Wednesday, March 18, 2015

LBL Road Run 2015

On March 14 I traveled through dense fog and a predawn light rain to Grand Rivers, Kentucky to participate in the Land Between the Lakes Trail Runs. I originally entered the two lap marathon, but a few days earlier I had decided to run the one lap "23K" distance when RD Steve Durbin announced that it was necessary to move the event onto roads because of extreme saturation from snow melt and rain.

I almost did not race. In fact, on Friday night at 10 pm I finished a consultation with Rasputin, an imperial stout, that resulted in me deciding against three hours of driving to run in a predicted rain on roads when I had my heart set on running a trail that I have come to love. I sat the alarm just in case, but I was awake when it went off at 3:45 a.m. Given that I was not in the mood to race - or to suffer - I soon found myself sipping cold pressed coffee and trying to convince myself that a huge effort on a hilly road course in the rain would be a rewarding experience. And that it would be fun!

I topped off the pre-run Calories with a vanilla VFuel while jogging to the start line. Once there I started talking to Chris, an old friend, a talented runner, and the last athlete I recruited while coaching at UE. There was a little confusion at the start as RD Steve yelled something (instructions?) through a bullhorn and then jumped into an SUV. We thought we heard a horn, but we weren't sure, so everyone just stood there. A frantic arm ushered us on and the crowd began the ascent out of the marina. Shortly after beginning to run I realized that I had forgotten to turn on the Polar V800 to allow it to sync with satellites - for the second year in a row. Too much chatting and not enough focusing.

About a quarter mile later the V800 vibrated to alert me that it was communicating with satellites. At that time I was still chatting with Chris. We were leading the pack up the first long grade south on the Trace road. Within three minutes I realized that I was breathing a lot harder than Chris, who was on cruise control, so I slowed a bit and watched as he pulled away. I ran alone for most of the next eighty minutes.

We soon turned onto Kentucky Lake Drive (1.7 mi) and passed the point where the course normally would have accessed the Canal Loop Trail. Continuing on this narrow road was what I had dreaded. I vaguely remembered driving it a couple of years ago on a sunny day, but I clearly recalled the hills along the route: long and winding ones, short and steep ones, long and gradual ones, and a damned near vertical one. There was a fine mist falling and a few patches of fog along this scenic road that often provided pain therapy in the form of bluff top views of the fog shrouded Kentucky Lake.

Baby stepping my way up the steepest hills allowed me to keep my heart rate from exceeding my anaerobic threshold. I was averaging mid-six miles while only going 7:30-8:30 uphill because I opened up the stride and flew downhill as fast as my legs would go. Given that I spent almost a year avoiding hills after my neck injury, I was thankful for the light and cushy HOKA Cliftons that spared me a lot of bone jarring on those fast descents. I used the same pair during the Tunnel Hill 50 back in November. There is no doubt that I will be returning to Ultimate Fit for more Hokas in the future.

Kentucky Lake Drive eventually looped back to the more gently rolling Trace Road at 3.8 miles. At 4.4 miles I took water at the North Welcome Center aid station. Then the course briefly followed a soggy leaf and pine needle covered bike path before turning onto another narrow asphalt road. This road, narrower than Kentucky Lake Drive, reminded me of a those roads that meander through campgrounds. The last 0.8 miles of this road was gravel. Yes, it consisted of a seamless series of hills! And the scenery was absolutely gorgeous!

At 5.7 miles we came to a junction. RD Steve Durbin was there. He lied and told me that I looked great before saying "Go down 1.1 miles and come back." And so I did. I ran down and down and down some more along a narrow old strip of worn asphalt. It was covered with leaves through which the runoff was finding passage. Splash. Splash. Splash. When I finally saw Kentucky Lake again I had dropped to its level. I wasn't looking at it, though. I was contemplating the ascent up a short forty foot high cliff in the road. WTH?

The bottom of the "cliff" comes into view.
That summit was followed by a more gradual drop back to water level at a campsite. Two volunteers instructed me to follow the gravel loop around before returning over that cliff and back up to the junction. When exiting the loop I saw Scott Breeden for the first time. That little stud muffin had caught up to me after 45 minutes during previous LBL runs. I estimated that he was a little behind schedule. Just behind him were three other runners. I had been alone for 45 minutes, but undoubtedly occasionally in view of these runners.

Knowing that they were lurking behind me likely caused me to push that mile long ascent a little harder than I had been going uphill. That put me in distress for the first time. It also kept Scott from catching me until the 49-minute mark. I asked him if he was going all four laps for the 50 miler he had entered. He smiled and said "probably just three." At LBL you are allowed to drop down in distance during the event. I wondered at that point how many people would drop down that day. In case you didn't catch this nugget of fact - Scott had just moved into second on the road between two people running one lap while he was running three. Hence, he's a stud muffin!

Honestly, I increased my effort and stayed just behind him for one short climb and one long ascent in an effort to distance myself from the others in the group he had just gone through. I regained the bike path along the Trace Road just behind Scott and noticed that two other runners were still lingering about 150 meters back. I checked the V800 and saw that my average heart rate had risen from 160 to 162 since I started the climb back to the road junction. Given that I wanted to stay below 164 (86% max), I realized that I had to back off a little. For perspective, I normally average 168-172 in half marathons - when I suffer a lot. Those hills were making me suffer in a different way, so I backed off and watched as Scott pulled away. He was leaving the Welcome Center aid station as I returned to it. A loop there allowed me to see that the same two runners I'd seen before were still close together and not far behind me with about four miles to go.

Note: Scott Breeden ran three "laps" in 4:02:37, which is less than1:21 per lap. Chris won the one lap race in 1:23:45 and I finished third in 1:27:16. Scott's effort puts the rest of our times in perspective. He runs big miles on big hills near Bloomington and is quickly becoming a great ultra trail runner. And, like Chris, he is a really nice guy.

From the North Welcome Center the course retraced the early miles around Kentucky Lake Drive. Yay! Big hills in reverse! It was while approaching mile ten that I heard footsteps behind me. The runner seemed to gain ground on me while we climbed and then drop back as we descended. When he finally pulled along side me at about mile eleven I saw his Nashville Striders singlet. He looked to be about 20. He said that he was only running one loop. I said "We're almost there" and he looked over and excitedly responded "I'm looking forward to a sprint finish!" I smiled and thought have fun with that, whipper snapper. A quick look over my shoulder allowed me to see that no one was within three hundred meters of me at that point. Still, I stayed close to the kid until we reached the Trace Road again.

Before long we both turned onto the finishing straight and, sure enough, I watched as Kevin (the kid) dashed away to the finish line. When I arrived the volunteers saw my number and urged me to continue. Nope. I was done for the day. My legs, though weakened, still felt great at that time, but I knew that another lap would have resulted in significant and long lasting pain. A muffin from the nearby cafe sounded like a more satiating choice. I enjoyed that muffin, a drive home, a ballgame, and a nap while several of my friends made up to three more loops on that challenging course. VERY IMPRESSIVE! Congratulations to all of you!

All in all, I enjoyed another memorable experience at LBL. The race course, which I had premonition of, turned out to be much more enjoyable than I had expected. In fact, I urge Steve Durbin to find another date on the calendar to offer this version of LBL running every year. I would attend and, judging from what I've heard and read, so would a lot of other runners.

Now I need to resume planning another spring break adventure in the mountains of North Carolina. ST

Monday, February 16, 2015

An Amazing LBL Race Track Run

Only a few strides after starting the run I tapped the V800 and came to a stop. Puzzled, I studied the trail behind me toward the trail head sign and then ahead of me toward the road crossing. The trail I stood on wound about and rose gently as it meandered along the edge of the large gravel lot where I'd parked. Looking beyond that lot and further across the road I could see the trail's namesake canal.

The scene around me was reminiscent of a typical winter visit to the Land Between the Lakes Canal Loop: Leafless trees swayed gently in the cold breeze while small ice crystals made a random ticking sound when they dropped into the dried brown leaves and stones on the forest floor. But something just wasn't right.

My focus returned to the trail at my feet again. It was not the trail I'd come to know and love. It was not the trail that I had kissed on several occasions. I knew that trail well. I knew where a thousand roots were on the eleven mile loop. I had anticipated and learned to avoid those nasty toe grabbing stones that deviously protruded only an inch or two from the dirt. I knew where they were even if they were cloaked with leaves as they almost always were.

Oh, sure, I'd still kicked a few roots and stones during my most recent visits, but that was after fatigue settled in or while I foolishly glanced at a squirrel or a sunrise behind a giant lake or the watch on my wrist. Such acts were a natural part of running the rugged LBL loop. I could even make the case that all of these features gave the trail its alluring and lovable character.

The trail at my feet was smooth and soft dirt. Pressing it gently with the ball of my shoe caused it to compress slightly. Upon lifting that shoe the dirt sprang back into place. It felt and behaved like a rubberized track surface. I had read that Steve Durbin and a crew of workers had completed some needed repairs on the loop. Surely, I thought, they had merely smoothed out the deep footprints and tire tracks in the boggy areas and repaired the dilapidated pallet bridges. I tapped the V800 again and strode away believing that I had never really paid a lot of attention to this first section of trail. Part of me wanted this "race track" feel to continue for all eleven miles. I smiled as that wishful thought crossed my mind.

Soon after crossing the road I readied myself for a tangle of exposed roots. There were none. Again, the trail consisted of a smooth dirt streak. I crossed under the Trace Road. The thin line of soft dirt continued. The small creek that had always been littered with an assortment of pointed rocks was easily navigated using several large flat stones.

And so it continued. The twisting and undulating path led me to my first time check at the shore of Lake Barkley in a personal best time. I thought about slowing down to conserve energy for the many hills of the last five miles. A glance at the V800 revealed that I was only at the bottom of zone two. That new track-like surface was making the run easy - and fast! I chuckled out loud as I thought about how other runners would react when they came to race a month later. I shook my head as I thought about how much work Steve and his crew had put into taming the rugged Canal Loop. It was like the CCC had come back to life for one last great deed.

I reached checkpoint two a full two minutes ahead of normal pace. Hell, I was cruising along at Scott Breeden pace. So this was what he felt like. I wondered how fast he would run the 50 on this track-like surface. I wondered if I should alert him to pack his fastest road racers. No. He would just get out-of-control fast and run into trees. I didn't need that on my conscience.

My mind raced through all sorts of thoughts as I stared at the scenery. The wind blown whitecaps on the lake were therapeutic. A flock of mallards fluttered and quacked as I passed them when the trail traced a huge inlet. The trailside cinder block structure made me hypothesize about bygone rural life. Finally, after many trips and stumbles during previous runs, my scatter brain could do its thing instead of laboring to focus on the obstacles along the trail. I was freed! And I had speed! What I had mistaken as character had actually been shackles and blinders.

Check point three, the Trace Road, came so quickly and so easily that my legs still felt like they were in the first mile. I barely had time to squeeze out a gel before I began winding my way along the pine needles to start the second half of the loop. Though I'd always loved this short section of trail, I felt gleefully and childishly adventurous flying through the sharp turns because my speed was causing me to come close to the trailside trees. "Crazy fast!" I thought. I laughed out loud. What a run!

The hills above Kentucky Lake awaited me. I was ready for them, though. My strength was still high because I hadn't been bounding over and around obstacles for six miles. Even though I had no logical reasoning to support it, I'd theorized that the hills would still be covered with high exposed roots and rocks. I'd expected the downhill bombing to be treacherous given all of the obstacles that were always hidden beneath thick collections of leaves.

Amazingly, the race track continued. I climbed and descended again and again with speed and confidence while staring down from the bluffs to the whitecaps breaking on the lake. I passed through my fourth checkpoint without even thinking about the split. I did look at the time when rounding the cell tower. "NO WAY!" I was cruising to a record run. And I was looking forward to the fast downhill finish.

While running on the outer bank of the sharp curve around the tower I heard a bell ring. The sound was powerful, but it was also faint, distant, or muffled. It rang again and then again. The sound grew louder with each ring. I realized that it was a large bell ringing in a bell tower. I'd never heard a bell at LBL before. Maybe there was one down at Lighthouse Landing. Maybe there was a church on the far side of Kentucky Lake.

Then a familiar guitar riff joined rhythm with the bell. They both grew louder and more intense. I could actually feel the music. Confusion ensued. I abruptly stopped beneath the cell tower as yet another guitar joined in. Frantically, I searched all around me. Ice crystals still fell into the leaves. The tower stood cold and motionless amidst the swaying trees. Moisture from my heavy breathing rose and quickly evaporated in the wind.

Then, slowly, blackness crept over the sky and the tower disappeared. Panic began to mount as I searched through the darkness while spinning and flailing my arms. Finally, my left hand came across something. I latched onto it and brought it to my face just as a voice screamed out "I'm rolling thunder - Power and rain - I'm coming on like a hurricane!" It was my phone. My weekend alarm was blaring AC/DC's Hells Bells.

When the disorientation subsided I found myself lying in bed. It was time to get dressed, grab the gear by the door, and drive through the darkness into western Kentucky for another sunrise run on the Canal Loop.

PS: Steve Durbin and others did a magnificent job on the trail. All along the loop runners (and cyclists) will find evidence of their labors. I am also happy to report that I ran my second fastest loop ever and that I did so without interacting with the trail's character. This runner is looking forward to more laps around that awesome race track. - ST

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Back When It All Began

Do you remember the first time you engaged in a lifelong passion? Luckily for me, I have an oddly enhanced memory that allows me to freely travel back in time. I don't like to live in the past, but I certainly do love recalling those sights, events, and people that have inspired me or otherwise directed my life.

Perhaps that is why I jumped out of bed at 5 a.m. this morning and excitedly threw on multiple layers of clothes to stave off the arctic breeze that greeted me under a large, bright moon. A six mile, forty minute, morning run awaited me. Sciatica be damned: A few quick spins on the foamy thingies and I was out the door with excess giddy in my stride.

You see, thirty six years ago I woke up on Monday January 8th to learn that school had been cancelled due to several inches of new snow. The temperature, just like today's, was about zero degrees fahrenheit. When I awoke that morning, though, I was not a runner. Sure, I had run a bit in middle school, but I had not yet learned to love running.  My football coach was at least partly to thank for my running life. Only two months prior, in November of '78, he had watched me run 7:56 for 1.5 miles during gym class and then promptly suggested that I take up track and cross country. CROSS COUNTRY?!  I didn't even know what that was. It sounded weird and intriguing. Track, though, I had experience with and the track season was due to start in February. (Notice, now, how I move away from the fact that my football coach excitedly suggested that I go away.)

I decided to go for a run soon after learning of that snow day. I'm not sure why that run took place. Perhaps it was because I had planned to start training for track after school that day. Or maybe it was because I was already suffering from the mental condition that makes me do dumb (adventurous) things. Or, most likely, I went out for my first run in several inches of snow with the mercury contracted at zero degrees because I was just a typical ignorant fifteen year old boy who had no guidance and who rarely thought things through.

At 5'8" and weighing 128 pounds I was a sinewy, hyperactive, and poorly nourished paper delivery boy turned grocery clerk who was oblivious to the fact that there were proper ways to dress for such activities. Keep in mind that this was the pretechnological days of 1979.

I started by pulling my favorite pair of tube socks all the way up over my calves. Those red stripes were groovy. That's right, groovy. I said it out loud and gently touched them as I stood up: "These red stripes are groovy!"

Next came the blue polyester gym shorts. They weren't the super short shorts of the era, but they left a lot of thigh uncovered. They, too, were absolutely GROOVY!

I pulled on a long sleeve cotton shirt next. It was, for some bewildering reason, my favorite shirt. White and larger than my torso ever has been, it nearly reached the bottom of those shorts. I rolled the left sleeve back to reveal my Seiko watch. Already a number freak, I needed to keep an eye on the time.

Finally, I laced up the Converse All Stars. What else?! Mine were navy blue. When combined with those red and white socks my outfit (I thought) was profoundly patriotic. Did I mention that my long blonde hair was feathered and parted in the middle? True, there was a time when I had a full head of hair!

Flash forward to this morning. Similar temperature, but no snow. I encased myself head to toe in multiple layers of high tech breathable and wind repelling fabric before lacing up some light and cushy Hoka Clifton shoes. I also had the presence of mind to pull on a sock cap and gloves - two items that I never even thought about wearing in 1979. Now back to the rest of the story.

It only took a few strides in that snow for me to realize that my feet were going to get cold. I'd suffered from and dealt with painfully cold feet when delivering papers, though, so I knew a remedy. I went back into the kitchen and removed my shoes. Then I moved a loaf of Bunny bread and a package of hamburger buns from their respective plastic bags to a large trash bag. The bread bag went onto the left foot and the bun bag onto the right foot. The ensemble was complete when I put those groovy shoes back on over the plastic bags. My winter defense was in place!

Out the door I strode. Smiling. I wasn't sure where I was going, but I had read somewhere that I needed to run for 30-40 minutes. I ran along county roads in narrow tire tracks left by the few vehicles that had ventured out. It wasn't long before I pulled those long sleeves over my hands and clasped the cuffs in my fists.

I ran to my high school and completed a lap around the hilltop campus. I remember scooping up snow in mid-stride and launching a snowball at the stop sign in front of the main entrance. Over the next several years I smacked that sign with a loud thud every time I ran under it. I also remember thinking that I was the only kid who made it to school that day. My real reason for going up the hill was to see if anyone was sledding in the Practice Bowl. The bowl was quiet and peaceful, but I knew that it would soon be filled with screaming daredevils who would repeatedly fly down the hill only to crash into someone or something. That was why we were given snow days!

The hill also offers a great view of our city and the Ohio River oxbow it sits next to. Little movement  was visible within the muted white and gray scene. I ran back out of town. I took a right at the Five Way to avert going straight back home before I filled the forty minute prescribed run time. That led me over a small hill to another intersection a mile later. A quick glance at the Seiko revealed that I would get my forty minutes of running if I ran a loop around the neighborhood after climbing over the steep hill on Red Bank road. Groovy!

There were problems, though. Huge barriers bore signs stating that the road was closed. And since the road had not seen traffic, there were no tracks in the deep snow. I ran around the barriers and high stepped through the snow after I had been running into a cold wind (-15 wind chill) for a few miles. Going any other way home would add two more miles onto the run, so that was out of the question.

I soon found out why the road was closed. A bridge over a creek had been removed. The creek bed was about ten feet wide and fifteen feet lower than the road. It wasn't until I'd made my way down the steep rock covered embankment that I realized I could not get a running start that would allow me to jump over the creek. No problem, I thought. The extreme cold had surely frozen any water present. I leapt onto the snow covered ice without hesitation.

A loud SNAP echoed in the ditch when my right foot broke through the ice. This foot was encased in the hamburger bag. The short hamburger bag only extended a little higher than my ankle. The cold moving water beneath that ice was, unfortunately, deeper than the bag was tall. The hamburger bag instantly filled with water. My already cold foot may as well have been engulfed in flames as an intense burning sensation swept through it.

With the next stride my left foot found its way to the creek bed. Luckily, I had tucked the bread bag into the top of the sock (are you picturing this?!) and that kept it above the water line. Two more steps through the ice and I was climbing the other bank. My right foot ached with every step as I climbed over the steep hill separating me from warmth. All of my right toes burned even worse during the warming process, which took place while I ate breakfast in the afterglow of that first run. My next run was planned well before the adrenaline rush wore off. It took me years to realize that the lure of the open road and the freedom of self-propelled travel had become important to me that morning.

And that, folks, is how I became addicted to running. You will never hear me complain about running in the cold. I find cold weather running to be nostalgic.