Apr 122014

The Squak Mountain race that Evergreen Trail Runs puts on every April is one of my favorites.

It has a beautiful hilly mostly-single-track course with a few fast flats and some flowy downhills. It has a wonderful technical section where you can barely see the trail on account of its being overgrown with ferns and moss that hide slippery rocks and bundles of roots with feet-sized holes between them. There are fallen tree trunks that you have to climb over, and tree trunks that you should probably duck under. And the view! Well, this is Seattle, and so there really isn’t any view. But that’s because it’s blocked by a forest of beautiful big fir trees.

The organization and the volunteers are stellar. If you’re reasonable about it, Roger Michel still lets you run his races with your dog. So even if, on race day, you don’t have your dog with you, chances are you’ll encounter someone else’s dog during the race. Running is always better with a dog.

Squak is one of the best trail/mountain races around, and I encourage everyone to try it sometime. There is a 12K, half, full marathon, and 50K, so pick your distance and try not to break your ankle or dislocate anything.

This year I did the half marathon for the second time and finished an unofficial (as of race-day afternoon) 15th. I believe I may have gotten third in my age group. It was a competitive year with 3 or 4 guys running under the old course record (and some guy named Justin Houck did an insane 1:32), so place-wise I’m pretty happy with where I ended up. I felt pretty strong for most of the race. I didn’t fall on my face once. It was, in general, a rousing success. But as after every race, there were a few things I wanted to have done better. My arbitrary goal beforehand was to finish in less than 2 hours, and I finished in 2:04:55.2 which is arbitrarily 4:55.2 too slow. I did the first big climb and all the descents really well, but the climbs near the end had me a bit strung out. You know that feeling you get when your heart rate goes above 200 and you shift over to anaerobic metabolism?  It was like that.

For most of the race I was by myself, except for a spell during the middle when I was running with a guy named Josh. He probably has a bunch of natural talent, because I got the impression he hadn’t been doing a lot of focused training and hadn’t done a trail race since the late George H.W. Bush administration. Anyway, he was great and I hope he continues to race because he’ll probably kick a lot of ass.

Squak was my first race of the year, and I thought it went well. I think I’m a better mountain runner than when I did this race two years ago, and I think the changes I’m making this year in my training are making me faster.  Those changes are primarily 1) greater variety in intensity and distance of my training runs, and 2) occasional group runs with the Rocky Mountain Runners in Boulder (a dog-friendly group of fast motherfuckers). I’m trying to adhere to Matt Carpenter’s advice this season: make your hard days hard and your easy days easy. I think it’s working.

Check back later for some pictures. Until then, my race per the Suunto.


Jan 082014

WARNING: This post is about my trail running goals for 2014 and contains some musings about how I’m going to achieve them. Most of you are probably not interested, and that’s… healthy.

BUT FOR THOSE WHO ARE (Hi Mom!), here’s the deal. The 2014 season will be my third trail-racing season, and I think that means that I ought to start shooting at some loftier goals. I have two years of trail running behind me. I think this constitutes a reasonable base of fitness from which I can start to try for some race performances that I would consider “good.”

South Table Mtn trail, Nov '13

So how’s that for specificity?  In the past when I’ve started a race, my goal was usually to get in a good workout, not finish last, and learn something about racing. I think these were very appropriate goals for my first two seasons, where the risk was that I wouldn’t be patient enough and would fail to understand that success isn’t built on one or two good training runs, and that you can’t reach your potential in one or two months or even years. Facing my third season, I think the time is right to put that base fitness to work and aim for something else in races.

I’d like to have some really good races this year where I do well against my past performances and against the field in general, depending on the race and on the field. So for example, concerning my two goal races for 2014:

Pikes Peak Marathon: I’d like to finish in under 6 hours. This would improve on my best time of 6:23 back when I was 28 years old (but when I was doing the race rather…. casually). I think this is actually a very modest goal, as it would require me to cut 43 minutes off last year’s time, 20 of which were spent sitting on a bench at Barr Camp trying not to throw up. Considering that my training for last year’s race included only one descent of Barr Trail and only one ascent, I think there’s plenty of room for better race-specific training this year.

The Rut 50K: Another race I’m repeating this year. Last year was a pleasant disaster (I felt miserable the whole time but somehow enjoyed it and finished), so there’s a lot of room to improve. I’m going to spend more time at Big Sky prior to the race and do runs on the course with my dog. The goal is to finish in the middle third of the field. Since the field might be dramatically different from last year on account of the Rut’s inclusion on the Skyrunner world series calendar, there’s a lot of uncertainty about this goal.

Two other races I’m repeating from past years are the Illinois Marathon and the Squak Half Marathon. No specific goals for these other than that I want to run them hard, and that I’m committed to finishing the Illinois Marathon this time (last year I dropped after 18 miles without any regrets, as it was purely a training run).

In order to race better in 2014, I’m going to rely on two major adjustments to the training regimen. First, I’m going to vary the intensity and length of my workouts more. Last season I was doing too many 1.5 -hour runs over similar terrain, without much variation. This year, I plan to run shorter, faster, longer, etc. over the course of each week and month to avoid doing the same workout over and over.

Second, I’m going to increase my volume. I need to do some 5-hour runs in training and not just in races. I’m going to do more Pikes Peak ascents and descents. Maybe a training round-trip or two.

So for the first time, I’m going to be disappointed if I don’t have some substantially better racing performances this season. It’s about time to raise the bar.

Pup licks on Green Mtn

Oct 222012

Kilian Jornet summarized his 2012 season today.  17 trail-running wins in 19 starts, with 2 third-positions, is pretty much the definition of “dominant.”  No one else is even close.

Coincidentally, I completed my first explicit trail-running season yesterday, and so I thought I’d summarize it, because I really do want to be just like Kilian.

Yes, I do think of 2012 as my first trail-racing season.  I’ve been running trails for fun and fitness for a long time, since the late ’90s.  I’ve entered trail races before, primarily the Pikes Peak Ascent (in 1996) and the Pikes Peak Marathon (in 1999, 2000, and 2001), but these races were just something I did as one-offs because I thought they’d be fun — they weren’t part of a conscious attempt to be a trail-running athlete.  I didn’t enter many other races, and I didn’t do any explicit training.  I was primarily a college student, then a medical student, then a law student, then an emergency medicine resident.  I was “in training,” but not as an athlete.

In 2009 I finished my residency and moved from Chicago to Seattle.  I was no longer any kind of a student and had no plans to start any other formal educational program.  Finally, I was just another guy with a job (instead of just another guy going to school).  I had a deep-seated fear of becoming boring, because in my mind, fairly or not, slogging along at a steady job has always sounded profoundly dull.  I was also feeling that I wasn’t working out in the gym or running as much over the past 2-3 years as I had been.  It seemed to me that I was facing a subtle decision point — to begin a slow, gradual decline to a sedentary middle-age, or …

I think it was some combination of little things that led me to make trail running and racing an explicit project.  I was really enjoying running the trails on Cougar Mountain in my free time, especially in comparison to running flat bike paths in Chicago.  I was reading about the career of Kilian Jornet, Dakota Jones, Anton Krupicka, Nick Clark, and other top trail runners, and looking at pictures on their blogs of some of spectacular mountains that they got to race in.  And I was thinking about moving back to my home state of Colorado after a long absence for law school and residency.  Surely it’d be fun to do the Pikes Peak Marathon again?  All of these things led to my decision in late 2011 start doing trail races, and to start training for them.  2012 would be my first explicit trail racing season.

So how did the first season go?  I raced five times.

1) February 26, Lord Hill Trail Run, 10 miles.  1:36:47.7.  Out of 112 runners, finished 19th (top 17%).  A muddy and fun race that I ran with my dog Pele in the rainy Northwest slop.  Thanks to Evergreen Trail Runs for letting me race with my dog.  Started 5 min after the main field by arrangement with the race director and spent all my time passing people.

Start line, Lord Hill trail race (Yumay Chang)

2) April 14, Squak Mountain Half Marathon.  2:13:41.  Out of 99 runners, finished 19th (top 20%).  Again, Evergreen Trail Runs puts on super dog-friendly races.  They let me start 5 minutes after the field and I raced the whole course with Pele.  Best part was hearing comments from other racers under their breath — “look at how fast that dog goes downhill!”

Finishing Squak Mtn Half Marathon, with Pele (Vernhes family)

3) October 6, Cheyenne Mountain Xterra 5k.    26:18.  Out of 48 runners, finished 8th (top 17%).  A fun race that I entered at the last minute.  Went out too hard.  Lesson: must do regular interval training!

4) October 14, Wichita Prairie Fire Marathon.  4:33:42.  Out of 723 runners, finished 409th (top 57%).  I’ve never hurt quite as much as I did during the last five miles of the Prairie Fire marathon, and that includes all three of my Pikes Peak Marathons.  The pain was all musculoskeletal — ankles, knees, hips.  Aerobically I felt great the whole time.  13-mile split was approximately 1:30, so I may have gone out too hard.  I think the pain was more due to lack of road conditioning, though.  I distracted myself by looking at spectators’ pups along the side of the road — there are a lot of beautiful pups in Wichita!

5) October 21, Boulder Half Marathon.  1:47:44.  Out of 1323 runners, finished 141st (top 11%).  Another road race, this time on mostly packed dirt roads.  I kept the stride length short and felt great up until mile 11, when the leg pain slowed me down again.  My halfway split was just over 55 minutes, so I’m real happy with my pacing.  Beautiful autumn day with yellow leaves and golden sunlight.  It was fun to watch the leaders coming back the other way, running fast.

I feel like I gave a pretty good effort in all these races with the exception of the Prairie Fire Marathon, where the wheels came off in the second half and I ended up walking most of the last 13 miles.

Here’s a few things I’ll take away from this season.  First, it’s true about athletic training that “if you need it in the next two weeks, it’s already too late.”  Probably you could say that if you need it in the next six months, where “it” is a major leap in fitness to competitive levels, it is probably too late.  I had hoped for times in the Prairie Fire and Boulder Half that would qualify me for the first field/wave in next year’s Pikes Peak Marathon/Ascent, but unfortunately didn’t achieve either goal.  There will still be opportunities for me to get these qualifying times, but if I end up having to run Pikes Peak in the second wave next year, so be it.  I’m prepared to wait for 2, 3, 4 years in order to get some really good times in that race.

Second, for an equivalent time spent running, I hurt WAY less when running hilly trails than when running roads.  Road running is so painful on the legs, at least when you’re not conditioned for it.  And I am not.

Third, races are more fun with a dog!

I may do another race or two in 2012, but as the Starks say, “Winter is coming!”  That means everything in the remainder of the year will feel like off-season stuff.  It’ll be my first explicit off season.  How to handle it?  Well, I’m thinking about mountain biking, snowshoeing, maybe some xc skiing, slacklining, and hiking with my dog.

Pele descends Lookout Mountain, Golden, CO