Friday, January 29, 2010

Unsolicited Opinion: Empire Run Up: Part II

Back in 2004, I ran the Empire State Building Run-Up and I wrote an account of my experience there. The wide distribution of this account has, over the past few years, lead some perfectly reasonable yet woefully misinformed people to incorrectly assume that I was some sort of expert on all things Run-Up. Seriously, each year, a few people (who apparently skipped the part in the essay where I say that I suck at stair racing) contact me with requests for information about performing well at this race. I thought that, with the 2010 race fast approaching, I would write a post about my recommendations regarding preparing for, performing well, and recovering from the Empire State Building Run Up in list form ('cause I like lists).

1. Watch TiVo's video of the 2007 race: Tim went to the ESBRU a few years ago with high hopes. This video, in addition to showing those hopes being crushed, communicates the characteristic start of the men's elite heat better than words possibly could. If I was the RD for this race, the application would have a box that says "Have you seen TiVo's video of the 2007 race?" and if this box was not ticked, entry would be denied. By the way, "this man" mentioned in the video is former USATF Mountain Runner of the Year, Rickey Gates. Tim also has a video of the 2008 race, that is longer and involves a mechanical bull an an interview to multiple-time World Mountain Running Trophy winner, Marco De Gasperi (though, unfortunately, not at the same time).

2. Get your entry in early: The first year that I tried to run the ESBRU, I only contacted the organizers six weeks before the event. This was too late as the race was already full. Keep in mind that I was coming off of my seconds mountain runner of the year award at that point and was unable to get in. If you are not similarly credentialed, I would suggest entering as soon as you can.

3. Train generally: The most important components to performing well at a stairclimb race are going to be aerobic fitness, a high lactate threshold, and leg strength. Being in good 'running shape' is obviously a must for an event such as this.

4. Train specifically: If you look that the results from past ESBRU's entrants that are 'just' fast runners tend to not finish very high up in the results. The group of athletes that tends to do well consistently are mountain runners. Course record holder, Paul Crake was both an accomplished mountain runner and a professional cyclist. It's a good (and faily obvious) bet that the training that makes someone a good mountain runner translates well over to racing up stairs. As for the training that goes into making someone a good mountain runner, it seems to vary widely for every elite mountain runner that I have every met...

5. Train really specifically: The best way to get better at doing something is to do it; so, the best way to get better at stair climbing is to climb stairs. Most people do not have access to really tall buildings (like the Empire State Building) so this means stairwell repeats. Stair repeats will prepare you for the race in two ways. The first (and more obvious) way is that you will develop the muscles specific to running up stairs. The second (and somewhat less obvious) thing that the stairwell will do is that it will prepare you for the unfavorable indoor air conditions that you will encounter. Stairwell air is dry and often dusty and makes breathing during athletic exertion uncomfortable. You will still be coughing and hacking at the top of the ESB but this can be minimized if you work at pissing your lungs off in increasingly long increments. Also, don't even think that a StairMaster will prepare you for an event like this (beyond developing basic cardiovascular fitness- see #3).

6. Train really really specifically: In preparation for my attempt at the ESBRU, I did quite a bit of the stairwell training described in #5- five weeks of two to three hard stairwell repeat workouts per week. During my workouts, I would run at a hard but controlled pace (it took about two minutes to get to the top of my stairwell). I would turn the corners (two per flight) hard but I never once used the hand rails during my training. During the race, I used the hand rails extensively. Never mind that this was totally different than the training that I had done- it was clearly the optimal way to run the race. So, if I was preparing to perform well at a stair race, I would still do most of my repeats without the rails but I would add a few reps at the end of each workout where I practiced using the handrails.

7. Be prepared for the start: I do not really think that a person can really train for the start. The reaction time and sprint speed needed to reach a 36-inch wide door 40 feet into a race is something that you either have or you do not. You can optimized your chances for a good start somewhat (see #8 and #9) but, assuming that your start is not going to go well (as is the case for 95% of the first men's wave), you should at least be prepared for that. This means being prepared for two things. First your expectations about your performance should include the idea that your finish time might be effected (substantially) by a poor start. Second, the crush of humanity that occurs for all but the first few through the doorway is disturbing and uncomfortable. Even thought I was distracted by thoughts of being physically prevented from perusing my competitors, I was still aware of just how nasty this was. If this 'crush of humanity' actually appeals to you, please do not run the race. You are disgusting.

8. Get a low number: If you have not run the ESBRU or another high profile stair race before this will be difficult. Racers line up according to number if you are not in the first two rows see #7. I do not have any advice other than saying that unless you actually know someone in charge of assigning the numbers, you will probably have to run reasonably well off of a high number start position in order to get a lower number in later years.

9. Be a woman:
The women's field is much smaller than the men's and tends to be more spread out. This almost eliminates the chaos that is experienced by the men at the start of the race. Without the start and all of the problems that it presents, this would be a race that I would actually be interested in running again. Also, the women start first so they do not have the additional difficulty of having to pass the slower racers. While I have not actually run the women's race here (obviously) I have no question that theirs is a more positive experience.

10. Have fun after the race: I was so pissed off with my performance in the race that I was unable to enjoy the fact that NYC is a pretty cool place to visit. Granted it is wicked expensive but it is a unique place with plenty of cool things to see and see and do.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Unsolicited Opinion: Empire Run Up: Part I

Back in 2004, I ran the Empire State Building Run-Up and I wrote the story below about my experience there. This story, originally e-mailed to a few friends, got posted online somewhere and received some attention (people from Runner's World and Running Times contacted me about printing it). With the 2010 race coming up on February 2nd, I thought that I would post this since there are probable a few readers here that have not yet read it.

The Fleet Empire State Building Run-Up (FESBRU) is a race that I have wanted to run for a few years now. As a mountain runner, stair racing has intrigued me as a juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane. Mountain running is sacred. The races take place on courses that were, depending on your philosophical bent, created either by millions (or billions) of years of plate-tectonic-driven orogenic processes, God, or both. Race courses, as a matter of necessity, take competitors through unspeakable natural beauty and often finish in locales so perfect that one can't help but consider amending some future will in order to ensure that your ashes are one day scattered in such a place. Running inside, no matter what the occasion, is profane- even something so viscerally enlightening as the employ of nothing but muscle, sweat, and a little bit of luck to climb over 1000` in a matter of minutes. Actually, the lobby of the Empire State Building has some really nice granite and the view from the observation deck is unique, stunning, and, dare I say it, beautiful. In between lays a stairwell painted dark gray and a few service corridors whose design was not exactly aesthetic in its intent. The stair climb as an athletic event is thus an evolution toward purity. The mountain in the beauty void. Without the distraction of natural beauty, only pure effort and the singularity of getting to the top faster than anyone else remains. This is the intrigue- asking yourself for but a few minutes of shear, athletic aggression and expecting nothing in return.

The media frenzy surrounding this race in amazing. Admittedly, this was one major reason that I had wanted to run here. In the warm up area, one floor below ground level, there were a probably half a dozen cameras interviewing competitors. This was nothing compared to the scene in the lobby where bleachers were needed in order to accommodate all of the press. The winners were shown on CNN and countless major media outlets report on the race. USA Today even published an article in which they interviewed me regarding my training for the event. This, of course, was before it became public knowledge that I suck at stair racing.

Going into the race, I felt that greatest obstacles to my success were the start and the short duration of the event. The start is on the ground floor in the lobby with about 20 feet between the starting line and a single door leading into the stairwell. Race numbers one through ten had priority on the starting line; with number 41, I was very lucky to sneak a spot on the line to the extreme right side of the corridor. This was a big mistake. While I probably knew more about fluid dynamics that any of my competitors that day, I had not realized that this should have been a factor my choice of starting position. In a normal race, the field moves according to the decisions of individual competitors each of whom are trying to run the shortest allowable distance to the finish line. In the FESBRU, however, the field behaves as a Newtonian fluid wherein the flow velocity at the center of the flow conduit is double that of the average flow velocity. This is, of course, assuming laminar flow, which, it will soon be evident, was not entirely applicable to the situation. I do not remember anything between the blast of the starting horn and entering the stairwell. A well-timed photo from the NYCRR website indicated that numerous runners had already passed me in the first 5 feet of the race. Somehow, I managed to get to the bottom of the stairs halfway down in the field! After navigating my body through the doorway, I ran smack into the back of the runner in front of me. Instantly, the runner behind me ran into the back of me. It is at this point in the race, that the waiting begins. After running all out at the gun, the majority of the field than proceeds to stand still and wait for the congestion to clear sufficiently for forward motion to resume. This part of the race probably comprised less than one second; however, for those runners who's competitive nature has been sharpened by years of hard work (everyone in the race), the wait seems to take an eternity.

Finally, we were (physically) allowed to move forward. The next few minutes were filled with easy running as passing is very difficult. At this point, I was very discouraged about my chances of finishing well. Then, I looked up to see that race favorite (and eventual winner), Rudolf Reitberger was only two runners ahead of me. This convinced me that, despite what I thought was an awful start, I still had a chance to finish well since Reitberger had finished second in his previous two attempts at this race. The next few minutes of the race, I passed many competitors who had capitalized on a better-than-average lobby dash and were now victim to staggering levels of blood-borne lactic acid. Passing these runners was relatively easy despite the narrow (4 feet wide) width of the staircase as, by this time, I was moving considerably faster then they were. With every additional flight, however, passing became increasingly difficult. After six or seven minutes of running up stairs, I was not moving that much faster than the runners that I was passing. The last three or four times that I passed runners required several flights for me to completely get by. By this time, we had managed to work our way into the bulk of the women's field who had started five minutes in front of the first men's heat- adding significantly to the difficulty of navigating a race on stairs. With a few minutes to go, I had moved into third and was thoroughly dispirited as I could not see the leaders and time was running out. My last two passes had been extremely difficult (physically demanding and psychologically defeating) and I was completely fed up with the event and with my inability to deal with its rigors. The only runner to pass me during the race then came up behind me and repeatedly attempted to forcefully pass on the right (inside). After being shoved and yelled at for a few flights, I pulled wide on the landing and allowed him the opportunity to pass on the inside. This was another mistake. A few minutes prior, it had taken me five flights to finally pass this guy. When I did so, it was on the left (outside) with no assistance. In return, I endured a few shoves before entering into a nadir of apathy about the event and the nature of competition in general. This was the end of my race and I ran slowly to the top thinking about how much time and money had been wasted on the trip.

Before completing the event, I had said that to run well in the FESBRU would require 95% pure, mountain running fitness and 5% specific stair running ability. In hindsight, I would change that to 75% pure mountain running fitness (the winner, after all, was an accomplished mountain runner- a member of the Austrian national team), 5% specific stair running ability, and 20% ability to pass people on a four-foot-wide staircase while maintaining focus on the race at hand (to word it a politely as possible). I work hard year-around on the first 75% and, for eight workouts this January, I worked pretty hard on the middle 5% by running as many as 10 repeats of our 29-story campus library in the course of a single session. I could probably work to improve my standing by focusing on that last 20% but I would view preparing for this event the same way that I would view training for running fast down a steep incline. There is no way to properly prepare for running extremely fast downhill except to do it in a race. No matter how hard I try, I am never going to run as fast down a hill in training as I will during an important race. Likewise, there is no way that I would subject myself to the sort of situations that would allow me to train for 11 minutes of extreme unpleasantness. Short of attending a Who concert or waiting for DVD players to go on sale at the local Wal-Mart, I wouldn't even know how to go about it.

Such is the nature of the event. The FESBRU is the oldest, most prestigious, and greatest stairclimbing race in the world. Part of this race and its honorable tradition is the lobby start and the utter craziness that its competitors must endure in an attempt to win it. Tradition is an important thing in racing and I hope that 26 years from now, the FESBRU is using the same course, the same starting procedure, and the same observation deck finish. Meanwhile, I will be looking for columnar joints in basalt, dragonflies, and columbines during my races.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Training Update 20

Monday J4: AM 1:20 elliptical- 8.22 "miles" in first 60 min (far right back row); 10km rowing 43:58

Tuesday J5: AM 1:37 running- out and back on the Chessie Trail- still icy

Wednesday J6: AM 1:20 elliptical- 6.80 "miles" in first 60 min (far left back row); 10km rowing in 43:56 PM 0:30 running- around Lex in the dark

Thursday J7: AM 1:34 running- out and back on the Chessie Trail- somehow even slipperier than it was on Tuesday... PM 0:30 running- around Lex in the dark

Friday J8: AM 10km rowing in 42:44; 1:20 indoor cycling PM 0:30 running- around Lex in the dark

Saturday J9: AM 2:00 running- out and back on the Chessie Trail

Sunday J10: AM 1:36 running- out and back on the Chessie Trail

Weekly Totals:
8:17 running (57% of total)
1:20 cycling (9% of total)
4:48 elliptical and rowing (32 % of total)
Total: 14:59)

Comments: I had one week in Lex before classes started and it was nice to have the gym open (and pretty quiet). I started some rowing and elliptical work and ran up and down the Chessie trail for my 'real' runs or around the streets of Lex in the dark for a few shorter runs. The Trails here are really icy in places right now and it did not get above freezing at all this week so there was no change throughout the week. Basically, I have stretches of nice (hard) dirt where I can haul interspersed with icy stretches where I have to really slow down and be careful. This means that each run has been a bit of a impromptu fartlek. Running in VA this week actually made me miss January running Vermont (central VT, by the way had the best winter-time running of anywhere I have lived with the exception of Yorkshire).

Monday J11: PM 1:20 indoor cycling + 10km rowing in 42:43

Tuesday J12: PM 0:45 running- around Lex

Wednesday J13: PM 1:35 running- out and back on the Chessie Trail

Thursday J14: AM 1:30 running- out and back on the Chessie Trail

Friday J15: PM 1:36 running- out and back on the Chessie Trail

Saturday J16: AM 1:30 running- out and back on the Chessie Trail

Sunday J17: AM 1:38 running- out and back on the Chessie Trail

Weekly Totals:
8:34 running (81% of total)
1:20 cycling (13% of total)
0:42 rowing
Total: 10:36

Comments: Not a bad week for the first week of classes. The major casualty was my x-training. The Chessie trail is getting better (less icy) everyday but there is still enough ice that I am not hitting Back Campus yet (I can deal with icy and flat but icy and hilly is more problematic). With all of the melting, this has been a good week for the 318 GTX. The pic is was taken on a bike ride in Rockbridge County back in December. Can anyone guess why I took the picture?

Friday, January 8, 2010

One more round

Well, it's that time of year again- time to apply for a job. For the past three years, I have worked as a temporary instructor of some incarnation (Lecturer or Visiting Assistant Professor). This means that I teach full time for a college or university under a one-year (of nine-month) contract. During the my last round of applications, I applied to eleven colleges and universities in CO, WY, NM, TX, PA, TN, CT, WA, and Asia before ending up in Lexington (VA). That's right one of the positions for which I applied for the 2009-2010 academic year listed only the continent (it was a program that provides university-level instruction on US military bases, apparently in Asia). This time around, I have started the application season with ten applications only three of which are for permanent positions (shown in blue below). I will update the map as appropriate. Wish me luck...

View 2010 apps in a larger map

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

I am with inov-8 in 2010

You have probably already heard, but inov-8 (pronounced 'innovate' for those of you who have difficulty with these things) has announced its team of sponsored athletes and happy to report that I am on the list. This will be my fourth year of sponsorship with the small British-owned maker of high-performance offroad footwear. For those of you who know me well (or those of you who are really obsessive about following the obscure sport of mountain running), you know that my last two years have been typified by biomechanical difficulties related to a knee injury that (may have) required surgery in the summer of 2008. Needless to say, my racing during the past few years has been almost non-existent and, when I have raced, it has been, um, not fast. Any sponsor would have been completely justified in dropping me like a thing that gets dropped quickly and I am pleased that those in charge of dispersing the sponsorship resources at inov-8 have decided to take the long-term approach to my sponsorship on the gamble that I will actually be able to run quickly in 2010. I thank the inov-8 company for its generosity and loyalty. My bio on the team blog can be found here.

DoubleJ has a similar post here. Congratulations.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Training Update 19

Well, it has been a while since my last post on training but this being the new year and all...

Monday D28: AM 1:20 running- with K on the roads of Battle Creek- probably the last time that I will run with another human for a while.

Tuesday D29: PM 2:10 running- Littlefield Road and Deerfield Park (near Mount Pleasant, MI)- poor surface conditions

Wednesday D30: PM 1:00 snowshoeing- around my parent's property (near MP)- possibly my only snowshoe of the season?

Thursday D31: PM 2:20 running- Littlefield Road and Deerfield Park (near Mount Pleasant, MI)- poor surface conditions

Friday J1: PM 1:30 running- 1:15 outside (combination of snow, mud, and grass), 0:15 stairs

Saturday J2: AM 1:30 running- ran Back Campus but it got down to ~13F last night (it was in the high 30s yesterday) and the trails were icy, crusty, and all around nasty- felt terrible, just terrible

Sunday J3: AM 1:36 running- Chessie Trail out and back- felt better but still not great

Total: 11:26- All running

Comments: One more week of nothing but running... All of the runs in MI were pretty bad due to the surface conditions. In the past, I have not minded the icy dirt roads of Deerfield Township but for some reason, they were really slippery this year. Really, the only day that I felt good was Sunday- there are a few clear stretches along the Chessie Trail and it felt really good to feel some dirt under my feet. Next week, the gym will be open and I can get back to some x-training. Yea! The picture to the right was taken on a ride near Goshen Pass- on one of my last rides before the break (and the largest snowstorm to hit Rockbridge County in the past 13 years.