Running up, over and through the cogs

Archive for January, 2012

The 2012 New Leaf Ultra Runs Windburn Six in the Stix 6-Hour Run

Running around a snowy 2.28 mile loop course for six straight hours against a relentlessly swirling 30 mph wind on a Saturday in January with about 50 or so other running fanatics is truly one of the most enjoyable activities I’ve ever participated in.

And I ain’t speakin’ in absolutes just to be speakin’ in absolutes.

I mean it.  I had a blast!

Chicagoland’s New Leaf Ultra Runs ultrarunning club has been a key component in my successful transition past 26.2 miles and into distances that would cause the casual 5K runner to pick his jaw up off the floor.  With several 50Ks under my belt and having just set a marathon PR, my focus turns to completing my first 50 mile race, the Ice Age Trail 50 in May.  So a six hour fun run couldn’t have been more timely!

The Windburn Six fat ass event — a run that I’d been gazing at on the calendar with a heightened sense of anticipation for many weeks prior — gave me a good idea of where I am physically, but, more importantly, it also gave me a good idea of where I’m about to go, how far I’ll have to dig, and a titillating glimpse at the raw me still yet to be fully discovered.

For me, that’s what running is all about: self-discovery.  And during the Windburn Six I discovered the following:

  • Ultrarunners are the kindest, most genuine, most non-judgmental people on the planet. Unlike the road racing community, no one is there to size you up, to “beat” you, to make you look stupid. Everyone’s on your team, raring to support you and one can never get enough of that. Your success is the community’s success. And the collective spirit generated from this worldview is as contagious as it is electrifying.
  • When it comes to running for six hours, snow ain’t a thing, but sunglasses would’ve been a smart idea. I spent the rest of my day doing my best Gizmo impression: Bright Light! Bright Light!
  • The joy that comes from suffering can often be the sweetest, most everlasting kind. It’s the kind that reminds you I’M ALIVE! The longer we ran in circles, the happier we all seemed. The volume and intensity of smiles and thumbs-ups and high-fives increased with each hour that passed. Sure my legs were feeling a bit heavy with only an hour to go, but I ran faster and stronger in that last hour than I did the previous five because the group mind was willing me to perform!
  • After several bundled up hours of running, nothing tastes quite as good as homemade chicken noodle soup!
  • Singing on the trail is not only allowed: IT’S ENCOURAGED! I got to hear a couple of sweet tunes sung by some very happy ultrarunners and they definitely served as highlights of the day.
  • If you’re feeling tired but want to go as fast as possible without it feeling bad, run with Tony Cesario for a mile or so. I did towards the end of the run and boy did he bring my legs back to life! I didn’t know they could do that!
  • I get sick of gels after a couple hours, so eating just a little bit of real food often seems to keep my engine running!
  • When you run on an exposed, markerless and snow covered loop over and over again, it’s hard to gauge exactly where you are at any given time. The only thing I could be sure of during the run was that I was indeed running. This put my mind exactly where I wanted it to be: totally immersed in the run. When everything else (negativity, self-doubt, reservations) was put aside, true introspection began to flourish. I was pleasantly surprised at what my mind thinks I’m capable of doing and I look forward to following it further.
  • No one will make fun of you if you decide to FLY down the downhills like a little kid, arms waving, battle cry roaring all the way.
  • At the zenith of any strenuous exercise, Oreo cookies are the bomb!!!
  • Running is the perfect ice breaker. I met a bunch of cool people whom I had never met before and the communitas born of our shared experience serves as a special bond.

Most of all, I discovered what I already knew to be even more true: running long boosts my serotonin levels and fills me with satisfaction. And running long with like-minded, friendly folks sends me to the proverbial moon of happiness.

Total distance covered for the six hour run was 31.64 miles.

*Special thanks to Brian and Kelly for their impeccable organization skills and also to those who didn’t run but who were manning the aid station, eager to lend a helping hand. It’s people like you who make ours a paragon of the running community!

(Image courtesy of Kelly Gaines)

The Art of Rest

Rest.  Wow.  What a concept.

After months and months of solid training.  With a strong base.  A calculated taper.

You go out and run the race of your life.

Then you get to rest.


I like to give myself 2 to 3 weeks of just playful recovery/rest.  Go run when I feel like it.  Don’t follow a plan.  Leave the watch at home.  I put on the shoes that look good at the time and go run wherever I feel drawn.  Sometimes it’s just 5 miles around the neighborhood and sometimes it’s a nice, slow 6-hour adventure on single track.

You wanna veg out for three days and watch streaming epsiodes of Breaking Bad?  Wanna stay up til midnight, Google surf and eat a bowl of cereal before you go to sleep?  DO IT!  You earned it!

And it feels awesome.  Knowing that in a few weeks I’ll be back to the hard, disciplined grind of training for that target event makes the few weeks of active rest a damn fine prize.  It refreshes me.  Reminds me why I love to run.  Makes me hunger and want it again.

I always do.  I always want it again.

The 2012 Houston Marathon Race Report

“You will feel so good, for so long.”

–Anonymous, quoted by Rachel Toor, Running Times, Feb/Mar ’12

Nothing beats the pure satisfaction of setting a high goal, working hard to reach it, then kicking some serious asphalt ass.  On Sunday, January 15th, 2012 — one of the single greatest days of my life — I put the exclamation mark on all of the above.  As a result, the Houston Marathon will be running on a forever-loop in my mind.

After clocking a 3:20:49 finish at the Chicago Marathon in October, on an unseasonably warm day in my first legitimately speedy attempt (read: not running to just finish) at the distance that killed Pheidippides, I realized that the potential for logging a 3:15 was probably there if I was willing to work for it.

I know that every runner has his or her own personal reason for running these stupid long distances; one of mine just happens to be an incurable curiosity to see exactly what my body is capable of doing.

So with 12 weeks to prepare, I upped my mileage, learned to love the tempo run and swallowed intervals in massively uncomfortable gulps.  I was gonna run 3:15 in Houston.  No doubt.

My dad lives in a Houston suburb and I knew having him along for my PR attempt was going to be a plus.  I blame him for my running addiction (he’s been running his whole life) so I felt it fitting that I try to go faster than I’ve ever gone before right in his back yard.  If I blew up and looked stupid, at least he would be there to make me feel better.  Dad has been my strongest supporter in everything I set out to do, and I know that for him, watching my transformation over the last few years from an unhealthy smoker to fit distance runner has been something he’s taken a bit of pride in.

I wanted to continue that streak.

When I told him goodbye and entered the starting corral, it was dark and chilly.  I gave him a hug, walked inside the gates and tried to quell the butterflies in my stomach by jumping up and down for a bit.  I can’t help but get nervous for all the mega races, but this one in particular, where I was attempting to run at least a solid 7:25 pace for the entire 26.2 miles gave me a few more jitters because it was something I hadn’t ever done before.  Tempo runs from 6:30 to 7:00 pace were common, as were even faster intervals, but to string it all together — without stopping and despite all the intangibles — sorta freaked me out.

But then the gun went off and no more thinking.  Just run.

The weather was perfect — mid 40s at the start and dry.  As we runners crossed the start line, I couldn’t help but find some bit of peace in the relative quiet of the first overpass (Houston’s course has a lot of them).  Contrary to the loud and fiery start of Chicago, Houston’s first few miles were virtually spectatorless and serene.  The only noise I could hear was the orchestra of feet pounding the pavement.  Before I knew it, I was already at 5K.

I went out a little fast — around 7:15 for the first three miles, but I felt okay — or rather, I didn’t feel awful.  In fact, this would be the physical theme of the race.  I never felt “good”.  In other races or training runs I have felt good, like “I FEEL GREAT!”, but in Houston, that would not be the case.  I had several bouts of feeling gross, feeling leg-heavy, just feeling blah.  But through the first 5 miles I was still hitting 7:15 splits on the dot and feeling fine enough to keep going.

So I did.

My right piriformis was achey.  Stop, it would say.  Shut up, I would reply.  Kept on going.

The crowd started to pick up and the song in my head (M83’s “Midnight City”) continued to get louder so I wasn’t able to hear myself think (was I even thinking?) about what exactly I was doing, but I was cruising right along.  Drinking on the run.  Gelling on the run.  High-fivin’ folks on the run.  Through 10 miles I looked down at my watch and noticed I’d built a nice, comfortable 2-minute cushion under a 3:15 finish pace. If I kept that up I was going to beat my goal and then some!

Of course, I wasn’t naive enough to think I was going to keep up at that pace without issue.  I was already beginning to feel quite fatigued and I knew I had a long way to go.  But before I could really worry about any of that, I reached the halfway mark and my pea-sized bladder decided to bring me back down to earth.

I’d been holding it, but holding it for 13 more miles could mean disaster.  So for the first time in an hour and thirty-four minutes, I stopped.  To take a leak.

Maybe it was the leak that saved me, because after that 30 second break, I surged out of the port-a-john with a renewed sense of purpose.  I’m gonna PR by at least five minutes today, I told myself.  I have some cushion.  I don’t have to kill myself.  Just keep running.  And enjoy it.

So I did.  I took pleasure in knowing I was in the middle of a 26-mile journey, that I was covering more ground in one day on my feet than most people do in a week, that I was being treated to the honor of running in one of the country’s biggest cities, without traffic, in the middle of the street.  I noticed my surroundings, the beautiful buildings all around, the kind folks cheering me on, making me smile with goofy signs, handing me Gatorade.

I sucked in the air.  I looked up into the blue sky.  I smiled knowing that this was an honor, and I was doing some pretty seriously honorable shit.

Running does that for me.  It gets me high on BEING ALIVE.

I slowed up a little, not as a sign of retreat, but rather as a tip of the cap to the sport.  I wanted to be sure that I finished with enough juice to get to the end strong.  So I knocked it down to about a 7:25 pace and decided to keep it there until I got to Mile 20.  From there I’d see how I felt.

From my research on the course, I learned that the biggest physical obstacle it had to offer was the big overpass hill at Mile 14.  I knew it was coming so mentally, I was prepared for it.  I made sure to hit the aid station at the bottom of the hill pretty good before charging up and over.  I found a guy who looked a little stronger than me and tucked into his wind blockage as we went up.  He flew and I just hung on.

On the down hill, I flew by him.  We did this dance with each other a couple times throughout the second half of the race.  It was pretty cool and we both knew it.  I eventually passed him for good in the last mile.

But before I got that far, I had to get to Mile 20, and when I did, reality hit.  I wasn’t feeling so hot.  My stomach was acting weird.  My bowels were messing with me.  Another six miles of hard racing looked a bit intimidating, especially after I realized I’d given back those two minutes now.  I was gonna have to kick it hard to the end at some point if I wanted 3:15. I took an extra gel, took two Gatorades, a water and then I doused my body in more water.

A few minutes later, I was fine.

This happened a couple of times.  I felt bad at Mile 22 and again at Mile 24, but I bounced back quickly each time.

To me, that’s what the marathon is: just see if you can go 20 miles before you have to really crawl into your own head and see what’s in there.  Those last six miles had me battling myself, over and over.  Take it easy, dude.  You’ve come this far.  It’s all good.  Just relax, while the other guy is saying: No! Don’t stop now. GO!!! You’re gonna feel so good for so long if you just do this!!!

This is gonna sound stupid but it’s true.  With about a mile and a half to go they had the Rocky theme song blaring on the loudspeakers.  And it worked.  I picked it up.  I started to move.

I zipped by one, two, three, four-five-six, seven… more.  The streets were all so full of carnage, people blowing up and walking and sitting on their butts.  I heard a guy blazing in front of me tell his buddy: “From this exact spot we are one mile away. Let’s do this.”

And boom.  They were off.

I chased them.

They were faster than me but I got to the last section where the crowd was fantastic and the last few minutes were run on someone else’s legs.  I guy in a Luke’s Locker singlet, actually.  Dude reeled me in and I thanked him for it at the finish.

When I crossed that line and saw 3:15:19 on my watch I tried to scream victory but nothing came out.  I’d given it all I had.  And some tears fell out of my face.


Now, the vitals:

The course was flat and fast with easy hills that can really be utilized for speed on the down sections.  I think being prepared for this was helpful to me in the first half because I was able to get some early speed and build a cushion.  There aren’t many turns.  It was well marked, accurate with my readings.  The big hill is at Mile 14 and then Miles 21-24 are all downhill (which is awesome!!!).  In the last couple miles there are some smaller ones too.

The crowd was awesome.  While not the size of those in Chicago (which are the best I’ve ever experienced), they were very vocal.  I can’t tell you how many kind people read my name on my bib and encouraged me in a very genuine manner.  Hearing your name all throughout the race, for me, is a HUGE help in staying in the moment and remembering why you are actually there.

Aid stations were well stocked and the volunteers were stupendous.  They were such kind people.  Southern comfort definitely has its place in a mega race.

But for me, the 2012 Houston Marathon will always be about learning that even when I don’t feel good, I know I’m still capable of doing wonderful things.

Taper Madness, Training Clarity

I once dated a girl who got real weird during her taper before the big race.  As one who was already quite prone to the overly dramatic, she blamed everything on “the taper.”  I’m irritable because of the taper.  I can’t sleep because of the taper.  Don’t talk to me because of the taper.


Of course, everyone is different, but by the time I get to my typical three-week taper before race day, I’m so damn tired that I need some accumulated rest.  In fact, I train to get to the taper, pushing myself hard in the weeks that lead up to it, knowing the reward will be a respite.

I welcome the shortened sessions on my feet, the dialed back tempos.  Get me a foam roller, a bowl of pasta and a bottle of Two Buck Chuck and I’m good!

Only once race week comes does a hint of that taper madness anxiety slip into my conscience.  I’m no psychiatrist, but I feel that most of what I feel is simply a case of the race jitters and nothing else.  I mean, what good would I be doing myself by running more miles when I’m supposed to be saving my energy for the upcoming race?

Still, whenever anyone (myself included) mentions any symptom of that dreaded taper madness, my universal go-to cure is to open up that logbook and look at all the great work that’s already been done.  As any seasoned runner will admit, the guts of one’s training comes before the taper, not during it.

If you’re not ready to tackle your goals three weeks out from race day, you might as well treat the race as a fun run.

So take pride in all that hard work, relax as race day approaches and tell taper madness to take a hike (preferably along the entire Appalachian Trail, so it stays away for a while).

Hitting the Wall: A Practice Reserved for Those Who Do Not Know What They Are Doing

In the February 2012 issue of Runner’s World, the featured celebrity runner on the back page is Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard.  In this brief interview, he mentions that he “hit the wall” in the L.A. Marathon and “had to walk a little.”  He then offers this quip of philosophical brilliance: “How you transcend the wall, as a runner or a musician, defines who you are.”

Well, Mr. Gibbard, I hate to sound like an asshole, but if you think “how you transcend the wall, as a runner” is what “defines who you are”, then you are a complete idiot.


Maybe you can tell already, but let me reiterate just how tired I am of hearing people talk about this “wall” as if it were some mystical obstacle that every runner must hurdle.  It’s not!  Hitting the wall is bonking, that’s all it is.  It’s when glycogen stores are depleted and you don’t have any energy to continue doing rigorous exercise.  And as all responsible runners know, if you bonk, it’s usually your fault!

I bonked once.  And it was my fault!  That day was hot and humid and the idea of putting any sort of food product in my mouth made me want to hurl, so I didn’t, and I paid the price.  Thing is, I knew it was coming.  Instead of slowing down or stopping, I braced myself for the experience and dealt with it the best I could.

It sucked.

I learned a lesson that day: if I can’t get gels down — if I can’t get ANY carbohydrates in my system — then I need to stop (or at least sloooow down considerably), or be ready for the consequences.  Nowadays, I make sure I’m regularly taking in gels, drinking Gatorade and, in ultra races, taking the time to eat real food (cookies, bananas, whatever looks good) to avoid the unpleasant bonk experience.

I weigh 148 pounds and I know that if I’m running for more than an hour, then I need to be taking in 50-75 grams of carbohydrate every hour after that to ensure glycogen stores do not reach depletion level.  Individual rates vary, but that’s what my body needs.

Every single marathon training book I’ve ever seen provides ample information on this valuable precaution, yet it seems that “hitting the wall” remains as some valiant badge of honor among those in the running community.

I see it as just being stupid.

*For more information on how to avoid hitting the wall, see Sunny Blende’s masterpiece from Ultrarunning Magazine.

Reverse That Rut: Go from Routine to Adventure with Just One Open Mind

No matter how fanatical the runner, there are going to be days when getting out and logging the long miles seems to be a daunting and taxing task.  Like today.

Having stayed out late (it was New Year’s after all), I didn’t roll out of bed until 11 a.m. — it happens like once a year, I swear — and a quick look out the window revealed a dreary, gray sky with trees bent sideways from 40 mph hour winds.  Ugh.  Not only that, but the temperature was 32 degrees, so the signature Chicago whirlwinds would only make it feel colder.

Did I mention I was out late?

Two weeks away from the Houston Marathon, I had to get out and get 16 miles on the books, no matter how shitty the weather.  But it was going to take some creativity to make it fun.  So I decided to make it… AN ADVENTURE RUN!

For me, the adventure run is a cure-all for the doldrums of routine.  And it can be done anywhere: on trails, in the city, on a country road.  The only requirement is that you open your mind.

Let go of split times.  Forget that headwind.  Embrace your chaffed nipples.

Just get out there and run!

When I decide to go on an adventure run, I disassociate myself from all the “business” of running.  I leave the watch at home.  I go only by feel.  I run in whatever direction pulls me at any given time.  I turn when I feel like turning and I stop if I feel like stopping.  I allow curiosity and exploration to motivate my legs and forget about everything else.

Most of all, I connect with that innate love I have for just RUNNING.  I focus on that childlike playfulness, to go out and discover new worlds, new people, new things.

And today was quite the adventure.  Sure it was windy.  And cold.  And dreary.  But I had the time of my life, discovering new neighborhoods I’d never seen before while running from Sox Park to Wrigley Field and all the way back, turning on whims and smelling all the proverbial roses I wanted, when I wanted.

Having done all that, I now have my feet kicked up with a smile on my face.  I feel fresh.  Recharged.  Fulfilled.

I went on an adventure run today.  And I had a helluva time.