Saturday, April 30, 2011

Hey, I got a new toy!

So this week I opened the box and there they were - brand new, shiny, begging to be worn... moon shoes! I mean, Hoka One Ones! About a year ago I read about Hoka One Ones, a polar response to the minimalist running craze that's taken over with Vibrams and barefoot running. I typically don't get caught up in trends of any sort - let alone running shoes since I've been a tried and true Brooks loyalist for many years. Nevertheless, something about the shoe intrigued me. More cushion, less wear and tear on the body, and funky looking to boot? Ok - tell me more. When I was in Utah last year for the Speedgoat 50K I was able to sneak into the Wasatch Running Company and slip a pair on and bounce up and down the sidewalk in awe. Wow - these things felt cool! Unfortunately the popularity of the shoe and the few US vendors that were carrying them resulted in no sizes above an 11 (I'm a size 11.5 in Brooks). Bummer! The store promised they would be getting some larger sizes in - but I hated to drop $180 on shoes that I wasn't sure would fit - and the hassle of mailing them back and forth just didn't make sense. At the time.  :)

Apparently I had a mid-life running crisis because about a month ago because I got the itch to try some new things with my running. This is counterintuitive to my typical behavior because I believe in the "not broken don't fix" rule. I'm not sure I wanted to change anything with my running as much as I wanted to augment my current running. I haven't been running with a watch of any type for over a year - so I thought I might want to pick up the Garmin 310XT. $400 bucks with the heart rate monitor though? Mmmmh. Then I thought I'd buy a running camera so I could document all of the cool races that I'm fortunate to participate in. I found the GoPro Hero which from web postings appears to take phenomenal photos and video. Ok - this is encouraging. The price seemed right - somewhere around $300 for the one I wanted - but I started thinking about having to lug that thing around during races. Is it too bulky? Does it really have the fisheye effect that some of the postings claim which makes the crystal clear picture a bit distorted? Was my trainer Monte accurate when he said if I ran while filming it would be so unsteady that I would be sick when I watched it on the big screen? Mmmmh. Time to revisit those Hoka One Ones!

As a Brooks advocate and sponsored athlete I am not able to wear Hokas during any of my races - but thought buying a pair as a toy and bouncing around would be fun and a fun change. The shoe itself looks a little goofy and bulky - but it's surprisingly light and no heavier than my Brooks ASR 7's.

So - I laced them up today and thought I'd try them on the trails. First, I did about six miles on flat gravel up and down the Trinity River. The shoes felt fantastic - it really felt like I was swinging my legs back and forth on an eliptical with no impact - just amazing. I intentionally cruised over rocks and sticks - pretty much anything that I could find just to see if I could feel objects through the shoe - and for the most part anything small you roll over without notice. With the exception of a few places where the shoe rubbed (new shoe syndrome) the performance was flawless and a run ride. Hoka's mantra "Time to Fly" was accurate - I flew.

So - they were good on the flats - what about rocky trails? I took off to Sansom Park to run hill repeats on a fairly steep, rocky trail which I thought would be a great proving ground. Again, rocks and branches that were on the trail were no match for the moon boot. I was able to cruise right over them with no problems at all. Up and down the steep hill - the rocks were also not a problem in terms of being able to feel them through the shoe. What was a problem though was the overall stability of the shoe and not really being able to "feel" the trail. With stability - I felt there were some problems with the lateral movement - and felt my ankles rolling multiple times from side to side - this could be because of the height of the shoe . This is something that someone might get used to if this was their everyday trail shoe. The other problem was not being able to really "feel" the trail - it's fun to roll over rocks and branches and bounce around all over the place - but I felt a little out of control by not being able to really feel the trail at all - and wonder how I would like the shoe on a long, tough mountain trail run?

The hesitations I had with the stability in no way took away from the complete blast that I had trying out this shoe. It's crazy to consider a shoe a toy - but for me this is a toy that I'll take out every now and then and play with up and down the trails for a change of pace. Ultimately I cannot part with my Brooks ASR's - and am already looking forward to the Brooks ASR 8's coming out this summer along with the Brooks ASR with Gore-Tex. Cool! Of course I'll order both (and probably multiple pairs of both) as soon as they are available.  :)  If you're looking for a shoe that will double as a toy - I'd say check out the Hoka One One. At least keep an eye out for it at your local running store even though few places carry them. I remember when Vibrams were hard find....

Here's a shout out to my friends Peter and Laura that endured heat and humidity and ran hill repeats with me today!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Hog's Hunt 50K

Another Huntsville State Park race in the books. I've run Hog's Hunt 50K for three years now and I keep returning again and again. I love Huntsville State Park - the organization of the various races that are run there - the volunteers. It's also close enough where I can get to the race in a few hours drive but just far enough where I don't run the trails unless there's a race - so it's familiar - yet unfamiliar territory. I like the change of scenery.

This time I didn't have a crew go with me so I went solo. I stopped along the way for work - then met a friend at Gattiland Pizza in College Station (my fav) and made it to Huntsville around 8pm. In years past I've had way, wayyyy too much gear that I shuffle through. Since I rarely use any of it - and my huge bag sits at the start/finish untouched I thought I'd go lite this year and save myself from having to lug things around. So - my gear was a shirt, compression shorts and shorts to put over, some gels, a headlamp, shoes, toe socks, a couple of hats, sunglasses, IPOD, hydration belt (to hold IPOD and gels), insulated handheld, headphones, clothes to change into afterwards, sandals - wait - did I say I packed lite this time?  ;-)

I was up at 445am and headed out towards Huntsville State Park shortly after 5am. The weather was spectacular - somewhere around 50 and no wind - a huge difference from the super windy conditions from Friday. I made the dark drive towards the lodge where the start/finish is - I was there before most but there was already a good crowd in the parking lot. Oh yes - runners with all of their gear - instant friends - though I don't know any of them I enjoy their company. I picked up my race packet - number 71 - a cool tech shirt - and a chip so race organizes wouldn't have to keep up with numbers and time - I was ready to go. I put up my folding chair around the start/finish- my "lite" bag so I could re-supply at the mid-way point - put on the headlamp and I was ready to go.

The 50K was two loops of 15.5 miles each. Mentally - I like two loops - I can my mind around two loops even if they are 15.5 miles each. Shortly after 6am we were off. Unlike previous years where we've run the paved first mile til it veers off on the trail - this year started on the trail. Typically I love running in the dark with my headlamp - but for some reason I was really having a hard time seeing. I felt uneasy - like I was going to trip - like my leadlamp wasn't bright enough. I think I need more practice - been a while since I've run at night - I wasn't as comfy as I needed to be. Nevertheless I kept up with the pack - I was about 1/3 of the way back - the effort was, well, effortless - and despite being a little uncomfy in the dark I whipped through the first part of the trail in relative ease. Starting around mile 2.5 the trail empties onto a jeep road that is straight with some rollers every now and then. The long, straight section allows you to scope out the rest of the runners and see where you are. This is also a section that is relatively root-free where you can stretch out the legs and really pick up the pace. There's a good 2 - 3 miles of jeep road before you head back onto some nice single track. The first loop was relatively uneventful and I breezed into the start/finish in 2:33.

Pulling out of the start/finish on the 2nd loop I felt incredibly strong. The first section I had run in the dark a couple of hours earlier - it was nice to catch a glimpse of the trail in daylight. Woops, don't take your eyes off of the trail too long with this many roots without having a faceplant right into the ground. First the first five miles of loop 2 I really thought I was flying - just hammering the trail - not feeling fatigued at all. Past the long stretch of jeep road around mile 5 or so I started feeling the first tiny hints of fatigue. It was starting to warm up a bit - definitely still comfortable but warming up - and it was around that time where I typically have to become more mentally engaged and battle through the 20 mile mark. My legs still felt good - running all of the ups which was a good sign - keeping hydrated and eating gels I had stuffed in my waistpack. One thing I noticed after the jeep road and onto the single track was that I saw no other runners. I wasn't getting passed - but I also wasn't catching up and passing anyone. This went on for miles - no other runners - just day hikers probably wondering what the heck was going on with the folks with race bibs.

In my mind I really felt like I had a chance to run a negative split - I didn't have a watch so I had to go strictly off of how I felt and my perceived pace. With a mile to go I thought I'd pick up the pace and really hammer it home - which I did to a 5:15 finish - NOT a negative split and a little slower on the 2nd loop than I expected considering how good I felt through most of the race. My time last year was 5:26 so I shaved off a little over 10 minutes from last year which was great. What was encouraging was not only the time - but the relative ease that I ran. The whole day was smooth - just like clockwork through the aid stations which might be more a testament to how awesome the volunteers were than my actual skill at getting in and out quickly.

My typical 50K runs over the last few years consisted of running the first 20+ miles - and then hanging on and suffering through the final 10 or so miles. The last six months or so I've finally started shifting away from fading the last 1/3 of the course to keeping a more steady pace from start to finish. Part of this is increased experience as an endurance runner - I'm just better at longer distances than I was a year or more ago. Another component is focusing more on nutrition and hydration. As a new ultramarathoner I spent most of my mental energy battling and trying to overcome tired legs and a body that wanted to stop. When I hit a low point, I would implode and suffer til the end. With increased experience I've started to use my mental energy to think about the race - to keep my body dialed in to being property fueled and hydrated. I'm also better at listening to my body - rather than fold when my body starts barking at me - I listen to the barks and start figuring out how to get my mojo back. As an ultramarathoner I think this is a huge transition  - or at least it was for me - because in many ways I would lose the physical battle as a result of losing the mental battle. By running a smarter race between the ears I've not only improved my times significantly - but I've also had a ton more fun during my races because I can actually enjoy my time out on the trails. I've also been able to tackle a lot tougher courses that demand that you run a smart race or risk failure.

I never pass up an opportunity to run Huntsville when the schedule allows. Whether it's Rocky, Hog's Hunt, Texas Trails - all of the races are directed well and have awesome volunteers. Over the last few years I've run in the heat and humidity, the snow and the cold, and fortunately this year dry and cool. Though you never know what the weather conditions are going to be, you can always guarantee a great experience from start to finish.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Grasslands 50

Grasslands 50 was my first attempt at a 50 mile race two years ago. I remember this course - long stretches of sand - lots of open space with an abundance of sun - the typical March winds whipping. I remember stopping at mile 41 and change thinking that I couldn't take another step and getting my first DNF. Over the last two years I've run multiple 50 mile races - and further - but I really needed to come back to Grasslands and conquer the course. I wanted to do this last year - but decided that blowing wind/snow/ice was more than I wanted to handle. This year it was time to take another stab at it.

Even though Decatur is only about 45 miles from Ft Worth - I thought I'd drive up there night before. I'm always scattered on race morning - and eliminating a hour plus drive at 5am seemed a good idea. The hotel was busy - apparently motorbike races - but fortunately the hotel was quiet. Unfortunately though I didn't sleep well. Tossing - turning - never getting comfy. I'm way past being nervous before 50k races - this was just one of those nights where I just didn't sleep well. The last time I looked at the clock it was about 3am. A couple of hours later I was up and getting ready - red eyed and yawning - not a good way to start the day!

Not getting good sleep the night before doesn't help your chances of completing a race - but it certainly doesn't have as big of an effect as you might think. Once you're up, moving around, and the adrenaline is flowing the fact that you should for all intents and purposes being a walking zombie fade into the background. It's race day - you have more important things to worry about than being sleepy.

The drive out to the LBJ Grasslands is only about 15 minutes from Decatur down a dark and windy road. This year when we turned off of the main drag and onto the gravel road we were immediately faced with a cloud of dust from the car ahead of us. We really weren't following that closely - but it was so dry and dusty that it was like driving through a thick fog. I was hoping that there would have been some rain during the week to wet things down - but with no such luck I knew it was going to be a nice dusty run with winds forecasted to pick up.

7am rolled around and we were ready to go. The sun wasn't quite up yet but there was enough light to see without a headlamp so I ditched the light - grabbed my handheld water bottle and was off. The first portion of the run is an out and back and quickly gets you acquainted with the sand that you have to endure off and on for most of the race. Since the course is mostly single track the first part of the race is spent in a single file line running everyone elses pace - which for me was probably a tad faster than I needed to go - but it felt good since it was cool and the legs were fresh.

Once I completed the out and back and was at the start/finish again it was time to start the first of four loops - the blue loop. The course is run similar to a clover leaf where you keep coming back to the central start/finish after each loop. The first loop is the longest at 13.5 miles - and then the loops get gradually shorter the further you get into the race (though they seem much longer as the day wears one!). Loop one was fairly non-eventful. There was cloud cover so it wasn't hot yet and the winds hadn't picked up. The sand was there - but the legs were still fresh and it was more of an annoyance than anything else.

The second loop which was the white loop and started off with the familiar long stretches of sand. I was already starting to feel a little tired - never a great thing at mile 20 and not even half way through the race - but I know not to panic because you have some ups and downs when you're running all day. A couple of miles into the loop I hit a nice downhill section with very little sand. I really felt like I was flying on this section and making great time and my spirits were back up. I knew there was a long section without an aid station but I thought with the downhill section and the time I was making that I'd be ok with my one handheld. I must not have been running as quickly as I thought - because I kept running - and running - and running. I finally started walking as there were sections of sand again. Just about when I thought the aid station should be around the corner I saw a mile marker - I was still about a mile away. I was mentally defeated - walking uphill in sand in the sun without water. I just shuffled along until I finally made it to the aid station. Fortunately they had some ice and I was able to get some water in me - the homemade potatoe soup was great - even on a hot day! Refueled and rehydrated my spirits were back up and I started running again.

I really don't remember much about the third loop - except one of the aid stations where a very nice lady started walking towards me with two glasses of water and insisted on spraying suntan lotion on me. I have no idea who she was - but she was the best! It was like having my mother out there watching out for me. Gotta love those aid station volunteers!!

I finally made it to the last loop. This is where I dropped two years ago - emotionally and physically spent. I could very easily have stopped again this time - but there was no way I was going to NOT finish again. At the aid station I sat around for about five minutes talking to my awesome crew that was busy grabbing things - filling and refilling water bottles - etc. I finally decided it was now or never so I got up and took off walking. More sand - uphill - in the sun going into the wind. Really?? Can't I catch a break?? Yes - this was going to be a long nine miles. :)  I was definitely walking the majority of the time - but managed to job some on some flats and downhills. Hit the aid station again with the potatoe soup - had another glass and it was just as great as it was the first time around. Around mile 47 I managed to catch a glimpse of someone in front of me. I'm typically fairly strong in the latter stages of a race - but with as much walking as I had done I was surprised that I had caught up with someone. Well - this was the motivation that I needed to get my legs moving. I took off running - every now and then on a straight away I'd see my victim up ahead - and I'd keep plotting along. Eventually I was able to catch up and pass him - probably around mile 48 at this point - and it sure felt good. He still looked like he was moving fairly well - so I knew I'd have to keep running if I didn't want him to pass me back up. I passed another guy that was having some stomach issues and was sitting on the side of the trail. I offered him a gel which he refused - and he said he was ok - so I kept on going. I ran the entire way back - even through some of the deep sandy sections - to finish in 10:46.

This will probably be the last time that I'll run this race - not because I'm not up for a challenge - but because I just don't find the course enjoyable. I ran it this year since I DNF'd two years ago - and am really glad that I did. When you look at the course profile it looks very flat and fast - and really elevation gain/loss is fairly minimal over the course of 50 miles. The sand though - oh the sand - it just sucks the life out of your legs. I can say with 100% certainty that I would NOT have finished this race without the awesome volunteers that were out there in the sun, sand, and wind all day. They were just spectacular. The overall organization of the race was also superb.

If you haven't run this course - I highly recommend giving it a shot because it definitely is challenging. If you've run it and want to pass at a second go - come on out with me next year and volunteer and we can help some others tackle the sand. Callie (my dog) will help us!