Saturday, April 4, 2015

Running With the Night Sky

There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.
DOUGLAS ADAMS, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

This morning, as I usually do on a Saturday, I headed out to Oak Mountain for a long trail run. Those long runs have been more moderate (as opposed to challenging) as of late and I can't seem to get my groove back to grind out a good 3+ hour run just because. I understand that if I want to keep taking part (not saying the word "racing") in trail races and the Southeastern Trail Series, then I better keep my butt moving forward down the trail at a pretty consistent clip. But, working on my feet all day, running a couple of early morning runs each week, and running on the weekends takes a lot out of this old thoroughbred's giddy up.

But one of the things I really enjoy about running is that I've become a solid early morning runner. Now, it has it's downside. Like if I miss that early morning run, there's just about no way I'm going to make myself get it together to run after work. Put a zero in the books. End of story. That's unfortunate too, because the few times I have run later in the day, I find that run is much more smooth than the ones where the alarm goes off, I hop out of the sack, and 20 minutes later I'm bounding shuffling down the dark road. But, that's me, and that's what I do.

There is one big...make that giant...advantage to going out before the sun pokes it's head above the horizon. It's just me and the sky. Since I was a wee lad, I have always been enthralled by the immenseness of the universe. It has amazed me since long before I took field trips to the Hayden Planetarium in New York as an Elementary School student in New Jersey, that we are rather insignificant in the totalness of it all. Astronomy was always my favorite subject in all levels of school, and probably if I could have figured out a way for it to pay for life, I might have gone down that avenue instead of Physical Therapy. However, there never was that fork in the road, so a "decision" never had to be made, but the interest still fascinated me.

So, what the heck does this have to do with my running? Well, three things came to mind today as I had a ran around the beautiful Yellow, Red, and White trails of Oak Mountain:

1) At the beginning of fall, when the early runs are starting in the dark, the constellation Orion (“The Hunter”) hangs low in the eastern sky. It is unmistakable and nearly everyone recognizes it from the 3 classic stars that comprise his belt. When I first see Orion, I know the cold weather that I absolutely hate is right around winter's corner. But, Orion is like the Big Dipper, you've seen it since you were a kid, and he's as reliable to show up when it gets cold as snakes are to show up on the trails when it gets warm (hate cold, hate snakes). Orion's been with me once again all winter, every morning. Now, he hangs high in the sky, but soon he'll be gone for his summer vacation. I'll miss him because of his brightness and clarity...on his right shoulder is the red star, Betelgeuse, which is the 10th brightest star in the sky. On his left knee is Rigel, the 6th brightest star. And then just off his belt is Sirius, the very brightest star in the whole night sky! Hard to believe that light from Sirius took 8.6 years to reach my eyeball, traveling over 50 trillion miles (a lot longer than my run).

2) Being the closet sky nerd that I believe I am, I sign up for an email that will let me know when the International Space Station will be flying (?) over my home in Birmingham. The email will say something like "the ISS will pass over at 5:09am, at 58 degrees, traveling ENE to WSW and will be visible for 6 minutes". The first time I got the email this winter I knew about how far into my run I would be when I might be able to catch a glimpse. I've seen many satellites in my day...Good grief, I'm so seasoned I actually saw the Russian Sputnik in 1957!!...but when I saw the ISS for the first time, I was a kid again. It was, by far, the brightest object in the sky, and it was really moving fast! Actually, it's going over 17,000 MPH, which is fast, but IT LOOKED FAST! I stopped dead in my tracks and just stared at it until it was gone. How utterly cool! Over the winter, I've probably seen it about 20 times. I'm gonna miss that pre-dawn show. If you're interested in getting ISS alerts for your home area, click here

3) Finally, here's what prompted this post - this morning, I'm about to run at OM and I see the moon about to set in the west. Pretty, but no big deal, but then I noticed the shadow just didn't seem right... the left side of the moon was covered, and my semi-nerd mind realized that the sun was going to rise FACING the moon...there should be no shadow! Holy crap! It's a lunar eclipse! I had seen them before, but never unexpected. Unfortunately, right before it went total, this big frickin' cloud comes along and kills the moment. But what a cool moment it was.

As the days get longer, I won't miss running on those cold mornings, but I will miss running with the night sky.

I'll see you all on brighter roads and trails - Al

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Rambling Thoughts From the Mercedes Weekend

"So, I ran to the end of the road. And when I got there, I thought maybe I'd run to the end of town" - Forrest Gump

This past Sunday, I "ran" the latest (14th) local Annual Mercedes Marathon and although it was my slowest marathon ever (at least I'm pretty sure it was), I had a ball. I'm not crazy about reading race reports, but I thought I might give a quick view from my place in the back of the pack.

1) Can you run a marathon mostly from memory? - Although I've been fairly consistently running with middle distance runs and races (15-22 miles) on the trails, I really haven't had any desire to run long on the roads. If you've been reading RWA, you know that I just absolutely love the trails, especially Oak Mountain. When I hit the road, it's usually an early morning run before work, or to be with friends, or it's just more convenient. As the Pace Team Director for the past 13 Mercedes, I'm lucky(?) enough to get a free entry into the marathon. Well, when you don't feel trained for 26 miles of pavement, but you've been handed a "gift", it tends to add some pressure in your innards. I wasn't crazy about doing the marathon, but felt  "I'm Al, I can run this from memory". We'll get to the mechanics of the run in a minute, but I pretty much keep proving one of my principal coaching axioms (I've got a million of them)...It's hard to get into long distance shape, but it's not hard to stay there!

2) The Run/Walk - A friend of mine, Jim, has done several marathons in the past and has been experimenting with run/walk for a while now. Those who know me at all know that I am VERY old school and have always referred to r/w as "the girlie thing"... Please, please, don't get all PC on me!!! I know, I know! Anyway, to me r/w has always been run a mile, walk a minute, or run 10' and walk a minute. But, to me, you're supposed to RUN a marathon...the whole damn thing! Well, that was the old me and I guess running trails has softened me with it's hills that make walking  pretty strategic to not falling apart. But Jim, who I did three long runs with, had taken this to another ridiculous level...he would run two and a half minutes and then walk one! I broke out into a rash when I first heard that. Good grief, we'd NEVER finish! But, to make a long story a little shorter, we did both our 13 mile training runs on the course and a 20 miler three weeks before the race  at surprisingly the same overall pace I had been struggling with trying to run the whole thing. In the race, Jim got some unexpected cramps the last 6 miles, but up until then, we held strictly to our plan and were on pace to finish about 5 minutes faster than last year when I pretty much crashed and burned trying to run the whole thing! And the biggest surprise is I felt great at the end, not completely wasted and ready to burn my shoes.

Ok, a couple of other short observations:

3) Dressing for the weather - the forecast was for rain the whole day with a temp in the 40's. I'll bet I got a dozen emails asking how to dress...Long sleeve? Short sleeve? LS+ SS? Rain jacket? You know, I've been running almost 40 years, and it's these inbetween conditions that still drive me nuts! You don't want to be cold, you don't want to overheat, you want to stay as dry as possible, but it's not a 5k, it's 26 freakin' miles!! All you can do is have a basic idea mixed with common sense, listen to very latest ACCURATE forecast, step outside right before the gun goes off and then race with your decision. Remember, you make good decisions from experience, and you gain experience from making poor decisions... and at almost 4 decades of running, I'm still learning.

4) The BUTS aid station - I am so proud to be a member of this group - the Birmingham Ultra Trail Society. Once again, they manned (and womanned) the aid station at 11 & 24 miles and what a party they had! Their aid stations are becoming legendary. The runners were greeted by loud music, a mix of Mardi Gras dancing,  pancakes, bacon, beer, all kinds of aid station eats, and the best gauntlet of BUTS guys that each runner got to run through. And if you were a BUTS member, like me, it was Superhero time. Ever see a baseball player get mobbed at the plate when he hits a game-winning home run? That's how BUTS treats their own. I loved it!!!

5) The Pace Groups - Any leader's (sports, business, whatever) principal goals is to surround themselves with good people. This was the 13th Mercedes Marathon that I have directed the Pace Groups. For many years, I was one of the pacers myself, but now-a-days, the Balloon Lady gives me a run for my money. So, year after year, somehow God smiles on me and sends me the greatest pacers. This year, each Pace Group got their followers under the balloons less than 3 minutes under their desired times. It is incredibly hard to be a pacer...keep everyone in a group, try to run an even pace, allow for hills, aid stations, etc, and most of all, no matter how crappy you feel, you have to be positive ALWAYS. Thanks guys (and girls).

6) Going the wrong way - apparently, at the end of the half marathon, the 3 lead guys took a wrong turn and the 4th place guy got an early Christmas present. There were some scathing emails and comments that Mercedes was in the wrong. First of all, the pace car can't go over the finish line and had to turn off. Second, there were course sentries pointing the right way and a gazillion spectators yelling at them that they were going wrong. And third, apparently they weren't trained by Coach Al because another one of my absolute axioms is learn the (damn) course. Know where the aid stations are, the porta-potties, the hills, and certainly the turns near the finish. Good grief guys, don't blame the race because you didn't do your homework! Sure, you're giving it your all, busting a gut and slobbering all over you chin and your shirt, but as in every other sport...keep your head in the game!

Ok, guys, that's it for Mercedes for another year. If you get a chance head on down to The Trak Shak and tell them what a great job they did, and/or send Valerie McLean, the Race Director, an email ( Believe me, her job must be one HUGE headache.

Whether I'm running or walking, I'll see you on the roads (or trails) - Al

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

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Do I Need To Train at My Race Pace?

"The statistics on sanity are that one out of every four Americans is suffering from some form of mental illness. Think of your three best friends. If they are okay, then it's you."
- Rita Mae Brown

Hi guys. Been quite a while since I last blogged. Actually, it was around the time of my last trail race back at the Tranquility Lake 50k Race back in November. I'm fine, but I was pooped from a second year of the Southeastern Trail Series, and a big upturn in my work level as a Physical Therapist. That, and a big denial that I am slowing down at 67! Man, I hate that, but am accepting it better (honest, I am). Before the Tranquility Lake race, I felt I had repeated as the Grand Master Point Leader again, and resting on my laurels, decided to just run the 25K instead of the 50k (remember I said I was pooped). Well, that plan worked as well as Seattle throwing THAT pass in the Super Bowl...I wound up losing first place by 0.5 points. That was a kick in the butt. Oh well, just like Richard Wilson said after throwing THAT pass...oops!!! I kept running in December and January, though cut down a bit and felt like nothing exciting was going on for you guys to read in RWA, so my writing went into semi-hibernation. I say "semi" because for the past several months, leading up to the local (Birmingham, Al) Mercedes Marathon, I have been writing a weekly training blog "Training With Al". That race is in just 2 weeks, so TWA will soon go into hibernation, and now I'm ready to wake RWA up. As the my "race" season gets cranked up again, I'm sure things will pop up in my head that I'll put down on paper (hahaha, my 6 decade mind knows there's no paper, but "I'll put it down on screen" doesn't sound quite right).

I was running this morning on the Oak Mt trails by myself and feeling I was doing pretty good, glanced at my GPS to see my overall pace. Hey, I'm flying (a relative term), but then I hit the Yellow/White connector and suddenly, I wasn't flying. It's a mile uphill at about a 15% grade, so flying is out of the question. Anyway, I started thinking that when I was coaching marathoners, one of my cornerstones was Specificity of Training...if you're going to run a hilly marathon, train on hills...if you're running in the heat, train in the heat...if you want to run 9'/mile, do most of your running at 9'/mile. And therein is one of the big differences between road running and trail running. On a road, you can pretty much pace yourself fairly evenly, despite some ups and downs, and monitor that pace as you proceed during your run. Even pace is the key, right? Well, hit the trail and all that goes down the toilet. Hills, mountains, roots, rocks, ruts, water crossings, etc, plays havoc with your pace. So, I started thinking, does it even pay to waste your time fretting how fast (or slow) you're going at any particular moment in time during your trail training run?

It’s interesting how the range of view on appropriate training paces is rather narrow for virtually every running event up to the marathon, but once we move into the realm of ultras (particularly trail ultras), the near consensus all but disappears. Many people appear to advocate the value of training at your target pace to get your body accustomed to everything that that pace involves, while others would advise training faster than race pace to better build strength and fitness.

One of the shortcomings in some discussions may be the failure to recognize how a lot of people actually run during their ultras. First of all, except for the gifted few, of which most of the folks I know are not, you better conserve your energy at the beginning or you'll blowup well short of sniffing distance of the finish. Trail ultras force most of us to move at a relatively wide range of paces for various periods of time. We run when we can, walk when we decide that it’s more efficient to do so, or want to, and generally just try to avoid any significant physical or mental breakdowns along the way.

It’s natural (and mathematically convenient) to think about our race goals in terms of a single pace; the minutes per mile pace we hope to average over the length of the course in order to achieve a particular time. This may work fine on the road up to a marathon distance, but unfortunately, this average pace might not be particularly meaningful (apart from the finish time it yields), particularly for those of us who run our ultras in the middle or back of the back. For example, in the Oak Mt 50k Trail Race I ran last March, my average pace over the course was 17:03 per mile (ok, I know I didn't blaze that one, but I got under the 9 hour cutoff) – but I didn’t actually cover much of the course at anything near that pace. I went back and looked at the data broken up by my GPS watch (which died at about 7 hours). I only ran one mile at 17:03! The miles are broken up into 10 points per mile, and in the 250 points in the first 25 miles, 141 points were faster than 17:03 and 109 were slower. When I looked at the one minute zone around my average pace (i.e., 16:03-18:03), I found that only 8 miles fit in that zone – that’s not much more than 33% of the recorded distance.

Looking at the totals for various pace ranges, it becomes even clear(er) that my average race pace might not be particularly useful for structuring my future training because I was usually racing quite a bit faster or slower than that average pace.

If this is how I’m going to run an ultra, why would I try to build my training around that average pace? And if my goal is to run that same race next year and knock 15 or so minutes off my time, and run it at an average pace of 16:30/mile, would it really benefit me to spend more time on my feet at a 16:30 minute pace? The answer, I think, is that becoming more efficient at moving at 16-minute pace probably won’t help me as much as other training would. After all, I probably won’t do much of the race at that pace. If I were to try to maintain a 16:30 pace on the tricky rocky downhill section of the White Trail of the course then I’m going to take a flying header into a tree. And if I cruise the dirt jeep road and easy trail sections at that pace then I’m leaving way too much in reserve. Perhaps on long trail runs, where I’m going to be out for a few hours, I’ll average something that comes close to that goal race pace. But again, I’m likely to be moving faster or slower than that single goal pace during the training run. As with most aspects of life, you just do the best you can...this is where perceived exertion, I think, is the linchpin of trail training. Run hard when you can, run easy when you have to.

Oh heck, this was just a mental exercise to amuse me during my run today. Tell you what, I'm going to go out on the trail, enjoy every aspect about it (except the snakes) and at the end, I'll check my OVERALL pace and see how I did. But you know what? If I'm back at my car, I did good.

I'll see you on the roads or the trails - Al

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