Tag Archives: trail running

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.”

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!

============================

(*) 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.

Being Gratefully Miserable

I sat in the passenger seat of someone’s car, depressed and feeling very sorry for myself. A few minutes before, I had reluctantly handed over my timing chip and withdrawn from the 2015 Glacier Ridge 50-miler. Only ten miles remained but I was dehydrated and lightheaded. The aid station captain and medics had agreed it was a good decision.

A race staff member kindly drove me back to the start/finish area. In an effort to take my mind off myself and what had happened, I asked him if he was an ultrarunner, too.

“I used to,” he replied, “but I can’t anymore.” An enlarged heart had not responded to surgery and even short distances left him out of breath. Running had been big in his life (“my stress relief”) but it was no longer possible.

His story instantly cured my self-pity. I’d failed to finish one race, but there would be more to run. He was done for good. Talk about restoring perspective! I came away from it all the more determined to return the next year and finish the damn race. In 2016 I did just that, and have completed every race since, including two 100-milers and a 150.

2016 – a much happier ending!

I was reminded of this story when reading one of the fitness blogs I follow. A fellow athlete over fifty has developed knee problems. She continues to be active but can no longer run, and it took her some time to come to terms with that. In this post she describes the grief she felt and how she dealt with it.

This year I’m working toward improving my speed and performance at shorter races (up to the half marathon). Training can be hard and uncomfortable, and races can take place in some pretty miserable conditions.

The Winter Switchbacks a few years ago – one of the better sections.

But I can remind myself, even at those times, how fortunate I am to be able to run, and to push myself toward new goals and face new challenges. With trail ultrarunning in particular there’s a sense of adventure and shared experience (re: suffering) that brings me deep satisfaction. I guess that’s what keeps me signing up for the silly things.

When the time comes that, for whatever reason, I can no longer run, I expect that like the people in the stories above, there will be a period of adjustment. But I hope I can look back without any regrets, and be grateful for whatever comes next, and for what I can still do to make life enjoyable.