Saturday, February 26, 2011

50k - An Outsider's Perspective

The Race to the Top of Alabama

I'd planned on writing a quick note on dailymile describing my spectating experience at the Mount Cheaha 50k. Maybe throw up a couple of pictures and call it a day. But after what I saw today I knew it warranted a full-blown blog post extravaganza.

I'd been tossing around the idea of driving up to Cheaha ever since I met up with Mark for a run this past Monday. I wasn't certain I'd be able to make it, so I didn't mention it to him or Andy, who I also knew would be racing. I had two motivations for wanting to go. First, both of them had gone out of their way to accommodate me in the past. Great guys that they are, I wanted to return the gesture by supporting them in their endeavor. Second, now that I'm not as terrified of the longer distances I wanted to see what all the ultra fuss was about.

Before I left I tried to figure out approximately when Mark and Andy might finish. I looked at last year's results and noticed the winner crossed the line in around four hours. I couldn't put much stock in that though, considering the second place finisher was over 35 minutes behind him. And scanning down the rest of the list of finishers didn't help either. It looked like every participant finished five minutes apart, with some taking over nine hours. Yikes! Nevertheless, I knew they were starting at 7:30am so I should get there no later than 12:00pm - 12:30pm if I was going to catch them on the course.

On my drive up to the Delta, AL I got a little romantic about the race. It's only 50k, right? That's what - about 4 miles longer than a marathon? Heck, I can do that. It's beautiful up here. Nice, rolling hills. Clear, blue sky. Moderate temps. Hey, maybe I could do this next year! It's like a baby ultra! Oh, how naive I was.

(Credit: CC Johnny Stiletto/Flickr)

I arrived a little before noon and made my way to the sixth and final aide station. Just as I got there a runner was coming in and I was informed he was the leader. Figuring the guys would be a while, I drove a little more than a mile down the course on a dirt road until I reached an intersection at about the 43k mark. I grabbed my binoculars and sat off to the side of the road looking down a very long hill. And waited.

As the trickle of runners slowly passed me I encouraged them as best I could. I noticed that aside from the lead 10-15 runners almost everyone was run-walking. Some would run until they got to the hill and then walk, while others walked on the flat and then tried to run up the hill. And almost all of them were alone. Every once in a while a couple would be running together, but that was the exception. This is one lonely event, I thought.

On the plus side, however, almost everyone was in good spirits. Many were hurting, but I could see that beacon of hope when I told them how close they were to the last aide station. I made a conscious effort not to tell them they were "almost there." Better to give them something specific to focus on rather than a cliché.

I sat there for almost three hours looking for numbers 184 and 60. People of all shapes and sizes kept coming, but none of them were Mark or Andy. And though I was anxiously awaiting their arrival, I didn't mind a bit. It was inspiring to see so many people persevering, and a lot of fun giving back to the community I've appreciated so many times when I've been the one racing.

Suddenly, a guy passed me that looked familiar. I took a chance and called out his name, and sure enough it was Mike! I jumped up and started walking with him to see how he was doing. I had no idea he was racing, so it was quite a surprise. He told me a little bit about how his race was going and filled me in on Mark and Andy's progress. He guessed how far back they might be and told me what they were wearing. After about a half mile I wished him luck and headed back to the intersection.

Around 20 minutes later I spied Mark's orange shirt and hollered at him as loud as I could. I began walking with him and noticed he was in obvious pain. Come to find out he was cramping from dehydration. Despite this he was walking at a pretty fast clip, and in the time I spent with him he passed a few others. I left him with an older gentleman he'd been trading leads with throughout the race and headed back for Andy.

It was only couple of minutes after I got back to the intersection when I saw Andy and his red Alabama shirt. And he was the first person I'd seen in over an hour that was actually running up the hill. Even though his feet were giving him trouble I could tell he was running strong, and he never once broke stride. I told him at the rate he was going he'd catch up to Mark, and sure enough he eventually did.

I ran back to my car and made my way to the top of the mountain. Alabama's highest point at 2,407'. As soon as I got there I saw Mike coming towards the finish line! I didn't have time to pull out my phone to take a photo, so I gave him a high five instead. Dang!

Andy Making it Look Easy. And Fun!
I figured Andy or Mark would be along in about a half hour, so I found a place in the shade to wait. I'd been there a few minutes when a couple came up to me and the gentleman asked me where I was from. I told him Prattville, but that I was actually there waiting for one friend from Tuscaloosa and another from Columbus, GA. That's funny, he said. His son was from Columbus and was running with a fellow from Tuscaloosa! Very nice to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Sparks!

Eventually Andy came into sight, looking strong and still running at the same steady pace as when I last saw him. This time I was ready to snap a picture! His parents followed him up the last hill to the chute as I continued to wait for Mark.

Mark Finding a Way to Get it Done!
A few more minutes passed by and Andy made his way back down to me. He said he wasn't sure Mark was going to be able to make it, and told me how he'd come across him sitting down on Blue Hell, a half-mile climb of 900' straight up. His legs had cramped so badly that he could no longer walk, even after Andy tried massaging the lactic acid out of them. We were discussing what his options might be when I saw him rounding the last corner. Woot! Knowing he was almost home he broke into a slog and crossed the line strong!

Thanks to these guys and the other participants of the Cheaha 50k I learned a lot today. First and foremost is that there's no such thing as an easy ultra. Especially when climbing to the top of Alabama on very technical terrain. If I ever decide to run one of these it will first have to be on a more modest course. I also learned that the ultra crowd is a unique breed. Maybe I haven't "watched" enough races of shorter distances, but this group appeared to have more grit and determination than I've ever seen before. When almost everyone is struggling with 7k to go, yet still finds the strength and determination to finish out, it's freakin' impressive.

So, if you were on Mount Cheaha today kudos to you! You guys and gals rock! And a special thanks to Andy, Mark and Mike. Each of you showed me a lot today, and it was a privilege to watch you complete such a tough race.

BTW, if you want to gain an appreciation for just how difficult the course is check out this race report by Christian of Run 100 Miles. He does a great job of making you feel his pain.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Drew's Crew

A couple of nights a week I volunteer at the local YMCA as "the running coach" for the Prattville Swim League (PSL). Yes, the swim team. Made up of about 80 kids, the program integrates dry-land training to a) improve their overall fitness through cross training, b) manage available pool time and c) keep the kids from getting bored. In addition to running, the team also lifts weights and sometimes practices yoga and tai chi.

I originally got involved with the team over five years ago when my daughter, Hannah, was a member. While she swam, I built the club website and spent a couple of years on the parents association. As most kids her age do, she eventually decided to move on to other things; however, I didn't. I kept in touch with the coaches, continued to manage the website and eventually, when the previous running coach moved away, talked the head coach, Marcie, into letting me play work with the kids.

On Monday nights my group consists of 20-30 kids that are 10-13 years of age. Because they're younger and aren't all that interested in a structured running program, I get them warmed up with a few laps around the track and then we they play whatever games I can come up with that involve running. This usually means variations of the game tag, though sometimes we'll have relay races or competitions that pit one team against another. It's a challenge to keep them all engaged, but is a lot of fun and I look forward to the mob of raised hands every week.

Wednesday nights are for the older kids. A much smaller group, these athletes fall into the 13- to 17-year old range. For the most part they've been with the program for a while and take their fitness more seriously. Depending on their competition schedule, I'll put them through interval workouts and cone drills. And once it starts getting lighter in the evening we'll venture out into the local neighborhoods for hill work and longer, easy runs.

A few PSL Runners at the Polar Bear 5K on Feb 12, 2011
One thing I'm particularly proud of is getting some of the runners (Swimmers? Nah!) to attend local races. No easy task when many of their weekends are spent at swim meets around the state. About a dozen participated in the Cruising the Creekwalk 5k back in January, and another 7 or 8 entered the Polar Bear 5k last weekend. In each case all the kids did really well, and many of them placed in their age divisions and set PRs. WOOT!

All this back story leads me to the purpose of this post. The other night at practice I was approached by a few of the kids, who excitedly told me they were going enter the Centerpoint Half Marathon! Lauren, Madison, Mackenzie and Matt (who ran with me at the Cruising the Creekwalk 5k) will be running on March 26th as a 4-person relay team! As if this wasn't exciting enough, they asked me what I thought of the team name they'd come up with - "Drew's Crew." O.M.G. And the icing on the cake is that they want to have shirts made up!

Suffice to say, I'm really anxious to see "my" kids run as a team. So much so that I've signed up for the race, too. I'll only be three weeks removed from the Snickers Marathon, but nothing could keep me from taking part in this experience. I'm planning to run alongside all four of them during their individual legs, which will be a challenge considering that each of them can complete a 5k between 24-26 minutes. So, check back here for the eventual race report, and between now and then I may even post a photo of our team shirt.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Rising Race Fees

Last week I noticed an article online that reminded me of a post I started months ago but never completed. It asked the question "Are runners being priced out of their own sport? Or are the demographics changing?"After I finished reading it I knew I had to finish what I started.

I've long had a suspicion that race fees have been on the rise, but never took the time to verify. With my renewed interest in the subject I decided look back and see if I wasn't imagining things. I'm one of those people that track everything in Quicken, so it wasn't going to be too difficult.

First, I ran a quick report and found these entry fees from a few years ago:

Date Race Cost
Jul 2007 Red Cross 5k $15
Sep 2007 Senator Stampede 5k $15
Jan 2008 Polar Bear 5k $15
Feb 2008 Resurrection Runs $15
Mar 2008 Founder's Day 5k $20
Apr 2009 Wright Flyers 5k $15
May 2008 CityFest 5k $18
May 2008 Pancake Run For Missions 5k $12
Nov 2008 Turkey Burner 5k $18

Keep in mind that I likely signed up for each of these races during the early registration period. I don't have anything to refer back to, but I probably saved a few dollars per race doing this.

Next, I started looking at more recent races. Since my training schedule has kept me from running in many smaller races, I wasn't able to find everything in Quicken. So, I scoured and our local running club's website for early registration fees.

Date Race Cost
Oct 2010 Chili Trot 5k $18
Nov 2010 Turkey Burner 5k $18
Feb 2011 Polar Bear 5k $16
Feb 2011 Run for the Kids 5k $20
Feb 2011 Trinity Run the Race 5k $25
Mar 2011 Resurrection Runs $17
Mar 2011 Centerpoint 5k $15
Apr 2011 Wright Flyers 5k $21

I tried my best to find the same races to compare against each other, but had to make due with just a few. What I discovered was a bit of a surprise. For the most part the fee hikes were either non-existent or modest. Sure, there were a couple of standouts like Wright Flyers jumping $6 (yes, that's the early registration fee) and Trinity charging $25, but other than that prices are still comparable.

So, what's lead me to believe that race fees have jumped significantly? I have a few theories.

  • The economy. Maybe money's just tighter and every dollar counts more now than it did a couple of years ago.
  • I procrastinate more. When I first started racing I would sign up for events well in advance. They would server as carrots for my training, so I was really good about being on the ball. These days I'm more likely to make up my mind much later in the game and miss the reduced fee deadline.
  • I don't enter as many small races now as I did a couple of years ago. Fees for half marathons and marathons are understandably higher, so perhaps that's skewed my perception.
  • The Seaside Half Marathon. I hate to pick on an individual race, but the organizers of this one have made it an easy target. I ran this race in 2009 and gladly shucked out the $55 to enter. This year when a friend mentioned doing it again this March I balked at the $90 price tag. And that's for the early registration. After December 17th they hiked it up to $115. I sure hope whoever goes really, really likes their hallmark Vera Bradley bag!
  • Schwag bags and race amenities have gone south. When I first started racing organizers seemed to put quite a bit of effort into their goody bags and refreshments. I remember coming home and dumping out all kinds of things on the kitchen counter. These days you're more likely to get a bag with a few flyers in it.

Whether I'm right or wrong, I will say that race fees don't seem to be affecting the number of participants at races. That Seaside Half? Yeah, it sold out long ago. And just a couple of weeks ago a local 5k, Cruising the Creekwalk, had over 400 finishers, which is an outstanding turnout for our area.

Have you noticed a rise in race fees the last few years? Can you think of any exorbitant offenders? Have you opted out of a race because of costs? Let me know in the comments.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Running or Jogging

The other day I posted my run on dailymile, which was then cross-posted onto my Facebook page. My brother noticed it and, innocently enough, commented that I'd probably get more exercise snowshoeing up north than jogging down south. The use of the word "jogging" later caught the attention of my friend, Kym, who good naturedly joked that running sub-8s didn't fall into that category.

We don't talk about it much in the running community. If we did it might come across as being pompous or arrogant, and Lord knows we don't want to embody the guy in the video to the right. We are, after all, a generally humble group of people that relish personal achievements and talk about them in hushed tones. But that doesn't change the fact that many of us flinch when what we do is referred to as jogging, right?

So, in the interests of clarity, what's the difference? In my mind what separates runners from joggers is passion. A runner will wake up at 4:30 in the morning and go for a run because they love it. They will, more times than not, brave the elements no matter how hot, humid, cold, windy or snowy it is. And on those rare occasions where conditions are unbearable we'll suck it up and run on a treadmill. We look for ways to get our run in, and don't do it just because it happens to be a Monday, Wednesday or Friday. The problem with this definition is that most non-runners don't know the lengths we go to for our sport.

Are there are other factors that separate the two? How about the pace, for instance? Here's what you'll find in the dictionary:

Jog, –verb. To run at a leisurely, slow pace, especially as an outdoor exercise.

Run, –verb. To go quickly by moving the legs more rapidly than at a walk and in such a manner that for an instant in each step all or both feet are off the ground.

Pretty vauge, but the gist is that runners are faster than joggers. Whatever the case, I'm not sure you'll find a concrete answer that separates the two. And I imagine some might even argue that distance plays a role in this debate.

What say you? Are you a runner or a jogger? Neither? Both? Where do you stand on this most controversial of issues? Can you think of other ways to appropriately classify each term? Even better, if you gently correct someone saying the J word, how do you approach it? Humor? Ridicule? Let me know in the comments.