Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Death Valley Day: Cycling 200 Miles in the Desert

The mere mention of Death Valley conjures up an image of a broiling, desolate desert, baking under the scorching sun. Many also know it is the location of the lowest altitude in the country, at 282 feet below sea level. (This is one of the reasons for the extremely hot climate, as the valley generates a tremendous amount of heat.)

Sounds like a great place for a race, right? Well, yes, given the inclination of endurance athletes to seek out the most extreme environments in which to test their mettle. The Badwater 135 Mile running race takes place in July, during Death Valley’s hottest, most harsh season. The Death Valley Double Century cycling race is held in late October, not nearly as formidable in terms of air temperature or the effects of the sun.

The latter is an event I targeted this year. Never having cycled more than 125 miles in one day before this year (a double “metric” century, or 200 kilometers), I aimed at completing a true double century, a 200-mile ride, and the setting of Death Valley seemed a great place for the challenge. Having been held for several years, the event draws several hundred participants annually (along with the concurrent 100-mile century).

The long, lonely roads of Death Valley: perfect for cycling

(photo from Adventure Corps)

My training went pretty well; I averaged close to 200 miles per week in the month preceding the race, followed by a taper period of 10 days. I attempted two long solo rides, and both were relatively successful. The first was 125 miles and the second 137. But after both I was pretty much wiped out, especially the second one, done in cold, raw, wet weather, nothing like I would experience in Death Valley, where less than two inches of rain falls in an average year. As tired as I was after those training rides, it was hard to imagine adding more than 60 or 70 more miles. But that’s all part of the challenge of attempting something you have never done before.

On Thursday, October 25, I traveled to Las Vegas, the closest city to Death Valley, but as opposite in attitude and temperament as is possible. The drive to Death Valley is a little more than 100 miles from Sin City, and the ostentatious, glitzy, garish, over-the-top Las Vegas is left far behind soon after you leave the city limits and embrace the wide open expansive desert that comprises so much of the American Southwest.

I stayed at a funky old hotel just outside of Death Valley National Park and readied for the event early the next morning. Arriving at the race scene in Furnace Creek, California, I could not help but embrace the quiet calmness of the desert environment. In addition, the temperature was just about perfect: in the low 70s with light winds. As the group gathered for the start at 7:00 a.m., I really did not know what to expect. I was sure I could make it well past 100 miles, but what would happen after 150? And in addition to the distance, there was the elevation. Yes, there are mountains in the desert, soaring to several thousand feet. During the ride we would encounter two major climbs: the first of 4,000 feet at mile 55 (covered over 20 miles) and the second 2,000 feet at mile 170, over just seven miles. That was the one I was truly worried about.

But that was for later. You can’t get to mile 170 until you do the first 169 miles, so at the start I settled into the pack and tried to take in the stark surroundings as daylight slowly emerged. I covered the first relatively easy 50 miles in less than three hours, but slowed as we started the first big climb while battling a pesky headwind. Fortunately we had merged with the century riders at that point; I worked with two century riders in a mini paceline so the wind would not sap my energy before a third of the race was completed. Yes, at the 68-mile aid stop at Scotty’s Castle we still had more miles left than I had ever covered in a single ride before (aside from the training ride 17 days earlier). Scotty’s Castle was named after Walter Scott, a 19th century con man who talked a Chicago business tycoon into building him a mansion in this lonely outpost.

Just before turning into the aid station, I saw a dog trotting down the road behind a slow moving camper. But it was no dog; it was a very relaxed looking coyote. Perhaps he or she was anticipating the plentiful scraps to be found at the aid station. Speaking of that, I was adjusting my nutrition plan as the ride progressed. I was primarily drinking Perpertuem, a non-acid energy drink, and eating salty sports bars. I added some “real” food at this station, a half of a turkey sandwich, and later on slurped down some ramen noodles. My quest for caffeine was not fulfilled until late in the race, as all of the Coca Cola had disappeared with the century riders at this stop.

Those century riders turned back at mile 68 while we doublers soldiered onward up the mountain. By then, in early afternoon, when one would have thought the sun and temperature at its peak for the day, a heavy cloud cover made it seem more like New England than the Southwest desert. This was in part due to the now famous southern California forest fires, which had sent acrid air several hundred miles east to Death Valley. Thus, a tradeoff: cooler conditions for tougher breathing. My throat and lungs felt a slight burning as the miles accumulated, but that was better than broiling under a hot sun.

After a turnaround at mile 95, we had 20 fairly flat miles and a side trip up to Ubahebe Crater and back (on a very beat up chip-and-seal road surface) before enjoying the long downhill on the same road we had climbed at mile 55. That downhill began at mile 140, which I reached at about 4:30. p.m., nine and a half hours into the ride. It was surreal blasting alone along the empty highway, bereft of people and with hardly any motor vehicles. I was also in new territory as far as daily distance was concerned, hanging in there pretty well, with only the usual sore butt, tired quads, and achy upper body. Cruising past 150, then 160 miles, I felt confident, although darkness arrived quickly, just as I reached the 170-mile aid station, the final steep climb looming ahead.

Ubahebe Crater: Don't look too closely!

(photo from Adventure Corps)

There comes a point in every long race, a crucible you have to pass through in order to reach the finish line, or so it seems. Clearly, the seven-mile climb up to the appropriately named Hell’s Gate was that crucible in this double century. For the first couple of miles I was wondering if I had made the correct turn, as no other cyclists were anywhere around and the uphill did not seem that bad. All of that changed quickly as the grade steepened, my energy flagged, and I saw the red taillights of other riders way up ahead. The road was pitch black, lighted only by the headlight on my bike. It felt a lot like some of the ultra distance runs I have done, dealing with the dark of night after pushing hard all day long. My mental resolve disintegrated with each additional mile, grinded out ever so slowly. I could not read my cyclometer in the dark, which was just as well, since the snail-like pace would have only depressed me further. In the final part of the climb, I had to stop and dismount the bike periodically in order to bring my racing heart rate down. In all, it took me nearly 70 minutes to make it to the aid station at the top, where I tried to recover. I did not linger long though, as the temperature was dropping quickly.

What goes up must come down, and so it was on this route, as we headed back down to highway 190 toward the finish line. Cycling down a steep hill in the pitch black of night was something I had never done in training for this race, but perhaps I should have. I was almost too tired to be nervous, but still, I was not relishing the thought of veering off the road into the rock-strewn fields or riding into a pothole that would jettison me off the bike. I gingerly made my down, getting a little bolder and more confident as I went. Without any cars around, I rode as close to the centerline as I could. What a relief it was to finally arrive back at 190 and the final 12 miles to the finish back in Furnace Creek.

A check of my watch (thankfully with a backlight) showed it was 8:20 p.m. I would have to pedal those last dozen miles in less than 40 minutes to get in under 14 hours, which I had estimated before the race as a possible finishing time. So: a goal! I cranked along, surprised at how strong I felt after more than 13 hours in the saddle. Having left the steep mountains behind, it was much easier to negotiate the roads in the darkness. 8:45, 8:50, 8:55. Where was that finish line? I knew it had to be well lit, but all I could see ahead was darkness. I decided I would push hard to 14 hours no matter what, then slow down if I had not reached the finish. Just as that thought was in my head, there it was. As I turned into the parking lot, my watch read 8:59 p.m. It was a gratifying conclusion to my first double century. Sure, some had already finished by that time, but there were also many still out on the course. The warm and well-lit finish area was a welcome haven from the darkness that had enveloped Death Valley. All that remained was the 40-mile drive back to the hotel, the trip back to Las Vegas the next day, and an overnight flight back to Boston. That distance didn't seem so bad, however, after 200 straight miles on the bike.

Happy to be finished: With race director Chris Kostman after the race

(photo by AdventureCorps)

Friday, September 14, 2007

The 2007 FIRM Half Ironman Triathlon: Fun at the Beach

The concept of a triathlon is intriguing in its simplicity: combine three sports into one event and see how well you can do at each, and all three cumulatively. The fun—and challenge—of a triathlon is in allocating your energy and effort optimally over the full distance of the race in order to maximize your performance.

At least that’s the way it is supposed to be. In reality—for me anyway—a triathlon is a pedal-to-the-metal sufferfest, in which finishing each discipline brings simultaneous relief (at having put one part of the race behind me) and dread of what is upcoming. Each leg of a triathlon brings its own set of hurdles and challenges. The swim (at least in the race I just completed), is a test of navigating choppy ocean water; the bike is the longest and most energy intensive in terms of pure effort output; and the run is a matter of convincing and coaxing your body to move (in at least some facsimile of running) when it wants to do nothing of the kind, usually in very warm midday conditions. So there you go: sounds like a fun way to spend a Sunday morning, right?

Of course, like all endurance challenges, the attraction is in overcoming these challenges and managing the hurt, in order to feel the satisfaction of crossing the finish line—hopefully near or better than the overall time you hoped for.

The 2007 FIRMman Half Ironman on September 9 in Narragansett, Rhode Island was my first triathlon since this same race two years ago. I suppose that makes me something less than a regular on the triathlon circuit. Mostly, I only do triathlons of this distance (or longer), eschewing the “sprint” or “Olympic” distance races. Since I don’t possess great speed (especially in the swim), I usually opt for an occasional longer race.

My training for this race was adequate, but not great. Mostly cycling, I added a weekly ocean “swim” (more like a survival dog paddle) and a weekly “long” run of 10 to 13 miles. Although I had planned to do a long “brick” workout of a roughly 50-mile bike followed by a 10-mile run, I never got around to doing it, instead opting for a measly three-mile run. At some point you have to be happy with the training you can accomplish without running your self into the ground.

Race day forecasts called for possible thundershowers, not what anyone involved with the race was looking for. When I went to pick up my race packet at Narragansett Beach (the race site) the day before the race, it was extremely hot and the wind was blowing so hard they had to tie everything down to keep it from blowing all the way back to Massachusetts. Of course, the wind was blowing in the opposite direction that we would be swimming the next day. After getting my packet I took refuge back at the hotel, turned on the television, and tried to forget about the weather.

The strategy was successful, as at 4:00 a.m. the next day the wind had abated quite a bit and there was no sign of rain. That bit of good news had me in an upbeat frame of mind. After a small breakfast I arrived at the race site and started to set up my gear for the race. This is no small task, since you need all your bike and run equipment ready to go. Forget about going to the car to find anything during the race.

The start entailed a long walk down the beach, as the swim route was point to point. I was a bit dismayed that the 50 and over age group was in the second of seven waves, starting just two minutes behind the elites. That meant that many behind me would be flying by during the swim. I had put on my wetsuit before the walk down the beach and was very warm by the time I got to the start. Better than being too cold, I suppose. I was hoping for the best in the swim, but the water was a little too choppy for my liking. At least it wasn’t raining!

Glad that's over!

At the horn I began tentatively, which was not a good strategy, since there were some sizable waves to get over (or under) in order to reach the buoy 100 yards out that we would swim around before heading perpendicular to the shore for about a mile before returning to the beach. Just like in my training swims at Nantasket Beach, the ocean swell, modest as it was, made it tough to sight the buoys marking the course. I had to stop every 30 seconds or so to make sure I was not drifting off course. Upon doing these reconnaissance sightings, more often than not I sucked down a mouthful of sea water. I told myself to simply keep going regardless of how little progress I felt it I was making, or not making. Sure enough, many swimmers in the waves behind me went by. At least by following them I knew I was on course. The turn for shore around the final buoy brought a profound sense of relief. Now all I needed to do was cycle 56 miles and run 13.1.

Oh, but first there was the swim-to-run transition. Someone should have videotaped my pathetic attempt at this transition, to show beginning traiathlestes what not to do. As others flew out of the water and practically leapt onto their bikes in a single motion, I fumbled with my wetsuit in desperation, to get it off, and then fumbled equally with my bike shirt, to get it on. My mind was reeling from the swim and I must have rinsed my mouth out five times to get rid of the salty taste. All of my neatly laid out gear was strewn everywhere. In all it took me six minutes to get from the swim to the bike, at least three times as long as everyone around me.

The first few miles of the bike leg in a triathlon result in a strange feeling of exhilaration at being out of the water, discomfort in getting into a normal bike position, lightheadedness in finding my land legs, and panic in keeping up with the cyclists flying by me. The way people were riding, it felt as if the bike were five miles, not 56. Two years ago my bike time for the 56 miles was just under three hours, about 18.8 miles per hour. Under the right circumstances I felt I could improve upon that, having trained much more on the bike since that race. But it felt hard to just to keep a decent pace early on. I set my cyclometer and told myself I would check it only once every half-hour. The math was easy: nine miles each half hour is 18 miles per hour and 10 is 20 miles per hour. After 30 minutes I was at about 9.5 miles, but that had involved a significant uphill.

As the ride progressed I inched closer to 20 miles per hour and began to catch up to many women that had passed me during the swim. I was doing a decent job on the hills, pretty much holding my position and catching people here and there. Much of the bike course was on Route 1, a fairly major road. The good thing was that we could get into a nice rhythm, not having to worry about turns. But the off and on exit ramps required us to pay close attention to the vehicular traffic. The race did a nice job with this, but not so good on the aid stations. There were only two for the entire 56 miles, and only had water. Thankfully, I had brought four gels with me in a waist pouch and ate them all during the bike, washed down with fresh water from my bottle and a kicker of salt water, left over from the swim.

I thought cycling was suppposed to be the easy part.

We headed south for quite a few miles; I was really looking forward to the turnaround, since we had been battling a pesky headwind while traveling in a southerly direction. The turn was nice; we were headed for home and I could crank up the pace with a modest tailwind behind me. At 40 miles the time on the bike computer read 2:03; I had some work to do to achieve my 20 mile-per-hour goal. But with a little help from the wind I was able to do just that, wheeling into the parking lot transition in exactly 2:48. Sweet!

My bike-to-run transition was much improved over the swim-to-bike. Once out running, I felt that just getting through the run at almost any pace would be all right, since I had used a ton of energy on the bike and had achieved my pre-race goal in that leg. Still…since I had a decent race going I wanted to hold onto it as long as possible. Although it feels like you are absolutely crawling in the early minutes of a run in a triathlon, you are going faster than you think you are. Two years ago, I had run the half marathon in just under two hours, about nine-minute-per mile pace. Could I hope for a similar time this year? I had done far less run training.

The many ups and down of the early miles made it hard to gauge the pace, but I was a little better than nines early on. In fact, I felt pretty decent and was passing people regularly. Maybe it was going to be my day! Just when I thought that, I had a bad patch, however, and retreated into survival mode. Getting to halfway was the goal, but once there I was not feeling great. We had a long out-and-back to cover and I envied those runners on the other side of the road, with only a few miles remaining to the finish. I reached 10 miles in 1:31, but boy, was I ever struggling. In addition, a long uphill to mile 11 lay ahead. But how hard could three miles be? I do that all the time. Once up and over and past 11, a nice downhill got me back up to speed and I could feel the finish getting close. But at mile 12.5 one final challenge remained: a quarter-mile stretch of running on the loose sand of the beach. After giving all I had for so many hours, my legs just could not move with so little return of energy from the surface. As a runner sailed by I slogged toward the line, hoping it would arrive quickly.

No, that's not my age! (subtract 10)

All kinds of good news awaited at the finish: I was done, no one passed me in the last 25 yards,and I had improved my time from two years ago by nine minutes, clocking 5:36 for the full distance. I even got my sub 2-hour half marathon, albeit by just 46 seconds. Even after a cool down walk and then sitting down, my heart was still hammering and my muscles were tightening up. But hey: that’s what a triathlon is all about, right?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Born in the U.S.A. (well, not quite)

One of the most poignant moments from the recent World Track and Field Championships occurred when finally, after a 99-year-drought, an U.S. runner captured the men’s 1,500-meter title in a major (World or Olympic) championship. As he took a victory lap while carrying the USA flag over his head, television announcers gushed over this feel-good story.

So why wasn’t everyone thrilled? Because the winner was Bernard Lagat and not Alan Webb, who many were pulling for to win the gold medal. Not that anyone has anything against Lagat. By all accounts he is one of the nicest and most personable athletes in the track world. I can personally vouch for that, as my one encounter with Lagat was most pleasant. After the Reebok Indoor Games Track Meet in Boston a few years ago, Lagat was walking toward us after the meet had concluded. He stopped to talk with a few of us, smiling and chatting amiably. He seemed very down to earth for one of the world’s fastest milers. The problem, at least in some track fans’ minds, is that Lagat is not a “born here” American, but rather earned U.S. citizenship in just the past few years. In the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games, Lagat competed for his “born here” country, Kenya. In their minds, that disqualifies him from being a “true” U.S. athlete, unlike someone like Webb, who has spent his entire life as a U.S. citizen.

Lagat is hardly alone. Many world class runners compete now for nations in which they have earned citizenship as adults. Among them are Meb Keflezighi and Abdi Abdirahman, who both have excellent chances of making the U.S. marathon team for next year’s Olympic Games in Beijing. The Olympic Trials will be held in New York City in early November, and you can bet that many “born here” Americans are discouraged by the fact that these two speed merchants will be on the starting line in the trials.

Many former Kenyans now compete for other nations, Qatar in particular. But this does not seem to bother many people as much as Lagat winning gold, especially as he did in the 5,000 meters in Osaka (in addition to the 1,500). In that race, American Matt Tegenkamp barley missed a bronze medal, his fast-closing sprint on the last lap, coming up just three-one-hundredths of a second short. Would Tegenkamp have earned a medal had Lagat not been in the race? Who knows?

It is and should be noted that at one point or another, all of our ancestors came from somewhere else. They were not “born here” Americans. Would we have been bothered had they won an honor for their new country?

Another issue this brings up is the question of why athletes compete for nationalities at all. Can’t major championships simply invite the fastest and strongest athletes in the world and award individual medals? In the old World Cup track championships held in the 1970s, athletes competed for one of eight “continents,” such as North America, Europe, Asia, or my favorite, Oceania. There was a lot less national fervor in this set up, and a lot less interest as well. Once the World Championships were started in 1983, this format was quickly forgotten, never to be used again.

Like it or not, national pride is a big part of these world events, and probably always will be. Athletes competing for these countries as newly-minted citizens are part of the new world order as well. So like it or not, Bernard Lagat has vaulted the U.S. to the top of the medal stand at middle and long distances. It may seem a little odd, but to quote a popular phrase nowadays, “It is what it is.” Personally, I could not be happier for Bernard Lagat. When he made a move to the outside on the final straightaway in the 1,500 and launched a searing kick, I was rooting for him to reel in the runners ahead of him and bring it home. Having met him that one time, I felt a real, personal connection to this fine runner. That he was competing for the U.S. made it all the better.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

It's Virtually Possible to Run in This Race

It’s no secret that the world is becoming more and more insular and “virtual.” Examples abound in all segments of society: Internet dating, “fantasy” sports leagues that focus more on the results of imaginary teams than real ones, and even “The Simms” a virtual society in which one lives through computer generated animation, rather than in real life flesh and blood. In a way, this escapism is understandable: the real world can be messy and troubled, while a virtual existence can be clean and well managed.

Now comes the Nike+ Women’s Half Marathon in San Francisco. Well, it may not be in San Francisco, if you don’t want it to be. How’s that? As the web site explains, “A virtual half marathon, the Nike+ Women’s Half Marathon is a 13.1 mile run that takes place on the same day as the San Francisco event (10/21/07), but in any town you want by using the Nike+ system!” The Nike+ system is an IPOD generated unit that calculates the total distance run, as well as the speed and elevation of the route, all displayed nicely on a computer screen.

While this concept may seem new, there is precedent. Back in the “old days,” competitions called “postal races” were held, in which one would run the required distance on the scheduled day and then mail in the results, to be tabulated by the organizer. Presumably, the results were also sent out by U.S. mail, or perhaps listed in publication at a later date.

On the face of it, the concept seems preposterous. I mean, racing involves interaction with other, living, breathing human beings. Everyone runs the same course on the same day in the same conditions. If it is a cold rain, it is a cold rain for everyone in the race. Some may handle the adversity a little better than others, but that’s what racing is all about. In addition, the camaraderie of experiencing the event alongside one’s fellow competitors is all part of the experience. What good would it be to run a race a continent away from the other competitors? Isn’t that just a glorified training run?

Than again, perhaps this kind of “racing” will open up a new avenue of competition. After all, not everyone can afford to travel to distant locations to compete. The expense of travel and lodging is not insignificant, nor is the time required. The ability to compete “virtually” alleviates those obstacles. And there is little doubt that pretty soon someone will create a computer program with an algorithm to factor in course elevation and weather, in order to come up with “location adjusted” times, so as to create equalized results.

I’ve run plenty of “virtual” races in my running career. However, they are better known in running vernacular as “time trials.” My opponent (or compatriot?) in those challenges has been my wristwatch. In many a run I have watched the seconds tick by as I struggled to complete a lap, a mile, or the final distance. The results of the those “races” never appeared in print or on a computer web page. No, the satisfaction (or disappointment, as the case may have been) was mine to experience alone. Most all of those time trials were in preparation for a real live race, complete with other runners, race bib numbers, and the attendant nervous anticipation. Will this kind of competition become yet another thing of the past, left behind in the unrelenting forward march of technology? I sure hope not.

Friday, August 24, 2007

On-line Forums: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Say you have decided to run a marathon. Needless to say, you have an incredible array of events from which to choose, both in the U.S.A. and abroad. Never have there been so many 26.2-milers: flat or hilly, on roads or trails, in big cities or rural outposts, from January through December.

Along with the explosive growth in the number and kinds of marathons, has come a glut of information regarding these events. Volumes have been written on virtually every event, with new information pouring forth each day. This situation contrasts markedly with the “old days” of even as recently as a few years ago, when one’s primary source of information regarding a race came from word of mouth endorsements (or criticisms) from friends or running buddies who had participated in the event, or if you were lucky, a write-up in a magazine.

Of course, as they say in the on-line world, your mileage (or marathon experience as the case may be) may vary. One runner’s opinion may be entirely different from another’s at the same race, depending upon one’s expectations, one’s training, one’s sensitivity to the weather, and of course, how the runner felt on that particular day. Wading through this morass of information can yield nuggets of gold for the persistent, but can also be more trouble than it’s worth.

There is another side of this new, open world of information. That is, do you have the right to publish whatever you want regarding an event? Where does constructive criticism cross the line into destructive, harmful, mean-spirited vitriol? Is it o.k. to exaggerate and even outright lie in order to make your point? It raises the old debate between the constitutional right to free speech versus screaming “fire” in a crowded theater.

At one can log on in seconds and add a comment on a particular marathon, while adding his or her “rating” of the event. These opinions become permanently attached to the record of the event, right alongside the basic information, such as date, time, and course details. These opinions are not only largely unmonitored, they appear in most recent date order. Thus, a particularly aggrieved runner can keep re-posting his or her tirade so it will always appear as the first comment that readers see when clicking on that event’s link. Something seems fundamentally wrong with that, especially when viewed from an event director’s perspective. Other running sites offer similar forums in which runners can sing the praises of a marathon or air their grievances.

As in almost all other areas of life, it comes down to appealing to the reasonable and fair side of those on both side of the race equation, both organizers and runners. Is that really too much to ask?

Monday, August 20, 2007

The World Track and Championships Start This Week: Who Cares?

The World Track and Field Championships will start later this week in Osaka, Japan. Did you know that? Do you care? Chances are the answer to both of those questions is no, unless you are one of the few, the proud, the track and field fans in America. Believe me, there are a lot or fewer of them than in 1983, when the first World Track and Field Championships were held in Helsinki, to great acclaim and large television audiences around the world. That meet was highlighted by Mary Decker Slaney’s gutty victories in the 1,500 and 3,000-meter races, over the vaunted Russian juggernaut.

In this year’s championships, the primary story from an American standpoint will be Alan Webb’s quest to attain worldwide supremacy at 1,500 meters, or at least a medal. Webb broke Steve Scott’s long-standing U.S mile record, clocking a blazing 3:46:91 last month. The question with Webb isn’t speed, but rather if he can win a tactical race, as championship finals almost always turn out to be.

As usual, American sprinters will be in the hunt for medals, led by newcomer Tyson Gay and youngster Alison Felix. Olympic champion Jeremy Wariner may make a run at Michael Johnson’s 400-meter world record, if the conditions are right. Australian Craig Mottram will attempt to break the African stranglehold at 5,000 meters.

All of this will take place far under the radar of the average sports fan in America. Where once a major track and field championship event was must-see viewing, it is now relegated to minor-league status, along with boxing and horse racing, two other sports that have fallen by the wayside. Fake wrestling, hot-dog eating contests, and poker tournaments draw much larger ratings than track and field nowadays.

Of course, much of the explanation for this involves the use of performance enhancing drugs among the stars of the sport. Like cycling, track and field has paid a huge public relations penalty from the drug busts of athletes such as Tim Montgomery, Marion Jones, and Justin Gatlin, who won both the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints in the 2004 Olympics. Unlike in baseball and football, American sports fans are much less forgiving of drug cheats in track and field. In addition, the leaders of the sport have done a poor job of managing this problem, basically trying to sweep it under the rug until it got out of control. Now they are faced with the monumental task of trying to repair track’s tainted image.

The days of Slaney, Carl Lewis, and Edwin Moses as household names in American sports are long since over. Will those days ever return? It seems unlikely, but who knows? A stirring victory by Webb may allow the sport to gain a small foothold among garden variety of sports fans. By the way, if you would like to see the championships on television, they will shown for the most part on the Versus channel (it used to be known as the Outdoor Life channel). This is the same network that airs the Tour de France. Coincidence? You decide.

Ipods in Races: Much Ado About Music

An article appeared on the front page of the Boston Globe today (it must be a slow news day) discussing the ongoing controversy of the ban on headphone use in USATF sanctioned races.

Should the governing body of the sport legislate your use of ipods and headphones, or should you have the right to listen to your tunes, as long as you are not bothering anyone? Is it an intrusion of your freedom to “run as you please,” or are you really a danger to yourself or others by wearing headphones at a race?

On the face of it, this seems like a rather silly issue, but it does raise one interesting point: why is it that some runners are so passionate about their ipods, while others are equally passionate about maintaining the “purity” of their running, eschewing this form of moving entertainment? Something as innocuous as listening to music would not seem to be enough to create a polarizing issue, but that is apparently the case.

I suppose it is just one of those things you are either into or you aren’t. Personally, I am a headphone person, although not in races. Sure, I like the pure feeling of running, but it does not have to be mutually exclusive from enjoying music at the same time, when I am cruising along at a moderate pace in training. I find the music especially helpful on wintertime treadmill runs, in which the tedium factor is greater than on outdoor jaunts.

Races however, are a different story, at least for me. The primary issue is that my focus is on competition, and any extraneous equipment, such as movable hardware and jiggling wires, is likely to just slow me down and distract me from the task at hand. I know ipods have become more sleek and economical in style lately, but still, I’d rather not have to deal with them in a race. When training alone however, the music (or even sports talk radio) can be a welcome companion to help pass the miles.

Is headphone use really a danger? The main concern is that of being able to properly hear the sounds of traffic and other people. Again, my personal experience is that I can almost always hear those around me, as well as oncoming cars. I tend to keep the volume moderate and the headphones loose, rather than plastered to my ears. I use the pads rather then the buds that stick all the way into the eardrums, an uncomfortable feeling.

A study was done a few years ago that indicated being motivated by one’s favorite music can result in improved performance. Perhaps this is true; if so, I say go for it. If you feel you need music to get you through a race, I have no problem with it. To my mind, USATF should be more concerned with performance enhancing drug use among its elite runners, which has severely damaged the reputation of the sport in recent years. That is truly an issue worth getting “tuned into.”

Friday, August 17, 2007

A Swim in the Atlantic Ocean: Not So Much Fun

There is no getting around the fact that in order to do the best you possibly can in a race, there must be a certain amount of suffering involved in training. Is suffering too strong a word? Then perhaps discomfort. You simply cannot push yourself for an extended period of time in a race if you never do so in training, despite what some so-called experts may suggest. In my younger days I certainly tried to push myself in training, feeling that the reward of a personal best or high placing in a race would be worth the temporary pain I was experiencing at the time. In his excellent book Bowerman: The Men of Oregon, author Kenny Moore quotes 1964 5,000-meter bronze medalist Bill Delllinger as saying, “After you are in decent shape, running is easy. Anyone can do that. It’s like brushing your teeth. But real training? That’s hard. It’s like getting your teeth cleaned at the dentist’s office.”

Now at age 51 and well past the age of personal bests, most of my training is done in the comfort zone. I do push myself on occasion, when I feel like challenging myself. Mostly that happens on bike rides and trail runs however, not in time trial road runs or on the track, as in the past. But I rarely undertake a workout from which I know going in I will derive little or no enjoyment. Life seems too short these days for that.

The other day however, I did one of those rare “dentist office” type workouts. I have decided to aim for a half ironman triathlon in early September, a race I did two years ago. I felt that completing a half ironman would be a good goal for this year. It will be my first since turning 50. The swim is held in the ocean, and being a firm believer in specificity of training, I knew I would have to venture into the chilly Atlantic Ocean at least once or twice before race day. As it is, I have hardly been swimming (just four swims in the past two months), thus it seemed even more imperative. But I knew it probably would not be much fun. Even in the hot and humid dog days of August, the ocean in Massachusetts is still plenty cold, the water temperature in the low to mid 60s.

Nonetheless, I put on my wetsuit (a very time and effort-consuming task in itself) and ventured into the water. At least the ocean was fairly calm, no ten-foot waves crashing onto shore. In fact, at low tide, I had to walk a good 50 yards off shore to find water deep enough in which to swim. The cold enveloped me right away, enough so my brain immediately said “Why don’t we do about five minutes and call it a day. At least you can say you got into the ocean.” But I put those thoughts aside and slowly swam in a southerly direction. The goal was to do at least 30 minutes, maybe 45 if I could stand it. The time seemed to go by ever-so-slowly, but I kept on slogging away. Even the small waves made negotiating the water a challenge however, lifting me up and dropping me on the other side, a disorienting feeling. A little past 20 minutes I turned around and exactly at 45 minutes I scurried out of the ocean, happy to embrace the muggy, humid air once again, peeling off my wetsuit as I went.

I don’t know how far I swam; surely not too far. But at least I got this necessary workout in the books. The water temperature in Rhode Island is likely (hopefully) to be a little warmer and more inviting than what I experienced during this swim, so that is a good thing. If only I could say the same thing about the dentist.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

You Must Be Happy (Except for the Six Percent of You)

A new Harris Poll says 94 percent of American are satisfied with their lives.
To read the full report click here:

I'm sot sure what it all means, although I would wholeheartedly agree with the assessment that those on the East Coast are not quite as happy as those in other parts of the country. You Bostonians and New Yorkers know what I mean. It makes sense when you think about it: the more tightly confined your living space, the more you compete with others on the roads, at work, in play, and other areas of life, the higher likelihood that you will become irritated and angered more frequently.

On the bike trip across the USA I completed in the summer of '06, I saw graphic evidence of this. Out West, in the open plains and sparsely populated areas, people seemed quite friendly on the whole. Once we got close to the East Coast however, more anger surfaced. More drivers honked and swore at us in our one day in New Hampshire than on the other 49 days combined. It was crazy. We rode no differently that day than on any others.

Of course, this is a generalization There are plenty of very happy and friendly people on the East Coast. You just have to look a little harder to find them.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

My Most Recent Race: The Skyline Trail 7 Mile, Milton, MA, July 8

At the top of the first climb, already out of breath!

The Blue Hills, situated south of Boston, is the setting for almost all of my trail running, at least in training. I usually get out there at least once a week, perhaps twice if I am lucky and/or training for an upcoming trail race. Thus, you would think I would regularly run the Skyline Trail 7 Mile Race, held each July at the Blue Hills, run on the very trails on which I regularly train. The reality is that for one reason or another (schedule conflicts, injury, not in trail running shape), I have never been able to make it to the starting line, until this year.

The Skyline Trail consists of steep, rocky, rooty terrain, up and over the spine of the modest peaks that constitute the range. Although the climbs are not long, they are steep, they are rocky, and they are relentless. Add a humid day with temperatures in the upper 80s, and you have the makings of a challenging race.

Should I have had an advantage in knowing the trails and how tough they were? I think so. From overhearing some of the conversations among the 75 runners on hand, many did not know the difficulty of the course that lay ahead. Right at the start we encountered a nasty two-thirds of a mile scramble up to the weather station, followed by a plunge straight down the other side to the Hillside Avenue road crossing. Most of the remainder of the race was a repeat of that layout.

I fell back into the pack despite going anaerobic on the initial climb. Since I am much better at downhills than the climbs, I tried to hold my place on the ups and then really let it go on the descents. The problem was getting past the other runners on the narrow trails. It seemed to make little sense to pass a runner on a descent, only to have he or she (mostly hes) go right by again on the following uphill climb. Eventually I found a rythym that worked.
At the halfway I turnaround I was amazed at how much more quickly I was covering the ground than I do in training. I thought a time close to 90 minutes would be a good result, given that it takes me 15 to 20 minutes longer in training to do this distance, even on a cool day. But I was ahead of even that optimistic goal as we headed for home. Jockeying back and forth between a group of other runners, my goal was to beat as many of them as I could. Eventually, I put all but two behind me, one of whom pulled way ahead. Back at the weather station, all we had left was a straight shot down the ski slope to the finish. As I edged up to my last, lone competitor, steeling myself for a sprint down the mountain, he said, "You go ahead; no way am I running hard down that."

I was disappointed and relieved at the same time, although I still pushed hard down the ski slope. I had not looked at my watch, reluctant to see if I was close to going over 90 minutes. As it turned out, I crossed the line just as the clock turned over 1:26. That was good enough for 24th place overall and third in the 50 and over category, although it netted no prize in this low key event. The winning time was a scalding 1:05 by national-class trail runner Ben Nephew. As we sat around after the race, everyone seemed happy that the race was done by late morning, as the temperature had soared past 90.

So I finally had the chance to run a race on "home" training ground. Maybe next year I can break 1:25 and perhaps even win the 50 and over division. In any case, watch out! I'll be one of the runners bombing down the descents.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Running Ethicist: When an Ongoing Race is Cancelled

The Setting

There was a 24-hour race held recently, with both a relay and open division. It started on Friday night at about 7:00 p.m. to run until Saturday night at 7:00 p.m.

As a few friends were running in the open division, I stopped by at about 10:00 a.m. on Saturday morning.

I met a friend in the race and walked and jogged alongside for a little while. I was on my second five-km lap with him at about noon when the skies darkened and it started to rain a little. No big deal.

Or so I thought. A woman came driving around the course and said, "We are calling the race; you can have a ride back to the start if you like." I though she was joking. There was no sign of any lightning or thunder. Then someone else in another car repeated the same thing.

We got back to the start/finish area and a lot of participants, both relay and individual, had already left. The organizers were furiously packing things up into cars and trucks.

No one seemed to be complaining too much, but I was incredulous. The weather did not seem anywhere severe enough to cancel the race. It seemed to me they could have advised people to be careful, or at worst make people wait for a few minutes while the impending storm passed through. After all, the runners had invested nearly 18 hours into the event by that point, not to mention the training, the travel time and attendant costs, not to mention the $80 entry fee.

I remained at the race site with a few others. We sat under a tent and watched the rain and chatted for a while. After a bit, the rain stopped and the sun came out. By that time everyone was gone, and it was only 1:30 p.m.. There was supposed to be 5 1/2 hours left in the race! The sun was out for most of the rest of the day.

The Questions

Were the race organizers within their rights to cancel the event? Should the participants have had a say in whether this race were allowed to continue? Did signing the race entry waiver exempt the race organizers from any laibility issues that may have arisen from potentially bad weather? Should race entrants have received refunds of their entry fees? Or do particiopants completely turn over all rights when they sign up for an event? Share your thoughts with the running ethicist.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Eastern States 20 Mile

The Eastern States 20 Mile, an event I direct, is a running race from Kittery, Maine to Salisbury, Massachuseets along the scenic New Hampshire Seaocast. Now in its 13th year, we typically attract more than 700 runners from all over New England. There is also a concurrent half marathon that covers the final 13 miles of the 20-mile route. The race is typically held on the last Sunday in March, three weeks and a day before the Boston Marathon. Many runners use the race as a final long training before Boston. For more information, visit

The Breakers Marathon, Newport, Rhode Island, Saturday, October 20, 2007

As the co race-director of the Breakers Marathon, I invite you to have a look at the race if you are planning a fall 26-miler in New England. The race will start in downtown Newport and traverse the scenic oceanside roads around Brenton Point and by the world-famous mansions. After a big loop through rural Middletown, the race will finish at Easton's Beach in Newport.

This is the third year of the event, and it has grown by leaps and bounds. We expect this to be the best year yet. It's the only marathon in the state of Rhode Island! For more details and to register, go to

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Greetings Readers!

Thanks very much for dropping by to have a look at my blog. This will be a multi-purpose page, including information on upcoming events I organize and direct, collection of stories and articles I have written, as well as my opinions on various and sundry topics.

Among other things, I direct the Breakers Marathon in Newport, Rhode Island, held in October, ( and the Eastern States 20 Mile, from Maine to Massachusetts along the New Hampshire Seacoast in late March (

The world of running and endurance sports has changed dramatically since I first got started running in the mid 1970s. The goal of almost every runner I knew then was to run the Boston Marathon; it was a difficult goal to achieve. The time to run for men was three hours or better, and a few years later that time was reduced to 2:50, given the huge numbers of runners who were willing and able to break three hours.

Not surprisingly, training knowledge was somewhat limited, and most that did exist was geared toward elite runners. After all, why not try to emulate the best? If Bill Rodgers ran more than 100 miles per week, than that must be the best way to train, right? Remarkably, many us employed that training methodology and remained in once piece; and in fact, thrived on it. During that era I ran dozens of marathons, including 27 in under three hours, with a personal best of 2:35:30 in the 1988 Boston Marathon.

Since then, like many others, I have slowed down quite a bit, but still try to set goals that will keep me motivated. Last summer I cycled across the USA, 3,700 miles in 50 days, from Astoria, Oregon to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. An account of that trip can be found at

I am also the former publisher of UltraRunning Magazine (, from June, 2000 until July, 2007. In additon, I am one of the original owners of the web site I also published the book "A Step Beyond: A Definitive Guide to Ultrarunning (at

Thanks again for stopping by!