Category Archives: Running & Cycling

This Running Life

Life would be so much simpler if I hadn’t started running.

This fall has been ten solid weeks of continual “busy mode” with any time I haven’t spent at my office job consumed with working races, running them, or travel. All my own fault; I knew what was coming and signed up for the commitments anyway. And yet, even “winding down” has its share of little adventures. Here a just a few.

Half the fun is not the run: Earlier this week we returned from Richmond (their marathon weekend), where we visited my daughter and her wife. With fall race season (mostly) over, I was really looking forward to kicking back with family and relaxing. And we did the race: Tori and Jess ran the 8K, and me the half marathon.

Richmond lets you choose the name on your bib. Silly, but fun!

Richmond claims it has “The World’s Friendliest Marathon,” and they back it up well. Lots of cheering spectators on the course, a huge crowd lining the last half mile to the finish, and well organized. And when I couldn’t find my drop bag afterward, the staff invited me into the VIP tent while they searched for it. Turned out I’d been looking in the wrong station, but they forgave me, saying they were grateful they hadn’t lost it.

But my half marathon was a self-imposed sufferfest. I hadn’t trained enough to seriously attempt a PR, but I just couldn’t run easy, take pictures and enjoy the live bands and the junk food station. No, I had to run it hard anyway and be miserable for 13.1 miles. One of these days I’ll be able to get out of my own way and have fun. Maybe.

What is this “Free Time” you speak of? On the drive back I went over my upcoming commitments. There was a high-priority office task to work out, I had to finish a composting talk for Frost Middle School, and what about the weekend? Every weekend since early September has involved working a race, running one, or traveling somewhere. I had to finish planning for whatever this one would be.

Wait a second. What do I have coming up this weekend? Nothing. It’s a free weekend at last. It was true, but such was my frame of mind that I couldn’t process it. Even now, on this free weekend, it’s kind of hard to believe.

The keys to happiness: At 5 a.m. Wednesday I got up for the regular 6 a.m. club run. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to talk myself out of it. The run went fine and I returned to my car as the rest of the group went their way. You know that little fear we get sometimes that we’ve locked the keys in the car, or they’ve fallen out of our pocket? Well, I reached into my coat pocket where I keep my keys – and they weren’t there.

So: it’s cold out, I’m sweaty, by myself, with no nearby businesses to duck into. What now? Call an Uber? Run to the nearest coffee shop? And how will I find my keys? They could be anywhere on the 6-mile loop we all just ran. Then I checked more carefully and found they’d snuggled way down deep in the pocket. All was well. But the key gods were in a playful mood, because I misplaced them twice more that morning.

Snow long, it’s been good to know ya: Earlier this month we got a YUGE dump of snow – about nine inches in 24 hours – and after shoveling it all out of my driveway, I decided to make some hay with it, so to speak. I broke out the snowshoes and spent a couple of hours tramping down a quarter-mile trail around my property, and testing it with a mile run. I’d be able to get in some early training for the Bigfoot Snowshoe 5K in January! Then off I went to Richmond, and of course it warmed up and it all went away. C’est la vie en niege!

Just before we left for Richmond.

And when we got back. You can just make out the traces of the trail I made.

Why do I not feel so relieved? One recent Sunday morning I joined a group to run the Potawatomi Trail in Pinckney, just for fun. The “Poto” as we know it round here can be challenging with rolling hills and plenty of rocks and roots, but it’s one of my favorite trails. While we were out there, someone mentioned hunters. “Wait,” I said, “Deer season doesn’t start until next week, right?”

“Gun season hasn’t started yet,” he said. “Bow season is still open, though.”

Back, and There Again

I GUESS IT’S TRUE WHAT THEY SAY: You can’t go home again. You can’t even go back to where you’ve been.

Last weekend I worked a race at a cider mill near Charlotte, MI. I’d had lunch there many years ago during a long bike trip, and looked forward to seeing it again. My route would also take me through Eaton Rapids, a classic Michigan small town for which I have particularly fond memories.

That first bike trip, I’d been struck by how charming its main street was. I’d stopped at a coffee shop (naturally) with terrific chocolate chip scones, had a nice chat with the baristas, and enjoyed the view of the pretty pond out in back. I arranged to go through it again during my 500-mile bike trip in 2012, and had another welcome break there.

The place back then. Later renamed Evelyn Bay Coffee.

I’d been told at the coffee shop that there was only one “Eaton Rapids” in the entire world. Someone in the UK had put that to the test once by addressing an envelope to a friend with the address reading only Eaton Rapids – no state, no zip code, no country – and it had been successfully delivered. Urban legend or not, it’s a good story.

Swapping stories with Aron and Andrea at the coffee shop.

This visit was a bit different. Instead of cruising on my bike on a warm summer afternoon, I drove through at 6 a.m. on a cold morning in my Jeep, towing a U-Haul with my Zero Waste equipment. No worries, though. There would be time after the race to see the town again and have my coffee and scone.

The race went well, and we were finished, packed up, and out of the orchard just before it clouded over and a light rain began falling. I pulled out my phone and asked the “Big G” for directions to the coffee shop. But there were no results. Just a sandwich place that served coffee drinks.

A more detailed search turned up Evelyn Bay Coffee at the address I remembered, but it was closed. Not a good sign. But Charlotte also had a coffee shop with that name, so I drove there. After ordering lunch and coffee, I asked my server (a co-owner) if she knew what had happened to the shop in Eaton Rapids.

“The owners sold out,” she told me, “and the people who took over just couldn’t make it work. They offered it to me, but I had my hands full managing this one. Too bad.”

Still, as I drove through Eaton Rapids on my way home, I stopped to take a look around. The coffee shop is now a Mexican restaurant. Sigh.

The place today. (I didn’t ask if they had chocolate chip scones.)

I walked down the main street and browsed a bric-a-brac shop of vintage items, but I couldn’t shake a feeling that matched the weather outside – dull and gray. Perhaps on a sunny day filled with the gorgeous fall color, I might have recaptured some of the nostalgic glow. But even the other buildings and shops now seemed – well, just ordinary. I returned to my warm, dry car and headed for home.

And yet, on the way down M50 I passed another place I’d stopped at on that same trip – a party store, of all things.

The sign that had read, in part, “Dragon’s Milk” had intrigued me enough to turn the bike around and go back to find out what that was all about.

I’d found out, as most of you probably know, that Dragon’s Milk is a type of dark, strong beer. While it didn’t appeal to me much, I just had to get a bottle to share with my D&D gaming group. And there was the store, all by itself along the road, looking the same as ever. I didn’t stop. They didn’t have scones.

But this experience doesn’t mean I want to return to those times. Life goes on, and a lot has happened since then that I wouldn’t want to give back. Like, for instance, getting hugged by my daughters after my safe arrival at our campground during that 500-mile trip.

I can always go back, too; maybe next summer another bike trip out there will be on the docket. And even if I don’t, I’ll always have the memories of those summer days by the pond, with good coffee and scones.

A Smaller Bigfoot, and Call for BHAG Ideas

I WUZ THIS CLOSE.

All this year I’ve had it in my mind that 2020 was going to feature my first 200-mile race. And I had it picked out: the Bigfoot 200 in August, in Washington State.

I’d already started the process; I told my wife and coach, and lined up a tentative crew with our friends on the West Coast. And as the race requires eight hours of trail work beforehand, I signed up to volunteer with the Friends of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail here in Michigan.

All set! I just needed to wait until registration opened and push the button. Then would begin a year’s worth of training to get ready.

Well, it didn’t happen quite that way.

Registration for the 2020 Bigfoot 200 opened late last month. There was even a substantial “early bird” discount. I went to the website and dutifully went through the course map, runner instructions, disclaimers, and other stuff they want you to read before registering.

This is good advice. Bigfoot is far different from any other ultra I’ve been involved with. For example, the Veterans Memorial 150, while no walk in the park, passes through several towns and has easy crew access most of the way.

Lest you think civilization makes 150 miles easy…

Bigfoot is 200 miles in the middle of nowhere with little or no cell phone service, aid stations averaging over ten miles apart, and only a few locations with crew access. A GPS tracking chip and survival equipment is mandatory for runners, with good reason.

None of that phased me, though. From previous tough ultras I figured I had the physical and mental stamina to get it done. No worries! And yet, as I reached the final signup page, my fingers hesitated. Something wasn’t right. I took a break to ponder what.

Cost was certainly a factor: a $900 entry fee and travel, lodging, and meal costs on top of that. Not a showstopper – Burning Man last year cost a similar amount – but still substantial. Plus my crew would be making a multi-day commitment and traveling to locations difficult to access. It’s a lot to ask.

But it came down to basic questions I finally figured out to ask myself. Was I really looking forward to this experience? With all the effort I’d be putting into training, preparation, logistics, and actually running the silly thing, would I enjoy it?

After I finish this race I’ll tell you I enjoyed it.

The answer, to my surprise, was No. I just didn’t feel ready for it. And so I won’t be doing it next year. However, I do plan on being there.

While perusing the website I found out there are some shorter races – the “Littlefoot” series – of various distances up to 100K. The 40-miler, a loop around Mt. St. Helens, particularly appealed to me. I’ve been there and hiked some of the trail. And I can do it in a single day, leaving more time to spend with our friends. Registration doesn’t open for that one until January, but I fully intend to push the button then.

So now I need to choose another BHAG(*) race for next year. I’d like it to be a 100-miler or more, although more then one fellow runner has recommended Comrades Marathon, the infamous 12-hour, 56 miler in South Africa. I welcome reader suggestions!

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(*) BHAG = Big Hairy-A$$ Goal

Cardiac Kid

Last month’s North Country Trail 50K was a reversal in my usual race routine: I ran an ultra as a fun break in my regular training.

This year I’m working on getting faster, and frankly it’s been a struggle after three years of training to “go long” so I looked forward to this 50K as a diverting return to familiar territory. No pressure to put the hammer down; quite the opposite, in fact.

Rarin’ to go at 6:30 a.m.

For this was the first race I ran entirely by heart rate instead of pace.

Why? To see how I would perform by staying “aerobic” which means maintaining a pace where the body is receiving enough oxygen to keep the muscles fueled. At a certain level of effort you go “anaerobic” where the body is using up oxygen faster than it comes in. This condition is standard for sprinters, but bad for distance runners if it happens too soon.

The key number to know is your Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate (MAHR). Go above that, and you’re running on borrowed time. It can be precisely determined in a medical lab, but there are ways to estimate it based on general assumptions on age and fitness level.

Physical age, that is, not emotional maturity. (Well, THE SIGN SAYS “Howling”!

Using the popular “Maffetone method” I estimated my MAHR to be around 130 beats per minute (BPM). I decided I could go slightly over that for a 50K and set my target average heart rate for 135 BPM, slowing down if it hit 140 or more. After twenty miles I felt strong enough to step it up, so I ran the final 11 miles at a target BPM of 145.

The result was one of the smoothest 50K I have ever run. I felt good throughout, and by focusing on BPM I could ignore my competitive instincts when other runners passed me or I saw one up ahead. I’d hoped for a finish under six hours and somewhere in the top half of the field, but got a surprise: a time of 5:36 (near my best) and a top 10 finish, too!

And a finisher’s medal that would send a horse to the chiropractor!

One more smart move was staying hydrated, learning from my digestive issues at the Potawatomi Trail 50. As it was a cool day I drank “ahead of my thirst” to make sure I was getting enough, and had no problems.

Now in the spirit of balance, here’s something I screwed up.

The race was on a Sunday, and Monday is a Body Specs gym day. Naturally I gave myself the day off, right? Umm….not quite.

Okay, I’ll admit I was partly motivated by wanting to show off the humungous finisher’s medal. But I was also feeling good enough to go. A nice, light recovery workout would be great, right? And so it seemed to go, until my legs tightened up later, and for the next two days I had to press on my quads just to sit down. (At least it was good power hike training.)

So I suppose you could say my heart was in the right place, but the effort was in vein.