Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Unity of Existence

War is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one's will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. *
- The character of The Judge, Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy

To experience the endocrine soup of emotion and adrenaline and fear and acute nausea during competition is to live inside for just a few moments a controlled pantomime of something like war.  Survival and victory bring with them sweet and addictive feelings that tempt although the risk is defeat and its punishment is the lowest pit imaginable.  Running is a special sport because death and contact are pruned away and raw instinct unfolds on a well defined stage with simple rules.  Running challenges: it bullies normalcy; roughs a sure footed path up.  Come failure or come victory, you lived.

Getting pulled off the start line of a 1500 seconds before the gun because of weather doesn't feel good.  I'll call it blue shoes. (I was in fact wearing blue Reebok spikes) Just before section one of the Hoka One One middle distance classic 1500 began, lightning struck to the west of Occidental College's track.  The race started anyway and as my section trotted and did strides and cantered around like unbroken horses fat drops of water started plunking on the track and then hail began bouncing.  The officials lined us up then said "two minutes" which means go be horses again.  After another shakeout stride they called it off and began a 30 minute meet delay.

The game during a delay is to maintain emotional and physical preparedness across a series of observed lightning strikes unknown in number without wasting energy.  The irony of this storm quenching southern California's thirst in the exact moment we needed Los Angeles to make it just one more hour without a drink was not lost on me and gave me some solace as I wondered how much positive karma this was worth.  It was like a grade school tornado drill, everyone lounging in the gym and basement waiting for word.  The word came a few times and it was additional delay.  The guys in my heat once began re-warming up but were stopped in our tracks when another delay was handed down.  Like simon says at a roller skating rink in middle school, except they just said go race without the simon says part.

Eventually the entire remainder of the meet was cancelled about 75 minutes after I was originally scheduled to race. My first thought was an expletive and my second was lets go unofficially time trial.  I didn't build myself up for battle only to be denied.  That would be like laying siege for two weeks until my next race.  I was feeling incredible and knew I was ready rip a good 1500.  But asking around there wasn't a lot of interest and we weren't even sure if they'd let us on the track, which proved true.

A couple minutes after I started running on one of the treadmills in the Oxy fitness center next to the track Donn Cabral joined me and we started scheming a workout that would at least temper what we called our bloodlust.  We both have similar attitudes when it comes to working out and we were both on board for some work together like times at Princeton.  Outside the rain had lessened but sporadic lightning lit the sky up electric blue and illuminated the clouds menacing.  There was standing water in lanes one and two on the backstretch that would have been great for skim boarding, but the rain had lessened to a drizzle.

Donn and I made it through a 1200 in 3:11 with meet management hollering at us to leave the track for our safety the whole time.  We had to cut our plan short but props to them for doing their job and keeping things safe.  We went back inside and joined Tony Jordanek on the treadmills and decided on a tempo run.  This whole time, still on edge and the race nerves rattling.  It was about ten o'clock. Two miles into the tempo meet volunteers told us they were closing the place for the night in ten minutes.  The running gods might have been trying to tell us something.  Or maybe testing us.  We did 5:45, 5:15, 4:57, 4:45 miles on our treadmill tempo, burning away the pent up energy.

When Donn and I left the trackside facilities, walked to the car and did a short cool down, the LA night was still and clear and resting as if from some great exertion had left it breathing evenly and slowly and relieved.

The Judge might agree that running unifies us in the test of our will against our spiked counterparts.  Training and racing and living running have brought us all to our current existence. All of these meets are an undulating topography of highs and lows: in the anticipation and buildup of race day to the glances and silence and nods between men and women about to spill their hearts and plunge their lungs in blackness against one another, to the soaring high post race with its relief and smiles and chatter and communal cool downs in which everyone comes back to ground level and bonds are made.  It's a curve that takes some bravery to venture up onto but there is reward emotionally and physically fulfilling on its backside, sometimes even when you don't get to race.

*I should say that in Blood Meridian the Judge is one of the most dark characters I've ever met and he may represent the devil or (McCarthy's opinion!) worse the true nature of mankind, so take everything he says (and I say) with a grain of sodium chloride, as you should to keep your electrolyte intake up anyway.

-  -  -

John and I rolling some speed work last week - 600, 3 x 300, 500, 2 x 300, 400, 1 x 300, 800
all at under under mile pace.
It's back to Zap for two weeks of training and spring in the high country.  (Here is my account of a recent rainstorm that is too long to include.) Everything is green and adult running camps are beginning soon and this time of year is always exciting around the Zap campus.  In two weeks I'll end the siege with a well set up 1500 in Greenville, SC with Furman Elite and other studs.

Ten days later John Simons and I will have the opportunity to do something special.  We are coming home to Milwaukee and running a sub four mile attempt in the Wisco Mile at Wisconsin Lutheran high school.  The Wisconsin soil record of 3:56.38 set by Matt Tegenkamp in 2006 is in our sights and only two men have run under the barrier in Wisconsin's great 167 year history - Tegnekamp and Chris Solinsky in that same race in Madison in '06.  If you, your family, and/or friends are in Milwaukee on June 10th make sure to come out and witness history. Races begin at 6pm and the "Super Mile" is at 8:40.  More info at

I view track season in two halves: everything up to and including the US Track and Field Championships in late June, and everything after that until late August.  The first half goal is to grab those pesky US "A" standards of 13:32 5k and 3:39.0 1500.  The opportunities we have set up are the Furman 1500 and the Portland Track Fest 5000 on June 14th.  The second half will most likely include July racing on the European circuit in Belgium and Ireland then domestic meets in August out west and here in North Carolina.  We plan to run this puppy all the way into September road racing before taking a major break.  Racing will (baring more storms) be heating up soon and there'll be many stories to tell.  Thanks for reading!

Upcoming Race Schedule

Date Race Name Location Venue / Distance
May 30 SC Track Classic Greenville, SC Track 1500
June 10 Wisco Mile Milwaukee, WI Track Mile
June 14 Portland Track Fesitval Portland, OR Track 5000
June 28 US Track and Field Championships Eugene, OR Track 5000

Friday, April 10, 2015

Lions and Tigers and Squares

Staggering around like a drunken sailor in a bad storm, it took me a good ten minutes to finally admit defeat and limp into the Gate River 15k finish line medical tent.  Through chapped lips I kept telling my team mates and friends I would be alright, as a voice in my head kept saying "you know you're not ok."

Internal monologue.
You need to go into that tent.
I don't want to.
Whats the square root of 169?
13.  Doesn't matter, I'd only ask myself questions I knew the answer to.
Chris told me he read you release DMT right before you die.  Am I about to die?
What, are there researchers giving surveys at peoples deathbeds?
I feel really lucid, which means I'm going to die

And so on.  You're reading this, which means I didn't die, unless artificial intelligence has finally gotten smart enough to fool you.  Of course a machine would deny its own existence. Or would it?

My temperature in the medical tent was 103.1 taken well, back there.  I hoped after they cooled me off for half an hour with ice and wet towels that an oral thermometer would suffice for the required re-measurement.  I also knew that using one would be bad science. Needless to say, they used good science.

The ice-filled Lowes painters hat I donned before the start made me look kind of like Joan Benoit or Dave Wottle and made me want to Never Stop Improving, but it did little to prevent me from achieving critical core temperature.  Either way, there's something badass about pushing yourself to the limit and getting heat exhaustion to prove it.  Finishing 19th, I was initially disappointed, but while enjoying the Jacksonville afternoon at a friend's party I drew positives.  
Tyler Pennel (c), Griff Graves (r) and I combined for a second place team score
at the Gate River Run / US Road 15k Championships

Never let anyone, including yourself, take an all-out effort away from you.  I've questioned my effort and toughness after a bad race before, and it's not a good place to go.  You don't suddenly just get less tough.  The killer instinct you've honed in countless training sessions and races doesn't go away.  Unless you're Prefontaine, you have one, maybe two critical moments in each race.  Whether to follow an early surging pace or to start kicking far away from the finish, for example.  You have to trust that instinct will surface at that moment, and if things don't go your way, realize that your body can only do what it can do.  

Mistrust in your grit is often false and destructive self-analysis.  That mistrust probably accounts for most of many people's post bad race anxiety, and it sucks worse when it's shaken not stirred with pain into a cocktail of depression.  I've found the quickest way to stoke the fire isn't by agonizing over results or splits or other people or past, more glorious races, but (this may sound cliche) actually looking for positives in the race you just stumbled through.  They won't be positives you'll hang on your wall, but you're not weak for settling for sub par achievements either.  As weird as it may seem, running myself into a medical tent was my positive in Jacksonville.

Gate River was our final fall and winter foray into cross country and overdistance.  Now it's time for a later than usual return to the track.  Imagine a full sized, half starved tiger released towards a huge slab of red meat on a cedar stump across a gently sloping downhill grassy field - that's me.  It's a calculated debut designed to extend the season well into August and even September.  Sans indoor racing and with a week-long break after the Gate River run, my legs should be well prepared for the hands-to-knees acidic workouts and races ahead.  I'll begin with a 1500 at Princeton next Friday against some velocitous tigers, lions, and other assorted beasts.  Can't wait.

Now for what we call running porn.  The last two weeks have seen some of the best training I've ever done with Zap Fitness.  I won't go into details.  But two weeks ago as the gray mountain skies sent flakes of snow laterally across the whitecap kissed aqueduct of lonely Bass Lake, five 1500 meter repeats on dirt working from 4:26 to 4:19 began a series of fitness-bumping sessions.  That Sunday in better weather we went 18 miles on the long run with a nice 5:13 final mile.  The first major track session of the year was with Tyler that next Wednesday, run entirely "ins and outs style" (faster straights, slightly slower curves).  Beginning with 2400m at 4:40 pace (7:00) we went on to run 8 x 800m working gradually from 2:13 to 2:07 for an anaerobic bank deposit.  More training with Tyler on Saturday saw a 4:15 fifteen hundred on Bass Lake and threshold climbs in the carriage trails of the park.  

Zap Fitness practice on Bass Lake in Blowing Rock.  L-R Griff Graves, Joe Stilin, John Simons, Brandon Hudgins, Tyler Pennel, Chris Moen, George Alex.

Hump day this week brought with it one of the hardest sessions I've done in some time, mainly because of its length at a fairly intense rhythm.  Everything was run back and forth on a slightly hilly paved one kilometer section of the brand new Middle Fork Greenway that will eventually connect Blowing Rock and Boone.  Bouts of 2 kilometers, 6 x 1 kilometer, and 2 kilometers formed the meat of the session, the five of us averaging 5:55 for the 2k's and 2:53 for the 1k's.  Tyler and I threw in some economy (speed) with 3 x 600m "snowballs" (getting faster every 200m) and 3 x 200m touching under mile race pace to finish.  We're beginning to stir not shake together strength and speed within these sessions, and feeling fit has been feeling good.

After Princeton it's the trip to Palo Alto, CA for the Payton Jordan Invite and a 5000 opener.  I've run there the past two years and it's been one of the best distance meets in the US every year.  From there we'll head to the Oxy High Performance meet in LA two weeks later and then begin gearing up for US Outdoors later in June.  Those months are sure to bring more good tales and hopefully less thermometers.  Thanks for reading!

Next few races:
Date Race Name Location Venue / Distance
April 17 Larry Ellis Invite Princeton, NJ Track 1500
May 2 Payton Jordan Invite Palo Alto, CA Track 5000
May 14 Hoka One One Midle Distance Classic Los Angeles, CA Track 1500

Here we are on the second of six one kilometer repeats on Wednesday:
First ever ZAP workout on the new Middlefork GreeenwayTrail which will ultimately connect Boone to Blowing Rock. This is the Tweetsie Railroad section recently opened.
Posted by ZAP Fitness on Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Nap Fitness

Carpet Bagger.  It's an apt caricature of life in rapidly unfolding 2015.  I began in the North, waking before the early January sunrise to the first snow I'd seen in Milwaukee this winter for a flight back down South.  "Don't go just yet" the white blanket seemed to plead as it dissolved in blue deicing fluid over the plane's wings.  Brief solitude in the mountains and Zap before bouncing to Scotland, to Tallahassee, to Boulder, to Ireland, and to Greenville, South Carolina.  We're vagabonds at times, us runners.  Train hard.  Rinse off.  Recover.  Race.  Recover.  Repeat.  Compete with your similarly tasked friends across the country, catch up for 90 minutes at a post race party, and see them again at the next one.  I'm not complaining.  Sometimes it feels like we're on tour, with(out) (tens of) thousands of screaming fans, (coach) buses, the (illegal) drugs*, and the (big) money.  But it's an honest, fast, fun life, and one I'm really thankful I get to live.  Things are going to settle down next week when Zap Fitness makes its springtime return to Zap Fitness, but we're as eligible for a trip to California or Istanbul while cutting Zap's grass field or fixing fence posts as we ever are.

Though the pace of travel and racing feels quick, the in-between times reserved for training and doing laundry are relaxing.  The most important thing I've learned since leaving college is how to chill the fudge out (You take fudge and refrigerate it. [too dry?] {My humor or the fudge?}]).  That manifests itself across the board: the nap between runs, mentally handling a string of hard training weeks with few distractions to break the days up, and in the pace of easy runs.  Pete often begins his Top Secret Zap daily training emails with a quote or tidbit, and one from about a month ago sums the idea up well:

"Handle boredom well - so many athletes I run into struggle with running and doing all the ancillary things associated with their running and little else. Put simply that is what the best in the world do but many fight it in our 'need to be productive all the time' western society."
     - 2 x Olympian Peter Pfitzinger (from a NE Runner Column Aug '91 - What it Takes to be a Pro)

But reading about boredom must be boring.  You'd rather be boring a hole in a board during a boring boarding school advisory board meeting about room and board.  Physicist Niels Bohr once said "An expert is a man (or woman) who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field."  He's talking about being bored.  More specifically, about focus on one single thing for a long time.  Wouldn't you rather fully complete something that took a long time than leave a bunch of competing, partially finished projects to die?  There is always time, lots of time.  I'm slowly getting better at what Pfitzinger described, trusting what I am doing and not worrying about what I could be doing.

The Wanderlust continues, bringing Tyler, Griff, and I to Jacksonville, FL for this Saturday's Gate River Run / US 15k Road Championships.  The race marks my last foray into over-distance before track heats up.  15,000 meters (roughly 9.3 miles) is traditionally a good ways for me, but I'm excited to continue breaking out of my mold and testing myself against the race's best ever field.  It's a flat course until the large hill in the eighth mile and blazing downhill in the ninth to the finish.  There's a handsome prize purse, bonuses for the fastest final mile, and a team competition with payout.  All that makes for an exciting run which will be live here (for free!) at 8:30 EST on Saturday morning.

Preparation for Gate River has gone well.  My most recent race was a 13:58 5k win on the roads in Armagh, Northern Ireland.  Since then the past three weeks of training in Greenville have been bountiful.  Last Wednesday Andrew, Griff and I worked well together over three sets of track 1200m snowball (get faster and faster) + road 2k threshold followed by track 4 x 400m for economy.  On our third set we were 3:17 (69, 65, 61) for the twelve hundred and 6:01 (3:04, 2:56) for the 2k.  It was a manageable workload executed patiently which always bodes well.  Nothing killer, but a fitness booster.  And on Saturday we were 5:06, 4:43, 4:45, 5:02, 4:44, 4:54 for the miles on a 10k progression run with hills.  

European Championships Steeple Chase Silver Medalist Krystian Zalewski (r) and I battling
in Armagh, Northern Ireland.

A close second on my list of things to look forward to after the 15k is our return to Zap and the mountains.  Winter training camp is over, and I can't wait for the silence of the woods, the icy rush of the creek outside, and to work on all the projects I have in mind.  I'm going to finish building our garden fence, plant the garden, re-finish some old rocking chairs, build a desk, and then go fishing.  There's something special about that place in the woods - maybe it just seems like home to me now.  As long as I find time to be bored once in a while.  Either way, I hope all this carpet bagging brings a profit in Florida.

Monday, February 9, 2015

I'm Not a Tree

How would being a tree be. 
Over there, that tree. 
I'm not a tree.  
Maybe it would be nice to be one. 
To stand there in the wind, or maybe 
Not, on a windless day.  
You don't have to eat,
Rather you soak in food with your toes.  
And you breath through your leafy arms.  
But you wouldn't know that, would you, 
Because you're a tree.  
No thinking.  No sorrow.  
No boredom, even.
At least I think, 
But how would I know?  
I'm not a tree.

I am, however very tired.  Although I'm in Colorado, it's the runner's high I'm drenched in, sprawled out on the grass and reveling in the sweet, sick exhaustion that twelve kilometers of cross country at altitude just beat into me, or rather, I beat into myself.  It's weird, the things that pop into your brain when it's deoxygenated.  On race cool-downs I can be reduced to a babbling Shakespearian-esque clown, s-wordplay drawn, in my mind brilliant but in truth muddled to the ears of those bothering to listen.  Hypoglycemia and endorphins steep into a soup of post-nervous energy expenditure elation until I find some kilocalories and lite beer and bring myself back to the normal world.  Especially amplified by a good long race, these feelings put the addiction in running.

Saturday's US Cross Country Championships involved six laps of a two kilometer loop on Boulder's Flatiron golf course.  Though the sun, seventy degree temperatures, and accurate venue name made for nice conditions, the 5200 feet of elevation made it a little harder for lowland-lubbers like me.  Unlike a mile or even 5k, my (hardtack and lard) this race was long enough that it's come to rest in my memory not unlike some Homeric epic with defeats and victories preceding the final result.  It was war out there, and there was definitely carnage.

In the first 2k lap, everyone's nervous energy burned hotly around sharp fenced off turns and through the small rocky ditch about 1800 meters into each loop.  By the first pass by the start/finish area, the major contenders had roughly sorted themselves into a contingent near the front.  Andrew and I were close together in about 25th place.  In fact I almost fell shortly into the second lap and his body helped catch me. (That is team work) Soon after my comfort level began declining rapidly and I knew this wouldn't be a "relax and roll" kind of race.  Every passing minute would require focus.

I began drifting away from the main pack from 3k to 6k into the race.  In the moment I was fighting off negative thoughts, trying not to think about the distance remaining.  I started thinking "Damn it, this is it.  I'm going backwards and the next 25 minutes are going to be helltitude."  But I hung in, and midway into the fourth lap, somewhere around 5k to go, I began making passes around some highly credentialed guys slipping backwards.  Each gave me a small confidence boost and my focus sharpened.  I promised myself I wouldn't save much for a spectacular kick and instead started moving far  out from the tape.

In the hurt box, but my eyes are up.  The course had a nice view of the mountains.
Thanks to Aric Van Halen for the photo
One last challenge remained: the all-of-six-foot sand bunker decline with 600 meters to go.  My legs were so dead that they got tangled in themselves and I hit the deck.  Muscle memory from my skateboarding days took over and I combat rolled and popped right up, hardly losing any time.  Ian Burell was on my tail and I couldn't afford to lay in the dirt.  Shaken up, I "took off" (which probably meant a blazing five minute pace at this point) with another runner in my sights ahead.  In the finishing chute I just missed getting him for a fifteenth place finish in 38:14.

I wasn't going to let myself be disappointed in fifteenth, not after how low I sunk mentally and how hard I fought back.  Though I missed my goal of making the world cross country team, which required a top-six showing, I realize that sometimes you have to be pleased with a bloody guts and little glory result.  If you can't be alright with missing goals sometimes, you'll never have the gas to get them.  This mentality counterweights complacency, but I'll save being hard on myself for other days and (shorter) races.

I felt a bit of a pang looking at the 2k loop splits published post race day.  Let's just say my fastest loop was only two seconds faster than the winner's slowest.  But I'm not a tree, and I'm also not a pure cross country guy.  As an aside, this years field was high quality, which is a good thing for American distance running.  I'd argue (as C. Derrick has) that greater participation in cross country by our pros improves our Olympic chances on the track.  Many guys are going straight to the track post collegiately, perhaps excessively.  Either way, these results represent a vast improvement in my ability over hill and dale. (but not sand bunker) In high school I finished only as high as fifth at the Wisconsin state cross country meet and was never an All American in NCAA cross country.  Doing "pretty good" this weekend translates to exciting prognostications for track, and that has been the plan all along since September.

Now the plan shifts toward the oval via the roads.  Next week I'll be running a road 5k in Armagh, Ireland.  On π day is the Gate River Run / US road championships 15k in Jacksonville.  A rest week precedes the buildup into outdoor track season and lots of fun races.  I apologize in advance if I meet you on a cool down.

A preliminary schedule of my upcoming races:

Date Race Name Location Venue / Distance
February 17 Armagh Road 5k Armagh, Ireland Road 5k
March 14 Gate River Run Jacksonville, FL Road 15k
April 11 Blue Shoes Mile Greenville, SC Track mile
May 2 Payton Jordan Invitational Palo Alto, CA Track 5000

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Double Trouble, Explained

Act IV Scene I:
In a cavern, somewhere in Scotland, three witches chant

Double, double, toil, and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg and owlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

The hell-broth mud cauldron boiled coldly under our feet, squirming its way through shoe mesh  and plastering down leg hair (if you had it) through four circuits of Holyrood Park's two kilometer course in Edinburgh, Scotland.  Nothing (especially the hotel showers) escaped the bubbling black mud, and no tourist could we have immersed themselves in Scotland as we did.  The wind screamed and whipped us from the West, streams lapped at our ankles, and the sizable crowd bore witness to a dominating performance by team USA over the likes of Great Britain and Europe.

Kicking home in Scotland
At the post race trivia game, my team won best name with "We Kilt It", though "We Got Bag Piped" would have been a more appropriate description of our quiz performance.  It being my first ever senior US team berth, this brief trip to Scotland was especially memorable.  As runners we're measured greatly by US team qualifications, performances at international events (read: medals), and trivia prowess.  With USA blazed on my chest for the first time, I feel I've broken the ice.  I'll admit, Edinburgh is probably the easiest team to make, but (raises voice) I MADE IT!  You have to start somewhere.

The race was like nothing I'd ever experienced before in cross country.  The course put  many of the grass track-like venues in the US to shame.  It had rained for days leading up to the day of competition, and the junior races before ours made the 2k loop nice and sloppy.  Every lap featured two small but sharp uphills, a longer hill, two small stream crossings, one of which contained a boulder that only allowed one body through at a time, and plenty of ankle deep grass and mud mixture.  ("He must be a King."  "Why is that?"  "He hasn't got shit all over him.")  15mm spikes were the fashion of the day.

Team USA senior men before and after the race.

They say in Scotland that if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes.  It was sunny during our race but began snowing during the women's senior race.  It wasn't unlike Heps 2010.  It all created a very surreal cross country experience, one that made me feel happy and very alive.  I didn't finish up where I would have liked to in the field, but I'm concentrating on the positive of having fought hard in difficult conditions on a big stage.  Tough races never are easy to swallow, but I think you get over them more quickly as you grow more experienced and mature.

Perhaps my favorite part of the trip followed the awards ceremony.  Zap team mate Andrew Colley pointed to a distant volcanic peak, barely visible through the snow, and said "Letsrun up there."  My legs were tired from the race but I couldn't pass up the adventure.  We walk-jogged to the top of Arthurs Seat over rocks, mud, and snow and were rewarded with another abrupt change in the elements: the sun erupted through the clouds and we saw all of Edinburgh below; the castle, the sea, the cross country course, and surrounding pure green countryside.  We didn't bring phones (so did it really happen?) but we kept the image in our memories, which is sometimes better anyway.  On the way down some strange women asked if we had any fillets of fenny snake, but alas, we'd run out.

On the flight home I reflected on where I'm going and what's at my tail.  I'm on the cross country plunge: no indoor track, many and frequent miles, lots of strength workouts, and four (count em!) four cross country races by February's end.  Then I'll run the US 15k Championships in Jacksonville, FL in March.  Only after all that big boy work will I step back on the track and roll, and if all goes as planned, I'll have lifted myself in strength and toughness.  I think it's good to try and make every year a little different in terms of racing calendar and training to keep the body and mind from dragging, pitching out the things that don't work.  I'm excited to see where it propels me.  (sorry please don't mach me)

Zap Fitness is fully inundated (that is not appropriate use of that word) in winter training camp in Tallahassee.  For those who don't know, Trailahassee is secretly an excellent running location for its extensive and beautiful parks and trails.  Don't tell anybody though, because I like the lonely sound of footsteps on grade 10 crushed limestone laid over red clay dirt in silent prehistoric spanish moss-adorned woods.  This time of year, our lives consist of running, eating sweet potatoes and quinoa, napping, going to coffee shops, running again, eating more sweet potatoes, and sleeping.  Ok, we eat and do more than that, but the point is we're focused.  I just hope I run into an alligator this year while we're down here.  Not literally though.

Andrew and I are training for the US Cross Country Championships in Boulder, CO on February seventh.  After that we'll return to Tallahassee for a few days then head to Zap for a week, and finally begin training camp beta in Greenville, SC with the Furman Elite crew.  Here's to doubling for a charm of powerful trouble and a Packers win today.

The Zap Fitness crew working out on the grass in Tallahassee.  L-R Joe Stilin, John Simons, Cameron Bean, Chris Moen and the beard, and Andrew Colley hiding.  I ran this entire workout with my eyes closed.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Going Fast and Taking it Slow

On an unseasonably warm late September 2011 day in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania I'm trying to prove myself.  A mile into the Paul Short Invite gold 8k race, I navigate slime slicked grassy spots, the course softened by prior races as if masticated by some giant possessing thousands of half inch spikes for teeth.  My thighs are already beginning to burn and I begin to think, not again.

That summer in Park City, Utah the Princeton Tigers had trained hard.  Some of us older guys put in multiple triple digit mile weeks at between 6000 and 8000 feet, constantly on hills.  We were running 10 mile tempo runs and 20+ mile long runs in August, and to me they often felt nearly like races.  I'd wake up and need several minutes to get myself out of bed, fighting through the desire to just fall back into the pillow.  But I viewed it as typical training fatigue, and believed all the work would cash out during an epic senior cross country campaign.  That fell into doubt when the races started.  First a no-finish on the Bronx's Van Cortlandt Park's course in early September.  Then at Paul Short I faded from that 4:51 opening muddy mile all the way to a disheartening 26:01 clocking, totally disengaging from the race.  Some moments in practice were promising: I'd be able to hang with my workout group for shorter bouts of fast running.   But I couldn't string together five consecutive miles without rest in a race.

I watched the snowy and muddy 2011 Heps Championship from courseside in Princeton, not having broken into the top twelve on the team - the year before I had been in our top five for much of the season.  I was working hard and injury free: my performances didn't make sense.  The not knowing why bothered me - I would almost rather be totally injured for the knowledge of it.

That is until a blood test showed I had a ferritin level of seven.  Coaches, trainers, and doctors cite various numbers for appropriate ferritin levels, but they'll all agree that seven is extremely low.  Most likely the deficiency came on during the summer while I was potentially overtraining at altitude.  I began taking ferrous sulfate supplements - I hadn't ever before, and just 17 days later things turned around.  We held a 5k track time trial for the guys not on the Nationals cross country team.  As planned, we ran 70 second laps to two miles in 9:20, at which point I knew my red blood cells were back.  I ratcheted down the pace to 66s laps, closed with a 4:21 mile, and ran 14:12, a new PB.  The next weekend I and Princeton won the IC4A Cross Championships, getting revenge on Van Cortland Park.

The late fall turnaround continued into spring.  I obliterated every personal mark from 1500 to 5k, broke four, won Penn Relays titles, and had success at the conference, regional, and national levels.  I learned that year that every inch of work you put in helps you somewhere down the line, even if years later.  Through 7/8 of college I trained at a much higher level than races indicated, but it fortunately showed in the end.  I ran a lot of miles probably too fast and too tired, but they weren't for nothing.  They stayed in my legs, waiting for health to return.  When it did, I became a totally different runner with a different perspective.  I formed an altered point of view of the unwanted and unexpected.  

Label failure differently.  Make the good times models and the bad times lessons.  What was once failure - a godawful race, a bad workout, an injury ridden season - becomes success.  You successfully failed the race.  You learned something.  That terrible race is a part of You now.  You can think back to it, hate it, laugh at it, but whatever you do, make the future better.  You define what losing really is for yourself.  When you finally do win, it's only because you've lost many times on the way there.  Training is a microcosm of this:   A calculated series of blows to the body in pursuit of the triumphant gain in fitness.

I may be older and wiser (probably not, I just got carded twice in half an hour even though I'm 25) but running never stops challenging me.  This fall has been about learning to be patient.  Our training has focused on aerobic base building: lots of fartleks, hill climbing, tempos, and surges on long runs, to a degree I sometimes have been uncomfortable with.  At times I feel the need for some faster, more specific workouts in practice in order to execute well in races.  The week after a bombed race in Boston in October, I brought this up to Pete in a pretty uncharacteristically demanding way.  He just looked at me and said, "I need you to be patient.  I know you are going to run fast this year."  Something as simple as that calmed me down.

Your 2014 USATF Club Cross Country team champions, Zap Fitness.  L-R Andrew Colley, Cole Atkins, Joe Stilin, Tyler Pennel, Chris Moen, John Simons, Griff Graves.  Not pictured are assistants to the assistant regional manger George Alex and Cameron Bean.  Photo credit Michael Scott.
On Saturday I was back in Bethlehem on Lehigh's cross country course for the first time since that race in 2011.  I finished tenth and the team won in probably the deepest Club Cross Country Championships in history, showing I could run cross country without necessarily needing the battery acid intervals and repeats I adore so much.  I was reminded how sometimes I need to just shut my mind off, pull the plow in training, not ask so many questions, and run.  If you stay in it long enough, things have a way of working themselves out.  And many times, turnarounds happen when you least expect them.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Running Tech

Egyptian water clocks.  Romans roads and bridges.  Aboriginal long distance relay communication.  Waffle Irons.  Running has always advanced alongside technology, and in this age of Apples and Blackberries, opportunities are ripe for the picking.  What was once Aboriginal is now Abodigital. Here are some ideas for the future of running technology.*

The Virtual Reality Treadmill.
Imagine being able to run anywhere in the world without leaving your basement.  Surrounded by projections of Google street view as the wind rushes by, you smell the bakery you're running past in Paris, hear dockside clamor in Singapore and feel the burn as the incline changes automatically in downtown San Francisco.  Nano particles in the tread change the feel of the terrain from road to grass to dirt as you train in Van Cortland Park in the Bronx.  Of course by the time you've acquired this six-figure treadmill you might as well have bought some plane tickets.

Programmable (Wolverine) Spikes.
There's five minutes before the start of the cross country race, you're moving through your pre-race ritual, and suddenly coach tells you the mud is really thick in the third mile.  Uh oh, you only have quarter inch spikes in your shoes.  Relax, Don't Do It, no problem.  They are attached to programmable polymers inside the spike plates and a quick setting adjustment lengthens them to half-inch wolverine claws.  Just remember to retract before throwing em over your shoulder after the race...

Clockwise Tracks.
Runners (especially 10k people) have a risk of becoming ambi-turners if they continue to only turn left during track races.  Paint an additional set of lines and markers to allow for occasional meets in which all running events are held in the clockwise direction.  (Actually I have John Simons to thank for this idea).  The other way would be to put a massive mirror on one side of the track.  That would do it, right?

Downhill Tracks.
Imagine a track that turns clockwise and goes downhill....
While I'm on tracks, I was thinking we must be far along enough to make M.C. Escher's vision of a track that always goes downhill but somehow comes around to the same point reality.  World records and shins would come crashing down.

Permanently implanted timing chips.
This one is a bit Big Brother.  At an early age when you are indoctrinated into the cult that is running, they surgically implant a chip in your chest that will identify you at every race for the rest of your life.  No more pesky shoe chips or bib numbers you aren't supposed to fold.  The chip ID would be associated with an online database containing all you race results, splits, workout stats, 24/7 whereabouts... creepy.

Power Generating Training Shoes
Piezoelectric materials like lead zirconate titanate generate a voltage when they are compressed.  Put some in the soles of running shoes and you could charge your dead phone after running five miles right from your shoes.  Or they could power LEDs for safer nighttime running.  DARPA  is trying this in soldier's boots.

Facial Recognition Fan App.
How many times have you been watching a race and asked "who the hell is that guy taking it out like Diego Estrada?" or "wow, who is their fifth runner?  She is making the race for them."  With FaceTrack, simply point your mobile device at a pack of oncoming runners and it matches their faces with pre-loaded athlete profiles.  Then fans could view all results, media, and history for that athlete.  Don't forget to keep an eye on the race.  Doesn't work if all the runners in the frame have Derek Rubis' face.

Alternate Alter-G.
Definitely the best editing job I've ever done.
There has to be a better way to simulate lower gravity during rehab training than a sweaty plastic bubble that forces you to run like a T-rex.  I'm sure someone could figure out how to locally block the gravitons interacting between your body's and the Earth's matter... or maybe some kind of magnetic levitation suit?  An attractive option.  Wait, no, a repulsive one.

Holographic Pacers
I've heard that Harvard's indoor track used to have lights in the rail around the oval that could be set to a pace for workouts or races.  The "Hare-o-Gram" would take it a step further: project a hologram of a runner on the track for competitors to follow at a certain pace.  No more "what pace is the rabbit going?" "58 through the quarter" and then the guy runs a 61.5.  Hare-o-Gram would hit 58.00.  You could even pick the pacer's image, bringing back Matt Scherer from retirement or drafting off Big Bird.  Unfortunately, holograms can't provide a wind shadow so this is mainly for psychological pacemaking.  Puts people out of jobs too.

"Track Casual" Trainer-Dress Shoes.
This is actually possible, I think.  Have you ever had to squeeze a double run in between a flight and your friend's wedding, a first date, or a job interview?  Just because a training shoe has to withstand hundreds of miles, rain, snow, mud, and vomit during its lifetime doesn't mean it can't look like an Oxford.  Saves packing space, but probably not worth the smell at more formal events.

Real Time Form Analysis.
In-lab form analysis with the little Velcro ping pong balls and wire frame modeling already exists, but there's no way to get scientific stride or posture feedback on the roads and trails.  Let's say you are trying to improve your arm carriage or your rearward leg extension.  Gyro and accelerometer sensors inside bracelets and anklets measure the angles, rates, positions, and distances your limbs are swinging in.  They wirelessly update your watch, reminding you to focus on desired improvements.

Autonomous Meet Coverage.
Cover track and cross country meets with teams of drones.  They fly around with cameras getting aerial and trackside views.  Commentators work from a central control station and can cover multiple meets simultaneously all over the country without having to travel.

Prolonged careers with time travel.
I always have to include relativity in these more serious blog posts.  Let's say you want to dodge a rival doing particularly well this year or you want your career to last ten Olympic cycles instead of only two or three.  Just board a spaceship going close to the speed of light and time will move faster for you relative to Earth's, and when you come back you'll have "traveled into the future."  Though it might be hard to train on the spaceship since your relativistic mass would be at least... three times bigger.

Tear Away Short Shorts.
We love running in nice short shorts with big splits, but what if you get challenged to a game of HORSE (or ZAP) on the way to the run?  You'd be wearing the wrong equipment.  I envision a pair of basketball or lounging shorts that tear away to running shorts.  Man would you get made fun of.

But when it's all said and done, running is a gritty and visceral sport.  At a certain point, automation takes away from its purity.  Really the only thing that matters is getting results quickly after races.

*I do not claim to actually know anything about any of this.
**I know I know, I totally just botched special relativity.