Tag Archives: trail

Thinking on Our Feet

One recent Wednesday morning I wrapped up a hot, long early run feeling like indulging myself. I walked to the nearby coffee shop and gazed with longing upon the chocolate pistachio croissant on display there.

But there was a problem. “Sorry,” the manager said. “Our system is down.”

She spent the next few minutes trying to wake it up while I waited and other customers came in. She gave up and looked at us in despair. “I can’t even take your orders. I’m calling the main office now.”

Part of me wanted to point out the prices were posted, the espresso machine was working, and she could take cash. The rest of me, in shameless sang-froid, wanted to see if she could figure this out herself. She did not. So I left, sans coffee and croissant, as did the customers behind me.

If you’re expecting a rant on how we’ve becomes slaves to technology, you’re only partly right. We have, of course. But the root cause here wasn’t a tech fail, it was a process fail. Is the purpose of the coffee shop to keep its ordering system up? No, it’s to sell coffee and food. The manager should have been trained in how to keep selling despite a failure. Something like this:

“Okay, Jane, the computer system has failed. We still need $300 per hour in revenue to stay in business. And customers are waiting. What do you do?” Very similar to what my father experienced in private pilot training, when his instructor shut off the engine mid-flight and said, “Now what?”

Technology is great. It saves time, reduces errors, and lets us do so much more than we could without it. At the cost of some of our independence. I don’t think that the growing interest in “off-the-grid” living, foraging skills, and the like is any coincidence. All of us ought to try at least one activity that requires us to think on our feet, and figure out how to survive when conditions aren’t easy. That’s what we’ve always been best at.

For me, that activity is ultrarunning. In a road race, there’s usually a crowd to follow, the running surface is smooth, and help is plentiful. In a trail ultra the footing is almost never certain, course markings can be missed, and I’m running by myself for most of the race. And the weather can vary a lot during one. So while I can get into a flow, and enjoy the scenery around me, I need to stay attentive to many things, and adjust “on the fly” at times. (*)

Okay, now what?

And yet, even with this awareness, I’m not immune to feeling stressed when I experience a process failure.

At the next Wednesday morning run, we’d just set off when I realized I’d forgotten to put on my Garmin watch. Yikes! No way to track my pace and distance. What to do? Fortunately, it is actually possible to run without a GPS watch, so I got through it, though I kept wanting to tap my wrist at stoplights. Backup plan? Ask someone with a watch how far we’d run.

Afterward, I returned to the coffee shop. Their system was back up, and I got my pastry. The manager even admitted she’d forgotten about their backup system. I tossed out the word, “cash” and she laughed. I wonder if she knows what it is.

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(*) The recent tragedy during an ultra in China has made the need for good preparation and attentiveness to conditions even more visible and important. I’ll express my thoughts on this in a future post.

Maniac on Singletrack

I HAVE THREE TAKEAWAYS from last weekend’s Singletrack Maniac 50K:

  1. Never assume a water jug is full
  2. You never really know what you’re capable of until you do it
  3. Ultrarunners are the best f**king people on the planet. (I knew that already, so this race was just another confirmation.)

There’s the TL;DR version. For those of you inclined to read on after lists like these, here’s the rest of the story.

Singletrack Maniac takes place in Williamsburg, Virginia, on the trails of beautiful Freedom Park, with start and finish at a nearby middle school. It was a pretty standard atmosphere – well-stocked aid stations, enthusiastic volunteers cheering us on, and runners and families hanging out on the lawn afterward. Which made it all the more remarkable, given we’re still in pandemic mode. (From my perspective, people were protecting themselves appropriately.)

The wisest advice you can give an ultrarunner!

I started out fast to establish a place on the singletrack where I could run at my chosen pace. This meant I was somewhere in the front 20 or so. I decided to push myself a little and ran harder than my standard 50K pace. This meant I was uncomfortable much of the time, but sustainably so. During my time out there I passed a few people and a few passed me, so overall I felt I was in the right place.

The course is a little unusual in that it’s two different trail loops, each run twice. My strategy was to learn from the first time through each loop, and adjust for the second loop accordingly. The first part, held on the A trail system, went well, and I felt strong as I entered the second half of the race on the D&E trails. And as I’d heard from others, this is where things got interesting.

The back loop does not have short, steep climbs and descents like the Potawatomi Trail back home, but it makes up for it with  long, gradual climbs and a lot of gentle rolling terrain with sharp turns, all of which sap your energy without you really feeling it for awhile. It became evident the second time through, when areas I’d run through the first time became walk/run or power hike.

And then came my kick-my-rear-end moment. On this part there’s a creek crossing, and just over the bridge were two tables with water jugs. I was low on water and looking forward to it. I opened my bottle and dumped the remaining contents over my head, as I was warm from the effort and rising temps, even as a little voice in my head warned me not to trust a water jug. Sure enough, it was empty. I had a bad moment or two before I tried the other jug, which fortunately had a little left in it.

Following that episode, I got a second wind and was able to resume fulltime running pace again. Funny how quickly a race “low” can switch to a “high” (and vice versa) but that’s ultrarunning for you. I was a little bummed when two guys I’d seen off and on throughout the race passed me for what I assumed was the last time. They looked way too comfortable.

And yet, as I emerged from the trail at the mile 30 aid station, there they were. I’d caught up somehow! Just one mile to go. But the path back to the road was a long uphill. Staring ahead, I realized how gassed I was.

“See you guys after the finish,” I told them.

They were having none of it. “Come on, man!” they said. “Match pace to the finish!” And we took off together. I kept up with them until one final checkpoint exiting the park. We stopped to show our bibs, and I didn’t have the heart to start running again, so I began walking. They waved at me from ahead. “Come on, man!” they said again. Where else but trail ultras does this happen?

Well, that did it. Turn down a second challenge? Might as well turn in my card. So I dug deep and took off after them. It was godawful hard, but as we reached the top of the hill, I caught up. Still, I figured it wouldn’t be long before they took off Roadrunner style and left me in the dust with my tongue hanging out.

So I redlined it, going all out. Man, did it hurt, but I was not going to jog it in, dammit. I’ll go this hard until I can’t, I told myself. The approach to the finish is a U-shape – run on the road, turn into the school driveway, and run back through the parking lot. This prolonged the agony, but somehow I held it together. Across the line I sprinted, well ahead of the two guys who’d given me the motivation to finish strong.

I went to the refreshment tent and lay down gratefully in the shade. The race director approached. “You won second Masters,” she said, placing my prize down next to me. Second in the 40-and-over age division. How about that? And I’d finished in the top 20 overall. I made sure to thank my colleagues for pushing me.

Me with some fellow top finishers, with our award growlers. Me second from left, my motivators the rightmost two.

Was it worth the ten-hour drive there? Absolutely. And I recommend it for anyone who would like to try out a trail ultra. Gorgeous park, not too many rocks and roots, and great support. And who knows, you just might discover you’re capable of more than you thought, even if you’re an experienced trail runner. Happened to me!

Something New, Something Old, Something Trail, Something Road

I had a classic yin-yang run yesterday.

We went to our campground up north this weekend, and I brought everything needed for my regular Saturday long run. Shirts, shorts, socks, hat, handheld water bottle, gear belt, all that stuff.

Except my road shoes.

As I am not a barefoot runner, this was a problem. Fortunately, I had brought my new trail shoes. So my run would be on trails instead, and I’d get to try them out. There were some offshoots of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail I’d seen before, but had always left to “some other day.” This was the day!

Buying my new shoes had been unusual, even aside from masks and social distancing. Every pair I tried on felt good on my feet. I was out of there in half an hour with new Saucony Kinvaras, a slam dunk given my history with them, and the Topos, which were a surprise as they’d never fit me well before, and I’d tried on just for the hell of it.

I’d left the Kinvaras at home, so trail run it was. But I had a pair of old road shoes in our trailer, so I took them along to the run just in case.

Switching: Yin to yang.

The first half of my 10.5 miles, (the “yin” part) was in brand new shoes on trails I’d never done before, which included dirt, gravel, mowed prairie, and plenty of elevation change. I enjoyed it, and the shoes felt great. but after five miles I was done. I felt sore and sluggish on the long uphill climbs. I’d also had enough of mosquitoes and deerflies chasing the sweaty idiot with no bug repellent on.

So I returned to the car, switched to the shoes I’d once found on top of a trash can, and hit the road, circling Glen Arbor on familiar, fully paved roads, flat as the proverbial pancake. The perfect yang to the first half’s yin. And the distance turned out nearly identical to what I’d done on the trails. Just like I’d planned it, uh-huh, uh-huh. Whether karma or coincidence, I took it as an unequivocal sign to wrap it up and go get coffee

And at the coffee shop there was one more little twist. Normally I match a hot, bitter coffee drink with a sweet pastry. This time I had an iced chai latte (way too sweet) with a savory pastry. Why? Because that’s what my body told me it needed. Hope to God I’m not pregnant.

And speaking of, happy Father’s Day to all you dads out there!

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!