Category Archives: Running & Cycling

It’s Okay. No, Really, It’s Okay.

This running life can be funny. Two times recently I’ve had to be told, or tell myself, that something perfectly normal and reasonable is okay. As in, I was actually feeling guilty about something I had no business feeling guilty about.

The Thursday after I got back from the Grandmaster Ultra 50, I went to Body Specs for a recovery workout. I chatted with Skip, the owner and head trainer, about my experience at the race, and how I’d won by a single second. I was downplaying it a little because it was a small field and a close finish.

Skip said something to me then that I just had to turn into a meme. Here it is.

Meme: Trainer with arms folded saying IT'S OK TO WIN - WE DON'T TRAIN YOU TO LOSE

He explained that he wasn’t really a fan of the “everyone who participates is a winner” mentality. Competition is healthy, and if you win, that’s a good thing. If you lose, then learn from it, improve, and try again.

“Yes,” I said, “but there are people out there who will always finish ahead of me, even if I run the best race I can. The finish order depends a lot on who shows up and who doesn’t. My usual goal is to set a personal best, or beat a certain time, or to do better than my previous effort. That’s something I can train for.”

We agreed in the end that winning doesn’t necessarily mean finishing first, but he trains people to perform their best and hit their goals, not to do less. And I shouldn’t discount winning, even if it’s by a single second in a 50-mile race. I showed up, I put in the effort, and I finished first. It’s okay to win. I’m keeping the belt, thank you.

My second, “it’s okay to…” moment happened this weekend. For the first time in what seems like forever, we had a sunny Saturday for club run. I’d really enjoyed the sun in Arizona, but the two weeks since then had been unending cloudy gray gloom. It felt so good to run in the sunshine that I stretched my original plan of 10-12 miles to fifteen.

PR club run, Saturday, Feb. 22. I’m in the yellow jacket. (Photo courtesy of Bin Xu.)

That afternoon I lay down for a while, accompanied by some of our resident furry nap coaches. I looked out the window at the bright blue sky and thought, I’m wasting all that sunshine. I should be outside doing something. Anything other than lying here doing nothing.

As an ultrarunner I already know I’m nuts, but this was really ridiculous. Not only was there no work to do outside, I’d run for over two hours in the sun that morning. I had to tell myself that resting was okay. Essential, even. Running is the exercise, but recovery is what makes me stronger.

The cats knew better how to take advantage of the sun, stretching out on the patches of sunlight that fell on the bed and basking in its warmth. I guess they were better coaches than I gave them credit for.

These guys understand the importance of rest. And enjoying life in the moment.

50 Miles in the Desert: A Grand(master) Adventure

IT WAS A PHOTO FINISH.

If only there had been a camera at the finish line.

Chris and I descended a sandy slope onto the road and charged toward the finish straight ahead. After fifty miles on rugged, rocky desert trails, we found the strength to sprint, and over those last hundred yards we continued to accelerate. After running nearly the entire race together, the top two spots in the Grandmaster Ultra 50 were ours. We hit the line side by side.

As we caught our breath and bumped fists, a woman carrying a large velvet bag walked up to us. “Which of you finished first?” she asked.

My co-finisher and I looked at each other and shrugged. I’d been looking straight ahead and only knew it had been close. He had no idea, either.

She looked equally puzzled. “The problem is, I only have one winner’s belt.”

So which one of us would get it?

** Okay, if you really need to know right now who won, you can skip to the end of this post. But I’m a writer and I’m trying to tell a story here. I hope you’ll humor me and stick it out. **

The Grandmaster Ultras take place in the northwest corner of Arizona about 100 miles northeast of Las Vegas. As its name implies, it’s open only to people 50 and older. The race window is 8 a.m. Friday to 8 a.m. Sunday, and runners have their choice of 50K, 50 miles, 100K, 100 miles, and 48-hour total distance.

The event is a UTMB qualifier, so that was one attraction. The venue was intriguing too. The Burning Man 50K, my only other desert ultra, is pancake flat on firm clay, never far from Black Rock City. The GM Ultra is in God knows where, with cacti, hills, rocks, and tricky terrain. If you fall and twist an ankle, help might take a while, though I suppose you could hitchhike on the occasional ATV rumbling along the trails.

I began my involvement in this race by freaking out the race staff.

I picked up my race bib at the race tent behind Beaver Dam Station Friday afternoon. My race didn’t start until Saturday, so I went up the road for a five-mile “dress rehearsal” run in full gear. This included testing my new snap-on bib attachments. They don’t put holes in your clothing like safety pins, but I needed to make sure they wouldn’t fall off.

Closeup of the snaps. They worked well! I will use them again.

The practice run went smoothly, and the back muscle I’d strained the week before gave me no trouble even with a full pack, so I cruised back to the station feeling good. Someone took a few pictures of me, even. Then one of the race organizers ran out of the timing tent. “Are you running today?” he called out.

“No, just warming up.”

“Well, then, thanks for wearing your bib,” he shot back, going back into the tent.

I’d come by at a bad time; they were trying to locate a runner they’d lost track of, and just then someone had called, “Runner coming!” It was too soon to be an actual 100K or 100 mile runner, so they were really confused. I finished my run and returned to the tent to apologize. Things had been straightened out by then, and I was quickly forgiven.

Temperature at race start Saturday morning was 35 degrees but warmed up quickly, so my jacket came off in about an hour. I lagged a bit the first mile to take a few photos and retie my shoes, so at the 50K and 50-miler course split I had no idea where I stood. I’d chatted with a few runners the first two miles or so, but now I was alone, with no other runners in sight ahead. The course was marked with orange flags every few hundred yards, so I wasn’t worried about being on the wrong trail.

Chris caught up with me around the four mile mark. He’s from southern California and works at a wastewater treatment plant. I’m not sure how interesting that is to others, but as the owner of a Zero Waste services company, I wanted to hear about it.

Chris striking a pose on the trail. It’s some kind of trail hand signal.

We ran together and talked until the second aid station, where we found out we were the 50-mile front runners. I needed some extra time there, so he went on ahead. For the next few hours I would catch a glimpse of him ahead, sometimes closer, sometimes farther. I thought about trying to catch up, but it was too early to push; there was a lot of race left.

And then, just before the halfway mark, the trail became very runnable dirt, and I did catch up. We reached the Three Corners monument (Arizona, Nevada, Utah) and took an extended break.

Mandatory tourist moment. Look, Mom! I’m in three states at once!

I dropped off my pack and hiking poles, and went from two water bottles to one. A tad risky, but the reduced bulk and weight was a big relief. Chris also introduced me to Gordy Ainsleigh, founding runner of the Western States 100, who was there qualifying for his own race!

Gordy (left), and Chris. Never would have known without him!

We ran together the rest of the way. Our goal was to “beat the sundown” at 6 p.m., which meant finishing under ten hours. We were right on the edge, so we helped each other keep the pace up. I also felt safer; it was pretty desolate out there, and I was now without poles. And the miles just seem to pass faster with company.

As with all ultrarunners, we had our highs and lows along the way. I had a low stretch from miles 30 to 35. The heat, the tedium, and seemingly endless stones were taking their toll, and my gut began to hurt like it had at the 2019 Potawatomi 50. I suspected it was lack of water to aid digestion, so I stepped up my hydration and the pain gradually faded away. After mile 40 I got a second wind and had a “high” all the way to the finish.

Me at a “high” moment early in the race. (Photo courtesy of the event’s Facebook page.)

Chris had lows from miles 35 to 44, and needed to stop now and then for 30-second “walk and water” breaks. I walked with him until he was ready to resume running. In return, when I took extra time at the aid stations, he’d walk until I caught up again.

And so we covered the remaining miles, and emerged onto the ridge above Beaver Dam Station with the sun still up. We checked our watches, saw we could beat ten hours, and took off down the slope and onto the road to the finish line.

** SPOILER: Here’s the result. If you’ve skipped ahead, this is your last chance to go back and read the thrilling narrative that leads up to this part. **

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** Okay, here we go. For reals now. **

We all stood there for a moment. Then, joking that she didn’t know how we could each wear the belt half the time, she walked off, presumably to check with other witnesses to the finish. We sat down in conveniently nearby camp chairs and just enjoyed being done.

Then she was back, and she handed the bag to me. “You finished first by one second,” she said. Nine hours and fifty-six minutes of running, and I was champion by one second.

Holy crap, talk about an overpowered award. Do I need a costume and theme song now?

Chris was fine with the outcome. He accepted the second-place trophy graciously and we both posed for photos by the finish line. It was a real pleasure, my friend. Hope to see you at another race.

So there it is, my second ultramarathon win when I hadn’t expected to sniff the podium at either one. Life is funny, isn’t it.

Oh, The Pain, and a Grandmaster Prepares for a Race

IF I DON’T FINISH THE GRANDMASTER 50 THIS WEEKEND, it’s the fault of the Super 5K runners last Sunday.

Because they didn’t eat enough hot dogs.

Follow along here. Fewer hot dogs eaten meant there were a lot left over. And as the Super 5K is a Zero Waste event, they were packed up for composting rather than dumped in the trash. And as Zero Waste captain, I lifted the compost cart into the trailer. Whereupon I pulled a muscle in my back. And it still hurts to stand up. So therefore, … logically, …

I am following a “three I” rehabilitation program. Two of them (ice and ibuprofen) are the advice of my trainers at Body Specs. The third I came up with myself.

Apply liberally to mouth at first sign of discomfort.

Levity aside, it was my own stupid fault. There is a correct way to lift the compost cart, but I was in a hurry and used one of the many incorrect ways. Just goes to show how quickly and easily one can screw things up at precisely the worst time to do so.

Now for a bit about this weekend’s race.

I’d planned to work on strength training this month rather than run an ultra. But I got interested in the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), an intriguing and insanely popular race which in addition to a lottery, requires two qualifying races. So I began looking for qualifying races that would fit my 2020 schedule.

The Grandmaster Ultra caught my interest because it’s a UTMB qualifier and is only open to runners 50 and older – hence the name, “Grandmaster.” (As much as I’d like you to believe it means something like Grandmaster in chess, the truth would come out sooner or later.)

50 miles of this. Looks like fun, right?

Despite my untimely injury, there is some good news. I’d gotten in a three-hour training run the day before, so other than the back thing, I feel ready to rock this race. I have a good physical base from year-round training, but the brain also needs to be prepped for the sheer monotony of running at a slow pace for hours on end. And slower is tougher. Don’t believe me? Try it sometime.

The race itself will have the advantages of a new setting, the adrenaline rush from being there, the company of other ultrarunners, and a set goal of reaching the finish line. Long training runs have none of those, so pushing through three hours (and a bit over 20 miles) was enough. Plus I’ve run other 50-milers, and longer, so I have some idea of what to expect and how ready I am for it.

The other good news is we have 24 hours to finish, a very generous time. Most 50-milers I’ve run have cutoffs around 14 hours. And it looks like the weather will be good, too, with sunny skies and the Arizona desert temps ranging from 40 degrees to 65 or so. Since I just need to finish to get the UTMB qualifying points, the keys for me will be to run easy and stay hydrated.

As for being a bit hurt, I don’t expect to get much sympathy. When the subject comes up among runners, even those “of a certain age,” it’s about how they sucked it up and kept going. Like the time I asked someone what his toughest marathon was (“Colorado. At altitude. And I had pneumonia.”). Remember that guy who cut off his hand to escape from dying in the wilderness? He’d fit right in with trail runners. I’m not gonna say a word. Even if I need to hobble across that damn finish line, I’m just fine, thank you.

2020 Bigfoot 5K: The Snow Must Go On

“SUCCESS” CAN BE AN ELUSIVE BEAST, depending on how you define it.

Last Saturday was the Bigfoot Snowshoe 5K/10K at Timber Ridge Resort in Traverse City. Despite rain all the day before, the race went on as scheduled. I’ve run the 5K every year since 2014. I look forward to it until about three days before, when the “why did you sign up for this AGAIN?” thoughts show up.

Why the ambivalence? Because I much prefer a well-paced ultra to going all out for 3.1 miles. There should be no way I’d want to run in snowshoes. It’s the ultimate cardio workout, and even the 5K is REALLY. HARD. WORK.

Yes, I am as out of breath as I look. More, actually.

But dammit, it’s fun. And easy to learn. I’d never worn snowshoes before my first Bigfoot, and I fell a few times (eight? I forget) but had a good time. So I definitely recommend it for anyone who’s interested.

There are a few differences from regular running, footwear the most obvious. Snowshoes require a wider gait to avoid stepping on yourself and face-planting. And the singletrack gets narrow and thoughtfully runs through parts of the woods where branches poke up out of the snow, perfect for tripping on. On the plus side, good form is enforced because racing snowshoes are hinged in front, so the toe rises last and comes down first..

One key strategy is to establish a position where you can run your pace. Get stuck behind slower runners and you have to pass in the deep ungroomed snow, burning up your energy reserves. Conversely, give way to faster runners when possible so they don’t have to pass in deep snow.

So how do I define “success” at this race? For me it should be the same every year: run the best race I know how, with an age group award a bonus. And so it was until this year, when I became a victim of my own success, so to speak.

As I mentioned, I finished in the top 10 in the 2019 5K. But more significantly, I was second in the Masters category – both exciting and frustrating. What’s the big deal? Trevor, the Masters winner, got a Bigfoot statue trophy. And for second place I got a lovely mug with Hershey’s Kisses as an age group winner.

I could also have gotten a hug from this guy. Others did.

So there’d only been Trevor between me and that trophy. He’d beaten me by over five minutes, so I wouldn’t have caught him even with a JATO strapped on. But I was getting faster, right? Maybe this year I could close the gap, or maybe he wouldn’t show. I was cautiously optimistic.

It had rained all Friday, and Saturday temps were mid-30s (up from 14 below in 2019), so I was concerned about snow quality. The parking lot at the resort was icy and slushy, but on the trails the snow was in surprisingly good shape. I wore just one shirt under my wind jacket, a wise move as I was warm from the start. Some runners were even in shorts and T-shirts.

As usual, I went out hard to get a strong position on the singletrack. Once I got there I caught my breath and ran a strong steady pace. I was well behind the lead pack but I knew I’d have opportunities to gain some ground.

Sure enough, I passed a few runners on the wider tracks, and a few others had snowshoes issues and had to drop back. As we slogged up the monster hill back to the top of the ridge around the two-mile mark, I figured I was in good shape, maybe in the top 10 again.

The second key to a strong time is to stay upright. Falling down is painless (and comical) but it takes time to stand back up and get back on pace. During the toughest part of the course I kept my balance like a pro. Naturally it was on the final leg – wide, flat, well-groomed straightaway – that I tasted snow. Twice. A couple people shouted encouragement as they swept by me.

Then again, I could have fallen at the finish line! (She took it in good humor.)

It turned out not to matter much. I still finished in 30 minutes, 40 seconds, my best time by over a minute! And yet I dropped from #7 in 2019 to #20 this year, and from second place Masters to fifth. The warmer temperatures had brought more runners this year, and the good trail conditions led to faster times across the board.

So was I less successful than last year? Here’s how I’ve decided to handle it: celebrate my new best time, and train to do even better next year. And be grateful I’m healthy and fit, and can be competitive in this race. I shared the Kisses in my newest mug with my wife and friends who’d come to support me and help with race cleanup. They’re the best!

The Masters winner? Yep. Trevor, again. He also improved on 2019 by a minute. Hey, dude, have you considered trying the 10K? I mean, winning the 5K all the time has to be getting tedious…

BONUS: Here are some examples of northern Michigan humor.