Spartan Race

Sunday, February 28, 2010

An ailing quack runs a new half.

You know, I don't think I've ever run an inaugural half marathon before. I've run a few inaugural 5K, maybe even a 10k, but never something as long as a half. That said, when the inaugural Columbia Half Marathon was announced about 6 months ago, I figured I had to run it. So what if it was sandwiched half way between Mercedes and Shamrock, I'm just running the halfs, so why should it matter? At least that's what I told myself at the time. And then Mrs. Running Quack caught some sort of upper respiratory tract plague, and I soon followed suit.

Most of the week, I felt like a medium sized sea urchin was slowly and erinaceously crawling over the back of my throat, every once in a while pulling out a miniature flame thrower and letting fly with thermite. I also had phenomenal fatigue and a something akin to fever and chills that had me curled up in bed for several hours on Wednesday afternoon. By Thursday night, though, the echinoderm had morphed into some sort of jellyfish, oozed its way up into my sinuses, and dug in like the Maginot Line (had it not been manned by the French). When I awoke Saturday morning, my throat actually felt good, but my head was completely socked in. Coupled with the fact that it was hovering around the freezing mark, I thought about tanking the race, but talked myself in to it.

I arrived at Columbia, SC's Finley Park on a beautiful and rapidly warming late winter day. The sky was blue and there was no discernible breeze. There was also no discernible starting line - just a group of runners waiting to pick up their champion chips. I retrieved mine and threaded it on to my shoe. Not long after, a loud speaker asked us all to "move to the top of the hill". A few minutes later, somebody yelled "go" and we were off. I waited a few seconds expecting to cross over a timing chip mat, but I never did. I just arbitrarily started my gps a few paces down the hill.

I have to admit, when I saw the course on the website, I wasn't really too excited about running it. In my mind, it took a strange rout through town, and about half of it wasn't even really in town. I thought it was a bad course. I was completely wrong.

The course was effectively a big lemniscate, which will become important later. The first leg took us north into an area of town in which I had never set foot. It turned out to be a very pleasant little neighborhood with lots of old trees and unique houses. We quickly looped back in to downtown proper and looped around through the historic district, passing between the Mills House and the Hampton-Preston Mansion - two of the small handful of remaining antebellum homes in South Carolina's capital. We then took a left and headed up towards the University of South Carolina's campus.

USC is always pleasant to run through, and this was no exception. It almost made me forget that I was sick. By this time in the race, I was starting to realize something about myself. Apparently, when I run, I usually breath in through my nose and out through my mouth. My nose hadn't been an option earlier in the race, but it had opened up by mile four. The only problem was, every time I took a deep breath through it, the could air caused a searing pain. I was also starting to get what felt a lot like a dehydration-type headache. I had to remind myself to breathe through my mouth, but every few minutes I forgot and took a big gulp of air through my nose. I also had to walk through water stations because the breathing mechanics were too complicated. It was fun.

As i mentioned before, the route was basically a big figure 8- not a double loop, but you did pass right by the finish right at mile 6. In all honesty, I felt so bad by that time, that I actually stopped and walked off the course. I fully intended to tank the race, head off to my car, and go home and get in bed. I looked down at my Garmin, realized I was running at a pretty good pace, and knew I'd be mad at myself if I didn't finish. At that point, having wasted a minute or two with my internal debate, I hopped back on the course and took off again at a slower pace. In the mean time, I made a small tactical error, but more on that later.

The second half of this run takes you out of the city of Columbia, over the Congaree River, through the town of West Columbia, back across the Congaree on the Gervais Street bridge, and back up a fairly nasty hill to Finley Park. It was on this loop I realized my screw up.

I usually use a gel some time around mile 5, and then again sometime around mile 9. It's probably overkill, but it works for me. I've also figured out that the first sign of glycogen depletion for me is not feeling weak or slow, but a change in attitude about the run. I start despairing. About half way across the Taylor Street bridge, running over the Congaree, I realized that I was dropping into my low glycogen funk. I had forgotten my gel at mile six due to my mental machinations. In most of the races I've run recently, this wouldn't have been a big deal. I was closing in on 7.5 miles, and with water stops every two miles or so, I could just pop the gel and grab some liquid a few minutes later at the 8 mile station. In this race, though, the water stops were spread out to about 3.5 miles, and were sporadic at best. Not so far away from each other as to cause a danger for anyone, but extremely inconvenient for my situation. I figured I needed the sugar, so I used the gel, but it left me with a few miles to run before I had anything with which to wash it down.

The West Columbia part of the race was very pleasant. I don't know what I was expecting, but we twisted through little 1950's-looking neighborhoods, full of tree lined streets and the occasional curious on lookers, who apparently weren't aware that a half marathon was going on that day. Mile 12 hit right at the Gervais Street bridge, and and also right at the base of the only substantial hill on the course. To be frank, I had been running out of gas, and far from passing people like I had at Mercedes, I had been the passee for the last several miles. My head still hurt, as did my sinuses, and my throat was starting to get into the act. I figured I only had a mile left, though, and charged up the hill, overtaking quite a few people. A left turn and a few blocks later, I hit the finishing line, six minutes slower than my last race, but still in a respectable time for me.

A volunteer placed a medal on my neck, and I headed for the post race food - which turned out to be poweraide, fruit, pastries, and oddly, a wide variety of some sort of boneless, sauce-laden chicken wings. The later looked really good to me, but another runner walked up behind me and said "Yuck, you can tell I'm not an ultrarunner, I can't eat that kind of stuff right after a race". Oddly, though Michelob Ultra was a race sponsor, there was no beer. South Carolina has some odd laws regarding alcohol, and this may have been the issue. The chicken partially made up for it, and I downed my share,though some of the sauces did burn my somewhat raw, plague-infested throat. Ah, well.

I have to say, for a first effort, I think this was a great race. The course, which I initially questioned while looking at a map, turned out to be excellent - it gave plenty to look at, took you over the river twice, and wasn't too hilly, which is a feat in Columbia. The crowd, while really small and widely dispersed along the race course, was really enthusiastic. The city of Columbia Police department did a nice job of directing traffic.

I liked this race, and I'll run it again next year. In the the spirit of constructive criticism, however, I'd like to offer some suggestions for the future. First, I may be splitting hairs, but in a race as long as a half marathon, you need timing mats at the start and finish - and for that matter, you need a discernible starting line. Second, the last half-dozen races I have run have had water stops every two miles. While, again, this may not be physiologically necessary, I think folks have come to expect it and plan on it. Third, get some local high schools bands and cheerleaders to come out. Have a contest between local charities to see who can have the best cheering section, etc. Get people involved along the route. Lastly, this is part of a series of races put on by the USRA, but neither the shirt nor the medal make any mention of it. If you are going to have a franchise of races - a la the RocknRoll Series or the 13.1 Marathon Series - flaunt it.

All in all, I was happy I ran the race. It was pleasant, even though I felt terrible, and I'll be glad to do it again next year. It was a very different route from Columbia's other two half marathons - the Governor's Cup and the Palmetto Half Marathon ( , also new this year), and I think safely avoided the same race-different name issue. At the end of the day, I may have been ailing, but I'll still finished in the top third, which makes this quack happy. Mu

Monday, February 15, 2010

Mercedes Half Marathon

In the Running Quack household, we've started a tradition. Mrs. Running Quack and I have decided that Valentine's Day weekend is an excellent time for a race. It's long enough after Disney for recovery, but not so long that one gets tremendously out of shape. Last year we made a short as-the-crow-flies, but infuriatingly long-as-the-car-rolls trip to Myrtle Beach, where I proceeded to run the single worst half marathon of my running career, but we still had a nice weekend. This year, we decided to make the longer trip to Birmingham, Alabama for the Mercedes Half Marathon.

Why this particular half marathon? It was well within driving distance, and the swag seemed really cool - I mean, come on, a medal shaped like a Mercedes hood ornament? Who wouldn't want that? It's like combining Flava Flav and Ryan Hall (in a good way). Little did we know that this particular weekend would host the largest snow storm the South has seen in years. We drove through the heart of it on Friday, and other than having a small SUV hit a patch of ice and turn a full 720 in front of us on I-20 (Mrs. Running Quack deftly avoiding T-boning them with my Honda Ridgeline, which would have been bad), we saw few ill effects from the weather.

The city of Birmingham proved an excellent host for a running event. We stayed at the official hotel, which was immediately adjacent to the expo, which was a few blocks from the race start and finish. We parked the car Friday night, and didn't move it until we left Sunday after the race. It was the single best set up I have seen as far as convenience goes. The expo was fairly small, but the volunteers were enthusiastic, as were the exhibitors, and we actually stayed for a fairly long period of time. We then took a little reconnaissance trip around Birmingham and easily found the start line a block away (we also found out that most of the restaurants in downtown Birmingham cater the the weekday business luncher rather than the weekend tourist, the exception being the Roly Poly Sandwich shop, which opened this weekend solely because it was Marathon Weekend. Try the number #38). On a side note, the delightfully quirky Birmingham Museum of Art is located right next to the expo and worth a trip.

We elected to eat in the hotel restaurant that night for our pre-race meal because they were having a special pasta night pre-marathon. The food was good, and because the Black Eyed Peas also happened to be having a concert in Birmingham that evening, the people watching was too (for the record, tech shirt=runner, sequins=concert goer, nice retired couple with 3 year old grandchild = confused). Also for the record, if you want to psyche out a race crowd, put on a red and green jacket with "Kenya" stencilled on the back in big letters- the guy wearing it may have been from Tuscaloosa for all I know, but everyone was staring at him. My wife wants to have one made before her next race.

Checking the weather for Sunday morning, at race time it was supposed to be partially cloudy and about 30 degrees. Thinking back to the Goofy, we garbed ourselves in long sleeve shirts, short sleeve shirts, zap jackets, throwaway clothes, and space blankets. At the last minute, I left my throwaway clothes in the room. Thirty minutes before race time, we hopped on the elevator and exited into a lobby full of shivering runners. We steeled ourselves against the cold and walked outside... into a beautiful day.

The sun was already coming up and the anti-twilight was cool, but not cold. Furthermore, because of the convenience of the hotel to the race course, we only had to stand outside for about fifteen minutes, and most of that was in a corral with plenty of crowd generated heat. We shed our space blankets and my wife dumped her $3 hoodie almost immediately. Marathon and half marathon participants were all lumped into one big corral, with no discernible mechanism for determining the speed of those around you. We thought we were in the middle of the pack, which seemed appropriate given our middle of the pack runner status, but when the starter yelled "GO" (no pistol, no fireworks), it took us a good two and a half minutes to cross the start.

Mrs. Running Quack and I decided to run our respective races today, so I took off. Or at least I tried to take off. Apparently, the corral had been a much more heterogeneous mix of folks than I had anticipated. I soon found myself dodging groups walking six or eight abreast while some, who were running faster than I was, were trying to run around me. If I have a criticism of this race, it's this - next year have people line up in the corral by pace.

I was a little nervous, because this is the first race I've actually tried to run with a mid-foot style, and my furthest training run in my Newtons had been eight miles. When I started running, though, I felt great. By the time the crowd thinned out a bit around mile 3, I knew that I was going to run a good race. The first couple of miles are slightly downhill, and make a lot of twists and turns through downtown Birmingham. Personally, I like turns, they break up the monotony of long straight stretches and give you a short term goal on which to focus. They also tend to hide things like hills, which is important in this race. Around miles five or so, also due to the lack of line-up-by-speed in the corral, I caught several marathon pace groups who were running decidedly slower than my pace. Around that time, I also encountered, for the first time ,an observer yelling "Great job, just one more mile" for reasons that I don't quite understand. Under blue skies with minimal wind, I got hot enough that I had to unzip my trusty Sugoi Zap jacket.

Somewhere around mile 5.5, this race hits the University of Alabama-Birmingham Campus and also starts a long, slow, generally uphill climb that lasts about the next fours miles. Usually, I don't like this kind of steady climb, but the crowd support was great, the run was again, really twisty, and it offered some nice views of the downtown on occasion. I was also feeling really good, and decided that it was a good day for a personal record. I honestly was concentrating so hard that I really only remember three details about the climb - first, I saw what appeared to be a stately old mansion, but turned out to be a new law firm; second, a Presbyterian Church was giving out gummy bears and much appreciated peppermints that really gave me a boost; and third, I miscalculated distance and had to walk through a water stop in order to be able to use a Roctane and wash it down with liquid (I'm somewhat proud of my ability to run and drink at the same time and usually have my gel downed by the time I hit the appropriate stop).

What goes up must come down, and this course starts going for the most part in that direction around mile 9.5 or so. I checked my pacetat and realized I was only a few seconds off my goal time, despite having the uphill out of the way. I took off downhill. I have to say, I think midfoot running really gives an advantage here. With heel striking, I usually end up slowing myself down because I seem to over stride and don't have any control. With the midfoot, the faster I went, the more energy return I seemed to get from my shoes with no loss of control.

Oddly enough, the same "just one more mile" guy showed up around mile 10, as did enthusiastic, though somewhat widely spaced, support from the community from here on out. One could also see the skyscraper of downtown Birmingham beckoning one towards the finish line. Checking my Garmin, I realized that I had dropped off on the speed, and made a conscious effort to pick it up. It was one of those "I only have to keep this up for two miles" kind of efforts. At mile 12, Mr. "only one more mile" showed up again, and this time it was true. By that time, my calves were both hurting, as was my left foot, but I knew it wasn't anything to really worry about, so pressed on through.

I do have to admit, I was glad to be heading towards the finish line rather than out to do the same loop again when the full marathoners peeled off right before the finish line. I loved this course, but I wouldn't have liked to climb those hills second time. As it was, when I hit Linn Park, made a sharp left towards city hall, and then a 90 degree right towards the finish line, I had enough left in me to kick it out. For once, I remembered to hit the stop button on my Garmin. Unofficially, it was a PR.

I collected my finisher shirt and waited for my wife to finish. I had just enough time to cool off and realize that I was soaking wet in about 38 degree weather. The post race party happened to be inside, and I was glad to warm up. Both the beer and the barbecue were good, as was the band. All in all, this is a great half marathon. It's well organized, the terrain is varied, and while I wouldn't characterize it as anywhere near flat, I did PR on it, so it must be pretty fast.

Geographically, everything is close together, which makes it great for out of towners. The swag is good - Mercedes Hood Ornament style medal, running hat, cup, and finishers shirt and a post race party that featured Budwiser and Jim N Nicks barbecue -which go great together after running. I'd definitely run it again. And, cruising down I-20 a few hours later after the dust settled, I checked the official results. I had broken my 13 month old PR by 1 minute and 35 seconds. Mu.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A feeling of Deja vu

As I sit here in the eve (or rather close to the eve of) the Mercedes Half Marathon in Birmingham, Alabama, a familiar scenario seems to be shaping up. What started out as a kind of cold race (35 degrees, but clear) has crept into the realm of a really cold race (27ish) and subsequent to this a cold wet race (supposed to rain now). The odd thing is, it really doesn't bother me too much now. My hotel is about a block from the start, I know how to dress for this kind of thing after Disney, and frankly, it seems like some form of frozen precipitation has been present for ever run I've undertaken recently. My bigger issue for this race is the fact that my running ipod has magically disappeared. I'll layer up, go run my race, collect my schwag, and enjoy a frigid Valentine's Day weekend with my wife (the weather giving me the cold shoulder, not Mrs. Running Doc). Mu.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

In praise of Fitdeck

A long time ago, I figured out that to stay in shape, I need to do more than just run. I also need to do some form of other exercise - and I don't mean hopping on the elliptical or the bike at the gym. I need some form of resistance training. If I don't, I get flabby fast. My weight balloons, and I pack on fat in places I don't want it and lose muscle in places I do, and then I also just feel crappy. And, I get weak. Fast.
I don't mean to say that I'm a 6% body fat kind of guy, we've already established that I'm not. The only six pack I have is in my fridge and nobody is going to mistake me for a professional athlete (well, maybe a pro bowler). But, I do at least try to stay in shape, and I've found that unless I work out, I run off muscle.
I used to have Andy, the best trainer in the world, who could train six foot two, 195 pound me to the point I was about to throw up but was still grinning, turn right around and do the same for my 112 lb wife, and then go charm a 70 year old grandmother into doing dumbbell presses on a balance ball; but, alas, he moved to Seattle and left me floundering. When I had Andy scheduled every week, I knew I'd get to the gym for at least that period of time. I've tried other trainers, but it just hasn't been the same. Couple that with increasing my mileage for the Goofy, and I just didn't have time to get to the gym while it was open. I increasingly found myself working out really late at night, or at the hospital while I was on call. I needed a portable Andy I could take with me anywhere. And I came pretty close to finding it in Fitdeck.

FitDeck Bodyweight

Conceptually, Fitdecks are pretty simple. They're basically a deck of cards with instructions for a bunch of different exercises written on them. Rather than suits, they're divided up by the different parts of the body that the movement works out (upper body, lower body, core, whole body, etc). They also dictate a number of reps to do based on whether you want a beginner, intermediate, or advanced work out. I'd seen them in a magazine, and thought it sounded like a good concept, but really hadn't looked in to it. Then, browsing trough the app store on my ipod one day, I ran into Fitdeck.
I downloaded it, and it was unbelievable - here was a bunch of body weight based exercises I could literally take and do anywhere - and just as importantly, it provided variety. With 50 different exercises, a quick shuffle resulted in a different set of exercises every day! All I had to do was hit a button, select the number of cards I wanted, and work out.
Given that there are certain places you just don't want to leave an ipod (say, left in a call bag in an unsecured room or in a drawer at the office), I also quickly obtained the traditional deck of cards "analog" version as well. If anything these proved more versatile. Say you want a quick work out, shuffle, deal out 10 cards, do them. Say you just ran 15 miles yesterday - pull out the lower body exercises, shuffle, and go. Want a full body ache the next day kind of thing? Do the deck. They're great! (as an aside, the ipod version is undergoing a complete rebuild, and I'm lucky enough to be beta testing the current product. It's going to be superb!)
I've slowly added more and more Fitdecks to my arsenal - the first thing I did was buy my 67ish year old parents the Fitdeck Senior version - which are thoughtfully about twice the size of the regular cards so that the presbyopic don't have to use reading glasses to see them. Next I added the Combat Sports deck, which provided a whole new series of for the most part whole body exercises.
Body weight exercises are great for travel and times you can't get to the gym, but I have yet to see one that can really provide a good biceps workout. Recognizing that limitation, I also acquired the dumbbell deck. No surprise, not only did it give me a great arm work out, but challenged my legs and core!
The other cool thing about these is that they can be used alone or in combination. I've mixed the combat sports in with my original deck, and add the dumbbells or subtract them simply based on whether I have access to weights or not. Constant variety keeps one from getting bored!
My children loved my original deck, so I bought the Fitdeck junior set for them. They fight over who it really belongs to and frequently pull it out to "train" each other. I have to say, I've done it with them, and it's fun - completely different exercises from the adult version. I also grabbed the trx version (which I'll review with the trx at a later date) and the Navy Seal workout. The later, as you might well expect, isn't for the novice - I find it rather challenging and tend to do it on its own.

FitDeck Combination of titles

In short, I love these things. They're inexpensive, versatile, and effective. With versions like stairs, prenatal, stroller, office, and travel, they have something for everyone. I even entertained getting them as Christmas presents for all my co-workers, but my wife convinced me that not everyone might think they are as cool as I do, and some folks might take it as an insult (ie "are you implying that I need to exercise more"). That's not at all why I would be giving them (I just think they're cool), but she's usually more socially adept than I am, so I took her word for it. I still think they're a perfect gift for the right person! In short, these things are a great, fun tool for staying in shape.