Monday, May 25, 2015

The things you'll do to settle a debate!

Two years ago, two friends and I set out on a crazy hike through Linville Gorge, NC. The terrain was difficult, but the scenery was gorgeous, and we had a fantastic time. But one issue was left unresolved: Should we have taken that climb out of the gorge two years ago?

Basically, the question was as follows. About 5 miles from the end of the route, there is a choice to be made. After a difficult riverside trail featuring much bushwhacking / getting lost, the trail splits. One path continues down the river, only to peter out about a mile from our goal. The other path is clearly marked, but heads 1500 vertical feet straight up the side of the gorge before descending back to the finish. Which path would you take? These maps illustrate the problem.

Here's the route of our run:

The area in question is highlighted at the lower left. Now take a look at this map of the area:

Notice that the trail along the river (Trail 7) ends before reaching the Mountains to Sea Trail (Trail 14) at the bottom of the map. The Linville Gorge Trail is the very trail that had been so difficult to follow, and now it looks like it ended completely. Tristan argued that it would be easier to follow this trail, then navigate along the river for the final mile. I said it made more sense to take the Pinch-off trail (Trail 21) up to the highway (actually a gravel road) which connected directly with Mountains to Sea (Trail 14). In the end, we went my way, but for two years Tristan insisted he was right.

So now, two years later, we were going to do the entire route again, but this time we'd take Tristan's route no matter what, then decide whose plan was better. This time, the plan was to hike in two miles to a camp on Shortoff Mountain Friday night, run the entire 22-mile loop without backpacks on Saturday, camp again Saturday night, then hike out Sunday morning.

As before, I picked up our permits Friday morning, but this year I took the opportunity to get in a shakeout run near Linville Falls. It was a perfect day for a run, and the falls were gorgeous:

Then I drove to the other end of the gorge and hiked up to save a campsite for the group. This year there would be five of us: Me, Tristan, Jeff, Sam, and Jon. We stayed in a beautiful spot with views of the gorge, and Jon even carried up cold beers for us to drink by the fire!

Jon and Jeff enjoy their beers Friday evening
The next day we arose with the sun and got ready for the epic run. Soon we were out on the trail on a gorgeous day. The first part of the trail was flat-to-rolling, and very runnable, with spectacular views of the gorge.

I get a selfie while Jeff takes a more traditional shot of the gorge

Yep, it's scenic up here!
After this the trail got a little tougher, but there were still some runnable sections. The group began to split up a bit but we reassembled for a photo in the middle of a big climb:

Sam is *not* standing on a rock. Nosiree, he's really that tall!
At Mile 10 we arrived at the river, where everyone had a different method for getting across. Jon hopped across a precarious gap. Sam attempted the same maneuver but had to jump in the water when he dropped his bottle. Jeff rock-hopped but then had to bushwack his way back to the trail. I tossed my gear to Jon and swam across. I'm not sure how Tristan made it; he was already hiking out the trail on the other side when I arrived.

The next 5 miles were the same challenging navigation experiment I remembered from last year. Jeff and I stuck together while Jon and Sam bounded ahead. The miles passed slowly as it the trail was rocky and barely runnable at all, when we could find it.

Finally we arrived at the point where the Pinch-in Trail split off from the Linville Gorge Trail. I told Jeff that I was planning on staying on the Gorge trail but it was possible that there would be bushwhacking. He said he didn't have a map so he had to stay with me. Off we went!

Amazingly, as soon as we started down this route, the trail improved, and was once again quite runnable. At some point, according to my map, the trail was going to peter out, but for now it looked great. After a mile or so we caught up with Tristan, who was grinning from ear to ear.

"So what do you think about this trail, Dave?" He asked.

"So far, it looks like you're right," I said.

"You see!"

"But we haven't gotten to the part where the trail disappears yet, remember?"

We pressed on, but Tristan grew more confident with every step that his route was the best. But then, suddenly we were off trail again. Tristan had an advanced GPS with maps, and said we needed to ford the river to pick up a different trail that wasn't on my paper map. My plan was to stick with Tristan, so I said "sure," and we waded across. We wandered around the woods for a few minutes, and I began to wonder if this was the part where we would start to regret this decision. But then we found the trail again, and all was well for another couple miles, until we had to ford the river again.

This was a pretty difficult crossing, and Jeff caught a great photo of me stumbling across:

Once we were across, however, the trail was easy to find, and it was flat double-track. There was no doubting that Tristan's route was easier, even with the two extra fords.

Soon we hooked back up with the Mountains to Sea Trail and climbed back up to our campsite, where Jon had another beer for each of us and I was able to create a burrito feast for the group.

As we sat enjoying our beers, the burritos, and the view, Tristan asked "So Dave, when are you going to apologize?"

"Apologize?" I said. "I agree that you were right, but now you want an apology?"

"Yes, Yes I do."

I certainly wasn't going to accommodate this request. What was he going to ask for next? But Tristan persisted in demanding an apology.

Now I think I know what we're going to debate for the next two years!

Below is the GPS of our epic run!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Can I use 5k time to predict Beer Mile time?

Next week I will be timing a variation on a Beer Mile: a Beer relay. In this event, the rules are pretty simple. Each team has two members, who proceed as follows:

  1. Teammate #1 drinks a beer and runs a half-mile
  2. Teammate #2 drinks a beer and runs a half mile
  3. Repeat 1 and 2 above.
As a timer, this presents an interesting difficulty: How many people can do this event at once without chaos ensuing?

My initial hunch is that we can time 50 teams at once. But if 50 runners are passing through the finish line area in roughly the same amount of time, this could be problematic. Then we'd have the craziness of those runners finishing and their teammates trying to chug beers, and it might not be possible to keep track of everyone to identify the winners (we're tracking the top male, female, and mixed teams).

What I'm hoping is that beer-chugging ability and running ability will naturally sort everyone out, and the runners will be nicely spread out by the time they reach the finish, even after just a half mile. This is certainly what happens in the 5Ks we time. In fact, I have lots of data about real-world 5K times from all the races I have timed to back this up. But just because runners spread out over 5K doesn't mean they'll spread out as much over a half mile.

So I decided to take a little survey in a couple different running groups I participate in. I asked three questions:
  1. What is your 5K PR?
  2. How fast can you run a half-mile (805 meters)?
  3. How fast can you chug a 12-ounce (355 ml) beer?
What I wanted to know is how well peoples' 5k times correlate to their half-mile and beer-chugging times. Thirty-one people responded, and after removing three folks who are either freakishly slow in the half-mile or accidentally entered their half-marathon time instead of half-mile time, I created this chart of the results:

Click for a larger version
The chart correlates half-mile time (blue) and beer-chug time (red) to 5K PRs. As you can see, half-mile time correlates pretty well with 5K PR. The R-squared value for that data suggests that 5K time explains about 48 percent of the variance in half-mile times. By contrast, 5K time explains only 8 percent of the variance in beer-chugging times. The beer-chug times are all over the map!

So how would that correspond to an actual race? Well, if everyone who answered the survey completed the first lap of the race in the times indicated in the survey, the finish would look like this:

There might be a little bunching among the first 5 or 6 finishers (four runners are each predicted to arrive after a total of 180 seconds), but after that things spread out quite nicely. And let's not forget, these survey respondents, members of running clubs, are faster than your typical 5K runner; the slowest among my respondents reported a sub-30-minute 5K, whereas in the last 5K I timed, 73 percent of the participants were slower than 30 minutes! Also, I think it's reasonable to expect that running times will be unequally affected by the consumption of beer, with some runners able to shrug off those effects more easily than others.

But to answer the initial question in this post, how does 5K time correlate to Beer-Mile time? We can't know for sure since we don't know how the beer consumption will affect running pace, but assuming its effects are negligible, this chart correlates 5K PR to total time for chugging a beer and running a half-mile:

The R-squared value suggests that this correlation may be significant; 5K time explains 50 percent of the variance in first-lap Beer Relay time. But of course, we won't know for sure until we run the actual race!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Race Recap: The Bloomsday Run

Ever since my in-laws moved to Spokane a couple years ago, they have been pressing me to run in the Bloomsday Run, one of the biggest road races in the world. It's just a 12K (7.46 miles), but for decades, tens of thousands of Northwesterners have been converging on this event in early May.

This year I finally had the chance to do it. Unfortunately, the corrals for the race are seeded a little oddly. Instead of going by straight pace, behind the elite runners, Corporate Cup runners get the next placement. Thousands of runners, from Alex the department assistant who's only run 7.5 miles once in his life, to some guy in accounting who is three years out of college when he could run a 30-minute 10k, all line up together in what can only be described as pandemonium.

Next to the Corporate Cup runners are about 500 folks like me, who aren't fast enough to be elite but are faster than most of the Corporate Cuppers. Here I am lined up at the start of the race:

This is about 15 minutes before the start. It was totally packed when the gun went off!
When the gun sounded, it was pandemonium as the crowd struggled to sort itself into proper pacing groups. I've heard horror stories about this race being clogged up for the first two miles. I managed to fall in with folks running my pace after about a half-mile, but it still wasn't ideal. I don't see why Bloomsday can't sort people better according to pace. They do it at Peachtree (an even bigger race), breaking runners into much smaller groups of like-paced runners, and the start is much more organized, allowing folks to start running at their target pace right away.

My goal for this race was a 7-minute pace, which would mean finishing in just over 52 minutes. This is considerably slower than I would be running if I hadn't gotten injured in February, but it would represent my fastest run since the injury over this distance. Since it was a hilly course, the plan was to run the flat Mile 1 at about a 7:00 pace, then bank some time in Mile 2 which included a huge downhill.

After starting the first mile at about a 7:30 pace I ended up running it in 6:55. This means I probably ran the second half of the mile too fast. Mile 2, however, went as planned, and I finished it in 6:38. During Mile 3 I knew I'd probably see my friend Barb, who is a sports-med doc and was working the medical tent. Sure enough, she saw me and got a photo as I climbed some of this mile's 85 feet of gain:

So far, so good!
Mile 3 went by in 7:08, about right since it was mostly uphill. Mile 4 rolled by in 7:06. Next was a dramatic downhill followed by the first half of "Doomsday Hill," the legendary 140-foot climb under the pounding sun. I tried to bank some pace on the downhill, then crossed the Spokane River and headed up Doomsday. As I climbed, I motivated myself by the fact that I could see the top of the hill, and maintained a steady pace all the way up. Pace for Mile 5 was a respectable 7:33. Now all I'd have to do was pick the pace back up to 7:00 for the final 2.5 miles.

Checking my watch. I'm surprised all my race photos don't look like this!

The problem with Doomsday Hill isn't so much the hill, it's the fact that you don't get any relief after the hill. At the "top," the road actually continues gradually uphill for another half-mile. It was excruciating trying to pick up the pace. I could only muster a 7:31 for Mile 6. Mile 7 wasn't any better despite finally flattening out: 7:34.

I knew Greta, Jim, and Marion (my mother in law) would be waiting for me around Mile 7, so I kept watch for them. I finally spotted them at around 7.2, and Greta got a picture:

I'm trying to smile through the pain

Now it was just a matter of the sprint to the finish. I picked up the pace as best as I could, but others around me did much better; I was probably passed by 10 guys in the final quarter-mile, and I only mustered a 7:07 pace for that last half-mile. Overall my official time was 53:53, a little slower than planned, with an average 7:14 pace. This was good for 40th in my age group (out of 1,241), so still fairly respectable given my injury. If I had been injury free I think I might have been able to finish about 7 minutes faster, which would have put me in the top 10. Maybe next time!

But I wasn't the only person who struggled over those last 2.5 miles. A guy came up to me at the finish and told me that he had been just a few steps behind me the entire race. So it wasn't just me who found those final "flat" miles to be the toughest.

Here are a couple of shots of me after the finish:

Walking across the bridge after we've finished

That's the start line behind me. I had finished but thousands were still just getting started!

Me and the Bloomsday sculpture; the runners are sporting previous years' finisher shirts!

All in all it was a fun experience! It was awesome being a part of such an epic event! Details of my race are below.