Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Turn The Page

"I'm stricken by the wonder of it all: the everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else" - Diane Ackerman

This time of year usually means reflecting on the past 365 days and looking ahead to the next 365...you know, like making goals.Like trying to figure out how you're going to get faster while not changing one thing in your training. Of course, anyway you look at it, my running is a very loose interpretation of training. My daily early morning slog pace IS my racing pace. When I pick up a running magazine and they start talking about tempo runs, fartlek, pickups, etc., my eyes quickly glaze over and I go to the next article which is usually about something like eating chia seeds and mango paste to become a better runner. And then, my friends, I'm done for the night. Ok, back to reflecting.

The boring numbers don't tell a story. They say I ran 1370 miles. For me, that doesn't sound like a big Whoop, but I'm proud of every mile I put in. Back in the 80's (the year, not the temperature), I put in 4-5 years of 3000+ miles, which was a big Whoop. Hardly missed more than a day a week running back then. Now, Strava says I ran 190 times last year. That's a little more than every other day. It also says I ran 303 hours...that averages 1 hour and 35 minutes a run. That impresses me the most...of course some of those runs were 9+ hours which skews the average, but more on that in a bit.

I love trail running and have transitioned at least half of my miles to the dusty, muddy, and mostly hilly trails. Can't say how much elevation I've climbed up, but I do know that for some twisted reason, for all the complaining about hills I do, I seem to seek them out. There's nothing like getting (somehow) to the top of a long steep climb with hands on your knees, your lungs on the ground, quads completely shot, thinking "Now...that...was...great"! However, when going up these hills, I feel like a fully loaded 18 wheeler lumbering up the hill with my hazards on. Whatever!

I "ran" several races this year. I did one road marathon, 4 trail 50k's, a 3-day, 53 Mile Stage Trail Race, and numerous long trail races thanks to the Southeastern Trail Series. Somehow, despite more trips up the Yellow/White Connector than I want to remember, I managed to come in first in the Grand Master's Division of the 7-race Series. As my very good friend, Bill Tucker, likes to say "You don't have to get faster. You just have to get older". David Tosch was the Race Director of the Series, and I swear, he's got a part of his mind that is just plain twisted. Despite his beloved Y/W Connector, there were some "trails" that were merely flags placed arbitrarily in the woods or over leaf-covered rocks. Then there were the downhills on the Blue or White Trails where I could swear all he did was roll a beer keg down the mountain and said "There's my trail!".

I made many new friends and renewed some old ones through the evolution of BUTS (the Birmingham Ultra Trail Society). We began this year as just a bunch of guys and gals that wanted company to run trails with and BOOM! The idea exploded and we now have a slew (I think that means probably a couple of hundred) of new trail runners. Many of these folks came over from the Birmingham Track Club. I've been a member of the BTC since I began running almost 36 years ago, and have watched it grow from a bunch of guys and gals that wanted company to run on the roads with (sound familiar?). The BTC is 1000+ members strong and now I doubt I know 10% of them. When I see race results, whereas I used to know everybody, now, I might as well be looking at results from Tulsa, or Boise, or Tampa. But, we're all comrades in this great sport.

I ran in Boston 2 weeks after the '13 Marathon. It was surreal to run part of the course and cross the finish line so soon after the horror that so quickly marred our sport. Boston will always be very special to me, and that special place will always have a dark shadow that we'll never shake. Definitely the worst part of my '13 running reflections.

I ran mostly alone, but I also ran with many folks that I am more than proud to call friends, some old, some new. I ran with my son to a lighthouse at Cape Cod and ran out of water, and I  ran by myself for hours at Oak Mountain and ran out of water. My favorite runs were any of the many runs I had with my "lost brother" Moha. A better friend nobody could ever want on the trails, roads, or just about anywhere. We've run together strong and we've run together pretty wimpy, but we run together. Several times, 30 miles is just a funfest for us. A full day funfest, but a funfest nevertheless. 

So, 2013 comes to a close, but that's all. 2014 is rarin' to go, full of surprises. You can have plans if you want, but life is full of sharp left turns. Try to roll with them. I'll lace up my Hokas and see what the next run has in store. I hope you all have a good new year, filled with unexpected, but certainly, good memories.

I'll see you on the 2014 roads - AL

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

Sunday, December 22, 2013

My Unintended "Bearly" Ultra At Red Mountain

"I run 17 miles every morning. People ask me how I keep my teeth from chattering in the wintertime. I tell them I leave them in my locker." - Walt Stack

So, after completing the much blogged about Southeastern Trail Series here in Birmingham, I was ready for a break. The last race came a few weeks ago with the Tranquility 50k, and when I somehow came across that finish line, I thought "well, that's enough of that for a while". My legs were tired, I had completed what I had set out to do (complete the "Long Series" - the longest races), it was almost the end of the year, and I figured a little break was the (cough, cough) smart thing to do. In other words, I was just ready for a little break. In 35 years of running, I hardly ever plan for breaks, but my ankles were telling me that if I want to keep doing this stuff, it might be a good idea to back off a little bit once in a while. 

The problem lies that I have the mind of long distance runner and that mind is a long way from my ankles. Any of you out there that are in the same endurance boat as me know what that mind does...it warps any rational thinking into making you believe that every run that comes along that is marathon distance or longer, in the woods, up a mountain, through a creek, from sunrise to sunset, has got to be a good idea, right? For some twisted reason, you have to do it. So, here I was, literally a few days after the Tranquility 50k (my 3rd 50k of the year) and I am reading about the race being put on by our local club, BUTS (Birmingham Ultra Trail Society). We just formed this year and our (free) membership exploded. I can't tell you how many members we have because pretty much you said you wanted to be a member, liked the Facebook page, and voila! you're a BUTS member! Ok, back to the race, the Bearly Ultra Trail Run, a 27 mile run (get it? Bearly  ultra? Bearly intentionally spelled wrong due to the Bear Logo) at Red Mountain. Now, I had every intention of NOT running this race, UNTIL I saw that because it costs money to do some of the cool things BUTS did this year, like buy beer and reserve State Park sites, and order shirts, and buy beer, we were going to have to start charging a nominal membership fee (not yet determined). Now here's the baited hook - if you run the Bearly Ultra, your dues for '14 are paid! Now, I'll gladly pay $100+ a couple of times a year on new running shoes, but I'll drive across town to save a dime and the twisted mind says "hey, pay the 50 buck entry and get free dues (never considering that dues will be way lower than that). So, the hook was set and I HAD to run another race before the end of the year. 

I didn't let my feet in on the secret until the morning of the race when I began to go through the race rituals I've built up over the years and they got wise..."Hey, Al, what's with the PB&J sandwich followed by a banana? And you NEVER pin your Dad's Purple Heart Pin to your shorts unless you're racing. And why all the Gu? One or two are usually enough. Something's up, isn't it?". The truth is, I put in far fewer miles before this race then I usually have. And mentally, ha, that's a good one. I figured, Ok Al, just get out there and get 'er done. The course was 3 loops of 9 miles each with about 900' of elevation. The first 3-4 miles of each loop was pretty hilly, but no crazy-ass climbs like in David Tosch's Series Races. I figured, as I'm slow as cold molasses and my ankles just don't like hills, each loop would be around 2:45 each (told you I was slow). THEN, on the Thursday before the Saturday race, Dan Ripple, the RD, sends out a last rah-rah email to everybody, and there, buried deep in the email, was the tiny print of cutoffs he was instituting...nobody could start the 3rd loop if they finish slower than 5 hours for 2 loops, and there was an 8 hour race cutoff! OK, this meant absolutely nothing to no one because they're all way faster than that, but now my gut said whoa Nellie! Yeah, like I just thrive off new pressure.

December in Alabama should have cold, brisk wind from the North, but this day brought temperature in the 70's with a chance of thunderstorms. Fortunately, this is my favorite weather, so good so far. Then, my buddy, Moha, decided at the last minute to join me for at least one loop. He had run the Rocket City Marathon a week ago and hadn't put in a running step since. If you're a (semi) reader of this blog, you know that Moha and I (known as lost brothers) have put in thousands of miles together over many years, but his balky knee has kept him off the trail for about 6 months. It was great to have him show up. Back to the race...two miles into it, the two lost brothers took a wrong turn and got lost and did an extra 1.3 miles ("Just wanted to make sure it was an ultra...27 miles was cutting it too close"), so right off the bat, we were behind and had to pick it up (ha!) to make up for lost time. At 4.5 miles of each loop was the BUTS Aid Station, music blaring, cheese & bacon quesadillas cooking, and all the support and fun any runner could ever want. Plus, they had my all-time favorite aid station food - watermelon! Because we had picked it up, we actually did our 1st "long" loop in a speedy 2:21. 

Moha decided he felt pretty good to do another loop..."I'm ok". "How's your knee?". I'm ignoring it. It will learn". The 2nd loop was not as pretty. My legs were reminding me that I have one speed (or slower) and although I was trying to push harder, all that came back was "I'm givin' her all I've got, Captain" (Scotty, Star Trek, 2009). Moha kept pushing me despite my whining. Mo is from Iran and although he's been here for a couple of decades, if he, or I, gets tired, we get hard to understand. At one point when he asked me to repeat something for the 3rd time, I said, "God Moha, learn the damn language" at which point he calmly says "If I haven't learned it by now, I'm not going to!". It was funnier at 17 miles. 

We struggled that loop, I was close to toast and we finished the 2nd loop in 5:02 (remember the lately instituted cutoffs?). 
Big Dan, the Evil RD: Good going Al, you made the cutoff!
Me: No, I didn't
Dan: Yes, you did!
Me: No, damn it! I didn't
Dan: You ran extra the first loop. Go on.
Me: Rules are rules. What about people behind me?
Dan; Ain't nobody behind you. Get going!

Mo had to get something quick from his car and I made an effort not to loiter, so I told Mo he'd catch me. Now, I've been running ultras for 30 years so I know how to get in & out of aid stations quick. At this point, I found an even faster way...just forget to fill your water bottle! Yep, a half mile down the road I realize I have an empty bottle...CRAP!! Do I run back? No, there's a big time factor there and a HUGE embarrassment factor. Fortunately, the race Gods were just having fun with me, because heading back towards the start is David Christy, the best dang Race Photographer in the world (See his site here). He poured his whole water bottle into mine...what a literal lifesaver. Moha caught me and the 3rd loop actually went better than the 2nd. It never fails to amaze me, but when you're dead tired, with many hours and miles behind you, if you're with a friend, you can still laugh and genuinely have a great time eating the rest of the race up. Folks doing 100 milers often talk about being dead at 60 miles, but their pacer got them through...and I think what the hell did they talk about for 40 miles? Nothing and everything, that's what! Went through the BUTS A.S. for the third time...had watermelon for the third time, slammed down a couple of Mt Dews and was off.  When we went through the marathon distance, Mo announced "Good, now I don't have to run for another week!".The two sweepers, brother/sister Jimmy & Lisa, caught us, but we nosed them out at the tape. We always seem to bring in the sweepers. We finished in 7:44, well under the the dreaded cutoff. 

For a race I really didn't necessarily want to do, once again, it was a great memorable time. In just about all my races, there comes a time when you just want to chuck it all, but every single doggone time, you cross that finish line and you have no clear recollection of feeling terrible. You can say you felt bad, but you don't feel it. All you feel is "God, I love this sport". 

Tomorrow morning, I'm getting on a plane to Boston for Christmas, and you know what? I'm not bringing my running clothes. No running for a week...just playing with my grandkids. Should be a ball. Hope you all have a great holiday.

I'll see you on the roads - AL

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

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Someday is Today

"When you're about to quit, remember why you started"

Back in 1995, I was training runners for old Vulcan Marathon here in Birmingham. Even though I had been directing the training clinic for 11 years at that point and had been long distance running for 16 years, I was having a little bit of a running burnout. Oh, I still enjoyed running, but the newness, the passion, the goals, they were all starting to fade. I ran the Boston Marathon for the first time that year, and after that, it was almost like "Well, what could top that?". I had sworn that I would never run Boston again because it had been everything I had hoped it would be and it would NEVER be as good, so I didn't want to tarnish the memory. I did, in fact, go back 4 more times over the years, but you know what? Even though it was an incredible experience each time, I was right, it was never as good as that first time.

OK, back to 1995...well, early 1995...I was doing a long solo run in Homewood, preparing for Boston, when I ran into a group of about 6-7 runners. Seeing that we almost were running in a parallel universe, I asked if I could join them, figuring the company would take some of the remaining 10 miles of sluggishness out of my legs. I asked what they were training for and they said the Napa Valley Marathon. That seemed like a long way for such a large group from Alabama to be going, but it turns out they were running with a fund-raising group called Team-in-Training. I knew absolutely nothing about the group, so they explained that TNT was a part of the Leukemia Society of America (later to become the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of America) and they in return for raising monies mostly for research, would receive training, gear, and get a trip to Napa Valley.  During our run, they found out I was a Physical Therapist and asked if I would come to one of their meetings and talk about...well, whatever I could talk about! I wound up doing about 4 talks before they headed out to California and I promptly more or less forgot about TNT.

A few months later, a friend of mine, Julie Green, asked if she could stop by my work to talk to me. She told me that she was now working with the Leukemia Society and was directing the Team-in-Training program. Turned out the current coach was quitting and some of the running group had mentioned me as a replacement. As I was already doing the Vulcan group and pretty active with the Birmingham Track Club, I really wasn't that interested, but Julie is very persistent (hard-headed) and finally swayed me into taking up the reins. Julie, who was not a runner at the time, still tells the story that the only reason she ran her 1st marathon was because I I told her I didn't think she could!  She was a businesswoman, wore high heels, didn't have time to train. What would you say?  I was only trying to keep her from getting hurt, but she got fired up seeing all these runners and went from Zero to Marathon in five months! She even raised the money as a participant.

So, I got my passion back, and for the next 15 years, until 2010, I was the Run Coach for B'ham's TNT program and had excellent help from friends of mine along the way, Ken Harkless, Charles Thompson, and Prince Whatley. To this day, Ken and Prince are still actively involved in TNT coaching. From the first day, we would preach the word that every dollar raised would make a difference. Slowly, we saw survival rates improve and would pound into our trainees that this is good, but MUCH more is needed. Each event brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars to be funneled towards research. We ran and we prayed for "a Cure" of this horrible disease.

Then came the Big Breakthrough...the development of Gleevac in 2001. The drug Gleevec is an example of how funds raised through Team in Training are helping patients. Gleevec is a molecularly targeted treatment for chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) – a cancer that, before Gleevec, had at least an 85% death rate. Gleevec is a drug that uses cancer cells to attack other cancer cells found in a body while not destroying healthy cells. The 5-year survival rate dramatically improved from from 15% to almost 95% today! The researchers for Gleevac were almost exclusively funded through TNT. We now felt a direct connection between our efforts and the results of those efforts.

In 2010, I reluctantly turned the coaching reins over to Ken and Prince. TNT will always have a very special place in my heart, but like other passions that pass with time, I lost direct connection with the program, the runners, the mission. That is until this week...maybe you caught it on the news....when I received an email from the LLS:

Dear Al,
Just three and a half years after a clinical trial demonstrating the first successful and sustained use of genetically engineered T cells to fight leukemia, LLS-funded researcher Carl H. June, M.D., and his team at University of Pennsylvania and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia presented more promising results this week at The American Society of Hematology (ASH) conference in New Orleans. 

The latest results involved both adults and children with advanced leukemias. For these patients, this therapy was the last option available, as all previous therapies had failed. Among the first 59 patients who received this experimental cellular therapy, 89% of patients were cancer free after treatment.

"These findings show real promise for critically ill patients, who have run out of options. And they clearly demonstrate the ability of LLS-funded researchers to use innovative bioengineering methods to activate the immune system to kill cancer cells." said Lee Greenberger, Ph.D., chief scientific officer of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. 

Because of support from people like you, LLS has been able to invest $15 million in Dr. June's work, with an additional $6 million committed through 2017. Your donations are having a real impact for blood cancer patients today. 

Thank you,
John E. Walter
President & CEO

Do you realize how HUGE this news is? Using running as a vehicle, Leukemia now is at the Tipping Point of a cure. Without TNT, research would never have gotten the funding through Government channels alone, and discoveries like these could still be decades away. TNT has generated $1.4 BILLION (that's Billion with a "B") for research since it began in 1988.  I always said our goal should be to put TNT out of commission. I am so proud to have been a part of TNT, as every single participant should be. You did this! We did this! Someday TNT won't be needed anymore. Someday Leukemia will be cured. The new LLS slogan...Someday is Today!

I'll see you all on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too many...one child saved can change the world"

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Race Series, A Race Director, A Race, And Race Friends

"Buy the ticket, take the ride" - Chris in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when he realizes he is way over his head

As I've mentioned several times in these posts, I'm not a big fan of writing race reports (though I do enjoy reading them, especially from folks that I know). So, with that said, I am NOT going to write a race report of my 50k trail run yesterday, but just try to reflect on some of the thoughts I had before, during, and after.

This has been a rather long several months with races plastered on my calender because of a new Southeastern Trail Series that began this year. A good friend, David Tosch, decided to put together this series as a way to boost trail running around the Birmingham area. Now, David, you have to understand, is a very quiet, humble runner who has done (at least) the Pinhoti, Leadville, and Grindstone 100's. He also goes out of town to do stage races, shorter ultras, and backpacking trips. When he's not doing that, he'll fly out of town just to volunteer at some 100 mile race (I know he was at Leadville this year). He never talks about it, so you have to squeeze this out of him like squeezing juice from a lemon! I have been doing ultras for many years (make that many, many) and most of them have been in the Southeast. Basically, you would see the same cast of characters at all these races, whether they be in Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, or Alabama. Back in the 80's, 90's, and early aught's, there were very few Alabamians (except for the excellent Huntsville group) that would dive into these longer-than-marathon distances. We were a fringe group, even to ourselves. Even at the old BTC 50 Mile Runs held in the early 80's and in the early years of the Original Oak Mt 50k Trail Runs, put on by Scott and Jackie Parker, there were usually fewer than 10 local runners doing these (out of 100+ runners). 

So, along comes David and he says "By golly, I'm going to try to cattle prod this group of runners that I know is out there" (David doesn't really say "By Golly"). In 2012, he put on a Trail Run at Oak Mt State Park that had a 10k, a 50k, and a 12 Hour Run. It was run on a 3-mile trail we grizzled runners (well, me and my buddy Mohammed) call "The Sissy Trail". It's very lightly rolling, around a lake and never more than 3 miles from the super-stocked Aid Station. It was a huge success and raised money for Camp Smile-a-Mile, a local non-profit camp for children with cancer. New runners came on board thinking there's nothing to this trail running stuff and like that commercial, they started clamoring "We want more, we want more, but sometimes there's only less". So, David, and his super energetic wife, Marye Jo, seized the opportunity and set up the Southeastern Trail Series...supposedly a gradually increasing distance series of  7 runs in 7 months. I say supposedly because David also throws in some "extras" that are not in the "gradually increasing" category. The series officially begins in April with a hilly 3/6 mile run (you can sign up for the long or short series), but then, the 2nd in the series is the aforementioned Run4Kids run. Boom! 50k right off the bat (unless you choose the 12 Hour option). So, much for gradual. Then, he throws in an "extra" 9/18 mile run the week before one of the Series's 11/22 mile scheduled runs! Geez!! Yes, also getting hooked in are some new trail rookies that think "I want some of that", but have little idea of what "that" entails. And these courses are all very difficult with rocky climbs of an average of 100-125'/mile (10-12 story building!). And the Yellow/White Connector is legendary - this is David's baby - a 600+ ft climb up a very rocky single track over exactly one mile. The fastest I've ever done this climb is over 21 minutes, and I was shot to hell when I got to the top! This climb is in just about every one of David's races AT LEAST ONCE! Had it twice in the 50k yesterday. Ugh!!

Two other things about the race yesterday. 1) Last week I went up to OM for a training run. The leaves were so thick on the trail, I actually got off course for a mile and a half. That was ok, but I had never seen it that thick. Well, yesterday during the race, I noticed that for a couple of miles after each trail intersection it was raked! Turns out David had gone up there Friday to clear the trail - holy cow! 2) The quote of the day was from Kyle S. at the Peavine Aid Station (Kyle did a great job staying at the top of the mountain ALL day). There is a West Ridge Trail at the top of the ridge which is very windy. I had expected to run on it for about 2 miles and then cut down to a fire road, and have to cut back up a 1/4 mile hill towards the AS. But then, running on the WRT a little longer than expected, to my surprise, following the trail markers, all of a sudden I was joyed to see the Peavine Aid Station. I told Kyle my surprise, and his comment was "NEVER trust Mr. Tosch". It cut out one small hill, so thanks again, David!

Now, because of David taking the reins to flush out the local trail runners, a local group of trail guys & gals decided to form a loosely knit group called BUTS - the Birmingham Ultra Trail Society - as a takeoff on the Georgia group, GUTS. Well, BUTS has exploded and, although I don't have specific numbers, I'm sure their membership is well over 100 (probably bolstered by this year's no membership fee!). We now have shirts, hats, visors, stickers, and our own end-of-the-year Ultra, The BUTS Bearly Ultra, a 27 mile run at Red Mountain (the race fee will include membership for 2014). I don't believe all of this would have come together without the nudging from David. And in 2014, there will be another Trail Series with the addition of the Lake Martin 100, 50, and 27 mile runs in March. Wow! It's like a rock rolling downhill.

And so, yesterday, as the sun was setting on a cold, windy, cloudy day, I completed this year's Southeastern Trail Series. My ONLY goal was to beat the cutoff (sundown!), and I did that with about a half hour to spare. I wasn't last this time, but close. But, there at the finish were a few folks, but of course there was David and Marye Jo, clapping like I had won. Marye Jo's main concern was that the Red Beans and Rice might not be warm enough...I told her I would eat it raw, I was so hungry!

Thanks to all that had a part in the series, from the top to the bottom. I will definitely take part again next year as my mind still lives about 20 years younger than my body. I'm glad I can still do this stuff. I'm thankful for RD's like David and Marye Jo, and all the new friends I've made through BUTS. Now, time to put my feet up, have a beer, and get ready for the next trail.

I'll see you all on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too many...one child save can change the world."

Saturday, October 26, 2013

It's Cold...Not That Cold...Yeah, It's Cold

"I have prepared for the worst-case senario, but it could turn out to be a lot worse than that!" - An English Cricket player anticipating abuse from the Australian fans during an upcoming match

Just got back from my morning run, and...well, it looks like those blessed warm temperatures are going the way of the white buffalo. No, it's not "Iceland Cold" yet, but it's not "Africa Hot" anymore either. I don't know what's wrong with me, but I have been dreading this morning's run all week. Why? Because the all-knowing weather people have been saying "freezing temperatures" for Saturday morning since last weekend. Just flat ruined the whole dang week. Many of you have known me for many years and have had the thrill of training with me in cold weather. I will whine, complain, and be utterly disgusted during the winter months. Why? BECAUSE I HATE COLD WEATHER, THAT'S WHY!! In the summer, it's easy - shoes, shorts, and a singlet. When the Artic winds blow (or any temp in the 30's), it's every long sleeve, tights, gloves, knit hats, and anything else I can get on and still move. Sometimes, I feel like that kid in "Christmas Story" that falls over and can't get up because he so many clothes on. OK, maybe I'm exaggerating a little, but not about that hating cold weather stuff - always have, always will! And I'm from New Jersey! I want to sweat, I want to feel that sun beating down, I want my shoes to squish when I finish my run. I don't want to be shivering, I don't want my water bottle to freeze, and I don't want my fingers to be so cold that I can't turn my car door key at the end of my run. Now, we don't live in Maine, so the chances of getting frostbitten while we're running is pretty slim, but after running all through the Alabama summer, our blood is thinner (it's not really, but that's what my grandmother told me) and we feel the cold more.

I probably should wait and write this post in December, when it's really cold, really windy, really miserable, but I ran two runs this week in the dark, cold (yeah, high 30's is not really THAT cold) mornings, and then this morning I stepped out into the pitch black and saw smoke (not actual smoke) coming from my mouth and felt the first uncomfortable wisps of cold filtering through my several layers of clothes. I've been doing this running thing for 35 years now, and I'll be damned that I still don't know how to dress when the cold Gods laugh at me. The colder it gets the entire process of getting the right combination of running shirts, turtlenecks, gloves, toboggan hat, wind briefs (essential) and every other piece of required clothing on (and off) is a long process. I'm always worried that I'll be too warm or not warm enough. Yeah, yeah, I know the drill...dress like it's 15 degrees warmer than the actual temp. Ha, that's a good one! If I ain't sweatin' in the house, I won't convince myself I'll be warm enough. The problem is these days of technology allow you to check the hourly forecast, so you can see in the bright display of your Smartphone (smarter than the Smartrunner) that it'll be 15 degrees warmer by the time you finish your run...but it ain't warmer NOW!!

Running in cold requires an extensive (read: expensive) wardrobe of technical (read: malfunctioning) layers. I generally barely have the time to plan my route ahead of time, let alone figure out whether I need a base layer, a midlayer, and/or a shell. The advent of layering systems and wicking technologies are heralded in running, but why is it that no matter what I wear, I am sure I will still be cold? Should I go with a single, heavier weight shirt and maybe a vest, or two shirts, or just get it overwith and wear a down jacket? Sometimes I wear mittens – me, a man, in mittens! And if it's real cold, I'll have another pair of gloves under those weenie mittens! Thank Goodness for The Trak Shak - every Mercedes Marathon in February, they give away free gloves, so I have absolutely no shortage of gloves...in my drawer, in my bag, in my car, everywhere! And...get this...I have a box of 40 Hand Warmers in the trunk of my car! I am serious about this, man.

Another problem with running in the cold is nutrition and hydration. That's a joke, and a cruel one at that. My weekends are reserved for my longer runs, mostly on the trails where it is essential to carry water and Gu packs. I honestly have to struggle to open a Gu pack on a good Spring day, but trying to tear those little packs from the devil when you have gloves on is hilarious. Usually, your fingertips are non-functioning anyway, so I guess the gloves are not the major problem. As an aside, if any of you ever volunteer at an ultra event aid station, one of the most blessed things you can do for an approaching runner is open his Gu pack for him. I can fill my own water bottle, but if you tear open this damned pack of calories, I will shower you with thanks. Anyway, back to the solo cold runs, by the time I get those little buggers open, I’ve probably used up half the calories I was hoping to replace.

Running with a partner in winter conditions is a whole different encounter that requires a new dialect of short sentences and disjointed grunts. As many of you know, I often run with my "long-lost-brother" Mohammed who is from Iran and although he has been here for decades, he has a strong accent, and it ain't Southern. When he gets tired, he is almost impossible to understand. Ok, when both of us have been running for a couple of hours in biting cold, just cross out that word "almost" from the previous sentence. When we both have frozen cheeks and lips and Moha speaks, honestly I usually just say “yes” or laugh or sometimes just act like I haven’t heard anything. What’s the sense? It’s not like I will be able to respond or that my response will be understood by him.

So, now the temp outside has warmed up to about 55 and I feel silly writing this post, but during my run this morning (when I get most of my ideas of what to write) it was ALL I could think about. Maybe I'll repost it when the winds of January come a-blowin'. In the meantime, I'll just organize my winter wardrobe in nice little stacks in my drawer (thin long sleeves, heavy long sleeves, gloves, mittens, tights, knit hats...you get the picture). Tomorrow, I'll show up for my run with friends bundled up, and Ken will probably come shirtless, the girls will wear short sleeves, or worse, singlets(!), but I'll be perfectly content in my warm cocoon ready to yell at the heavens "bring it on". Spring is right around the corner. Ok, it's a big corner, but I'm goal oriented.

I'll see you on the cold roads - AL

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

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Self-fullfilling Long Run Prophecy

"All the good stuff is on the other side of tired" - unknown

One of the questions I get asked often by new folks training for a marathon or ultra is "When do the long runs get easier?". My usual answer is that you don't really notice in training that the runs are getting easier because the necessary long runs keep getting longer. When you first begin and your long run is 6 miles, you start to wonder if signing up for this thing was pure folly. A few weeks later, after whatever the scheduled long run is, you still have that same thought, BUT that 6 miles that was a struggle a few weeks before is a whole lot easier.

What has always bothered me though, through my many years of thousands of long training runs is that at the end of these long runs I was about done in. Not necessarily because I ran out of carbohydrates, or was dehydrated, but because my run was finished!  I often think that our bodies are programmed to run the prescribed distance of a schedule but then mentally shut down when you reach that distance.  This phenomenon has happened to me more times than I can count...ok, just about everytime I do a long run...having committed to some manner of “long” run" (whatever that means at the time) and what I often find is that when I finish, I am just about in the trashbin. At that point I cannot imagine being able to run any further. Doesn't matter if it's 12 miles or 22 or 30. When this happens, I usually think something like “Oh, crap—I’m in the bag at 15 miles. How can I ever think about running 26? Or 31?Or 16?”  But then I think, be cool, been here before, this is nothing new. Don't always convince myself, but I go through the scenario. 

It’s just like when you prepay cash at the gas station and the pump automatically starts slowing down and then shuts down at the preset amount.

Because come race day, I do the distance and if I have a collapse point where everything seems to be going South, I never believe it's because I didn't put in those obligatory long runs. It's nutritional, or lack of specificity, or lack of concentration, but this is something that's different, more mind/body/training specific. It's just that it surprises me that, aging aside, after decades of doing marathons and ultramarathons, the quality of the ease of doing these long training runs still seem to be dictated by your pre-run mindframe. Seems like the distance planned and the distance run are self-fulfilling prophesies, mutually synced up like a pair of binary stars.

Is it just me or does anybody else experience this phenomenon? If you run as a group that has a certain distance planned, does the whole group poop out at the designated distance plus one foot? You'd like to finish every long run with the attitude of "Bring it on!", instead of "Holy crap, I'm dead!!".

This mind/body connection thing has been rattling around in my head for some time, but it was, in a way, made clearer by the 3-day stage race I did a couple of weeks ago. If you said to your running partner "Let's run 15 miles today, then get up early and run 18 tomorrow, and just for kicks, let's do a 3rd day of 21 miles", your partner would probably tell you to cut back on your pain meds. But, to my surprise, and I'm sure to the others that finished this adventure, it wasn't too difficult to get going the next day. The daily goal was set, the mind was programmed, and the trained body performed. I probably couldn't have gone another mile on any of those 3 days, but my mind knew I didn't have to. 

Just a thought and observation from a thousand years on the road. What do you all think?

I'll see you all on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too many...one child saved can change the world"

Saturday, October 5, 2013

My 3 Days of 3 Stages On 3 Mountains

"When you think you are ready to quit...you are only at 40% of your potential" - David Goggins, Navy Seal, Ultramarathoner

Back in early Spring, I signed up for the Southeastern Trail Series (7 races in 7 months). Sounded like a good idea at the time. Get me out on the trails with periodic goals to finish. No problem. Well, maybe tiny problems, but my ultramind said no problem to my ultrabody. All Spring, Summer, and into Fall, I have been posting about my successes, failings, and struggles to get through the increasing distances, hills, heat, rocks, roots, ruts, and anything else that Race Director David Tosch could throw at us. Since the beginning, my "A" race has been the 3-Day, 3-Stage, 3-Mountain, race that would cover 53 miles and 7000'+ of elevation.. I had never approached a back-to-back-to-back race where I had to run/recover/sleep/run/recover/sleep/run/die before. I have run many runs where the total miles were more than 53 miles, but after about 20 miles, you're mentally in a fog and just keep going till some evil Race Director tells you to stop. Then you go home and rest for about a week. Usually after a shorter...much shorter...extremely shorter... run, my ankles are barking pretty loudly, so I was literally running into new territory.
      Well, amigos, that race run adventure took place this past weekend, and to the best of my ability, I will try to reconstruct it here. I actually first planned to write the night after each stage, but that didn't work out so well. Everything was pretty fresh in my mind, but I just didn't feel like sitting down to type away when I could be sitting down doing NOTHING. Then, I planned to recap it all Sunday night after the 3rd stage, but I was lucky I could remember what mountain we had just climbed that day, nevermind trying to remember little details like "what day is today?". So, to the best of my ability, here I go, a full week after the fact:

Friday - Stage 1- Moss Rock Preserve - 14.8 miles - 2,223' elevation gain
     The Moss Rock Preserve is a nature preserve in Hoover, Alabama that is relatively new. Of the 3 Trail systems we were to do this weekend,  MR is the smallest, only about 350 acres total! Despite my strong belief in specificity of training, and the fact the the MRP is only 8 miles from my front door, I have only run there once, and got lost twice in that one run. It was (is) rooty, very (big) rocky, with very frequent twists, turns, and short steep ups and downs. There were few long hills, but by looking at the elevation gain, you can appreciate the constant up/down racking that your legs take along basically at least 75% of the course. Due to some Hoover Ordinance or something, we couldn't start till 9am, which I hated, 'cause I wanted to get this first stage over and done. I think David said about 70 had registered for the 3-day option (there was also a 2-day, Sat/Sun option), and being early morning runners, most of us arrived way too early and had plenty of time to gab and get more nervous than we already were. Fortunately, the weather couldn't have been any better the whole weekend...high 50's, windless, under a cloudless sky. The figure-8 course would consist of two loops. In the middle of each loop, you would come back to the start/finish area/aid station. This would make it incredibly convenient to run around 3.7 miles, hit the aid station, fuel up, and be on your way. One handheld water bottle was all I needed...no belt, no gels, no nothin". This'll be a snap. Ha! After a quarter mile downhill doubletrack to start, it quickly turned into a maze of Alice-in-Wonderland thick roots, gnarly trees, slick moss-covered rocks, and never more than what seemed like about 25 yards of straight running. That is, except for the mile and a half of long hills along the Powerline on the 2nd half of the loop. We even hit one rock climbing escapade that involved a rope to hoist yourself up the rockface and two "fat-man squeezes" between huge boulders. I'm serious, these were tight. And remember, we hit all these fun hilites twice! I was sure I had taken a wrong turn at about 3 miles...yeah, I saw flag markers, but I convinced myself that these were markers for the 2nd half. Then I came out of the woods from the opposite side from where I thought I would emerge...Crap!...That's just great!! As I ran towards the aid station, the volunteer worker yelled at me "What can I get you?". My answer..."Some confidence that I went the right way". "Yeah, you're good!".  First calamity averted! Only 50 miles to go! I eventually got myself around the two loops in a little under 5 hours and felt pretty good. I decided that my recovery meal would be baked chicken, baked potato and grilled veggies. And a ton of water. I just couldn't stop drinking. Tomorrow is another day, another park, another mountain.

Saturday - Stage 2 - Red Mountain Park - 17.8 miles - 1,993' elevation gain
      Red Mountain Park is another of our newer park trail systems. There are over 1200 acres at RM, but the open trail systems probably are less than 20 miles even if you count all the connectors. Surprisingly, I woke up feeling relatively fresh without any more soreness than I do when I wake up after a day of work or a day after a shorter run. Had some coffee, PB&J on toast and got to the race site about an hour early. Glad I did 'cause there was a rep from Swiftwick socks giving away free pairs. I LOVE Swiftwick socks and have about 8 pair, but gladly accepted another pair. Before the race, David (the RD) said one of the trails we were to use was closed so with the course change, each loop of what was to be 8 miles was going to be 9 miles with one unmanned water-only aid station. No big deal. After all, this was to be the easiest of the 3 stages. I'd say about half of the loop is wide double track with the remaining half being rooty single track including the added 3 mile trail that replaced the closed trail. The problem was that this added section had long uphills, rocks, and (yikes) snakes...well, a snake...huge snake...cobra or Boa I'm sure...about 8 feet long. Ok, it was a 12 inch long green snake, but when you're lumbering along with only a third of your brain functioning, and something quickly slithers a foot in front of you, well, at 66 years old, I don't have many scares left in me! Only got lost once during this stage and it was quickly overwith because I hit a deadend at an old mineshaft. I swear I could hear the ghosts of the old miners having a good laugh -"I told you we could distract him and make him go wrong. That was so easy!". The last 3 miles were pretty tough with looonnngggg climbs that elicited a few Dammit's as I would turn a bend and still see the trail going up. I got tired, I walked some good sections of the ups, but I finished this almost 18 mile leg in about 10 minutes slower than yesterday, but it was 3 miles longer. Yes, I was tired, but for 33 miles and over 4000' of climb, I wasn't shot. So, after a Chicken sandwich when I got home and later a Chicken and Veggies Chinese meal, I was ready for Stage 3 at my favorite Park - Oak Mountain.

Sunday - Stage 3 - Oak Mountain St. Park - 21.1 miles - 3067' elevation gain
      And so strangely, I wake up on Day 3 with muted enthusiasm and excitement to finish this adventure. I was tired, but not exhausted....ankles sore, but not screaming...and confident that I would finish (it might be Tuesday, but I would finish). Wasn't going to mess up a working formula, so with coffee and PB&J in my tummy I was off to Oak Mountain. OM is my favorite training park. It has almost 10,000 acres and advertises 50 miles of trail, but with all the many connectors, there are probably close to 75 miles at least. I know David has found trails that I have never seen in over 15 years of running those trails. 
      Anyway, this last stage was to be approximately 21 miles with a 14 mile loop on the South end of the park and 7 miles on the North. It was nice not to have to look forward to a 2-loop stage. Now, if you've been reading my posts throughout this series, you know that David is an evil Race Director in that he is in love with 2 aspects of running Oak Mt - 1) the yellow/white connector which is a one mile meandering hill single track at about an average of a 15% grade (sometimes close to 30%!) filled with large rocks, and 2) the Peavine Falls Gorge which is a boulder dominated 150' climb (rappel) down to the bottom of the falls, followed by the total body exhausting hands & legs climb out of the falls. You can count on these two gems in most of David's OM races. When I'm doing these parts of his races, I always have the thought of going to work on Monday and somebody asks "What was your pace?". Geez! Fortunately, we got both of these overwith in the first 7 miles of the race, but 14 more miles through the hills on already shot legs was not too inviting. The middle 7 miles was more downhill than up, but it was the rocks on the trail that just got real old, real fast (well, not that fast). I made it back to the Start/finish/aid station in a little under 4 and a half hours, filled my bottles with Heed, and made an effort to get out of there - I didn't want my butt to get too comfy on a bench. As I left, my good buddy Suman (who had already finished, still calls me "Coach", and creams me in every run we do) yelled some words of encouragement raising a beer, and I was off into the woods. I had in my head that this would be a fairly relaxed trot through the last 7 miles. HA!! Miles 15-17 rises through a constant grade about 600' to Shackleford's Point which is the highest crest in the Park at 1267'. Ok, not exactly the Rockies, but after 49 miles, my legs were saying "Another hill...really?". That climb was the worst pull of the whole 3 stages. The last 4 miles were mostly downhill and kind of a blur. I finished next to last, but actually did better than I expected by over an hour for the 3 days. Only folks who do races (doesn't matter if it's 5k or 50k) know the inner pride you feel when you finish a race. I guess that's the buzz that brings us back. 
Total - 3 Stages - 3 Days - 3 Mountains - 53.7 miles -15:54:57 - 7313' elevation gain

Some last thoughts:
     1) My total food during the stages was either Gu or Hammer Gels every 3-4 miles. I'd start out with water, but always filled my bottles with Heed at the Aid Stations. 
     2) Pinestraw on rocks is REAL slippery.
     3) Trail Karma works - They say if you treat the trail with respect it will repay you. Well, I made a point to try to pick up any gel wrappers or trash I saw along the trail and stuff it in my pocket. C'mon people. Anyway, I finished and maybe it was that Trail Karma.
     4) Standing in a cool creek for 30 seconds sure does wonders on hot feet.
     5) Trail running surrounds you with the most friendly runners anywhere. Always smiles and pats-on-the-back.
     6) The Birmingham Area has a marvelous trail system that still needs a lot of exploring by me.
     7) The older I get, finishing means so much more than time (but many thanks to those who wait for me to finish).
     8) The Race Director(s) NEVER get enough thanks for the tons of work they do. Thanks again to David and Marye Jo.
     9) I don't bounce back like the old days. Still recovering a week later. Slow and sore wheels.
    10) One more race in the Series - Tranquility 50k in November. It's at Oak Mt and the only race that has a time cut-off, so I guess I better do some speedwork...Haha, I crack myself up!!!

Went a little long, both on the trails and with this week's post. Hope you enjoyed reliving Race #6 with me. I'll see you all on the roads - AL

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

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Recording My Runs...Then and Now

"You know you're a long distance runner if you get more phonecalls at 5am than at 5pm" - Thomas Kennedy

I began running on August 8,1978. Well, I probably began running when I was about 3 years old, but as an exercise, as in I'm-getting-too-big-around-the-waist-exercise, I began running, and with that I began to record the distance and time I ran in a small, spiraled notebook. Once the new year began, my record keeping got a little more complex and the notebook filled with numbers. With numbers my tendencies tended towards a sort of compulsiveness. Once it was recorded, it was later reviewed, then manipulated, analyzed and, ultimately judged. Time, distance, pace, elevation, calories. Splits, averages, fastest, longest, most, best...worst. Goals and disappointments.

The first couple of decades, I maintained written logbooks, but eventually moved to an electronic one. I was always meticulous about recording my runs. If I didn't have my log with me on a trip, I would record the time and distance on some random scrap of paper and transfer it to my journal when I got home. Miles would be calculated from maps or estimated (roughly) in their absence. If I would run a new route, I would then hop in my car later in the day and ride over the course using the always accurate Ford Fiesta odometer. I even sent away for this gizmo that was like a pen that had a small wheel on the end that you could roll over the route on a map and it would give you a highly inaccurate distance. but, it was something...remember, I was compulsive about the numbers I put in my logs.

Then came the miracle of miracles...an online mapping software version of a Topo program became my best friend. I remember Rick Melanson gave me an older version of a program CD to download on my computer. With this God-sent program, before a run I'd use it to explore possible routes and alternatives; afterward, I'd retrace the precise path I had taken. Not only was this highly accurate, but it showed the nirvana of stats - elevation. This was the precurser to MapMyRun. I was actually fairly resistant about getting a GPS watch for some time. I always said it was just one more thing over which to obsess. But, secretly, I think I really enjoyed the process of adding miles up on the map--mentally
re-living the run along the way. In a past life, I must've been one of those ancient map-makers trying to figure out what the shorelines of these new lands looked like from above.

Eventually, I gave in to the GPS. After all, I am a gadget lover as well. Simplicity of recording meant more time for post-run analysis. With programs like GarminConnect, Nike+, Strava, Smashrun, etc, I could review trends: daily, weekly, monthly, even yearly! I could even generate custom reports; my obsessive nature delighting in the minutiae. With such tools, I can now figure out the difference between my average pace on Wednesday afternoon versus Thursday morning runs over the course of a given year! What more could I ask for? 

But, with these new online sites, the one big thing I lose bigtime is the sitting down at the end of the day and writing in a journal what I saw, how I really felt, what my true mental ups and downs were. I love numbers, but numbers don't have feelings. We don't just run to see how fast, or slow, or high we can go. We run to see the deer in the woods, feel the cobwebs on our face on early morning trail run, enjoy the warmth of running in a summer rain, or the pure enjoyment of running with friends. I look back on my old running journals from when I first began to run, and I feel like I'm reading a stranger's journals. They are so full of excitement and meeting new goals. The electronic age opens the world to us, but I feel it closes out the real daily reason we run. 

Sure, I could go back to writing in a journal, but I used it long ago because that was all I had. Now, it would have the feel of redundancy to go back because I'm not going to stop downloading my runs into some cold, calculating program. I love to write and that's probably why I love to write this blog. I don't know if anyone else enjoys reading it, but I write because I have thoughts. That's what my running journals used to be.; thoughts about my runs and goals. Ah, it's just life moving on...no big deal. Just some thoughts of a runner who's been on the road a long time...a real long time. 

What about you guys? Do you record every run? Just numbers? Lavish descriptions? Let me know, I'd love to hear from you all. Ok guys, that's about it for this week. Have a good running week. Fall is coming tomorrow...time to dig out those long sleeves, darn it. How far till Spring? Just around the corner, right? I'll see you all on the roads - Al

"One child lost is too many...one child saved can change the world"

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Facts About Me - Part Deux

"I always give the hardest jobs to the laziest people because they will find the easiest way to do it" Bill Gates

A few months ago, I wrote on this blog about "21 randon facts about me". It was fun to write and filled one of those "what do I write about today" moments. I invited my readers (both of you) to try doing this yourselves and sending it to me...no takers! So, as I got hit with another writing vacuum, I was able to quickly put together Part 2. Actually, what I did was to answer the questions that the Vulcan Runner (the newsletter of the Birmingham Track Club) used to ask selected members of the club. I was never asked to take part in the interview, so what the heck, I just answered them myself, and present them here to you (hoping you're bored enough with your life that you'll actually read this). Here we go:

1. Last movie you liked so much, you watched it twice? Unbreakable, about the Western States 100  

2. Name one guilty pleasure? I love chocolate and string cheese. No, not at the same time, but my hands automatically grab one of these when I open the refrigerator. Oh yeah, I seem to also grab a different Craft Beer. No Bud for me! And Light Beer is just for people who like to pee.

3. Favorite place on earth? I really love the trails of Oak Mt., especially the ridge on the White Trail where it descends 150 feet on BOTH sides of the trail. I'm not crazy about the White/Yellow Connector (see last week's blog).

4. Worst place on earth? I was born there, lived close to it, but I have no use for New York City.

5. One item you would want with you on a desert island? Running shoes and a wi-fi connection (oh wait, that's two...guess I'll take the shoes).

6. Most interesting person you’ve ever met? Looking back, my dad grows bigger every day. 

7. Coolest trophy or prize you ever won? At a 24 Hour Race held at the Atlanta Water Works, I won an Age-Group trophy that had a water faucet on the top (like the Monopoly piece) 

8. Favorite TV show? Downton Abbey, Flashpoint, Good Wife, any soccer game, any Red Sox game.   

9. Favorite fast-food joint? Subway

10. Who would play you in a movie? George Clooney, no question.  

11. Something unique about the town you grew up in? I grew up there. Isn't that unique enough? River Edge, New Jersey

12. If you could play an instrument, what would it be? Piano or guitar. I can't even play a Kazoo  

13. Scariest thing that ever happened to you. Sitting in the Prinicipal's office waiting for my father to show up.

14. Favorite book? The Elements of Effort by John Jerome

15. Favorite meal? Lasagna with lots of Ricotta cheese 

16. Why do you run? I am addicted to it. I love the freedom of being alone or running with a friend. God gave us this vehicle and it is my responsibility to keep it running - literally! 

17. When did you start running? In 1978, right after the passing of my mother. I ran in High School, but wasn't nuts about it. 

18. What’s your biggest running accomplishment? Personally, finishing 13th at the 24 Hour National Championships several years back. However, my biggest accomplishment was coaching TNT runners for 15 years to allow them to run to raise money for the Leukemia Society and help to hopefully wipeout leukemia in our lifetime.  

19. Favorite BTC story? Around the mid 80's to late 90's, we had a 50 Mile Run at Oak Mt called the BTC 50 that was pretty popular around the southeast. Rick Melanson was the Race Director. One year, there was a Tornado that hit Oak Mt on the late Friday night before the Saturday morning start. When we got to Oak Mt, the Park Rangers had closed the park. Here we were with over 100 runners from several states and no place to run. In 2 hours, we set up a 2.5 mile course (accurately wheeled by Adam Robertson), and aid stations on the campus of Indian Springs School. Most of the course was in sloppy mud, but nobody complained and it was amazing how so many BTC members pulled this one off.   

20. Words to live by or favorite running mantra? Favorite quote: "A champion is someone who is bent over, drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion, when no one else is watching" Running Mantra: "Every step is a step closer"

That's it my friends. Not so sure if anybody enjoys reading this, but try it yourself...answer the questions. It does bring out memories. I'll see you all on the roads - AL  

"One child lost is too many...one child saved can change the world"

Monday, September 9, 2013

Game Over, Man! The Sting of the DNF

"I'd rather be in the mountains thinking about God than in church thinking about the mountains" - John Muir

OK, so way back at the beginning of the year, as most of you who read this blog know, I was enticed by Race Director David Tosch's Southeastern Trail Series. "This will be great", my 66 year-old mind said with 35 year-old enthusiasm. Back in the day (God, I hate that term), I could do marathons and ultras left and right and recover pretty quickly. However, since a several year bout with well-documented ankle problems, my pace, endurance, and general "bounce-backedness" has sort of fallen off the Continental Shelf. Unfortunately, my mind is a little slower in getting the picture that things have changed in the Al-ultrarunning world. Because of my enthusiasm that I could run at all (giving considerable credit to switching to, and having complete confidence in Hoka shoes), I signed up for the Long Series...basically twice the distances of the Short Series in this 7 races in 7 months on the trail systems of Birmingham, Alabama.

Before I go on, I've got to tell you that David Tosch is quickly getting the reputation of the David Horton of the South. If his mileage is no longer than 10% of the advertised distance, he's done well. If the grades of his "hills" are below 20%, the course is considered rolling. Heck, he can even add a race here and there, and although not considered part of the official series, it's just added like you would add salt to your potato. David has slyly become an ultra coach for the Bham community by holding these gradually increasing distance races over increasing rougher and technical terrain. Of course the SECOND race of the series was a 50k (or 12 Hour Race) - so much for increasing gradually! If you stick with it, you've got to improve, or go down in a tailspin like those old WWI fighter bi-planes. David also writes an excellent training blog "How to train for your first hundred miler".

Ok, so back to the issue at hand. I've been doing pretty good, despite my slow times (remember, comparisons are done in my 35 year old mental scrapbook), and I've been putting in the necessary training trail mileage over the long, hot Alabama summer. Throughout this whole ordeal experience, the last two races of the 7 are the real "A" races. The first is a 3-day stage race held the end of this month is which you run each day on a different trail system, the last day of which is the most difficult with the most elevation gain. Now, depending which email from David you read, it's anywhere from 53 to 57 miles total (within the 10% David Mileage Allowance). The last race is a very technical 50K in November.

This past weekend, race #5, there was a 20 mile (actually 22 miles) race Sunday in which you do two 11 mile loops, each with over 1500' of elevation gain. The day before (Saturday), there was one of these "Throw in" races...a FREE trail race to all Birmingham Track Club members that consisted of 4, 8, or 14.5 mile options. Although I originally signed up for the longest option, I showed great restraint and dropped down to the 8 miler (of course it was 8.9 miles). I figured this would be good training for the 3 Stage Race. Despite the 1000'+ elevation gain, the run went well, taking a little over 2 hours. So, after the race, I rehydrated, ate, wore compression socks the rest of the day, and even took a short nap. I felt pretty confident about the next day. Then the walls of Jericho came crashing down.

In a nutshell, for the third time in my running career, spanning 35 years and 135 marathons/ultras, I DNF'd (as in the dreaded Did Not Finish). Yes, the day was warm (85 deg) and muggy, but it's been that way since the late Spring here in the sunny South. The course was a two loop course of unrelenting tough hills (some as long as a half mile long at >20% grade - sometimes as much as 39%). The two toughest pulls came in the first half of the loop, leaving your legs completely dog-tired for the second half. As I drug myself through those last couple of miles of the first loop, my legs, then my mind, felt as if they had nothing to fight with. It's funny, as an experienced long distance runner, I knew exactly what was happening...my mind was going completely south because my legs were feeling shot. I ate gel, drank, tied my shoes when they didn't need it...nothing was clicking. You know those cartoons where one devil sits on one shoulder telling you to do bad, and an angel sits on the other telling you to be brave? Well, the angel was taking a huge whipping in this fight. I just lost my will to go on. I lost my will to fight. 

I came into the finish of the first loop and sat down and drank some sugar drink (Heed?) and really actively tried to convince myself to get off my butt and head back into the woods. What got me was that I simply could not bear the thought to put one foot in front of the other on the steep mile long climb that comes in the first 2 miles of the loop. The night before I had seen a TV show about these Everest climbers and they were doing like 50 yards an hour - two steps...breath, two steps...breath - that's how I pictured me going up the hill(s).  I still could go on but recognized that the finish time would be WAY later than expected and just didn't want to deal with those logistics. I sat on the bench for 5 minutes before giving in to the bad devil. A DNF stings, but whenever you pull the plug and commit to the DNF, it almost seems that your mind and body shut down virtually instantaneously.  Like flipping a switch.  All of a sudden, you go from a run to a full stop, and you KNOW you just can't go on. I hate that!! Just for the record!! When I made the decision end it, all of a sudden I thought of that timeless quote from Bill Paxton, in the movie Aliens, when they're waiting for the Rescue Ship to save them. All of a sudden the Rescue Ship crashes in a fireball and Paxton goes bezerk..."That’s it man…game over, man, GAME OVER! What are we gonna do now? Build a campfire and sing songs?". Yep, game over.

Of course, within a half hour I was kicking myself for dropping and wished I had just gone on, no matter how long it took me. But sometimes you have to know when to fold 'em and that's part of the game. And I know it would have been just short of idiotic to go on. That's not trail running...it's trail stupid. The only fear I have is after you drink the Kool-aid the first time, sometimes it gets easier to pull the plug the next time when things ain't as dire as this time. But, that's a future fight. Now, bring on that 3 day race (gulp!!).

BTW, as I was driving out of Oak Mountain, there is a church right at the entrance that has a message board. On that board..."Failure is an event, not a person". Message for me? Yep.

I'll see you all on the roads - Al

"One child lost is too many...one child saved can change the world"

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Tangled Up In Blue...and White...and Red...and...

"50% of running is half mental more than 90% of the time" - Charlie Engle

As I've been alluding to frequently in my RWA blogs, I'm currently in the middle of Birmingham's Southeastern Trail Race Series. This is the brainchild of Race Director David Tosch and involves running (give or take) 7 trail races in 7 months. Now, David's idea is that these races get progressively harder and longer as you get sucked in. I've completed 3 of the first 4 races (out of town for the Memorial day race) and I've developed a clear understanding that training definitely is advantageous to doing these. Although I'm slow as molasses in Alaska in December, I do love running on the trails and am trying to get out there at least once a week to run on the course of whatever race is next on the schedule. But, this morning's run had a different twist or two.

As I said above, the Race Series has 7 races, but one race is actually 3 races - the 3-Stage, 3-Mountain Race the end of September. I can wrap my head around going a long way in a single day, but this will be 3 races on 3 different days on 3 different trails (Moss Rock - 16 miles, Red Mt - 15 miles, Oak Mt - 22 miles). Now, this will be interesting. So, David decided to throw AN ADDITIONAL race into the 7 month fray with the Birmingham Track Club Trail Race on September 7th, the day before race #5 of the SETRS (a 21 miler). The BTC race is free to BTC members and has 3 distances, 4-8-14.5 miles, so what better way to train for the 3 -stage race than to do a 2-stager, so I signed up for the long option (sounds easy sitting at your desk). And that's where I went this morning.

I won't go into a big description of the course, but with 2000' of elevation gain in the 14.5 miles, it does have some uphill grinders. There is a pull up to a place called Eagle's Nest at about 11 miles that rises 200' in less than 1/4 mile (yes, a 25% grade does sap your legs) and several other climbs of >20% grade. Took a little over 4 hours. Whew! I must say though that I was as occupied with staying on course as I was to physically finishing before the sun went down. I decided to memorize the course instead of taking a map. I've been running Oak Mt for many, many years, but this series of races have shown me trails I've never seen. Today I went Yellow - Yellow/White Connector - White - Red - Green - Green/White Connector - White - Blue - Blue/Red Connector - Red - White - Yellow. And I got back to the car!!! Woo-Hoo. The memory of an ultrarunning elephant!

Now, last week I did one loop of what will be the 2-loop 21 miler the next day. That race will have >3000' of elevation gain. So, as I said, training has it's benefits, but it was about 15 degrees hotter last Saturday and I ran out of water at about 8 miles (I usually carry 2 bottles when there's no water on the route). So, with a little help from my BUTS (Birmingham Ultra Trail Society) friends, this week I got a Sawyer Squeeze Filtration System (Amazon - $34). It has a 32 oz. collapsible bottle that you fill up with water that might have some microbial critters in it (like at the bottom of Peavine Falls), screw on the filtration cartridge, and then squeeze the filtered water into your water bottle. It takes a little ingenuity to figure out how to carry it, but it worked perfect with my Fuelbelt. Now, 5 hours after my run, I haven't had to make any "pants-on-fire" runs to the bathroom, so I guess it worked!

Before I close I want to wish my friend, Eric Strand and fellow BTC members Owen Bradley and the aforementioned David Tosch good luck as they tackle the famous Leadville (Co.) 100 mile Trail Race today (and tomorrow). I'm crying about 2000' elevation gain in 14 miles and these guys are doing 14,000' of elevation gain in 100 miles...all at 9000'-13,000' above sea level! Just quit whining Al. 

OK guys, that's about it for this week. Hope this cool weather continues, but I know better. This is Alabama. This is August. I'll just take one day at a time and one mile at a time. I'll see you all on the roads - Al   

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

Sunday, August 11, 2013

What is a Running Paradigm and Where is it Shifting?

“We are products of our past, but we don't have to be prisoners of it.” 
― Rick Warren

I've probably looked up the definition a dozen times, asked my wife, asked my son, asked my priest, my Rabbi, tried hard to understand, but never got it. What I never got was the proper meaning of the word paradigm, as in a Paradigm Shift. I'm not going to write the definition in the dictionary here, mainly because Webster was apparently also confused by it's meaning. The best I can determine is that it's a way of thinking that something is viewed as the norm and not "the fringe". Now, that's my definition and probably doesn't clear it up for you, but it's my blog and I'll try to clear up where all this came from. This is what occupied much of my 3+hour, water deprived run on the trails yesterday morning! 

 When I began running back in the 70's...I know, before many of you were alive, but no, I didn't have to run to catch tonight's dinner...I used to be part of a fringe. Running was beginning to Boom fueled by Frank Shorter's gold medal in the 1972 Olympic Marathon and Jim Fixx's excellent, influential, and best-selling book, The Complete Book of Running. However, my impetus was a growing waistline due to working next to a McDonald's and thinking occasionally that two Big Mac's was better than one. I wasn't huge, but my mom's description of "big-boned" didn't work at 30 years old like it did when I was a chubby 10 year old. Anyway, I began to pull myself around the UAB track a few times and the weight began to fall off. This track running soon became longer and longer distances until "MARATHON" entered my mind. Our running nerd heroes included Boston Billy, The Great Greta, Joannie, and Dr. Sheehan, our own philosopher! Sure, we were running nerds, but we didn't care. We were a happy fringe. We ran marathons, did 60-70 miles per week, and were a happy group. But, the paradigm of running was the beginning Boom of 10K runners (even before 5K's were popular). Marathoners were on the outside of this box, and I was part of that fringe.

Running faded a bit during the 1980s. Big races, like 10k's managed to hold fast, but the new Boom was beginning to be marathons.  Blame Oprah.  Blame Lance and P Diddy , George Bush, Al Gore, or blame Runner’s World. Blame the mainstream press too, as they began to perpetuate the idea that running a marathon should be accepted almost universally as some kind of lifetime achievement, bucket list item, or rite of passage. Whatever the reason, what was the fringe now was fast becoming the new paradigm shift. Running meant doing a half or full marathon. We "hard core" runners hung in there by doing MORE marathons than the masses, but the distance was no longer the challenge. Instead of "I don't know how you run a marathon", it became "I don't know how you run 6 marathons in a year". Some tried to take up running, but for one reason or another, it didn't float their boat and quit, and many of these folks took up the new sport of triathlon and it began it's own Booming. But, we runners were still a happy fringe, 80's style. We, in the happy fringe now found ultrarunning! Yes, we were doing 50 mile runs, 100 mile runs, and 24-hour events. Marathons for us were used as training runs and we still maintained our out-of-the-box status.

The 90's really brought on the "Marathon Boom". Many celebrities were doing it, so it gained the publicity regular runners couldn't generate and now many of the masses wanted to prove they could do the marathon too. But, doing a marathon does take a lot of training and dedication and more of the masses wanted to be runners, but the new paradigm for them was a runner-lite and so, the result was the explosion of a plethora of fund-raising 5k fun runs, which squeezed out a lot of the older (and longer and tougher) small-town races. In addition, it seemed that there was suddenly a marathon in every state on every weekend of the year. But, there were still these new folks that wanted to try the marathon distance, but needed a less-serious approach. Enter Jeff Galloway who wrote tirelessly about strategies for mixing running and walking during races, or completing marathons with a MINIMUM amount of training and mileage (to we "hard core"  guys, the mere thought that you would approach a race as serious as a marathon with the intention of doing the minimum amount of training or WALKING was simply absurd). Then, there was the birth of the Penguin movement.  This was a self-proclaimed and proud group of plodders who even found their own guru, John Bingham. Suddenly, runners weren't such a fringe anymore ... anyone could be a runner. The influx  watered things down a bit. I became a Run Coach for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and we (the Society) were training thousands of runners to do a marathon without much of a base of all..."You can do 26.2" was the Battle-Cry. This was heresy a decade before! And so, running 26.2 miles (in addition to running the growing 5k's) became the new running paradigm. These weren't hard-core anymore, but became a social event with longer and longer times to complete the race. We added many new runners to the general pool, but the whole thought process had shifted towards long distance. And along with this, slowly, the masses, like an unrelenting glacier, began to infiltrate the ultrarunning scene. It wasn't easy, but more runners wanted to spread their wings. So, the out-of -the boxers began to feel squeezed and had to find a new field. 

In 1997, I ran my first trail ultra - a 50k in California, and a new fringe was found. I, and many of many fellow veteran runners, slowly began to enter into these trail runs. But, we were also racing our several road marathons and our road ultras while the masses continued growing, doing giant, social marathons and it's very popular, rapidly growing sister, the Half-marathon. The first decade of the 21st Century saw Big Box marathoning being the paradigm of running. From soccer-moms to High School Cross Country runners, it seemed like everyone was doing marathons. You had the Marathon Maniacs to the 50-States Club, and  you had groups seeing how many of the Rock 'n' Roll series they could do. I have read that statistically there are four times as many race participants as there were in the 1980s. But, rather than focusing on competition, today’s runners (women and men alike) seem more interested in spending time together. This was definitely not a bad thing. Running groups are springing up all over. They train and even run races in groups, keeping their pace in sync with the slowest of their tribe, instead of pushing themselves to their limits. Our sport has become so much more social (contrast that with the famous "loneliness of the long distance runner"). It seems like this is another running boom and it might potentially mean a more healthy populace. Of all potential exercise regimens, running/jogging/walking certainly has the lowest barrier to entry...low clothing costs, no initiation fees, flexible scheduling. Anything that would help this country get in better shape has got to be good. 

If you've read this far, you may still be wondering where I'm going with all this. Well, you see, over the past several years, my fringe has been shifting from platform to platform and now it seems to be trail running. Not many folks did it. It was challenging, the pace was slower than the road, it was way low-key, and info was hard to find. A run in the woods was still "out-there" in the minority of running. It still is, BUT lately the lava flow of the masses is coming aboard. We now have new runner's groups meeting regularly to run weekly on the trails, trail gear being sold in most running and sports shops, and several trail races popping up to give competition to the local Saturday 5k's. Here, in Birmingham, we have BUTS (the Birmingham Ultra Trail Society) and we have a very tough 7-race Southeastern Trail Race Series, and although it's not busting at the seams, there are runners doing this that had never tread on trails until less than a year ago. I think the ever-shifting paradigm of running may well be including trail running in another year or two. In other words, it'll be more common place, more accepted, more main-stream. It'll be accepted as a new view of running. That certainly has to be good for the sport. But I have to admit that I miss being part of a happy fringe. I think I've run out of new fringes. I've traveled down some pretty cool roads along the way, but I think I'll park the bus here for a while. But, when on the trail for 3 hours, out of water, by myself, it seems somewhat familiar and I have to reflect...Ah, yes, the good old days.

Friends, I'm glad we're taking this journey together. I'll see you on the roads or trails - AL

"One child lost is too many...one child saved can change the world"