Saturday, August 4, 2018

Vacation Trifecta

Race #1: Four on the Fourth - 7/4/18

Before embarking on our two-week family vacation, I was careful to remember to pack my racing flats, as the trip would include two races where they’d be required. Upon arriving at the first of those – the Bridgton 4 on the Fourth (or Four on the 4th… I never get it right) – I made the startling discovery that the flats were sans insoles. I grabbed the only other pair of shoes I had with me, the giant trail running Hokas, slammed their insoles into the flats, and hoped for the best. Not an ideal start to the morning, but it wouldn’t be a race day without some minor crisis to overcome.

Katie and I had made the trek to the race together and would both be racing for the first time in several years. The forecast called for a HOT day (this would be one of a string of 90+ degree days in New England that week), and despite the early hour, it was already feeling steamy. I like the heat, and I feel it offers a competitive advantage, given many other runners’ either mental or physical aversion to it, so I wasn’t too worried, though I was unsure how it would affect my pace.

Speaking of pace, in trying to decide my race goals, I needed to come up with a reasonable pace to shoot for. I'd improved my time in this race each of the previous 5 times I'd run it (2012-2016), and everyone loves a streak, so I decided to try to keep it alive. However, I'd run fairly quickly the last time around (21:12), and it would be a tall order to take that down another few seconds. My other goal was to keep the shorter streak alive of finishing top-5 (3 straights years -- 5th, 5th, 4th), which would mean a prize of some sort. 

I got to the starting line and appreciated the organizers’ efforts this year to create corrals based on previous finishing times, which helped avoid the usual set of interlopers making themselves an obstacle in the 2000+ person field.
The big field assembles at the start.
The first mile is mostly flat and downhill, and I’d planned to go through in under 5:15. A bunch of guys went out with the leaders, and I was around 10th after the first half mile. I was surprised not to see the leaders create much of a gap in the first mile; I’d usually find myself already behind by 20-30 seconds by that point in past years. I passed the mile in 5:16 and braced myself for the series of hills over the next 1.5 miles.

I moved into 5th place during the first set of hills, ahead of past race winner and perennial top finisher Silas Eastman. Up ahead, I saw the three leaders continue to do battle. The hills were taking their toll on everyone, myself included, but I kept reminding myself that I should feel stronger in the heat than the rest. I went through mile 2 in 5:31 and moved into fourth place somewhere around there.

Ahead, one guy had pulled away. Unsurprisingly, it was multi-time winner Moninda Marube. In his wake, the other two had strung out. I managed to catch the third place runner fairly quickly but held no illusions of gaining on second, a fit-looking guy -- Osman Doroow -- who still looked smooth. The race hits its elevation peak in Mile 3 and then descends steeply back toward the finish. It’s so hard to stay smooth on these declines, and I tried to focus on soft landings, quick turnover, and leaning into the downs. I got through Mile 3 in 5:23 and suddenly realized I’d been gaining on 2nd place which focusing on my downhill form.

I was exhausted coming into the final stretch along Main St. but wanted to get that one extra spot in the standings. I surged by Doroow only to have him surge right back. It was almost enough of a counter move to do me in, but I decided to test him and surge again, now with 600m or so to go. He didn’t respond the second time, and I sensed a gap growing. I was able to maintain it through the line (final mile 5:05; overall time 21:18) for my best-ever placing in my six tries at this race. The time, however, missed my PR from two years ago by six seconds, so that streak was finally broken.

A few feet from the finish. 
Side Note 1: There was a funny scenario that played out in front of me as I ran toward the finish. The ladies holding the finish tape (which had already been broken by the winner), mustn’t have had much experience with their duties, as they set the tape back up for me. There were more than a few moments of uncertainty before someone got them to scoot to the side, just as I crossed. Not sure what I would’ve done had they stayed. You can watch the whole thing near the start of this video.

Side Note 2: I like to think I'm a good sportsman, but I might have taken it too far, as you can see in the video below (between 12:30 and 13:30). I just can't seem to stop showing up to congratulate the other finishers. 

I was very happy with the race, despite just missing my PR from two years ago, and hopeful this sets me up for a PR at R4K in a month.

Top 4 men and 4 1/2 women with the race director.

Chatting with the winner post-race.
Full results here.

Race #2: Patterson’s Pellet - 7/9/18

My hometown running club – the Shawangunk Runners – puts on a great set of low-key trail races every summer. Having not lived in New Paltz since 2003, and having not visited on a summer Monday in the interim, it had been a long time since I’d last done one of these races. Our vacation this year fortunately overlapped with the first of the summer series races – Patterson’s Pellet – held at Minnewaska State Park, and I was really excited to go.

I know the trails here well, but not this particular one, as it leads to a remote part of the preserve, past a glacial erratic perched on the edge of a cliff. (The rock is known as, you guessed it, Patterson’s Pellet). The only time I could recall running that trail was the one other time I’d done this race, back in 2000 (before sophomore year of college), which I was startled to realize was 18 years ago. My goodness.

In my heart of hearts, I know that I’m nowhere near as fast as I once was, but a little part of me wanted to think I could come close. There’d be no better measuring stick than this race – how far off my time of 16 years ago would I be? (After consulting an old training log, I discovered my time back then had been 16:21 for the 3-mile course.)

A page from my 2000 training log (this race was on Wednesday). Here's proof that I was once able to run 66 miles in a week. Also note that I said "could have gone faster" in reference to this race. Come on, you young arrogant jerk! Incidentally, I vividly remember that Monday run, in which I got lost on a narrow trail that ran along the edge of a cliff, eventually getting stuck behind a slow-going porcupine, just as it was turning dark. 

The race started on a narrow carriage road, where runners could fit no more than four across. I got into the third row behind a bunch of really fit looking high schoolers from Warwick, Goshen, and Lourdes, three somewhat local schools. The race starts out on a short flat, down a steep hill, and then immediately up a long slog of a climb. I was impressed that the high school kids didn’t totally sprint out as they are usually programmed to do, but I was still just in ninth place after ¾ of a mile. One slightly older guy (not older than me, mind you, but older than the rest) opened a gap with a big loping stride that looked easier than it should have on the hills. I sensed some slack in the pace of the others and made a small move to surge by them and into second.

I gave chase through the first mile (5:59) and went by on a small, welcome downhill. I mistakenly assumed this would be where I’d pull away for an easy win, but that’s not exactly how it played out. He hung right with me through the turnaround at the pellet (no cone, so I gave an honest effort to follow the white (or whole wheat?) flour semi-circle arrow past the half-way water stop. The next guy slipped a little on the gravel but remained close.

Now heading back in the opposite direction, it was nice to get so many shouts of encouragement from the rest of the runners. I couldn’t muster much in return but did my best to wave. These situations also give an opportunity to figure out the nearness of the competition without turning around to check. Through mile 2, the other racers were still shouting, “Good job, guys!” Guys? We were still a single cheering unit, meaning that he was right there. I knew we had one last gradual hill before descending the long hill we’d climbed earlier. I choose this a good spot to push the pace and see what happens. The move paid off, as I finally had some separation. I did my best to work the downhill, once peeking back to spot him maybe 7 or 8 seconds behind. I tried to kick up the steep uphill back to the finish, thinking of all the memories on that hill from high school XC ski practice (they were mostly bad memories of nearly falling off the side and not being able to make it up to the top without stopping, but let’s not concern ourselves with details).

I got to the line in…17:00. Ugh. 40 seconds slower than the last time I’d run that race? That was depressing. But wait, didn’t the course used to start and end right at the top of the hill instead of across the field? Yes, I think so! So, that must have added….well….not very much. 20 seconds tops? I guess it’s true what they say: The older I get, the faster I was.
View of the Catskills from Minnewaska parking lot.

Looking across Lake Minnewaska during my cool down.
Full results are here.
Race #3: Sailfest 5K - 7/15/18

After trashing my legs for two weeks, I returned to Rhode Island (still technically on vacation) and put some feelers out for company on a casual Sunday ride. In response, I learned about the Sailfest 5K. The possibility of running a race I hadn’t done before was appealing, but did I really want to shell out $$ to race on tired legs? The answer was an emphatic YES. After all, who knows when the next injury will take me away from competition; might as well race while I can. (NOTE: Almost immediately after writing that sentence, my knee started to hurt. See??)

Having not been to the mean streets of New London before, I got a ride in the Bousquet-mobile to make sure there weren’t any navigational mishaps on the way there. We met up with Paul for a short warm-up on part of the race course and got back to the car with plenty of time to spare. The temperature was mild but the air full of moisture. It wouldn’t be a great day for a long race, but you can run a 5K in any weather.

I shadowed Jeff V for a short second warm-up near the start and then got on the line next to Matthew. Much like last year’s Schonning 5K, I hadn’t put any thought into a goal time until Tommy asked me shortly before the race. “Umm, 16:20?” Sure, why not? The course, I was told, had some hills, so that time seemed reasonable, given my recent races. I held no illusions of winning, given Matthew’s fitness and general superiority. I hadn’t actually lost yet to him, since I’d moved away just as he was getting fast, and then after returning had not run in the same race (other than some low key events in which at least one of us wasn't racing seriously). Today would be the day he'd cross me off his list.

At the start, Matthew took off at surprising speed, and another guy (wearing red) went right with him. Several other fast starters got out ahead of me, and I tried to guess which ones would last and which wouldn’t. It’s always difficult to tell when everyone’s legs are feeling good, but it becomes abundantly clear as soon as they don’t. After a half-mile I was in third, but already well behind Matthew and the guy in red, who seemed to be in another race.

I got to the mile in 5:14 (not the 5:03 a volunteer wishfully shouted to me), and soon thereafter went around the rotary and up the first big hill. Now, this wasn’t a hill like those in the July 4th race, but it was  tough, going on longer than I’d expected. By the time I’d made the right turn off the hill, my pace was nearly 6-min/mile. I tried to use the downhill to get some free speed, but my body insisted on an obtuse angle, no matter how much I wanted 90 degrees.  Way up ahead, Matthew had fallen behind the red guy but was maintaining his gap on me. The second mile split was 5:24.

The third mile featured another challenging hill, more for its location in the race than for its severity. Just as you’re trying to mount a big finish, this thing jumps on your back and drags you back down. I fought through as best I could and again attempted to use the downhills to my advantage. I made the final turn and enjoyed the finish through the fair tent-lined street, crossing the line in 16:17 (final mile 5:11).

Tommy came through a short time later, wrapping up a 2-3-4 WTAC placing. We waited for Shara to finish as second female before hopping under the fire hose for a refreshing shower. Jeff joined us after completing his PT run and then insisted on skin-on-skin contact during the requisite photograph.
I hit my arbitrary goal, so that’s good I guess. I’d really like to get under 16:00 this year, but I’ll clearly need a flatter course, fresher legs, and better fitness to do it. Something to shoot for later this summer.

Full results here. Local article here.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Back Road Ramble

The first Sunday in June beckoned me back to the Back Road Ramble for the first time since 2015. [I’ll keep writing this in every post until it is no longer true.] The course would be entirely different this time, save the finish line, as you can read about in Jeff’s blog here and here. Going in, I had a feeling Jonny would be the main competition, as he excels on trails and knows these ones by heart. Now, I too enjoy a technical trail and, now that I’ve embraced (see what I did there?) wearing ankle supports in races, can throw caution to the wind. But I don’t know these trails, and in unfamiliarity lies the possibility for a major blowup, or, at the very least, of a wrong turn.

The pre-race festivities include a school bus ride to the start, during which grown-ups are made to flash back to the indignities they faced as a child. Or was that just me? Upon disembarking, I sought out Jonny and Jonathan for a brief warm-up in the woods.

The start is fairly narrow, and I lined up in the second row, in great position to hear Jeff’s unintentionally lewd race instructions. Some of the less mature competitors couldn’t help but giggle. I was one of them. After giving Jeff some space to join the field, we took off. Again, I’ll leave it to Jeff’s blog to describe the interesting start of one particular sprint enthusiast. I settled next to Jonny, and we ran roughly side-by-side (but not hand-in-hand, I assure you) for the first ¾ mile or so.

Just off the starting line. I went with the rare non-WTAC jersey option this time.
I moved ahead as we approached the pond (why this isn’t called a lake, I do not know), and Jonny kindly shouted out where to turn off the main trail. I thought for a moment of staying close to him to heed directional advice for the rest of the race but instead kept pushing and hoped for the best.

Somewhere before the third mile, things get interesting. Roots and ruts and rocks start to be more prevalent than normal flat ground. They should have named this trail Sammy R’s (sorry). I tried to keep my momentum but found it challenging to do so. I envied Jonny’s little stride and fast turnover, which I guessed are more adept at dealing with such unevenness. [See below for some math that might totally disprove this hypothesis.]

I peeked back on occasion, but the trail began getting twisty and hummocky enough, that Jonny could have been 10 seconds back and I wouldn’t have been able to see him. Somewhere around four miles, the fatigue in my legs became noticeable. I wasn’t worried yet, but I wanted to get to the road with as much distance on Jonny as possible, since I had a feeling with all of his up/down hill workouts, he’d be able to fly to the finish better than I would.

I got to the road without much drama and kept the pace just fast enough to make a comeback unlikely. I didn’t see Jonny when I looked back with a ½ mile to go, but I apparently chose the wrong place to look, since he later told me he was able to see me up ahead. Our splits also confirmed that he was closing in over than final mile-plus.

I came down the final hill, waved to the family, and crossed the line while trying not to trip over the speed bump, which would have been ironic, considering its tameness relatively to the rest of the course. Jonny was not far behind, and then Jeff and Jonathan followed. We grabbed a short road cool down with other WTACers (while Jeff apparently headed to the water trampoline – I wish I’d known!).

A short kids race followed, where Seb hung close to the big kids, and Maisie didn’t (but still loved it.) She later told me, “I tried and I tried to catch up to the other kids but I just couldn’t!” The day ended watching the kids splash around in the water while I hung out on the beach, by then way too cooled-down to find the water refreshing.

This is a great event that doesn’t garner enough notoriety. I hope the changes Jeff mentioned in his post (now referenced a record-setting third time!) help drum up some additional registrants. It’s too much fun not to.

Math Rebuttal to the Jonny Stride Superiority Theory

Fact #1: Let’s say I take 170 steps a minute during the race, and Jonny, with his tiny stride, takes 200. That means that each of my strides takes 0.353 seconds, while Jonny’s takes 0.3 seconds.

Fact #2: Sammy C’s, the most technical trail in the race, takes ~18 minutes to complete.

Scenario A: Let’s say, for every minute we’re on Sammy C’s, Jonny and I each take one poorly placed step that costs us momentum and distance. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume we "lose" that step, but everything else remains the same. That means, within each minute, I lose 0.353 seconds, and Jonny loses 0.3 seconds. Over the 18 minutes we’re on Sammy C’s, that’s 6.35 seconds lost by me, and 5.4 seconds lost by Jonny, or a difference of just under ONE SECOND. Hardly something to get worked up about.

Sensitivity: I made some big assumptions there, so what happens if we change those?
Let’s instead assume because of my lopey (not a real word) stride, I can’t recover from a bad step as quickly as originally assumed. Maybe it takes me twice as long, meaning I lose the equivalent of two steps for every poorly placed one, or 0.706 seconds per minute. Multiplying out as above, this equals 12.7 seconds lost over the entirety of the trail to Jonny’s 5.4, still a different of only SEVEN seconds. This is more significant and could cost me a neck-and-neck race, but those are rare on such long courses.

What if we also test the sensitivity on how often we stumble? Maybe Jonny is more sure-footed, thanks to his familiarity with these trails, and loses a step once every two minutes. This means he loses 0.15 seconds per minute, or 2.7 seconds over the full trail. In the original scenario, in which I lose 6+ seconds, he has an insubstantial 4 second advantage. If we move both sensitivity levers, I lose 12.7 seconds, Jonny loses 2.7, gaining a total of 10 seconds on me.

No matter how we slice this, I think it’s fair to say that my worry over Jonny’s stride’s superiority over mine as it relates to footing on a technical trail is mostly unfounded. Whether it’s more efficient is another story, but I’ll save that worry for the next race!

Friday, June 1, 2018

20 years ago: Part I

If you know me well, then you know that I often can't remember where I put my keys or why I walked into a room but can instantly recall splits from a random high school track race that happened 20 years ago. However, it wasn't until mentioning this to a friend recently that it occurred to me those memories were actually 20 whole years ago. I also realized that there are details from those days that I remember only with some effort, and even then I have doubts as to their accuracy. This is a long way of saying that I promised myself I'd write these things down before it was too late and they were gone forever.

So, welcome to the first of somewhere between one and many installments of my brain-running archive project. This and the three that follow will delve into my junior year outdoor track season of 1998, which seemed magical at the time and still contains some of my most vivid memories and countless experiences that shaped me as a runner and person. (I even wrote my college application essay about one race in particular.) If this all seems somewhat self-indulgent, it's because it is. There's nothing here that will seem special to anyone besides me; our times weren't particularly impressive and there wasn't any off-track drama or historically significant event that shaped the season. But it was the biggest thing that anyone on the team had been part of to that point in our lives, and I don't want to ever forget it. With that introduction, let's get started.

Part I: March-April 1998

The New Paltz High School boys track team had reclaimed the league championship in 1997, my sophomore year, somewhat dramatically avenging a dual meet defeat against Onteora. That meet - the Mid-Hudson Athletic League championship (always referred to as MHALs ) - had historically been the big meet of the season, and success at meets beyond that (Sectionals, States) was rare. However, that previous season, we had qualified three athletes for states, with one winning the shot put and another placing 2nd in the pentathlon. (That same pentathlete was also our best 800 runner, the league XC champ, and a starter on the football team!) Both of those guys had graduated, so while we knew we had some depth, we weren't guaranteed the same level of success in '98. But our coach was unflinchingly optimistic, and we had the naivety of youth on our side, so we came into the season expecting greatness.

Personally, I'd made big jumps from 9th to 10th grade in both the 800 (2:11 to 2:03) and 1600 (5:15 to 4:40), placing third in MHALs in both (as well in as the 3200), so I headed into the season hoping to build upon those gains and a solid XC season.


Our team was always strong in the distance events, and this season would be no exception. We'd won our league XC meet with 23 points and returned three people (me plus seniors Ryan and Josh) who'd placed top-5 in the three distance events at last year's league meet. Outside of that, there were a few standouts mostly in the field events and a bunch of unknown entities. The team was big (66 kids, or roughly one of every four boys in the school), so like every high school team everywhere, we hoped to pull a couple of scorers from the unknowns. The pre-season talk was always about how so-and-so had won the gym class mile in 5th grade and was finally joining the team, or how some other guy was a state finalist shot putter in Indiana and had just moved to the district. Those stories almost always turned out to be false, but we had some signs that this year would be different.

There were three promising newcomers on the team. The first was a bear of a freshman who apparently dominated middle school throwing events. The second was a junior who excelled on the football field and wrestling mat and would be throwing the shot. And the third -- Billy Moore -- was a transfer from a neighboring district who scored points in the 200 and 400 at the league championships the previous season. We were historically weak in the sprints and would take anyone we could get to score a few points. In retrospect, it is clear this team would not have reached the heights it did without even one of these three additions.

March - Getting in Shape
The first month of the season was one of transition for everyone on the team. We didn't have an indoor track team, so everyone was either coming off another winter sport (I, and many other distance runners, had just finished the nordic ski season) or several months of doing nothing. We were a pretty pathetic group for the first couple of weeks, hobbling around with sore bodies every time our coach adding a new pace or plyometric to the regimen.

Based on my training log, I had a rough go of it in March, getting sick for a week and then injuring the bottom of my foot during practice and having to take a week off from running. Fortunately, I was young and back at full speed a week later. Our mileage was always very low (never more than 30 in a week), so no gradual ramp up was required.

April 2nd - 5th: Opening Meets
For the distance runners, our first test was a timed mile on April 2nd. I ran 4:54 and finished ahead of our distance star, Ryan, last year's league mile champ, by 2 seconds. One of his senior teammates, Josh, finished another second in arrears. The times weren't great, but I recall being very happy running sub-5 so early in the season.

Our first meet -- The Panther Relays -- was three days later. This was always run in terrible early Spring conditions -- cold, windy, often rainy. We'd all stay huddled in tents, and only a few minutes before our races would we emerge to brave the elements. Our school record books were filled with weak relay times, so we'd be making an attempt at the 4x1600 and DMR records at this meet, despite our early season fitness. We succeeded, running 19:32 and 11:20, both of which we'd lower substantially in a month. I ran 4:51 in the former and 3:26 (1200) in the latter. I wasn't thrilled with either but knew the speed would eventually come. As a team, we placed second to Pine Bush. After that loss, we would beat more than 100 teams before we lost again.

My calves were sore for a week from running in spikes, but, this being high school, there'd be no time to rest, as another meet awaited us the following Tuesday. We faced off against Rondout Valley on our home track -- an asphalt-like surface on which spikes were not allowed. We won 109-31, for the first time getting an idea of the team's potential. I won the 800 (2:07) and 1600 (4:49), but more impressively, our freshman threw over 140' in the discus, our transfer ran 53 in the 400 (already equaling his PR from the previous year), and our 400 hurdle state qualifier ran 58.9.

April 6th - 18th: Spring Break and a Surprise PR
We had 11 days off from racing for Easter break, which gave us a chance to ratchet up the training intensity a bit. We did track intervals - 12x200, 200/400/600 ladders, 8x400, etc. - nearly every other day, trying to get our speed where it needed to be before the important meets started.

On the other end of this block was the Tri-Valley invitational in the Catskills, which was always a good chance to run against competition outside of our league. My first event was the 800, where there was a stacked field led by an absolute stud of a runner from the host team. I latched on to him as long as I could and ran a surprise PR of 2:00.9. My season goal was to break 2:00, but I never imagined I'd come so close so soon. My coach gave a great quote in the newspaper following that race: "If Chris had known that he was this close to breaking two minutes he would have sprinted the final yards." Believe me, I would have sprinted regardless of my time; I was simply dead!

The stud who won was also victorious in the 400 and 400 hurdles at the meet, running an incredible triple of 50/56/1:58. I placed third in the 1600 in 4:47 later in the meet, finishing just behind my teammate Ryan. As a team, we took the meet title over Pine Bush, a powerhouse program from another league in our section. There were more other great performances from Billy in the 400 (51.5), Matt in the 400 hurdles (58.0), and our high jumper Dash (6'3").

April 21st - 25th: A Very Busy Week
We followed this meet with the classic only-in-high-school three-meet week. Knowing that we'd win the dual meets easily, our coach backed off the volume of racing we'd do. We won the first against Saugerties 108-32; I ran 4:40 in the 1600 and cruised the 3200. We also took the second against Marlboro 104-32; I ran 2:06 in the 800 in "cold, rainy, very windy!!" conditions, according to my running log.

We capped the week at the Monticello Games, another meet that always seemed to be run in terrible weather. If it wasn't raining, it was windy, and that was the case again this time around. In my log, I described it as "extremely windy and a little chilly." I ran 10:27 in the 3200 (a PR for me) for 6th place, 2:07 in the 4x800 for 2nd place, and 2:06 in the open 800, also for 2nd place, behind a guy from Goshen who would become my rival and nemesis a little more than a year from that day. We won the meet as a team, despite no real standout performances, and our coach noted that made us 68-1 on the season, having only lost in the opening invitational.

Write-up on Monticello Games with hand-written note from Coach P. C

April 28th: A Statement
We finished our month with our fourth meet in 11 days. This was our most important dual meet yet, as we'd go head-to-head with Wallkill, our neighbor just down the road, and our likeliest competitor for the league title. The meet had a championship feel to it, and was even run under the lights on our home track. We strategically arranged our lineup to challenge them in their best events while running our second-stringers in the events we were likely to dominate (including the 1600 and 3200).

The second event of the meet was the 4x800, where I would run the anchor against Wallkill's top guy (who happened to have been one of my best friends in pre-school, 13 years before that). He got the baton with a big lead, maybe 50 meters ahead, and I immediately went to work tracking him down. He had taken it out hard, and I did the same, running a first lap of 57. He was a stronger 400 runner, and I remember noticing his posture change after the hard opener, indicating a possible chink in his armor. My pace had slowed as well, but I motored on and made a bold enough pass that he couldn't muster much resistance. I finished my leg in 2:00.6, well ahead of my old friend, setting the tone for the rest of the meet.

Astonishingly, I have no record of the final score of the meet (I vaguely recall it was 80-something to 50-something) or notes of anyone else's performance. I do have one other vivid memory from that day, and that is of the meet's final event, the 4x400. Even with victory in the bag, pride was still on the line, and our rapidly improving squad of quarter-milers was looking forward to challenging Wallkill's top-ranked team. Our guys were pumped and ran exceedingly well. By the time Billy got the baton on the anchor leg and sped off the around the track, we'd gapped them by ten seconds - an eternity in the 4x400. As he reached the final straight, he unexpectedly slowed down to a jog, looking behind him as he waited for the other anchor. Was he hurt? Tired? Making some strange gesture of sportsmanship? Nope, he was toying with them. He waited until they caught up, and then, fully rested, put the dagger through their heart with an all-out sprint to the line. It was a highly unsportsman-like move and put a damper on the whole evening for our team. It also foreshadowed a moment a month later that would simultaneously be the most thrilling and disappointing moment of my entire running career.

A look ahead
The team had made enormous gains to this point in the season. We dominated our league meets and held our own against some competitive teams outside of the league. But the best was yet to come. A shocking move to put our star 400 meter runner, just a few days after his 4x400 debacle, into the 4x800 would raise the team's competitive level to something never before seen at our school. All this and more in the next installment...

Really interesting contemporary article. Amazing how much things have changed since then.

Friday, May 11, 2018

RISP Foot Pursuit 5K

Late April brought me back to the roads for the first time since last summer. And, just as I did back then, I’d arbitrarily decided on a goal of sub-17 for the 5K. I’d recently re-incorporated workouts into my running and haven’t been too hampered lately by the now 18-month-old hip injury (it's a toddler!), so sub-17 seemed a reasonable target.

It had been four years since I last ran the RISP Foot Pursuit, but upon arriving there were a couple familiar sites. There was the winner from four years back – Derek Jakoboski -- still looking fit and fast. And there was an old favorite – Gray Shirt Man -- who was wearing a sleeveless variation of the shirt he’d worn then, with the bold addition of Italian flag-themed running shorts. We'd soon see if he was still up to his speedy exploits at the start. (See my write-up from the 2014 rendition for historical commentary on Gray Shirt Man. Note how much more creative and humorous I was then.)

I warmed up solo along the seawall (with a couple of Schonning run-ins) and then connected with Jeff at the starting line. As always, I was relegated to the second row after too many optimistic/anxious runners squeezed in front of me. No matter, the position would help me stay conservative at the start, which is a permanent part of my plans.

Now for a quick ode to GPS watches. Some lament that we Garmin-enabled runners are a slave to the watch. We no longer run by feel, instead trusting in and relying on our watches to tell us how hard we should be going. Well, I couldn’t disagree more. Maybe it’s because I spend much of my waking hours thinking about data, but I say we should be able to use whatever information is reasonably available to us to make us better runners, as long as we know how to use it. If I could get real-time readings of my blood lactate, or electrolyte levels, or stride symmetry, and I had a way to quickly digest and make sense of it all, I absolutely would.

I say all this, because I was reminded of the importance of the GPS watch during the first mile of the race. Had I been going off feel, there’s no chance I would have happily settled into 9th place, getting dropped by the leaders, within the first quarter mile. It wouldn’t have been until oxygen debt hit (far too soon) that my body would have sent a signal saying maybe I am out of my league. Instead, all it took were a few glances at my pace to know I’d be in trouble if I didn’t relax and run my own race. How I wish I’d had this technology in high school and college. So many excessively enthusiastic starts could have been avoided.

After roughly half a mile, I’d overtaken all but the top three runners in the race, who were well off in the distance already. Interestingly, a few of the guys I’d gone by had latched on and were running right behind me through the mile (5:25). I was feeling OK and forcing myself to lean into the downhill, which always feels surprisingly unnatural, despite being way more efficient. Shouldn’t evolution have fixed this flaw in our thinking?

With one or two guys still on me (I wouldn’t give them the courtesy of a look-back, so I am guessing based on the footfall pattern), we turned onto Boon St., and I saw that one guy ahead had been dropped by the leaders. I mistakenly assumed we’d overtake him quickly, given how suddenly he'd been gapped, but boy was I wrong.

Just after mile 2 (5:24), I caught up to the third-place guy, and we turned onto Ocean Rd. a stride apart. I was feeling fairly good after running the first two miles just ahead of goal pace, so I saw no harm in accelerating and hoping to make quick work of him. As I passed, I urged him to “hang in there,” not expecting him to take my advice. He matched my pace and stayed a few feet back for a couple hundred yards. Eventually, I could no longer hear him, but I knew he was there from the small break between cheers from spectators. We made the final turn, which leads to the interminable finishing straight along 1A. Here, again, is where the GPS watch changes everything. A quick peek reminded me that I had less than half a mile to go, not the 700 miles there appeared to be left based on how far away the finish banner looked. I crossed mile 3 (5:06) and kept accelerating. This guy wouldn’t go away. Some bystander muttered a single “wow” as I passed, and I wondered whether it was because my pursuer was sprinting so fast or because someone as old-looking as I am is in third place.

Mercifully, I crossed the line (16:39 / final 0.1 at 4:40 pace) four seconds ahead of 4th, and well under my goal time. It was a nice confidence booster and hopefully a springboard to faster times this summer and fall. All that said, it was slower than my younger self ran in 2014, so there's still work to do.
Finally able to relax, a few steps out from the finish. Look out for the giant anchor! 
Post-race, I enjoyed a nice (and occasionally disturbing) conversation Jeff and Steve, a muddy cooldown with Jeff through the Canonchet trails, some hot dogs and burgers in the pouring rain, and finally the award ceremony (I’d won my age group and WTAC the team title). All in all, a fun day!

This motley crew managed to capture the team victory. 

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Belleville Pond "10K"

Note: This was written six weeks ago. There's really no good excuse for not posting it sooner; I simply always thought of something else with a higher priority to do instead. But there's nothing like falling behind by two races to spark some motivation. This *should* soon be followed by a post on the RISP 5K, pending exhaustion of whatever other excuses I can come up with for that one...

Please forgive the delay in this post. I’ve had a very busy stretch at work, with three of the past four weeks involving travel to Puerto Rico, California, and Florida, culminating in a 10-day lung infection that necessitated a break from running. So, let’s see what I still remember.

The Belleville Pond 10K at Ryan Park has been perhaps my favorite race in the South County 4th Season series. It’s a fun and challenging course that in my two previous experiences had been especially fun and challenging due to a blanket of deep snow. In both cases, I also managed to win, which, in retrospect, may have had something to do with my fondness for the event. 

There’d be no snow this time, but I was excited nonetheless. We did get hit with a powerful rain and wind storm in the day prior, and the wind was still strong on the morning of. I came unusually light-clothed (by my standards) and was regretting it as I stepped out of my car upon first arriving.
I got in a short warm-up with Jonny and Greg, in the process learning the first part of the course in reverse (so, you know, it would look familiar whenever I peeked behind me in the race), and I added on a little bit extra to remind myself of the finish.

My plan for the race would be to gain another position – up to third – from the previous race. I thought this might doable but also the best I could imagine placing, as I considered Lonergan and Greg to be untouchable.

We waited longer than usual for the race to start, as a big crowd still stood in line for the port-a-potties. I took refuge behind the dugout of the baseball field, where I was somewhat shielded from the wind until the race started (first falsely, and then for real - Brightman's fault, no doubt).

As expected, Lonergan went out like a flash, and Greg followed, perhaps a little farther behind than in the previous race, but still clear of the chase pack, which was led by Tall Guy from Old Mountain fame and Brightman. Interestingly, Jackman hung back with me and Jonny, and I suspected he might be banking on the assumption that I’d be running my typically conservative race. I decided to have a little spontaneous fun and proceeded to run far faster than I usually would at this point in the race, just to mess with his head. We quickly caught up to Brightman on the first single-track section and accelerated by onto the rail bed.

This is always a good point in the race to take stock of situation up ahead, as you can see a good half mile into the distance, which may have been just far enough to see Lonergan. It was also apparent that Greg had put in a big surge here and may have actually been gaining on the lead. Next up was Tall Guy, who had maybe 10 seconds on us…until he wiped out leaping a downed tree. It wasn’t a bad fall, but it clearly took his momentum away. Jackman and I were careful not to repeat his mistake and cleared the tree with ease, and Brightman was hot on our heels throughout this section. I suspected we’d gotten a gap on Jonny but didn’t dare look back at this point, just two miles into the race.

We exited the rail bed, cut across the main path on the far side of the park, and headed into the sand that leads into power line section. We were rapidly gaining on Tall Guy, and I put in a small surge up the steep embankment immediately before the powerline crossing to get some separation on Jackman. I watched as Tall Guy tentatively crossed a log bridge (which I bypassed entirely) and then caught up to him. I asked how he was doing after the fall, and he muttered that he’d been better. That was the last I heard from him for the duration of the race.

As usual after getting a lead, I tried to really put the pressure on for a long stretch, which coincided with the Route 4 section of the course. This is a segment with lots of short ups and downs, and a couple of switchbacks that give an opportunity to see where your followers are without looking too paranoid. I became aware that I’d suddenly gotten a lot closer to Greg and was positioned maybe half way between him and the Jackman-Brightman-Tall Guy crowd.

Running by myself, I got lulled into a slower pace than desired a few times but managed to shake myself out of it before losing too much time. Seeing Seth and his camera out there in remote locations helped enormously.

And here is the resulting video. Really amazing job by Seth!

Belleville Pond 10k 2018 from Seth Acton on Vimeo.

On the other side of the main trail, the course traverses an especially tricky and technical section with everything from sand to moguls to rocky ridges and sharp drops. I recently ran here while on a late conference call with work, and got temporarily distracted as I was reminded of that meeting and something I'd committed to do but hadn't done yet. Yuck - I had to get my head back in the race; worse distraction ever! I was snapped out of the memory upon hearing footsteps suddenly close behind. After a few uncertain moments, I was relieved to discover it was Seth getting some trailing shots (see ~3:15 in the video above for Seth's sneaky move).

I was getting ever closer to Greg, and perhaps as little as 10 seconds separated us at this point, but I honestly never considered catching him a real possibility. My pessimism become anchored in reality when we reached the return rail bed, and Greg found another gear that I could almost match but certainly not exceed.

Impressively, he maintained that gear when we transitioned into the last bit of trail before the bridge crossings, leaving me in the dust. I was very tried and hanging on for dear life here, grateful that I didn’t have anyone lingering close behind. I was happy to finally reach the Field of Broken Dreams, where Greg was maybe 75 yards ahead. He looked back once for good measure, saw no danger, and cruised into the finish. I locked up my hoped-for 3rd place, with Brightman, Jackman, Tall Guy, and Jonny finishing drama-free in that order behind me. All of the theatrics, however, were reserved for the next three, who battled all the way to the line, the younger guys getting the better of Jeff, who was still very much Gazelling to the line, despite not having the kick he’d hoped for.

WTAC took the win again, and I secured some beverages for that day’s family party. What a practical award ceremony.

I should also mention that my hip injury from 2015’s half marathon has returned with a vengeance. It hasn’t yet had a major impact on my training, but I’ve begun feeling it on nearly every step of every run, which even the most optimistic person can’t view as a positive development. I’m hopeful that my forced 10-day break will have helped the healing along. 

(Note: The break did, to some extent, give me some respite from the hip pain. It's certainly still there, but tolerable for now.)

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Old Mountain Field 5K

"A wet adventure." Those were the words used by Jonny to describe his planned long run the next day, but they are just as aptly associated with this one. It had a little bit of everything: mud; swamp; stream crossings; slippery rocks, roots, and bridges; briers; downed-tree hurdles. Heck, it even had unleashed dogs -- twice! -- blocking the trail at the most inopportune times. And, of course, there was the competition itself, so let's get into it.

This race should be like a home course for me, as it starts just a few miles from our house, but in truth, until the previous weekend, I hadn't run here in three years. (It should also be noted that the last time I raced here, I took a wrong turn while leading the race, losing a spot to Greg Hammett, only to have him wait for me at the finish line, as described here.) So, I wasn't exactly feeling any advantage. Fortunately, a warm-up over much of the new (to me) course, led by Jonny, had me more confident about the directions. There was also no chance I'd be leading the race this time around, so I was looking forward to having guides for much of the race itself.

Race Part I: Stalking

This course, both the old and new version, entices nearly everyone into an overly eager pace right off the line. Even those of us who prefer more conservative starts are forced to comply or risk getting cut off from our natural position in the pecking order by eager interlopers. Having experienced the drawbacks of a too-fast and too-slow start on this course, I decided I prefer the former to the crashing and thrashing the latter requires.

[Looking at most post from three years ago, here's what I wrote about a similar starting strategy:

My typical race plan, especially on trails, is to run patiently and trust that I'll be able to catch the fast starters before the race is through. This is a nice, safe strategy that has served me well. It's also terribly boring. How boring? Here's Jeff's description of this approach from his blog post:
"Normally, prudence dictates a conservative pace at the start to save some endurance for later in the race."  
That's right, it's so boring that words like "prudence," "dictates," and "conservative" are used to describe it. Oof, that's boring. I decided to use this year's OMF race as an experiment in aggression. ]

This is a long way of saying I went out uncomfortably hard yet again. Still, I found myself behind a dozen runners with maybe 50 meters to go before entering the woods. I begrudingly surged past half of these, eventually landing in fifth place as we hit the trail. I was behind the four who beat me last time, which, after all that starting drama, is precisely where I'd hoped to be.

Lonergan led, with Greg hot on his heels, and they were flying. Brightman was next, and he'd smartly let the two leaders gap him. Jackman was a step behind him, and I was a few seconds back from there. I had a tall guy in a blue jersey ("Ronald McTall guy," as Jackman put it) directly behind me but figured he'd eventually drop. I was also sucking wind pretty hard, thanks to the quick start, so I had no plans of making any moves unless absolutely necessary. But I also wouldn't let the two guys in front of me pull too far ahead, no matter what it took.

We had a few obstacles early on in the race. The first was a totally unexpected dual-dog encounter at the bottom of the rock jump. They were well behaved but did an incredible job of just standing directly in the middle of the single-track. We also came across a group of walkers right before the stream crossing; they were much more courteous than the dogs were.

I stayed five or so meters behind the two in front of me, glad to have a little space to watch my footing. When Jackman went by Brightman in the first mile, I started to close the gap, as I didn't want to lose touch with him. I pulled directly behind Brightman, thinking I'd hang there for a bit, but Jackman's gap had grown, so I spontaneously made a move through the muck and briers around Brightman. He accelerated to hold me off, and I recklessly crashed through some branches and rejoined the trail just ahead of him, keeping the pedal down to discourage a comeback. Despite this big move, I soon sensed someone right behind me again and realized it was Tall Man, who was evidently here for the long haul.

Race Part II: Stalked

I tracked Jackman through the Jonny-coined "zero-track" section, watching him wipe out around a muddy turn, only to pop back up seemingly without losing a step. I went under the awkward diagonal downed tree and wondered how Tall Man dealt with that one. As we came to the rock wall section, I opted for the right side of the trail, which essentially turned out to be a bog, nearly sucking my shoes off. I recovered in time to almost take a digger on the stream crossing (right after seeing the dogs again!), narrowly avoiding a major catastrophe.

We headed up the hill, and I tried to find a way to ask Jackman to let me pass, saying something to the effect of, "I'll take the lead for a bit; you can take it back whenever you'd like." It was unnecessarily polite but did the trick. Tall Man followed, and I got the feeling he was biding his time before making me his next victim. Sure enough, he went by on the descent and quickly got a gap on me as we headed for the reservoir loop. This section turned out to be the trickiest yet. The lugs on my trail shoes acted like ball bearings when treading across the wet wooden bridges. I tried to avoid making any sudden lateral motion, but this proved difficult on the many bridges positioned at the start or end of a curve in the trail. I'd managed to make it across nearly all of the bridges when, on the penultimate one, I slid on one foot across almost its entire length, stopping awkwardly with my other foot to prevent a fall.

Race Part III: Surviving

It was a relief to exit onto the grass/concrete section, getting my feet back under me, and charging into the woods once more for a final loop over the "mountain" and through the switchbacks. I was only a few seconds behind Tall Man and seemed to have plenty of space on Jackman and Brightman. I was also surprised to see Greg not too far ahead, having been dropped by Lonergan, who was nowhere to be seen.

The little hope I'd held for catching Tall Man was dashed as he pulled away up the last big hill. I did what I could on the slalom section but to no avail. On the final straight, I could see Greg finishing, with Tall Man about half the distance between us. I came through in 19:57 (results), good for fourth place. I was surprised to see Brightman come next, just ahead of Jackman. Jonny, Muddy, and Jeff all finished in the top 10. With Greg donning a WTAC jersey, we easily pulled off the win. Turns out, we would have won even without Greg, but I'll take the big win over the narrow one any day.

From a Series standpoint, I'm in a three-way tie for 3rd with Jackman and Brightman and will need to make something special happen at the longer upcoming races in order to pull ahead. Should make for a fun six weeks.

Amazing race video from Seth!

Old Mountain 5k 2018 from Seth Acton on Vimeo.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Resolution Beach not quite 5K

Coming off a series of injuries in 2017, I'd been carefully ramping up my running since mid-December. This has meant mostly slow, short runs, supplemented by indoor cycling and lifting. Given this, I'd been wavering about running in the South County Fourth Season trail series and was relieved when I'd discovered I'd be in California for the series' first race -- Resolution Beach 5K -- as it meant I wouldn't be tempted to jump in. 

While on my Cali trip, I checked the Rhode Island weather incessantly, hoping to see negative temperatures so I could relish the respite I was getting out there, where it was 70 degrees and sunny. Instead, I saw, incredibly, that it would be over 50 degrees and rainy. Not only that, but the Resolution race would be moved back a day because of the rain and flooding. I'd now be back in time for the race, leaving me with a dilemma. Well, there was no dilemma, actually. I couldn't resist; it had been three years since I last did these races, and I missed them too much. I was in!

Fast-forward to Sunday morning, I drove over to the beach on a day reminiscent of the last time I'd done this race in 2015, though maybe a little less cold (20 degrees), a little less windy, and a lot icier. The massive amount snowmelt and rain had frozen overnight and blanketed the trails in several places. During the group warm-up, I tried to figure out the ideal path across the various ice obstacles, but ideal would be a dream. It was more a matter of picking the least treacherous option. From one particular previous run-in I'd had with ice, I'd learned the hard way how unforgiving it is and how rapidly it will let you know that.
My face met ice once before and lost. Seven years and two titanium plates later, it hasn't forgotten!
Two other observations from the warm-up: (1) the little bit of wind was in our faces on the way out and really bit through the few layers of clothes I had on. I made up my mind to go with triple layers on the upper body and stick with tights below; (2) RD Mike Galoob hasn't changed -- we came across him carrying huge boulders to make a rock bridge across one especially wide water crossing on the beach, just 30 minutes before the race started. He also informed us that the course had changed from the past and would no longer include the road portion. For all I know, he made that decision as he was talking to us.

On the hastily-drawn starting line, runners lined up facing in opposite directions. Well, it was more like everyone except the Hammetts faced the correct direction, while Jonny and Greg prepared to head off on the race's former route. They quickly (though not a quickly as you might imagine) corrected themselves, as we got the final race directions. I also used this time to remind myself of my race goals:
  • Don't get injured
  • Be comfortable
  • Enjoy it
  • Let the fast guys go
The last one, I knew, would be the hardest to achieve, as I have trouble controlling those competitive juices once the race starts. But I'm older and therefore supposedly wiser than I once was, so when the race started, I put my head down, ignored the others, and eased into the race.

That is until I saw I was taking a completely different line along the beach than anyone ahead of me. There were three water hazards along this opening stretch -- transient streams that had created shallow gullies where runoff pipes emptied onto the sand -- and they varied unpredictably in width along their respective routes. I couldn't remember from the warm-up the ideal crossing points, so I went into lemming mode and swerved back behind the lead group, figuring that at least this way we'd all face the same enemy.

Fortunately, there was little trouble steeple-chasing my way over the water. As we neared the end of the beach, I counted eight people ahead of me. I passed two of them and fell into position behind Jonny as we climbed into the dunes. At this point, I made some comment like, "Don't worry, it's just me," to which Jonny replied, "Give yourself some more credit!" What a nice guy.

Looking up ahead, I saw the expected lead pack (Lonergan, Greg, Jackman, and Brightman) plus one random guy. The guys I knew up there wouldn't be coming back, but I decided to keep an eye on Random Guy, as I don't like to lose to strangers at these local races.

Jonny and I gradually gained on RG as we traversed the newly cut section and cautiously navigated the icy spots. I had passed Jonny at some point along the way but don't recall when. This isn't normal and must be another sign of age/wisdom.

I got a small amount of separation on Jonny on our return trip of the two-way portion of the course and crept to within a few seconds of RG.  We came to a part of the course that was covered with a sheet of ice spanning the entire trail and extending 20 feet or so. I recalled from the warm-up that the only safe passage is along the right side, where tufts of grass in the ice allowed for some semblance of traction, whereas the left side had trouble written all over it. I was surprised to see RG choose trouble, and boy did he get it. He went down in a flash, landing hard on his hip. I slowed to ask if he was ok, but he'd already gotten to his feet and started running again. I'd gotten ahead of him during his spill and felt guilty for it, but he seemed fine, and the race must go on.

Approaching the stone ruins, I had a nice vista out to the beach, where I saw Lonergan already on the sand, with Jackman and Greg battling for second through the ruins. They were all very far ahead of me.

I led our little train of three through the ruins, clambered down the rock wall on the other side, and leapt over the largest of the three rivulets, apparently looking much more majestic than I felt. (Thanks, as always, to the magic of Scott Mason's camera.)

Doing my best impression of the WTAC gull. RG and Jonny give chase.
The finish on the beach is mentally challenging, as the finish line can be seen for the entire half-mile or so remaining in the race. Up ahead, I could see Brightman, far out of reach, but behind I could still hear the breathing and footfalls of my pursuers. I gradually accelerated, gaining some space, and feeling thankful that the race would be far less than the advertised 5K.

I crossed in 5th in a time of 15:26 (despite what the results say). I was very pleased to meet all of my goals yet still feel like I raced. In particular, it was satisfying to see that I was able to gradually increase the pace throughout the race, with average mile paces of 6:27, 6:07, and 5:36 (for the last 0.5). 

I was no worse for wear afterwards and already excited about the next race in the series. I'd love to continue to close the gap on those ahead of me as the series (and, hopefully, my fitness) progresses. And now it's time to get to work...
Group cool down. Another great shot from Scott.