If I Can’t Run Your Race, I’ll Make My Own: Ann Arbor Half Marathon

SUPPOSE YOU AND A BUNCH OF YOUR FRIENDS want to run a local marathon, and you sign up for it well in advance. But then the marathon reschedules, and you won’t be in town on the new date.

What would you do?

Well, if you’re this guy here, you create your own race and hold it on the original date.

Meet Troy, who conceived, designed, and conducted the Ann Arbor Trail Half Marathon at Bird Hills Nature Area today. The Ann Arbor Marathon, which was also originally scheduled for today, moved to May this year. Troy’s race wasn’t quite the same, of course. It was on trails instead of road, had no registration, fees, race bibs, or swag, and post-race festivities consisted of music streamed over a phone, and hot cocoa and cookies.

It was a blast.

Bird Hills Nature Area is a hidden gem in the north of Ann Arbor whose trails run through a mix of hilly forest and flat prairie. Troy mapped out a 13.1 mile route and marked it better than many professional trail races, even including distances on his turn arrows. My rough estimate is that about 40 runners braved a cold morning with bitter wind to run the course.

The runners take off into the woods.

My experience was mixed. I’m still recovering from the Land Between the Lakes 50-miler two weeks ago, and that combined with my Saturday club run meant my legs just weren’t all there. So I turned back early for a total of ten miles. It was a good reminder that just perhaps, I’m not (completely) indestructible. I really enjoyed the course, though, and the sunny day, and giving lots of free advice to a young lady (leftmost in photo below) running her first ultra at Trail Marathon Weekend next month.

And my free advice is worth every penny.

Afterward, I asked Troy what his motivation was for creating the trail half. He’s a member of the U-M Triathlon Club, and a bunch of them were looking forward to running the Ann Arbor Marathon. But its new date of May 20 is after the end of the semester, and he’s graduating and moving out of state. So this was how he coped. What a great example of taking lemons and making lemonade.

I don’t blame the marathon organizers for moving the date. The March races have been cold the last several years, and today would have been another miserable experience for race volunteers and spectators. And even while running, it took about three miles for me to thaw out completely. It’s a shame that a May date means many students can’t be part of the marathon, but you can’t satisfy everyone.

So thanks, Troy, for putting this together. It was my pleasure to supply some coffee and to make sure it was a Zero Waste event.

You’d grin like this, too, if you got a gift card for pizza. Yes, you would. Admit it.

P.S. Oh, and where is Troy moving? To San Luis Obispo, which happens to be the site of this year’s U.S. Trail Running Conference, and the home of Race SLO, which puts on some very popular marathons and ultras. I think his running future will be well served there!

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Taking Some Self

My first ultra of the year is just a couple of days away, and I’m training for it in the most sensible manner – resting up and eating a lot.

This is not as easy as it sounds.

Having trained hard all winter, it seems unnatural to hit the brakes, even when it’s logical and my body is telling me I need the rest. My coach set me straight. “The hay’s in the barn for this race,” he said. “Pushing yourself now will do no good and could get you hurt.”

So I took some self. I cancelled most of my Body Specs gym sessions and forced myself to take several days completely off. Naturally, it was warm and sunny those days. Sigh. Land Between the Lakes, you’d better be worth it.

I also indulged in a little mental self – as in self-reflection, in particular what it is about ultramarathons that makes me want to keep running them. My thoughts went back a few years to when my wife was bringing my brother up to date on my latest ultrarunning escapade. I forget which one. At any rate, Doug didn’t seem overly impressed.

“Does he enjoy torturing himself like that?” he asked her.

He had a point.

No, I don’t care so much for the pain and discomfort. Or the grind and tedium of the continuous hours of running. Or the mud, bugs, rocks, thorns, and other features of the trail.

But all that is part of the deal. An ultra is a spectrum of highs and lows, excitement and monotony, euphoria and pain, all experienced individually and yet blended into a complete entity I find highly satisfying. All of it, every sensation and emotion, contributes its part and would be missed if absent.

For a rough analogy, try Vietnamese coffee sometime. Espresso + condensed milk = bittersweet magic.

But the satisfaction stems from more than the event. The race is the cashing in of an investment I began months, even years, before the gun goes off. It’s the culmination of all my training, and planning, and the anticipation that motivated me to sign up and get to the starting line. Running the race is the manifestation of all that work, and the medal, or belt buckle, or whatever, represents all of it, not just that I crossed the finish line.

Or in this case, a small copper kettle. Was it worth running 28+ hours for? Yep.

So is racing the reason why I run? I don’t think so. I enjoy running for its own sake, and for the social aspects, and its physical benefits. I don’t need an upcoming race to get me out of bed and off to run club on Saturday mornings, or to toss on one more layer and go out for six miles in the snow. That’s all just part of my life now.

Ultrarunning taps into something deeper within me, an urge to push outside of my normally comfortable life and prove something to myself. Races, and the training for them, are a self-test of my limits. You won’t find me BASE jumping or climbing mountains in Antarctica; I don’t need to defy death to feel alive. But running ultras are times when I feel particularly alive, and in the moment. And that’s special.

Now it’s time to take self to bed. Need my sleep. Big day Saturday!

NOTE: I have Microsoft to thank for the Millennial-style post title. When I saved the first draft, Word used part of my initial sentence as the file name, and may have inadvertently created a new catch phrase. “Taking some self” just crushes. I’m so on fleek!

Spring 2018 Races: A Season of Firsts

I’M DEEP IN IT NOW.

In my first post of 2018 I hinted about my planned races for the year. Since then I’ve discussed options with my coach, made my selections, and signed up. I’m committed for the next several months! (Many of you think I should have been committed years ago, but here we are.)

So without further ado, here are my upcoming spring races:

  1. Land Between the Lakes 50-miler: March 10

This will be my first race in Kentucky. I’m heading down there with a group of local runners who will be doing a bunch of different distances, including the only 60K race I know of. But naturally, I had to sign up for the longest option. You’ll see why below.

One challenge may well be the weather. As the race is still technically in winter, anything can happen. According to the website, last year’s race began with a “beautiful snow shower.” So as long as I pack all the running clothes and gear I own, I’ll be fine.

  1. Dogwood 12-Hour Race: March 31

This will be my first race based on time duration rather than distance. I had two motivations to choose this one. First, it will be a good test of my patience running a loop over and over. Fortunately, it will be a 3.5 mile trail loop instead of an insipid one-mile road loop, or, God forbid, a quarter-mile running track. The other reason is that it’s close to where my daughter Tori lives, and she’s planning to come out on race day and run a loop with me.

One other cool feature: the race is cupless, and runners will need to bring their own containers for hot and cold liquids. (At least I find it cool.)

  1. Trail Marathon Weekend, April 28-29: No Wimps, Baby!

This is the race that began my love affair with trail running. After several years of doing the fast & furious 5-miler, I graduated to the No Wimps challenge: the half marathon on Saturday, and a full marathon or 50K on Sunday.

2015, after the 50K finish.. two days, 44 miles, three medals!

In 2016 and 2017, as I got the Zero Waste program established, I contented myself with just the Sunday marathon. But with the program now firmly in place, I’m returning to the No Wimps for 2018. Back-to-back long runs are excellent training for – well, see below.

So what’s the “first” here? It will be the first time I’ve done the “No Wimps” combo of half marathon Saturday, then full marathon Sunday. I’ve done the half/50K combo, but not this one yet. And I’ll have the additional challenge of trying to defend my 2017 Rogucki title (1st in the marathon age 50+).

And now, the Big One. . .

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  1. Veterans Memorial 150: May 26-28

So after I finished the Lighthouse 100 last year, I promised my wife I wasn’t going to do a 200-miler. At least not anytime soon. But I didn’t say anything about 150 miles.

Actually, I didn’t even know this race existed until late last year, when someone in a Facebook running group I belong to mentioned he’d signed up for it. It’s for a good cause, and it’s in Michigan. How could I turn that down?

This will have several firsts; in addition to the distance, it will be the first race where I’ll have a crew, and the first where I’ll have pacers. God help them all.

More about this race, why I signed up, and how I’m training for it, in future posts.

But wait, there’s still more…

So much for the traditional races this year! In the second half I’ve got some really far-out stuff lined up. Stay tuned – I’ll tell you all about it coming up!

The Workout of a Lifetime: Would Picasso Have Been Proud?

THE STORY GOES that Pablo Picasso was approached in a café one day by a woman who asked if he would do a drawing on her napkin. He agreed, made a quick sketch on it and said, “The cost will be 20,000 francs,” or some such enormous amount (some versions say $1 million).

“That much!” the lady exclaimed. “But it only took you five minutes!”

“No, my dear,” he replied. “It took me forty years.”

True or not, the story illustrates the lifetime of effort and experience it takes to be able to do something of quality while making it look easy.

Today’s workout at Body Specs brought Picasso’s napkin to mind. While hardly a work of art, completing it required drawing upon what I’ve learned and experienced since I began serious physical training fifteen years ago.

My workouts are assigned and supervised by trainers aware of my goals, and while the sessions range in intensity, occasionally one becomes a real test of what I thought were my limits. So it proved this afternoon.

This is from another session, but you get the idea.

Basically, I was given what the trainers call “supersets” consisting of a set of exercises performed in order, then “doubled” (repeated). For example, station 1 was monkey chin-ups, followed by ab exercises, followed by pushups. Repeat the three, then move on to station 2. I had a circuit of three stations in all, each with a set of doubled exercises. And I was to complete three full circuits.

After my first circuit I was spent. By the end of the second I needed to sit and rest after each exercise. My heart was pounding. I had nothing left. And I still had one to go.

Sure, I could have quit. All I needed to do was tell the trainers, “I’m done,” and head to the shower. It wasn’t a race, just a training session. And yet it had become, for me, more than that.

Because, for whatever reason, I’m an ultrarunner. And I’ve committed to the most aggressive race season ever, with the first race (50 miles) next month. Completing an ultramarathon requires mental and emotional discipline in addition to physical fitness. Patience, persistence, and dogged determination are needed to accept the continual discomfort and push through the inevitable low points. The mental muscles must be exercised, or they will fail you in a race as surely as undertrained legs.

So as I began the third circuit I called upon some principles I’ve learned and applied over the years.

  • From Aikido: breath control. Replace fast, shallow breathing with deep, slower breaths. This also relaxes the body. I did this after each exercise, establishing control before starting the next one.
  • From Aikido and ultrarunning: focus on where you are, not how much you have left. Do each rep with the best form you can. Then do another. “Remember,” Sensei said, “you can always do one more.”
  • From ultrarunning: pace. Take the time you need to complete the exercise. Don’t go too fast to show off. No one cares.

And, finally, I’d been here before, two-thirds through an extreme challenge, physically and emotionally spent, and ready to quit. Namely, the 65-mile mark at last year’s Lighthouse 100 (you can read my recap here). And somehow I’d found the strength to go on, and finish.

I slowly ground my way through the final circuit. One station, one exercise, one rep, at a time. My 30-minute session lasted well over an hour, and my muscles were shaking, but I completed it. Test passed. Until next time, of course.

So how did I reward myself? Like any health-conscious fitness nut would do:

Okay, it was really just the ice cream. (Peppermint Bark Moose Tracks, my new go-to treat.)

I also had a glass of tart cherry juice with my (healthy and nutritious) dinner. It’s supposed to help ease sore muscles. We’ll see if I can get out of bed in the morning. I hope so, cuz I should get a run in.

Publisher’s note: This post is available for sale for $1,000,000.00. Or best offer.