Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Great Headphone Debate

If you've ever found yourself on a narrow stretch of single-track stuck behind someone who can't hear your "Excuse me!" request to pass, you know what I'm talking about...

If you've signed up for a road race only to be annoyed to later discover that headphones are banned from the race, you know what I'm talking about...

If you're Karl Meltzer, you know what I'm talking about...

Basically ever since the invention of the iPod, the debate over whether runners should be allowed to wear headphones in races has raged on and on with the most productive outcome frequently being an "agree to disagree" scenario. Lots of races flat-out ban them (including all official U.S. Track & Field Championships, the Vermont 100, and the old-school Spartathlon), while others "strongly discourage" their use (NYC Marathon), and some allow them unless you're contending for $$ (LA Marathon).

The spirited debate among runners themselves has all sides of the argument backed as well. Regardless of which side you're on, no one can argue the fact that while you're plugged in you lose some (or all, if you're a fan of loud heavy metal like I am) of your ability to hear your surroundings. In the deep woods of a mountain 100 miler, it doesn't really matter too much (unless a stalking mountain lion is suddenly cuckoo for the Cocoa Puffs you're carrying in your pack). In a race that includes lots of open road sections/intersections, or on more crowded trail races, there are obviously some valid issues that arise (safety, courtesy, etc).

Just like all major historical debates on the level of 'Coke v. Pepsi', 'Yankees v. Red Sox', and 'Edible Underwear v. Planning Ahead by Simply Packing a Sensible Snack', this one seemed certain to rage on for years...that is, until now. The good news in Headphone Wars, I'm happy to report, is technology has suddenly brought us very close to a solution!   

Before I ramble on about the actual product here, I want to be clear that I have not been given any $$, nor do I have any financial interest in the product(s) I talk about on this blog. I'm not scamming anyone, just passing on the word of a product I think can make some people happy in the ultra/running world.

Every now and then I receive a sample of some running-related product from a company looking for a free plug on this blog. 99% of the time I thank them but politely decline their request. The instances when I have actually mentioned a product I've been sent can be counted on one hand. Those vary from the super-rare "Full Endorsement" (Drymax Socks), to the "Kind of an Endorsement, but Most Likely Not What the Company had in Mind" (like when I realized my free samples of POM juice tasted way better when mixed with champagne). When I recognize a new product to have the chance to affect our sport in a major way, like Drymax, I feel the need to help spread the word.  In the case of the aforementioned Headphone Wars, I'm happy to report there's at least one company thinking outside the box and is thisclose to changing the game completely.

AURIA sent me a pair of their Exceed "earphones" a couple weeks back, and my first reaction was, "Oh great, another pair of ear buds that will fall out 3 seconds after I start running.". Then I looked a little closer, read the accompanying literature, and realized these weren't regular old ear buds at all. The folks at AURIA have designed their "earphones" to lock onto the little nubs on the outside of your ear (as opposed to just jamming them into the ear canal like normal ear buds). As far as I know, up to now these nubs have pretty much only been utilized as alternative piercing spots for teenagers who are mad at their parents:
The nubs in question
The AURIA earphones have a rubberized opening that twists around and pinches those little ear nubs locking the phones in place. It takes a minute to figure out the right technique and fit, but once you get it right you realize how much more firmly they fit than normal ear buds. The reason why this unique fitting is noteworthy is not simply because this allows the earphones to stay in place while running, but because this positioning allows there to be enough space between your ear canal and the earphone for ambient noise to be heard (e.g. a car coming from behind, someone asking to pass you). Talk about a brilliant advancement in running headphone technology. From my first steps outside I was very impressed.

Unlike normal ear buds, that part on the right doesn't actually go into your ear canal. Its rubberized rim works with the blue rubber segment on the left to pinch those outer-ear lobes and lock into place outside your ear canal.
That said, they're probably a few clicks away from having their product be 100% perfect (e.g. they can still fall out, although much less easily than normal buds, and would definitely benefit from having a "soft coil" cord like Sennheiser uses on their sport models), but the idea and initial execution of this theory is very impressive. Also worth making clear: these are the total opposite of "noise canceling" headphones. They are designed to allow ambient noise in, so if you run on busy streets you'll hear nothing but cars blowing by you. The brilliance behind these earphones is realized in trail races: They're a perfect compromise for Race Directors seeking runner safety and alertness, and runners wishing to cruise the trails with an accompanying soundtrack of their favorite music. I would think that a couple samples sent to the folks who organize the Vermont 100, for example, might convince them to grant runners an exception to wear this style of earphones in their otherwise headphone-prohibited race. A runner is most definitely aware of ambient noise/surroundings while wearing these earphones, so the question of safety is no longer an issue.

So, what's your reward for reading this far? How about a free pair of these AURIA Exceed earphones to try out for yourself? I've got my nicely re-packaged pair here (only worn once!), and will be happy to pass it along to anyone interested in running their next trail race while enjoying both the sound of their music and the music of their nature around them at the same time! First person to claim the earphones in the comment section here gets 'em.  I love the thought and design behind this product, and while they're not for me, they're definitely the first giant leap toward a solution in the Great Headphone Debate!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Badwater Crew/Pace Report!

I'm finally back in DC and have a minute to upload some photos and try to process and recall the 95 million memories and emotions that went along with this event. I'll spare you all hours of reading and just let photos and captions tell the story (it's still tremendously long, but trust me when I say I left about 50% of what I wanted to include on the editing room floor):

The long road to Badwater began two days before the race.  I met up with Team Roman members Susan Smith and Mark Ryan at the Vegas airport Saturday afternoon and we made the 2.5 hour drive into the Mohave desert from there to meet up with the rest of the crew.
We stopped off just outside of  Badwater to take in some of the beauty (and HEAT) at Zabriski Point. Mark and Susan are doing their best to not melt here. It was our first taste of the weather in Death Valley.
...How hot was it? Only 112 at that point. Saturday would turn out to be the hottest day of the trip. My run at 5pm that afternoon was in 125 degree insanity.
When we arrived at Furnace Creek (a resort and gas station is the entire civilization), we realized they had a bit of a monopoly going out there for goods/services with no other signs of life for about 40 miles in any direction.
Sunrise on Sunday. My East Coast clock woke me up at 5am for this view. The race would take us 135 miles and over two mountain ranges in this direction the next day.
I'll get to the race soon, I promise, but I was fascinated by how this resort could exist in the middle of the desert. Power comes from this massive solar panel field, and water comes from a natural hot spring. I should point out that the water from the tap comes out super-heated no matter what, so there's no such thing as a cold shower in Furnace Creek!
Loading up at breakfast later Sunday morning. Our star Chris Roman, Dan Hartley, and I model our Team Roman shirts and load up on fuel while I secretly wonder if I can steal some of Susan's fruit.
Enjoy your last day of solid food, Chris. The next couple days will be your intro to my 100% liquid racing diet!
After breakfast we made the 17 mile drive to the actual starting line of the race at "Badwater", the lowest point in the U.S. at 282 feet below sea level. As Susan (L) and Erin instantly realized, it's painfully hot down there!
Team Roman at the Badwater Sign. (L to R) Erin Roman, Mark Ryan, Chris Roman, Dan Hartley, Me, Susan Smith

Our view from the Badwater sign was of this wall of rock that reveals the "sea level" line to those with a keen eye.
We took a walk out onto the salt flat and did our best to ignore that Chris would be running in this intense heat the next morning.
The "official" Team Roman bad ass photo!
Did I forget to mention that Erin is a yoga wizard? I believe this pose is called "Dan Rose Can't Do This".
Back at Furnace Creek later that afternoon. Waiting for the Pre-Race meeting in the 5 square feet of shade we could find. Shade is your best friend out there.
The photos are about to show a lot of suffering and hard work during the race, but keep in mind we had a TON of laughs the whole time. Susan's Gucci glasses were my favorite accessory. Keep them in mind for later in this photo tour...
Race Morning! Chris poses with the van that will keep him alive for the next couple days.
Team Roman (sans Mark) at the start line ready to ROCK!
Chris said the moment he stepped up for his official weigh-in the gravity of what he was about to do really hit him. It was ON!
Chris hugs Terry Sentinella at the start. Terry was Chris's pacer at Western States last year, and amazingly enough they both find themselves lining up to run this super-selective race together one year later. Keep Terry in mind for later in the photo tour as well...
The crew work began even before the starting gun. We sprayed Chris down with ice water every chance we could to keep him cool.
A view into our life support van. It was a massive organizational challenge, but we executed it all perfectly the whole time. Our other van would drive off to find ice and other supplies when needed. In the end, we went through 400lbs of ice to keep Chris alive. That's a LOT of ice!!
The 10:00 a.m. elite field ready to run!
There's some serious world-elite level talent in this line!
...and they're off! The eventual winner, Oswaldo Lopez (#2) is on the right. (Photo by AdventureCorps)
We drove up 3 miles for the first three crew stops, after that it was 2 miles at a time to keep Chris's bottle full and body iced/sprayed.
First Chris sighting!
I told Chris I would stop him if he ran any early section faster than 9 min pace. I wasn't kidding. He had to serve a 90 second penalty here. I know stopping was the last thing he wanted to do here, but a controlled early pace is key for survival, and I wasn't fooling around! This may be the most important photo of this whole story. He found his 9 min groove right after this and ran a brilliant race.
At each stop we would mix Chris's bottles, prepare his ice bandana, prime the sprayer, fill a cup of ice to go in his hat, and then try to find some shade to wait in. I should point out we didn't run the A/C for a single second during the whole race. We acclimated by keeping ourselves watered and in the shade as much as possible too. We were one tough crew!
...Tough, but still fun as heck. We laughed so much I was so easy to forget how hard we were working out there.
Our view for much of the first day. Just impossibly long, impossibly hot stretches of pavement for Chris to cover on his two feet.
Erin was such an excellent crew chief. It can't be easy to be the wife of the runner and have that emotional element to handle as well while Chris suffered during the race, but she was amazing the whole time. I, on the other hand, just treated Chris like a machine. He drank what I gave him, and kept running when it was time to run. He was a good robot!
Couldn't pass up climbing atop this cool rock when we randomly stopped next to it early on. I should point out the wind was blowing HARD here, and we were all happy when I made it back down without needing to call the race medics.
Check Point #1 at Mile 17 (Furnace Creek). This interchange was captured in its entirety on the official race video because it was such a great example of the whole team working as one. Mark has the ice cup for Chris's hat on the left, Erin is swapping out his bottle and holding his new ice bandana for his neck, Dan H. is spraying him as he walks and I'm behind him relaying his split time and ready to start running. This point marked the beginning of where we could run along with Chris, and he was never alone on the road from here on out. (Photo by AdventureCORPS)
You can almost see the stifling heat in this photo as Chris makes his way to the second check point at Stovepipe Wells (Mile 41).
The sights along the course started to vary a bit at this point. Mark poses in front of the beautiful dunes around mile 35.
Loved my ice bandana set up. Perfect for surviving the days intense sun while pacing Chris. Relief would come soon though...
The Climb from Stovepipe up Townes Pass (5000 ft) was endless (18 miles) and doubly hard with  a 25 mph headwind, but at least the sun went down!!
Erin puts out our "green lantern" to help Chris differentiate between all the other vans while running at night...
Even as a pacer I really appreciated seeing the little green ring glowing from the distance (I swear we could see it from a mile out!).
This was the view for many hours as Chris ran well through the night and caught many of the runners in front of him. The pacing and fueling plans were both starting to pay off brilliantly as many runners were pulling off the course to collapse, sleep, vomit, etc..  Chris just kept on churning out the miles without any stomach issues at all.
We liked it when Mark hopped out to pace for a few miles. His vest was the only one like it out there, so we could see them from a mile out just like they could see our lamp. The night is much less lonely when you have visual aids like this!
Pacer Dan also appreciated the work everyone else did with Chris on the long climb up to Townes Pass. I got a nice break from running and downed about 10 of these yummy Nutella & tortilla rolls Susan made for us. Sure, I thought they were BBQ sauce rolls when I saw them in the bag, but the Nutella turned out to be a much better filling!
Erin uses the rolling stick on her sore legs after going for her first run in a year (knee surgery). We thought the section we sent her out on would be all walking up the mountain, but when the surprising downhill section appeared, she was game and ran it all with Chris. Like I said, she handled everything thrown at her in this race amazingly well. I should also point out her shoes, shirt, vest, and water bottle all match here. I would normally think that was just a coincidence, but E was so impressive the whole time, it wouldn't surprise me if this "nighttime outfit" was planned!
...I, on the other hand, just put my duct-taped shoes out the window and let the Nutella run down my shirt while I pigged out!
After a great night of running hard for Chris, the Sun Beast awoke again for another battle.
Day two brought out lots of math problems to solve as I started to figure out how hard we had to push Chris the rest of the way.
At Darwin (Mile 90), Chris was telling me what splits he needed to run to get a sub 24-hour 100 mile time. With my brain focused entirely on his 135 mile time, it took me a while to figure out that he wasn't rambling on with gibberish, but actually making perfect sense. He was about to nail a great 100 mile split!
The ONLY marking on the road the entire course. Definitely done illegally, but who's going to notice in the desert? Chris rolled through a nice mental boost when he crossed the 100 mile mark in 22:40. The fact that he was still moving great meant he was on the brink of running a special 135 mile time too.
...but first, we had to get 22 more miles to Lone Pine (and then the brutal 13 mile climb up Mt Whitney)
Dan H. waiting with the was getting hot again on this long dry stretch into Lone Pine. I should also mention the horseflies were relentless!
Green grass, snow-capped peaks...we must be getting close to Lone Pine!
Mark watches for us to approach the turn to the Whitney Portal Road. I was most impressed with the effort Chris gave me on the final 8 mile stretch in to this point in Lone Pine. If I said "Run to that 1/10 mile marker", he would run to it and then past 1 or 2 more after it. He truly emptied the tank on this section, and it was impressive to watch.
Waiting for the crosswalk on the only street crossing in the whole race. I'll quietly point out that we J-walked when the street was clear. I mean really, this IS a race after all!
From Lone Pine, this is what remains: 13 miles (and 5,000 ft of climb) to the finish up Mt. Whitney! Possibly the hardest end to any race ever!
Mark and I posing in front of some cool rock piles. Just like everyone else in the crew, I had never really met Mark before this race, but we were all best friends by this point. Everyone put their own comfort and needs aside for the good of the crew and Chris's race. Talk about a great job Chris did filling out his Team!
Of course, maybe we all worked so hard because these tough ladies kept us in line! Erin and Susan are definitely kick-a$$ babes!!
Since we're rolling out the compliments here, let's not forget how awesome our van was! We even kept it clean and organized the whole time too. Bottle refills, ice bandana assembly lines, etc etc etc, were all quick and efficient thanks to how well we organized this mobile Life Support unit!

With the end so close, I figured it was all a celebratory walk up the mountain from here. The "victory" glasses even came back out too!
...but the next time we saw Chris, he was starting to really hurt. Susan marched on with him here, trying to distract him from the view ahead that reveals exactly how high he still has to climb...
 The aid stops were shortened to every mile at this point. We swapped out pacers and did everything we could to help out our suffering warrior!
Susan and Mark really wish they could take some of his pain's tough to watch someone hurting so badly!
The spraying continued to help combat the hot, dry air...
Erin took over to try and keep him distracted from the pain...
Mark kept the iced bottles full and ready to hand off every mile...
"...don't stop, Chris, we'll tend to you on the fly...Just keep moving forward!!"
I was deploying every trick I had left, but the reality was Chris just had to keep his iron will intact to make it up the steep mountain switchbacks just 3 miles from the finish.
How steep? That steep. The portal road started down where the long snaking road meets up with the green trees in the upper right corner.
Susan waits nervously around the switchback corner...just two miles to go from here!
Erin hopped in to share the final 1.5 mile of this journey with her husband. He was probably in too much pain to appreciate it at the time, but this was a beautiful end to a multi-year journey for them. It takes innumerable sacrifices for a family to even reach the starting line of this race, and for him to finish such an excellent race with his wife by his side, well that was pretty emotional to see!!
...just a few minutes before Chris, his friend Terry (who you  recall from the hug photo at the start) rounded the corner with his team. Amazingly enough, these two friends finished this grueling race in back-to-back places! Congrats Terry!
We all hopped in with just 100 yds to go. Elation was now overtaking some of the pain as Chris saw the finish line.
I'll never be able to look at this picture without getting chills. He did it. We did it. Amazing.  This photo is a perfect summary of how Chris rocked his amazing 16th place finish in 32 hours and 27 mins. This success was the true definition of a Team Effort: (L to R) Mark Ryan, Dan Hartley, Susan Smith, some dude named Chris Roman, Erin Roman, and yours truly, all working together toward one goal. Mission Accomplished!!

Erin made this banner, and we were all honored to stand behind it as members of Team Roman!
Chris and Terry show off their buckles and Official Finisher shirts the day after back in Lone Pine. Nice work, boys!!
Back in Vegas we joined up with Tony Portera (second up on left) and his crew/family for a celebratory dinner. Tony rocked a sweet 39 hour finish himself, so there was reason to celebrate all around!
Somebody's happy!! Congratulations, my friend!! You nailed it! I couldn't be more proud!
Even walking down the crowded strip in Vegas, we stuck together and had nothing but fun as a crew. Running Badwater is an impossible task to undertake without a selfless crew, and Chris did a brilliant job assembling his. The five of us took on the daunting challenge of keeping a man alive while he ran 135 miles across the desert and actually made it fun. The 3,234 inside jokes (Thanks, Stupid!) and dozens of photos we didn't take certainly prove that fact. I don't think I'll ever see a white mini-van on the side of the road again and not have a smile immediately sweep across my face. Erin, Susan, Mark, and Dan...Thank you for the amazing ride!