ultras

races longer than marathons

ENDURrun

ENDURrun

One of the really cool things about running is that there’s always something more to discover. I grow as a runner and as a person with each event. And then look further again, to yet another new horizon.

I recently received an email from fellow ultra runner Wilf Goron, who told me about the ENDURrun International. It’s a multi-stage ultra which happens in my neck of the woods, but which, oddly enough, I’d never heard of. It looks really interesting, to say the least.

I’ve already got a solid race calendar lined up for this year (see my 2014 Races page), but will, I think, have a go at doing Stage 3 of the ENDURrun. It’s a 30K trail run, which I can do barefoot. It’ll make a nice break between the Niagara 100K on June 14 and the Self-Transcendence 12 Hour on September 27. Then maybe do more of the ENDURrun next year.

As I said, there are always new discoveries – and new challenges.

Running 100K

100k badge

I recently registered for the Niagara 100K Ultra, which will take place on June 14, 2014. It’ll be my first attempt at running this distance, in a race or otherwise. I’m pretty sure that, barring injury or mishap, I can complete the distance. The real challenge will be to do that inside the 14 hour cutoff time.

I’m excited, of course. But I’m also aware that this will be running at an entirely new level for me. For now, the thoughts that are going ’round in my head are quite general. I’ll get into strategies later. For starters, I’m thinking pluses and not-so-pluses.

On the plus side…

I had a very positive experience running a 6 Hour ultra earlier this month. I felt remarkably good during and after the race. That bodes well.

I’ve run the Niagara route before. Twice, in fact – a 50K in 2009 and again (though DNF) in 2010. So I know the route – and I like it.

There’s a good chance of warm – or even hot – weather on race day. That’s my kind of day!

On the not-so-plus side…

I’ve never run 100K at one go before. Physically and psychologically, it’s going to be a stretch.

The 100K event comprises two loops of the 50K route. Passing the start/finish at 50K, and then heading out again, is going to be heartbreaking.

There’s a real possibility of major hurt, or even injury, in the latter stages of a 100K run. I’ll have to accept whatever comes, deal with it, and keep on moving.

That’s three for three, which isn’t bad, all things considered.

Come to think of it, there’s one more for the plus side… The turnaround point (which will come at 25K and again at 75K) is at the mighty Niagara Falls itself. Corny as it sounds, that’s always really inspiring – and I’ll get to see it twice!

Niagara Falls

Coming Up: 6 Hours on a Track

Toronto Track and Field Centre

Six hours, around this. And around, and around

This morning, I registered for the Run4RKids 6 Hour race, which will take place on Saturday, January 4, 2014, at the Toronto Track and Field Centre at York University, Toronto.

Deciding to do this was more-or-less a spur of the moment thing, brought on by a desire to break out of some cold-weather doldrums. I’m in the midst of my usual early winter transition period, in preparation for training for the Elk/Beaver 50K on May 10, 2014, so I’m hardly ready for a six hour race.

Never mind. It’ll be my first timed (rather than distance) ultra, and my first race on an indoor track. Should be interesting, yes?

2011 Race Calendar

This is the time of year when I build my race calendar for the coming season. More accurately, this is the time of the year when my race calendar sort of forms itself. Some are races that are a more-or-less permanent fixture for me; some are similar to races I’ve done previously, but in different places or on different dates; others are the results of suggestions or invitations from other runners; some are entirely new initiatives.

My 2011 calendar is a mix of all of the above. Here’s what it looks like:

Around the Bay 30K, March 27, Hamilton, Ontario. I’ve done this race twice. It’s a challenging route, it’s got lots of history behind it (first run in 1894, three years before the Boston Marathon), and it’s well organized. In 2009, I ran it in “regular” running shoes and with a small group of friends. The weather was dreadful (6C and torrential rain). I finished in a time of 3:02:45. This year, I ran it solo, in my VFFs, and the weather was better (3C and partly cloudy). I finished in 3:16:23, but without the pain and cramping I’d experienced the year before. This year, I’ll do it in my VFFs (unless I get really crazy, and try it barefoot), and would like to finish somewhere close to 3 hours.

Mississauga Half Marathon, May 15, Mississauga, Ontario. I haven’t done this one before, but I know the route well, as I did the full marathon in 2009 and again this year. I had a horrendous crash and burn experience at 27K in 2009. This year, I completed the race In my VFFs with an “I’m just cruising” time of 5:26:29. I’m going to do the half this year, barefoot, and with a goal finish time of around two hours. (My PB for the half is 2:02:55.)

Next up will be something new, the Self-Transcendence 6 Hour, June 4, Kingston, Ontario. This is a time-based rather than distance-based race. It’s a variant of the the Niagara 50K Ultra, which I ran in each of the past two years. In 2009, I ran the 50K Ultra in conventional shoes and a heavy rain, and finished in 6:19. This year, I ran the Ultra barefoot, and made it to 35K. I’m going to do the Self-Transcendence 6 Hour barefoot. If I get close to 50K in the alloted six hours, I’ll be happy.

At the end of August, for the third time in a row, I’ll do- the Toronto Underwear Affair 10K. It’s a cancer fundraiser, it’s lots of fun, and it’s the only race I do each year where I ask for pledges. I ran it barefoot this year, and finished in 1:04. Next year, I’ll be barefoot again, and will try to finish under the one hour mark. (My PB for the 10K is 58:18.)

Then it’ll be time for another new one – the Scotiabank Waterfront Marathon, October 16, Toronto, Ontario. This will be my first barefoot marathon, and one I’d like to finish in about 5 hours. (MY PB for the marathon is 4:30, set way back in 1980.) In some ways, this race will be an even bigger challenge that the 6 Hour race in June. There’ll be a lot more people running in the event, and much more a feeling of competition.

That’s a pretty ambitious program for a nearly-senior citizen with metal in his leg and cancer in his prostate. It may or may not turn out as planned, depending on training and external factors. (John Lennon once sang “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” How well I know the truth of that!) But it’s a good calendar, and I think it will bring both a great deal of enjoyment and satisfaction.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

On Saturday, I completed 35K of the Niagara 50K Ultra. I ran the 35K barefoot. Though I didn’t make it to the finish line, the run was a significant one for me. In fact, it turned out to be a pivotal event in my life.

What happened on Saturday was like the awakening that happens when one resolves a Zen koan. After 62 years and one day of living on this earth, I finally heard the sound of one hand clapping.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that the last month or so have been very tiring and stressful for me. My father had been very ill, and died on the Thursday evening before the ultra. The addition of a young greyhound to our household two weeks ago has meant a lot of disruption and adjustment. The result was that I went into the ultra having had only 10 hours of sleep in the previous 48 hours. Not the ideal lead up to a 50K, to say the least.

I decided to do the run anyway, knowing that I might not complete the distance, but also knowing that I needed to a long run so I could get things sorted out in my head and my heart.

Unfortunately, my wife – who normally acts as my support crew, cheerleader, and advisor for these long runs – wasn’t able to be with me for this one. I knew, though, that she would, in spirit, be with me every step of the way. Though not a runner, she knows me better than I know myself, and she knew that I needed to run.

The race started well. On the start line, I had the pleasure of meeting Hong, a reader of this blog, who was doing his first ultra. We all set off, and soon got onto the paved path which would take us to Niagara Falls and back. The temperature and the humidity rose very quickly, and runners soon spread out as everyone found his or her pace. I had a number of good conversations with people about running barefoot. Some were curious, some were puzzled, and others were impressed. I also had a brief chat with a fellow who was running in VFF Bikilas. It was first time I’d seen Bikilas in the wild, so that was a real treat.

The first 25K (from the start in Niagara-on-the-Lake to the turnaround point at Niagara Falls itself) was easy running. The paved parkway trail was butter-smooth in most sections, and only slightly gnarly otherwise. Going into Niagara Falls itself was a different story. For one thing, the paved parkway trail ends at the city limits, and you have to run on sidewalks, not all of which are in good repair. Secondly, those sidewalks are full of tourists, so you have to do a lot of dodging around people.

I ran the first 28K of the ultra at my target ultra pace of a little over 7:00 mins/km. I drank HEED, Gatorade, and flat ginger ale at the aid stations (which came up at 5K intervals). I ate orange slices, banana slices, fig newtons, chocolate chip cookies, nachos, pretzels, and M&Ms. (You have to love ultras for the fuel choices alone!) My feet felt fine, my legs felt fine, and all that was in my mind was the ground beneath my feet, the sun on my body, and the sensation of moving. As the soles of my feet began to get a little tender, I began to alternate running on the rougher stretches of pavement with running on the grass beside the path.

(Though my photographer wasn’t with me for this race, you can see me in full flight at the 1:47 minute point of the video of this year’s Niagara 50K.)

At about 30K, the reality of too little sleep and too much stress began to tell. Shortly after 30K, I realized that I was running out of steam completely, and that, if I were to push myself much more, I was risking a major meltdown. That wasn’t a desirable option for me, so I simply decided that I’d achieved the goal I’d been after, and that I would bail at the next aid station.

And that’s when things got really interesting.

As I said earlier, I hadn’t really been thinking of much before this except running. After about 32K, though, when I began taking longer and longer walking breaks, I began to reflect on things. What happened then was that I got down to the bare bones of being alive. I was utterly exhausted. I was looking at what it meant to lose a parent I’d never been very close to. I was aware of being 62 years old and full of life. My soles of my feet, though I had no blisters or cuts, were very, very tender. I was hot, sweaty, and sore. And it all made sense. Unbelievably, it all made sense.

I heard the sound of one hand clapping.

My life changed at that point. From now on, it’s going to be much the same as it has been, but also very different. I’m already calmer, more grounded, perhaps a little more charitable than I had been. I don’t think I’m going to do any more organized running events, at least not for a while. I’m going to start doing short runs with my dog. I’m going to continue doing long barefoot runs by myself. I’m going to be alive.

And I’m going to keep on listening for the sound of one hand clapping.

Getting Ready

I’ve decided that I’m going to run Saturday’s Niagara 50K Ultra barefoot. At least, I’m going to give it a try.

The issue isn’t really distance. I ran the Niagara 50K last year (albeit in shoes and pouring rain), so I’m reasonably sure I can manage. I don’t plan to be quick (my finishing time last year was 6 hours, 19 minutes, and change); all I have to do to get an official finishing time and a medal is complete the event in under 7 hours. Doable, I think.

That said, I’m going into this with a few small reservations.

The first is that my training has gone completely sideways over the past few weeks. I’m normally very disciplined in the weeks before a race, but I haven’t been able to be so this time around. My father’s in palliative care, and doesn’t have much time left, so I’ve been very busy (not to mention extremely stressed) while dealing with that. Plus, Kelso, our newly-adopted greyhound (we’ve had him for about ten days), is a delightful fellow, but consumes inordinate amounts of time and energy. Hello real life, goodbye training.

The second reservation is that the skin of the center of the ball of my right foot is still thin, the result of having cut it weeks ago on a small sharp stone. It’s healed and the skin has re-conditioned, but it’s not quite original equipment anymore. I’m going to put some Krazy Glue on the area before the race, but I still think there’s a good chance of that wearing through over 50Ks of pavement, and I’m a little nervous about opening up that cut again.

My loving wife is going to be at the 28K and 37K points of the race to provide support, as she did last year, and she’ll have the Krazy Glue as well as my Fivefingers KSOs. So I’ll be able to do some quick repairs if needed, and will have the option of putting my shoes on if things aren’t looking good.

The last reservation is about weather. It’s going to be hot and humid, which is fine with me. But the forecast has changed since I last looked. Now there a 40% chance of thundershowers, which is supposed to result in about 5mm (0.2 inches) of accumulation. My guess is that it either won’t rain at all, or that it will rain briefly and hard. I don’t want to run for any length of time on wet pavement, though – too much moisture, and the skin of the bottoms of my feet will soften to the point where blisters will be inevitable.

I’m going to try to get a good sleep tonight. Sleeping well the night before a race is sometimes difficult, so getting a solid sleep two nights before is the better option. I may go for a very short run tomorrow (Friday).

And I’m going to try to stay calm and relaxed. I really am.

2010 Niagara 50K Ultra

I’ve just registered for this year’s Niagara 50K Ultra, which takes place on June 19. (That’s the day after my birthday, which means I’ll be doing my second ultra as a fresh-faced 62 year old… )

I have two goals for the Niagara this year. The first is to run it barefoot. The second is to improve on last year’s finishing time of 6:19:00. I think both are doable.

The Niagara 50K route is a lovely one – along the Niagara Parkway Trail from Niagara-on-the-Lake to Niagara Falls and back. very scenic and mostly flat (there’s a total ascent/descent of 263 meters, where the trail climbs the Niagara Escarpment at Queenston Heights). It’s all paved and all off-street. Nice!

Now, it would be really nice if it didn’t rain for the whole race, as it did last year. Bring on the heat and the sunshine!

Huaraches

I’ve ordered a pair of custom-made huarache sandals from Barefoot Ted McDonald. If all goes as planned, I’ll run one or two trail ultras in them come summertime. But they also look like good minimalist footwear for everyday hot weather wear.

Here’s a video from BFT, showing how he wears the huaraches:

Looking Ahead

2009 was an excellent running year for me, and I expect that 2010 will be even better. So here’s my wrapup for the past year, and some projections for the coming year. (As always, your comments and feedback are much appreciated!)

There were a number of noteworthy events and learnings for me in 2009. Among them was my first ultra race, the Niagara 50K Ultra on June 22. Considering that I had no real idea what to expect in attempting this kind of distance, and that it rained torrentially for the whole race, I was pleased with my 6:19:00 finishing time. After the Niagara 50, I ordered my first pair of Vibram Fivefingers KSO shoes (I now own two pairs), and, while waiting for them to arrive, started running barefoot. Not the easiest of transitions from running shod to running barefoot, but that was own fault, as I went at it hammer and tongs, and wasn’t as gentle with myself as I should have been. But I’m committed to barefoot running now, and can’t see myself running any other way, unless it’s to wear VFFs or a pair of Barefoot Ted McDonald’s custom-made huaraches because of weather or trail conditions. (I’m just about to order a pair of the huaraches.) Lastly, I bought myself a treadmill. Now I can run at home, alone, and in any kind of weather, all of which are major incentives for holding to a rigorous training program.

So what do I have planned for 2010?

I want to run and race barefoot. It’s good for me, body and soul, and it’s good for my running. I want to run and race further – much further – than I have before. The Niagara 50K, in spite of the rotten weather, was an absolute delight, and made me hungry for ever more distance. I want to run injury-free in 2010. I’ve spent part of each of the last two seasons dealing with injuries, but like to think that I’m a little wiser now, and can do without that. Besides, running barefoot is a great way of avoiding injuries, so I know that I’m on the right track. I feel very strongly that, if I can do these things, I’ll become a better runner, and perhaps even a better person. (One can always hope, right?)

I’ve built a nice race calendar for 2010. Here it is:

  • Around the Bay 30K, March 28. This one’s a beauty, and the oldest footrace in North America, as it pre-dates the Boaton Marathon by three years. I ran it in 2009 in 3:02:07, in conventional shoes and in wet and windy conditions. I’d like to do the ATB in 2010 barefoot, but may have to wear VFFs, as there’s every likelihood it’ll be a cold day. It would also be really nice to break the 3 hour mark, but we’ll have to see.
  • Mississauga Marathon, May 16. I had to bail this year at the 27K mark, but will look to break my 30 year old marathon PB of 4:30. I’ll do the marathon barefoot.
  • Niagara 50K Ultra, June 20. Maybe get a little closer to the 6 hour mark, though I doubt very much that I’ll break it. Barefoot, for sure.
  • Iroquois 32K Trail Test, August 20. Something very different – a challenging trail run along the top of the Niagara Escarpment. There are seven very tough climbs on this route, and particpants are encouraged to take a one hour earlier start time if they have a marathon PB of over four hours. (Jeesh!) The huaraches will be just the thing for the ITT, I think.
  • Toronto Underwear Affair 10K, August 28. This is a charity fundraiser for “cancers below the waist,” and something I do as a prostate cancer survivor. It will be, as it was in 2009, our official corporate findraiser, so I’ll try to put together a team of staff and clients for the event. Barefoot, without a doubt.
  • Ottawa 24 Hour Run, September 18. A very big challenge. I have to learn more about the running surface for this one. It takes place on the Louis Riel Dome indoor track in Ottawa, the surface of which is a uni-directional composite called Mondo. Looks interesting, and is said to be fast, but I don’t know what it’s like to run on barefoot.
  • Port Credit 52K Pick UP Ultra, October 23. This will be run on four loops of road and trail near my home. Probably quite casual, with no awards, timing chips, or anything fancy. But it’ll be a nice way to close off the racing year, I think. Definitely barefoot.

My overall goal for 2010, then, is to really get into being a barefoot ultra runner. Maybe get quicker than I have been, but the real point will be to explore the joy of running, rather than looking to pure performance.

The race schedule I’ve oultined above will keep me busy from late March to late October. Until then, though, I’ve got an awful lot of training to do.

Getting Faster

One of the ways I could get faster is – not surprisingly – if I lost some weight.

Not that I’m heavy. In fact, at 5 foot 8 1/2 inches (174 cm) and 161 lbs. (73 kgs.), I’m not doing too badly at all. However, according to a calculator on the Running for Fitness Web site, I could, all things being equal, improve my finishing times simply by dropping a few pounds.

Here’s what the calculator suggests… My finishing time for the Around the Bay 30K this year was 3:02:45. If I lost 4 lbs. (1.8 kgs.), I could shave 3 minutes and 46 seconds off that, and end up with a finishing time of 2:58:59. By losing the same amount of weight, my finishing time for the Niagara 50K Ultra, which was 6:19:20, could be bettered by a whopping 7 minutes and 19 seconds, for a new, improved time of 6:12:01.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind here. One is that you’ll note I said “all things being equal.” And that’s not going to be the case. It never is, because training is different, weather is different, form is different, and so on. I ran in heavy rain and 4C temperatures on this year’s Around the Bay race, and in absolutely torrential rain (though warmer temperatures) on the Niagara Ultra. Perhaps I would have been faster in both races if the weather had been better. Perhaps not. I ran the ATB as part of an excellent group clinic program, and ran the Niagara 50K only six weeks after a disastrous “crash and burn” in the Mississauga Marathon. Now I’m training alone (which is always the better option for me), and this year plan to run the Niagara 50K Ultra only four weeks after the Mississauga Marathon. (I don’t, however, plan to blow up during the marathon.) And I’ve already embarked on a rigorous training program for next year’s races, which includes cross-training as well as the usual long runs, hill sets, and interval sessions.

Then there’s the matter of footwear. I ran both the ATB and the Ultra this year in conventional shoes (Brooks Trance 8s). In 2010, I plan to run both races – and the Mississsauga Marathon – either barefoot or in Vibram Fivefingers KSOs.

You see how much fun running can be? I’m spoiled for choice as far as options go, and that doesn’t even take into account the possibility of injury or illness in the coming months. (Don’t want to think about that, but I have to.)

Let’s face it, the possibility of achieving new personal bests – breaking 3 hours for the 30K, and whittling 7 minutes and change off my 50K time – is exciting. Only four pounds, you say? So near, yes – and yet it seems so very, very far…