Friday, September 23, 2011

2011 Spartathlon Preview!

It's been a long time coming for me, and I couldn't be more excited to say that my biggest Dream Race ever is just a week away: The 2011 Spartathlon!

First and foremost, I need to give the "Excellent Timing" award to the organizers of this historic race: Last night they debuted a completely revamped website, and it looks amazing. Deep within the shiny new links and animations, you'll find some fantastic old-school photos from the races back in the early 80s as well as links to the 4-part video from last year's race. There's something about a pleasant British lady's accent that makes running 153 miles sound almost pain-free.

Beyond the glitz and glamor of the new site, there's one key bit of info that will please everyone following the race back home: This will be the first year that all runners will be wearing chips on their shoes...and through the magic of satellite uplinks, you should be able to follow our progress through every single last stinking one of the 75 checkpoints along the course. Just click on the "Live Data" link at the top of the page and you'll be off and running, so to speak. If you're stuck at work next Friday, you'll be all set for distracting entertainment during the workday as the race kicks off at Midnight (Thurs/Fri) EST. We'll be running all day Friday and into Saturday morning. If all goes well for me, I'll be high-fiving the statue of King Leonidas in the wee hours of Saturday morn back here in the States.

For more info beyond the official website, fellow US runner (and Oklahoma native) Chisholm Deupree will be posting some tweets during his time in Greece via his race Twitter account: @Okie_in_Athens

My race plan will be one I've used before with much success. It's hard to explain to people who have "only" raced 100 miles that this type of race is a completely different animal. It's not just tacking on another 50 miles of shuffling after 100 miles. Lots of things happen after the 100 mile point, and none of them are good. My race plan is essentially a sliding scale that allows my mind to get stronger as my legs weaken over the course of 24+ hours. A strong mind is pretty much the main fuel source for me once I get past 100 miles. On Friday I'll cruise through the 50 mile mark in about 7:45-8:00 to save my strength for the climbs ahead. The stretch leading up to the mountain at mile 100 will be about building momentum to rock that climb in style. Once down the backside of the mountain, I'll have a little less than 50 miles to start picking off the Parade of the Dead and climb the standings. With so many studs from the 24 hour world running this year (no doubt a result of the 24 hr. World Championship being canceled this year), I have no clue how high up I'll finish, but I think if I run my own race and execute each stage as planned, I'll end up with a smile on my face...and that's what it's all about!

I can tell already that I'll be slipping into my "big race focus coma" as soon as I step off the plane in Athens. I'm already catching myself staring off into the middle-distance a few times a day while thinking about the race this week. I've pretty much got the elevation profile and my desired splits memorized. It's been a long time since I've been not only 100% healthy leading into a big race, but also had such a successful training block leading into it as well. Barring a lightning strike or extended detour through a baklava factory on the course, I should be able to put up a pretty solid result.

Before I sign off and hop on the plane, I want send Special Thanks to:

1) My wife for allowing me to run the insane training schedule I ran over the past couple months 

2) My parents for the effort they're about to put in while keeping me moving across the Greek countryside

3) Drymax for these awesome socks that will help me represent the good ol' USA while abroad! I shall do my best!


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

It's All Greek to Me!

Historically speaking, the U.S. has never been well-represented in the Spartathlon. Yes, Scott Jurek put together a nice 3-year winning streak from '06-'08, but when you look at things from a pure numbers standpoint, we've been tremendously under-represented as a country out there every year. In a race where the finishing rate typically hovers around 35% each year, it's no wonder that we've had a hard time coming up with multiple finishers (or even any in some years) when we rarely even have 10 U.S. runners in the starting field.

The craziest stat of all (to me, anyway):

In the entire history of the Spartathlon, only 16 U.S. runners have crossed the finish line (some have completed the race multiple times, adding up to 34 total finishes). That's insane! Three separate countries had at least that many finish in last year's race alone!

Of course, maybe the reason we never find the finish can be explained by these maps they give us to navigate the Aid Stations in the Greek countryside. Shoot, there could be dozens of lost Americans out there right now, years later, just looking for those four pine trees in that exact diamond shape somewhere...

Good thing I hear the roads are pretty well marked on the course, because I'm guessing my ability to translate 75 of these little maps might suffer a bit after 100 miles or so...
As the caption mentions above, everyone agrees the course itself is actually very well marked during the race, so I'm not worried about getting lost at all. My crew, on the other hand? The might have a little bit of a tough time translating those street signs. I hope the Greek police are tolerant of frequent u-turns!

Speaking of my crew, with my wonderful wife currently being wonderfully pregnant, she will remain stateside for this adventure. Stepping up once again to reprise their stellar crew performances of years' past (Run 192, Long Trail, etc), my parents will be making the trip across the pond to support me. I learned my lesson last year in France that if the option exists to have a crew control 100% of the fuel you eat/drink during an international race, definitely take that option. We'll be staying in an apartment in Athens directly across the street from a grocery store, and you can bet your bottom Euro that I'll be controlling the quality and cleanliness of my food/water the whole time I'm out there. Look no further than the number of U.S. runners on the 100k team that had stomach issues during the World Championships last weekend to see the proof that it's worth the effort to ensure you're not consuming anything tainted while traveling overseas for a race!

The course, annotated in a language only I can understand!
I'll post one last preview of the race before I fly out on Monday for Greece. That post will include a link for everyone to follow the race progress as 350 of us follow in the steps of Pheidippides to Sparta! It's worth noting that the strict 36 hour time limit is no joke. The super-steep 3,000ft. climb up the mountain (Sangas Pass) at the 100 mile mark, coupled with the likely heat/humidity of the day, proves this course is no easy cruiser. ...and if you think about, the story says Pheidippidies arrived in Sparta after 36 hours himself, so technically speaking, we all have to beat this legendary figure's time. No pressure there!

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Ultra Running Band

There's a lively debate in the Ultrarunning world right now about the future and direction of the sport. Not just in increased corporate influence, but also with the way the media/blogs are becoming more critical in their coverage of individual runners. The evidence that a major commercial shift is happening is certainly clear (Leadville 100 was bought by Life Time Fitness last year, the North Face 50 miler series -and all its prize money- has grown in each of its 4 years, etc.), but the debate that's raging on amongst the runners right now is whether these changes (and the resulting, often critical, media exposure of the runners) are good for the sport.

Inside Trail posted an article a couple days ago (which has subsequently been taken down) that many have reacted to quite passionately.  The article took a critical look at Geoff Roes, AJW, and the Ultra Runner of the Year voting process. Lots of thoughtful comments and debates have arisen from the resulting give-and-take on the posting boards, and rather than add my two cents on all the various issues, I wanted to pass along the first thing that popped into my head when reading all of this.

Tim Long, one of the writers/creators of Inside Trail, and a heck of a runner in his own right, points out (correctly) that just about all of the media/blog reports out there on ultra-running are more "sunshiny" pieces that don't dig in and discuss the more controversial topics that Inside Trail has started to do. Many ultra folks don't believe we need the same level of critical analysis professional athletes endure when even the best ultra runners pretty much all have day jobs and just run these races as a hobby (a somewhat time-consuming hobby, sure, but a hobby nonetheless). Tim mentions these debates and controversies are a necessary step in the evolution of the sport (and its coverage) by saying: "to gain clarity, you need to go through the pain.".

Regardless of which side of the debate any of us support, we all have to agree that changes will continue to happen in this sport. The beauty of ultra running is that, while it is certainly growing by leaps and bounds, it is not a professional league like the NFL or MLB. There are no league-wide changes that a Commissioner says every runner has to follow. We're all Free Agents in this sport. Some will chose to run only races with prize money and media exposure. Others will prefer to only run solo trail adventures and pause to photograph the priceless sunset on top of a mountain along the way.  Some will stay up late arguing who should be the Ultra Runner of the Year in chat rooms, and others will continue to run remarkable under-the-radar performances and not care who knows about them.

We all don't have to agree on which way the sport is heading, we just have to agree that not every change will agree with us. As long as our own reasons and outlets for enjoying the sport remain (and you'll always be able to run solo on a trail somewhere), the sport can expand in any and all directions without it negatively affecting you.

As silly as it sounds, the very first thing I related this whole issue to when reading the Inside Trail comments was the feud between John Lennon and Paul McCartney after the Beatles broke up. What triggered this thought was Tim Long's response to the idea that people don't want to read any controversial comments against specific ultra runners or the sport in general (as Inside Trail has proven it is inclined to post). He said, "If folks want those sunshiny race reports (i.e. “I lined up with 200 other lovely, smiling people and throughout the race I felt love in my heart and only felt happiness in my blistered feet”), then move on."

When I read this quote, I immediately thought of McCartney's response to Lennon's critical comments about Paul's lack of depth and meaning in his solo songs ("He writes too many love songs."). McCartney's 1976 song "Silly Love Songs" was pretty much the best response he could have possibly given. The fact is, there's no harm in writing silly/happy songs, just like there's no problem lining up with 200 other lovely people and enjoying the fun of a 100 miler without real concern about who wins, or what sponsors were involved, or what someone might write on a blog about you after.

Having the passion for running to fill your heart (Paul) is just as rewarding as having the passion for running to feed your brain (John). We clearly have ultrarunners in both camps in the sport today, and lucky for us, the trails are plenty wide enough for us all.

...and since I'm a "Paul" runner, I'll leave you with Mr. McCartney proving that there is real purpose in writing Silly Love Songs: They make people happy.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Field is Set!

Late last night the Spartathlon organizing committee released the official field for this year's race. I know most ultra-running fans in the U.S. care much more about trail races (and follow stars like Geoff Roes, Karl Meltzer, Killian Jornet, etc), but the other side of ultra-running (road stuff) is waaaaaay more popular internationally. Personally I find both sides of this coin equally rewarding to both run and follow as a fan. Last month's UTMB had most of us excited to follow the superstars of mountain running, and lucky me is even more excited for the chance to line up with a field of international road ultra stars in Athens later this month!

First off, I can't wait to see what Japan's Shingo Inoue can run in relation to the legendary course record of Yiannis Kouros (an incomprehensible 20:25). For those of you who don't know Shingo, when Scott Jurek broke the American 24-Hour Record at the World Championships last year with 165+ miles, Shingo was the guy who beat him by 5 miles for the win. The guy is a machine. I can't wait to see what he does out there (or, rather, hear about how he did when I finish a few hours after him).  As always, Shingo's Japanese team leads the field in terms of total entrants with 61 runners toeing the line this year. It's no wonder they've won the 24 Hour World Championship 6 years in a row, they are a people who truly love and respect the road ultra world and its history.

I won't bore you by naming a bunch of other guys you've never heard of, but I will mention last year's winner, Ivan Cudin of Italy will be back to defend his title, and two other former champs will also be returning to the field. All told, there will be 39 countries represented, with the usual large contingents (after Japan's 62) from Germany (44), Greece (43), France (22), and Italy (18)...all countries who have produced winners in the past.

On the U.S. side, we'll be proudly lining up 8 countrymen atop the Acropolis. In addition to myself, we have two speedsters from NYC in Oz Pearlman and Michael Arnstein ready to set the roads a'blaze (both can crank out a 2:2X marathon). Oz has done some ridiculous things at the 50 mile distance (5:25 at Chicago Lakefront in '09!!), and Michael recently won the Vermont 100 in a smokin' time of 15:26. I'm not sure either guy has ever gone over 100 miles before, but they certainly have the talent to make a big splash in their debut.

While those two will certainly go out faster than me, they'll probably have some company with US 100k National Team member Chad Ricklefs. Chad has won the Leadville 100 a couple times, and finished 14th in the 100k World Championships last year. It will be great to see what he can do with his versatile talent out there.

Joining the team with some oh-so valuable 100+ mile experience and talent is Chicago's Adrian Belitu. Adrian has multiple Badwater finishes among his many other achievements, not the least of which is being a great guy too!

California is contributing two veterans to the squad as well with Rajeev Patel (many many many 100 mile finishes) and Christian Burke (100+ mile experience with a 24 Hour win under his belt). I've yet to meet these two gentlemen, but am looking forward to toasting some Ouzo with them in Sparta!

Last but not the least bit least, all-around great guy Chisholm Deupree from Oklahoma is hopping across the pond to join in the adventure as well. I've met Chisholm a couple times while running 24 hour races, and I recall his stride looking way better than mine on both occasions. The nerve of some people! Chisholm has multiple Badwater finishes, 72 Hour experience, and tons of solid 24 Hour results on his resume. I know he'll run a successful race plan to reach Sparta in style.

Sure, we might not have the most (or any!) experience as some of the other countries out on the course, but we do have some talent, and I know we'll do our best to represent the Red, White, and Blue to the best of our abilities!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

August Wrap and Volunteer Fun

Hard to believe that three weeks from today I'll be waking up in Athens and making my final preparations for the run to Sparta. Given the amazing training block I've put in over the past few weeks, I'll be ready to GO more than ever before on September 30. The month of August proved to be my most successful training month of all time by every possible measure: My most miles covered (you don't want to know), no injuries to report, no garbage miles, etc etc.. To say I'm in "fighting shape" would be an understatement. These legs are ready to dance their way to Sparta!

In other news, this past weekend I had the pleasure of running an Aid Station at the annual VHTRC race over the entire 71 mile Massanutten Trail loop. As some of you know, we simply call it: "The Ring". I've run both this Fall version as well as the winter "Reverse Ring" in the past, so I figured it was time to give back to the selfless Quatro Hubbard and Mike Bur who put on these FREE races every year. Through a network of amazingly coordinated volunteers, every runner's drop bag is moved ahead from aid station to aid station along the course, so you're never without your gear every time you pop out of the woods. For a free race, this one offers better aid that some $$ races. This year, the Moreland Gap aid station (mile 40.7) was my charge.  I had a blast over the course of afternoon/evening out there, and was pretty sad to see the last runner come through a little after 10pm...I could have stayed out there all night!

Kari Brown (seated) takes a breather on her way to the women's win (and 3rd overall!). Quatro Hubbard Photo
Hiroyuki & Yukiko Nishide (top row, center) displayed true marital support by running together the whole way! 

In the end, it was a great day to help out some fellow runners in the mountains! Quatro Hubbard Photo
Big congrats to all who toughed it out through the heat and humidity all day/night out there on the unrelenting rocks of the Massanuttens. That trail is no joke! Final results here.