Trail running, and outdoor adventure
Run your fastest race
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Nothing about this is fun.
My legs are screaming at me to stop, I can see the banner at the finish line, but nothing around it, there are people lining the streets, clapping mindlessly as they crane their necks looking past me, down the road for friends and loved ones, they may be cheering but I don't hear anything except for the hollow, low, muffled sounds adults make in the Charlie Brown cartoons. I'm seeing stars now, taking short, sharp breaths, and trying to keep the black tunnel vision from closing, trying to decipher the red numbers on the clock as I cross the finish, seeing the first two, 39, and I can't remember if I smiled then or not, probably not as I staggered to the curb, dodging the first aid guy with fear in his eyes and arms ready to catch me. I sat on a curb, staring at my shoes with two immediate goals, trying not to vomit and trying not to pass out. I remember smiling then, at that moment, a combination of joy, relief, and most importantly, knowing that I had reached my limit. It's a feeling that every runner should experience, at least once.
The number 40 was arbitrary, a number that I picked out about eight years ago when I started running, a long-term 10K goal to break 40 minutes, a goal that was out of reach, and a time that was a lot faster than I could run, but with proper training and dedication, was within the realm of possibility.
I don't enjoy racing 10Ks. 5Ks are fast, fun, and over quickly. Half marathons are hard, but you can ease up a little, letting endurance take over for the speed. Marathons and longer, for me, are more about conserving energy for the later stages, and getting the nutrition and fluids right than trying to run hard for as long as I can hold on. There is no taking the foot off the pedal in a 10K. In order to hit my goal of a sub-40 minute 10K, I would need to set a 5K PR in the first half of the race, and then keep going. There is nothing fun about that, but having trained hard, tried, and failed twice at breaking the 40 minute mark (running just under 41 minutes each time), I was determined to do it before I turned 40 in mid-February. It was a romantic idea, fight the slowing due to age, give 40 the middle finger, and prove to myself that I can still improve.
Fast is relative, that's why I didn't want to title this post "How to Get Fast." For a lot of the guys I run with, a sub-40 10K is a hard training run, and most could crank it out without much preparation. For some, a sub-40 10K is unreachable, but this is not about a certain time, it's about finding your limits, pushing harder than you thought you could, and running faster than you ever have. I'm not a coach and am not a certified anything. I kind of subscribe to the Roomba Training Philosophy (TM) of bump into enough walls and eventually the floor will get clean. But the following strategies helped me and I wanted to share them in the hopes that they will help you run faster, and find the outer edge of your own limits.
1. Pick a convenient race.
For me it was the Cardiff Kook 10K. It was local, it started at 8:30, and it's a fun event with a lot of community support. The simpler the race, the fewer the variables, and less that can go wrong. It is a familiar route along the coast, and I knew each turn, twist and hill. I was able to sleep in my own bed, eat what I wanted, and get to the race start with enough time to warm up and use the port a potty about 20 times.
2. Have a time goal that is out of reach (within reason).
A good way to do this is to take a current race time, and use that pace to help set a goal for a longer race. For example, you may be able to run a 2 hour half marathon, but think that a 4 hour marathon is out of reach. It isn't. If you can hold that pace for 13 miles, you can train yourself to hold it for 26. Shut up, yes you can. And don't sandbag it, either. If you tell me you're trying for a sub 4 hour marathon and you come in at 3:10, I'll still congratulate you, but you're going to get one hell of an eye roll when you're not looking.
3. Share your goal.
One of the things that kept me running when I was ready to take a walk break (thanks to ultras, now every hill is walkable), was thinking about the people that knew I was out there running, trying to run sub-40. I probably told too many people (I even posted it on the blog), and I started to get annoyed in the weeks before the race when people told me that I was going to break 40 easily. My response was "I'm just going to try to have fun." BS. I was scared of not meeting my time goal and already preparing excuses for my failure, but when it came down to it, pride is a powerful motivator and I didn't want to show up to our regular morning run with excuses.
4. Get in a pack.
It sucks running alone in a race. When my 10K started, I watched the elite field (all the fast locals were running...the winner came in at 30 minutes) fade into the distance, and I was caught between 3 or 4 runners in front of me and a big pack behind me. I pushed to join the pack in front of me and tucked in between two strong women (this is starting to sound like a dream I had once) that I recognized. I knew they were both capable of finishing sub-40, so I stuck with them. There is an extra push that you get when you run with other people, a "whole is greater than the sum of its parts" thing that can help you during a race. Pace groups for marathons, and half marathons are great for this.
More than anything else, this is the one thing that I attribute to making me faster. My goal pace was 6:20. I bumped my goal to 39:30 after my friend and training partner, James, told me that I was probably psyching myself out with 40 minutes, and I should shoot for 39. I compromised at 39:30, and figured that this would be the small cushion I needed and I would finish just under 40 minutes. The one major change that I made in my training schedule was that I added a weekly track workout to my regular routine (4-5 maintenance runs, one longer run of 8-15 miles, and a rest day). I focused on drills and longer intervals at just under race pace. As Richard puts it, in order to run fast, you have to run fast. I became (somewhat) comfortable at running at a 6:20 pace. I remember a track workout about a month ago. It was Friday morning, and I was scheduled to run 4 X 2000 meters at race pace. I was alone in the dark, the temperature was hovering right around 30 degrees, and I was in pain. My legs were tight, my lungs hurt from the cold air, my motivation was low, and the workout was really, really tough. Looking back on that workout, I realize that was the day I accomplished the goal, it wasn't at the race. I ended up running 6:21/mile at the 10K for a 39:28 finish, almost exactly the pace that I trained on the track.
6. Have a mantra.
It is so easy to drift and lose focus in a race. This is great for ultras, let the time and miles slip by. But in shorter races, losing focus can be the difference in accomplishing what you set out to do, and failure. Repeating a mantra when my mind starts to drift helps me to focus on the moment, and to bring my attention back to my form. My ultra mantra (inspired by Phil Dunphy) of "slow is smooth, and smooth is fast" wasn't going to cut it for a 10K. I changed it to "strong is smooth, and smooth is fast" for the first 5 miles, then spontaneously changed it to "F@#$ 40" (I apologize to any of the kids on the sidewalk who were able to read lips) in the final mile. Anger can be a great motivator.
7. Drop some weight.
I bounce around between 165-180, and I know I'm faster when I'm lighter, especially in the short races. Want some motivation to lose weight? Check out this online calculator and pay special attention to the weight adjusted race times. I realized I could gain valuable seconds just by dropping a few pounds. I went from 2-3 drinks a night to a glass of wine with dinner and dropped 5 pounds in 3 weeks without changing anything else. It wasn't a major, drastic, hard to maintain lifestyle change, but it did have the desired effect.
That's all I've got for the tips, the rest is just sweat. No, it's not fun, and I don't want to re-visit that place too many more times. Finding your limit hurts, it's stressful, it's risky, you could fail miserably, and I can't even really describe the payoff, except to say that it's worth doing, at least once.
Create an overnight backpacking experience that you will all enjoy.
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If you’re reading this you probably already realize the benefits of being outside. I try to get out on the trails as much as possible, but when I’m gone, it feels like about half the time I’m out there, I’m thinking of my family back home. When I did the High Sierra Trail in August, I made it a goal to start bringing my family along on overnight backpacking trips. One of the first things I did when I returned from that trip was to block out a couple days on the calendar for a trip with my kids. I picked an overnighter in San Jacinto because it’s close, and I know the trails up there pretty well. It’s also a fairly easy summit for someone that is in pretty good shape, and the view from the top is amazing. It received a glowing Yelp! review from none other than John Muir.
"The view from San Jacinto is the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth!"
The trip couldn’t have gone any better. The kids had a great time, and I spent half the time choked up at how great it was to be out there with them, and the other half amazed at how well they were getting along with each other. My son is ten and my daughter is eight. They love each other, and are either best friends, or at each others’ throats because of a perceived sigh or eye roll. In the mountains, it was all love, cooperation, and laughter.
Their goal was to summit the 10,834 foot peak, but my goal was just to get them out there in the wilderness, carrying a pack and enjoying a couple of days of unplugged beauty. For me, the summit was secondary.
This was our first overnighter, but we have done plenty of dayhikes and camping trips, and there are a few things that I got right, making this trip one of my favorites.
Involve the kids in the planning process
Even though the trails were well marked, and I have been on the route a number of times, I still bought a topo map and let them trace our route to the summit with their small fingers, adding up the mileage sections and picking a campsite.
The first day would be two miles from the tram to Round Valley campsite. I figured this would be a good, short intro to hiking with a pack. We ordered the packs online, and they helped pick them out. We went with the Gossamer Gear Quiksaks because they are lightweight, big enough to carry their sleeping bags and pajamas, and they would double as a good daypack that I would carry with our food and water for the hike to the summit on the 2nd day.
The next day we would hike 4 miles up to the summit, then another 4 miles back to our campsite where we stored the packs, then another two miles to the tram. This was a long day, but I figured we’d go as far as we could and if it was no longer fun for the kids, we’d turn around.
We made a trip to REI a couple days before the trip. They picked out their meals, choosing a big 3-serving bag of mac and cheese for dinner. The first night, they found a big rock to share and took turns spooning the cheesy goodness out of the foil backpacker’s meal. I stood behind them just watching them take turns digging their spoons in the foil patch, sun setting over the meadow, enjoying the quiet of dusk descending on the mountain.
Have a good story
They always want a story at night, and I’ve told so many that I have run out of good ideas. So, I start telling them the story of a boy named Daniel, a boy who moved from New Jersey to Southern California with his mom and he got bullied because he was the new kid in school. He loved karate, but his karate was no match for the Cobra Kai. Enter a nice, old, Japanese maintenance man, Mr. Miyagi.
“Dad, is this the karate kid?”
“Maybe. Want me to stop?”
So, I spent the next 15 minutes telling the story of Daniel and his crush on Ali and the creative teaching methods of Mr. Miyagi. They loved the story, and my 8-year-old daughter hung on every word. The first thing she did when we got home the next day was to search Netflix for The Karate Kid.
Let them share in the work
It takes me about 5 minutes to set up a tent. It takes me about 30 minutes to set up a tent with help. That 30 minutes is well spent.
I also could have carried everything in my pack, but it was important to them to help with the load, so they each carried their own packs with their sleeping bags, flip flops, pajamas, and a bottle of water. It wasn’t a total of more than five or six pounds, but they were contributing. It made the hike to and from the campsite more difficult for them, but their sense of accomplishment far outweighed the difficulty.
I let the kids find the route. I let them read all the signs and choose which direction to go. There were a couple of mistakes, but they learned quickly. We also took turns setting the pace. I’ve run with people that always have to lead, and it’s annoying as hell. There’s an advantage to leading, all of a sudden you feel a little stronger, and you can also control the pace, slowing down if you’re tired and speeding up if you feel good. It’s important to share that responsibility and advantage with everyone. Kids like to go out fast when they’re in front, but they quickly learn to slow down and keep a consistent, all-day pace.
Teach them how to squat
There are few things as liberating as peeing off the side of a mountain. It’s easy for a guy, but hiking with my daughter is different. I expected it to be some kind of natural thing that she would just know how to squat and pee without soaking her tights, shoes and legs. Once she got it down, it was great. I won’t get into the number two details, but I had to teach them how to dig a hole and bury their poop without getting too dirty. It was more or less successful, or at least I was more successful than they were, but they learned a valuable life skill. Oh yeah, Purell is essential.
There was also a lot of farting talk on the trail. My son loved learning about altitoots, and in that respect it wasn’t much different than the trail talk that I’m used to.
Don’t force your experience on them
Sometimes you want to pass on these experiences, and you want others to have the same experience that you have whether it be a love for the mountains, or even something like a book, a movie, or a restaurant (no matter how hard I try, I can’t get my wife to recognize the genius of Kenny Powers). You can’t have that experience for them, and it makes it worse to push it on them. I lowered my expectations with the kids. After all, twelve miles round trip at an elevation of nearly 11,000 feet is pretty tough for anyone, especially coming from sea level, and I have seen grown men in pretty good shape turn around on the route up to San Jacinto. Some friends even joked about bringing my own summit sign and busting it out at Wellman’s Divide (which is only 1 mile up from where we camped, and offers a pretty amazing view). They wouldn’t know the difference. I didn’t make my own summit sign, but turning around there was definitely an option.
My kids had other thoughts. While my goal was to enjoy the journey, the summit was way more important to the kids than it was to me. Towards the top of the climb, there’s this long, hot, exposed section and their spirits were low. I mentioned turning around, and that it had been such a great day and they had both done so well. They both looked at me like I was speaking a different language, and they gave me the look that all men and insane people know. They came to summit.
We worked over the boulders at the peak, my son leading the way as I helped my daughter over some of the more difficult features. When they got to the top it was pure joy, and fist pumps, and hands raised in the air. We all looked around and I pointed out some of the other peaks, including the only mountain in Southern California that was higher than where we stood, Mt. San Gorgonio. We watched the planes fly below us and the clouds moving at eye level. We were alone up there, so I told them that on the count of 3 we should yell and scream as loud as we could.
“What should I say,” my son asked.
“You can say whatever you want. I’m going to howl like a wolf, because you are my wolf pack and I just feel like howling.”
So, we let loose until our throats cracked. Then we sat and ate the bison and bacon bars that we had been saving for the summit. They were delicious, but everything tastes better above 10,000 feet.
As we were making the long hike back to the tram, my son couldn’t stop smiling and talking about how he had conquered the mountain. He was using the language of a warrior, and I thought it would be a good teaching opportunity. I started lecturing him about how I viewed it as more of a bonding with the mountain, and about how you can never really conquer nature, it will be here longer than us, and the most we can do is respect nature and share it. I stopped short of making him hug the nearest tree when I saw that his smile was fading and his eyes had that look that kids’ eyes get when they are thinking about anything other than what you are currently saying.
“Yeah, bud, you conquered it, good job.”
And the smile came back and he climbed the nearest rock and jumped off. The respect will come, but it will come on his terms, and it’s my job to make sure that they have every opportunity to nurture that love.
On the drive home, my son told me he had a hiking plan for us. Next year, he wants to climb the highest peak in Southern California, San Gorgonio. The following year, Whitney, then the next year, the JMT. I look forward to howling from the tops of many more mountains with them.