Friday, November 30, 2012

Taking Risks

Do truly great things happen only when we take risks? Can great things happen when we play it safe?

Anne and I have been watching a fascinating docu-drama series on the History Channel, "The Men Who Built America," that profiles industrial titans John D. Rockefeller (oil), J.P. Morgan (finance/electricity/steel), Henry Ford (automobile), Cornelius Vanderbilt (railroads) and Andrew Carnegie (steel). A continuing theme in the various episodes is that these men, who weren't angels by any means (they were later demonized as "robber barons"), took huge risks and ultimately, through successes and failures, achieved empires, the likes of which we've never seen since.

Anyway, it's gotten me to thinking about risk-taking in running. Do you have to take risks to achieve something personally great?

I've been known to occasionally go out hard in races and training runs. I've had my "gunslinger" moments. There was one race in particular where I took a big risk and it resulted, depending on your outlook, in success and failure.

On June 21, 2008, a day after my thirty-fifth birthday, I lined up for the Mohican Trail 100-Mile Run, a hilly race on beautiful single-track trails and dirt roads in Mohican State Park between Columbus and Cleveland, Ohio. Fresh off a new marathon PR, I was in killer shape, having run 100-110 miles a week for months leading up to the race. I was lean, fast, healthy and confident. Unfortunately, I was also tired. Our son, Noah, came into the world six weeks earlier, and he wasn't sleeping well, meaning we weren't sleeping well..... But, standing at the start of Mohican, I didn't feel tired. I was determined to win this race! I genuinely believed no one out there could beat me--mentally or physically.

When the gun went off at 5:00 a.m., I exploded out of the gate. I ran my ass off, holding second place for the first 52 miles. But, in my mind, I was really running first. See, the guy in front of me--a fast dude from California--had gone out too fast the year before and crashed. He was doing the same thing again, and so I knew I'd eventually reel in this sucker and take the lead. Finally, as I entered the Rock Point aid station at mile 52, there he sat totally wasted. Leaving Rock Point, I had the lead, believing in my heart this was my race to win. No one could stop me! Bitch!

Well, at about mile 60, as I was on 16-hour pace (which is pretty aggressive for the Mohican course), my left knee started going south. But that wasn't the only problem; I was getting tired! Going up a long hill to get to the Fire Tower aid station, I got passed by the eventual winner, Jay Smithberger, who was looking great. Jay's one of those badasses who starts conservatively and quietly and gets stonger. He runs his own race and doesn't worry about others. That's why he's a great runner who has many wins on his resume.

Amazingly, the dude I passed at Rock Point eventually caught back up to me. By then I was hobbling along on a shot knee and completely pissed off as I played leap frog with him for several miles. In the midst of all of that, I ate some pizza at the mile 80 Covered Bridge aid station and my stomach didn't like all. Not only did I have a blown knee, but also a massive case of diarrhea (I've never eaten pizza in a race since).

Limping along, I persevered, even as I got passed by an Irish dude and was now "running" fourth. I'd gone from a beastly 16-hour pace at mile 60 to now trying to break 20 hours--hell, even finish this sucker. But I refused to give in. I limped along and had to take really awful potty breaks quite often, but I kept going. I owe a lot to my pacers, Kenny and Ted, who watched over me. Finally, after getting some Pepto in me at mile 90, I finished in 19:22, a pretty good time. My knee took two months to come back after that race.

I often wonder if I'd have won that race if my knee hadn't blown up. Going out hard in a tough 100-miler was a big risk, but I was in fantastic shape and super confident and didn't really think in terms of risk/benefit. In the end, of course I didn't win. But the experience definitely crafted me into a better runner (or did it?) and laid the groundwork for my win at the next year's Mohican 100--to date, the best race I've ever run.

For the past few years I've debated within my own mind the merits and risks of aggressive racing. If you go out hard, maybe you'll be able to hang on and achieve a time you didn't think was possible. Guys like Eric Clifton and Mike Morton have made careers out of this approach, but they've also had their spectacular crashes. In 2004, Matt Carpenter crashed and burned big-time at the Leadville 100, only to come back the next year and set one of the stoutest records in the history of the sport. But we don't really think about their crashes, do we? Even mere mortals like me have seen amazing personal results from aggressive running--be it a new PR, an age-group win, even an overall win.

If you take risks, maybe you'll discover that your limits are far beyond what you'd originally perceived. By the same token, you also risk spectacular failure; you might crash and burn. You're then probably faced with shattered confidence. If you go out conservatively, there's a chance you'll benefit in the latter miles and gain strength when others are fading. That's what people call "smart racing." But there's also the chance you will have fallen short of your potential. Many, including myself, would say falling short of your potential is a tragedy.

At the 2008 Mohican, I don't think I consciously decided to go out hard and see what I could do. My only goal was to win, and it didn't hurt that I had good bulletin board material from some pre-race smack-talking back in Cleveland. That was my second-ever 100-miler. I think I went out hard because: A) I was in great shape and B) I didn't know any better. Looking back on my running life, I realize the 2008 Mohican, when I ran with guns blazing, was my last race as a "kid." The experience made me grow up and actually reflect more on how I raced and on the challenge of 100 miles. Maybe that's a bad thing. I mean, maybe racing recklessly and saying "screw you" to the risk of going hard is the way to go. I don't know any great achievements that have come from playing it safe. Do you?

Maybe that's why the 2012 Leadville 100 has left such a bad taste in my mouth. I didn't go out hard, and yet I still crashed and burned and DNF'd because of an injury. If I'd gone out guns blazing and crashed and burned, maybe I could live with a DNF. To say I'm ready for the 2013 race to get here would be an understatement. What I'm now doing--I mean, dealing with a DNF and using it as motivation for the next race is, after all, a process--is getting the motivation back in me. What happened in 2012 might shatter some folks for good, but for me it's the ultimate bulletin board material. Failure pisses me off. Big time. It was an epic personal failure--an experience that brought me face to face with my own demons. It made me confront, deep within my own soul where most folks NEVER venture because it's dark and murky and scary down there, why I do this sport and whether I want to continue with it. Driving away from Winfield after DNF'ing, I'd decided to "retire" for good--yeah, screw you, Leadville!--only to "unretire" the next day. That moment in Winfield, with Hardrock 100 champ Diana Finkel hovering over me and offering encouragement as I laid on the ground next to the tent with a blasted knee and defeated heart, was a moment that had been brewing for a (long) while, and my knee brought me to it in a big way. For me, that moment had to happen.

It was the best thing that ever happened to me as a runner.

Will I go hard in 2013 like I did at the 2011 Leadville, potentially paying for it in the end but still finishing with a good time? Or will I run "smart"? Who knows.... I gotta figure that out. Honestly, I just want to finish again in under 25 hours!

What works for you--aggressive racing, or going at it conservatively?

Further reading:
  • Mohican 2008 report here.
  • Mohican 2008 reflections here.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Starting to Get the Ultra Itch!

Phoenix Marathon training is going pretty well. I'm hitting good quality and am taking advantage of the favorable weather we're having on the Front Range. Right now, my goal for Phoenix is a 2:55. That breaks down to 6:40 pace. If I get to mile 20 in 2:12 and am still feeling good, I'll have a decent shot at 2:55. Good marathon times often come down to what you do in that last 10K.

Unfortunately, I seem to have tweaked the ball of my right foot--a likely case of metatarsalagia. This is my first tour of duty with this injury. At first, the injury scared the hell out of me, because I feared a stress fracture in my foot. But I'm now pretty sure it's just an inflamed metatarsal. It definitely doesn't feel good, but at this point it's an injury I can manage amid my training so long as I keep icing it and wearing a special pad in my shoe to help reduce impact. At night, I'm wearing a splint while I sleep in order to immobilize my entire foot and promote healing. This is the same splint I wore when I had plantar fasciitis. Comically, I'm finding that my Hokas provide relief with this injury, so for the time being they're back in the picture, though I'm also spending time in lightweight trainers and, on easy days, my trusty Kayanos.

Speaking of Hokas, there is simply no question in my mind that you can run way faster on smooth descents with them. With Hokas, I can fly on the downs if I'm on a road. But if I'm going down a technical mountain trail, I feel unstable in them.

My hope is that the injury clears up soon. If it doesn't, then I'll manage for the next seven weeks and hope it clears up when I shut down for a few weeks after Phoenix.

Injuries continue to plague me! If you have any advice on overcoming metatarsalgia, please let me know.


I'm getting the itch for an ultra! I've been training on roads mostly and so it's no surprise I'm missing the trail. The other night I finally read the 2012 Leadville 100 report in the latest Ultrarunning magazine and I started to feel kind of homesick. The report was pretty good, though I could have done without the beginning part when the author went on and on about Life Time Fitness and its goals for growth in the endurance world. I like Life Time, but I would have rather the report focused on the race's tradition and what happened this year.

I won't be ready for an ultra until at least April. Phoenix is on January 20 and then, like I said, I'm shutting down for two weeks to allow my body to recover and get ready for Leadville 100 training. That means I won't start running again until early February--the perfect time to start some trail running! I actually really enjoy running snowy trails, especially the Barr Trail. I have many great memories of time on the Incline and Barrr Trail last February and March. I really want to break 25 minutes on the Incline in 2013.

It dawned on me a few weeks ago that a pretty remarkable pattern is emerging with my 100-mile times. On odd years I do well in 100s; on even years things go bad. Check this out:

2007 Burning River 100 - 6th overall - good!
2008 Mohican 100 - knee blew up at mile 60; went from 1st down to 4th - bad (for me at least)!
2009 Mohican 100 - 1st overall - good!
2009 USA 24-Hour Championship - 9th overall/131 miles - decent but not great
2010 Leadville 100 - stomach blew up at Mayqueen inbound; barely got to the finish under 25 hours - bad!
2011 Leadville 100 - 22:35 - pretty good (but I could have done better)!
2012 Leadville 100 - DNF with knee problem - bad!
2013 Leadville 100 - Good????????

Yeah, interesting to say the least. Hopefully 2013 will be a "good year" for me at Leadville.

As of now, my 2013 calendar looks like this:

Phoenix Marathon - January
Cheyenne Mountain 50K - April
Collegiate Peaks 50M or Jemez 50M - May
Mount Evans Ascent - June
Leadville 100 - August

I desperately want to do Leadman but I just don't have time, at this point in my life, to train on a mountain bike. I think my interest in Leadman mirrors my huge interest in doing an Ironman triathlon. Both are off the table until Noah is a little older (and I have more vacation time).

I'm sure I'll fill in more races for 2013, and of course plans will change. But two things won't change--Phoenix and Leadville!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Nine Weeks Until Phoenix

The world needs more running.

This is my first update since the election. It's no surprise that a lot of people are still bitching about the outcome of the election and forecasting the downfall of America. Blah. Blah. Blah. Whatever.

Americans need to watch less TV, especially the "news," and get outside more. Nothing helps me to break through the clutter and make sense of the world around me quite like running. It's my own private retreat. When I'm out there putting in the miles, it's just nature and me--whether I'm on the trail or on the road. I genuinely believe much of the stress and ills we experience could be alleviated if we just got active and surrounded ourselves with nature. Our problem, from my own eyes, is that we spend too much time doing meaningless stuff, like watching TV, listening to talking heads, worrying about who's president and Facebooking. Eventually this ridiculous crap dims our worldview, leaving us feeling hopeless.


Nine more weeks until I toe the line in Phoenix for the Arizona Rock 'n Roll Marathon. I'm excited for sure. My weekly mileage and time on my feet are holding steady at about 65 and a little over eight hours. My quality is super solid. On Sunday, I ran 18 miles mostly on the track, completing 4x2 miles at marathon pace (6:35-6:40), with one mile "recoveries" at about 7:40 pace in between. This was no easy workout. It really helped me that Anne, Noah and our dog, Nicholas, were there keeping me company. As I ran around the track, Nicholas chased after me while Noah kicked his soccer ball on the football field. We slapped high fives a few times.

After Sunday's workout, I felt quite ill--likely the effects of the Z-Pack I was prescribed for bacterial bronchitis earlier in the week. My stomach was a mess! This all brought back memories of the 2010 Leadville 100, which was my first Leadville. A week before the race, I was diagnosed with strep throat and put on an antibiotic. I took my last pill the Thursday before the race and made sure to eat a ton of yogurt to keep my stomach strong. Though I finished the race (in under 25 hours), I fell ill with massive stomach problems at the Mayqueen inbound aid station (86.5)--likely the after-effects of the antibiotic. It's amazing I recovered and went on to finish.

Overall, I feel good about my Phoenix training and where I am with my fitness. My one concern is with volume. When I'm gunning for a PR, my natural tendency is to jack up my volume and put in a ton of miles. This time, I'm resisting the urge for a ton of miles and am instead focusing on quality, which includes intervals, tempo runs and long runs. We'll see how it pays off on January 20.


When I kicked off my Phoenix Marathon training, I suspected that all these road miles would leave me missing the trail. While I've really enjoyed training on the road, a big part of me wants to get back to the trail. I'm trying to stay disciplined and do specific training, but I definitely see some trail running in my immediate future. Of particular interest to me is a trip down to Manitou Springs to do the Incline and then take the Barr Trail up Pikes Peak as far as I want to go--one of my favorite Front Range runs. I've run some amazing trails in Colorado, but nothing quite rivals the entire Barr Trail experience, especially the run back down the mountain. So, yeah, I may take that trip pretty soon.

I have it in my head that I want to break 25 minutes on the Incline in 2013. My current PR is just over 27 minutes. The Incline is, without question, the hardest single mile I've ever done. You're talking about 2,000 feet of climbing in a single mile, with an average grade of about 40%. It's lung busting, grueling, painful and fun--all at the same time! I'm not kidding when I say the Incline can literally kill you if you're not in decent shape.

Speaking of the Incline, I saw that the unofficial "record holder," pro triathlete Mark Fretta, got busted for EPO and is now serving a ban. I remember first reading about Fretta's amazing Incline "record," which has been mentioned by prominent outlets like The New York Times and Runner's World, and thinking how incredible it was to do it in 16 minutes and change. But now he's been exposed as a cheat. It's sad that so many pro athletes have resorted to cheating.


I'm super excited about plans for a long weekend in Leadville in late June. I'm planning to basically live out of my car and tent for three or four nights while running the 100-mile course and just enjoying one of the most beautiful areas on planet earth. By then the snow will be gone, allowing for some incredible training. At this point, all I can think about is doing that Hope Pass section over and over again.

I think often about what went down at this year's LT100. I know I should put it behind me--and in some ways I've totally moved on and my knee is back to 100%--but at the same time my DNF serves as motivation. Once Phoenix is behind me, Leadville will be all that matters. And, for the first time in my ultrarunning life, I won't care about my time. Yeah, I'm going to train hard, but what I'm really going to be after is that feeling of finishing. I just want to finish Leadville again. I want that third El Plato Grande buckle.

Monday, November 5, 2012

New York Marathon Mea Culpa; Training Update

Before I launch into this latest post, I want to make a confession. This weekend, I came to realize I went overboard in ranting and raving in favor of the cancellation of the New York City Marathon. I do think the marathon should have been cancelled, but what I didn't consider were all the runners, like JT,  who'd flown in for the race only to find that they'd wasted money and time traveling to an event that ultimately never happened. I feel badly for them. I only wish the organizers had cancelled the race earlier in the week, before runners departed for New York.

It's funny how sometimes you feel so convinced of something, as if there's no doubt in your mind that you've taken the correct position. But the next day you have misgivings, only to realize you hadn't really considered all sides. Then regret sets in. Mea culpa.


With the Arizona Rock 'n Roll Marathon about ten weeks away, I have to say my training is going quite well. For the week that just ended, I logged 68 miles. On Tuesday, I nailed great quality at the track, running my three one-mile repeats between 5:37-5:47 each. On Wednesday, I ran six miles at tempo pace. On Sunday, I did a grueling 20.25-miler in 2 hours, 35 minutes in the Parker hills, climbing 1,100 feet. All other days I went easy. That's a pretty typical week for me as I get ready for Phoenix.

I'm finding that, if I can keep my calves loose, my ankles, soleus muscles and right Achilles feel a lot better. I've had some trouble with my right ankle for the past year or so. Every night I stretch both calves with a rubber band I got from my physical therapist. I get on the floor with my legs extended in front of me. I wrap the band, which has a loop on the end, around my foot and then gently pull back. I've noticed that both calves are much looser than they were a few months ago. I'm also using that same PT band to stretch my hamstrings.

I think tight muscles are a huge contributor to injuries. Not all stretching works; in fact, some stretching can cause injuries. Physical therapy bands seem to work perfectly for me.

Back to training. Sunday's long run was my third 20-miler in my build-up to Phoenix. I'm planning another four or five 20-milers, including one run of 22 miles, between now and January 6. I've noticed that they're getting a tad bit easier, though running 20 miles isn't ever easy. I'm also making a point to take the next day (Monday) completely off from running. I might cycle a bit, but for the most part I'm trying to completely rest on Mondays, because the rest is what allows me to build strength from the previous day's long run.

I do think that capping my mileage on Saturdays to 11 has allowed for better quality in my Sunday long runs. Constant back-to-backs like what I've done for years now had worn me down.

Bottom line: The strategy I'm employing for Phoenix is quality-focused. It's more about good quality than about big volume. We'll see if it pays off. I can say this much; from 2005-2007, I ran a bunch of marathons in the 3:05-3:09 range while logging about 50-55 miles a week with zero quality except for a Sunday long run and a few pick-ups here and there. With 100-mile weeks and good quality mixed in, I dropped my PR to 2:58 in 2008, even as my training was focused on 100-milers and not road marathons. It'll be interesting to see if the current formula of 65-70 miles a week with lots of quality and rest and a very long run will pay off.

And if it does pay off, I may tweak the formula for my Leadville 100 training, jacking up my long runs to 25-35 miles while still getting in good quality. Speaking of Leadville, all these road miles I've been logging lately, while enjoyable, will certainly result in me really wanting to get back on the trail after Phoenix and start gearing up for the 100-miler. Although the mountains will be blanketed in snow, I do love tackling the Manitou Incline and the Barr Trail, as well as the Flatirons in Boulder, during the winter months. I fully expect to break 25 minutes on the Incline in 2013!

Although I'm super focused on Phoenix, I am thinking quite a bit about what races I'm doing in 2013. At this point, the only races I'm a lock for are Phoenix on January 20 and the Leadville 100 on August 17. I'll be in Leadville a lot in late June through early August, training on the course, so that timeframe is pretty well spoken for. A big part of me would love to enter Leadman, but right now I just don't have the time to do that kind of training. Any suggestions for races in 2013?

Also, feel free to chime in if you have any thoughts on my current Phoenix Marathon training protocol. I'd love to hear what folks have to say.

Friday, November 2, 2012

First Lance Armstrong, Now the New York Marthon: Does Anyone Have a Clue Anymore?

Note to reader: The New York City Marathon has been canceled after a public backlash. I feel badly for the runners who trained hard and now have no race to run, but I feel far worse for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, whose lives have been turned upside down.

"The NYPD has been working nonstop since Monday. A lot of us have damage of our own and families that are suffering but we are here assisting with the rescue, recovery, and relief efforts everyday. I understand that this is our job. We love what we do and we love protecting the citizens of NY but to host a Marathon (a run) while people are suffering? To have giant generators sitting around for the Marathon while thousands suffer without power? To have large water deliveries for runners? WHAT THE HELL ARE THEY THINKING? The NYRR have some nerve. Run for Relief? B.S. Run because you don't care about anyone but yourself should be the motto. How about you give back for once and help us recover the dead. Yes, I realize that you may be sheltered. You do realize that people lost their lives during this hurricane, right? In fact, right where you intend to start this marathon. Just a few miles away, a mother of a 2 year old and a 4 year old watched her kids get dragged away by a huge surge of water. They have not recovered the bodies of the children yet. Why don't you put the spandex away and put some boots on and assist us? Disgusting!!!" -- An NYPD officer on the NYRR Facebook page

After those words, do I even need to say more?

As a hardcore runner, I care deeply about our sport and how it is viewed by the public. By holding the New York City Marathon only days after the region was devastated on an epic scale by Hurricane Sandy, the New York City Marathon organizers and the New York Road Runners are doing irreparable harm to their own brand and to the great sport of marathoning.

The generators in Central Park. It's great that the race can find its own
power while tens of thousand of people are still in the park and cold and suffering.

Bodies are still being recovered. Many are still without power. People's homes were destroyed, leaving them homeless. Folks have no food and are hungry. The temperature is dropping. People are suffering. Much of the city's public transit is still down. Many gas stations are dry. Folks are fighting for fuel where they can get it. In New Jersey, the entire Jersey Shore is...gone.

And yet a race is going to be held on Sunday and run through areas of the city that have been devastated by Sandy. Right now, as I type this, there are gigantic generators in Central Park that are supporting race functions--generators that could be used to power entire neighborhoods. Emergency responders (EMS, police and fire), volunteers, sanitation workers and other critical resources will be diverted away from people and areas in need so they can support a freaking race. Runners will enjoy fresh water, bagels, thermal blankets and the like while hungry, desperate folks only a few blocks away are suffering like crazy.

By the way, the marathon starts on Staten Island, which bore the brunt of Sandy's destruction to New York City.

I genuinely fear for the health and safety of the runners, because they're going to encounter some pissed-off people.

The board of the New York Road Runners should take action immediately. Postpone the race for a month. Cancel it. Whatever it takes. Ask runners to instead volunteer and use their fitness to do some good. Send those generators to neighborhoods in need. Give people who are hungry the bagels and water that were to be eaten by the runners.

I agree with Phil McCarthy. The New York City Marathon has gotten "too big to fail." It's so big that (the soulless, greedy, tone-deaf and insensitive) Mayor Michael Bloomberg (you know, the mayor who pushed for a ban on big sodas) and race director Mary Wittenberg, who will both lose their jobs over this fiasco, are going to let greed and sponsorships take precedence over the right thing to do. ING, as the title sponsor, is complicit in all of this. ING should ask that the race be canceled.

Make no mistake about it; the New York Road Runners and the marathon organizers are doing irreparable harm to the race and to runners across the country. They are making us look like selfish jerks who don't care about anything except running.

I used to want to run the New York City Marathon. No thanks. I'm boycotting the race...for the rest of my life. And I hope you will, too. Please make your voice known here.