Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Exercising demons

(Immediate post-race. Happy to be finished, too early to say we'll be back)

In my lifetime of racing, I have only one DNF to my credit. It may have been the 'smart' thing to do at the time, but it was bitter. When I first wrote Moose Mountain Marathon on my calendar, it wasn't for a chance at a great marathon time, to qualify for Boston or to win an age division. It was my redemption. This race I was going to finish. Unless I got violently ill, or broke a leg, there was no way I was dropping out of this - there was only one way to the end.
In that regard, it was a huge success.

Okay, enough of the sappy stuff. Here are some other ways this race (M³) is a huge success:

1. Low key attitude. At the start of the race, we line up. Where? well, behind the Race Director, of course, where else? Race Director: "Okay, I suppose we should get started. You're going to run down this road and turn at the orange flag and loop back onto the trail. Okay? GO!"

2. Attention to detail. Larry, our Race Director, runs the pre-race information meeting after packet pickup Friday night and then promptly puts his headlamp on and heads out to the trail to check on the Ultra runners all night. Aid station food (PBJ, Cheese Sandwiches) made by hand by the RD's Wife, who also records splits for runners coming into each Aid station ("I forget, am I supposed to record when they come in to the Aid station or leave? Oh, well, I record both anyway") This means, strictly speaking, I should be able to lookup Mark's transition times while he wolfed down his cheese sandwiches at Britton Peak.

3. Homey touches. Larry, our RD, makes the awards by hand. What other race combines the Race Director's love of running and woodworking? Did I mention the Race Director's wife, Colleen? She spent all afternoon, post race, making hoagies for racers. The race clock was fixed to the Superior Trail 100 Ultra. Standard race clocks aren't intended to run this long. After 20 hours running, they just tacked a handmade "2" in front. Not sure what they were doing after 29:59:59, but I assume someone had an extra "3" to tape over.

4. This course. This is just an amazing course. 26.2 (or 50 - or 100) miles on the Superior Hiking Trail. Even accounting for insane climbs, slippery riverside bolders, countless stubbed toes on the roots - not to mention the stumbles - this was just insanely beautiful. And the solitude. You're pretty sure there's that guy behind, trying to catch you, and that guy ahead must be close - you can hear him on the foot bridge up ahead. But, when you come into the Aid station, you are the only one there and they treat you like a Rock Star.

5. From now on, we'll always be able to say "We are Superior Trail Runners"

Hey, how about this chilly marathon start for a change! Another positive about the course. Mark looks annoyingly laid-back.

High Maintenance Aid Station Runner #1: "I don't want any of those shirts! I want my singlet"

High Maintenance Aid Station Runner #2 (watch the progression):

Unscrewing water bottle...

Get the replacement shoes ready...

Fill me up...

Okay, now which way do I go?
Sheesh! Maybe we needed Lance out there to break open his Gu's and hand them to him?

Post Race:
Was that it? Where's the Race Director? I want a few words with him.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Spring Bike Commuting

I've become a fair-weather bike commuter.

I love riding - despite not having the time to commit to it in earnest (plus, I have a rather expensive purchase to amortize). So the past couple of years I've chosen to use my Spring-to-Fall commutes as a chance to ride. Kill two birds with one stone, to coin a phrase. I'm also a consultant by trade, and frequently find myself at new client sites all over the metro. Consequently, I have developed a somewhat adventurous reputation for bike commuting no matter where I'm located.

With the focus on Bike Commuting lately, as Nate mentions, I've taken on the challenge of finding the best route out to a new client site in Plymouth these last couple of weeks.

This has been by far the most challenging. It's not that there aren't trails, or commute-friendly side roads out in industrial Plymouth, but they are disjointed and it's difficult to string together a flowing route from South Minneapolis. The commuter trails that do exist are in fine shape, but are disappointingly incongruous. The Luce line trail, for example, runs directly by my client's site and back toward downtown via the gorgeous locale of south Medicine Lake. Luce line abruptly ends, though, in the middle of Golden Valley (right by a major avenue, no less). Side streets are fine until you realize that what was lightly trafficked in the morning is bumper-to-bumper cars with narrow shoulders in the evening. In short, it's frustratingly inadequate - but just barely! You can easily get 95% there with no trouble at all.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Trail Mix recap

The trail racing season has officially kicked off with the Trail Mix 25K and 50K ultra. It was a muddier affair than last year (my only reference point, as that was my first Trail Mix.) Shortened this year due to icy conditions on the ski hill, the trail was without its toughest segment. Despite the mud, it would prove to be quite a bit faster without this part. I look to early season races as a measure of my improving fitness. I think a lot of folks do. It's very hard to use a trail race - especially one as hilly as Trail Mix - to determine fitness unless you have done the race before and conditions are similar. I have tried to calibrate the times for Trail Mix 25K this year and estimate some sort of equivalency to a full course, with modest success. Let me tell you how.

I had heard the course was about 1/3 of a mile short. I calculated ~ .8 of a mile based upon a rough mapping of the missing segment. That would yield a 'true' course time for me of ~ 5 to 6 minutes slower, but I have reason to believe that this is ambitious. I wanted to see where this race stacked up in general against previous editions. When I checked on archived results, I noticed that the depth of the race has grown considerably in the last few years, so I decided to compare strictly to last year. What I did was to compare time differentials for each runner by place from this year's race to last year's.

I calculated the difference in finish times for each place and graphed the resulting 'improvement' of this year over last year, reasoning that - in the main - the body of runners should run roughly the same times. This yielded the following observation: outside of the first dozen or so runners (who could be considered statistical outliers due simply to the difference in quality of runners that a race of this size sees at the pointy end from one year to the next), the front end of the race saw time improvements in the 7 to 8 (or 9) minute range over last year. This is considerably faster than the 5 to 6 minutes improvement I figured based upon just the shortened course. So, if I were honest, I would assume a full course time roughly 7 and 1/2 minutes slower than clock time. This is harder to swallow, frankly. Apparently, the Ski Hill is a real course discriminator!

One interesting thing that the graph shows after the first hundred or so runners: the finish time differences steadily shrink until they approach zero toward the end of the race. Now, why would that be?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Are the Trails clear yet?

Spring is here.

I say this because i've begun training for - and participating in - Spring races. Therefore it must be Spring. By definition.

After a somewhat disastrous Fall campaign on the roads, I have decided to change things up a bit and focus more on off-road running this year. Consequently, i've signed up for a Trail Circuit. It's a fledgling trail series modeled after MDRA's Grand Prix race series. The climax of the circuit (for me) will be the Moose Mountain marathon on September 6th. I'm looking forward to it. So much so, that I had already purchased my trail trainers while the snow was still clinging to trails. As you can tell, they've yet to see any action.

In the meantime, i've stuck to the roads. I can tell i'm roughly where I was last year at this time after the Ron Daws 25K. I ran essentially the same tempo for the course as last year. I can only say this after running this race two years in a row, of course, because it's such a tough course. In fact, it got me thinking about how we as runners measure our progress. PRs give a decent objective yardstick, but PRs really are only meaningful on the track (and even then, conditions can have a ranging effect on performance.)

So, what's a good objective measure? PRs on a given course? Average times over a series of races? Race standings? All of these are decent but require too much explaining. Cycling has a catchall term for an athletes record: the rider's Palmares. Palmares encompasses your entire race performances; your wins, places, standings, stage wins, speed for a given stage or time trial, overall speed for a stage race, etc. Citizen runners should adopt this. As in, 'well, I didn't PR, but it was a tough course and I added a top ten finish to my Palmares.' This allows a runner to measure success in any number of ways!

This assumes, of course, that anyone cares. Anyone besides the runner in question.

In another week, i'll have no choice but to get out on the trails - snow or no snow - as the Trail Mix 25K kicks off the series. Judging from course photos i've seen on other blogs, the ski trails are still quite packed with a thin layer of ice the consistency of concrete. Reminds me of the City of Lakes Loppet!

The Monday following, I intend to hole up at work and follow the Boston Marathon race ticker, keeping tabs on my mates running Heartbreak Hill. Hopefully, we'll see a PR or two - or three - from the three Amigos (AKA, the True Finns).

Or, maybe just add to their Palmares.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Curriculum ex Nihilo

Once again, City of Lakes Loppet organizers managed to salvage a great race from a course that did not offer much. Great early snow coverage from December was nearly destroyed by a late January thaw, rain and sudden freeze. Early in the week, they began to aggressively groom the north end of the trail through Wirth golf course sections and even down in South Wirth with the Piston Bully.

It's amazing what they managed to do. Coverage was excellent everywhere with only spotty patches of ice. Of course, the tight, technical turns in Quaking Bog were a bit dicy as wave after wave of skiers snowplowed the coverage we had over to the side. Even then, in most of those bad spots you were able to ski the snow berms on the sides pretty effectively, and the race officials were on hand to warn folks ahead of each bad curve and did a great job.

For me personally, it was a terrific race. I know this whole course very well as I train on it more than any other trail system in the metro area. I was attentive to the start of the race, working the initial hill very hard to get in front of my wave. This has always seemed counterintuitive to me as a runner to go into the red zone so early in a race, but in nordic races i've learned how important this is so as to avoid race jams on subsequent climbs that can really slow down your momentum. It's important to remember as you are climbing and your quads are burning, that you will recover!

I managed to attach myself to a couple of pretty good "trains" at key points in the race as well, trading off leads with people to get a good rhythm going. At one point, we were moving pretty well through the bog, with the narrow sections there and I remember thinking "This train had better pick up the pace as they are starting to slow a little and I don't have room to get around". At that point, I saw a skier from wave 6 (yes, he started 10 minutes behind me and had caught me at about 20K into the race!) coming from behind, and weaving seamlessly between skiers. He whistled at us from behind as he came around a curve, jumping partly off the trail to weave around and in between our train. In that moment I realized, we were all a bunch of recreational enthusiasts. This guy was a real skier. He was gone in a flash.

After Quaking Bog section, this race heads to the lakes for the last 15K or so. I typically loathe this section as I'm a bit of a "strength" skier, if I may borrow that phrase. Skiers I can usually hang with or pass on climbs tend to drop me on the flats. But today was different. I attached myself to the end of my group and tried to hang on as best I could once we reached Cedar Lake. As we moved through the canal and onto Isles, I realized I still had something in the tank and began to move to the front of that train and even drop it, transitioning up. Very unusual for me and pretty promising. After kicking around this sport for a number of years and making scant progress, I think I may be rounding a corner in terms of skills, technique and race tactics.

(picture is of me, coming down onto Cedar Lake from the north beach section)

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

South Wirth Controversy (or, A Tempest In A Teapot)

As an avid cross country skier - note I didn't say "experienced" or "seasoned" - Theodore Wirth park is one of my favorite wintertime haunts. A gorgeous series of interconnected trails through Wirth golf course and down through south Wirth and to the lakes makes this one of the more varied, lengthy and challenging trails networks anywhere in the metro area. Really, it's a cross country skiing jewel to the Minneapolis' parks crown.

While Minneapolis has featured groomed CC Ski trails such as north Wirth's golf course front nine and back nine loops for years, the expanded trail network from north Wirth to uptown began a few years ago with John Munger's dream to make Minneapolis a CC Ski Mecca by creating the City Of Lakes Loppet ski marathon. This has resulted in expanded ski trails through what used to be fairly quiet wooded areas surrounding Eloise Butler wildflower gardens and the Quaking Bog.

These expanded trails, featuring more numerous (and wider) skiing/hiking loops have cut a swath through what was a well-kept secret of Bryn Mawr residents, bordering Eloise Butler in particular. When you combine this with the Park Board's multi-year campaign to rid these parks of Buckthorn, south Wirth has really thinned out in the last couple of years.

Many residents feel it's irrevocably changing the nature of this practically wild habitat, and threatening rare vegetation. They have directed much of their frustration at what they perceive to be a skier conspiracy to strip-mine south Wirth of buckthorn in order to lay wide switchbacks of skate ski groomed trails. The Southwest Journal recently reported on The Controversy

Why these residents (banded together as the Friends of the Wildflower Garden) have taken such a hard-line with the Nordic Ski Foundation escapes me. Even after the multiple use groups like the Nordic Ski Foundation, area residents and mountain bikers all attempted to reach a consensus on use and seemed to reach agreement on keeping potential trails away from the flower gardens, their stated goal is to remove all nordic trails from south Wirth.
They raise two principal points, as I see it:
  • Wide trails have cut through old growth vegetation and threaten rare species, and,
  • Nordic trails and usage has scared off local fauna
Aside from the inherent contradiction of an inner city park "wilderness" area, nordic skiing is one of the least invasive recreational pursuits a park area can possibly see. I'm pretty intimately familiar with the Eloise Butler ski trail. Most of trail is perimeter use (running along the neighborhood, roads, schoolyard and on top of the Park Board summer use parking lot road. It briefly skirts near the flower garden and, as I mention above, consensus has been reached not to expand any closer to the flower garden. I can only conclude that people are confusing most of the buckthorn removal with a Loppet land-grab.

As to wildlife, I fail to see how it's use by skiiers would be markedly different from any other non-motorized use in terms of threatening local wildlife. I use a variety of the region's trail systems to ski, hike and run and cannot fathom why people would think that this type of usage would materially impact local wildlife. Anyone who's had to shoo turkeys, deer and coyote out of the way when they are trail running or skiing would agree with me.

It seems the Friends of the Wildflower Garden have misdirected their anger here and are bit ignorant of the ski community. It is one of the most genteel, gracious, environmentally friendly recreation groups you can come across.

Check out my local video of skiing Wirth on Christmas (footage here from the connector section from JD Gardens and the south Wirth areas back to Front Nine):

Look at those guys! Just the picture of gentility.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The start of ski season

The snow came early this year. After very little of the usual Thanksgiving time teasing with flurries, we got dumped on the week following, before plummeting temperatures would send us into a freeze that has lasted about two weeks now. Consequently, after a few weeks of great trail running, we've almost switched over completely to skiing. It helps that Helen is having such difficulty with persistent running injuries to change the mindset over!

We've made the usual rounds in town, skiing first Elm Creek, then Hyland and Wirth/Loppet trails.

This past weekend we journeyed north through the Chequamegon-Nicollet recreational lakes area of Wisconsin and up to Bayfield for a weekend retreat at the cabin with friends (sans Henry and Abigail this time, adults only). Along the way, stopped to ski on the Birkie trail at 'OO'. Helen and I skiied south almost to Mosquito Brook and back on pristine early season trails. Simply awesome, and hardly any other skiiers out on a Friday afternoon.

Next morning, we gathered everyone up and ventured to Ashwabay - which still did not have the slopes open for the season - to try the new Sugarbush loop which purportedly had added a groomed skate lane to it's classic tracks. It was a great, if somewhat short, intense loop of extreme cardio trails as it turned out.

Helen, climbing the last hills up Sugarbush before the grand descent back to the chalet.

Kirk and Anne, posing after the loop downhill toward the chalet. Yes, they look annoyingly natural on the skinny skis for neophytes.

What's that look? It's vaguely familiar, though I don't recall ever seeing that on Kirk's face.

If I didn't know any better, i'd say that's the classic look of red-lining!

After Ashwabay, I drove up country to Valhalla to check out conditions on the Valkyrie loops. Frankly, they were better groomed but a bit narrower than here. Overall, a beautiful crisp day of great skiing.