Saturday, September 24, 2011

Hmmmm...Road or Trail?

"You won't find reasonable men at the tops of tall mountains" - Hunter S. Thompson

Well, at the beginning of this week, I realized I had reached Al's official beginning of Fall. Oh sure, some folks signify Fall with when the sun shines through Stonehenge in a land far away or when the stars are lined up just right. Nope, my Fall is when I finish my morning run in exactly the same amount of darkness that I begin it in. Unfortunately, I know then that it won't be long before the wind will be blowing from the North and I'll be whining like a little girl about the cold. Well, if Fall is here, Spring can't be far behind, right? We just don't recognize Winter in Al-World.

Once in a while a run will come out of nowhere and just be much better than you were expecting. This happened to me last Saturday. I had planned to meet my good friend, Moha, at the South Trailhead of Oak Mt. For the past couple of years, the technicality of trail running has done a number on my achy-braky ankles, but by cautiously babying them on easier (sissy) trails, I've been doing better for the last several months, even venturing onto what would be the equivalent of a hard green rating trail (as in skiing). Still, I'd have to be super cautious with my foot plants. But, on this Saturday, I felt like I was running at least a little offensively, rather than completely defensively. One of the best purchases I ever made was to buy a pair of Merrell High Top Mountain Racers. They're a little heavy (like small cinder blocks) but I've gotten used to them and they keep me from turning my ankle over like a short-order cook doing pancakes. Going up hills is still a chore and going downhill is just mildly better, but I just absolutely love to run trails. There is nothing, to me anyway, that comes close on the road. Running on a dew-laden trail at the first hint of daylight just a pure joy. You can feel that you belong with the trail in the woods.

I ran my first trail ultramarathon in 1998 outside of San Diego. It was in the "Apple Capital" of California, Julien. Now, it's true that apple growing probably doesn't garner a whole heck of a lot of competition in the Wine State, but they have two things there that are etched forever in my poor, fading memory - the best warm Apple Pie EVER with ice cream, and the best post-race stew...big hunks of veggies made with the tenderest beef. I'm breaking out into a sweat just thinking about it!! Whew! Anyway, for the next decade, I fell in love with trail races and found they differ tremendously from the roads. For instance:

When you start a trail race, don't expect a gun to go off. I've been sent forth by a guy in flip-flops either lighting a cigarette, blowing into a conch shell, or dropping his hat, and yelling "Go!"

No mad dash off the line to get to the front of the pack. No, we take off over a line drawn in the dirt to a lot of laughing and a slow jog There is no applause or cheering—just the soft patter of the runners' shuffling as they disappear into the woods.

No trail runner is anal about the distance like a road runner. A race's stated distance is more of a guide rather than any actual measurement. Our own Oak Mt 50k is actually closer to 33 miles per my Garmin measurements, rather than the 31.2 miles you'd expect on a road. I suspect most trail race directors get a kick out of the occasional surprise mile or 3. As a matter of fact, it's frequently said a race is measured in "Horton Miles", named after a friend of mine, David Horton in Virginia. He directs several races and you can pretty much count on a Horton mile being probably at least 10% long.

In a hilly trail race, walking early in the steeper sections of technical trails is not only an accepted part of the sport, it is considered wise racing strategy. It's not like a run/walk strategy of road races, but it's a "walk the up/run the down" process. Actually, not to use this strategy is usually suicide.

A trail ultra is like a 31 mile (50 mile, 100 mile, etc) buffet table in the woods. When you're spending 5, 10, 20 (or more) hours running, you're going to need more than a handful of energy gels. So, I've seen not only more candy than Hersheys has in Pennsylvania, but I've gulped down everything from whole peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, to potato wedges to pierogies to turkey & cheese to bagfuls of crushed potato chips. Many a runner, I'm sure, has gained weight during his several hour jaunt.

Two things you need to know about trail runners: They're a laidback bunch, and they love their food & beer. The draw to the finish line is not the medal (there seldom is one), but expect an after-party with a lot of good grub. There's always burgers on the fire, fresh baked cookies, pizza, and loads of beer in the coolers.

While Birmingham is not the trail mecca of the southeast, we are making some pretty cool strides. A few months ago, the Oak Mt trail system was named by Runner's World as one of the 25 best trails in the country...whoa!! That's quite a feather in anybody's bonnet. And recently, I read where the "Red Mountain Park Trails" will open soon. This is an area of Southwest B'ham along Red Mountain that is being developed over 1200 acres. When completed, there will be dozens of miles of new trails to run.

And slowly, the Birmingham area is getting more trail races every year. At first, the Xterra series were the only trail races around. Couple of years ago, me & Moha were doing an Xterra Half Marathon at OM. When we came out of one of the trails to a road crossing, the race sentry said "turn right for a straight shot to the finish" - well, it was the finish alright...if it was a 9.2 mile race!! Never got a straight answer from the Race Director as to what happened, but even in negative Horton Miles running terms, 9.2 is WAY different from 13.1. Anyway, another trail system is getting more and more attention as it develops is out at Ruffner Mountain in East B'ham. In November, there will be the very challenging Ruffner Mountain High Crusher Ridge 21K. My good friend, Vanessa Stroud, is directing this race if you are interested in trail running and are in the area, I very much recommend this race. For info and a race app click here. Oh, and Xterra has announced a 21K at Oak Mtn the very next day so we really want to get folks out to Ruffner. Both races are trying to put together a Slim Slam Challenge – complete both and get some good swag. That's the sucker punch kind of thing that ALWAYS gets me!!

I'll see you all on the roads (or the trail) - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

Saturday, September 17, 2011

In The Beginning...

"From small beginnings come great things."

Back when I was a wee lad sitting in church, and the priest would bellow "In the beginning..." I always thought, being a super baseball fan, he was saying "In the Big Inning..." and he was about to tell some story about how
Jesus was a great third baseman or could hit a wicked curveball. Of course, he wasn't doing anything of the kind and went off making me drowsy with tales of Adam & Eve, burning bushes and the like. Later in life, I found that throughout my years, life was chock full of both "Beginnings" and "Big Innings".

This week, we have a beginning all over again. Back in 1984, I was asked to help coach runners train for our local Vulcan Marathon along with my friend, Murray Binderman. I was nervous about someone actually listening to me about how to cover 26 miles...afterall, I had been running these things only 5 years at the time. But, I found that new runners just want some direction from somebody who has "been there" and not killed themselves in the process. I guess I fit that criteria. After a year, Murray had enough and the reins were handed over to me. I continued in this position, even as this race morphed into the present Mercedes Marathon, until the present. So, along with my co-coach, Ken Harkless (since 1998), we will again present our super laid back Sunday Mercedes Training Group. No hand-holding. No hard book-learnin' facts and workouts. Just a friendly group of folks training together. It's free, and well worth the price.

As another beginning, I didn't want this Running With Al blog to become simply a vehicle for training tips, so I began another blog - Training With Al . I think this will make it easier for all concerned (ok, mostly me), to separate my training thoughts from my random-whatever-my-fingers-decide-to-type thoughts. Be sure to go to TWA for all the particulars about our training group, weekly tips about all the terribly exciting aspects of long distance running and be sure to subscribe NOW here!!! I don't intend for it to be "Long Distance Running According to Al" with just tips you can find in numerous books and running magazines, but I want you to realize that it's not done with smoke or mirrors. I always approach training with a common-sense outlook and try to keep things as simple as possible. It's done with hard, CONSISTENT work and no hocus-pocus. If you come to me looking for that magic pearl to make marathoning easy, I promise you this...I will let you know AS SOON AS I FIND IT!! Hope you continue to enjoy both blogs.

As I begin another training group, I was trying to remember back 32 years ago when I decided to run my first marathon (Vulcan '79). You know, I really can't! I vaguely remember training for it. And if you ask me about the specifics of the race, I'd have to stare at you and finally say..."Nope, ain't got nothing". The only thing I really remember was crossing the finish line, not because of the great, individual accomplishment, but because I was so happy to hit the end that I jumped up and tried to slap the finish line banner over-hanging the road. Both thighs immediately cramped when I came down and for several seconds. I couldn't move - wonderful finish line picture! But, you'd think that something that caused your whole life to take a huge turn in direction would be more scorched in your brain. Well, not in this brain. I can remember my first 10k, and my first trail 50k pretty clearly, but most other "first" races are a blur. Ok, it was three decades ago, I know, but how come I vividly remember hitting a baseball in High School over 50 years ago, that traveled at least 500 feet (ok, it was 350) - the sweetness of that bat/ball contact at that very moment can instantly be recalled. That didn't change my life, and I was still a benchwarmer after that prodigious shot, but there it is...clear as a bell. Are all of you like that? Can all of you "veterans" remember your first marathon? Or was it just not as important as I would like to think it was? Just strikes me as funny that this "beginning" into marathoning didn't brand itself into something monumental. Like I said...sometimes my fingers just start typing.

So, we've come from the beginning to the end...the end of this post, that is. Every run, every sunrise, even every breath is a new beginning. Hopefully, this week, some new runners will discover the beginning to a new phase of their lives as they begin training for their first marathon, and no matter how many years I do this, that is always a new beginning for me and I love it.
I'll see you on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

Saturday, September 10, 2011

All You Need Are Shoes...Baloney!!

"If you don't think too good, don't think too much" - Ted Williams, baseball great

Not long ago, as I was about to go for my run, I turned on my watch to sync with the 9 satellites it could find, I set my mp3 player to the podcast I wanted to listen to, I filled the bottles on my fuel belt, tied the laces on my very technical shoes and put on my moisture-wicking shirt, shorts, and, yes, hat.

As I began my run, I thought about a line I recently read in one of the many running periodicals I subscribe to..."the only thing you need to start running is a pair of shoes". Yes sirree, all you need is the open road or trail and a pair of shoes. So, before I let my mind wander all over the place during my jaunt, I began to foolishly tally up what I put out of my wallet and into my running. As usual, I probably forgot half of what I thought about on the run, but here goes. First of all, you can't run naked. Or, at least you shouldn't...well, at least I shouldn't... so let's look at the basics.

SHOES: Most of us use them unless you are a barefoot runner in which case you will probably pay more for your shoes that are made to look and feel like you are still in your bare feet. How’s that for great marketing? You can go to a place like WalMart and for 40 bucks, you can get a pair of running shoes off the rack that are Nikes...oh wait, the swoosh is upside down! Look out hips, knees, and feet - there's a pounding-a-comin'. OK, don't do WalMart. You really owe it to your body to hit up a specialty running store, like Trak Shak here in Birmingham, and get your feet and gait examined by folks who know what they're doing. They'll run you usually $90-120, but that's all there is between you and the cold, hard, glass and gravel-filled pavement (yes, the hyperbole is for my barefoot friends). And, I’ve read that you should have 2 pairs of shoes, because, like human beings they require recovery time. Seriously? They are a piece of clothing people, not a pet. I just designate my recently retired shoes to 2nd tier - to use when my #1 shoes are not my #1 choice.

APPAREL: Like cheap shoes, you can buy cheap clothes to run in, but nothing is worse than soaking a cotton shirt with sweat and having it get all clingy and heavy on your body (cotton can absorb 17X it's weight in sweat, or just plain water, if it's raining). And, believe me, you don't want shorts that rub and chafe between your legs. That will really make a shower feel like the flaming pit of hell!! So, you better get yourself a moisture-wicking type shirt to run in. There are plenty of big brand names out there that will cost you close to $50. You can get some pretty good cheaper shirts and shorts at Walmart or Target, but just don't expect them to last as long. In the winter, if you're a cold-weather weenie like me, layering is the key. You require a base layer, an insulating layer and an outer layer on the top half, each about $50 a pop. Then, tights will run you from $30 (for fancy long-johns) to 80 bucks for "real" running tights. Moving on to socks, I'm really not too picky, except on the trail. You do much better, again, with a moisture-wicking variety. After that, additional padding, blister free and other specialties are up to you. You don't need to spend $20 on a pair of "Smart Wool" (as opposed to what? Dumb Wool?), but a good pair will set you back $8-10. Lets add another $75 for a Rain Jacket, hat, gloves, etc.

ELECTRONICS: Whoa! Here we go. This is where the cash register really goes cha-ching! You've got to have a GPS watch. How will you know EXACTLY how doggone slow you are running? Or how will you know if the course you run every day is the EXACT same distance everyday? $150 or more. If you want to listen to something other than your own breathing when you run there's the iPod/mp3 player, and what it costs to put music/podcasts on them. Let's say another $50-150. Want to do some high-tech training? Better get a Heart Rate Monitor. Add another $100 to that GPS watch.

EXTRAS: If you run at night you should wear an outer layer with reflective materials and lights. That way, when old folks see your reflectiveness at night, they will gravitate towards the light wondering "What the hell is that?". $20.
Let's not forget the fuel belts you'll have to buy to hold all the supplements and liquids you'll need while out on your longer runs. $15
If you want to find like-minded people to hang around and train with you can join a running club, and they're not free (although probably worth the cost). $30
Finally, during the spring and fall you can run a race pretty much every weekend if you want. But most 5K races alone will cost $20-30 each. True, you normally get a t-shirt and post-race refreshments, and a good portion of your race fee usually goes to some worthy cause, but if you wish to run races regularly, you're going to be out hundreds of dollars a year. And the further the distance, the higher the cost. To make matters worse, the closer you get to race day the higher the entrance fee is. I'm not sure what the point of that is. Let's say a nice round $300/yr and I won't throw in the travel expense.

So, there you are. The "all you need are shoes" tally is over $1100, and that's probably a little on the conservative side. I didn't count gels, drinks, bars, travel, sunglasses, subscriptions to running magazines (that got this whole blogpost started), a bike/gym membership to use when you get injured, or the ever-so-personal jogbra or windbriefs.

Now, with this barefoot thing, I guess the next Runners World article will be "Running is so cheap, you don't even need shoes!". I'll take the shoes, thanks. I'll see you on the roads, and I'll have all the hoopla that goes along with it - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Sometimes I Just Sits

"Sometimes I sits and I think, but sometimes I just sits" - Satchel Paige

There are times I sit down at the computer and my fingers go off on a journey that I have no idea what they're going to type. But, I just sit in the passenger seat and before you know it, there I am saying "I'll see you on the roads". This is not one of those times! I am having complete RWA block tonight, so I think I'll just serve you a big helping of RWA Mess. What's that you say? Well, there's an Italian restaurant outside of Boston, I think the name is Camella's, that we always frequent when up there to visit my family. It's more of a walk-in kitchen for great take-out. Well, one of there "specialties" is called Mess - it's literally all different shaped pastas cooked together with sausage, beef, chicken, whatever is sorta leftover from the other dishes they make. It's a mess, but it sure is good. Not sure if this is good, but here's tonight's mess.

Has there ever been a satisfactory answer to why running shoe companies constantly change or discontinue their popular models? Just when it seems you have found that shoe that works, there it goes, replaced by the newer step-up with the next consecutive number. I can see replacing shoes that sell like old Yugos, but why do they replace the popular ones? I mean it's not like you stop buying shoes if you like the older model. You need shoes if you run (OK, let's not go down the barefoot rocky road tonight). Maybe the Trak Shak guys can answer that one.

Why do big marathons sometimes hit you with strange drinks at the aid stations? Here I am, just like hundreds of marathon coaches around the country, branding rule #1 into the minds of new runners - DON'T TRY ANYTHING NEW ON RACE DAY! Then Wham! You find out this huge race is serving Cytomax, or Ultima, or some other vile tasting electrolyte drink on the course. Probably 90% of the runners, including the coaches, have never even had the opportunity to try these drinks out. You don't want to find out on Race Day that Accellerade gives you the runs (I won't mention any names, but...nevermind). That new nector might be the missing link to that miracle marathon, but that's not where I'll bet my 2 bucks. C'mon guys, stick with Gatorade or Powerade, or at least something we can find during training.

Want to try a new flavorful snack? How 'bout Hot Dog flavored potato chips? I kid you not. I think they're exclusively the property of 7-Eleven stores, but you have to hand it to them, it does peak your interest a little bit, doesn't it? One thing that doesn't peak my interest at all is the deep-fried butter they were selling at the Iowa State Fair. Oh man, this country's eating has gone to hell in a wheelbarrow!

On the Red Trail at Oak Mountain, one day, about two years ago, I was going through a section called the Rock Garden (no explanation needed, just run with caution). At a slight bend in the trail, I noticed a little area off the trail that had about 4 or 5 little gnome statues. One had a note around his neck, stating his name and that he was lonely. About a month later, I ran the same trail and the little gnome-dom had grown to about 15. My next visit, I brought a gnome of my own to add to the population. Well, it was about then that my ankles had me looking for smoother trails, so I didn't return to the Red Trail until about three weeks ago. THE GNOMES WERE GONE! Now, I can conjure up a cute story that they packed up and are now living under a bridge someplace, but it really bothered me that some no-good decided upon himself that this was some intrusion on the pureness of the forest. Anybody know where the Gnome nomads went?

You know how something sticks in your head and you keep coming back to it? Well, this has been rattling around in my head the past couple of days...Does Vibram make gloves called Five Toes? Afterall, they are well known for shoes called Five Fingers!! Just wondering.

Finally, this has nothing to do with RWA Mess, or even running, but this morning my son, Michael, and daughter-in-law, Joanie, became the parents of Emma Katherine, my 2nd grandchild. Now, Adam has a sister to protect, a sister to boss around, and most importantly, a sister to love. Emma comes into a world of hotdog flavored potato chips and gnome-stealing no-gooders! I guess if grandpa can take it, she'll learn to also. Welcome to the world Emma.

My bones may be creaking, my blood pressure may be rising, and lately an 11 minute mile sounds pretty good, but as long as my shoes have some rubber on them, I'll see you on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"