What’s My Running Thing?

Sometimes I find myself wondering about people who are highly skilled at something and how they discovered that they were good at it. Maybe more importantly what if they weren’t exposed to the thing that they had become highly skilled at. Would they have been successful at something else? What if Michael Jordan had decided to focus on baseball after being cut from his high school basketball team? What if Yo-Yo Ma had been given a trumpet instead of a cello as a child? What if Eddie Van Halen hadn’t switched from piano and drums to guitar?

I was thinking about my running history the other day and was thinking about how I have found that I am really enjoying running trails and ultra-distance events. These are a new frontier for me and have certainly become a joy of late. Not that I’m any good at either, but it made me wonder what type of runner I really am. I regret that I didn’t have running in my life as a youth. I didn’t run track or cross country, but looking back on those types of running I wish I had experienced some of it. I have tried my hand at many types of running in my adult life and found that I love it all. But what am I best at? What distance or event do I perform best at? I’m not really sure.

Looking at my race results over the years I can see that I’m slightly faster than the average runners, usually placing in the top half of finishers or higher. In races, I almost always find myself alone chasing the faster runners ahead of me and yet gapping the rest of the field. I find that very interesting. It happens in almost every race, including the 25K trail race I did last month. From 5K’s to marathons, that is where I fall.

But of the races I have done, which distance is the one I perform best at? I don’t feel like I have blazing fast 5K speed, yet I can usually win an age group award at it and finish in the top 10% or so in the local races. That’s pretty good I think. My 5K PR is 19:29, which isn’t all that quick. My current average 5K time is over 22 minutes, thanks to getting older. I’ve been fast enough at marathons to qualify for the Boston Marathon three times now. And the nine half-marathons that I have done, all have been 1:40 or under, and I have always thought that to be pretty good. I like to keep the challenge of being under 1:40 going, but as I get older that is going to be difficult. I can’t imagine trying to average 7:30 per mile for 13.1 miles right now.

Maybe short-distance running is my thing. I ran a 5:44 min/mile a couple of years ago. That was an all-out effort and I spent a good chunk of summer and fall prepping myself for that. Or maybe it isn’t a speed thing, but rather a distance challenge that I may personally excel at. I’m currently discovering pushing myself to go farther than I have ever run before and I keep surprising myself each time. Maybe long and slow is the way!

I have heard the term “jack of all trades, master of none” before and maybe that’s the type of runner I am. Maybe I’m just good enough at a variety of distances, but just not ever going to be the top dog at any one of them. I guess there’s some fulfillment in that as a running journey.

What is your best event or distance? Did you know it right away or did it eventually come to you?

Running Stories: My Obsession With Numbers

When I run I have a habit that I think a lot of other runners may share – I have to make sure that it ends on a mile exactly, or the quarter, half, or three-quarter of a mile. A 5K, or 3.1 miles has always made me uneasy. 26.2? Couldn’t they have made it 26.25, or just plain old 26?

When I started training for Ironman the plan I followed had built the cycling and running workouts around time, not distance. That was very tough for me to get used to because I always went for an even-mile run, not a 45-minute or an hour-long run. Fortunately for me, my easier Zone 2 pace is at about a 9 minute/mile, so I would get 5 miles done in 45-minutes. But a 30-minute run would push me over 3 miles. I would usually quit three minutes early, or push a little more to get that extra quarter mile. I never wanted it to be a 2.68-mile run. And if do a run in some unfamiliar place and I get back to where I started on some weird number, you can bet that I would do a little more to get the number I want.

I don’t think I would call myself obsessive about it, it’s just that I used to handwrite my mileage into my running log, and to have those nice numbers made it easier for me to add up at the end of the year. I just got used to it and stuck with running distances ending in x.0, x.25., x.5, or x.75.

The 2010 Chicago Marathon had something going for it in addition to being a world-class marathon. People were excited to be in the field and run through the city. But I think that they were more excited about it being run on October 10. Yes, 10-10-10. I found myself also thinking that it was kind of cool, even though the year was 2010, not 0010. I’m a nitpicker. 10-10-10 was plastered all over the event that year. People were enamored by it, so much so that I remember one person suggesting the marathon for 2011 to be moved from October to September so that the date would read 9-10-11. That didn’t happen. Anyway, I have to admit that running the 10-10-10 Chicago made it a little more memorable for me than any of the other years that I did it.

But this year I am trying to change my old ways. I no longer personally log my mileage into a running log, I let my much smarter Garmin watch and app do all that logging and adding work for me. I’m not one for making New Year’s resolutions, but this year I decided not to obsess over a run ending in zero-point-nine. So far, I have had a 7.16-mile run and one 4.24 miler. Baby steps.

Do you have a weird running thing? Maybe you’re a streaker, running every day? Or maybe your normal looped run route is always done counter-clockwise? I’d love to know.

Running Stories: Throwing Down The Gauntlet

As I approached the trail I was about to turn onto from the sidewalk I was running on, I could see a runner off to the right about 100-yards away, heading in the same direction that I was planning to run. As I hopped on the trail I kept my pace the same as it had been for the previous three miles and didn’t think much about the guy behind me. He ran behind me for about five minutes and then I started to hear footsteps. I was about to be overtaken. He was about to throw down the gauntlet.

In Medieval days, a gauntlet was a type of armored glove used to protect the hand, but if thrown down it was meant as a physical challenge to your opponent. I had a pretty good feeling that he was challenging me, as I have done this move before. Many times before. Too many times before. Enough times that I gave it that term – throwing down the gauntlet.

You can throw down the gauntlet in a race, but everybody is challenging each other throughout the race. You might have someone kick hard near the end and you either respond or don’t. But out on the trail during a simple training run, throwing down the gauntlet is a move to see what the other guy is made of.

Since he took his time coming up from behind and then sped past me fairly quickly, I figured he was making a tactical mistake. I know that mistake well. You run hard to catch the guy ahead of you and then struggle to keep up the increased pace once you pass him. I have often thrown down the gauntlet only to regret having to run much harder than I am capable of after the pass. You learn not to throw down the gauntlet if it means that you will run out of gas by doing so.

I picked up my pace to match his from about 15 yards behind him. It was a pace I could handle. I made some noise just to let him know I was still there. A quick glance over his shoulder told me all I needed to know. He was trying to outrun me and now realized that I had responded to his challenge.

As I ran behind him for about a mile I had no plans to throw down the gauntlet myself, I was already pushing it pretty hard just to keep up with him, plus my route was about to take me on a different direction and I had about four more miles to run. As I made a left turn onto the trail that heads back home and he continued straight, I think he now knows that throwing down the gauntlet might get you the challenge that you weren’t expecting. I know this because I have learned that lesson myself many times before.

Running Stories: Reaping the Rewards

This year was going to be a special year of racing for me. In addition to the local road running races and sprint triathlons that I would normally sign up for, I was also set to return to Kentucky for Ironman Louisville with my Gunner teammates/friends, and also take my first stab at doing an ultramarathon in Wisconsin at the Big Hill Bonk in Beloit. But alas, it was not meant to be.

But that doesn’t mean I sat around and did nothing. Even though the races were taken away from me I would never have not ran or biked, or even done the occasional swim just to do it. Running has always been the thing I have done, to the point that it’s just life for me. So regardless of whether there’s a race to run or an event to do, I’m still going to do it. And even with the pandemic going on, I still went out there and put in the running and biking efforts.

Since there was no goal race to shoot for, I decided to just have fun doing my thing while maintaining my running and biking fitness. Mostly I would alternate run and bike days, with Monday being an off-day to recover. There would be low-key group rides on the weekends that usually end up being solo rides anyway. And my weekly midday runs were always there for me after getting off work. And the pool was always waiting for me post run to cool down and put in a few laps of technique focused swimming.

Even though I didn’t have any distance goals or time goals, I focused on putting in miles without going too hard. There were plenty of friends doing “virtual” races, and I gave doing that kind of thing a brief consideration, but then opted against it. Instead I used the year as kind of a recovery year, not burning out, but “keeping it real” as my neighbor likes to say. And as December rolled around I realized that I had just surpassed 12oo running miles, which was a nice accomplishment. Getting over 1000 miles in a year is a pretty good achievement for any runner.

But as the temps dropped and I was seeing my pace come down for my typical running routes, I was interested in seeing just how racing fit I was.

First up was a sub-6 minute mile challenge that I was able to get under with a 5:44 minute mile. That was surprising to me, as I struggled through the summer to be under 6:30.

Last weekend, I decided to run a half-marathon on my own. I usually shoot to be under an hour and forty minutes when racing a half, so I set that as a goal. The hills on my route though were humbling, and I came in at 1:43 and change. Even so, I think that is pretty respectable, seeing that my run lacked the race environment that pushes me to an uncomfortable and challenging pace – fellow competitors, adrenaline, and the desire to push harder when challenged were all absent. I will take that do-it-myself 1:43 half-marathon and be proud of it.

Today I ran my normal 8-mile running route, which is also hilly, but the day seemed pretty good for another push for a good time. I turned in a time of 1:01:20, which is the fastest of the 8-milers that I have run this year. There’s a local 8-mile race that I usually do every November called “The Hot Cider Hustle” in which I can generally come in under 60 minutes. But I will take that 61 minute 20 second 8-mile run and be proud of it.

I had done some good work this year, even without having a goal to shoot for. I’m glad that the work I did produced a handful of good results for me. This year has taught me that reaping the rewards of good work doesn’t have to come from racing.

Time to dial it back a little now and get ready for 2021. Hopefully I can reap the rewards in more of a fashion I am used to. But regardless as to whether we race in 2021 or not, I’m going to put in the work. It’s rewarding.

Running Stories: The Look

On Thanksgiving Day I had very little desire to go for a run.  It was drab and cold outside.  I had been outside early in the morning with my dog and could feel the dampness chilling me and knew that on a day in which people love to get together and race Turkey Trots, I would probably opt out.  Seeing that Covid-19 was killing off most of the official Turkey Trots, the decision to opt out would be an easy one.

But as the morning progressed guilt got the better of me, and I decided that if others were out there I should be too.  Plus sitting inside watching football games that I had zero interest in probably wouldn’t make me feel any better about myself.  And I planned to feast on the fabulous meal my wife would be presenting later in the afternoon.  I needed to run to make me feel better.

I chose to run eight miles, my typical distance which follows my normal looped running route.  I can change my route up – shorten it, lengthen it, run it clockwise one day, counter-clockwise the next.  But I generally run my loop, and adding a little quarter-mile extension, it makes it an even eight miles.

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My 8-mile looped route. I know it like the back of my hand.

As I got to the looped portion of the trail a mile from home I noticed that I wasn’t alone out there on Thanksgiving Day.  Plenty of walkers and runners enjoying a moderately mild, fall day.  Families walking together, a few running together and most just doing what comes natural on Thanksgiving Day – getting together outside and being thankful for that opportunity.  About a mile and a half into my run I got the first of handful of greetings that I call “The Look.”

The look can be different things with different meanings, but for runners it generally is an acknowledgement that the looker sees you as a serious runner.  I see it a lot at races, runners eyeing each other up, giving a nod as if to say “I validate you and recognize you as my competition.”  I also see it out on the local running trail as well.

Maybe it was the Boston Marathon jacket I was wearing, or maybe it was my pace.  I’m not sure, but the kid running toward me gave me the look and a greeting that seemed to say “Nice job, old guy.”  I can assume this because he wasn’t dressed like a hobby jogger, and he looked like a high school or college cross country runner.  I have to admit that it kind of made my day.

Another mile or two into it and I came upon another runner who looked very fast.  This time it was me that gave the look of approval.  He was lean, focused and running pretty fast.  He didn’t even really make eye contact with me that I could tell.  I gave him a quick thumbs up and “nice job” and we were soon running away from each other as fast as we had been running toward each other.  I don’t think he even realized that I gave him the look.

As I kept moving toward mile six, I saw a couple up ahead walking toward me.  This time the look came from a tall, jeans wearing guy who was also wearing running shoes.  He seemed to take me in and give me the look, one that lingered, like he was acknowledging the Boston celebration jacket and knew what it took to earn that jacket.  I gave him the look as well – he looked like a guy who was a longtime runner, with a pedigree to boot.  He reminded me of the guys who used to run in the early 70’s – Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter, et. al.  He had that look of a tall and thin runner.  As I ran away from them I wondered what kind of running he may have done over the years.

As I was about to finish my loop and take the trail back home, who did I see coming at me but the kid who I thought hadn’t even noticed me 2.5 miles earlier.  This time he and I were chuckling at the fact that we were seeing each other again.  I now wondered if he had given me the look, seeing that he recognized me the second time around.

Two days later I went for another run.  I didn’t give anyone the look, nor did I receive any.  I did have someone say hello to me and call me by my name.  I have no idea who it was, as he was cycling and bundled up from head to toe.  Getting recognized by another runner or cyclist is almost as good as getting the look.

So the next time you are at a race, or just out running, keep an eye out for the look.  Another runner respects you.  You deserve it.