Friday, December 21, 2012

Looking Back on 2012, and Looking Ahead to a Great 2013

While I always try to enjoy the day I'm in, I'm glad 2012 is coming to an end. It's been a great year on a few fronts. I started an awesome new job back in February and, in that respect, life is good. Most importantly, all is well with my family and we're enjoying good health. We lost out beloved dog, Sophie, in April, but we got a super fun little golden retriever, Nicholas, in July.

All that aside, this has not been a good year on many fronts. We saw horrible wildfires, including the devastating fire in Colorado Springs. We've seen unspeakable tragedies in Aurora, Newtown, Westminster, etc. Basically, in 2012 we've seen a lot of evil. Also, the year was full of a lot of negative energy stemming from the (toxic) presidential election.

As far as running, 2012 has mostly been a bad year with a few bright spots here and there. Obviously my Leadville DNF is a black cloud over the year. That was my goal race and it didn't work out because of a bum knee. But I saw some decent performance at the Cheyenne Mountain 50K in late April and the Mt. Evans Ascent in mid-June.

At Cheyenne, I was strong but not fast--no other words for it. At Mt. Evans, I saw a huge 24-minute improvement over my previous year's time, which can be attributed in part to far better weather. I was in good shape then. The Golden Gate Dirty Thirty was a bad race--I didn't feel like running that day (which was red flag #1 in terms of the burnout that would eventually take a real toll on my body). The Leadville Marathon in late June was so-so--I pretty much matched my 2011 time despite feeling a tad under the weather. Again, I just wasn't into racing that day, which is incredible because I like racing.

By the time I toed the line in August for the Leadville 100, I was burned out and physically beaten up. Lack of quality sleep in July (because of the new puppy, God bless him) had destroyed me to the point that my body simply couldn't keep up with the training I was doing, and so I went into the race not in a good place physically (or mentally). Something had to give, and it's what brought me to that DNF.

My last race of the year, the Trot for the Troops 5K, resulted in a third-place finish despite a missed turn that added quite a bit to my time. It was a fitting end to the year.

I'm glad to close the book on 2012. For the year, I'm going to run about 3,500 miles. Those 3,500 miles didn't get me much, except a few decent performance here and there and maybe a solid base to work from when my Phoenix Marathon training kicked off a few months ago. I have to say these past few months have been super solid.

I'm hopeful about 2013! I've trained hard for Phoenix, really focusing on specificity and marathon-goal pace runs. My volume has been between 65-71 miles a week, which is a tad low. I should be able to hit 80 miles next week. If I don't break three hours at Phoenix and preferably get around a 2:55, then I'll know I need more volume for fast marathons. But at this point I'm focusing on being ready mentally and physically. I'm proud of the training I've done and I'll be ready to go on January 20.

I believe all this quality for Phoenix lays a great foundation for the 2013 trail running season. When I look back on my years of running, it's impossible not to notice that my best years have coincided with strong marathon efforts.

After taking a few weeks to rest and cross-train post-Phoenix, I'll be spending a lot more time on the trail, preferably the Incline, just enjoying myself. My Leadville 100 training this year will focus on:
  • Looooong runs
  • A lot more on-course training
  • Long tempo runs
There won't be as many junk miles in there. I've come to believe deeply in the power of the super long run, and I know that to regain my confidence at Leadville I need to spend time on the course.

Looking longer term, in 2014 I think I'm going to start seriously considering this race, (which, from a timing standpoint, would also allow me to do this race), but I won't pull the trigger until I do this other race first. Yeah, I believe in building up to the ultimate mountain challenge. Of course, this huge bucket list item is also waiting to be checked off. But, first things first--I need to reestablish myself as a strong Leadville 100 finisher!

Here's to a great 2013!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Running is There for Me When I Need It

Once again in my life, running is there for me when I'm troubled. We're all dealing with the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut in our own ways. For me, running has been an outlet as I try to process and make sense of this horrific situation. As a father of a young child, the tragedy has hit home in a big, big way. Not since the September 11, 2001, attacks has the foundation of my very being been shaken so badly. Our entire nation is reeling. Indeed, this was a tipping point in finally dealing with our nation's failed mental health system and obsession with violence. This tragedy is every parent's worst nightmare. It doesn't get any worse, and so parents all across this nation are terrified, angry and downright depressed.

Like many, I continue to deal with the Newtown tragedy in stages. On Friday, as I read the news reports coming in, I felt shock and desperately needed information. I wanted to hug my son and hold him tight. On Saturday, I felt anger and despair. I even considered applying for a concealed weapon permit--something that would have been unimaginable a few days earlier since I hate guns (thankfully, I've since disregarded the idea). On Sunday, I was depressed. On Monday, all I wanted was to be close to my son. On my run this morning, I experienced a lot of emotion as I thought about the victims and those beautiful, innocent children who were taken from their families. I'm not afraid to admit that I've cried. I do a tough-guy/tough-girl sport, but inside I'm just a big teddy bear, and anyone who knows me is well aware of that fact.

In times of crisis, it's important that we all have a productive outlet. For me, it's always been running. For others, it might be art, or walking, or cooking.

The Newtown tragedy has reminded me, once again, of the scary fact that there are monsters out there who wish to harm even the most innocent among us--in this case, first-graders, as well as dedicated teachers and school administrators. Simply put, there are very bad people out there, and it's important that they be identified, get the help they need and, if necessary, be removed from society.

None of that happened in this case. And now we have lives taken, families devastated, a community shattered and a nation shaken to its core.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Renato Canova / Training Update

Occasionally I come across an article that really causes me think hard about how I train.  A brilliant feature appearing August 16 in Running Times is one such example. The article profiles Renato Canova, an Italian running coach who has produced many of the world's finest marathoners and recently landed American superstar Ryan Hall.

Basically, Canova advocates specificity in training. What does that mean? It means you train a lot at your marathon goal pace (MGP). He sees very limited value in, say, doing a long run that's considerably slower than your MGP and, for matter, doing tempo runs of 5 or 6 miles won't adequately prepare you for what you'll face in your goal marathon. In Canova's words, "...if the mileage is too slow, you don't produce anything.... The problem is the tempo at the good speed is too short. So there is no connection with the marathon. And the long [run] for the marathon is too slow."

So what does Canova suggest we do? He says we should "increase the volume and the duration and the single length of every type of interval at this type of speed [marathon goal pace]. We need to extend the ability to run at the speed you want and you can produce." In other words, pace is more important than distance.

Canova's system basically involves two stages. Stage one involves short speed and strength building, and stage two brings increased distance and more goal-pace running. Unlike many marathon training programs, Canova doesn't advocate a base-building stage with lots of slow miles. Eventually, you work up to killer sessions like a long run of 17-24 miles at about 95 percent of your marathon pace. For me, since 6:40 is my MGP for Phoenix, that would break down to a per-mile pace of 7:00 minutes.

If you're a runner who is always looking for better ways to train, I highly encourage you to read that article and consider Canova's approach in your next build-up. I've tried to incorporate some of his principles into my Phoenix training, but for my next cycle I'll be looking to go even further.

By the way, I think Canova's practices could potentially apply to even ultrarunning.


Speaking of great coaches, Jack Daniels has come out with a new running calculator (please note that the calculator works best with Firefox). According to the calculator, a 3:05 marathon (7:04 pace) at Denver's 5,280 feet comes out to a 2:59 at Phoenix's 1,100 feet. I feel fairly confident I could run a 3:05 marathon in Denver. To run a 2:55 in Phoenix, I would need to run a 3:01 here in Denver.


My Phoenix Marathon training is pretty much where I want it to be. I had planned a 20-miler on Sunday but extremely cold weather, combined with widespread snow and ice that created dicey footing, made that pretty difficult. So I ran a slow 17-miler and then put in a few more fast miles later in the day for good measure. On the week that just ended, I ran just shy of 71 miles with really good quality on Tuesday (intervals) and Thursday (tempo).

My taper starts in just four weeks and, between now and then, I want to work in more marathon goal pace running (a la Canova). That means intervals that are at slightly faster than goal pace...and more of them. It means long runs with many miles near marathon goal pace. It means hard work. I hope the weather cooperates.

I'm happy to report that my foot is improving. I never got the problem diagnosed, but I still think it's a case of metatarsalgia. My foot has responded to icing and immobilization during sleep. It's great to finally have some good response to therapy while still training. I haven't had such luck in a few years, as the injuries I've experienced of late have required shutdowns. I'm still not free of discomfort in my foot, but the problem is 50 times better than it was a few weeks ago. I'm hoping it'll clear up during my taper.

At any rate, I think all of this marathon training is going to establish a great foundation for the 2013 trail racing season!


I'm still thinking a lot about my 2013 schedule. It's kind of sad that we're now at the place where we have to register for races months in advance. When I first got into this sport, you could still register for many races on the day of the event. At this point, beyond the givens (Phoenix Marathon in January and Leadville 100 in August), I'm considering the Salida trail marathon in March and a 50-mile mountain race in May. I'm also intrigued by the UROC 100K, which will be held in Vail five weeks after Leadville. At this point, I'm leaning toward not running the Leadville Trail Marathon, as that very weekend I'm planning to train on the course. As crazy as it may sound, I'm also super dedicated to breaking 25 minutes on the Incline in 2013.


Speaking of races you can't get into, in looking over the Western States 100 lottery results, a few names stand out:
  • Karl Meltzer: A lot of folks think of Karl as just a mountain guy. Karl is certainly a mountain specialist, but he's also a fast dude and an unflappable competitor. Anyone who follows Karl's blog knows that he views Western States as a fast race, so you can bet he'll be ready to run like a deer. Because he's so strong on the ups AND downs, I like Karl for top-5 and am pumped that, after all these years of domination, he's finally gotten into States.
  • Brandon Stepanowich: Brandon finished top-10 at Leadville and is a young runner with tons of potential. He has the intangibles and is a complete badass. Top 10 at States.
  • Bruce Fordyce: Now for a history lesson. Bruce is an old guy, but he holds one of the stoutest records in the history of this sport. In 1984, he ran a world record 4:50:21 for 50 miles at the London to Brighton race. That record still stands. Maybe only Max King could come close.
Now for a name not on the list: Anton Krupicka. Assuming he qualifies at the Bandera 100K, he wants in and he's healthy, Anton may have a shot at finally winning Western States.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Running My First 100-Miler

In March of 2007, my world got rocked when I found myself suddenly laid off from a job I’d taken only three months earlier. I’d stupidly left the Cleveland Clinic, a world-class organization, to take a new job with a fledgling start-up willing to pay me what I considered at the time to be a very good living. So basically I just chased after more money. And now, because my new employer couldn’t make payroll due to budget mismanagement, three of us were out on the street looking for work. Unfortunately, my old job had already been filled, so there was no going back.

I’d just run a challenging 50K trail race in Maryland the previous weekend and had the Boston Marathon in a few weeks. As we all know, Boston isn't a cheap trip. Fortunately, we had Anne's income to live on while I searched, but I nonetheless felt urgency to get working again.

In times of great stress, running had (and has) always been there for me. But without a job and knowing full well that a layoff after three months would be a red flag on my resume, I could barely get out the door for my daily runs. I spent most of my energy on finding a job and ran a half-hearted Boston held in the midst of an epic nor’easter—rather appropriate given the state of my life at the time. I drew unemployment and applied for scores of jobs, some for which I was overqualified.

Finally, a local hospital system gave me an offer—a part-time, temporary fundraising position with really good potential. With no better alternative, I accepted. I worked Monday through Thursday and had Fridays off. I worked harder than ever, trying to make the case for the hospital to bring me on full-time. During my lunch (as a PRN, I had to punch out for lunch), I often went out to a nearby courtyard and read. During this difficult time in my life, two books really spoke to me: Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air about a tragic Mount Everest expedition, and Kirk Johnson's To the Edge about his experience training for and completing the 1999 Badwater Ultramarathon (Johnson's work remains the best ultrarunning book I've ever read).

One night in April, while checking e-mail, I came across a message promoting a new 100-mile race coming to Cleveland, a point-to-point event called the Burning River 100, named after the Cuyahoga River fire in 1969. As any Clevelander knows, very little has damaged the city's reputation more than the river fires of the 1950s and 1960s. Truth be told, many rivers in the Rust Belt were catching fire. The "problem" was that the Cuyahoga River fire got lots of national attention.

Directed by Joe Jurczyk, a well-known local runner, the Burning River 100 would start in North Chagrin Reservation, not far from my house, and traverse scenic trails, ending in downtown Cuyahoga Falls. From South Chagrin Reservation (where I did most of my training "back in the day") and Bedford Reservation to Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Brecksville Reservation and the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath, the Burning River 100 would highlight many of the most beautiful parts of the region and shine a light on once polluted areas that were now lush and home to bald eagles, turtles, fish, deer and other wildlife. The Burning River 100 had a larger purpose, and that's what attracted me to it. I felt I had a larger purpose in life, and I'd yet to find it. Maybe I'd find it while running 100 miles?
The Burning River 100 would be held in a little less than four months--on August 4. I’d heard rumors of this race and felt intrigued by the opportunity to run 100 miles, but hadn’t given it much attention. And honestly, the thought of running 100 miles seemed unfathomable, especially since I was logging only 50-60 miles a week at the time. Still, I couldn’t get the race off my mind after that e-mail came across. I thought about it obsessively for over a week and shared my deliberations about the race with a friend of mine, Bill Wagner, who was involved in the planning.

Then one day, with the click of my mouse, I registered. I was in. There was just one problem: I had no idea how to train for a 100-miler. Still, I've always been a go-getter, so I wasn't about to sit around and think about how to train. No, I was going to talk with folks who'd gone the distance and start getting ready immediately.

I'd begun running a little more with the Cleveland Southeast Running Club, a very serious group of road and trail runners. Within SERC you have many runners with sub-3-hour marathons and a few with marathons in the low 2:30s. You have folks like Mark Godale, Connie Gardner and Tim Clement who have won ultrarunning national championships and many other races. At the time, Godale held the American 24-hour record. You have Kam Lee, a dominant 50K racer and 2:30 marathoner. SERC isn't a group of joy-runners or recreational joggers; this club is for serious athletes who are willing to do what it takes to excel. If you fall short of your potential in a race or in general, you hear about it. The club runs trails on Saturdays, roads on Sundays and track intervals on Tuesdays.

By the time I signed up for Burning River, I'd gotten to know a few members, including a guy named Steve Godale (Mark's older brother), a veteran of many 100s. I asked Steve how to prepare.

“Simple,” he responded. “If you can run 100 miles a week, you can run 100 miles in a race.”

The thought of running 100 miles in a single week jarred me. I’d been running about 60 miles a week. How could I run 40 more miles a week and remain in one piece?

“Build up to it gradually,” Steve suggested.

Looking at the calendar, I had a little less than four months to get in shape for the Burning River race—four months to go from a 60-mile-per-week runner to an endurance machine knocking off triple-digit weeks.

So I began a "gradual" build-up, hitting weeks of seventy and eighty miles with some recovery built in just to be on the safe side. I got on the trails on my Fridays off from work and again on the weekends, running parts of the course to familiarize myself with its turns, terrain, hills, nuances and such. I carried a course description and map and marked confusing turns with sticks so I wouldn't get lost on my return trip. Sometimes I got way off course, but that was OK--more miles meant more fun. I loved big out-and-back runs. I didn't have a GPS watch yet, so I estimated my mileage based on the course description, perceived pace and time on my feet. Anne and I hadn't had Noah yet, so I had boatloads of time to train on the course. I often ventured out on long runs of four, five and six hours.
Still surviving the increased mileage, I jumped up to 90 miles in a single week and then made the big leap, hitting 100 miles. If memory serves, I logged four triple-digit weeks, running most of those miles on the course itself. Incredibly, I got through this massive build-up without any overuse injuries. In fact, even as I increased my mileage, a case of tendonitis in the top of my foot cleared up. I attribute my ability to stay healthy throughout that huge build-up to three factors: 1) I ran mostly soft trails, 2) I never went particularly fast, and 3) my body had relatively low mileage on it and could handle the added stress.

By race day, I was healthy and well-trained and I had the huge advantage of knowing every inch of the course. I had also transitioned into a well-paid, full-time communications and fundraising job at the hospital. Life was good. Even as I was now a Monday-to Friday employee, I nonetheless had kept up with my training, even increasing my output. A few weeks prior I'd run the competitive, challenging Buckeye Trail 50K in 4:41, finishing seventh overall and earning greater acceptance in the running club. My seventh-place finish hadn't come easily--I held off three surging runners in the end. Things were looking good.

There was just one problem: I was really scared. The forecasted 90+ degree heat on raceday did nothing to calm my nerves.

The drive to the start of the race that dark Saturday morning was quiet. Anne drove as I attempted to stay calm and focused. I had that excited "holy-crap" feeling you get before a 100. I remembered what a friend of mine, Wayne Vereb, had asked me a while back.

"If you were in a plane crash and 100 miles from the nearest city, could you get there on foot, or would you just give up and die?"

"I'd get there on foot," I replied.

"Okay," he said, "that's how you have to think in 100s. It's a game of survival."

I remembered other rules, such as "beware the chair" and "it never always gets worse."

By today's standards, I had very little gear out on the course--just a few pairs of shoes and socks, some toilet paper, etc. The mystery of what I was about to do prevented me from overthinking my drop bags and instead caused me to focus on getting myself ready. I consider that a good thing.

I had no real goals for Burning River except to finish. If I could finish in under 20 or 21 hours, that would be great. But competitive placement wasn't even in my thought process. The distance was too new to me to really want anything but a finish.

I didn't carry an MP3 player or any elaborate gear like a GPS watch, though I did have a Timex Ironman watch. I ran the entire distance without music or worry about pace and just basically focused on the beautiful nature around me and ways to overcome issues I dealt with, like wicked chest cramping, occasional doubts and hot mid-day temperatures. Coming into Boston Store, which marked the halfway point, the temperature exceeded 90 degrees and the road leading back to the trail was literally melting, causing my shoes to stick to the asphalt. It was hot!

I didn't have fancy trail shoes. I'd done most of my training in a pair of bulky Vasques, but they'd died by raceday. So for the race I wore a pair of pretty basic Saucony Trabuco trail shoes. As for my clothing, I didn't have on $90 shorts or a super-fancy top. I wore New Balance running shorts with extra pockets and a Sugoi tech-tee with glow-in-the-dark panels on the shoulders.

I didn't have any fancy hydration devices--just a fuel belt. My plan was to basically live off whatever was offered at the aid stations, be it water, Gatorade, etc. I did, however, carry Hammer Endurolytes.

I didn't have a sponsor. I was just one of a few hundred squirrels out there trying to get a nut in the world of 100-mile racing.

I didn't have a crew, either. Anne saw me at checkpoints and we talked a few times by mobile phone if I needed anything, but pretty much all of my stuff (which didn't amount to much) was in drop bags at the aid stations. Anne and her parents planned to meet me at the finish and drive me back home. We had no fancy hotel to stay in; I'd finish and then we'd drive home.

Because I wasn't running to beat anyone and didn't have goal splits, I took my time at the aid stations. At the mile-75 checkpoint, I posed for a photo with Anne, feeling more excited than rushed. We were both so jazzed; with three-quarters of the race behind me, we knew I was on the way to finishing my first 100!

What I did have were two excellent pacers. Ted Friedman ran with me from mile 62 to mile 75. And then Kenny McCleary ran with me from mile 75 to the finish. This was their first exposure to ultras of the 100-mile variety. Both guys played a huge role in getting me to the finish. Ted would go on to finish the BR100 in 2011 and 2012. As I write this, Kenny is only a few states from his 50-marathon/50-state quest. I remember leaving the mile-85 aid station (Covered Bridge) with Kenny, totally pumped up. By then I was alternating between power-hiking and running, but I still had loads of energy in me (that would soon dwindle...).

Ted (L), me, and Kenny (R) at the 2008 Mohican 100, where I finished 4th.
They're holding me up because I'd blown up my knee.
I'm wearing my Burning River 100 shirt from the previous summer.

It wasn't until about mile 90, as we entered the Cuyahoga Falls city limits, that it dawned on me that I was now in the top 10 and gaining on lots of dudes in front of me. By then I was super tired and fighting some demons, but I was dialed in and determined. I got a lot of motivation as I passed runners, including Billy "Bonehead" Barnett, who was later featured in Christopher McDougall's best-selling book, "Born to Run." Billy was having some issues and was down for the count.

The last few miles of the course, which many of us ran in the middle of the night, are interesting to say the least. You run along the top of a gulch, of sorts. The trail is super rocky and laced with roots. One bad step and you could go over the cliff. So you have to focus on the task at hand and stay upright (my understanding is that this section has since been removed). After a mile or so on the trail, you take a short spur up to Broad Street, which takes you right to the finish.

When I crossed the finish line at 1:08 a.m. on Sunday morning, I experienced pure, unadulterated happiness. Not only had I just finish my first 100-miler, but I'd done it in 21 hours, 8 minutes and placed sixth overall. I later learned that a little under 50 percent of the starters had actually finished--the heat claimed quite a few. We also later learned that the course was long. Depending on who you talked with, it was between 105-107 miles long!

Standing at the finish of the 2007 Burning River 100 with Anne.
I was so tired!
Mark Godale won the 2007 race with a time of 16 hours, 7 minutes. Tim Clement, who would later become one of my closest friends and an ultrarunning mentor, placed third with a time of 19 hours, 19 minutes. Tim, Ted and I, along with several others, would often train together on Saturday mornings in South Chagrin Reservation.

From then on, I was hooked on ultras and especially 100s. I discovered that I'm an endurance junkie--I love going the distance. I love nature. I love the challenge and camaraderie of it all. I've never returned to Burning River, though I did pace Tim to his win in 2008 and paced him again to a top finish the next year.

Maybe one of these years I'll go back.