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.

The Double Dog Dare

OH, WHAT HAVE I DONE NOW.

It’s a new year, and with that comes the feeling yet again that all things are possible. And in that blithe, careless frame of mind, I signed up for my first ultra of 2020.

Make that two ultras, actually.

On the same day.

I have no excuse for this. I did it of my own free will, being of sound mind(?). I wasn’t even hungover.

A bit of history: back in March 2018, I ran a 12-hour race called the Dogwood. It’s a 3.47-mile trail loop with rolling hills. It’s a pretty course, but running it over and over tests one mentally as much as physically. It reminded me of a short roller coaster loop I was subjected to as a kid at a local carnival, the difference being I could stop when I wanted instead of at the whim of a sadistic clown holding the power lever.

I managed 16 loops in those twelve hours, and in an unexpected surprise, came in third! (My prize was a bottle of beer, which I accepted once I recovered from my bonk.)

The “podium group” of 2018. I’m in the center, being held up by the 1st and 2nd place finishers. (I’d recovered enough to stand, but not much more.)

I don’t often repeat ultras (I like variety and have only so much time and money) so I wasn’t planning a return anytime soon. But the Dogwood has changed. First, a 24-hour option was added. Makes perfect sense; just add more loops, and a psychiatrist to the medical staff. But the following feature was what grabbed my attention:

Interested in a different challenge this year?  How about running two 50k’s in the same day?  At different locations.  We have teamed up with our friends at Single Track Maniac to offer the Virginia Tour Challenge.  The concept is simple.  Start your day in beautiful, scenic Williamsburg Va.  Run Single Track Maniac 50k.  Get in the car.  Drive to Twin Lakes State Park.  Run a 50k here.  Participants will receive a special award.

That’s right. Two races in one day, totaling 100K in all.

As I made 2020 race plans it kept poking its head up. And the more I thought about it, the more intriguing it became – a You know you wanna… kind of thing. So I finally bowed to the inevitable and signed up.

I see the challenge as not so much the distance, though it sure isn’t trivial. Rather, it’s how I’ll handle the time between the two races. It’s a two-hour drive from Williamsburg to the Dogwood, which gives my fatigued muscles lots of time to tighten up and remind me how sore they are. It helps that I know the Dogwood loop very well, so I know what’s in store. Getting started will be the biggest hurdle.

But the registrations are paid and the airline ticket is booked, so I suppose I’m committed. (Or ought to be.)

Assuming I survive race day I can also look forward to spending some time with my daughter Tori afterward, who lives in Richmond with her wife and two charming pooches. She ran a loop of the Dogwood with me last time, and says she looks forward to doing it again!

Tori and I enjoy my 3rd place prize. Best pacer ever!

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P.S. I just thought of another good reason to run this event. It will be great practice for when I do a 200-mile race. Since I’ll most likely need to take at least one extended break during it (you know, sleep and all that) this race will be excellent training. Man, this is just making more sense all the time!

Oh, excuse me, gotta go. There’s some guy in a white suit outside my front door carrying a giant butterfly net. Wonder what he wants…

Only a Thousand

THE FIRST TIME I RAN a thousand miles in a year was in 2011, also the year of my first marathon. I’d had to step up my game that December to get the final miles in, and broke the tape, as it were, on the 29th. On New Year’s Eve I had one more run to get a total of 1,010.10 miles for the year.

My coach was proud of me. My wife was proud. And above all, I was proud. After all, it was nearly double the 567 miles I’d run the year before. I was a four-figure runner; I’d arrived!

From 2011: 1,000 miles! Woohoo!

The first Saturday in January 2012, I went out for the regular weekend club run. I really wanted to share my accomplishment with someone, but wasn’t sure how. Then I caught up with a couple of guys chatting.

“How’d your running go last year, Sam?” one of them asked the other.

“It sucked,” Sam replied. “I only ran a thousand miles.”

That didn’t really deflate me much, just bring me back to earth. And I’ve run at least a thousand miles just about every year since, including this year, where I also hit the mark on December 29. Yay me!

2019 – 1,000 miles! Woohoo!

To be fair, a thousand miles a year is not that exceptional for regular runners. Many of them run 2,000 or more. And at least one runner I know has reached the 100,000 mile lifetime mark. Does this diminish anyone who runs fewer miles? Not at all. If you run, you’re a runner in my book, and in the books of all the other runners I know. Mega-marathon runner? Good work. Only run a couple of miles at a time? Good work.

Now it’s true that my mileage total is unusually low for an ultrarunner. People are surprised to find out that I run 100-mile races averaging only 20-30 miles per week. But I also strength train at the gym, and supplement running with long bike rides. Meanwhile, a couple of people I know whose exercise is mostly distance running get injured or struggle to finish ultras.

What do I take away from all this? That everyone’s body is different, and there is no single “magic formula” for accomplishing your goals. And I like mixing up my training. Running 50 miles per week is not something I enjoy, so I find other ways to build the base I need. This allows me to enjoy the training as much as the events I train for.

All that said. . .it may be time to step up my running, enjoyable or not. I’ve decided to try for one of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) races. More about this later, but the nickel summary is: it requires at least two tough qualifying races, plus a lottery. This makes it at least a two-year process, running the qualifiers in 2020 in order to apply for the UTMB race in 2021. And, of course, there are other ultras I want to try out, possibly including a 200-miler, or even the ten-day, 314-mile Last Annual Vol State Race.

To get through all that I’ll need to be in really good shape. Additional strength training will be part of that, but there’s no getting round more running too. So I’ll have to decide if the extra effort is worth it. For now, at least, I’m assuming yes. So you all can look forward to some (hopefully) interesting stories in 2020 as I share my adventures in getting to UTMB, and beyond.

Happy New Year, everyone!