Whiskey! You know you want it!”

Runner ahead of me: “No thanks.”

Woman: “Well, F*** YOU then!”

Note: a bad attitude at Burning Man is almost always “snark” and not to be taken seriously.

I’m offered the same (and also decline) and starting loop 4, a young lady holds out a 2-liter bottle of a mysterious red liquid. “Please say yes!” she pleads.

Time for some snark of my own, I decided. “Yes!” I responded – and ran on right past her.

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Loops 2-4, returning to Pink Lightning: there’s a dance party in full swing on the Esplanade. No problem, we run right though it, getting hugs and high fives. On one loop as we get near, “YMCA” comes over the loudspeakers. Do we act out the letters during the chorus – while running? Do you even need to ask?

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Back half of loop four: My wandering thoughts hit upon the fact that while I’ve seen a few naked men running (including one guy in orange body paint), I have yet to see any women so (un)attired. Then a spectator says, “Hey, naked woman coming.”

Sure enough, a nicely proportioned woman wearing nothing but shoes soon passes me, smiling and entirely at ease. Another runner complains he’s getting warm. “Take your clothes off!” she yells to him. “You’ll be more comfortable!”

She stops at the coconut water station, so I go back ahead for a while. When she catches up to me again, I confirm she’s also on loop four, and I have to know. “Hey, you didn’t run the entire race this way, did you?”

“Oh, yeah!” she says. I mention it was cold at the start, and she shrugs. “I ran fast!”

Note: every woman I’ve told this story to goes wide-eyed and asks about whether “bouncing” wasn’t an issue. I’d wondered that too, but didn’t have the courage to ask. Apparently it didn’t bother her And she finished ahead of me.

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At Pink Lightning after loop four, grabbing some snacks: I get a surprise hug from behind. It’s my daughter Rachel and her boyfriend there to cheer me on. “I’m so proud of you, Dad!” she says. (Hard to top a moment like that, folks.)

I take off for my final three miles, and they’re waiting at the finish line, where I cross at the 5:25 mark with my hands in the air – and promptly bonk in the pavilion. Here I am with her, doing my best to look happy while waiting for the Gatorade to kick in.

Photo courtesy of Rachel’s SO Eugene.

So, did it live up to my expectations? Since I didn’t really have any, the answer is Yes. Would I do it again? Sure, although I haven’t decided if I’d run it for a PR (nice and flat) or slow down and take photos. Plenty of time to decide!

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As promised, here are some links to photos and videos of the BRC 50K from previous years. Enjoy!

YouTube – Running an Ultramarathon at Burning Man – from 2017. Really, this one is all you need to see what goes on. I didn’t see the stuffed animal trampoline this year, though.

Facebook – search on “Black Rock City ultramarathon” and a gallery will pop up. Here’s one of the photos.

Entering Black Rock City: The Way In to Way Out

It took me four days driving across the country to get to Black Rock City, home of Burning Man. And nearly the same amount of time to get in.

Well, maybe a bit less.

The drive up Highway 447 from Fernley, Nevada was mainly empty and uneventful, except for a few enclaves that provided evidence of what lay further up ahead.

Just one of many WTF moments on Highway 447.

Fake fur is some kind of big deal on the playa. Masks, sunglasses, pasties and tutus, of course, are essential gear.

What surprised me were the number of various and sundry signs all pleading a need for tickets. Really? You came all this way hoping someone would just happen to have an extra $425.00 ticket? People are amazing.

I arrived on the playa around 1:00 p.m. on August 26. As I passed the volunteers waving cars ahead, my nav app told me to “continue for five miles.” I thought it was nuts. How deep into the desert could BRC really be?

About five miles, actually. And the dust was blowing. Bad enough that they had to close the Gate for a few hours.

So what does one do facing a wait of several hours in a dust storm?

Read. Snack on popcorn. Get out and stretch. People watch. Wonder why every line is moving but yours. And every now and then, put car in gear and roll forward fifty yards or so. But everyone else is cool about it. People even got out and danced. And yes, apparently clothing was already optional.

Note the “Need Tickets” sign on the RV. If they don’t have a ticket for everyone, the entire vehicle will be turned away. Wow.

At 9:30 p.m. I finally approached the long-awaited, semi-mythical Gate, which is just wooden booths with waiting volunteers. One of them checked my ticket, and after a lame, “this looks fake” joke, waved me through. At last, I could enter the City and find somewhere to camp!

Well, not just yet. A mile or so ahead was the “greeter” stations, where I spent close to another hour in line. Once there, I received a “Welcome home!” and hug from another volunteer, and as a Burner Virgin, had to ring the “first timer” bell and create an obligatory dust angel. Then I asked where I should go next.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said helpfully. “There’s probably more space on the 3:00 side, so you can try that. That’s over to your right.”

Uh-huh. It’s dark, I’m tired and hungry, and I have no freaking idea where I’m going. I drive off slowly and decide to follow a car ahead of me off to the right. Slowly shapes appear – tents and camps lined along curving roads. I drive around for awhile, not sure what I’m looking for, but eventually see empty space next to a large camp. The folks there tell me I’m good.

So I unpack and begin to lay out the car shelter that will protect my tent and other stuff from wind and dust. Out of nowhere, a City Marshall appears and gives me a hug, then tells me this space is reserved for campers arriving tomorrow.

Frustrating for sure, but how can you get mad at someone who’s just hugged you? So I patiently explain that I’m new here, and clueless, and the camp next door said this was free space. He looks around a bit and says okay, but asks me to make sure no one else takes the rest of it. Deal! I get back to work, and despite never having put up the shelter by myself, all goes smoothly, and I set up my sleeping tent and cot inside.

It’s well after midnight but I’m not ready for bed and the City never sleeps, so off into the lights and noise I go. I’m very close to a tall lighted sculpture that makes a terrific landmark, so no fear of getting lost.

This would turn out to be, “Camp IllumiNaughty” and get as loud audibly as visually.

This is the BRC idea of whimsy.

After walking for maybe 30 minutes I’m ready to turn in. I’m here for a week, after all. No sense in trying to cram everything in at once. The dust storm has subsided, it’s a clear, cool night, and I sleep well.

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Up next: My first full day in the City, how I got my “playa name,” and more!