Friday, November 2, 2007

David vs. Goliath at the U.S. Marathon Men's Olympic Trials

The U.S. Olympic Trials Men’s Marathon will be held on Saturday, November 3, 2007 in New York City. This promises to be an amazing event with the deepest and most talented men’s field in memory. Most of the media attention focuses on the favorites and how they’ll compete against one another for the top three spots and an Olympic berth. Meb Keflezighi, Khalid Khannouchi, Ryan Hall, Abdi Abdirahman, Alan Culpepper, Dathan Ritzenhein, Brian Sell, and a few other figure to wage a very intense race to wear the red, white, and blue in Beijing, China in 2008.

While I’ll certainly follow the follow these outstanding professional runners, I’m also going to keep my eye on two other stories. In recent days, I’ve discovered stories of seemingly regular runners who managed to qualify for the Trials with full-time jobs and families. When I say that these are regular runners, this is a bit misleading. Both of these individuals qualified for the Trials by running sub-2:22 races. By this measuring stick, they are clearly extraordinary athletes. What makes these stories inspirational is the fact that, like many of us, they have normal lives to schedule their training around and still managed these feats.

Michael Wardian, 33, qualified for the Trials with a 2:21:37 performance at the Shamrock Sportfest Marathon in Virginia Beach, VA in March 2007. Wardian lives in Northern Virginia and is an international ship broker for Potomac Marine International (PMI) in Alexandria, VA. He is married and has a one-year-old son who frequently accompanies him on runs in a jogging stroller.

Cecil Franke, 39, qualified for the Trials with a 2:18:13 performance at the Columbus (OH) Marathon in 2006. Franke lives in Centerville, IN and is a high school teacher and coach at Centerville High School. Franke is married and has two children.

The Wardian and Franke stories are amazing and I intend to follow their progress and results on November 3rd. While they stand little chance of running the 2:08 to 2:10 time likely necessary to earn a spot on the Olympic Team, stranger things have happened. Perhaps with weather conditions will slow the pace. Perhaps the lead pack will go out too strong and then fade. Just the fact that that Wardian and Franke have the opportunity to compete with professional marathoners is part of what makes the Trials so special. If you are looking for real life David versus Goliath stories, follow the Olympic Trials on Saturday.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Book Review: Dean Karnazes' Ultra Marathon Man

Want to light a fire on a running-related message board? Just mention Dean Karnazes and his best-selling book, Ultra Marathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner. Many running "purists", and particularly ultra-running "purists" have referred to Karnazes as a phony. Some have said that his book is simply a series of self-promoting indulgences. I recently had a chance to read Ultra Marathon Man and found some of Karnazes' critics to be correct. The book is self-promoting, however, what do you expect with an auto-biography. If I were to write a memoir, I wouldn't spend too many words degrading myself. Regardless, I ask runners to give Karnazes and his book a chance.

Ultra Marathon Man describes Karnazes' life through his childhood to his brief teenage running years. Karnazes then describes a vacuum in his life following the untimely death of his sister during his college and post-college years. On his 30th birthday, however, Karnazes had an awaking and, shortly thereafter, began training for the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. Karnazes then describes his training for Western States and the race itself. He then details a failed Badwater attempt, a successful Antarctic Marathon, and his solo completion of a 199-mile relay race in 2000.

The vivid descriptions of Karnazes' first Western States and Badwater attempts were riveting. On the other hand, Karnazes' critics are correct in that much of the dialog is contrived and certain passages are self-promoting to the point where you are likely to cringe a bit. Regardless, to those that say that Karnazes is a phony, I quote from page 51 of the book where he describes how he felt on his 30th birthday before returning to running.

"At that moment I realized that my life was being wasted. Disillusioned with the trappings of the corporate scene, the things that really mattered-----friendship and exploration, personal expansion and a sense of meaning-----had gotten all twisted around making a lot of money and buying stuff. I hungered for a place where I could explore nature and my capabilities, away from a corporate office in a corporate building in a big city with crowed supermalls and people judging me by the car I drove (which, of course was a new Lexus)."

To anyone who loves running long distances but toils in an office every day, Karnazes has to speak to you at least on a base level. How can one honestly say that this is phony? The guy was going through life in a fog and found that ultra running provided him with purpose and meaning. And to boot, ultra running provided him with a new and meaningful career. So what if Karnazes has promoted himself and managed to make a buck? In the process, he has provided exposure to the sport and raised money for good causes. Plus, the Karnazes' franchise and publicity machine does not take anything away from the ambassodors of the sport. As an average amateur runner, I understand and value the accomplishments and contributions of Scott Jurek, Pam Reed, Ann Transon, David Horton, Anne Riddle Lundblad, Tim Tweitmeyer, Annette Bednosky, Kami Semick, and others.

The weekend athlete reading Outside Magazine on an airplane may view Karnazes as the sole face of ultra running. But to those of us who truly appreciate trail and ultra running, Karnazes is one of many (and different) ambassadors of a wonderful sport. In closing, read Karnazes' Ultra Marathon Man for the race descriptions and a look into the ultra marathon experience. If the self-promotion is too much for you, skip the paragraph. At the same time, try not to become jealous as you look out the window of your office building wondering if you could (or could have) made a career out of the sport that you love.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Make Marathon Weekend a Family Event

Marathon training is a rigorous and time-consuming endeavor not just for you, but for your family as well. Minimum weekly mileage requirements and long runs are necessary to get you to the starting line with a prayer of finishing the event. If you have a time goal, some speed/tempo work is also necessary. Beyond actual running is the pre and post-run stretching, strength training, and perhaps a trip or two to a sports massage specialist to work out the kinks. New running shoes, clothes, and gear must be purchased. Furthermore, how energetic and social are you on a Saturday night after a Saturday morning 20-miler? Finally, your family must listen to you drone on interesting topics such as hamstring tightness, fartlek workouts, and tapering, I could go on and on but you get the picture. Marathon training is a serious commitment not only on your part but also your family.

So when choosing your marathon destination, reward your family. Bring them along and make it a family event. They supported you through months of training. They want to not only share in your moment but see the fruits of their labor. Give them something to look forward to other than being your support crew. Here are some simple guidelines:

Choose an age appropriate mode of travel and location. If you have young children, driving six hours or less is much more painless than flying. In this case, choose a marathon closer to home. I live in Atlanta and have three children under the age of six. Chattanooga (Chickamauga), Knoxville, Birmingham, Huntsville, Charlotte, Savannah (Tybee Island), Charleston (Kiawah Island), and Jacksonville all offer marathons within a six hour drive. As your children get older, flying will become a more viable option and we will expand our geographic range.

Make it easy for them to see you race. Big city events like New York and Chicago can be difficult for families. The crowds and logistics can be awkward if you have younger children. Smaller races can offer opportunities for you family to see you multiple times without aggravation. Also, hotels near or along the race course also offer convenient race viewing opportunities.

Find something fun for everyone. You get to run 26.2 miles. That is your fun. Now research something everyone else will enjoy. Perhaps you can take your family to a fun or interesting restaurant the night before the race. See what your host city has to offer in terms of terms of museums, events, and major attractions. Last year my family accompanied me to the Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon just south of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The race was on Saturday morning. On Saturday afternoon we went to the Chattanooga Children’s Museum. On Saturday night, we enjoyed a great meal at the Big River Grille. On Sunday morning, we toured the wonderful Tennessee Aquarium. By the end of the weekend, my kids believed that this was their mini-vacation.

It is impossible to separate your family life from your marathon training. They must co-exist in symbiotic relationship in order for you to succeed. So make the most of your marathons and set the course for a wonderful weekend experience for everyone.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Vacuum of Sound and Thought

“Isn’t running boring?” I’m often asked this question from non-runners. Ten years ago, I would have responded, “No, I’ve got my radio/headphones.” My current answer is, “No, period.” Time and circumstances have greatly changed my perspective on the entertainment value of running. And my current perspective is that I don’t need to be entertained at all.

Years ago, I wouldn’t have set foot out the door on a run longer than 20 minutes without earphones. Music, news talk, sports talk, and live games seemed to help the miles fly by faster. My mind would detach from the perceived boredom of the run and the occasional discomfort during later miles. Ten years, a wife, three kids, and increased job stress later, I don’t want the miles to fly by faster. Granted, we all want to run faster, but this is not what I’m talking about. I want the running experience to last longer – not shorter. Because when the run ends, it’s back to the real world.

Granted, I love my family and want to spend as much time as possible with them. In fact, I enjoy running with my kids in the Baby Jogger as much as anything. But running is my respite from the stresses of real life. Running releases negative energy. Running strengthens the body. Running renews the spirit. So with all of this good stuff going on during my runs, I no longer want them cluttered every day with music, news talk, sports talk, or games.

More importantly, I no longer want my runs cluttered with any thoughts whatsoever. Many runners say that their best and most creative thoughts and ideas take place during runs. Writers are able to create and work through plots. Financial analysts can see the revenue projections more clearly. Managers think of plans to allocate resources more efficiently. I’m not disparaging how these people operate but it’s simply not for me. Plots, revenue projections, and resource allocations are job-related real life stresses. By running, I’m trying to escape this environment and find a bit of quiet and inner peace one mile at a time.

Through this approach, running helps create a near perfect vacuum of thought and sound. My only thoughts pertain to my pace, energy levels, stride, an upcoming race, or the beauty of the landscape. The only sounds are those of nature, my footfalls, and heartbeat. By simply running, I am able to just be. Sometimes this is the very best place of all.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Big South Fork 17.5 Mile Trail Race

In October 2005, I had the honor of running the Big South Fork 17.5 Mile Trail Race. Listed below is a race report detailing this wonderful experience.

Big South Fork Trail Race – 17.5 miles – October 1, 2005
Big South Fork State Park straddles the Tennessee and Kentucky border just west of Interstate 75. It is a lesser-known than The Smokey Mountains National Park but also less crowed and beautiful in its own right. The South Fork of the Cumberland River cuts through the Park creating an enormous gorge hundreds of feet deep. The gorge provides for striking scenic views from both overlooks and the river below. Years ago, I hiked through Big South Fork and negotiated its river on an inflatable kayak. Impressed by the Park’s solitude and rugged beauty, I have always wanted to return. So when the opportunity to run the Big South Fork 17.5 Mile Trail Race presented itself, I jumped at the chance. I was slightly under-trained for the event but figured that a little walking wouldn’t hurt my pride and might even save my shot knees and hamstrings. The drive from Atlanta the night before the race with my running crew was uneventful and our stay at the Comfort Inn in nearby Pioneer, Tennessee was comfortable.

The drive to the Park the morning of the race was inspiring and troubling at the same time. Driving by the farms on the Cumberland Plateau was peaceful. As soon as we entered Big South Fork State Park, however, the landscape changed dramatically. Soon the rolling hills turned into a steep descent through a series of switchbacks into the gorge and to the South Fork of the Cumberland River. The road was more suitable for mule than car. We crossed the River and began a series of similar switchbacks up the other side of the gorge to the Bandy Creek Campground. Would the steep terrain and treacherous road be a foreshadowing of things to come?

Upon arrival at the starting area, I knew this would be no ordinary race. The other runners looked as fit, strong, and seasoned as any I had ever seen. They also looked incredibly relaxed as many of them had run the race before and knew what to expect. I quickly felt out of place and over my head. Nonetheless, I began my pre-race stretching, hydrating, and fueling routine as if this was no different than a neighborhood 10k. By race-time (8:30 am), the sun was fully shining through the trees and it was already 70 degrees. It was going to be a warm day and I knew I would be on the course for at least three hours. My Nathan Elite 1 Plus Hydration Pack would be a necessary ally today. Extra fluids and energy gels would certainly come in handy later.

After some last minute instructions from the race director about the course changes and warnings about yellow jackets, the gun was fired and about 200 hardy souls began their own epic adventures. The first mile and a half was run on paved and gravel roads in the park. This was smart since the remainder of the course was single track trail. It allowed everyone to find their place. My place was towards the back half of the pack. The last thing I wanted to hear all morning was “on your left” as runners passed me. The paved and gravel roads were flat or slightly downhill, the crowd thinned-out, and everyone picked their spots. Soon we entered the woods and formed a single line. Almost immediately after leaving the road, the trail descended in a series of steep switchbacks. Most runners seemed to negotiate the descent with ease but I wasted no time in stumbling over roots and rocks. “Pick-up your feet and pay attention” I told myself. Mile 2 was not the place to fall and get injured.

After the steep descent, the trail leveled-out for a brief period as we passed the John Litton/Slaven Farm and then reentered the woods. For the next 3 miles, the trail rolled up and down past streams, over small bridges, and under rock ledges. While the area was isolated, I was not. Traveling with me were about a dozen runners who settled into the same pace. I tried keep a safe distance from the runner ahead of me in order to spot trail hazards such as rocks, roots, and downed trees. That’s right - during the course of the race, participants had to climb over or crawl under about a dozen fallen trees crossing the trail. Most were brought to us courtesy of storms spawned by Hurricane Katrina.

The single track format bunched things up a bit too much at the beginning. At the time I was feeling good and fought the urge to run faster. Passing was difficult and even dangerous at this stage of the race. I didn’t know it at the time but the slower single-track format saved me from myself. Deep down I knew that picking-up the pace and passing that this point was stupid.

At around mile 5 we entered the 6.8 mile Grand Gap Loop Trail. The first half of the Loop followed the west rim of the gorge and the South Fork of the Cumberland River upstream. Off to the right were spectacular views of the gorge, the opposing rim, and the river. Some runners stopped at overlooks to take in the scenery. I tried to enjoy the views on the move but began stumbling again on rocks and roots if I took my eyes off of the trail for more than a split second. Regardless, to say that this part of the trail is beautiful is an understatement. Dense woods on your left and a 1,000 foot descent on your right.

By mile 8 or 9, the running groups began to thin-out. I was on my own for a while and it felt good. Running with a crew certainly helps you maintain the pace of the crew. But this race was meant to be run with nature. I managed to pick-up the pace for the next few miles and passed a few runners. Courtesy and sportsmanship among these runners was the norm. If a runner heard you coming from behind, chances are he or she would voluntarily move off to the right without a word. If a runner stumbled and fell (which happened frequently), everyone stopped to help the runner up and ensure the runner could continue before motoring ahead. These acts of politeness helped make for a wonderful experience.

The aid station at mile 9 never seemed to come. I began to get agitated and couldn’t believe I was running that slowly. As it turned-out, the next aid station was at about 10.5 miles. This explained it. I immediately felt better and charged on. Soon thereafter, I happened upon the 12 mile aid station. There were a total of 5 aid stations. At each one, I took time to drink water and stretch.

Miles 12 to 14 were marked by some down-hills. I took advantage and opened-up my stride a bit. It felt good. I had run a conservative race so far and even walked a few steep up-hills. I had consumed several PowerGels and about 22 ounces of PowerBar Endurance Formula Drink. Running faster on the descents was treacherous but also exhilarating. The end was close and I wanted to truly experience the terrain in all of its severity.

I’m glad that I raced faster for a few miles because at mile 15 it all came to an end. We began going up the same downhill switchbacks that marked the first few miles of the race. By this point, most runners who had not already finished were hurting. There were quite a few walkers. On the steep uphill switchbacks, I became one of them. Walking was just as fast as running so I figured what difference does it make? The next two miles was about the slowest I had ever run. At one point, we were required to climb a 10 foot ladder. And climbing actually felt better than running. My legs were flooded with lactic acid and my form had deteriorated to a shuffle.

With about a half mile left, we exited the trail and entered a road. The end was near and I felt an immediate boost. Crossing the finish line in 3 hours and 6 minutes, all speed records were out the window. The course had taken its tool on my body . At the same time, the race lifted my spirits, strengthened my soul, reinforced my zeal for the wonderful sport that is trail running.

The Big South Fork 17.5 Mile Trail Race was truly a unique and wonderful experience. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys trail running or simply wants experience the sport at its core without the fanfare. More information can be found about this race on the Knoxville Track Club’s website at

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Injury Provides a Chance to Start Over (Correctly)

Running injuries befall the best of us. It’s a fact of the road, track, or trail. When injury occurs, it is horribly depressing. It only takes about two weeks of inactivity to lose 50 percent of your fitness. As a result, fitness is lost, race plans are scrapped, and moods darken. Sometimes, however, an injury is a blessing in disguise.

Several weeks ago, I suffered a major ankle sprain. The injury had nothing to do with running. It was completely random and a result of my own clumsiness. At the time of the injury, I was beginning to ramp-up my mileage for an early fall marathon or 50k. Immediately after snapping tendons and ligaments in my ankle, my thoughts turned to running. How long would I be side-lined? Did I suffer any permanent damage? I became angry with myself for jeopardizing my running in a careless moment. I had a perfect base built and was ready to rock this fall – or was I?

While the ankle sprain interrupted my training for one month, something bad was brewing before the injury. I had been ramping-up training and building my base in an improper manner. All of the signs were present as my long runs lengthened from 6 to 12 miles over the course of several weeks. While my Saturday long runs were increasing, other facets of my training were being ignored. Due to family/job obligations, my mid-week training was inadequate. My core/strength training was non-existent. And my post-run stretching was sporadic at best. Tight hamstrings and discomfort under the knee-cap were the subtle signals - and I was ignoring those signals.

Sometimes life gets so busy that we only have time for the Saturday long run. In these cases, it’s best to be realistic and not attempt to train for a long distance or fast race. When we forget the basics (base building, stretching, strength training), we open ourselves up to injury.

Weeks after the injury my ankle is slowly getting better. Without the injury, I would have likely run into a hamstring and/or knee injury by this point in my training. Starting from scratch, I’m slowly increasing my weekly mileage. This
time, I’ll remember to do it right.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Day Dreaming Of Running

It’s a Wednesday afternoon at 1:45 pm. I am staring out the window of my 5th floor office in Atlanta into a mountain range of skyscrapers. What I’d rather be doing at this very moment is running along a real mountain range.

Like most, I don’t love or hate my job. It is what it is. It provides income so my family and I can live in a house, drive cars, eat, and buy running shoes. It is a means to an end. But on this particular day, I can’t help but wonder what is would be like if running were my job. What if I could turn back the hands of time 15 years? What if I was genetically blessed with flexibility, extraordinary lung capacity, and the right combination of fast and slow twitch muscle fibers? Could I handle two-a-days and 80-mile weeks? Could I learn to deal with the discomfort of oxygen debt and extreme fatigue? Would I crack under the intense pressure of competition? Maybe I could be an elite runner.

Then my thoughts drift back to my last marathon where I struggled to break four hours and nearly vomited from consuming too many energy gels. On second thought, maybe I wasn’t designed to be an elite runner. Regardless, a passion for running is in my soul. Tonight I’ll lace-up my shoes for a scheduled five mile run with a sense of adventure and excitement that is unmatched by any elite athlete. The beauty of running is that this sense of adventure and excitement flows all the way from the front to the back of the pack.