Archive for October, 2007

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#36 – Running with the (Dog) Pack

23 October 2007

My favorite race of the year is Bailey’s Doggie Dash 5K, a cross-country run for owners and their dogs to benefit the Kent County Parks Foundation. It’s not a large race, usually drawing around 50 participants, but it’s very well organized and one of the best races around where you can run with your dog.

Haven and I first ran the Doggie Dash in 2005 as my first ever organized running event since high school. That year we finished 10th overall in 24:39 and won my age group by virtue of being the only one in my age group (after they pulled out the overall winner, who had tied the course record in 18:17). In 2006 we improved to 5th overall, dropping nearly two minutes off our time with a 22:42 finish and winning the age group, this time a “large” group of four runners. How would Haven and I fare this year?

Just last week I set a post-high-school 5K PR of 20:56 in the Harvest Hustle so I knew I was better prepared to keep up with Haven in this year’s Doggie Dash. But I also had a plan to use canicross tactics – rather than hold Haven’s leash in my hand, I instead tied it to a belt around my waist so Haven could help pull me along. Haven and I trained in this setup for a few weeks before the race to make sure we both felt comfortable. I learned that it was necessary to have some form of shock absorption so I clamped an automobile tie-down bungee between Haven’s harness and the leash – it worked like a dream.

Saturday morning arrived bringing perfect weather – mid 40’s, clear blue sky, and near-peak fall colors that yielded some stunning photos by Amanda. The Doggie Dash sports a Halloween theme with a dog costume contest judged by the local weatherman and registration SWAG handed out in trick-or-treat jack-o-lanterns.

I think Haven remembers previous races – when everyone began lining up for the start this year one guy took off on a warm-up jog and Haven must’ve thought the race had begun. Haven started screaming in anticipation as I tried to calm her down – it was so cute and she was getting lots of smiles from the crowd.

At last it was “Ready, set, GO!” and we were off! The race director pedaled a mountain bike ahead of the lead runner to give his dog something to chase, a very keen idea. Haven bolted full steam ahead and we quickly settled into fifth position. One of the most difficult sections of the course was the beginning because it was downhill and paved – with Haven full of energy dragging me downhill, it was all my legs could do to simply not let me fall flat on my face! My feet and legs took quite a pounding right off the bat.

Next we slogged through a scenic wide-open lawn that was saturated with water and then up a short road to a wooded picnic area. Just before reaching the one-mile marker Haven and I passed two racers who were fading after a quick start. 20 yards ahead was a guy who looked way faster than me but I sped up a bit to keep close to him so that Haven would have someone to chase.

She loved it, almost too much! Whenever we rounded a bend Haven tried to cut the corner inside the course flags – she wanted to intercept the runner we were chasing. I repeatedly had to remind Haven to follow the rules but she didn’t want to hear it. 🙂 Every turn we’d lose 5-10 feet on the guy ahead of us since I’d have slow up to pull Haven outside the marker flags, but then we’d hustle to regain the lost ground.

At the 1 mile mark I was shocked to see 6:20 on my watch! Haven was definitely doing her part and it was fun to still have the leader in sight although I knew it wouldn’t last. Down a slight hill the course turned off into a wooded section of singletrack for a 1/4 mile before heading out and around the beach playground. Here Haven kept trying to stop for a drink in the large puddles of water pooling in the sand. I obliged her at one of them and she tried to lie down in the water to cool off! Sorry Haven but we have to finish the race first!

After the beach we ran along a dirt road and then onto a paved loop that carried us through the park’s campground. We were still close to the #2 runner at the 2 mile mark – our second mile was run at a 6:30 pace! I was getting pretty excited but I also knew that one or both of us were going to hit the wall soon.

It wound up being Haven; shortly after the second mile we started losing contact with the guy ahead of us as Haven no longer had the energy to pull my weight. Running is hard when my dog isn’t helping! Haven and I ran side-by-side for the next half mile as her leash was now slack – she was just trotting but I was trying to run as hard as I could. Dogs were born to run; humans, not so much. 🙂

With about half a mile to go as we approached a long hill Haven began to fall behind. Going up the hill we reversed roles as I found myself trying to pull Haven along! I tried yelling “RABBITS!!” to her, a word that usually gets her all spooled up (she LOVES to chase rabbits) but she was to tired to care. Finally at the top of the hill we had just a 1/4 mile to go and I still couldn’t get her to pull even with me.

Even though I knew we were losing time quickly, this wasn’t my race – Haven was every bit a part of this effort and it wouldn’t be fair to speed up and drag her to the finish. I did keep the pace fast enough to maintain some tension – I figured I might as well help her out a bit without pulling so hard as to bunch the harness up around her head.

Finally in the last 100 yard grassy home stretch I tried another “RABBITS!!” but Haven was done, so we maintained our pace to the finish for a very satisfying 3rd place overall. Better yet was our time: 20:17! That was the second-fastest 5K I’ve ever run in my life, even though I had some help. My high school PR was 20:08 and my next-best teenage run was 21:13. Haven is my hero!

Seriously, Haven was the hardest-working dog at the race. Both runners who finished ahead of us had humans that were much more fit than I am while their greyhound-mix dogs were running alongside on a slack leash; i.e. the guys who beat us did so without the canine assistance that I needed. Some other dogs behind us were certainly pulling their owners, but at 195 pounds I was probably the heaviest human cargo to be mushed by any dog. Those greyhounds couldn’t have outrun Haven if I was dragging them down!

Post-race food was great – bagels, cookies, candy and cider for the humans and water and doggie biscuits for the canines. Naturally Haven got to eat first before I took a crack at the goodies as we watched the rest of the field finish with the song “Who Let the Dogs Out” blaring on repeat over the loudspeakers.

After everyone finished we were treated to a demonstration of frisbee dogs by Pawsitive Vybe‘s professional dog trainers Apryl Lea and Ron Sutton.  Spectacular show!  Six dogs (IIRC) displayed their talents and some of them were insanely good leapers and blazing runners.

Following the frisbee demo was the awards ceremony.  Some very nice handmade dog beds were raffled off and for the third year in a row, I didn’t win one.  One guy that did win a bed and a free pair of shoes was Ron Durham who drove all the way from the east side of Michigan.  The reason I mention Ron is because he adopted his golden retriever Kasey thanks to reading my blog!

Despite our 3rd place overall finish Haven and I wound up taking 2nd in my age group as the guy we’d been chasing for two miles is in my bracket.  In fact the overall winner Joel Bierling – who also won in 2005 and 2006 – is in my age group, too.  Men 30-35 were representin’ at the Doggie Dash!

There was no way I could’ve caught either of those fast runners, but in retrospect I probably could’ve helped Haven and I get a faster time if I’d managed Haven’s workload more effectively.  For the first mile there was nothing I could do but hang on for the ride, but mile 1.5 through 2.0 I should’ve quickened my pace a tad to ease the drag on Haven; that way she may have sustained her energy long enough to keep the both of us on the tail of the #2 finisher for another half mile until finally running the last half mile with a slack leash and not having to pull her.

Nevertheless, we ran an awesome race, had a ton of fun, and we’re already looking forward to the 2008 Doggie Dash!

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#35 – Winter is Near at the Harvest Hustle 5K

19 October 2007

Saturday, October 13 was a crisp morning, perfect for the upcoming Harvest Celebration in downtown Lowell. The opening act for the event was the Harvest Hustle 5K and I was signed up to race. 2007 was the 3rd annual running of the 5K and given that the course goes right past my house, I had to take part! Ironically I was completely unaware of the race for its first year, and last year I finally learned of it just two days prior so I merely spectated.

Complications began even before race day – Amanda was going to need our only car to volunteer with Vicky’s Pet Connection to assist at a Feral Cat Trap-In so I had to walk to the race! No big problem since the start was just a half mile away; in fact I jogged there to warm up. I did have to wear pants and a jacket in the chilly 40-degree air, which I left in my SWAG bag under a volunteer’s watchful eye at the registration area. Thanks!

While picking up my race bib I ran into Roger Bonga, a fellow Lowell resident but a much faster one – he’s a talented triathlete that I’ve seen at several 5Ks this year. He jokingly asked me if I was prepared to win; being a small race I was wondering if I could win my age group but as I would later find out, speedy Roger is in my age group… Doh!

By the time we started my hands were already painfully cold, but the rest of me felt pretty loose. The race begins with a half-mile straightaway due east into the rising sun before turning north to head up a steep, 80-foot-elevation hill. How cruel! But how fun, too. I passed three on the hill, the same hill I’ve run repeats on in the past for training. As I crest the hill I’m shocked to see Amanda standing at the corner with a camera! I guess she decided to be a bit late to volunteer so she could take a photo; I obliged her with a smiling wave.

West down the backside of the hill, which isn’t as steep, we then turn north for another long stretch through the old neighborhood of downtown Lowell. My hands were going numb already, but at least my brain and my legs were working. I realized that we were well past a mile – there weren’t any mile markers in this race – and I had no idea how fast I was going. At the end of the north-bound stretch is a small dirt road cul-de-sac for a turn-around. I spotted Roger solidly in third place; I was somewhere around the top 10.

Near this turn-around I was passed by a very young teenager and another guy about my age, and I could hear the breath and footsteps of a woman right on my tail. Heading south now I recalled on the course map that we should be turning west into a cemetery. The two ahead of me run straight, and I ask the lady if we’re supposed to turn. She confidently states that we should continue straight ahead and I figure she’s right; after all, who routes a road race through a cemetery when a neighborhood street runs right alongside?

Back at the next cross street the two ahead of me turn east, but by this point I know that we should be going west. I yell out to those two that they’re going the wrong way and they join the lady and me going the correct direction. I noticed that the volunteers who had been at that intersection directing runners on the way out had since disappeared. Later I learned that one runner went the wrong way and turned his 5K into a 4-miler… no fun.

The teenager, the guy, and the lady all decide it’s time to leave me in their wake. I still had no clue what pace we were holding but I was definitely feeling tired; I had to be close to max speed. The threesome had gained about 20 feet on me as we turned south onto the final long stretch, another half-mile street going due south. There was one more turn to the east but the finish line I knew had to be less than 100 feet after that turn, so finally I knew that there was just half a mile left to go.

I decided to push my luck early; usually I put in a strong finishing kick over the last 200 yards but this time I accelerated with the half mile yet to go and just hoped that I wouldn’t flame out. Within 100 yards I had regained the 20 feet to the threesome; once I pulled even I actually sprinted a bit to put some distance on them in the hopes that I would demoralize them rather than inspire them to hang with me!

Apparently my tactic worked – the sound of their footsteps faded and I was still feeling strong enough for a little kick to the finish. Just before hitting the intersection I went all out and leaned into the turn. Facing the finish line clock I was shocked to see the first two digits read “20”… no way! My previous PR was 21:07 back in March. Reflexively I sprinted the last 20 yards, glancing at the clock to confirm a new personal best of 20:56!!!

The lady finished a few seconds behind me as the first overall female, so I didn’t get “chicked” by anyone this time. When I saw her later walking a cute golden retriever, I went over to say hi to both of them and chatted for a bit. I told Tammy (the woman) and Gracie (the dog) about my plans for running the Bailey’s Doggie Dash 5K on October 20th with my dog Haven, and Tammy sounded quite interested so hopefully I can introduce Haven to Gracie this weekend. 🙂

Post-race food hit the spot: poppyseed muffins and apple cider. After hanging around to watch the rest of the runners and walkers finish, the organizers still hadn’t posted results. A volunteer informed me that they wouldn’t be posting results until later in the week on their website, but I wanted to at least confirm that I’d just run a PR. She agreed to check my time and confirmed the 20:56, but was very secretive about the results sheets, making me turn away while she looked them over. Weird.

Nevertheless, I had just run a PR despite not knowing my splits and having to conquer a big hill on the course. My other 5Ks this year have all been flatter, yet I ran this one the fastest! I’m just happy to have finally arrived under the 21-minute barrier.

The race was definitely fun – the local setting had some huge appeal, yet the organization left a lot to be desired. First, we started from inside the finishing chute, unnecessarily compressing the field. The roads weren’t closed to traffic, which was fine since nobody was out driving, yet a few runners and I did have to dodge a volunteer driving a gator cart driving in the middle of the street! Come on.

Of course the worst was that there were no volunteers directing traffic at several critical turns. Luckily even though most of the field (including myself) ran around instead of through the cemetery, the distance and terrain were the same so it made no difference. However, one runner missed another un-staffed turn and it wound up costing him an age group win.

After all of the participants had finished, it was another 30 minutes before the overall and age group winners were announced. How could it take them so long in a race with just 50 runners of widely-varying ability? They should’ve been able to post results in real-time as we finished. This race doesn’t use timing chips and has no need to, but I’ve run other races without chips that were scored quickly and easily.

I’ll certainly be back next year; I can’t pass up a race that runs past my house! Hopefully the organizers will work out their kinks and not continue to make rookie mistakes in the fourth running of the race. Once the brief ceremonies were over I had to jog back home, including running up that dang hill again! My legs were pretty beat by the time I staggered up my driveway, but I wasn’t done.

You see, I had to go join Amanda to help volunteer at the Trap-In. She had the car, which means I had to ride my bicycle on race-weary legs! It was brutal. 11 miles into a strong headwind the entire way. To make matters worse I forgot to check my tires and three miles into the ride I decided to add some pressure since the air was pretty low. My stupid portable bike pump broke and let all the air out instead! I had to force the pump onto the valve (it wouldn’t lock and seal) and manhandle some air back into the tires, which ended up being softer than before. A ride that would normally take me 45 minutes at a comfortable pace lasted over an hour. But I made it safe and sound, we raised lots of money for dogs and cats, and I was able to ride in the car at the end of the day.

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#34 – 2007 Chicago Marathon: A 16-Mile Disaster

12 October 2007

End of the Road at the 2007 Chicago Marathon

Photo: Princess Runner

A marathon is supposed to be 26.2 miles, yet some 6,500 runners at the 2007 Chicago Marathon were forced to end their “marathon” after 16 miles. Officially the race was canceled due to record-high heat but reading between the lines, it appears that the race director called off the event due to poor planning by the organizers. Sadly, this is not the first time that the Chicago Marathon has suffered an embarrassing mistake that jeopardized the health of its runners.

In the 2006 race, winner Robert Cheruiyot slipped as he crossed the finish line, losing his footing on a slick-surfaced sponsor logo placed on the road in front of the finish. Cheruiyot hit his head hard and was taken to the hospital; thankfully his injuries were not very serious. Why in the world would any race director allow such an obvious risk, especially given the wet conditions of that year’s race? 45,000 runners had signed up to attempt crossing that finish line and I find it appalling that safety was not a higher priority than the shininess of a sponsor’s logo. The logo was quickly removed and I’m not aware of any other runners who fell at the finish that year.

Sadly that lack of planning in 2006 did not motivate the organizers to be any more proactive when planning for 2007. The possibility of record heat was known to forecasters at least two weeks in advance and it should’ve been a contingency scenario from the outset – one of the few things a race director cannot control is the weather.

Many runners, aware of the heat, chose to not even start and save their efforts for a better day. According to MarathonGuide.com, there were “48,165 registered, 35,798 starters, 35,300 runners with a 10K split, 25,989 definitive finishers.” What really shocked me was MarathonGuide’s tally of the non-finishers: “1,000 runners who did not finish due to normal attrition, 6,500 runners who were removed from the course by race officials”. 6,500 runners forced to abandon! That’s 18% of all starters who were forced to cut short their dreams of finishing a marathon through no fault of their own.

I’ve been following the blog of Princess Runner as she trained for her goal to run her first marathon. After setting her sights on Chicago 2007, she was one of those unlucky 6,500. She wrote about her frustrating experience, including: “The reality of what was happening suddenly hit me like a sledgehammer. I was not going to finish the marathon. I could do it, but the race officials were not going to let me.” How devastating.

Her brother, Shore Turtle, also ran the marathon and was able to finish – he posted a respectable 4:13 – but had to endure seeing the letters “CXL” replacing the numbers on the race clock during the last mile. Many commenters on MarathonGuide.com related similar stories and sentiments about the 2007 race.

What really angers me about the decision to cancel the race for those who didn’t reach halfway fast enough is that the Chicago Marathon caters in particular to that demographic of novice runners. I researched the results of dozens of marathons using MarathonGuide.com and found that the Chicago Marathon has the slowest average finishing time (4:35 in 2006, 5:02 in 2007) of any marathon I checked. With 45,000 registrants Chicago is one of the largest marathons in the world, but also one of the slowest.

If record-high temperatures are combined with thousands of inexperienced runners, you had better expect a sharp increase in both water consumption and medical emergencies. Indeed, runners are responsible for their own preparation and I do find it annoying that so many folks allow themselves to get in over their head, but I was once one of those runners. I ran the 2005 Grand Rapids Marathon and was forced to walk almost 10 miles due to cramping caused by insufficient training. However, I was aware of my safety limits and the race organizers were well prepared for runners like me just in case I pushed myself too far. After all, even the elite runners can push a little too hard sometimes.

Ironically, the Chicago Marathon also caters to the elites thanks to a large prize purse as well as being part of the World Marathon Majors series. Yet as Robert Cheruiyot can attest in 2006, Chicago has not been fully prepared to protect their safety. Fortunately nobody tried to blame Cheruiyot for losing his balance, but in 2007 race officials pointed their fingers at the novice runners that they’ve courted for years. Sponsor LaSalle Bank’s vice president inexplicably claimed that “planners did not anticipate runners would use drinking water to cool themselves” by pouring it on their heads. Oh really? At the 2007 Riverbank Run I watched aid station volunteers frequently use cups of water to treat runners with a refreshing “shower” despite a high temperature of just 67 degrees. Nobody planning for the Chicago Marathon could’ve thought of that?

Given how things have gone in 2006 and 2007, one wonders just how much planning takes place for such a premier event. Apparently not much – see this quote about the debacle from Chicago Marathon race director Carey Pinkowski: “Probably we should have been a little more proactive about that.” No kidding. FYI, 2008 is just 12 months away…

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#33 – Run Races

8 October 2007

Finish of the 2007 Chicago Marathon

Photo from Wikipedia

The finish of the 2007 Chicago Marathon was absolutely THRILLING – here’s a video of those two runners sprinting for the finish. Ivuti wound up winning the race over Gharib by a scant fraction of a second. Can you imagine running your heart out for 26.2 miles and then having to sprint the last 1/4 mile? Wow. I love to finish races like this, by kicking hard for a short final stretch to nip somebody at the line, even though I’m never a contender for any placing.

Racing is fun. After all of my races – whether it’s a 5K or 50-miler – my mood is elevated for at least the rest of the day. I can’t explain why, but there’s something exciting about being part of a race and not just going for a run. Maybe that seems superficial, but for me it works.

Next up on my calendar is the Harvest Hustle 5K in my hometown; in fact the race course passes within a couple hundred feet of my house! The steep hill up which I sometimes run repeats is part of the opening mile of this race so it’s going to be a painful couple miles after making the climb.

Just a week later my dog Haven will be joining me for the Bailey’s Doggie Dash 5K, a race that I’ve run the two previous years. It’s always one of my favorites, if not my very favorite race. It’s such a treat to run a race with my most frequent training partner as well as meeting lots of other furry friends and their owners. Usually it’s a very scenic time of year but this year’s drought has stressed the trees into dropping their leaves early, so it might not be as pretty as in previous races.

Those aren’t the only two races left on my calendar for this year, but I still haven’t decided what else to run. Know of a fun event in Michigan?