Archive for the ‘races’ Category

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#56 – Spectating at the Riverbank Run

16 May 2008

While walking to the start we were attacked by “Le Grande Fisch”!

After learning the hard way that I was not quite in shape for a long distance race, I grudgingly elected to skip the the 2008 Riverbank Run. I still didn’t want to miss out on the fun of west Michigan’s biggest race – and the 25K national championship – so Amanda and I drove downtown to be spectators.

It’s been a busy week… Usually I like to write comprehensive recaps on this blog but it’s been almost a week since Riverbank already, so in the interest of expediency I’ll make this one a tale told in photos (with captions).

A few hundred of the 13,000 total participants at the Riverbank Run. Here is the middle pack of the 5K just after the race start.

A group of US Marines double-timed the 5K – these guys were awesome! For the entire run they stayed in formation, chanted non-stop, and the guy you can barely see on the far left holding a flag up high would run circles around the formation; he must’ve run a 10K at that rate! The girl in the foreground must be imitating a penguin?

Another impressive 5K runner was Crash, the field mascot for the West Michigan Whitecaps single-A baseball team, who ran the 3.1 miles in full costume!

Brian Kobi of neighboring Comstock Park cruises to a 2nd place finish in the hand cycle division of the 25K.

Both of the above two photos show Jeff Fischer (front) and Alfonso Zaragoza (rear) fighting wheel-to-wheel as they head for the finish of the 25K wheelchair division. Zaragoza would cross the line just one second ahead of Fischer – exciting!

Olympian Brian Sell shows that winning isn’t easy as he blazes to a 1:15:07 finish to win the 25K national title. He was so fast that my camera’s auto focus missed its target! Sell finished third at the USA Olympic Marathon Trials and will compete at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Fernando Cabada, 2006 Riverbank Run winner in an American-record time of 1:14:21, finished 4th overall in 2008 in 1:17:01, but he sure makes it look easy!

Todd Snyder (#42) and Mike Morgan (#38 ) push their way to finishing 5th and 6th overall, respectively. They are two of several runners, including Brian Sell, who represented the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project in fine style. Back in high school I ran cross country and track against Snyder, who attended our cross-town rival. It really wasn’t much of a race – he was clocking sub-16:00 5Ks in CC while I never broke 20:00. Congrats Todd!

Local speedster Kyle Baker (#6) lives right here in Grand Rapids and impressively finished 21st in 1:23:05, but wasn’t able to catch that guy ahead of him – Jonathan Eckberg (#137) crossed the line two seconds faster.

Caroline Cheprkorir remains focused enroute to winning the women’s 25K in 1:29:32. She needed help to stay upright after crossing the line, but she sure doesn’t look that tired here!

Paige Higgins still striding in great form and would finish 3rd in 1:30:49. I should note that all of the elite runner photos starting with Brian Sell were taken on a bridge over the Grand River at the Mile 15 mark, putting these runners a half mile from the finish line.

The squirrel with a death wish – this “nut” case (ha ha!) kept darting across the course on the bridge and TWICE played chicken with two oncoming hand cycle racers! Those guys were very close to turning that squirrel into roadkill – thankfully they took it in good spirits and the spectators a good laugh, too.

After the Mile 15 bride, Amanda and I walked over to the Mile 14 aid station pictured above. We were joined by Michelle Brunken, one of my co-workers who hung out with us on the bridge after she finished running the 10K. Notice the pep band, which would play UM or MSU fight songs whenever they spotted a runner wearing that school’s colors.

Another friend from work, Perry Cheathem (wearing black), cruises through the aid station. Although I tried to spot several friends it was difficult to recognize folks in time to snap a photo, and in fact I missed some of them altogether. Lance Brown, Dave Horne, Lori Gaier and Francine Robinson were spotted but too late for the camera, and I never saw Brian Cunningham, Rich Diefenbach, Erika Kuhnle and Valerie Vander Berg – all of them finished with great times, too!

Another acquaintance I was able to photograph was Don Kern, although I didn’t realize until looking at the photo that Dick Wolters, a co-worker of mine, was running alongside!

It was a great day for a fun race, and hopefully next year my legs will be ready to run it!

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#55 – Learning Lessons at the Striders Classic

29 April 2008

Start of the Striders Classic. I don’t know what’s up with guys putting hands on their butts!

It was a year in the waiting but I finally got to run the Striders Classic 10 mile road race. Last year I was signed up to run but wisely decided to withdraw due to a minor achilles injury. Ironically I’m currently recovering from a different injury, to my right hamstring, but it’s healed enough that I could handle a 10 mile training run.

The plan was to simply have fun and take it easy. Wednesday before the race I tested the hamstring on the treadmill and was happy to see that a 9:00 pace didn’t bother it. In fact, I even pushed it up to 8:00 for a while and then even 7:00 for half a mile, and the hammy was OK. After the 4 miles on the treadmill my hamstring was clearly fatigued, but not sore. So far so good.

In retrospect, however, that was problem number one – it had been a couple months since my legs were tested above an 8:30 pace and days before a 10-miler is no time for that. Live and learn, and learn I did…

Striders has a great reputation for well-organized, no-frills races that attract some quality runners and the 2008 Classic was no exception. Just $20 gets you signed up and when I arrived Saturday morning for registration all I received was a bib number and a polo shirt. Simply perfect! No plastic bag full of useless SWAG like sample packets of body lube, cheap water bottle designs from the 1980’s, hair scrunchies, toothbrushes, yucky-smelling lip balm, and countless tri-folds advertising races I have no intention of running… You get the idea. Yes, those are all examples of actual SWAG rotting (slowly) in the nearest landfill.

After relaxing for a while I headed into the high school restroom and when I emerged, the hallways were empty! It was still five minutes before the 8:00am start time, yet somehow all 262 runners disappeared to the start line within moments. I joined them and heard Steve Webster giving out instructions via bullhorn when I noticed that my bib was pinned crookedly (or “katty-wompus” as some would say) so I removed all four pins to straighten it out…

“30 seconds!!” yelled Steve. What?! It was 7:57 – I guess Striders doesn’t wait around. Hurriedly I fumbled to get my bib pinned back on and finally clipped the last safety pin (after bending it twice in my haste) when the race started. Unfortunately my bib was even more katty-wompus than before, but oh well – time to run!

Mile 1 of the Striders Classic.

My plan had been to start at a 10:00 pace and gradually speed up for a negative split, ideally finishing in 1:30-1:45. I was so busy taking a photo at the 1-mile marker that I forgot to check my time, but at two miles my time was just under 18:00 and that included 30-60 seconds stopped while taking a few photos. Dang, I was going too fast…

And I was thirsty already. That morning I forgot my water bottle that I usually drink from during the drive to the race. Just two miles into the race and I’ve already made four mistakes! Trained too hard on the treadmill, rushed at the start line, early pace too fast, and now already dehydrating!

Running past a farm where the cows wanted to race!

I consciously slowed down and when I reached the aid station I walked while drinking the water – to this day I still can’t drink from a cup while running without choking. Cruising along I often stopped to take more photos of the countryside but sadly many of them came out blurry. One of the blurred ones was this cute calf that was trying to race us, running through his paddock while being chased by his mom cow! Don’t know what got into the little guy but it sure was funny.

The “big” hill of the 10-mile course.

The course is advertised as being hilly but really it’s not that bad – just a rolling country road with one sorta large double-peaked hill. Finally I hit the turn-around of this out-and-back course in 46 minutes, just over a 9:00 pace. Definitely too fast as I hadn’t had a training run above that pace since injuring my hamstring in October. Mistake #5 – not realizing that when I meant to slow down, that I hadn’t slowed down.

Despite finally easing off the pace at mile five, it all caught up to me at six miles. I felt like crap – not bonky, but just tired. At the aid station I grabbed two large cups of water and walked for the next five minutes while drinking them. After putzing along for a while I decided to get back up to speed (if you can call a 10:00 pace “speed”) and definitely felt better.

With 2.5 miles to go I upped the pace a bit and still feeling good with two miles left, I nudged the throttle again. Around here is when I passed Lori Gaier – a softball teammate who was running her first ever 10 mile distance! She was just behind me until passing at mile 6, chiding me for walking by asking if my camera’s memory card was full and I couldn’t run anymore. 🙂 When I passed her at mile 8, she complained “I can’t believe you were walking and you’re still going to beat me!”

Lori finishes her first 10 miler! Congrats!

I managed to hold a 9:00 for the last two miles to finish in an official time of 1:35:37 – not bad considering all of my mistakes. Did I mention that Striders likes to keep it simple? There was no chip timing, instead just a volunteer ripping the tag off of my bib to record my placing in old-school fashion. Pretty cool, although it cost me 13 seconds due to starting at the back of the field. I guess that’s what you can call a “bib pinning penalty”!

That field was full of fast runners. The winner came home in under 55 minutes with 25 runners – almost 10% of the field – finishing in better than 1:05. The winners all got some cool prizes – no medals, but sweatshirts, gift certificates to Striders, and coffee mugs. Then another few dozen sweatshirts and gift certificate were raffled off in a random drawing of bib numbers. Someday, I swear, I will win a door prize at a race!

After the race I spent some time chatting with some of my co-workers who took part in the event: photogenic Dave Horne, Perry Cheathem, and Mike Mast. Our company is big enough that I don’t actually work with these guys, but thanks to running and/or softball I’ve had the chance to get to know them. I think I’ve met as many co-workers through those two sports as I have through the various programs I’ve worked on!

Telling my dad about the day he started laughing at all of my misfortunes and even teased me by asking if I’d ever run before. Truth is, though, I’ll never run a race where I don’t learn something. This is one of my favorite aspects about running – there’s always something more to learn, something new to discover, every time I put my feet in motion. At the Striders Classic this year, I learned a lot!

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#54 – Improving the Olympic Trials

19 April 2008

A pack of runners during the men’s Olympic Trials (photo credit RunMichigan.com)

This Sunday the women’s US Olympic Marathon Trials will be run in Boston.  NBC is providing a live webcast just like they did for the men’s Trials back in November, a welcome development in the media coverage of distance running.  Back then, however, I found myself wondering why the men’s race didn’t get more coverage.  It certainly helped that the event was tied to the NYC Marathon, as it will also help the women’s Trials to be partnered with the Boston Marathon.  But why couldn’t America’s most competitive, once-every-four-years marathon garner live television coverage? 

Inspired in part by Dane Rauschenberg’s analysis of lowering the qualifying standards and Hansons-Brooks runner Marty Rosendahl’s reflection of his participation in the Trials, I decided to explore two options of making the Olympic marathon trials a marquee event.  Would a larger field generate more interest, or should the participants be limited to the truly Olympic-caliber elite?  First let’s look at some numbers from the men’s trials:

2008 Qualification
“A” standard – 2:20:00 marathon. 
“B” standard – 2:22:00 marathon, 28:45 10K track, or 13:40 5K track.

179 runners ran qualifying times, 131 participated in the trials:
65 via sub-2:20 marathon, 60 participated
73 via sub-2:22 marathon, 63 participated
26 via sub-28:45 10K, 8 participated
15 via sub-13:40 5K, 0 participated

Would bigger be better?
One idea to increase public interest in the trials would be to expand the field to about 500-1000 runners.  By comparison, the Grand Rapids Marathon fielded 496 runners in 2004, growing to 1396 running the full 26.2 in 2007.  Logistically that would require a large course since the field would be more spread out, preventing the convenience of a six-lap course that the women’s Trials will feature.  The starting line would have to be strictly seeded by qualifying time to prevent back-of-the-packers from lining up in front of true contenders.  Could the aid stations handle such a large field running by within minutes?  If by some small chance the Trials organizers are reading this, they would be in shock at the thought of planning such an event.  Not only would the logistics be difficult, but financially it’s even more daunting.  After all, the men’s Trials in November actually cost more money than it earned despite the NBC coverage.

However, a large field could generate more revenue.  Rather than set a qualifying time standard, simply choose a field limit (e.g. 500) and in the several months leading up to the Trials a public leader board would create ongoing buzz.  Hopeful contenders could check to see where they stand among our nation’s runners and after a cutoff date, only the top 500 are invited to the Trials.  With so many runners participating there could be hundreds of towns following their local hero, thousands of friends and family members tuning in to watch their loved one run alongside (however briefly) our country’s eventual Olympians.  The longer total course would allow more spectators, and enough marking effort coupled with so many personal ties to the race could create a large following. 

One example is Joel Klooster.  You probably don’t know who he is; in fact, most of the avid runners in my company haven’t heard of him.  Truth is, I didn’t know either until I joined his department and recognized my new colleague as the same guy who had won a 5K I’d ran in.  Last spring Joel ran his first marathon in 2:30:09!  He finished third behind a guy who had already qualified for the Trials (Nathan Usher) and another one who missed by 17 seconds (Nick Allen).  He’s no threat to Trials winner Ryan Hall but the point is, would my local office of 1000+ employees watch the Trials if one of our own was running?  Maybe.

Maybe not.  There were at least 19 Michigan runners in the Trials including 13 from the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project.  I recall the local TV news broadcast, after the Trials were over, briefly noting that #2 finisher Dathan Ritzenhein (who grew up in nearby Rockford) and Ryan Shay are Michigan natives and that #3 finisher Brian Sell lives in the state.  Trials participant Kyle Baker, who lives and races right here in Grand Rapids, didn’t warrant a mention.  Extensive archive searching of Olympic sponsor NBC’s local affiliate Wood TV and of Michigan’s online newspaper hub M-Live.com resulted in just one article about the Trials, a story syndicated from the AP.  If the city of Grand Rapids, annual host of the 25K National Championship (in which Baker, Sell and Shay all raced in 2007) and home to some elite runners, can allow the Olympic Trials to be virtually ignored by the local media, then perhaps pulling together such a large field wouldn’t create the interest that some envision.

Would faster be better?
For a plodder like me it’s hard to imagine going faster than 2:22 over 26.2 miles, but a core argument for a smaller field is that 2:22 or even 2:20 won’t come close to winning Olympic medals.  Do we really want a 2:20 marathoner to pull a rabbit out of his shoes at the Trials and make the team?  The odds are slim that he could repeat that performance.  It may be an honor to qualify for the Trials but most elite athletes race to win, not to take home a finisher’s medal.  Marty Rosendahl said it well when he wrote: “I did run in the trials, and my name is on that finishers list for all of time … but I don’t just want to be there, I want to be competitive there.”

Cutting the standard down to 2:19 certainly helps, but I don’t think it’s enough to change the atmosphere of the Trials.  USATF estimates that 65-85 will make the cut in 2012 but that doesn’t really change the scope of the race.  The field will still consist of a handful of true contenders, another dozen who might place if they run the race of their life, and the remaining 50+ would just be there to get their name on that finishers list.  If the current format of the Trials doesn’t seem to interest the general public, reducing the number of relatively unknown runners from 150 to 50 would hardly be noticed.

Looking at the qualifying times and results of the men’s Trials, each of the top four finishers had qualified in the top ten, with Ritzenhein qualifying with the 10th best marathon.  However, he also had the 4th best 10K during the qualifying period so his performance was certainly no fluke.  Jason Lehmkuhle finished fifth in the Trials despite qualifying 49th, the most extreme jump aside from Steve Sundell finishing 15th after qualifying 103rd.  Lehmkuhle does have a 2:16:27 marathon PR from a few years ago so he can certainly burn, but apparently couldn’t do better than his 2:19:03 during the qualifying period.  If his Trials finish was two minutes faster he’d have made the Olympic team… no offense to Lehmkuhle but he wouldn’t seem likely to threaten a world-class field that easily notches sub-2:08’s.

Interestingly, five of the top 11 qualifiers suffered a DNF at the Trials and the #7 qualifier, Fernando Cabada, did not even race (although I’m not sure why).  I’m not entirely surprised at the DNF’s – these cream-of-the-crop runners were racing to make the team or bust.  If an Olympic team had to be chosen based on history and not on a Trials race, it seems that Ryan Hall, Khalid Khannouchi and Abdi Abdirahman are the strongest marathoners we have.  However, it’s important that an athlete be able to deliver on race day and for whatever reason, Khannouchi and Abdirahman couldn’t quite make it while Ritzenhein and Sell proved that they know how to prepare for a major contest.

Even faster is even better!
My suggestion for invigorating the coverage of the Olympic Trials would be to limit the field to around 25 qualifiers.  All but three of the top ten Trials finishers had a top 25 qualifying marathon.  Daniel Browne and Josh Rohatinsky finished 6th and 8th respectively despite not posting a qualifying marathon time – instead they had qualified via the 10K, where Browne was the 17th ranked qualifier and Rohatinsky was ranked #10 at that distance.  Lehmkuhle did qualify 33rd with his 10K time, but with his 49th-ranked marathon he stands as the biggest statistical surprise in the top ten at the Trials.

There were 48 runners who posted a 2:19 or better qualifying time, which would be good enough to meet the new 2012 standard.  Even if you’re a die-hard fan of running, you probably haven’t heard of many of those names.  Incidentally the #25 qualifier, Jason Hartmann, posted a 2:15:50 and was the “slowest” man to crack 2:16 before the Trials.  However rather than using a time-based cutoff, the Trials would simply invite the 25 fastest marathoners during the qualifying period.  If your 2:16 happens to place you 26th in the country, then sorry for you but great for Team USA as it means our Trials will feature some truly elite racers. 

A very fast time standard could be used for an automatic entry, maybe 2:14 or 2:15, where any runner beating that time is guaranteed entry into the Trials.  For some background, nine runners qualified for the men’s Trials with times under 2:14 (Ritzenhein was 10th at 2:14:01) and 14 finished under 2:15 (Ryan Shay was #14 at 2:14:58 and Chad Johnson was #15 at 2:15:03).  If more than 25 runners can beat 2:15, then the Trials would accept however many meet that standard but it almost certainly wouldn’t be over 30.  If the USA wants world-class runners, we might as well require world-class qualifying standards.

The big benefit that I see to such a small field is that it allows the public a chance to get to know all competitors.  Major League Baseball rosters have 25 players; NASCAR lines up 32 or so cars in a race.  Limiting the Trials field to 25 runners means that press kits could include bios of each and every competitor.  Maybe NBC could incorporate chip-timed splits live in their TV coverage with real-time updates showing who’s gaining ground, who posted the fastest recent mile, who’s slowing down, etc… much like what NASCAR broadcasts already feature.  Knowing that every runner has a chance to place in the top three and make the Olympic team adds real excitement, and a smaller but stronger field means that the packs will remain tight longer into the race.

Now watch the women!
If you’ve read this far, hopefully you haven’t forgotten to watch the women’s Trials tomorrow morning!  As you tune in, think about what could make the Trials a more exciting, fan-friendly event and let me know your opinions.  Bigger?  Faster?  Something else?

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#51 – Behind the Lens at the Irish Jig 5K

17 March 2008
Sunrise

Sunrise over Reeds Lake – I can’t believe folks are ice fishing after several days of 40+ degree weather!

One year ago I ran the 2007 Irish Jig 5K and surprised myself by notching a post-high-school PR. This year’s event would just be a training run for me, however, since my right hamstring is still not ready for any kind of speed.

Taking advantage of the relaxed pace I decided to carry a camera, inspired by the exploits of trail runner Scott Dunlap who takes photos during his races. One major difference between us is that when Scott ran a 5K just for fun, stopping to take photos along the way, he finished in 20:22! I can only match that time when being towed by a dog, and the 2008 Irish Jig saw me clock a pedestrian 28:53. But it was fun!

Gaslight Village

Downtown East Grand Rapids at sunrise.

I arrived before sunrise and had some time to wander around downtown East Grand Rapids to catch a couple photos of the beautiful morning. Sunny, yes, warm, no. Before the sun came up it was below freezing but once our part of the world got some solar radiation the air warmed to the lower 30’s.

Registration

Runners staying warm at the Irish Jig 5K registration.

After a while the chilliness motivated me to go indoors and join hundreds of other runners in the high school gym seeking out some warmth, or more importantly picking up our registration packets. Celtic Kilroy was already jamming away, keeping us entertained and setting a festive mood for the event.

Celtic Kilroy

Celtic Kilroy entertains the runners.

This year the Irish Jig was split into two races: a men’s race at 9:00 and a women’s race at 9:30. The guy next to me at the registration table was in a good mood despite being given a bib for the women’s race! Even though he checked the “M” box, he joked that from now on he’ll use his full name of “Patrick” instead of just writing “Pat” on the forms. Don’t worry, the volunteers got his gender changed in no time. 🙂

Starting Line

Green light indeed – runners waiting for the start of the race.

Around 8:45 I walked the quarter mile to the start line and did my best to keep my legs loose in the cold air. While doing a warm-up jog on a side street the race pack began moving forward! At first I thought I’d missed the starting horn but in fact they were just moving across the intersection to the official start line. I settled into position at the back of the pack just in time to hear the horn. We’re off!

After a quarter mile or so we turned to face directly into the rising sun. It did wonders for the ambiance of the race but it also made photography very difficult, especially with an inexpensive five year old camera. While making an attempt I heard someone shout behind me “Hey, Andrew’s taking pictures!” Who recognized me?

Dave Horne

Dave Horne smiling for the camera… while running backwards!

It was Dave Horne, one of my co-workers. He accelerated in front of me then turned around, running backwards and begging for a photo. Even though I couldn’t see the camera’s LCD screen due to the glare, I think Dave’s portrait turned out pretty well. Like me, he was nursing an injury (an achilles tendon that he partially detached from the heel bone while skiing – ouch!) and taking it easy. Unlike me, he’s very fast when healthy and still fast when injured; soon he was out of sight.

Around the one mile mark I noticed Don Kern running next to me. I first met Don at a book signing for Dean Karnazes two years ago – Don organized the small group of us that ran with Dean that night. Don is the race director of the Grand Rapids Marathon and an avid marathoner himself. I asked him what he was doing at a 5K and he assured me that he had a 17-mile run planned for the next day. He also told me that his “marathon a month” streak is up to 60 – five straight years of running at least one organized marathon every month! There’s a good reason they call him “Marathon Don”.

Shortly after chatting with Don I noticed a runner fly past in the opposite direction – the race leader! He was about 1/4 mile from the finish line. My watch read 11:00 and I was confounded; no way was someone going to set a world record in this event?! Then I remembered that almost 3,000 folks had signed up for the Irish Jig and I had started at the back, requiring a couple minutes before I reached the start line. Later I learned that the winner was Boaz Cheboiywo, who blazed an absolutely amazing 14:14, nine seconds faster than his winning time from 2007.

While trying to photograph the race leaders (unfortunately I was shooting into the sun and the photos didn’t come out well) another familiar voice called out – it was Lori Lenar, another co-worker who often spends her lunch break out running where we’ve often crossed paths on the sidewalks. We talked about the high number of women in the “men’s race” – it seemed like 20% of the runners were women. Laurie was a perfect example of why it can be a problem to split up a race by gender since she wanted to run with her husband and other friends.

Mile 2

The 2 mile marker… Just 1.1 to go!

Finally I reached the marker for mile 3 and once again I took a photo that didn’t turn out well… How does Scott Dunlap do it? I guess I have some learning to do about how to photograph while on the run. Somehow I resisted the urge to sprint to the finish but that was not easy – one of my favorite parts of a 5K is kicking the last 0.1 as fast as I can but my wisdom overcame my competitiveness, even when Lori dashed by vowing “I can’t let an injured runner beat me!”

By the time I returned the timing chip it was 9:31 and I was over a quarter mile from the start line, so I didn’t get a chance to watch the women take off. Luckily the half mile point was nearby so I booked over to that section of the course in time to get a photo of the race leaders. It’s amazing how much easier it is to take a photo when the sun is at my back and I’m not running!

Fast Women

The lead pack of the women’s race quickly approaching.

I wandered back over to the “feed zone” to grab some breakfast SWAG, then watched the finish of the women’s race. You can see how fast they were running – by the time they whipped around the corner into view I was barely able to get a shot of race winner Denisa Costescu as she flew by. She won in 17:33 to defend her title (she won the 2007 Irish Jig in 17:03!) with Laurel Park just nine seconds back. The two of them were well ahead of the rest of the field as third place didn’t finish until almost a full minute later.

Denisa Costescu

Denisa Costescu has the finish line – and victory – in sight.

Unfortunately I didn’t have time to hang around since I was slated to staff the booth for 2 Feet 4 Paws and Vicky’s Pet Connection at the local community expo. Before leaving I made sure to grab a piece of cake – yes, the Irish Jig serves cake to its runners! I wore my new race shirt at the expo and about a dozen people recognized it and asked if I ran that morning. It was great to see that so many folks were out running!

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#43 – 2007 Summary

1 January 2008

A year of good news and bad news, so I’ll get the bad stuff out of the way. 2007 ended not as I’d hoped thanks to my hamstring injury but at least it’s getting better with physical therapy. The downside was that I didn’t run a single mile during all of December, the first time I’ve missed a whole month since I started running four years ago today.

The good news is that I had a great year of running yet again. I ran 13 races including a post-high-school PR in the 5K and then lowered that mark with the help of my dog. It was all part of 1018.5 miles underfoot in 2007 so despite the injury, I was happy to crack 1000 miles even if it’s just a number. One of my goals for the year was to run 250 times but I only reached 207; however, I probably would’ve hit my target if I’d been smart enough to not overtrain into an injury. Live and learn.

Another positive is this very blog – since writing reason to run #1 back in April (which has been one of the most popular articles) there have been over 5200 visitors to Why Run?, much more than I would’ve thought my writing would attract. Thanks for reading!

Looking forward to 2008 my first priority is to get running again. Before the hamstring acted up I was hoping to try for a marathon PR in May and do some serious training for a sub-4:00 finish. Hopefully I can still go for that, but right now the prime race on my radar this year is my first crack at the 100K distance in August. Aside from that event I’m still working on sorting out my race schedule but I won’t be racing as many 5Ks this time around.

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#37 – Volunteering at the Grand Rapids Marathon

2 November 2007

Finishing the Grand Rapids Marathon – Photo by Rudy Malmquist

In 2005 I ran my first ever 26.2 at the Grand Rapids Marathon; in 2006 I ran it again to set a personal best. At 2007’s 4th edition of this fast-growing race, instead of running I decided to volunteer along with Amanda. Believe it or not this was my first time volunteering at a running event, although last year I did volunteer for a GRAAR adventure race.

Despite the Grand Rapids Marathon being a very well organized race, the confusion for Amanda and I began early when I offered to volunteer via their website’s volunteer form. The reply told us to arrive around 7am at the start/finish area and look for a certain woman who I’d never met.

Without daylight savings in effect yet this year it was still pitch dark when we arrived at 7am Sunday morning but the start/finish area was already a bustle of activity. The large parking lot was completely full and Amanda and I had to double-park within the lot (along with dozens of other cars) since we were out of options. The start/finish area is actually a pretty big place – there’s the finish line, yes, but also the post-race food tent, the medical tent, the lock boxes, and of course the infamous porta-johns.

Amanda followed me as we sought out some volunteers, finding them between the finish line and the food tent at some folding tables set up with the finisher medals on them – a team of young women were busy unwrapping each of the almost 3000 medals that would be needed that day. I asked for the name of the woman we were to meet there but nobody knew who she was! I finally found a guy who knew the coordinator and he whipped out his iPhone to give her a call. We were told to go meet her inside the YMCA building at the other end of the parking lot.

Once inside we pushed through the throng of runners waiting to use the heated indoor restrooms (what a luxury compared to port-a-potties!) and I can’t blame them – it was barely above freezing outside! We made our way back to a folding table with a “volunteer registration” sign hanging from it. Why weren’t we directed to show up here? We signed in and were given our neon-green volunteer t-shirts and instructed to head back to the area we’d just come from.

Back at the table with the medals there were about ten folks unpacking medals so Amanda and I were assigned to help two other guys who were preparing the space blankets. The marathon had purchased a dozen industrial-sized rolls of blankets – 200 blankets per roll like a giant roll of paper towel with perforations between the sheets. One at a time I had to pull out a length of blanket, tear at at the perforations, then fold it in half twice before stacking it onto a nearby table.

It took me almost TWO HOURS to get through my first roll! Even worse was that I was the fastest one at the job thanks to my height – each blanket is 6 feet long and I was able to drag the entire length out of the roll’s dispenser slot in just one pull. My wife and others needed two pulls since their arms weren’t long enough. The race had just started and I knew that the first half-marathoners were going to finish in 1:15 or so… we had a long way to go!

I looked around and noticed that all the girls were done unpacking the medals and just standing around. The volunteer coordinator was nowhere in sight. I suppose she couldn’t be everywhere, but nobody was in charge of the dozen or so folks in our area and no one had been given any instructions what to do next. Without really thinking about it, I started giving orders to set up a production line with the space blankets – two people per roll, one pulls and the other folds. Within five minutes everyone was hard at work and the stacks of folded space blankets began to grow quickly.

Sure enough the winner of the half-marathon arrived just before 1:15 on the race clock and we had just polished off our final roll of space blankets. Whew! But now it was time for our next task: hand out those recently unpacked finishers’ medals and recently folded space blankets to each and every runner who crossed the line.

This was the fun part of the day and it would last for hours. Race director Don Kern (who I’d met along with Dean Karnazes over a year ago) seems to have just one job at his marathon on race day – shake hands. He stood at the finish line and personally greeted every single runner as they crossed the finish. It’s a very nice gesture and I’d love to see other race directors do the same. As a volunteer I stood behind him with an armload of medals waiting to be handed out. Amanda was next to me with a pile of space blankets at her feet.

Importantly, behind us were some volunteers wearing neon orange: the medical staff. They kept an eye out for finishers who were in bad shape, and with my running experience I was able to help them identify such folks. If you’ve run a few marathons and/or ultras, you know the difference between “exhausted beyond belief” and “borderline physical shutdown” – the former is OK (you’ll feel better in a few minutes) but the latter can be a risky situation if not handled properly.

The look on a runner’s face can give them away; on some occasions I’d put a medal around somebody’s neck and then walk them straight over to a medical volunteer – if nothing else the medic would prevent them from falling over. One lady finished and I remarked to her that she looked very pale, and she replied “Oh my blood sugar is out of whack; I’m diabetic” like it was no big deal. The eyes of the medical volunteer nearby opened pretty wide when she said that! Needless to say that woman was taken care off without incident.

One of my co-workers, Dave Horne, finished the half marathon in very good time and told me that he hadn’t slept in a couple days – all fun-related. 🙂 I also recognized and said hello to Lynn Happel, a veterinarian and the organizer of the Healthy Paws Healthy Cause fun run that I ran this summer with my dogs. She’s quite a runner!

Before long the first marathoners were crossing the line and now us volunteers had to pay attention to bib colors since runners got different medals depending if they’d finished the marathon, half-marathon, or team relay. Both of my arms were now draped in medals and runners were crossing the line in bunches. I recognized a couple marathoners, too: Brian Cunningham is another co-worker and he proudly told me that he ran every step. Last year he cramped up and had to walk the last few miles, but it wasn’t easy for him – when we shook hands I noticed that his hand was as cold as ice! I also saw another veterinarian, Bruce Langlois, who appeared to have paced a friend of his through the race.

Finally the last of the half-marathoners trickled in and now we were waiting for the folks running the full 26.2 miles. After about five hours elapsed race time the crush of finishers really thinned out; in fact some of the volunteers decided to leave as those of us remaining could easily handle the flow.

Many of those clocking times of 3:30-4:30 were either disappointed with their time or had pushed themselves too hard – about 90% of those needing medical attention finished within that time span in my guesstimate. While the vast majority of runners of all speeds were generally cheerful (as chipper as one can be after a marathon, that is), the slower runners proved to be the happiest. These were the runners who had friends and family run alongside them down the final stretch and take their photos; many of these runners were streaming tears upon crossing the line (mostly women, but several men, too) and lots of them bypassed Don’s handshake in favor of a grateful bear hug.

One of these finishers was Princess Runner, a blogger I’d never met until I recognized her outfit (she posted photos on her blog). By this time I had handed my medals off to someone else and was now doling out the space blankets so I offered one to Princess Runner. She was clearly very tired, but seemed quite happy to have earned her space blanket – this her first marathon after being forced to abandon at the Chicago Marathon disaster. We shook hands and like my friend Brian, her hand was ice cold! By this point it was sunny with temperatures in the mid 50s. I figured that this cold hands thing is the body’s response to the stress of a marathon, essentially saying “I know we’re not done yet but it’s time to start shutting down” to start the recovery.

One of the last finishers managed to set a world record.  How?  He walked 26.2 miles on stiltsNeil Sauter was raising money to support those with cerebral palsy and sure enough he finished in under 7.5 hours.  He was giving high fives at the finish and he had to bend over to reach most people; in fact little kids had to jump!  The poor guy, however, had to remain up and walking around on his stilts for another half an hour as everyone wanted him to pose for photos.  His legs must’ve been awfully worn out!

One of the more memorable finishers for me was someone I have no clue about who she is, but she was bawling her eyes out and wailing “I can’t believe I finished my first marathon!” Her husband jogged the final stretch with her and at the finish they hugged for several minutes while she continued sobbing. A volunteer gave her the finisher’s medal and she burst into tears again. Then I put a space blanket around her shoulders and she says to me “Yay, I get to be wrapped in tin foil!” Apparently this is part of the marathon experience. As she staggered over to the food tent I noticed that her husband was chatting to an older couple behind the spectator barrier on the opposite side of the food tent. Deducing that those were her parents, I nudged her shoulder and turned her around – she started crying again and hobbled over to hug them!

That is why marathons can be so inspiring – they mean different things to different people but each one of them had a very good reason.  You can’t just run a marathon on a whim – you have to set the goal and train for it, and whether you’re fast or slow it still comes down to whether or not you can do it.  In fact a TV crew interviewed Don Kern during the race and I overheard him state his belief that one reason to run a marathon is because if you can do that, you can do anything.  Well Don, at least one runner believes you:  one of the finishers yelled out “I ran a marathon, now I can do anything!” as a volunteer placed a medal around her neck.

Running a marathon and volunteering at a marathon are night-and-day different but I have to admit that they’re about equal when it comes to pure enjoyment.  Not only is running addicting, it’s also contagious!

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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!