Dare Mighty Things

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat." -Teddy Roosevelt

Monday, June 27, 2011

US Mountain Running Championships

The "down" side of mountain racing
at Cranmore.
[Photo courtesy of Joe Viger]
"It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves." - Sir Edmund Hillary

North Conway, NH -- Sunday's Cranmore Hill Climb served as the 2011 US Mountain Running Championships and provided me yet another incredible opportunity to race against the best.  But it wasn't the guys from CO, WA, & CA that I was at all interested in...it was the men whom I've done battle with on the snow, trails, and mountains of New England that I was most interested in testing my mettle.  At 42 years of age I'm very fortunate to be in good enough health (and decent enough physical condition) to be able to compete.  While not a "mountain goat" I am very comfortable racing up mountains and actually consider hill climbing a strength.  So when it appeared as though the Cranmore Hill Climb would finally fit in my schedule I committed.  Teammate Ken Young and I drove up to North Conway and met fellow teammates Dan Dion, Dan Hayden, Andrea McCusker, Ahna McCusker, and Judson Cake.  The layout of the course was pretty straightforward, three 3.87 km laps up and down the mountain with 206 meters of gain on each lap.  Not having scouted the course I decided to attempt to gain as much pre-race knowledge as I could and polled nearly everyone I knew including master's mountain running legend and fellow competitor Paul Bazanchuk.  Paul and I have raced against each other on snow, trails, and mountains.  I have a great deal of respect for him and his incredible fitness and tenacity.  Although I frequently see him before a race I rarely see him during them.  He's typically way out in front.  When I saw him finishing a warm-up lap before the start I took the opportunity to ask him about the course.  Gracious and forthcoming as always he offered up a little inside knowledge.  And when I asked if all of the climbs were "runnable" he said that they definitely were.  So, I quickly formulated a race plan no less than 10 minutes before the start.  I'd go out conservatively on the first lap to see first hand how challenging the climbs were and then from there would attempt to run the whole damn thing picking off the guys who may have gone out a little too hard in the beginning.  Tim VanOrden told me at Mt. Washington last year that it's always better to be passing people rather than getting passed at these mountain races.  As the "Go" command was given by mountain running legend Dave Dunham I hung off the back half of the field as the top mountain runners in the US blasted off of the line and hurdled themselves at the mountain.  After roughly 100 meters the course began to climb.  Almost immediately I encountered slower traffic (some walking) and hugging the far right side of the access road made my way around 15-20 people.  The course was a great mix of ski slopes, access roads, and singletrack with traverses and even a couple of brief descents in the 2+km climb to the high point.  After having run the entire first climb I attempted to relax on the descent and hold whatever places I had gained.  Still needing a great deal of work in that area I gave back a handful of places to runners who seemed to be flying 2 feet off of the ground as they glided downhill.  Passing the START/FINISH I grabbed a splash of water and headed up for lap #2.  I leap frogged 3-4 guys passing them on the ups (which I was still running and they walking) and then giving back the places on the descents (which they were running faster...still).  I passed the START/FINISH again in approximately 40:00 having run two very consistent laps.  Just past the 1km mark of the last climb I caught a glimpse in the distance of Paul Bazanchuk.  Because I am very, very rarely within 5-10 minutes of him I was immediately buoyed seeing him within striking distance.  Picking up the climbing pace (still running) I was able to close the gap and get to his shoulder.  Without speaking he acknowledged my presence and I felt incredibly uplifted.  As we both slogged through those final few climbs (running by the way) I briefly got in front and implored him to follow feeling that I owed him the favor of pulling him up the last pitch after he let me ride along for the last few hundred meters.  Beginning the last downhill I knew that as good of a climber as I am...Paul is three times as good of a descender.  And it wasn't longer before he blasted by me chasing down the 2-3 guys just ahead of us.  Not really sure how to go any faster than I was going and stay on my feet I made my way back down to the bottom of the mountain and crossed the finish line in 1:00:40 and 52 place overall (19th master).  As proud as I am of a Top 20 finish at a US Championship I much more proud of the fact that I ran the whole damn thing.  I realize that there were scores of men who beat me and walked, but I was also in a private 1-on-1 battle with the mountain.  And this time, I won.

Photo credit: Joe Viger Photography

NEXT UP: Bradbury Scuffle

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Pinnacle

Finishing Lap #1 of the Pinnacle
in Newport, NH
[Photo: Gianina Lindsey]
"There are no failures -- just experiences and your reactions to them."  -Tom Krause

Newport, NH -- Is it possible to love something but at the same time not enjoy it?  Sunday I continued my tormented relationship with mountain bike racing at the Pinnacle in Newport, NH.  Before I go any further...let me say that the folks at Team-Pinnacle are fantastic!  aR has been racing their fall double duathlon, the Pinnacle Challenge, for ever and ever.  They couldn't be nicer and have some the best singletrack in the Dartmouth-Lake Sunapee Region for sure.  Now back to the story.  For years I've really, really enjoyed mountain biking.  Heck, I just bought myself a new Felt Q720 hardtail to add to my collection.  Nothing fancy, mountain biking is a diversionary activity for me so I can't really justify dropping $3k on a rig that will spend more time next to my furnace than in the woods.  But it's something I love and it's something I can do with my son Brayden (more on him later) and my brother Jay (when he's around...or when we take trips to places like Moab).  And it has always seemed to me that if you really enjoyed something "recreationally" then it's only natural that you'd also really enjoy it "competitively".  It's that way for trail racing, road racing, and snowshoeing for me.  But as hard as I try, I just can't seem to love mountain bike racing as much as I do mountain bike riding.  And I'll try to explain that paradox.  Brayden, Timmy Lindsey, the Lindsey Clan, and I headed to Newport this weekend for a planned Father's Day mountain bike race.  I'm familiar with the course from the Pinnacle Challenge each fall and as I already mentioned the folks at Team-Pinnacle are great so it really was an easy choice.  Timmy, in his first mountain bike race, planned to ride the Novice class (2 laps/10 miles) while Brayden & I the Sport class (3 laps/16 miles).  The first mistake I made was in my own self-evaluation and class selection.  I've raced the 24 Hours of Great Glen for the past 4 years and I've ridden Slick Rock in Utah so surely if anyone is a novice it is not I!  Like I said...mistake #1.  I lined up with the other Sport-Masters II riders who would go off in the 3rd wave exactly 2 minutes behind the first group with no fewer than 5 or 6 waves of Sport & Novice riders to follow.  The course would include a shortened 4 mile loop and then two 6 mile loops climbing all the way to the top of the Pinnacle before the incredibly fast and fun 2+ mile berm filled "pump track" descent.  The bonus would be riding the "pump track" on all three loops.  It almost made the killer granny gear climbs worth it...almost.  Within minutes of starting the race I felt like I was log jamming faster traffic behind me on the narrow technical singletrack.  Acknowledging I was slower I repeatedly pulled off to let the stronger riders pass thus eliminating any possible rhythm or momentum (of mine).  The RDs describe the Pinnacle course as "technical" and these dudes are mountain bikers but in years past I've ridden the entire track without as much as a dab.  But in all cases I've been riding with very little pressure from a large chase pack.  Normally I'm accustomed to yielding to faster guys (and gals) on mountain bikes so it's really not that big of a deal but nearly 3/4 of the Sport & Novice field behind me (some 20+) passed me during that first lap making for a choppy first 40 minutes.  One of those 20+ was my son Brayden who started several minutes back.  With very little effort he made up the time gap and passed me before we hit the high point of the course.  His 18 year old legs, substantially more seat time, and fearlessness on the descents were a trifecta that I couldn't possibly overcome and, with the exception of video games, for the first time in his life he was kicking his old man's ass in something competitive.  Is there any better male "right of passage" than that?  Okay, there are a few but it's probably in the Top 5.  Just before "The Plummet", located at the end of each loop, I took a wrong turn.  Within a 100 meters I realized my mistake and doubled-back but the mind screwing was just beginning.  Racing through the START/FINISH area I headed out for loop 2 of 3.  This time a longer 6 mile version of the same loop we just did including an additional ascent to the very top of the course.  Again, like in the first loop although with slightly less frequency, I dodged out of the way as faster riders approached from behind.  By this time my confidence began to wane and I was dishing on technical spots that I otherwise could pull off.  And for some reason each time I fell it became harder and harder to get my shoe released from my pedal resulting in repeated slow motion hip/forearm shivers to the dirt.  Approaching the big drop back to the START/FINISH I had had enough and decided to call it quits.  I wasn't bonked or injured.  I just wasn't having any fun.  And looking at my watch...the Expert and Elite classes were getting ready to get on course for their 4 laps!  I knew had I started that 3rd lap all of those riders would be racing around me as well.  With respect to not funking up their race I opted to just get out of the way.  My first DNF this year for sure and perhaps...ever?  It's weird, as the standard bearer for this team and organization I feel incredibly guilty and ashamed when I don't measure up to our mantra, RACE acidotic which means giving nothing less than everything you have.  It's what I admire in so many of my teammates and what at times I lack so woefully.  I still love mountain biking, I just don't think I enjoy mountain bike racing.  And I'm really, really bummed and confused about it.

NEXT UP: US Mountain Running Championships at Cranmore Mountain (NH)

POST-SCRIPT:  Nobody asked me and nobody probably cares but after reflecting 24 hours on the race I know what I'd do differently if I ever hosted a mountain bike race.  First, the Expert and Elite classes would race first thereby assuring that these folks would have a clear course to ride.  I'm sure they think it sucks to have to avoid the slower Sport & Novice riders.  Depending on the course (laps or loop) the Sport & Novice riders would race once the Elite & Expert riders had finished or began their final lap.  And the Sport & Novice riders would seed themselves according to ability like any other damn trail or road race.  It makes absolutely no sense to me to line faster riders up behind the slower ones.  Seeding would assure that the fast folks get out and race on clean track and the slower riders would ride off the back also having a clean track to ride.  Clearly the likelihood exists that the slower riders will be lapped but only a small margin and only near the end of their race (or not at all for the fewer lap Novice riders).  For sure I'm no mountain bike racer or RD and as someone as already said to me..."they obviously do it the way they do it for a reason!" but for me I'd probably enjoy it a little more without feeling like I'm holding everyone else up.  But what the hell do I know?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Exeter Trail Races presented by GoLite Footwear

Without question my favorite
course of the trail racing season!
[Photo Gianina Lindsey]
 "Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction." - William James

Exeter, NH -- I eat breakfast with him.  I drive to races with him.  I even warm-up with with him.  There isn't anyone on the face of the planet who I know better than my #1 competition at any event I race.  Yet from time to time he befuddles me.  Does something so unexpected that I wonder how much I really do know him?  I know my greatest competition, and he is I.  As an exercise physiologist I know that if we tested every trail runner finishing in the Top 15 at the Exeter Trail Races presented by GoLite Footwear there would very little physiologic variance in nearly any parameter you'd want to highlight...VO2max, lactate threshold, mitochondrial density. Yet clearly there are differences in performance.  So if physiology can't account for the differences in performance in these particular athletes, then what does?  The quote from above and my own personal experience with the topic (the Exeter Trail Race this weekend as Exhibit A) suggests that the greatest difference in athletes finishing in the Top 15 is fear.  When each of us is faced with the "obstruction", and we all confront it, the athlete(s) who in that moment are not afraid of what lies on the other side...are the ones who are able to continue to push forward and find endless resources of ease and power.  William James' quote is on the footer of my blog.  You'd think of ANYONE, it would be ME who would know first hand the benefit of pushing through the obstruction!  Yet a woeful lack of attention and commitment to the moment, resulted in a mental shortcoming at the instant in which I needed all of my focus on that problem.

The 10 miler at the Exeter Trail Races presented by GoLite Footwear is hosted by acidotic RACING and skillfully directed by teammates Sarah Silverberg and Ri Fahnestock (course designer).  The course that Ri has crafted is quickly becoming one of my favorite trail racing experiences.  A dizzying roller coaster of roots and rocks, the figure 8 layout is as much a test of athleticism as it is aerobic endurance.  In 2010 I had one of my best all-time performances racing the course as hard from start to finish as any race I've ever done.  With a very consistent and successful winter and early spring I had a tremendous amount of confidence heading into the weekend.  Remembering how important getting out quickly was to last year's performance I jumped off the gun and worked to get out front before the singletrack narrowed the 80+ strong field (of 4 & 10 milers).  And apparently it worked...because as we hit the singletrack (20 meters into the race) I was leading the field!  Not exactly what I was looking to do, but I figured that eventually the Top 5 would get tired of my slow pace and find their way around.  For what seemed like way too long they let me lead.  With the abundance of toe grabbing rocks and roots there was no way I was looking back, instead trying to focus on the measured cadence of my pursuers.  Eventually of course they went around but because the 4 & 10 mile races were held on the same course for the first 2+ miles there was really no telling what place I was in when 4-6 of them trucked on by including my teammate and eventual 2nd place finisher Dan Hayden.  Content to let that lead pack do their thing I settled into a comfortably hard pace remembering that 10 miles at "Fort Rock" can be brutal.  I ran alone for a while skillfully picking lines through the boulder fields, root stalks, and hairpin turns.  Shortly after crossing under Rt 101 I caught glimpses in my peripheral vision of another challenge and I recognized the familiar singlet of Coastal Athletic Association.  We raced within 3-5 meters for a mile or so but I could feel him gaining on me.  At some point when he was within shouting distance I spoke back words of encouragement and alerted him to some of the more abrupt directional changes with shouts of "LEFT, LEFT, LEFT!" or "RIGHT, RIGHT, RIGHT!".  Karma always comes back around and any chance I get to spread a little around during a race I never miss an opportunity.  When we finally were running within a meter of each other I learned his name was Tim.  We agreed we'd work together to hold off the hard charging duo of Dave Merkt (Shenipsit Striders) and my aR teammate Dan Dion who had closed the gap and were eager to make it a four car locomotive.  When I sensed Dave & Dan closing I asked Tim if he wanted to go by but he refused instead encouraging me to keep up the pace.  Mere moments later the other two had their grips on us and now I was dragging four instead of just two.  It's incredibly difficult to hold off one challenge on slippery singletrack, but holding off three was damn near impossible.  Feeling as though I had slowed considerably since our company had arrived I veered off the trail and let Tim and Dave race by but to my surprise Dan asked me to pull a little longer.  When we hit the Rt 101 tunnel with less than 1.5 miles to go Dan easily dispatched of me.  It was at that moment that I stared the obstruction squarely in the eyes.  I had a pretty easy choice...stick with Dan and let him pull me to the finish or fade back in fear of an epic collapse.  Without the proper attention to the challenge I squandered the moment.  There wasn't anything physically wrong with me when Dan raced around.  Fear prevented me from tapping into those sources of ease and power James talks about and that I've felt numerous times before.  I managed to keep Dan in sight but never challenged him finishing 7 seconds back in 10th overall (3rd master) in 1:18:19.  Ri switched the course up on us this year so technically it was our first time racing this design.  Had the race been another few hundred meters my good trail/snowshoe racing brother from the Striders John Agosto and my aR teammate Rich Lavers would have surely caught me.  I believe growth comes from learning and on Sunday I learned that I need to write and keep James' quote with me at every race and read it right before I start. 


Next Up: Pinnacle Mountain Bike Race, Newport, NH