2016 Race Schedule

Podium
On the center podium at the 2015 OCR World Championships, with my acidotic RACING teammate Lance Reed in the three-spot.

It is hard to settle on a race schedule with the demands of being a dad, husband, business owner, and sole moneymaker for four humans and one dog. Its even harder because I have a few different interests, and deciding what KINDS of races can be almost as hard as deciding on specific events. Plus my wife competes, and is a threat to win races outright whereas I am just an age group contender…so we have to coordinate schedules and make sure our kids are still enjoying life and not being dragged around by their self-indulgent athletic parents.

At 43 years old and fully gray, I feel a strong pull toward competing at a high level, if only to keep the wolves of time at bay for a few more years. Sure, there are some badass runners who are in their 50s and 60s, but they are few and far between. The defeatist in me feels like my 40s will be my last hurrah…the faint stink of inevitability seems to get a little stronger each year.

So…2016. I guess a quarter of the year has already passed, and all I have to show for it is three track races and a 4:34 indoor mile. I was robbed of snow and snowshoe races. Despite winning OCR World Championships in the 40-44 age group in 2014 and 2015, my enthusiasm for obstacle course racing has been eroding. I think this love loss is due mostly to my own personality quirks. I am a quiet, introverted, process-oriented person; I prefer to hone my craft in solitude, and try to earn the respect of others. I find the evolving sport of OCR to be a loathsome social phenomenon where people are often celebrated more for their social media presence than their actual performance or ability. Thats fine…it is what it is, but it just doesn’t sit well with me. That said, I will return to the OCR World Championships to attempt a three-peat…but I will be a dark horse once again because people will forget I even exist.

Here is my race schedule…subject to last-minute changes due to family catastrophes, injury, illness…whatever. Life happens.

April 9: Merrimack River Trail Race…this is the USATF-New England Trail Championships. I was the Masters champion in 2015.

April 24: James Joyce Ramble 10K (road). This is the Masters National Championships for this distance. I was 4th in 2015, but I know lots of guys who are much faster than me who sat out. My goal is to run faster than I did last year.

May 8: 7 Sisters Trail Race. Considered one of the hardest trail races in the country. I am hoping to become one of few 40+ runners to break 2-hours on this nasty course…the 2:00:36 I ran in 2015 left me full of regret for not pushing just a little harder.

May 21: Bonefrog Challenge (OCR). A great local race and a qualifier for the OCR World Championships.

Sometime in June or July: Run 15:40 for 5K or 4:25 for a mile, on the track.

July 4: Loon Mountain Race. This is the U.S. Mountain Running Championships and will draw a huge number of amazing runners from North America and maybe even Europe. I daydream about standing on a podium in the 40-44 age group, but that would take near-perfect training and race execution, and a bit of luck. This is my goal race of the summer.

July 9 and 10: Whiteface Vertical K and Sky Race. This is my self-indulgent weekend in the Adirondacks.

August 21: Hampshire 100 Bike Race. 100 miles on my fatbike; pure adventure.

September 4: Jay Peak 25K Trail Race. Its in northern Vermont, and a race I have been wanting to do for a while.

October 1: Bretton Woods Fell Race. The only fell race in North America, I think, and organized by my very own racing team, acidotic RACING.

October 15: OCR World Championships. Hoping for a three-peat. It’ll be interesting to see if I can stay motivated to train for this, without doing any OCRs in the four months leading up to it.

After that, might try to hone my speed for USATF-New England Cross Country Championships or hit a late-season trail race. But mostly I will be looking ahead to the Snowshoe World Championships that will be held in upstate New York in early 2017.

 

 

Trail Running, Mountain Biking…and Invasive Species?

Hemlock Ravine
One of the many cool, shady hemlock ravines near my home

Near my home in west-central Massachusetts, I have many thousands of nearly contiguous acres of privately owned and state-owned woodlands to play in. Endless miles of old logging roads, ATV and snowmobile trails, hiking trails, transmission lines, and old country roads provide a limitless amount of terrain for trail running, skiing, snowshoeing, and mountain biking.

In recent years, there seems to be an upsurge in commercial forest cutting. People who use trails for recreational purposes and enjoy the aesthetic qualities of forests are usually disappointed, sometimes even angry, when heavy machinery rolls into a forest and an area is stripped clean. Trails often become unrecognizable; tangles of slash and deep skidder ruts are often left behind if harvest is messy. I try to remain neutral: I am a trail lover and an ecologist, and I also understand that most of these forests represent a livelihood for the landowners. I am grateful for those landowners that allow recreational use on their lands, and therefore I hold my tongue when it comes time to harvest. I also understand that forests have been harvested and allowed to regenerate numerous times over the last three centuries…it is part of our cultural heritage, and this heritage is far more important than any selfish feelings I may have about my favorite sections of singletrack.

But some of the recent upsurge in commercial forest cutting is actually a symptom of a far more sinister problem that may, in the end, change our forests forever. The hemlock woolly adelgid is an aphid-like, non-native, invasive species that has been rapidly spreading in our region and will greatly reduce and possibly eliminate hemlock trees from our forests altogether. I have numerous hemlock trees on my land, and all are infected with the woolly adelgid and have been showing telltale signs of needle discoloration and thinning, and dieback. These trees are doomed, but I don’t have the heart to cut them down yet.

Want to know more? Woolly Adelgid Species Information

Commercial landowners, whose livelihoods depend on harvesting their forests, may not have a choice. Although hemlock is not as commercially valuable as other tree species, there is a market for it as pulpwood, lumber, fuel for biomass plants, and shredded to make bark mulch. With most of the hemlock stands in my area now infected with the woolly adelgid, landowners are mounting fairly large-scale “salvage” harvests to get some revenue for these trees before they die out.There are lots of good scholarly and popular articles available on the web. Here are a couple:

Popular Article

More Scientific Article

Salvage harvests can have quick and dramatic visual impacts on some of our favorite places and trails. But if the harvest is done well, these efforts should also improve growing conditions for tree species that will replace hemlock, and within a couple of years the landscape will look green and alive again. Trail users can certainly kick some of the “leftovers” out of the way to get a trail back into shape, and talk with landowners about restoring sections of trails that were particularly hard-hit.

It is important to not be angry with the landowners, but to commiserate with them about the loss of such an ecologically important species from our forests. It is truly a devastating loss. This large-scale transformation, or upheaval, in eastern forests due to loss of a dominant species at the hands of non-native pathogens is not unprecedented. American Chestnut was once a dominant tree in eastern forests before it was almost entirely eliminated by the Chestnut Blight, and the same is true for American Elm that was ravaged by the Dutch Elm Disease. Before these two species all but disappeared, I am sure nobody could imagine what our forests would look like without them.

I cannot imagine what some of my favorite hemlock ravines and singletrack sections will look like, and feel like, once hemlock is gone…but the salvage harvests in my area are providing the first glimpses of this. I will certainly miss the cool shade that hemlocks provide, and numerous wildlife species—both terrestrial and aquatic—will have trouble adapting to the loss of hemlock.

 

 

Only a Mile, Part 2: How on Earth?

So, I set a goal of 4:30 for an indoor mile. It was just a round number…I had nothing to back it up. I ran 4:17 in high school (outdoor) and 4:09 (outdoor) in college. Here is a chronology of my post-collegiate mile races (indoor or outdoor) prior to setting this goal:

  • 1997: Eastern Michigan University, while a graduate student at Michigan State. Guessing maybe 4:20, but I honestly cannot remember.
  • 1997: Western Michigan University, while a graduate student at Michigan State. Guessing the 4:20 range…again, don’t remember.
  • ~2010: Amherst High School. My 5-yr old daughter wanted to run a mile so I ran with her in my street clothes at a local track meet. She dropped out at ½ mile. Since I was warmed up, I hopped into the next heat and ran 4:59.
  • 2015: Harvard University, GBTC Invitational. 4:47.

So, based on that, 4:30 at age 43 seemed like a reasonable goal. Sure, why not.

Recap of my 2015-2016 indoor track season:

  • BU Mini Meet (mid-December): 9:17 3,000M and 4:42 Mile. Hmmm…it might be hard to hit a goal time in the mile if you run a 3,000M shortly beforehand. Duh.
  • Dartmouth Relays (early January): 4:43 Mile. Felt lousy before, during, and after the race. Disheartening.
  • GBTC Invitational (late January): 9:25 3,000M and 4:42 Mile. The 3K was a disaster because my shoe was half-off for most of the race until I stopped to pull it back on. I had hoped for a better mile, despite it being the second half of a double.
  • New Balance Grand Prix, Masters Mile: 4:34! Boom! Sure, I got schooled by a bunch of track aces, but it was a great end to a mini-season.

How Did I Train?

First and foremost, I am a trail runner and I have near-zero tolerance for roads (especially paved roads), treadmills, or tracks. I was going to train for a mile on my own turf. My workouts were usually in one of three places near my home in Leverett (MA): (1) lower pasture of Teawaddle Hill Farm, a beautiful flat meadow without a trail but with close-cropped grass and fair footing, (2) East Leverett Meadow Conservation area, with its grassy undulating path around the perimeter of a large meadow and cutting through a small blueberry orchard, and (3) Cherry Hill golf course, a hilly course that was golfer-free in the late fall and winter. I benefitted from El Nino, in that these areas were mostly snow-free and in great shape all the way through early February. I did 200s on an outdoor track once; I couldn’t go around the whole track because the shady side was icy.

Teawaddle Pasture
Lower pasture, Teawaddle Hill Farm
Cherry Hill
Cherry Hill golf course, end of January (ridiculous weather)
Track
My day on the track…

From mid-November to mid-February, my average weekly running mileage was ~45 miles and I was also averaging ~25 miles of mountain biking (on my Salsa fat bike, the frickin’ Sherman Tank of bikes, that requires a high horsepower engine). I lift weights and do intense core workouts twice a week, with heavy weights for legs and bodyweight for upper body (mostly pullups in every form imaginable, usually with a weight vest). I also hike with a weight vest, which makes me look like a combat soldier so I only use it in remote places where I won’t scare people. For the mile, I did not change my preferred training all that much, except that instead of hitting my usual 10,000-15,000+ ft of elevation gain per week, I was getting more like 4,000-8,000 ft because I dropped my big hill days in favor of intervals. I did a bit more dirt road running, and a bit less technical trail running.

Mile Training
Mile training?

The first challenge was just getting my stride to open up. If all the running you ever do is on technical hilly trails, you’ll develop a short powerful stride that may be a third or even half as long as the stride you might have on flat terrain and at faster paces. I couldn’t just dive into intervals at 4:30 pace when most of my running was much, much slower (like, 8 to 10+ mins/mile, and even slower in the mountains). My legs were sure to tear apart. So I eased into faster-paced running with strides and easy intervals, paying close attention to my body, taking time to stretch and loosen up, and kept dropping the paces as my body became more comfortable with it. Always on grass or dirt.

Once my body got used to a longer and quicker stride, I was able to start doing the intense interval training that was necessary to run a fast mile. I progressed from longer intervals (3-10+ minutes) at first, mostly at 5:00-5:30 paces, and then started to work in shorter and faster intervals over the course of several weeks. In the final few workouts, intervals were mostly only 30-60 seconds long, and quicker than my target race pace. Basic stuff.

There are a couple of challenges for a stubborn trail runner who refuses to run on tracks or roads. First, I never know distances or paces…I just run for a pre-determined amount of time. Second, the terrain I run on slows me down. Spongy grass, rolling hills, mud…obviously I cannot run as fast on these surfaces as I could on a track. Wind and cold can be brutal, and wearing appropriate clothing to stay warm often meant I was carrying a 10-lb burden of clothing.

All my pacing was based off “feel”, but obviously it is hard to know if what I felt was anything close to paces I should have been running. Some days I would want to run an interval at a 5-minute pace but I was on spongy ankle-high grass, and I wasn’t feeling sharp, and I would look at my GPS watch and it would say 5:45 pace. I’d get discouraged partway through an interval, and sometimes modify the whole workout because I couldn’t run what I thought I could run. I would mutter obscenities and gaze out at the distant mountains and wonder what the hell I was trying to do. I have since learned to not display pace on my watch because GPS technology is not that good, paces are never accurate, and I am better off just trusting my body. Hard is hard…I know what it feels like. It doesn’t matter what pace I am running if I am working hard.

Workout
GPS track and pace/elevation chart for one of my workouts at Cherry Hill golf course.

I understand why track runners train on tracks – distances are precise, paces are exact, and they gain a strong sense of what certain paces feel like and adapt to running at those paces on the surface that they will race on. I get it. But it was not a sacrifice I was willing to make.

The apex of my 3-month quest was a 4:34 mile, which came 7 days after my 43rd birthday. Did I reach my goal? Technically, I did not. But I feel great about the season and it was well worth the departure from my comfort zone. I was able to stay true to my preferred training style, integrate fast running, minimize the injury risks…and not get injured. In recent years, my hamstrings would have been a mess if I had tried to train like this, so I think my strength training, cycling, and hill-focused trail running of the last two years have corrected some of my imbalances and allowed me to run fast again. If I decide to pursue a fast mile again, I may give myself an additional 6-8 weeks of lead-up and seek some guidance on training progressions, as I felt like maybe my workouts were a little spastic and condensed into a narrow window. I will keep that 4:30 goal in my back pocket…surely I can reach it next time around!

Next up: I think my wife has race fatigue (meaning: my selfish weekend travel is going to be restricted) so my track ambitions are over for now. Both my wife and I are setting our sights on the Loon Mountain Race in early July, which is the U.S. National Mountain Running Championship. So I will do a lot of snowshoe running as long as snow lasts, mountain biking, trail running, and strength training.

Only a Mile, Part 1: Why the Hell?

Ethan_Loon Mountain

My fall racing season ended in mid-October with a repeat as world champion in the 40-44 age group at the obstacle course racing (OCR) world championships, held in Ohio. Between training for that race and a hectic final few weeks of my field season, during which time I was spending long days snorkeling and SCUBA diving (for work) and then trying to cram workouts into ever-shorter days, I got a little burned out. So rather than jump right into cross-country races, I took some down time and thought about what I wanted to do next.

The thing about training for OCRs is that its mostly base training, in the way that runners typically think about their training progression. Long runs, bike rides, hill repeats, carrying heavy stuff around the woods, weight lifting, mixing strength training into (during) runs…I have found that these alone will allow me to achieve the level of success in OCR that I want. A coach (if I had one) might argue otherwise, but I did win two world championship titles in two years, with 9-minute and 4-minute margins of victory in the two races. It’s hard to argue with results.

The most intense and painful phase of a runner’s training progression is the final phase: speed. Those gut busting interval workouts that leave you gasping for air and, over time, increasing your VO2max, pain tolerance, and ability to maintain efficient form at high speeds and when fatigued. In the three years that I have been doing OCRs, I have never tried to go into that phase of training. It wasn’t necessary, and it comes with unnecessarily high risk of injury. Pushing your body to its maximum speed and trying to sustain that for any duration, over and over again, exposes a lot of weaknesses and imbalances in the body. Hips, glutes, hamstrings, Achilles, calves: its so easy to tweak these things if you push hard enough, especially for older runners. And if things do get tweaked, recovery time is longer for older athletes. The few times I tried to train at faster paces in the last couple of years always resulted in hamstring issues…rather than try to fix the problem, I simply stopped trying to run fast.

Ethan_Advil

So I surprised myself when I decided to try to run a fast indoor mile over the winter. Its not that I wanted to see how fast I could run off my OCR training, but rather, I wanted to take my strength base and see what I could do with the dreaded phase of training that I avoided for years. Speed. Some speed comes from strength, and I knew I could probably run 4:45 without even trying. But to drop into the 4:30s, and maybe even under 4:30, was going to require a lot of training time spent outside my comfort zone…and with that would come high risk of injury, and less time spent doing the types of training I find joyful (like long trail adventures on foot or on my fatbike).

Worth the risk? The alternative was that I spend a few more months with base training, which can get a little stale over time. If I injured myself in my quest to run a fast mile, I would have plenty of time to heal since I had no significant races until the summer. Those were practical considerations. But perhaps the biggest reason was that despite my success in OCR as a master, I have been a runner all my life and no small part of me relishes the precision and honesty of a track race. I wanted to prove to myself that despite my Stallone-in-Siberia type of training during the last couple of years, I had not strayed so far from my roots that quality track performances were no longer possible. And to be honest, most of my friends, and competitors I admire most, are runners who completely shun OCR. Some may see my success in OCR at least partially the result of the OCR industry’s inability to pull most of the best runners and triathletes from their preferred sports. In many ways, I share this sentiment. I wanted to see if I could do it all: to excel in any terrain, in any type of running race whether on a track, a road, a mountain, or an obstacle course with monkeybars and mud pits and buckets of rocks.

Ethan_Bonefrog

Goal Time: 4:30

On Valentine’s Day, I will be racing the Masters Mile at the New Balance Grand Prix, which is by invitation only. This was my goal race when I set off on this quest, and I feel thankful and excited to have earned an invitation. I will write Part 2 of this blog post after the race, and describe the training that I did, things I learned along the way, and why I met, exceeded, or fell short of my goal.

OCR World Championships

Podium

I am not so good at race recaps. Races end, then I drive home and climb back into my bubble. Life goes on. However, I am not going to pretend to be all nonchalant about OCR World Championships (‪#‎OCRWC)…my home-made “gym” in my garage is the one space I manage to keep clean, my training log is far better organized than my clothes or finances, and numbers don’t lie. I worked really hard this year to defend my 40-44 age group title at OCRWC, and by any measure, this was the best year of athletic performances I have ever pieced together. Smart training, no injuries, remained enthusiastic and motivated, and I raced well all year. I went to OCRWC to win, and for weeks, days, hours, and minutes leading up to the starting cannon, I knew that I could. And I did.

My confidence about the outcome did not change my tactics…a lot can go wrong in an obstacle race, and I prefer to sit back and allow the adrenaline to subside, muscles to loosen, and heart rate to level off before finding places to push. Joel Fox was not shy about leading this race, and given his enormous strength on obstacles, I was quite happy to let him lead the way through all the obstacles in the first half of the race. I handled all the obstacles efficiently…never a misstep, never struggled…just not quite as fast as Joel into and out of each. Between obstacles, I felt quick and surefooted, even on the rocky creek beds, steep ravines, and mud. I would catch up with Joel on the runs, he’d move ahead through obstacles, and I’d regain lost ground.

My hope was to not make a decisive move until mile 6, when I knew I’d have about three miles of relatively unimpeded running ahead. After spending a few miles sizing Joel up, I decided that if he were on my tail going into the final half-mile where there was a dense cluster of obstacles, he might win. At around mile 5, I was just behind Joel going into the second Platinum Rig when he faltered and turned around to retry the obstacle…I could tell from the grimace on his face that he had hurt his arm on the first attempt. I asked if he was okay and voiced encouragement, but I also knew that my time to lead the race had arrived. I could not look back.

I faced that same moment in the 2014 race, and the feeling was the same: fear disappeared, and I was filled with a sense of calmness and elation. My thoughts drifted toward my wife, my kids, the color of the beeches and maples, fossils in the creek bed, Team Sweden…all the while my legs powered forward ever quicker, and I gained a fluidity of movement as I passed effortlessly through obstacles. I built a 4-minute lead over the next few miles. Sometimes, winning a race is not accomplished with intense focus on the task at hand, but rather, letting your thoughts wander to other places for inspiration and energy. I found myself in the zone for the second year in a row. Goosebumps. Spontaneous smiles.

Slide

I powered up the last big ascent and came onto the long water slide that launches you, at about 30 mph, into a huge water pit. What fun! Then there was a series of six more relatively easy obstacles leading to the finish line; I took my time to enjoy each one, to soak in the electricity of the finish area, and then crossed the finish line with a smile. Overall, I ran the 10-mile course, which contained 55-60 obstacles, in 1:53:30. It was a fantastic course with a lot of technical trail running, stream crossings, about 3,000 ft of ascent (mostly from an endless number of short, steep ravines), and a wide variety of obstacles that severely challenged grip strength and overall fitness. I won my race by about 4 minutes, and my time would have put me 14th in the elite race, ahead of several younger athletes that I fear and admire. Not bad for 42! I could not have been happier with how I raced. I like to think I exhibited the kind of positive energy that was prevalent among all the racers, organizers, and volunteers. It was cool to give my team,‪ acidotic RACING, another top podium spot at OCRWC and to have my teammate, Lance Reed, also standing on the podium with me as the bronze medalist.

Finish Line

 

Gothics

With a project in Lake Champlain followed by a long drive to Ithaca for another project, it made sense to take the ferry across to New York. Long had I gazed across Lake Champlain toward the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks, but this was the first time I was going to drive right past. It was too much to pass up. I found a campsite and got up in the dark the next morning to run some of the High Peaks. I was intrigued by the mountain called Gothics, and decided to start from the Rooster Comb parking area and run up Rooster Comb, Hedgehog, Lower Wolfjaw, Upper Wolfjaw, Armstrong, and Gothics, then drop down to the AuSable River and out via Saint Huberts. It had rained overnight and the trails were slick, so it was a mix of running, cautious shuffling, and hiking. As I hit each peak in the way to Gothics, I was disappointed by the cloud cover and lack of views. But when I reached the Gothics, elevation 4,734, I finally got a 360 degree view of the High Peaks. It was fantastic. Someday I want to go back and continue on to Mt Marcy and do the entire Range Trail. As it was, my ~16 mile run with ~5,600 ft of elevation gain took a little over 4 hours (with some stops for photos, of course).

Gothics Run

Here are some photos from the run.

Mt Katahdin

In August, I was lucky to be conducting freshwater mussel research in the Mattawamkeag River watershed of north-central Maine, which put me closer to Mt Katahdin than I have been in many years. I got up in the dark one clear morning and drove to the base, got the last parking spot at Roaring Brook, and ran up Pamola Peak, across the Knifes Edge to the summit, and back down Saddle Trail. It took only 3 hours (with some stops for photos) and I was back in the Mattawamkeag River by early afternoon. ~11 miles, ~4,200 ft of elevation gain.