Wednesday, July 23, 2014

These are the levels of race banditing. Where do you fall?

Depending on your definition, any of these could be considered "banditing" a race

1. As a spectator, go onto a race course to help a wheelchair division athlete whose chair had tipped over
2. As a spectator in the finish area, get a water bottle from the aid station to help another spectator who has fainted
3. Register your child for a fun run but run along with them, unregistered
4. Register for a race, forget your bib at home, but run the race anyways
5. Run (unregistered) with your spouse / significant other for the last couple miles of their first race, being careful to step off the course before the finish, and making sure not to use any of the supplies provided for runners.
6. As a spectator, use a porta-potty provided for runners
7. Wear a friend's non-transferrable race bib in a race, being careful to step off the course before the finish
8. Let your (unregistered) 3-year-old run through the finish line with you as you complete your first marathon
9. As a runner, pick up extra supplies at the final aid station after the finish of a race and take them home for later
10. Post the "PROOF" photo from a race photography website to your Facebook page
11. A race just happens to be held on your usual running route. You run anyways, without registering, stepping off the course before the finish
12. Run (unregistered) the entire route of a marathon with your running buddy to help him make his BQ, stepping off before the finish
13. Hop in to a local 5k where you're not registered. Run straight through the finish line.
14. Climb over the barrier and hop in to the Boston Marathon, availing yourself of free water, gatorade, and energy gels. Get a hearty ovation from the crowd as you run through the finish line on Boylston Street.
15. Forge a race number for the New York Marathon, run the whole race, get a medal at the finish. Complain when you are not listed in the official results.

I've heard folks say that banditing a race is ALWAYS wrong, no matter what. Are all of these actions equally wrong? Are some more wrong than others? What if you did #5 above but donated $10 to the race charity? Honestly, the charity probably makes less than that off of every registered runner, once you count all the expenses that go into a race. Would that be wrong?

I'm not saying it's not wrong to bandit a race. As a race timer, it's especially annoying to me when bandits come through the finish chute. I have to check with every one of them to make sure they aren't actually registered (since many runners remove their shirts with the bibs on them during a race, or put on sweatshirts over their bibs, I need to make sure I get a time for each runner).

But I'd rather see someone respectfully bandit a race than never run at all. If a runner gets motivated by running with others but can't afford a race fee, I don't see a huge problem with that person hopping in the race mid-pack and hopping back out before the finish, especially if they don't use the porta-potties and food and drinks provided for the runners.

And there are other obnoxious things runners can do in races that maybe technically "okay" but I think are much more annoying than a respectful bandit. Like running four-abreast when others are trying to pass, or blasting headphones so loud you can't hear race officials' instructions, or drafting off someone for miles into a headwind without ever offering to take a turn in front.

Yet I see much more self-righteous indignation about bandits than any of these things. Would it be better if no one ever bandited? Sure, but it would also be better if flabby-chested middle-aged men never ran shirtless. If I had to pick one to get rid of first, it'd probably be the flabby shirtless runners.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Dave's Road to Pike's Peak: The Scream (and The Cry)

Some of us have one race that we just run over and over (and mostly in our heads). I prefer to move on to new challenges once I've conquered the older ones.

This season's challenge is to run the Pike's Peak Marathon. It's an incredibly compelling challenge to climb 7,800 feet over 13.1 miles, then run back down over the same brutal course with tired legs. (That sort of challenge might only be exceeded by beating our arch-nemesis JITFO in the Blue Ridge Relay. That's a race worth repeating!)

To train for Pike's Peak I've been seeking out hills and stairs whenever possible. Most of my climbing workouts have been in the Davidson College football stadium, where, following a workout designed by running buddy (and somewhat-legendary ultrarunner) Jeff McGonnell, I run up and down the bleachers (not the steps) in sets of 20. Then I run a lap around the track and do another set of bleachers. It's a brutal regimen, as demonstrated by this pair of photos:

'Nuff said!

On another workout I did the stair machine with Jeremy Alsop (who finished the Western States 100 miler in 22:45). His comment (after 3,000 vertical feet of climbing): "that's the first time I've ever seen a pool of sweat under that machine!"

A few months ago it occurred to me that barring a trip to Colorado, one local race might make the perfect training event for Pike's Peak: The Scream Half Marathon. The race web site describes it as "2,000+ feet of screaming descent from Jonas Ridge down to the sleepy ghost town of Mortimer." To get the uphill portion of the workout, I'd just need to stay the night in that sleepy ghost town and run up the hill in the dark morning before turning around and running back down! Bobby Aswell, who's run over 100 marathons, has decided that my workout should be called "The Cry."

As it turned out, the only accommodations available in Mortimer were in a first-come first-served USFS campground. Asking yet another ultrarunning friend, Brandon Thrower, I found out that as long as I arrived before noon the day before I should have no problem getting a campsite; "Just make sure you try and find a spot closer to the road to avoid the rift raft."

Fast-forward to Friday morning. I drove up to Mortimer in the driving rain. My tiny Honda Fit struggled on the winding gravel road for the last 20 miles, but eventually I made it to Mortimer Campground. I drove past the picnic area, across a bridge marked "floods in high water" to what looked like the first open campsite and found myself surrounded by what can only be described as "rift raft." It was only then that I realized that what looked like picnic grounds were actually the promised sites close to the road. You couldn't drive all the way up to them, so I hauled my gear across a footbridge 50 yards to the site.

Okay, it might not have been quite this wet, but still...

Let's just say that I was happy that I had decided—at the last minute—to bring my 10-foot canopy tent in addition to my camping tent. For the next 20 hours, it would. not. stop. raining. I sat under the canopy and read a book, made coffee and read, thought about what all this rain was doing to the gravel road I'd be running on and read, went for a 4-mile shakeout run in the rain, came back, showered, read some more, made spaghetti, read, and tried to go to sleep under the incessant beating of raindrops on my tent.

Finally it was 5 am, time to get ready to go. Yes, it was still raining. By 5:20, I was ready. I started up Runkeeper so my wife, traveling in India, could follow along. I put the phone in a ziploc, hoisted my hydration pack on my back, turned on my headlamp, and headed out into the darkness. After two miles of a flat, mucky road, I turned up a long, gravel hill. I told myself I could stop and walk every 4 miles while I took a GU. After 4 miles and 700 feet of climbing, I took my first break. At 6 miles after another 600 feet of climbing I decided it was okay to take a walk-break every 2 miles. Now I was starting to look at my pace. I had given myself 2 hours and 40 minutes to get to the top—12-minute miles. That should be doable, right? Mile 6, however, had taken 11:48, just under my target pace. If I ran this pace all the way to the top, I wouldn't have time to check in for the race and start with the other runners. Plus I probably wouldn't be able to drop off my hydration pack, which was beginning to chafe painfully at my shoulders.

Fortunately Miles 7 and 8 leveled off a bit and I was chugging along at under a 10-minute pace. Miles 9, 10, and 11 were steeper and took closer to 11 minutes each, but then I arrived at a paved road with just 2 miles to go. Unfortunately, I didn't know which way to go. Fortunately, a jeep filled with race volunteers pulled off the road at this exact moment and asked me which way the course went. I was able to direct them down the hill and they pointed me towards the start line. Now that the road was flat and paved, my pace quickened, and I arrived at the registration area with 20 minutes to spare. I had run the first half of the workout in 2:13, which Garmin told me was an average pace of exactly 10 minutes per mile, while climbing about 2,500 feet. Not bad for half a day's work!

I got in line behind yet another ultrarunning friend, Baki Oguz, who will be running Pike's Peak with me. He asked how the climb was and I said it wasn't too bad. Now that I was stopped, it was getting chilly, and I was glad I had packed a long-sleeved shirt. I wore the shirt for about 10 minutes before I dropped it, along with my hydration pack, in the truck that would carry our gear to the bottom.

Now everyone started jogging towards the start line, about a third of a mile away, and I connected with several running buddies: Chas, Sam, Bobby, Katie, and Sarah. All of them except Sarah (who had just run Grandfather Mountain Marathon the week before) would end up finishing ahead of me.

The race started on the flat paved road, and I was expecting to run an 8:00-ish pace, so I was surprised to find myself running a fairly easy 7:20, even though I was wearing my cushy Hoka shoes. There were maybe 30 or 40 people ahead of me and another 300 behind. Not bad for a guy who's already run 13 uphill miles!

Then we hit the gravel road and the steep downhill. I was surprised to find that I could maintain my 7-ish pace on this hill; my legs actually felt pretty fresh, and despite the pace, I didn't feel winded at all. Since I was running a full 26 miles, I decided that I would stop and walk at every aid station, taking a GU at every other station. This meant a few runners passed me every time. I tried to avoid getting dragged into a "racing" mentality. For me, this was just a workout. I would take what the terrain gave me, and no more. Somewhere along the way a dog started running along with us. He loped along with me for a quarter mile or so, then caught up with the next runner and kept on going. I later found out this dog made his way all the way down the mountain, finishing the race in fourth place! I hope he knew the way home!

My pace was solidly in the 7:10s to 7:20s all the way to around Mile 6, when the course turned uphill. What?!? Uphill? I didn't remember this from my climb up. On second thought, maybe that was the part where I had picked up the pace on the way up. Whatever, it still sucked. I actually passed a guy who was walking on the uphill. Later on the same guy caught up to me again and asked if there were any more hills. Apparently he was from Wilmington where any climb longer than 10 feet was an occasion for a walk-break. Maybe JITFO could use this guy!

Then the course continued down, down, without any significant incident. I continued to walk at every aid station to make sure I got enough water / nutrition. What, you say I'm being hypocritical making fun of the walker from Wilmington while taking my own walk breaks? I refuse to acknowledge any connection between the two.

Finally, with two miles to go, it was a matter of the final, flat, muddy slog to the finish. I knew I was going to slow down at this point, and steeled myself for getting passed some more. Sure enough, I did get passed, but I didn't slow down quite as much as I expected; I was still making an 8:40 pace through the muck. I even passed a couple folks myself, and picked it up a bit more for the last quarter-mile. Here's the shot Bobby Aswell took of me as I sprinted towards the finish line:

An 8:00 pace counts as a "sprint" after 26.2 miles!
Project Pike's Peak Simulation was a success. Officially, my time for the descent was 1:40:46, a 7:41 pace. Not bad, considering my uphill slog of a warm-up run! Here's the whole gang of DARTers at the finish:

Chas, Sarah, me, Katie, Baki, Sam, and Bobby. Fortunately none of us needed the ambulance

Needless to say, a few things will be different at Pike's Peak. 1. It will not be raining. 2. It WILL NOT be raining. Did you hear me, Weather Gods? 3. Pike's Peak starts at a higher elevation than any part of The Scream, then climbs three times as far as The Scream descends. 4. I will be going much, much, much slower.

But hopefully my experience at The Scream and my other climbing workouts will enable me to finish Pike's Peak.

Or at least crush JITFO at the Blue Ridge Relay a few weeks later!

My Garmin plot of the Scream/Cry is below.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Race recap: Charlotte Running Club Summer Track Event

Track meets are a very different beast from road races. Instead of massing together at the start and finish for what in general is a very lonely event, a track meet is social in all aspects. There are familiar faces everywhere, everyone is running different events, and when you're not running, you're cheering someone else on.

And when you are running, all eyes are on you (or so it seems, from your perspective as a runner).

In retrospect, my plan for the Tuesday's CRC Summer Track Event was over-ambitious. I would start the evening with a 4x400 race, going all-out. Then I'd finish with the fast heat of the 5,000 meters.

As our team got ready for the 4x400, we could see that most of the runners on the track looked faster than us. They all looked like lean, muscular sprinters, and nearly all of them were younger than us. I may well have been the oldest competitor. There were seven teams, and the meet director surprised me by saying there would be a "waterfall" start, meaning runners would break instantly for the inside. As the second runner, this meant I'd have to be jockeying for position at the baton exchange. Oh well, no time to think about that; before we knew it the race started.

Carl was our first runner and he did a great job getting us off to a good start, but clearly our team was outclassed. The runners taking the exchange line up in the order their team is finishing the first lap (e.g. the first place team gets lane one, etc.). It looked like Carl was in 6th so I lined up in lane 6. You are allowed to move in as other runners arrive but the exchange area was fairly congested and I didn't get a chance to move in much. I was so preoccupied by this that I ended up taking the baton from Carl in the wrong hand.

No time to think about that, I was off! My main concern was not getting passed by the 7th place runner, so I went out of the gate hard. Maybe a little too hard, because after about 200 meters I could feel myself starting to slow down. I gave it everything I could around the corner and then sprinted for the finish line, trying to get a good sight of Chas in the exchange zone. I did remember to extend my right arm with the baton and hand off to Chas, our team still in 6th place. Here's a photo the local runner who goes by "Gucci Freshness" took of us at the exhange:

Me relieved to be done; Chas giving it his all!

Chas and then Dustin ran their legs, and we held on for 6th place. This was a pretty informal meet, so there were no official split times, but a friend of ours agreed to get our team's splits, and this is how it worked out:

Carl: 60
Dave: 67
Chas: 65
Dustin: 65
Overall: 4:18

He said he may have started my lap a little early but I can only go by the clock, so I'm pretty disappointed in my time -- only 1 second better than what I did in training last week, after already running four hard 400s. Oh well, it is what it is. Here's the whole team after the event:

From left: Carl, me, Chas, Dustin

Next I watched and cheered the other runners on. Chas ran an impressive 5:03 in the 1500 and then did the open heat of the 5000 just a few minutes later and finished in 19:07.

Now it was my turn; I had decided to run in the "sub-18-minute" heat of the 5000 based on my PR of 17:49 from last fall. But I don't run well in hot weather, and this was definitely a warm night. But since this was a perfect, flat surface, it only seemed reasonable to take a shot at a PR (technically a track PR since the road race is a different event). This would require laps of 85 seconds. My Garmin has never been very accurate on the track, so I set it to show only my time for each lap, not my pace.

A group of 16 very fast-looking runners was warming up near the start line, and I scanned the group for anyone who, like me, might just barely be faster than the 18-minute standard. I didn't find anyone. Here we all are at the starting line:

That's me, hiding in the second row!

For the first couple laps, I felt okay. I glanced at my watch every 200 meters and my splits looked good: Lap 1, 83; lap 2, 85. But I was definitely, solidly, in last place. The one runner I was somewhat close to gained a second or two on each lap. Chas was doing his cool-down lap, and cheered me every time I passed, and everyone who knew me yelled words of encouragement each time I passed them. While I appreciated the support, I was a little freaked out about it. Here I was, slipping farther and farther behind, while my friends and running buddies could watch my every step. In a regular 5k, the spectators only see you once or twice for the whole race. At the end you can explain what went right (or wrong, as the case may be), but mostly you're on your own. Here, everything you do is public.

But I continued making my splits: Lap 3: 85, lap 4, 85. Now it was really starting to hurt. Somewhere around here Gucci got a rare shirtless photo of me:

Note my sheet-white belly, in perfect focus

At this point I could no longer maintain the 85-second laps. So I decided to try for 90-second laps, and did okay for a couple: Lap 5, 90. At this point, the leaders started lapping me. Lap 6, 90. Now even this slower speed was not sustainable. I was halfway done, but I was finished. I could tell that each subsequent lap was going to be slower. I would probably get lapped again. There was no way I could finish sub-18, and sub-19 would be doubtful as well. I decided to drop out.

That's another difference between a road race and a track race. On the road, you pretty much have to finish unless you are injured. What are you going to do, sit on the curb in the middle of nowhere? But on the track, there's a huge temptation just to stop. Especially when you are in last place and going slower than the advertised pace for the event.

I felt bad for my friends because they had stayed for this event to see me run, but I also felt like I was probably much too ambitious for this meet. I probably should have picked a "target" race and then maybe ran another event just for fun. Lesson learned; put that in the old memory bank for next time, Dave!

One thing my friends, online and in person, were able to convince me of, is that despite this setback, I'm still a good runner who just had a bad day. Many runners would kill to be able to string four 85-second laps together, or run a 67-second 400-meter split. On the other hand, we all need to set our own goals, and I do hope to get faster than this. Just as the 9-minute-miler hopes someday to run an 8-minute mile, just as the run-walker hopes to someday run a whole 5k, I have hopes too. At 47 years old, wouldn't it be neat to run a sub-17-minute 5k, like that 14-year-old kid at the meet? All it takes is a 5:28 mile. Surely I can manage that. Or at least I can try, can't I?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Race strategy: The Charlotte Running Club track meet

Tomorrow night I will be running in two events I've never done before: The 4x400 relay and the 5,000-meter track run. The Charlotte Running Club is hosting a track meet and as a newly-installed board member, I figure I should definitely show up and support the club. Even better, I've managed to convince a few friends from our local sub-group of the CRC, DART (the Davidson Area Running Team) to run the relay with me.

We're pretty much all newbies in the relay, so we looked to YouTube for advice and found this video:

(FF to 6:13 for the 4x400 information)

Basically the incoming runner holds the baton straight out in his right hand, and the outgoing runner grabs it with his left hand. We practiced the technique a few times and it seems to work okay.

That's the easy part. The hard part will be going 400 meters all-out. I have done 400s in workouts quite a bit but have never gotten very fast at them. I can still remember my high school cross-country buddy Josh Millard telling me that "anyone can run a 60-second 400," and I do recall hitting that pace...once...when I was 19 years old. Now, at age 47, that time seems like a bit of a stretch. Fortunately now I have the financial means to give myself every possible advantage, so I bought my first-ever pair of racing spikes, and tried them out at the track a couple weeks ago. They definitely gave me quite a bit more speed than just running in trainers or even racing flats. In the middle of a 12x400 workout, I was able to crank out a 68-second 400, even while slowing down a bit for the second half. So what am I capable of in a racing situation, properly warmed up but not tired? I'm thinking maybe a 63 or 62. 60 seconds might be possible but I just don't seem to have quite the foot speed for that.

I do think I'm fit enough to take a 400-meter run all-out the whole way. The real question is how to make my legs turn over faster. I haven't been doing a lot of track work lately because I'm mainly focused on the Pike's Peak Marathon in August, but I've tried a few techniques to go faster -- longer strides, shorter strides, more emphasis on the arms, and so on. The "technique" that seems to work the best, though, is just to tell myself to "run fast" and let my body take care of technique (or lack thereof). I think in the absence of a true middle-distance coach that's about the best I'll be able to do. Hopefully the adrenaline of the race will help me to "run faster" than I have since I was 19.

As for the 5,000, the big question has been which heat to run in. The meet will have an Open heat and a "fast" heat for runners who can do 17:59 or better. My road PR is 17:49, so arguably I should be in the fast heat. With a time so close to the cut-off, however, I'm not sure there will be anyone running close to my pace. On the other hand, there might not be anyone running my pace in the open heat either, so I've decided to run in the fast heat. Maybe I'll be able to keep up with some of the slightly "slower" runners and have a good day. I'd really like to at least match my road PR, which should be doable on a nice flat track.

To hit that pace, I'll just need to average 1:25 per lap, or 5:44 per mile. I think that's doable if I set my mind to it. I will set my watch to show the current lap time rather than pace per mile -- I've found the "pace" function is very inaccurate on the track. Then it's just a matter of going out and running. Wish me luck!