Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Team inov-8: Coming Home

Quite possibly my favorite shoe of all time.
Last year I partnered up with Salming, a Swedish sporting-goods company which broke in to the domestic running shoe market in late 2014.  I felt very lucky to be included among their first crop of sponsored athletes in the US, and I put in many happy miles in the Trail T1 and the Race, an ultra lightweight road-racing shoe.  I greatly enjoyed my relationship with the company and I'm thankful for the support they give me, and I stand by their shoes, which are of excellent quality.

I'm thrilled to announce, however, that at long last I'll be rejoining Team inov-8 in 2016.  Inov-8 was the first company to take a chance on me, back in 2011.  Over the past few years, their team has moved in a number of different directions, as have I.  I couldn't be happier that we've found our way back together.

Inov-8 is known overseas as the industry leader in the absolutely insane niche of our sport known as fell running.  In the last few years they've expanded into orienteering, road running, and Cross Fit; but the trails remain their bread and butter.  They make shoes that are lightweight, flexible yet supportive, with incredible traction, and across a wide range of heel-toe differentials.  There is a shoe for every ultra runner in the inov-8 line.  Usually more than one.

The inov-8 team has seen many accomplished runners come and go, both in the US and internationally.  I'm the first to admit that I'm not on the level of many--maybe any--of my teammates, or even on the same level as many of the runners who are no longer associated with the team.  I'm under no illusion that this is a purely, or even mostly, performance-based relationship.  Whatever middling ability I've cultivated as a writer--and my willingness to contribute my writing to the inov-8 blog--is a major part (maybe the biggest part) of what I bring to the table.  And I'm ok with that.  I'm going to represent this company to the best of my ability, with pride and with joy.  I'm going to do everything I can to live up to the faith they've shown in me.  Hopefully we'll find some good stories to tell, and hopefully you'll join us for a fun ride.

As Max said when leaving Montrail for Salomon early last year, there are always mixed feelings when making a change of teams or sponsors.  You feel loyalty to those who have backed you in the past.  You don't want to feel like a "sellout".  You've made relationships that you are leaving behind.  These are never easy decisions.  But this one was made much easier for me because there is no other shoe company I want to run for.  Right now, I feel like I'm back home.

Inov-8 isn't my only sponsor.  I'm lucky to have support from a number of fantastic companies, including Mountain Peak FitnessRed Newt Racing (and, through the MPF/RNR team, GUUD, and Merrell), Orange Mud, and Yard Owl.  Check out my new and improved Sponsors page and please patronize these fine companies (in a non-patronizing way of course).

Friday, March 25, 2016

Race Report: Canyon Meadow 50K--Riding the Ragged Edge

A couple of months ago, when we started planning a spring break trip to California to visit some family and friends, I did what I usually do and stopped by Ultrasignup, looking for races in the area.  This never really seems to work for me--I will rarely find a race that matches up with my travel plans--but to my surprise one popped up.  The Canyon Meadow Trail Races, in Redwood Regional Park in Oakland, would be held the day after we arrived in San Francisco, a mere 30 miles from where we were staying the night before.  Jodi took a bit of convincing; I had to make the argument that if I raced a 50K on the first day of our trip, I'd be comfortable taking the rest of the week off.  Logistically there were some problems with cars and rides and such.  But I was able to make it work and found myself at the start Sunday morning among a small ultra field mixed in with competitors running the 5-mile, half-marathon, 30K, and marathon options as well.

I'm not sure why it felt so important for me to run this race.  Certainly in the grand scheme of things it didn't matter much.  (I guess none of it does, really.)  I hadn't been targeting the race at all; it was very much a last-minute idea, or as last-minute as I get with this sort of thing.  I like running and racing in new places, which was part of it.  The timing worked out well with my vacation, and I was able to rationalize taking a dietary break for the week afterwards.  (It can be hard to stick with the diet on vacation.)  But mostly I think I was just excited to be in a race that I had a chance to win.  I've had what I consider a strong start to the year at Bandera and Caumsett, and a good six-month stretch reaching back to Water Gap.  But I didn't go into any of those races thinking I had any chance at a victory.  Sometimes it's just fun to try and run up at the front of a race, and I think I just really wanted that opportunity.

I knew going in, though, that I wasn't at my best.  As successful as 2016 has been thus far, it's come with a bit of a price.  Two high-level ultra efforts in eight weeks had taken their toll, particularly Caumsett, where the stress of pounding pavement at a high intensity for three and a half hours had left my legs trashed.  Laura was running the day after Caumsett, but even ten days later I wasn't feeling right, and though my soreness was gone by the time we got to California, I reached the starting line still without having had a run since then with any pep in the legs.  I knew I'd be in contention, but in terms of performance, I really didn't know what my body could offer.

I started off in the lead group of runners attacking the first climb, which comprises the first mile or so of the race and gains about 400' elevation.  I ran the majority of the climb at a very easy pace, walking only a few spots here and there.  It was a little tough to tell exactly who was in which race.  Our bib numbers identified which race we were running, but with bibs on the front, I wasn't sure who among the 10-12 people in front of me was in the 50K or the shorter distances.  I was pretty sure I was leading the 50K, based mostly on what I perceived of everyone's effort around me and the fact that nobody seemed to be carrying a bottle or pack as I might expect for a trail 50K.  (Though I wasn't carrying anything either, at least not on the first lap, so who knew how reliable that was.)  After the first couple of miles, the path leveled off, and I fell into an easy rhythm with a half-marathoner.  I decided not to worry about where I stood in the field.  I could only take what my body would give me on this day.  If it was enough to compete up front, great; I'd figure that out soon enough.  But early on I had to run my own race.  I ran as easily as I could manage, just trying to cover ground with minimal effort, enjoy the surroundings, and see where the chips fell.

The miles passed easily enough.  We reached the first aid station at 4.7 miles in just over 39 minutes, taking a quick drink and moving on.  Most of the climbing for the first lap was behind us; the course rolled gently, on a mix of dirt roads and West Coast single track, which is basically doubletrack with a few rocks and roots here and there.  The park was very pretty, though felt like the downtown city park it basically is; we were never terribly far from a road or parking area.  But the redwoods, while not particularly dense, were pretty, and there were a couple of breathtaking views to keep us interested.

I was content to maintain a fairly easy effort level through AS2, at about 10.8 miles, where one of the volunteers confirmed I was leading the 50K.  About a half-mile later we reached the start/finish area, except to complete the loop we ran past the finish line for a two-mile out-and-back paved section, where I was able to see for myself where I stood.  In front of me were all half-marathoners and a single marathoner, the women's leader, about two minutes ahead of me.  I made the turn and started checking my gaps to the next 50K runners: about two minutes to second place, who looked to be struggling; another minute back to third place, looking solid; and then about a 13-minute gap to fourth.  A podium spot seemed assured, but the win was still very much up in the air.  I finished the first lap in 1:43, right in line for my pre-race goal of a 3:30 marathon split, and took in my first calories of the day.  I had planned on grabbing my iPod for lap 2 but decided with only a small gap over second and third I should stay focused and alert, and instead resolved only to grab my Orange Mud handheld.  Unfortunately when I got to my drop bag I realized I had left the water bottle back in the car.  This caused a bit of panic, but I realized there wasn't much I could do now except hydrate at the aid stations and hope for the best, and I headed out for lap 2.

The second lap proved fairly uneventful.  I was running solo, except on the rare occasions when I'd lap a slower marathoner.  But I was almost never alone.  The park had filled up with all manner of hikers and joggers, all of whom seemed to have dogs, all of which seemed to be off-leash; I spent a great deal of time dodging curious puppies whose oblivious owners had stopped dead in the middle of the trail for a chat with someone they knew.  I tried to keep the miles effortless, but this was becoming nearly impossible; though the terrain was not overly difficult, I was finally feeling the full effects of the past few months.  Joe had warned me, in the lead-up to Bandera, that by trying to stretch my peak out to Caumsett, I was "riding the ragged edge of fitness."  I reflected now that by chasing this win I was really pushing my luck.  I didn't fear getting injured, but past the twenty-mile mark I knew I was both physically and mentally going to the well.  It wasn't particularly uncomfortable.  I just knew that there really wasn't any reserve left.

My pace had slowed significantly, closer to 8:30s now, but I saw approaching the turnaround that I had even pulled back a minute or so to the marathon leader (Anna Zielaski, who set a very strong womens' CR of 3:32 and won the marathon by nearly 30 minutes).  After making the turn and seeing that my lead was growing, I started to relax.  Second place was now about 12 minutes back, and I knew that as long as I simply kept moving forward, I was likely to hang on.

The final five mile stretch was an out-and-back over the first section of the main loop, which meant running the opening climb for the third time.  Though by this point "running" was a stretch; I simply hiked most of the climb and jogged the flat sections on top.  It was quite a slog.  Surprisingly, in the closing miles, my legs (despite feeling like Jell-O) were not the worst part of me; I had almost no strength in my core.  Particularly on the downhills, I felt incredibly fatigued in my back, glutes, and abs, to the point that I was favoring my entire core on the way down.  I was surprised because I've been very diligent over the past six months in adhering to my core regimen.  This regimen clearly needs a bit of a boost, and I'll be consulting with Joe and Elizabeth when we return to New York to do some fine-tuning in that respect.

Otherwise the closing stages were an nondescript slog.  I jogged home for the win in an unremarkable 4:22.  I had few goals for the day otherwise, so I guess we can chalk that one up in the "win" column, so to speak.  At least I felt as though I'd earned my dietary vacation.  My pilgrimage to the Russian River and Bear Republic breweries later in the week were gloriously guilt-free.  Much thanks to Wendell, Leng, and the rest of the crew at Coastal Trail Runs for a really first-class event.  And love to the sponsors as always.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Gear Review: Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20

I’ve run with a variety of different hydration systems, from handhelds to waistbelts to vests and packs.  When it comes to hydration, I tend to be a minimalist; particularly in training, I rarely carry much of anything, except on the longest efforts.  But for long training runs of 25+ miles, or unsupported or minimally-supported races, I’ve had good results with both the Ultimate Direction AK vest and the Orange Mud HydraQuiver.  Neither of these have enough storage for a long day hike, though.  Recently, on a family hike through Black Creek Preserve in Esopus, I was able to test out the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20.

The Fastpack 20 is a day hiking pack that is inspired by UD's Signature Series of running vests (the AK/SJ/PB vests that are widely seen on the ultra running circuit). As with all the vests in that series, the water bottles are located in front, on each shoulder strap, which makes for easy access and excellent stability. Also with the vests, the shoulder straps are secured by two adjustable sternum straps, which I prefer when hiking (though they can sometimes annoy me when running). The shoulder straps are nicely padded and quite comfortable, though I did find the ride a little low on my back.

The pack itself is basically one big pocket with about 20 liters of storage (hence the "Fastpack 20" moniker). There are mesh pockets on either side which are fairly spacious for additional items, as well as built-in lashes for trekking poles, which is very useful. One cool feature is that the main compartment has no zippered closure or flap over the top; basically, the upper part of the compartment rolls over on itself and secures to the sides with clips. I'm not sure why I liked this so much, but I found it extremely cool. I think I just like the fact that there are so few extraneous/moving parts. You can really cinch the pack down if you're traveling light; it compresses to about 15 liters if you want. This top rollover compartment is waterproof, and the rest of the pack is water-resistant.

Much like the Signature Series of vests, the Fastpack is very streamlined; it's large enough for everything you would need for a long day on the trails, but not so large as to be cumbersome or to invite over-packing. Having the water bottles on the shoulder straps can take a little getting used to if you're not familiar with it, but having run in UD products before, I appreciate the convenience of easy access to water. The fit of the back panel is a change from the vests, and on first wearing was not as flexible as I'd like, but I suspect that will improve as the pack breaks in a little bit. All in all, the Fastpack is an excellent choice for day hikes or even a weekend if you're traveling light.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Race Report: Caumsett 50K--"Too Short?"

I first ran the Caumsett 50K in March of 2008, my third ultramarathon and my first national championship.  The race, hosted by the Greater Long Island Running Club at Caumsett State Park in Lloyd Harbor, NY, has served as the US 50K road championships since 2006.  I ran much of the race with Dan Verrington and Leigh Schmidt, two studs from New England, ultimately falling off their pace but running a (still-standing) PR of 3:25, finishing seventh overall.  (Dan's 3:17 that day was, at the time, a national age-group record.)  It was about five minutes slower than I thought I might do, but I had felt like I had put in a very good effort and all in all was pretty pleased with how it turned out, nabbing a top-10 in a national championship race.  Of course, when I called Joe Puleo to tell him how it had gone, his immediate response was, "What happened?  Too short?"

My immediate response (other than "fuck you, asshole," which I'm 75% sure I didn't say) was"Oh, god, no!"  I was just scratching the surface of ultras at that time, and still had at least one foot in the marathon world; my marathon PR had come just 18 months earlier, and only six months before I had been in likely low-to-mid 2:30s shape leading into Chicago only to be foiled by an epically hot day.  I still had the mindset that anything longer than a marathon was an incredible undertaking, and had not yet come to the realization that 31 miles miles really isn't that much farther than 26.2.  The thought of going beyond that point seemed unimaginable at the time.

Fast forward eight years.  Training for my first 100K this winter brought with it a certain measure of anxiety and self-doubt.  Finishing was not my concern; I wondered, though, whether I really was built for the longer stuff.  In the last eight years, I've grown very comfortable with the 50K distance, and had several strong performances at the 40-mile Mount Mitchell Challenge.  But I had yet to experience any real success at 50 miles; certainly nothing commensurate with my performances in shorter ultras and trail races.  I'd been unable to completely master the nutritional requirements or to fight through the fatigue in the late stages.  So despite my long-standing (ill-considered?) belief that I get stronger as the races get longer, I was apprehensive that the 100K might not suit me all that well.  As Bandera approached and my fitness progressed, I started to think that maybe I should take another crack at Caumsett.  It was a known quantity at a distance where I'd experienced some success; a good fallback or safety valve if the 100K proved to be too much for me.  My workouts were not far off of what I'd been able to do back in 2008.  At 40 years old, could I run close to--or better than--that 3:25 I'd thought was beyond my reaching again?

As it has much of this winter, the weather cooperated nicely: clear and cool, high 30s at the start, low to mid-40s by midday, no significant wind.  I lined up in the third row with Laura and Joe Murphy, behind the likely favorites, including Zach Ornelas, who last year had set the course record of 2:52; Jared Burdick, second at the 2015 Cayuga Trails; 2:20 marathoner Fred Joslyn; and my teammate Cole.  My goal was to run even splits, even slightly negative if things went well, and try to stay near the front of the masters field, but ultimately to run my own race.  Zach took off at the gun, opening up a 15-second gap on the field by the mile mark; I ran in the lead masters' pack, in about 12th place, with three or four other old guys until we hit the mile in 6:10.  I felt pretty relaxed but knew this was not sustainable, and quickly eased off the gas and let the pack go.  I was running solo almost immediately, but was able to find my rhythm quickly and ran 6:30 for the second mile, just a few seconds ahead of what I wanted.  I settled in for the day.

photo: Ed Grenzig

The course is a 5K "loop" with a short out-and back section just before the start/finish, repeated ten times.  With a couple hundred runners soon joined by a few hundred 25K runners (starting five minutes later) on a short loop, the road quickly became congested.  Even so, I ran solo--as alone as you can be when surrounded by other people--the rest of the way.  I was passing and lapping people throughout, but outside of the first mile, I spent almost no time with anyone running the same pace as I was.

The race had split up into a few groups.  Zach was off the front, chasing the American record of 2:47.  Jared and Fred led one chase pack; Cole and Eric Senseman another.  Then came the masters group of three or four runners.  Then four or five solo runners stretched out over a few minutes' gap, including Dan Verrington, still getting it done at 53, and Caroline Boller, the women's leader.  Behind me lurked a few runners, including Joe and Laura, who was running very fast, though she looked pretty uncomfortable.  (She struggled through the day with some hip pain--us trail runners don't take too kindly to the roads--but gutted out a fantastic 3:40 to place second.  She is so, so tough.)

I struggled a bit getting comfortable in the early stages--I was running very even 6:30-6:35 splits, but my legs felt a little heavy and tight--but past 15K I started to feel great.  The 6:30s started to feel too easy, and I had to rein myself in to prevent them from turning into 6:20s.  Lap 4 was my fastest and easiest of the day, and lap five passed quite comfortably as well; I came through halfway in 1:41:06, in 15th place I believe, feeling very strong and confident that a 3:25 was well within reach.  My plan now called for me to relax through laps 6 and 7 as much as possible while making a concerted effort to take in some fluid and calories.  Through 25K I had taken in just a little bit of water and no calories, so starting lap 6 I grabbed my handheld and resolved to take in at least two gels, four S! caps, and the entire bottle by the end of lap 7.  I was well on pace and was OK with giving back a little time here.  Even if I gave back 30 seconds per lap over the next two, I was looking at a 41:30-42:00 10K and a 35K split of 2:23.  I was then fairly certain I could run a 62-minute last 15K for my 3:25.
photo: Ed Grenzig
Lap six passed without much incident--I was getting a little tight, but nothing unmanageable--but it was becoming clear that I had a bathroom issue.  From about the hour mark on, I had an inkling that I had to pee.  Normally, in an ultra, I'd just stop and go, but a flat road 50K, like a marathon run for time, is unforgiving; afraid to stop and lose precious seconds, by lap 5 I was starting to psych myself up to just pee on myself as I ran.  (What a stupid sport this is.)  Which would have been fine, but midway through lap six my stomach was starting to make it known that my pre-race evacuation, while satisfying at the time, had been inadequate.  I tried hoping it would go away, but that didn't work, and I really didn't have any other ideas, so I pulled over at the mid-lap aid station halfway through the seventh lap--almost exactly the 20-mile mark, in 2:11.

In a trail race, or a longer ultra, this would be no big deal.  A road 50K, though, has much more in common with a marathon than with what we usually think of in ultras.  One of the reasons I got out of marathoning (other than not being very good at it) was that the enormity of the effort coupled with the relentlessness of the clock was too overwhelming.  There is just no room for error.  Running a big-city marathon like Chicago or New York renders your place basically meaningless; I couldn't tell you if I had a good raced based on finishing 150th, or 500th.  Only the time matters.  To put so much effort into training only to be derailed by something as trivial as the weather, or the course, or, having to stop and poop--it's just too frustrating.  And I was acutely aware of that feeling as I opened the port-a-potty door and thought, "Oh, well, my race is over."

I gave up two and a half minutes in the stall--150 agonizing seconds--and it took me another 1-2 minutes of slow jogging afterwards to shake the stiffness out of the legs.  By the end of the seventh lap I felt like I had my rhythm back.  I tossed my bottle and got back to work.  The PR was gone, but sub-3:30 was still in play.

photo: Ed Grenzig
Lap eight passed quickly; I felt very strong and was able to earn back one or two of the spots I'd lost during my pit stop.  By the start of lap 9, I was tightening up again; the pace had slipped from 6:35-6:40 down to 6:50-6:55, but I was holding it together.  I split the marathon in 2:56:05 (pre-race goal had been around 2:50-2:51, so without my bathroom break, a 2:53 or so--not too far off) and caught Joe, struggling with hamstring tightness, a quarter mile later.  I started the bell lap knowing I'd need close to a sub-21:00 5K to break 3:30.  I couldn't quite make that happen, but by the mile mark I started seeing glimpses of Dan Verrington about a minute ahead.  I'd been chasing him for nearly three hours, and thought I was likely to run out of room, but I gave chase anyway.  For awhile nothing happened, but by the two-mile mark of the loop I had the gap down to about 30-40 seconds, and it looked like he was coming back to me.  I still doubted I had enough time, but kept pushing, and it paid off, as I was able to draw alongside with about a half mile to go and put in a nice hard pass to secure the spot by about 20 seconds at the finish.


In all, it was a good B+/A- effort.  I hadn't quite been able to pull out the PR--even without the pit stop, I might have fallen short--but subtracting three minutes from my seventh lap gives a 3:27, which I would have been quite happy with.  I'm beat up like I haven't been for awhile; I almost forgot how tough road marathons are, and I'll be on the bike only for the next couple of days.  But this was my second top-3 age group placing at a national championship this year, and I'll certainly take that.  It was tough, though, returning to straight time-based road racing for the first time in a number of years, and I think that my answer nowadays to Joe's question might be: "Yeah.  Too short."