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!