Tag Archives: cross-country

Sorry, Conditions Are Too Good Today

RIDDLE FOR YOU: What goes up four times, but comes down only three times?

Here's a hint.

Here’s a hint.

ANSWER: The Winter Switchbacks, an evil little 5K on the trails near Chelsea, MI.

The writeup makes it seem like the worst race ever

Facebook promo - Winter Switchbacks 2016

Truth is, it’s mainly cross-country runners from the nearby high schools, and also a fair number of veteran trail runners. About 60 runners showed up, including kids as young as three (!) giving the bill hill a try. The race is put on by Eric and Mike, who coach the Chelsea teams.

That said, it is a “no frills” event. The entry fee is only $5.00, which goes to support the cross-country teams. There’s no bottled water, no porta-potties, no race bibs, and no finisher’s medals – you know, all the stuff you get for free at a $40.00 event.

The hardened veterans prepare for the grueling contest.

The hardened veterans prepare for the grueling contest.

The race is named for its singular feature, a climb up a very steep hill accomplished by weaving back and forth in a gradual climb, just like what trains do to get up steep inclines. The race begins at the low point of the loop, with the finish during the fourth loop at the top of the switchbacks.

Race day conditions were too good for Eric’s likings. Last year there was a fair amount of snow on the trails, and the roads were iced over and slippery. With practically no snow or ice this year and temps on the warmer side, the worst he could do was toss some large branches and logs across the trail (which he blamed on “localized winds”). I saw a few slips, but as far as I know there weren’t any “agony of defeat” spills.

Link to Agony of Defeat Video

If you have never seen the “Agony of Defeat” clip, you must. Click the image.

With all the hill running and ultras I’ve run in the last few years, I figured I was in good enough shape to run the inclines without too much trouble. Reality slapped me upside the head the minute I hit the switchbacks the first time. I’d run this race last year, but had forgotten how much of a lung-draining, life-sucking grind it is up that thing. I was able to recover on the downhills, though, and actually ran the final lap faster than the others.

Final climb!

Final climb!

What’s really annoying is that it doesn’t look all that hard when going uphill. You need to look down from the top and watch the runners behind you gasping and slogging their way along to really appreciate what you’ve just done.

"Ouch" prize winner!

The “Ouch” prize winner!

The winning time was just over 22 minutes, but glory is all you get for winning! There were only two awards: the first to the top on the first loop (but you have to finish to claim the prize) and the “Ouch” award for the person with the most spectacular fall.

My time of 25:56 was good for 8th place, and I admit to some self-pride about beating many of the cross-country runners. Coach Rob of PR Fitness may be “hill happy” when it comes to our group routes, but the payoff is undeniable. And I’m getting to the point now where I see hills as opportunities, not obstacles; in races I pass many people on them. So I think I’ll be back next year. Hopefully there will be subzero temperatures and whiteout conditions!

When this happens to a teenager, you know it's a good workout!

When this happens to a teenager, you know it’s a good workout!


P.S. I earned an award for running the entire way. I don’t put a whole lot of stuff on my car’s bumper, but this one went on for sure.

Bumper Sticker - I RAN the Switchbacks

P.P.S. There is a summer version of this race, and I was told that some runners can finish it in under 17 minutes. Now that is practically superhuman.

BONUS PHOTO: I didn’t see any puking mules, but there may have been some foxes puking from exhaustion! Check out the fox hunters!

Fox Hunters - 2

Running Transforms a Town: McFarland, USA

There’s nothing like a story of overcoming adversity to make you appreciate your own life – and make you re-examine your attitude toward many things.

Last night I went to a pre-release screening of McFarland, USA, based on the true story of Jim White, the high school cross-country coach in the town of McFarland, California, and how he built the team into state champions. While there’s plenty of running, the story is more about the characters – the coach (played by Kevin Costner) and his family adapting to life in an overwhelmingly Hispanic community, and the struggles of the kids and their families to escape from the lifelong grind of working as pickers in the Central Valley orchards.

Movie poster (source: Wikipedia).

Movie poster (source: Wikipedia).

Once past the first 10 minutes, an awkward, clichéd “fish out of water” sequence as the White family arrives in McFarland, the story takes off. Jim forms the cross-country team and turns them into dedicated runners, making mistakes and dealing with their frustrations and family challenges, but never giving up on them.

So what adversity did the McFarland runners face? Start with getting up at 4:30 a.m. every day to work in the fields until school started, then after school going back to the orchards to train for 10 miles or more. On weekends, and when school was out, they worked all day, every day, in the fields, along with their families. And they’re up against better funded, better trained teams from privileged schools. Jim uses this as motivation.

“At the end of a race,” he tells them, “it’s all about who can stand the pain. You guys have the biggest hearts I’ve ever seen.” And they prove him right while coming to believe in themselves and their potential not just as runners, but as people.

There are some really good scenes of the kids running through the orchards and up and down tarp-covered mountains of almond shells while Jim accompanies them on an old bike. A low-paid teacher, he somehow finds the funds to equip the runners with shoes and uniforms. To help establish trust with the local families, he spends a day in the fields harvesting cabbage, with predictable results.

Piles of almond shells, like the kind used for hill training in the movie.

Piles of almond shells, like the kind used for hill training in the movie. (See Almond Girl’s blog for lots more about almonds.)

The acting is absolutely first-rate. You’d expect that of Costner, but the other actors, the kids in particular, also shine. I totally bought in. I thought the re-created meets and races were also very well done – long enough to satisfy the runners in the audience but not too long to bore the non-runners. (Let’s face it, if you don’t have someone in the race to root for, watching a race is akin to, well, watching golf.)

As it’s a Disney production, naturally there is a happy ending, but you don’t mind because it actually happened. There’s also a surprise at the very end of the film which I won’t spoil for you, but I have to say was really heartwarming, in the true sense of the term.

Watching the almond-hill climbing reminded me that I’d kissed off my own scheduled hill work last Tuesday, choosing instead to finish an important assignment at work. (That it was dark, cold, and snowy outside may have also contributed to my decision.) Still, what did it say about my own dedication to my training? They did back-breaking work in 100-degree weather and still trained. I get to sit in a temperature-controlled office all day, and I worry about a puny six miles with some hill repeats?

“Well,” my daughter said as we left the theater, “now I feel really good that I went out for my run this afternoon. I don’t have to feel guilty.”

“Thanks for that,” I said.


P.S. Once calling themselves, “The Heartbeat of Agriculture”, McFarland transformed its image around its runners. Click here to see how.

Bonus: Click here for more talk with Jim White, and a few differences between the movie and the real-life story.

Watch for Puking Mules: The Winter Switchbacks 5K

SO IMAGINE YOU’RE PERUSING A RUNNING WEBSITE, and you come across the following race promo:
Winter Switchbacks - Part of the PromoNo pre-race registration, no bathroom facilities, no food or water, and the only award you might get is frostbite. And when you get there, you hear this from the race organizer:

Up the Final Hill - Others 2“The race ends at the top of the hill. So you get to go uphill four times, – and you only have to go downhill three times.”

Sound like fun?

Somehow, some way, it was.

I’d gotten a flyer for this race a few years ago, but had other commitments and let it pass. But last week, while looking over the website for the new Ann Arbor Running Company store, I came across the 2015 flyer. Yep, same race: the only text that had changed was the date. So I blew off my assigned 12-miler on Saturday morning and drove to the Waterloo Recreation Area in search of adventure.

Methinks someone didn't like the sign.

Methinks someone don’t like being told when he can and can’t shoot.

With only the flyer as my source, I was half anticipating a group of bearded, fur-clad survivalists. And just a few hundred yards from the gathering place, I spotted three orange-clad guys with rifles heading into the woods. Their eyes were on me as I went past. Hmm..., I could hear them thinking, I wonder if he’s good eatin’.

This was as close to fur as anyone got. Yes, I could make the obvious joke, but I'll let it go.

This was as close to fur as anyone got. I will save the obvious “fox” jokes for another time.

So imagine my surprise to find that the majority of the runners were Chelsea and Grass Lake high schoolers in track clothes and sweatshirts. Turns out the race is run by the Chelsea High School cross-country coach. There were even kids as young as 4 there. They all seemed remarkably unconcerned about running 3.5 loops on trails covered in snow and lined with fallen branches, and a monster climb times four. Ah, the innocent nonchalance of youth! But I wasn’t too fazed; I’ve climbed worse hills, and run through deeper snow. Just not both at the same time before.

Winter Switchbacks - Start

At 10:00 a.m. sharp, after a briefing about the course (“Just keep turning right”) we were off. Each loop climbed up the switchbacks, with the steepest part just before the top of the hill. Fortunately right after that there was a steep downhill, so there was a chance to catch my breath, and I finished the 5K in a respectable 28 minutes and change, even managing a reasonable charge up to the finish line.

Just in case you were wondering what "switchbacks" were...

Just in case you were wondering what “switchbacks” were…

Funny, that wasn't there the first time. (We'd been warned about "surprises".)

Funny, that wasn’t there the first time. (We’d been warned about “surprises”.)

Finish line ahead! Please pass the oxygen, Sir Edmund.

Finish line ahead! Please pass the oxygen, Sir Edmund.

And the winner is...the guy in shorts. (I was only 8 minutes behind him.)

Me with Tom, the winner, who ran this race about as fast as I can run a 5K on a flat road. With a tailwind.

While the race was tough as promised, it wasn’t really so bad. With temps around 30 degrees I stayed quite warm, and the promised mush and horse poop never materialized. And I saw no puking, mules or otherwise. The race organizers seemed disappointed.

“Last year,” they told me, nostalgia misting in their eyes, “the snow was twice as deep and we ran this thing in a blizzard.” Better luck next time, guys.

Finish - Wiped OutPredictably, many of the high schoolers kicked my butt, but I still managed to finish in 10th place, and that with taking pictures along the way. That four-year-old never knew what hit him. Just wait till next year, when I take all those pre-teens to school. Yeah.

Oh, and I have at least two more snow races coming up – the Super 5K this Sunday, and the No Frills All Thrills 8K in March. Can’t wait!