Monday, August 29, 2011

Hood to Coast Relay 2011

Last weekend I competed in the 2011 edition of the epic 200 mile, 36 leg, 1200 team Hood to Coast relay (HtC). This was my second running of HtC, both times with the Leapin’ Lizards (LL) team, a competitive mixed submasters team of 6 men and 6 women all 30 years old or older. When I say it is a competitive team, I really mean it, but the truth of that statement is that in this team’s mind we were really only racing against one other team, the Slug Hunters (SH).

The LL and SH teams have been duking it out and trading first and second place in the division for at least the last four years, finishing within minutes of each other each year. Who the third place team might be in the division is irrelevant, since they usually are well over an hour behind every year. Unfortunately for the LL, the SH have the upper hand and were the three time defending champions in the division. We were hoping to change that this year and have a little fun along the way.

Oh look, someone tagged the Slug Hunters van with a Leapin' Lizards magnetic tag, hmmm, how'd that happen?

In the bigger picture of Hood to Coast teams, the SH and and LL are among the elite top fifteen teams, regardless of divisions. And it isn’t because we bring in a couple of super fast ringers from out of town, we don’t. All of our men were running with current 10k performance times within 45 seconds of one another (34:15 to 35:00) and all of our women within 2 minutes (37:00 to 39:00). As the race results showed, everyone performed up to expectations, if not better. Individually, any of our runners would be welcome on almost any other HtC team. That level of speed and depth is hard to find. But what really makes the whole HtC experience matter and memorable is how well the team works together. It is a team race after all and not just a bunch of runners taking turns at getting from point A (Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood) to point B (the beach in Seaside, Oregon).

Van 1 of Leapin' Lizards - L to R:

Ben Flaata, Leo Alapont, Daniel Hough, Matt Thomas, Andi Camp, Andria Scheese.

The decision and opportunity to run the race this year was something of an unexpected thing for me. A fair amount of team drama and an overall sour taste at the end of my previous running in 2009 left me a little frustrated, vowing not to run the relay again. But that all changed after watching the Hood to Coast movie this spring with a packed theater at the Ashland Independent Film Festival. Forgetting everything and wanting to feel the rush again, I said to myself, how could I not do this again. Since I had moved into the masters age group last year, I expressed my interest to the Facebook world of getting on a competitive masters team, but got no bites. Since my running on the team in 2009, the LL continued to improve and seek faster and faster runners, and as a result, I was told by a long time team member, I just wasn’t fast enough. Fine, fair enough but of course I knew better. Fortunately for me, the LL team captain cut me off at the pass and said, “pshaw” if you want to run, we would be happy to have you. I was in. In the ensuing months the team roster changed week to week, and up until a week before the race, day to day, but in the end we pulled together a phenomenal team, both as runners and as people, people with character (some who are real characters too), and that is what really mattered in the end.

Why did character matter any more this year than any other year? Mostly because of the organizational and logistical nightmares most teams encountered from ridiculous miles long traffic backups at and between exchange points. For the entire second half of the race our team ran in fear that we were not going to be able to get our next runner to the exchange point in time to hand off. For competitive teams like LL and SH, there is no down time, no standing around chatting at exchange points. As soon as one of our runners came in their teammates walked them directly to the waiting van and we hauled ass to the next exchange point to ensure that the incoming runner had someone to handoff to and we were never left waiting. No time to cool down or stretch. As much as we would have liked, we could not stop to chat and trash talk and catch up with old and new friends. No time was ever wasted and we still barely made it through with only minor delays. In fact, we outsmarted the race by having some runners run ahead and beg random vans for rides to the next exchange to be able to keep our team racing without delay while our vans were stuck idling in traffic miles behind where they should have been. The race is supposed to work for the teams without delays, and we shouldn’t have to find ways to out smart it just to have it keep flowing as planned, and dare I say as promised.

We were there to race. Unfortunately too many races now days have become huge money making events first, where the attention to details and accuracy that matter to those actually running to win, have taken a back seat to providing an experience for the masses and the back-of-the-packers whose money the race operators are only more than happy to pocket. Many teams were rightly very unhappy with the organization of the race this year and will be demanding some changes for next year. Here’s hoping that change happens, but I am not optimistic. Like many others I do plan to express my frustration to the HtC organization and request some changes be made for next year. I hope those that ran and are reading this do the same.

As for the actual running of my three legs, it went down something like this. I was the 6th runner on the team rotation in van 1. My first leg was leg 6, a somewhat hilly 6.70 mile stretch of highway shoulder rolling into the town of Sandy. I went out hard, but so does everyone on the first leg, and right off the bat in the first mile I got passed by 3 people. As a faster runner, I did not expect that to happen often but reminded myself we did start in a fast wave and it was early so we were going to jostle with some really fast team. Well, I soon found out that two of those that passed me were posers, and when we started to climb some of the longer hills they came back to me, then they got to look at my back side. This leg was hot and sunny and run right into a warm head wind. My van mates who ran legs before me told us how hot it was and to be careful not to blow up. One team mate made that visually clear when she came weaving into the exchange with her head tilted back and her legs turning to rubber as she displayed the full effects of the heat and her incredible effort. I ran very hard, but kept telling myself to run smart, there was a lot of work to do yet with two more legs to run. When I started this leg I knew the SH were behind us but I had no idea how far. Well, with about 200 meters to go, in sight of the exchange zone if it wasn’t a damn SH who comes barreling by me at full sprint. I thought for a second, I can go with this guy, but then said, no wait, let him go, don’t kill yourself sprinting now for a 5 second loss if it is going to wipe you out for the later legs. I let him go. I wonder how long that sneaky bastard was sitting off my butt waiting to do that? I came in a few seconds over my projected time which was just fine by me, because I still felt great and knew I was going to kill the next two legs.

My second leg was a different story. By the time this leg (number 18) started, our team was now around 10 minutes behind the SH. The leg was only 5.28 miles mostly all uphill. I was ready to run hard, but wasn’t going to close a 10 minute gap. Taking the exchange band at about 11:30PM I ran off into the darkness and picked off dozens and dozens of slower runners. As I got moving I realized I really felt good and just attacked the hills. Breathing hard the whole way but never backing down, I rolled into the exchange at full speed to hand off to my teammate. I didn’t know how fast I ran, just that I killed the projected time. Then I waited. Running up the hill to the finish I passed hundreds of idling vans. I assumed my van was ahead of all that and was there waiting for me. I didn't occur to me that my van was even further back. I kept waiting, and started to get cold. I was wet and tired and wanted to get a drink but no van. Aaaargh, 20 minutes later they arrived, they were stuck in traffic. This was not good. After getting back to the van I was able to see how well that leg went compared to the projected time, I just ran 1:35 under the projected time on a 5.28 mile leg. Not bad, not bad at all.

By the time I was mentally warming up for my third leg (leg 30), we were sure that our team was screwed and wouldn’t be able to get our vans down the road fast enough to have runners there for the next few exchanges, let along the transition from our van (my leg) to the next van. As our runner before me took off on his grueling hill climb, we idled in traffic and I worried. Eventually we started moving and got up the climb but we still hadn’t passed him. Finally we were moving down the back of the hill and we passed him, but there was no way the van would make it to the exchange before him. The van hit a stand still and I hopped out and began to run quickly down the hill about a mile and a half to the exchange. In the end we timed it perfectly, just as I got to the exchange, I turned around and our runner was barreling down the hill towards me. We made the hand off and I flew. I had a great warmup for a change by running ahead to get to the exchange point and now I was really hauling ass down the hill. At one point I looked at my watch and I was running 5:01 pace. This leg was 5.38 miles but it was easy fast running. The whole left lane in the road was open with the right lane jammed with vans. I ran the yellow line and the inner tangets hard and tight and just let my legs flow and my arms pump. The sun has just come up and we could see again in the light and this was the first time in the day that I really heard other vans cheering for runners from other teams (like me) on the road. As I neared the exchange, having seen how far back the vans were backed up, a sense of sadness came over me as I had convinced myself this was the end of the road for our team and that there was no way my teammate could have possibly gotten ahead to be at the exchange point. But I ran hard anyway and was determined to still give it everything, then a miracle. As they called our team number 3-5-9, out of the crowd pops my teammate! She was there, holy shit! I handed off the wrist band and cheered, then I turned and ran the 2 miles back up the road to find my van stuck in traffic. I finally got a real cool down and made sure to cheer for every runner and walker I passed as I jogged back up the hill, after all I had just blown by them all like a sweaty shirtless possessed demon with funny lights blinking away on his front, head and butt. This leg was 1:11 under the project time, I killed another one. I was done, three hard legs in about 14 hours time.

My projected total pace was 5:51, but in the end, I ran a total of 2:37 seconds under my total projected time for an average pace of 5:42 per mile over 17.33 miles. Our team finished 10th overall in 20:19:23. The SH finished 6th overall in 20:00:45. Out of over 1200 teams, a top 10 finish (our first ever) is pretty respectable. The SH brought a great team and showed us who’s boss. To this I salute them. Very nicely done. Maybe next year for LL…..maybe.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A 100 Mile Journey

I recently accomplished a long standing running goal of mine to run 100 miles in one week.  Now, running 100 miles in a week may sound impressive to some (it impresses me), but in and of itself, it really doesn’t mean that much.  I’ll admit it, 100 miles is a nice round number and distance that most, both runners and non-runners, can relate to, sort of like the four minute mile (I'm still working on that one).  And as much as reaching this weekly mileage is an accomplishment almost anyone can feel proud of, it is what it represents that matters most to me.  In essence, the 100 mile week was the destination and was a worthwhile one to reach, but it was really the journey to get to that place that was the most satisfying and significant.

For me to get to 100 miles meant that I first had to run 70, then 80, then 90 miles in a week.  If it was simply a matter of testing myself on whether or not I could run 100 miles in one week, I am sure I could have and would have done much sooner.  But it was not a matter of what I could do in one week of running, it was a matter of months, even years of training.  What this mark really signifies is how I got to a level in my running that 100 miles was the appropriate weekly mileage at that point in the training cycle.  Getting to that point was a reasonably slow and calculated process of progressively increasing my mileage within the context of a number of target races all the while running the usual hard workouts and speed session necessary to get faster and stay sharp.  It has never been a mission for the miles.  That for me would get pretty boring, no matter how much I simply enjoy running.  Rather, I want to get faster and stronger and that only happens with hard work and continually building on what has been accomplished.  Running 100 miles in a week was result of having a plan, putting in the work, and maintaining a level of consistency.

Did that journey make me stronger and more able to run even more and more miles?  It sure did, but it also made me fitter, more efficient, and most importantly, faster as a runner.  If I was asked what I think is the one thing that has made me a better runner over the last year, I would say it has been running more miles.  And for those that know me and how I train and how big a proponent I am of supplemental training modalities, especially for masters runners, that might come as a surprise.  But simply running more miles, while staying relatively healthy and continuing to maintain the other key components of my training program, has provided benefits to the whole training package.

Of course there is a point at which one can run too many miles and it no longer has a beneficial effect, where one becomes seriously injured or is not able to recover quickly enough.  I think I’m probably close to that point when running 100 miles in a week, but who knows.  I don’t plan to intentionally push to the limit to find that breaking point, but I do expect that I’ll hit 100 miles in a week again sometime in the future. 

And in the spirit of honest story telling, I’ll admit it, as I came the end of my planned long run on Sunday morning my running log totaled 97 miles.  I should have been done for the week.  I ran what I needed to and completed the workouts as planned.  There was nothing more to do, so I did what any runner with a passion for this sport would do, I went for another run that afternoon.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Finding Your Best Distance

I recently ran a new personal record (PR) of 34:56 for the 10k on the roads at the Scandia Run in Junction City, Oregon.  For some reason I almost never race the 10k distance these days, which strikes me as a little odd.  I’ve run one 10k a year since I got back into running in 2007.  Maybe the 10k isn’t offered as much as a distance at road races these days.  It certainly seems true that there are more and more 5ks and half marathons than ever before.  When I was a teenager in the 1980s and running a road race almost every weekend with my father in some small town in central Minnesota, I recall the 10k being the distance of choice.  Not any more.

One reason I might not run the 10k as often as other distances is that it hurts.  It hurts alot.  To me, a 10k is like a really long 5k race and if I’m going to choose to hurt, why hurt for twice as long!  Granted, one is not really pushing the pace as close to the red line as in a 5k, but it is a long hard run at a pretty hard clip.  Maybe there is something about staying mentally focused on such a hard effort for 30-35 minutes as opposed to 16-17 minutes for the 5k.  The half marathon is a challenging distance too, but for me it is one that is just long enough (or maybe slow enough) to allow me some time to get into a nice rhythm.  Not so with the 10k, it’s get out, get the heart rate up and hang on.

In spite of my apprehension about racing the 10k, it has been a good test of my relative fitness and progression as an adult runner.  I’ve raced one 10k each year since I started running road race again in 2007 and have progressively dropped my time/PR about two to three minutes each time.  I certainly don’t think I can keep improving at that rate, but I do think I can run even faster.

My 10k road racing progression

2007 – 43:15

2008 – 39:50

2009 – 36:45

2010 – no 10ks run

2011 – 34:56

2012 – ????

One thing that running this recent 10k PR made me think about and ask myself is just what is “my” distance.  With what I think are my relative strengths and weaknesses in mind, and recognizing what kind of training and racing I enjoy most, what do I think I am particularly suited to run?  That’s a tough question, because I might not like the answer I come up with or the answer any of my friends that know me and my running may come up with.  There is no question that I really like running on the track and racing 800 meters.  I do still have some all out leg speed, probably more than most masters distance runners.  But I also can get into that groove and put it on cruise control for a few hours in a way that can lead to a decent marathon.  I’ve gotten my mileage up to consistently run 70 to 80 miles per week and have topped out at 100 miles in a week with no major injuries.  So, is the answer somewhere between?  Is my ideal racing distance, god forbid, the 10k?  It might be. 

Where this all leads me to ask myself, what do I want to focus my training towards next year.  Last year, my first as a masters runner, was the year of the 800 meters.  This year has been more of the year of the marathon and half marathon.  Next year I’m thinking of going for some really fast 5ks, both on the track and the roads.  So, what’s a really fast 5k for me?   A PR?  Well, my PR of 17:14 is soft in relation to my current fitness level, so that’s not the best measure.  Is a fast 5k for me what the McMillan performance calculator says I should run based on my 10k or half marathon PRs?  Maybe, but my 1500m and 800m PRs are faster than the calculator predicts.  The short answer is that I really don’t know.  That the fun part of all this.  I guess I’ll just have to run a few and find out the hard way.

First Post

Welcome to my new running blog.  As a regular connoisseur of online content related to most things running I thought I’d give a go at adding my two cents from time to time.  My intention is to periodically share my thoughts and opinions about my own running experiences, the experiences of my running friends, and the training and performances of today’s elite collegiate and professional runners.  I hope you enjoy reading this and feel free to comment.