Whiteface Peak Sky Marathon Race Report

Whiteface Peak under sullen skies.

Whiteface Peak under sullen skies.

I wake up at 3am, and it is raining very hard. I already slept 6 hours, so I’m not really tired, and I just lie there for a bit thinking more sleep would be OK, but it isn’t required. So at 3:45, I get up.

I decide I’m going to do a warmup run right now instead of waiting until I go to the race, and I head out into the wet darkness. First mile slow and rough. But my stride gets smoother, and after 2 miles, I feel like I want to go further. I am instead sensible, and stop.

Coffee. Breakfast.

I meet another runner, Tom, from New Jersey, at the motel. He looks more nervous than I am, and gabbles about the right shoe choice. At that moment, I am suddenly sure I should wear the grippiest shoes I brought, the Salomon Ultra SGs, and I tell him so. If there were the right day for these, I think it would be today. Tom is going to wear low hiking boots. I can’t say whether this good or bad, so I just smile.

I simply have no idea what this race will be like. I am excited mostly – just excited. I have wanted to run a real “sky race” for a while now.

In the tunnel at the start, which protects us from the rain, I see the Salomon runners, Kasie Enman, Stevie Kremer, Tofol Castanyer and Tom Owens. Elite athletes. Smiling, but focussed. Tom from New Jersey is there, and we chat again.

At the start, we jog out along a grass bank and then make a sharp turn to the right. And then it is straight up the first pitch of steep, steep hill. Tom shoots off at speed, and is soon well ahead of me.

I tuck in behind a couple of people who are going at a pace that seems compatible with mine… for now, and we head up. And I am crouching low and using my arms to push my legs.

I notice the leaves of various wild berries among the grass as we go up. Leaves, but no berries yet. I’m glad I have my mind on something other than the big climb. No need to look up, as the rain and mist obscure everything both above and below me.

There are a few crossings of the “service roads”, but mostly the climb just goes straight up what is probably a ski slope.

Until it gets steeper yet, and I actual crawl a bit since my arms are already so low to the ground, and the ground beneath the moss is rocky now.

The wind is colder up here as we climb through the moss-rock field – cold like winter, just a week on from the summer solstice. I’m wet from the rain, but thanks to the wool shirt, nice and warm.

And then, amazingly, we see the elite runners already coming down from the top, at speed. Graceful, quick and tiny they are. I know that I can probably never get down this slope like that.

I congratulate each of them as they go past. Only Stevie Kremer acknowledges my greeting, and I can see that they are concentrating hard.

At this point I am climbing faster than the man and woman I had been with, and I march on into the mist, until, there is a hut, and perhaps I have reached the summit. Only, who can tell, what with the mist swirling around and no sight above or below?

Oh, and then I have to take off my glasses as they are too rain-spattered for me to be able to see even as well as I can without them.

I check in at the hut, and ask for the broth I can smell.

“It’s not warm yet,” she says.

“Well, it’s maybe a little warm.”

I ask for it again, and say I’ll even drink it cold. But it is not actually cold. Perfect temperature actually, for me to drink it quickly but still feel some warmth too.

There is a big step out of the hut onto a large rock. The rock is slippery and I wonder whether that is actually ice.

Down the rocky slope, and I’m deliberately taking it easy. I know that even though the slope is quite gentle here that if I let it go too much, I may not be able to stop when it drops off into the mud and rocks.

And then I’m in it. Where the elite runners looked so graceful, but I am clumsy and scared. Without my glasses on, I can’t judge distance. So I concentrate and take things steady mostly.

Then I am sliding. On my back. Headfirst down the mountain. I control myself and manage to turn around. I realize that actually my “butt-slide” is an effective way to get down. Faster than I could run this. So I slide some more on the greasy mud and grass.

And suddenly the volunteer is shouting at us to go right, and we turn into another steep ascent. Although this goes on up for at least another fifteen minutes, it feels very short compared to the first 2000ft straight up to the summit. And then I come out at another hut, check in again and eat some peanut M&Ms and more soup.

More sliding, and then I am finally out on some more runnable downhill, so I start to trot down – still slower than I might go someplace I knew already, but fast enough to pass a few people now. And then I’m back in the start tunnel, which we pass through before doing a loop of less-steep trail through the woods on the lower slopes.

The race director is screaming at me.

“Woo-hoo – nice butt sliding!”

And I realize I am covered — I mean COVERED — in mud. All down my back, including my head. He means it too. He doesn’t know that my “skill” at sliding was a pure accident, followed by me learning quickly that this is an effective way down a steep slope.

At this point, I am really really enjoying the chance to properly run though, and I feel like I am flying. The opportunity to open up my hips and stretch the whole leg out is wonderful, after the cramped short steps up and down super-steep slopes.

At the entrance to the trail loop, I see the elite group again, and I am surprised that I am not so far behind as I’d have expected. I actually don’t really have any idea how long I’ve been out there, as I cannot read my watch without my glasses on.

In the woods, the trail is like my home trails. Welcoming, and rolling hills. Only 1500 feet of climbing in this section, and although my quads and gluten are feeling the up and down, I am able to really push it here, while still feeling like this is a steady pace. I remind myself that this is not a race for me – steady pace is what I want. Just staying in control of the pace so I never explode.

I pass a couple more people, and then I meet Tom again. We run a little together, and then he tells me that his quads are shot and he can’t run the uphills and wants to save himself for the second go at the summit. I still feel just fine at this easy trail pace and keep on. I am really enjoying this trail which winds and winds around the lower slopes of Whiteface – it is the part of the race that I actually enjoy the most, and I feel like I can keep running at this pace, through these woods, forever.

But then after another steep grassy bank, I am back in the tunnel, before heading out up the summit climb once again.

We seem to be on a slightly different way up than before. Rockier. But maybe I just forgot what the route was like on the first loop?

I spend most of the summit climb with Eric, also from New Jersey. We have a pretty enjoyable talk and then he says that he is fine if I want to climb faster, and I get ahead of him by maybe a 100 meters and although I am keeping a very steady and sustainable pace, I am actually catching people now. I pass two or three others.

I have been telling myself that I don’t care how long the rest of the race is, or how long the climb is. I am simply climbing. I consider that I will climb until it is not needed any more. Whenever that is. I am reminded more of the days when I hiked the Pennine Way (three weeks of hiking through peat moss bogs, and heavy rain) as a teenager. I realize that I don’t care about the steepness and the rain or cold. My toes are actually cold at this point, but I know that my body heat is kept up by the movement, and I feel like I can really just do this all day, despite my aching quads.

So I am shocked by the appearance of the summit hut!

The rock at the entrance really feels slippery now, and I treat it as if it is icy.

I drink more soup, and now the hut is steaming warm inside. I don’t stay long though, and head down.

Oh, and now they take us through the mossy rock section. And it’s worse this time because we runners have turned it into a steep mud pit.

I don’t care though – I just slide down it on my butt, or I boot-ski it, digging one heel in while I use the other foot to slide through the mud.

The mist clears.

And suddenly I can see to the bottom. The road. And the river. Wow. Beautiful. But I am terrified all of a sudden. If I fall here, I’m going down a long way. I tell myself that the only objective is to get down. Safely. I’m not here to race.

Eric comes tearing past me, having caught up on the downhill. He is fearless in this patch of muck. Maybe he hasn’t seen the view I got?

I realize at that point that I will likely never again be good at this kind of technical descent. It is too much.

Too much for my crappy vision and my middle-aged fear of death, my lack of skills and my high center of gravity.

I remind myself I’m just going down steadily and I will keep it up.

One more person that I passed on the uphill comes past me, and I laugh at myself. I know already that it is more efficient on the downhill. And usually I am. But today I am clumsy and slow. He has poles, and he makes nice s-turns through the mud pit, leaning on the poles to keep his balance, kind of like a skier.

The view now is really lovely, but I only glance down the hill, as I am concentrating.

I turn right and go up the last steep climb. Although I had lost sight of Eric, now I see him again, and I start to catch him on the uphill again. I go past the chap with the poles.

Check in at the hut, and head over the edge of another steep pitch down the mountain. Again the lovely view to the bottom. I slide on my butt for most this section, and find a shorter tangent down through the brush for other parts. I am slower than I’d like, but keep heading down. I do not stop. Short steps. S-turns. Knees high, when I’m not on my back.

I can see that I am not going to catch the pole dude, but suddenly I see Eric ahead, and he is walking backwards down the slope. I ask him if he’s OK, and he tells me he just has nothing left in his legs. I offer him some food, but he declines, and says he just needs to walk.

I, though, am still able to trot down, and now we’re on the steep but runnable sections, I can go quite fast. Again, it feels so good to stretch out my hips completely. I am going quite fast when I pass through the finish line and they take my number. I stop my watch. 5 hours and 33 minutes. I am satisfied. I bend over and put my hands on my quads. It feels good to eat and drink.

Skora Tempo – first impressions

I am a child of the barefoot running era. Middle-aged, and searching for ways to fix my breaking body, I found the answer in ‘Born to Run’
– run barefoot, and later, in the most-minimal shoes possible.

After 3 months running and walking only barefoot, I tried several of the “early” minimal shoes. VFFs, New Balance Minimus, Altra Instincts and Luna sandals.

After a summer of running only in Luna sandals, I decided that it would soon get too cold for sandals, and bought a pair of Skora Cores because they were on sale.

Not only did I run all winter, but I’ve since put more than 1,500 running miles on those Cores, not to mention quite a few walking miles too. They are possibly my favourite pair of shoes ever. The wide toe-box, the supple leather flexibility and the asymmetric lacing on the Cores, represent some of the best features that have appeared in the barefoot/minimal “revolution”.

The Cores are like an old-fashioned pair of racing flats. They are fun to run in because there is almost nothing to them and they disappear on my feet when I run. They are the closest thing I have to running barefoot, and I love them.

But I’m running further these days, and, oh, you know, getting older. After 3 years of barefoot/minimal running, my ankles and my Achilles/calves ache after long runs in minimal shoes.

So I’ve been looking forward to the Skora Tempo. In my mind, I’ve been imagining a shoe like my beloved Core, but that I can use for long runs, even ultras, especially on the road, where my feet take the biggest pounding. That shoe should be cushioned but flexible, but still with the wide toebox and the asymmetric lacing I love.

But I’m not as hardcore minimal as I used to be. I don’t mind a shoe with drop, as long as the drop allows there to be enough forefoot flexibility and still enough cushion on the heel.

So these days, the Skora Tempo competes, for me, with “normal” shoes that are basically more traditional racing flats. My current road marathon racing shoes are Adidas Boston Boost 5s, Pearl Izumi N0s, and Luna Leadville Pacers.

Into this little mix, yesterday, a pair of Skora Tempos landed on my doorstep. I had actually been holding off on a run, just in case I would be able to take them out right away.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that I put them right on, and went out for a 10 mile run!

The Tempos are nice and light – my size 12s came up at 8.7oz on the right shoe and 8.5 on the left (yeah, OK – why is there any difference at all in the weight between left and right?!) I ordered a 12 in these even though I wear 11.5 in the Cores, which is my “normal” shoe size. That’s because my feet swell when road running, and 11.5 isn’t enough to contain my feet after running a road marathon. All of my other running shoes these days are size 12s.

The asymmetric lacing is wonderful. I have a neuroma on my left foot, and the combination of the lacing, the wide toebox, and the unstructured and light upper felt really nice, just like I’d expect from Skoras.

One problem I’ve had with zero-drop shoes, in particular, an early Altra Instinct, is that when a zero-drop shoe has cushion on the heel, it has the same cushion on the forefoot. This makes the shoe feel less flexible than I like, and it also seems to me to create more friction, and thus heat, in the shoe. In my Lunas, I really noticed the difference in flexibility between the 9mm Pacers and the 10mm Monos. This also makes me feel like my feet are slapping the ground more than I would like.

I didn’t feel this “hot slap” quite as much in the Tempos as I have in other zero-drop cushioned shoes, but it was certainly there more than it is in the Cores, or shoes without the 22mm of cushion you get in the Tempos. But I did get these up to speed just to see whether that would be fun, and it was. Running uphill, in particular, was very nice in these shoes.

There were some problems. Blisters in two places on the right foot, and hotspots in the same places on the left foot. These issues tell me that the blisters are more likely caused by the shoe than my form in the shoes. They may be related to the shoes being entirely new, but I so often just take a pair of new shoes out, and most of the time, I do not get blisters in them these days, so I do think this is notable.

One blister was on the heel. I compared the heel on the Tempo to the heel on my Core. The Core has a bit more structure to it, thanks to more stuffing in the heel collar, and the heel on the Core doesn’t come as high on my Achilles as the Tempo does.

The second blister was on my instep. When I look inside the shoe, I see that there is an additional piece of material below the lacing area of the shoe, with a clear “ridge” line of this material where I got the blister. On the other shoe, this material doesn’t stick out so prominently. On my Core, this material is not needed since the leather already gives enough shape to the shoe in the lace area. So it seems that the very light mesh used has required this extra material to be present to give a little more shape in the lace area of the shoe.

Photo of instep material

Where the green meets the grey (is where I get a blister)

If the instep issue remains, I will likely put duct tape or something else over the ridge, to smooth the material transition. But hopefully my blister issues will resolve by running in these shoes, and tightening down the laces a bit more until I find the right way to fit them to my feet – I’m not completely ready to blame the blisters on the shoe itself, although I have heard that others have blisters in the same places that I do.

As yet, I can’t tell whether these shoes will become my marathon+ road racing shoes, but they show promise. They are not as much fun to wear as my Cores, but the feel in my legs after running 10 miles suggests that they may help my legs not feel as broken on long road runs. They are light enough feeling that I’m pretty sure they will work for me at marathon pace (around 7:20 min/mile right now, and hopefully getting quicker!) More on these shoes after I’ve put up some long runs in them!

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A nice-looking pair of shoes!

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On the run!

Tomorrow is always an adventure

Originally, I wanted to run the Lake Waramaug 50 mile race again this year, in the hope I could get around that course quicker than last year. But life had other plans for me, and I can’t run that race this year.

So I looked around for an alternative 50 mile race, preferably on trail. There’s not much in the northeast at this time of year though. I was left with the possibility of a 3+ hour drive to New Jersey to run something in February, which wasn’t ideal.

And then, up popped the NYARA Shepaug Run Raiser – a 50 mile race in Bridgewater, Connecticut; just a little over an hour south from me. A nice amount of climbing, all set on the trails in a lovely part of the state.

Winter has dragged on up here. This morning, the day before the race: more snow falling on the sloppy mess which sits atop the still-hard ground. I face the prospect of a very long day tomorrow on ankle-breaking snow, ice and mud. And even after a week of almost complete rest, my legs “know” that feeling still – the soreness is faint, but still there – a reminder of post-holes and ankle-sucking deep snow.

My original idea to run a “fast” 50 backed by my hard training over the hard winter has been lost, behind just how tough this winter still is. And I wonder where I go from here, or why I am even running this race?

I try to look at the big picture. This run will raise money for the Shepaug softball/baseball program. Not something I personally care too much about since I don’t live in the town, but it is cool that my run will support more than just my own obsessions.

And it’s a good chance to test myself on some tough terrain for an entire day – it will benefit my training to run a very long and tough day on the Appalachian Trail this summer — if summer ever returns to Western Mass.

Finally, though, it’s a reminder of what an event this long and hard is actually about. Yes, some people run these things very fast. I am slower than some and faster than others. I do like to run fast, and I like to race. But what all of us who participate in ultra-distance sports are united in, is in testing our endurance. Our ability to deal with the lows of life, and to keep on going. Better still, to react with positivity in those low moments. With the knowledge that the lows must exist in order for there to be highs. And with the knowledge that lows and highs come to all of us, breeding sympathy and empathy.

I don’t yet know what the lows and highs of this race will be, but I am sure there will be some of both. It will be an adventure, like life itself.

Better, then, just to keep an open mind, and embrace the day only as it comes, and not before.

The answer is No…

Much colder this morning. I knew it was coming, because of friends’ weather reports from the west and mid-west.

Now the cold is here too. Milder than expected, but here, still, yes really.

I was excited to run up Washington Mountain because I haven’t been there in maybe a week.

I worried a bit about wading through two stream crossings again in the sub-30F morning chill. That turned out to be the least of my problems.

The water was cold alright, but my feet did OK in the wool socks and they didn’t get particularly numb at any point.

Near the top of the hill, you crest a “sub-hill” and hit some flat. As I came over the top of this particular hump, I heard some rustling. Down to my right in the stream there was a black bear, either drinking or bathing! He clearly hadn’t heard me until just then, and I watched him move 200+ lbs gracefully, at speed, directly up a super-steep bank along the other side of the stream, fortunately in the opposite direction to me. So beautiful to see him move like that, but I was very glad it was away from me, because he was clearly a lot better uphill mountain runner than I am!

This is maybe the fourth or fifth time I’ve actually been close to a black bear on a trail. They’ve always gone in the opposite direction, and I know they are typically not interested in coming after humans. It is more usual for me to feel that there is a bear nearby but not to actually see it. In those cases, I try to avoid even looking for the bear directly, and just make more noise. This time, I had no idea the bear was there until I saw it. I guess I also surprised him. Of course, I had been at that moment practicing “butt-kick” drills – designed to get your feet quickly off the ground – which make my footsteps really quiet, especially on bare rock and sand.

Well, we scared each other because we got closer than either of us wanted, but it turned out OK.

Coming up to the top of the hill, I stepped on a small rock, right in the place where my neuroma is (between 2nd/3rd toes) and that really hurt! I had decided that I would make a call of whether to turn round after 6 or 7, or keep going for the full 9+ miles when I got to the top, and the pain from my toes was enough to make that decision early! Keeping the high butt-kick going, I ran down, starting fast.

About half-way down, I suddenly found myself on my back.

I remember the shuffle, toe-stub, drag, fall and “oh shit” moment. But lying on my back, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to get up. I was kind of pointed down the hill, head first, lying on a stretch of icy rock. This week has sucked in many ways. Emotional calls with people at work doing a task I don’t want to do, and which raises negative feelings for many, including myself. Dog keeping me awake at all hours, for many hours, due to her old-age pain and need to pee at inconvenient hours. Two nights ago, a really bad nights sleep. And last night, OK, 6 hours, with only one interruption to let the dog out, but still, not likely to make up for the previous terrible night’s sleep.

So I just wanted to lay there a minute, and it felt like, oh, I’m ready to give up. Is this what it’s like when you’re ready to die?

Quickly realizing, without thinking, this was a bad path, I got up like quick-style.

Yeah, really painful right hip and big bleeding booboo on the right shin.

For some reason, pain always feels worse when you haven’t slept enough, and when you’re cold.

So, I walked downhill. I decided I’d walk until either I got to the bottom, or the hip pain calmed down.

Fortunately it didn’t take long before my hip felt OK to get running again. I jogged very gently down the rest of the way. Smiling to myself that I had been practicing the very drill that should help me when I’m tired to not stub my toe into something and fall! Smiling to myself because I’m such an idiot to forget that even though I slept OK last night, I’m tired from the previous night’s bad sleep, and the many emotionally-draining meetings I’ve had this week, and the life stress dealing with a slowly-dying dog combined with my own light-sleeping metabolism.

Sometimes it just all adds up. The running is such a positive force in my life that I don’t for a minute think “oh you know, you should really not do that today even though you feel like it”! But sometimes it just. all. adds. up.

And here I am at the end of the morning’s story, and I haven’t written the question to which the answer sits in the workout title.

I was just wondering when I left home this morning whether the bears were hibernating yet. I got my answer.

Teaching myself Elliptic-curve cryptography

Public-key cryptography is useful because it allows the production of two related cryptographic keys; one which may remain private, while only the corresponding public key must be made known to another party. This increases the security of the private key since the private key may be used without sharing that key with any other party.

There are two main popular algorithms used in asymmetric (public key) cryptography:

* “RSA” (initials of its inventors Rivest, Shamir and Adelman )
* “EC”, or elliptic curve

The security of these algorithms depend upon two different specific mathematical things being “hard” to compute:

* RSA depends on it being computationally difficult to generate “prime
factors”

* EC depends on the hardness of solving the “discrete logarithm” problem over an “elliptic curve” (where a curve is the result of computing a function over a set of numbers called a “field”)

In practice, mathematical advances (number field sieve functions) have led to it becoming ever easier to factor prime numbers, lowering the computational cost. This has led to the need to continually increase the size of RSA keys in order to continue to make RSA cryptography hard to break. Increasing the size of keys, generally-speaking, will
decrease performance of a crypto-system.

Since EC cryptography does not depend on the difficulty of factorization, and also because it is much computationally harder to solve the elliptic curve discrete logarithm problem (ECDLP) with much smaller key sizes than are needed to provide equivalent security with
RSA, EC has recently become popular.

Some potential problems exist with EC-based systems:

* The security of EC-based systems does not depend solely on ECDLP. As EC has been little used or analyzed (relative to RSA), it is likely that there exist significant flaws in EC implementations (e.g. OpenSSL). It is not clear though whether these are of any more
consequence than previous non-EC-related flaws, such as the OpenSSL Heartbleed bug — so far, they have not been.

* In order to enable interoperability between implementations, standards exist for which curves should be used for EC cryptography. These standards have, so far, been published by NIST, a US government agency, currently in disrepute due the Snowden revelations. It is alleged that NSA representatives chose particular facets of the NIST standards in order to weaken crypto-systems using these curves. There is no actual evidence of this, although there is evidence, in the standards themselves, that the particular curves
chosen were chosen more for “efficiency” than “security”. Some reputable cryptographers (Lange, Bernstein) have provided plausible explanations for why _implementations_ of the NIST curves may be insecure. As of the writing of this document though, no known
practical attacks have been revealed.

* There have been few implementations of cryptography based on EC, and there appears little interoperability between implementations (except where they rely on the same library  — ie. OpenSSL). Further, encryption using EC is poorly standardized (ECIES is the only “standard” I can find)

* The NIST-standardized DUAL_EC_DRBG random number generator, which is also based on hardness of ECDLP, has a significant documented weakness, which has led to the widespread belief that this RNG has been backdoored by NSA. It should be noted that just because this RNG uses the same mathematical properties as EC cryptography, this does not imply that there is necessarily any property which transfers to non-RNG uses of ECDLP.

Recommendations
————————-

* Do not use the DUAL_EC_DRBG random number generator in your own code, since it is proven insecure (ie. do not use OpenSSL FIPS module, BSAFE or the MSFT S-Connect libraries). It is also possible to use EC cryptography WITHOUT using the DUAL_EC_DRBG RNG., since DUAL_EC_DRBG is only one of the NIST-approved RNGs.

* TLS clients: do not negotiate TLS EC ciphersuites with SSL/TLS servers since you cannot be sure that the server is not using the DUAL_EC_DRBG? @@TODO: investigate this some more! Is DUAL_EC_DRBG an option for non-EC ciphersuites?

* If you wish to have interoperability with external partners, use the NIST-specified EC curves (FIPS 186-4), as implemented in OpenSSL and BouncyCastle; specifically the P-244 curve appears to be a reasonable choice for efficiency.

* If you control all parties in the crypto-system, you may use Bernstein’s p25519 curve, but will be on your own when it comes to implementing encryption, since there is no current standard for encryption that uses curves other than the NIST curves.

* Unless your threat model includes attack by state actors, it is probably safe to assume that you are currently safe from other attacks that rely on any fundamental weakness in EC cryptography, or particular curves. You are less safe from implementation flaws in
any library or code you are using, but this is a common problem in all use of cryptography, no matter how commonly used (see Heartbleed).

References
—————

“What a difference a prime makes” – https://www.imperialviolet.org/2010/12/21/eccspeed.html
“NIST FIPS 186-4″ – http://nvlpubs.nist.gov/nistpubs/FIPS/NIST.FIPS.186-4.pdf
“Safe Curves” http://safecurves.cr.yp.to/
“Random Curves” – http://books.google.com/books?id=p2QalcsaNtIC&pg=PA312&lpg=PA312&dq=Jerry+Solinas+nsa&source=bl&ots=E0OF9z4lpJ&sig=V033idQQ4XafSzj70GvjPtcOpT8&hl=en&sa=X&ei=6c4RVM7WDqW1sQTwqYLwAg&ved=0CB0Q6AEwADgK#v=onepage&q=Jerry%20Solinas%20nsa&f=false
“Openssl ECIES example” – http://stackoverflow.com/questions/1152555/encrypting-decrypting-text-strings-using-openssl-ecc
“Google End-to-End” – https://code.google.com/p/end-to-end/
“OpenPGP ECC standard” – http://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc6637
“Dual EC in TLS” – https://projectbullrun.org/dual-ec/documents/dualectls-20140606.pdf

Jack Bristol Lake Waramaug 50 mile race report

The day didn’t start so well. After a fitful but pretty reasonable 6 hours sleep, I got up at 4:30am to make the drive down to Lake Waramaug. It should have been pretty easy. Maybe it was too easy. Before I knew it I had missed a turn and had no idea where I was going. Car GPS didn’t bat an eyelid, and just rerouted me without even letting me know. There I was visualizing myself coming across the finish line in my first 50 mile race. Aren’t you supposed to do that? OK, maybe not while you’re driving to the race.

Fortunately, I had allowed plenty of time, and still got there early enough for my pre-race prep. It was so cold (36F) that I stayed in the car mostly, but spent time a little time talking to some of the other runners who had driven from all over to be at this race.

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Jack Bristol Lake Waramaug is a historic ultramarathon. They’ve been running this race for 40 years now, and many of the sport’s old-time legends have run here. Now that ultras are trendy, and trails are the thing, attendance has dropped for the longer races. But still. 50K, 50M and 100K races around a lovely lake in northern Connecticut. At worst, it’s a lovely day out!

We were off promptly at 7:30am. My plan was just to run lightly, arms low and feet quiet, keeping somewhere close to a 9:45 min/mile pace. Through the first 4.4 mile out-and-back I did that pretty much perfectly – 41 minutes for that stretch. Now for the big stuff – 6 loops of 7.6 miles each.

I was in my Luna Mono sandals with a pair of Injinji toe socks. After the tests I did last week, I thought I could at least start the race in them, but I had put my GRUs in the drop bag for later in the race. Turns out that was a great idea because, you know, sandals and socks?!

The first real loop passed by without incident. I met a couple of people I would run with for the next couple of laps — Aaron, who was doing the 50 mile, and another guy whose name I never found out who was doing the 50K.

By the time we’d gone around almost two loops together though, we started to talk about pace, and Aaron said we were averaging 8:16 minute miles! I almost choked. I run by feel so apart from the race timer I’d see once a lap, I didn’t pay much attention to the pace. Anyway, at that point, I told them that I was going to slow down a bit. But at the end of loop 2, I was still a whopping 13 minutes ahead of schedule already! A bit before I came to the end of that lap I had decided that I was going to swap out of the Lunas because I could feel that the road miles were already making my legs very sore. I figured that with this huge cushion on my time I could take a 5 minute break and change shoes no problem at all. So, after 20 miles, I sat on the bank by the finish and changed shoes and socks. It felt so good!

Getting up after sitting down though did not feel so good. My heart rate went through the roof and it took me most of the next 4 miles to recover to the point my breathing felt normal.

One of the major selling points of this race are the aid station volunteers and the food on offer. I brought plenty of food with me, but I basically didn’t eat any of it. I’d decided to stay off the sugar train for as long as possible – at least the first 30 miles. Two egg wraps, some bacon, a few chips and water were what I ate up to the marathon distance. At my favorite aid station though half-way round the lake, I discovered my best running fuel ever – chicken broth. It was hot, so I took an extended walking break to down it, but it gave me so much energy! I fair pounded the last miles around that loop, ran the full marathon a shade under 3:58 (approximate, based on one of the very few road markers) and came around loop 3 for almost 28 miles in a touch under 4:13. I also passed Aaron for good around that point. He had apparently slowed and didn’t run with me when I came out of the aid station. I asked him if he was OK and he said yes, so I carried on.

Loops 4 and 5 were tougher. I had decided that I should walk in order to save energy for the last loop. As I was still on course to beat even my best goal, it seemed reasonable. So I walked the half mile at the mid-way aid station to drink my chicken broth, and I walked through the finish line section. Far from being helpful though, these walking breaks turned out to be such a bad idea for me. I started to feel like my legs would cramp when I would start running after walking! At first, I thought that maybe I didn’t have enough electrolytes in me, so I started up on the Gatorade — and continued with the chicken broth! Two pieces of banana and a few chocolate raisins too. I kept my footfalls loose, somehow, and my legs never actually cramped, but each time I walked, the running afterwards would suck. By the end of loop 5 I had realized that I simply couldn’t walk any significant distance if I wanted to be able to run afterwards. So although my pace had dropped significantly in loop 5, I actually started to pull it together at the end of that loop. I passed one of the old-timers (he has done this race every year since 1976!) doing the 100K race. He told me that the way I was going I could break 8 hours if I just kept a steady pace for the last lap. I wished him the best, and took off. Now that I had worked out that I shouldn’t walk, running was again easy! I couldn’t believe it. I was really going to finish. Just one more lap. I came through loop 5 in 6:45, knowing that I had to do a 75 minute lap to break 8 hours. If I could just avoid walking, I would do it. And even if I walked, well, I was going to finish, no matter what.

I didn’t even walk through the aid stations except the 3 steps it would take for me to drain a Gatorade and grab a banana piece. And coming around the back stretch it was all looking good until a couple of miles before the finish line, when I was suddenly incredibly tired. But I knew I couldn’t walk for more than a few steps before I wouldn’t be able to run again. Which was enough to force myself to get running after just a few walking steps each time. Just before the finish, Carl (the race organizer) started hopping and jumping around me, taking photos like crazy as I motored around the last bend. I had no idea, but I had apparently made it into 3rd place overall in the 50 mile race!

OK, so there were only something like 30 people in the 50 mile race. But it was a nice bonus.

An even nicer bonus was when the family turned up a half hour later (my wife had understood to be there no later than 4:30, when I had actually said 3:30). She was sporting a Big Elm IPA (a local Sheffield MA brew), from her chef friend Brian (who had said he had no idea that anyone actually did what I was doing!)

This course was pretty flat, so my quads were just fine. But my hamstrings, and whatever other muscles than run down the back of my legs to the insides of my knees. D e a d. I don’t even know how to get these with the foam roller. Two big blisters, one on each foot. Basically I never even notice blisters, so they were never a problem given that were always worse pains to think about.

All in all, a successful day’s effort. Weather was good for running, but otherwise chilly and rainy. Lake breeze was mostly welcome even though cold. The suntan I got on my face though is a reminder that a lot of different weather can happen in 8 hours! Staying off the sugar for the first marathon really worked for me, and I didn’t get sick of the sweet stuff in the second half of the race (as I have done in marathons before).

The race was well organized, and the volunteers wonderful. It’s already tempting to say that I’ll go back next year. The loop format makes this an ideal first ultra where you’re so unsure of everything. But road miles. Phew! I really have to figure out shoes that will work for the full distance. Neither the GRUs or the Lunas are completely ideal for that many road miles for me. The GRUs took a real pounding too – in just 28 miles, the sole is completely worn away over the balls of my feet (there was no significant wear before yesterday). They seem more like road->trail shoes rather than dedicated road shoes. I think I’ve pretty much trashed them and yet they only have about 250 miles in them total. The Luna Monos have more cushion for road miles than my beloved (trail) Leadville sandals, but the cushion is probably what caused the big blister on my toe, as they are less flexible because of the extra material. Flexible + cushioned + road-specific. Hmmm.

My accurate splits will be posted on the Lake Waramaug website some time, but here are my approximate splits (rounded up to nearest minute since I usually forgot how many seconds were on the clock, except for the last two laps):

1 (out and back, 4.4 miles) 0:41 elapsed (41 minutes)
2 (loop 1, 7.6 miles, 12 miles total) (missing, I forget…)
3 (loop 2, 7.6 miles, 19.6 miles) 2:59 elapsed (missing)
4 (loop 3, 7.6 miles, 27.2 miles) 4:13 elapsed (74 minutes/lap)
5 (loop 4, 7.6 miles, 34.8 miles) 5:28 elapsed (75 minutes/lap)
6 (loop 5, 7.6 miles, 42.4 miles) 6:45 elapsed (77 minutes/lap)
7 (loop 6, 7.6 miles, 50 miles) 7:59 elapsed (74 minues/lap)

The time has come to talk of many things*… (on vaccination, trust and public policy)

It is quite clear. All the studies show it. Vaccination is helping “save society” from previously common, potentially-deadly diseases.

So why do I feel so queasy about vaccination, and about the whole debate that surrounds it?

Well. What do we know about vaccination?

We know that for individuals who are vaccinated against a particular disease, such individuals (usually) do not catch the disease against which they are vaccinated.

We also know that by vaccinating a large section of the population against a particular disease, we can effectively eradicate that disease in humans.

These things are simply proven by studies and direct experience. I do not dispute them.

There is a lot we don’t know.

What organisms arise when a particular organism is eradicated or weakened? We do know, for example, that increases in deer population are correlated with increases in tick population, for example. And that by reducing the numbers of bees, we reduce pollination of plants, leading to the potential for animal and human food shortages. These things are also “proven” (or at least studied) by science.

But we seem to know very little about what happens to the environment when particular bacteria or viruses either increase or decrease in number, at least in the general case.

What happens to the general immunity of people who have been vaccinated? We know they are, for some time, protected from the disease against which they are vaccinated. Does vaccination either improve, or inhibit their immunity to other organisms? I would argue that we don’t know. Does the eradication/weakening of one viral species cause the strengthening of another virus or bacteria? Who knows for sure in each individual case? But intuition tells me it’s a possibility, and one supported by analogues such as the bee, and tick examples.

This is the kind of problem we get with all public policy decisions made on the basis of science.

It is, in fact, possible to overstate the importance of science in making public policy decisions.

What, I hear you say, this man is ANTI-SCIENCE?!

No.

What I am wary of is:

Public policy: because science
I am an expert: because science
I am right: because science
This situation is clear: because science
Trust me: because science

These are all examples of the poor use of an excellent tool.

The best scientific studies are intentionally grounded in a specific thesis which may be provable, or dis-provable via specific methods. Specific studies deliberately control for, or ignore “the rest of the world” in order to provide very specific results. That is no accident. That is good science.

However, the world at large, is just not that simple. Everything actually is inter-connected. Everything is ambiguous. Specific results do not generalize beyond what they actually prove. And what the best studies prove, are very specific things.

So what should we do?

Making a decision based on science may or may not be “better” than making a decision based on intuition. It’s not possible to know everything before a decision, thus it is not possible to make only good decisions. A good decision can only be labelled as such only in hindsight (and with the benefit of history and sufficient analysis), and only when applied within a certain context. Science does not, any more than any other mechanism, help you know everything.

Decisions made “on behalf” of large numbers of people have wide-ranging consequences; beware of making them at all, or those who say that they know (anything at all) when making such decisions. Especially beware of those in public policy who believe that they can ever be “right” before making wide-ranging public policy decisions. Beware of people who say that in order to help you, you need to regard them as an “expert”, and that their expertise should necessarily carry any more weight than your “intuition”. Such people cannot help you in the way you need help; nor are they helpful in the way they think.

(*) http://www.jabberwocky.com/carroll/walrus.html

 

Aggressive Dog 13

Brutally cold, but beautiful

New Marlborough 16

On Hayes, waiting for snow

Twelve thirty-five. I have to make it back by two-fifteen. Ten miles then, not thirteen. Bitter wind. Ground hard as iron. My shoes are tighter than I’d like. Up the hill, I feel my heart strain a little with the incline. Broken down stone house wall on my left. What happened to those people? Why did they leave their house to the woods. Wind whipping across the top of the hill. Feet slipping a little, but not as much as the day before when I couldn’t stop on the ice sheet that covered the dirt. I run past the impassive statuesque bullsand the silo barn. No more dirt road; I’m on the tarmac. Squished porcupine in the middle of the raod, not far from where I saw the squished but not-yet-dead water snake this last May. Past the junction down Hayes, and I speed up as Brewer Hill inclines some more. Past Mill River Farm, and the identical stucco houses looming over Brewer Branch road. Warming up. Legs turning over, but I can feel my left hip and knee; still sore and complaining. Downhill hurts more. Will I make it all the way? I hope I don’t have to walk – then I’ll never make it back in time. I don’t even really notice the winding chalky path that leads to some mansion back up the hill, but I can feel it there in my mind. On to Konkapot, my knee better for the flatter road. Past the river and up around the curve, and I switch to the other side of the road. Yes, there might be a car that doesn’t see me around the bend. But I also need to be on this side so as not to offend the unpleasant border collie who likes to rush out and surprise me with his snarling ripping. I imagine punching his nose and pulling on his tongue if he really did bite me. But he doesn’t come today. Just watches me from the garage as I wind my way along Konkapot. Past the lovely two-level covered porch that I admire almost every time I run here. And the corrugated box house. Horses standing in the field, backs turned to me. Puffing up the hill and over the top, down towards Umpachene and the ominous road sign “Travel this road at your own risk”. My knee is doing fine now, and I still have plenty of speed up to Lumbert Cross. Few cars. Sky steely and braced for snow. Down into Mill River, and the knee complains briefly about the incline. I wonder about my bucket of grit “per-storm” from the town, and whether it’s worth the trip. Last downhill before the climb up Hayes. Around the town hall and library. Past the messy-looking house on the corner, chimney puffing billows of smoke. To the stop sign, and a left on Hayes. Straight up. Slow down. Into the woods. I wonder if I can make it back home before I need to pee? Then walking. I take a photo – trees waiting for the snow.

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A young man walking on, orange hunting cap, but just walking. We greet each other, but I’m running again now the incline isn’t as sharp. Rolling on with the lovely view to the south over the hills I can see a patch of orange and blue through the grey. Nice weather, somewhere. Not here. The horse looks up, alarmed. I shuffle by him, turn up Brewer Hill again, getting tired finally. Must push up the last part of the dirt road though. Finish the run. “Way to finish the run, John”. Two oh-nine. Made it.