Running clubs in Seattle

I’ve run all my life but only got “serious” about it in 2007 when I decided to run the Portland Marathon. That year I ran a lot of races, including CNW‘s Firecracker 5k (which I mention below), SRC‘s Cougar Mountain 13 miler (which is vaguely alluded to) and Portland. I also paid dues to join both SRC and CNW that year (though I didn’t understand these in the context of USATF club affiliation).  In 2008 my memberships to both lapsed and I asked myself which club I should stay affiliated with.  The summer of 2008, I went to a Club Northwest board meeting and presented this letter.

Members of the board of Club Northwest,

To clarify: this is really about running and doesn’t touch on field sports.

My name is Patrick Niemeyer and early in 2007 I started getting much more involved in the local running community. I saw the 2007 Firecracker 5000 fliers which appeared to advertise a great deal for race registration for Club Northwest members:

  1. Club Northwest membership and the discounts and perks (Northwest Runner subscription, fashionable bright orange t-shirt) that go along with it
  2. race registration for one low, low price,

so I signed up.  I remember running the race and wondering “who is this ‘Shelly’ I’m trailing that everyone keeps cheering for?” and who I tried, and failed, to catch (who I later learned was board member Shelly Neal).  It wasn’t my first race but it was the first where I self-identified as a runner and over the past year I’ve incorporated running into my life to the point where it’s hard to imagine my life before or without it.

However, as we’ve just passed July 4, 2008 and with it the most recent Firecracker 5000, I’ve let my CNW membership lapse and started to wonder whether I should renew. Though I take part in many races, including those sponsored by CNW, I haven’t attended the All-Comers track meets, I don’t go to the front lines of races wearing a bright orange CNW singlet, and I’ve realized Northwest Runner subscriptions don’t require CNW membership. In talking with running friends about CNW, I’ve realized that many of them don’t even understand that membership into CNW is open. Their impression is that CNW begins and ends with the elite runners they see at races and I’ve found myself correcting the perception.

Meanwhile, I think there is greater clarity about the role of some of the other running communities in Seattle to which I belong.  I’m thinking specifically of ChuckIt and Seattle Running Company/Club.  As a monthly dues club, ChuckIt feels more like it fills a specific niche and doesn’t make as much sense to discuss in this context, but SRC feels much closer to CNW – and I have to guess this is a topic which has come up before.  If I were to characterize SRC and CNW to someone unfamiliar with local running groups I’d say that SRC conducts and evangelizes trail running or ultra running and CNW conducts and evangelizes more traditional track running.  I’d say both have a significant roster of elite runners, but SRC events and participation feel, for whatever reason, like they appeal to a wider base while CNW feels like it more directly serves a specific elite base.

None of what I’ve said may be quite demonstrably true and I can’t speak for “runners of the northwest” but I feel the impression I’ve described is probably pretty accurate among runners who are familiar with, but not members of, either club.  So, finally, this leads me to my two questions.

First: I wonder whether CNW realizes or agrees with the impression that (again, speaking only about running) the club is focused on elite local runners?

Second: if this isn’t the case, I wonder whether the board has plans to assess the image of CNW to help someone like me who is maybe an occasional AG placer but not an elite runner understand why they should become or renew their membership?

To reiterate: my points are really not to ask why CNW isn’t more like SRC (or even ChuckIt), but to ask the board to help clarify what membership in CNW means and help understand who CNW wants as its members? I suspect these aren’t questions which will be answered in a short conversation but sincerely look forward to any conversation this generates.

Thanks very much for your time and consideration,
Patrick Niemeyer

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Squak half recap

Today I ran the 2012 Squak 1/2 marathon trail run put on by RD Roger Michel’s Evergreen Trail Runs. Roger is probably still at the mountain while people from the full and 50k are crawling toward the 10 hour course cutoff.  Here’s my recap of the trail and race, which – despite the opening tone of this post – was excellent.

The course

The information on the site is, in my opinion, pretty lacking.  There’s a course map that shows the route and the course description tells you that there is 3,650′ of gain and there is a prize for the first person to make it to the 1800′ peak on Squak, but I was still left with questions – the answers would look something like this…

The course starts near the trailhead / parking lot at the south side of Squak. You immediately start to climb on a main, wide access road at a pretty constant elevation gain. After a mile or so, you cut to the right for an out & back on what Roger calls a “lollipop” (where the beginning and end of the out & back are a shared / 2-way trail). There was a lead pack of four guys and I was in fifth through here, about a minute back. This comes early enough on the course that by the time you get back to the 2-way stick of the lollipop, you’re unlikely to see anyone else in your event so the trail is clear / runnable.  The lollipop is not flat, but it has some moderate ups and downs.  A lot of this section of the trail was really overgrown, the only part of the course like this. At times I was running through heavy fern coverage and really couldn’t see the trail, making things maybe a little bit dangerous. Eventually, you get back to the road, though and start climbing, again at about the same rate of gain from the start.  I was about 1 minute behind the lead pack on the road and trimmed that to ~45 seconds at the aid station, however I didn’t see them again after this point.

This entire leg is (according to Roger) “4ish” miles until you get close to the summit where there is the only aid station on the course (I was out at 43:16). From here, you veer off the road onto what is probably the steepest, most technical part of the course for an ~1 mile downhill. This is very rough going and I knew going down it that I would probably not run back up when the course comes back and climbs along this leg (full/50k’ers were walking back up the ascent here, too).  During the descent I let two guys pass me who I didn’t see again.  After that descent, you wind around on some rolling trails for what feels like a long time before coming up on another 2-way stretch of course. This shared stretch felt long – close to a mile and it has a fair amount of climbing. Eventually you’re on 1-way trail again and this starts a descent until you arrive back at the same trail from which you left the aid station and start the difficult climb back to the aid station. Around this time, two more 1/2 runners passed me, putting me in 9th where I stayed for the rest of the race.  A stronger runner would probably run this uphill, but it is hard, steep, and modestly technical, so I walked and everyone around me (others in the half and by this time I was passing a few from the full and 50k) was, too.  This is another “4ish” mile leg until you get back to the aid station (my time out, split time: 45:59, total: 1:29:16).

As you leave the aid station, you complete the short run up the service road until reaching the radio towers on top of Squak Mountain. Then you start the penultimate descent along the 2-way trail where you were going upstream on the previous leg. This gets a little hairy because of the number of runners, but is manageable as long as you keep your head up and keep the other eye on the terrain.  You’re heading downhill here so most people are happy to yield the course to you.  After the 2-way descent, you veer off for the final climb, leading to the final descent on the course.  However, based on the start times for the events, at this time you’re coming up on a lot of the slower 12k runners.  This could be helpful or inspiring for some people, but it gave me an excuse to walk a little in a section that was perfectly runnable and in hindsight, I wished I’d run all or at least most of it. This uphill comes at a tough time in the course but it isn’t that hard. Eventually you crest, though, and start a fast, twisting downhill that continues basically all the way to the finish.  Along this stretch, you can see trail signs pointing back to the trailhead with distances, which is nice.  I don’t know how long this whole section was but I’d go with “4ish” again. I could still see 8th place ahead of me for much of this leg, but didn’t reel him in – I just passed a bunch of others who were out for longer (or maybe shorter and slower) days as I rolled down to the finish. You cross the service road with about 400m to go to the finish and end back near the parking lot.  My leg split 35:07, finish time 2:04:22.

So in summary

  1. Short, modest service road climb
  2. Rolling “lollipop”
  3. Continue service road climb to AS1
  4. Fast, technical descent
  5. Long rolling leg leading to climb along 2-way trail
  6. Fast, easy descent leading back to hard (but shorter) climb back up 4 to AS2 (formerly AS1)
  7. Short service road climb to radio towers, followed by longish easy descent but on 2-way trail
  8. 1-way trail climb to final peak,
  9. Long descent back to parking lot

One slightly frustrating thing about my race

I don’t have anybody to blame about this, but trail runs are just hard to calibrate and set goals for.  In any ultra I’ve done, my strategy is pretty simple: start slow, try not to lose much time on uphills, try not to blow out my legs on the downhills, try to stay strong in the last miles (this is very hard).  At the end of one of these, I really don’t know if I’ve run well or accomplished much more than being out for a longer-than-normal long run. Each course is so different and the fields that show up for these is so different that it’s hard to tell anything based on time or placement.

Today I ran a 2:04:22. Going into the race, I didn’t know what to expect (elevation gain doesn’t give you a complete picture, either – at Chuckanut there was a lot of snow on the course and there were some really dangerous, slippery rocks). So I looked at times from the 2010 and 2011 races. My same time in either of those years would have put me in 3rd and had me finish 4 minutes ahead of the next runner but today I was 9th.  I’m not disappointed with the time, but starting the race I thought “OK, I guess I could aim for 2:30, maybe 2:20, maybe faster” (2:30 would have been 9th last year – 9th 2 years ago was 2:50ish), but obviously that’s not what I should have aimed for and obviously maybe I should have aimed to be even faster today.  I’m not disappointed that I didn’t, but this fall my plan is to run the Chicago marathon and to break 3:00.  I have a pretty good idea of exactly what will be required to do that and I will know almost every step of the way whether I’m on track to meet that goal.  I also know what that goal will mean in terms of my fitness and capabilities as a runner.

So I definitely had a good experience today, I’m certainly happy with my time, and I don’t think I would have finished ahead of the guys in 8th, 7th, or faster had I just aimed for 2:00, but I feel like I could say I pretty much crushed my goal but I’m not super thrilled about that because now I wonder whether I set a really easy target.  Anyway (or despite this) I would enthusiastically recommend this race to any others who enjoy trail running. Oh – and I have to give some credit to Roger and the organizers for what I felt were terrific course markings.  Looking at the course map, I thought “this looks incredibly easy to get lost on,” but the entire race was very, very easy to follow.

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Yakima skyline run 50k research

File under “should have been internal monolog.”  Here are some notes in preparation for the 2012 Yakima Skyline Rim 50k that I’m doing in two weeks.

If topos can be trusted…

  • Climb 1 is about like 60% of mt. Si and in a little over 2 miles. Sometimes steeper, sometimes shallower. The top of the ridge looks pretty rolly.
  • Climb 2 starts shortly after mile 8 (keep in mind, round trip on Si is 8 miles with a lot more gain) and looks a lot like climb 1 in gain, but less total ascent – maybe 500′ less? There are some false summits along this ridge.
  • Climb 3 looks like a bitch at the start but gets easier after ~500′ to get to a false summit.  Obviously this starts ~15 miles in since the course is an out & back. Then the actual summit before a Si-like (fast) downhill.
  • Climb 4 is just after mile 22 and looks long and gradual – that same “60% of Si” but not many places quite as steep.

From the 2011 results, Adam Hewey demolished the field finishing in 5:28, 40 minutes ahead of second place.  There were only 14 finishes <7 hours, but there were only 63 finishers, too.  Shawna Tompkins ran 6:49.  Terry said he ran conservatively and finished in 7:06.

I just ran Chuckanut slowly (5:46ish) and ran the Cherry Blossom 10 mile about like I wanted (aimed for and hit 6:52 pace exactly for the first 5, aimed for 6:30 on the second half and was 9 total seconds slow from that) So I’m aiming for something in the 7:00 range and expect that should be doable.  After running at Si on Saturday and going up in a personal bets 58 and calling it quits half-way through the second repeat, though, I need to remember it’s going to be a long day and start conservatively (but definitely needn’t walk the first climbs at all).

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Chuckanut 2012 recap

I had a pretty fantastic time at this year’s Chuckanut 50k. Most of my recent race reports have taken one of the following formats:

  • nearly exhaustive (and exhausting to read) details of the race
  • never documented / published

I’m going to try to bridge the gap and get this one out and just focus on some highlights. In approximate order through the race experience.

  • Registration in January was a success! I know what you’re thinking “Hey dumbass, didn’t you just say you were going to focus on highlights for a race you did YESTERDAY? ‘registration’ is not a ‘highlight’.” But this is kinda important. The 2010 race filled up in ~3 hours and I got shut out. The 2011 race filled up even faster and I got shut out again (then waitlisted, then in, then injured and had to miss).  So it *was* a highlight to make the first cut this year!
  • Sign in and bib pickup went smooth and was a great opportunity to hobnob with some of the ridiculously smoking field from this year’s race.  The patchouli washed over me as I opened the doors to the spa where checkin was held and I instantly knew at least one runner from Ashland was present who would finish well ahead of me. After being told my bib was the number of my all-time favorite TV show, I realize the women’s CR holder is right behind me at checkin. I instantly forget my number, ask for it again (stalling, hoping she’ll decide checkin isn’t worth it, bail on the race, and I can hope to finish one place higher – it doesn’t work) and move on. This expo has free chocolates, Clif bars, chomps, and way more useful stuff than any marathon expo I’ve been to.
  • Dinner at the Olive Garden is exemplary, as usual.
  • Race morning I’m a wreck and terrible company for Katie on the way to the race.  She won’t concede that I’m being a jerk, which only makes me more frustrated. 30 MINUTES TO SHOWTIME!!!
  • 8:00 I’m through the portapoties, notice a breathright strip and crooked hat combo and the burrito guy in the green wave start corral.  I do some quick mental math and figure them + the people I saw from last night + one Joseph Roosevelt Creighton = I’m probably finishing 6th, tops.  Should be a shoo-in for top 10.  I call my bookie and we’re off!
  • 8:05 Top 20, for sure.
  • 8:55:20 I roll into Aid Station 1 and am feeling good (despite the rain) after running comfortably on the first 10k – not going out too fast at all.  My cheering leprechaun is there, I’m committed to having a good time today, not destroying my body, and pushing harder toward the end of the race (if I’ve got it).  The trail leaving the aid station is a nice, easy, runnable trail with a gentle climb – some single track, some bridges around Fragrance Lake. Some people are already starting to walk, so I cruise by.  There are beautiful sections of this run in the quiet snow. Also: it’s getting cold.
  • 9:36:48 I get to aid station 2.  This is surreal – first, I’m not positive I know who Eric Barnes is, but I think I just saw his leprechaun-doppleganger on the course.  The entire crew at this aid station has outdone all reasonable expectations for celebrating St. Patrick’s Day (I’m personally flattered!) and my personal support crew made it through the sloppy rain, too. I am lucky.  I hobnob again, get passed by dozens of runners who don’t bother waiting around as long as I do, and I’m off again.
  • 9:55 many of us are nearly run off the road by some lunatic in his Subaru.
  • 9:57 another runner and I are helping rock the Subaru out of a ditch but not until signing forms ensuring us free digital prints for life.
  • 10:11:12 I reach aid station 3, no real idea what my pace is or what I’m on track for in the race (not to self: may have slipped to top 25 by this time?), but still having a good time, though I am definitely losing sensation in my fingers. I meet Terry’s wife who is part of the crew and very nicely cautions us that it’s a ways to the next station so to stock up now. I stuff some extra cookies in the pocket in my bottle and I’m off.  This next section of the course could be described as “technical,” “hard,” or “totally awesome.”  I was having a blast moving as fast and crazy as possible while barely on the right side of “safe.”  I probably wasn’t going very fast vs. the leaders who were here, oh, and hour ago, but I did pass a lot of people and I don’t think anyone passed me.  This was the case for a lot of the course – I got passed a ton at aid stations but not a lot while I was moving and I passed a lot of people while I was moving. At least this is the polite lie I’ve built up in my head to console myself over my finish time (which I promise is coming-remember, these are the highlights!).
  • 11:20ish My gloves are soaked, my hands are freezing, and I can barely get out an electrolyte capsel around here.  This is kind of a drag and I’m feeling it and it’s showing in my performance.  Also, this is just boring, snowy “slog” – not fun/dangerous/technical.  Eventually, we reach a descent that goes into aid station 4 which is back below the snow line (translation: raining) and I’m feeling a lot better.
  • 11:43:51 I’m at the base of Chinscraper. My good luck charm is there to great me and saw Joe go through, too, but doesn’t tell me how far behind I am (“a lot”).  I snack, notice a bottle of Bushmills that has been getting way too little attention, do my part on the bottle, and I’m off – feeling GREAT!
  • 11:59ish I see Glenn and Win and have been TEARING it up Chinscraper and figure this is the Sun Top equivalent of Chuckanut and am stoked to have made it and be feeling so great!
  • 12:20ish Damn you, Bushmills, how much more of this climb is there???  After finally finishing the climb and starting the descent, I slow to say hi to Terry (who’s filming), and Kevin (who’s tearing down the aid station) and continue the descent on toward Fragrance Lake Road as fast as my quads will allow (translation: appallingly slowly).
  • 12:37PM I’ve made the descent down the road and make it to the 5th and final aid station where I chillax for over 5 minutes, snack on something that I still can’t believe was a vegan candy bar, decide I want a red gummy bear – then change my mind (and my support crew helps me not let it go to waste) and eventually start back the interurban trail.
  • 1:44:00PM after some struggling, a little stopping to visit, seeing one runner collapsed on the side of the road (and already getting the assistance he needed), passing and being passed by other runners and ultimately finding the strength to run basically all of the final 4 miles moderately respectably – I cross the finish at Fairhaven Park in barely under 5:44. And – get this – they are reviewing runner bibs, calling us out as we come to the finish!  And pronounce my name right!  This is all unprecedented, to me.
So that’s my slowest 50k to date.  I might have been in the top 200 – just barely fast enough to not be a disgrace to the green wave.  The course was fantastic.  The support on the course from the organizers and O’Katie were as good or better than any race I’ve known.  Freezing in many parts, ridiculously muddy for ~5 total miles, 10k of fast trails, very technical for ~3-5 total miles, and super, super fun throughout.  Krissy and all the volunteers put on an excellent, excellent race – I’d love to go back and run it harder, or just go back and do it again the same way.

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Daniels Running Formula and easy run pace

Daniels’ Running Formula is an excellent book. It contains tons of detailed information on the physiology of running that I think can benefit anyone who is serious about understanding the sport and understanding and training to the best of their abilities.

I own a print copy of the first edition and recently bought the Kindle edition of the second edition and was doing some comparisons between the two though and was surprised to find one significant difference.  Ultimately a the book’s value comes from its tables that help you do three things:

  1. Identify your fitness level using a metric he refers to as VDOT. This is something that can be measured using some complicated sports medicine assessments that most non-elite runners would never do, but which can also be approximated by taking measures of fitness from events of different distances and projecting from there.
  2. Recommending performances to aim for in workouts that you should conduct given that fitness level.  If you run a 5k in XX:YY minutes and seconds, how fast should your typical easy or long runs be?  How fast should you do 400/800/mile workouts?
  3. Providing workout plans to train for the marathon and some other races.  How far in advance should you train?  What should you do 10 weeks before the race?  8 weeks before?  4 weeks before?  How should you taper? And given your goals and fitness level, how fast should all those workouts be (this comes from the recommended workouts in 2).
Daniels is not the only authority on any of these things – there are other guides and if I’ve learned anything from running, it’s that there is no single textbook solution that every single person can apply and expect the same results.  But within some margin of error, I also believe it’s fair to say that if most people want to run a 3 hour marathon, they will probably be performing at similar levels in some races of other distances, probably be putting in pretty similar total weekly miles, and probably be working out at pretty similar levels of intensity in the workouts preparing for that stab at 3:00.
Daniels has made one interesting revision between the editions that I had not noticed until today, though, and it’s in his recommended running plans for people of specific VDOT values.  Between the editions he has not changed his assessment criteria for measuring VDOT.  This is an abridged table of how he assesses some VDOT values given performance in 2mile and 5k distances (there is a lot more detail in the book – go buy it). My current 2mile and 5k times put me in the ballpark of this range, which is why I chose these examples:
VDOT 2mile 5k Marathon
52 12:02 19:17  3:04:36
55 11:28 18:22  2:56:01
58 10:56 17:33  2:48:14

That hasn’t changed between the editions.  However, I think a lot of people (including myself) would argue that these equivalent performances might overestimate the results in a marathon based on those performances at the shorter distance (and vice versa would project a runner completing a marathon in those times might run a faster 5k and 2 mile race).  What has changed are his recommended workouts for athletes at those VDOT values:

VDOT easy/long pace (1st edition) easy/long pace (2nd edition) MP / T / I / R pace
52 7:59 8:16 Unchanged between editions
55 7:38 7:44 Unchanged between editions
58 7:19 7:34 Unchanged between editions

I haven’t taken the time to think about this change or try it in my own training.  The preparation I’ve done for marathons over the past 4 years has led me to consistently falling short of my marathon goals and my easy and long run pace has more closely matched the recommendations in the second edition (I tend to run my easy and long runs at 7:30-8:00 and my long runs have almost exclusively been 8:00 or slower when I run with people from my running club).  It’s possible that for me, sticking closer to the old edition’s recommended paces would have gotten me to not bomb in the marathons I’ve done, but I don’t know.  I emailed my coach for his input on this and might try to change this up a little in my training and see what happens.  One thing that’s usually pretty clear is that harder / faster training will lead to faster performances in races, though there is obviously also the potential for earlier burnout.

If anyone reading this has consulted with this book or has any thoughts on any of these projections, I’d be really interested to hear your experiences, too.

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Winter Grand Prix XC recap

Last Saturday was the third race in the Winter Grand Prix (WGP) race series. I like and dread WGP and it’s a fun and different kind of race than most community races I do.

Foremost – it’s more competitive. There are a lot of fast club people (primarily from Club Northwest, who sponsor it), high school kids, and others who I just don’t see as much at other races who show up. Running is an interesting competitive sport this way. Among people who are in good shape, run regularly (>3 times / week), and apply themselves I think there is a fairly clustered range of performance and often that’s all the work you need to do to finish in the top 10% or so of competitors.  This isn’t always true, but it’s not super far off.  The majority of the field in most races are people who run much less often than that and don’t do structured work to try to improve their performance and, moreover, are there to have a good time more than to try to beat their prior times.  But if you decide to aspire to the lofty level of “spend a lot of time doing it and get to high-mediocre at it,” where I am, that’s when you start to see the difference between your plateau and that of some others and there is a big difference between how fast you can get with some modest effort and how fast the people at the front of the field are.  There’s probably a combination of talent, effort, and passion separating you (me) from them, but it’s pretty easy to say “I could never come close to that person’s times” and you’d probably be right.  You’ll definitely be right if you believe that, but it’s probably right anyway.

So a fair number of those people show up at these races.  This is actually one of the good parts because I feel like I push myself harder.  I’m unlikely to win any half-way respectable race ever so I don’t mind being pushed down in the standings.  But the part I really dread is the short distance. Two miles is about the shortest distance I’ve really raced and it’s hard the entire time.  Even in a 5k, the first mile feels kind of comfortable, but in a two mile race you’re working pretty hard from the start (it’s hard for me to imagine what racing a 400 must feel like).  And especially on one of these cross country starts / courses with a huge, wide field where you get funneled after ~400 into a narrow chute. I learned from Joe during this series a couple years ago that you need to go out almost uncomfortably hard in a race like this to get yourself seeded somewhere decent because the group will definitely slow when you hit that first chute, and this is true at WGP.

So at the race last weekend I got there plenty early, did a couple warm-up miles with Io and then stashed him in the car before the race.  I met Kem, who’s running with Seattle Anti-Freeze and just signed up for the race and pretty soon it was show time. I did start out hard, or as hard as I could, but this day wasn’t feeling kind to me.  I got a decent position heading into the fins at Magnuson and pushed respectably up Kite Hill to the turnaround.

I don’t have many key strengths as a runner. I’m not an outstanding climber (though I think I’ve developed from “abysmal” to “passable” over the years), I can descend OK but I’m not terrific and I think my kick is about on par with Elaine Benes. But I’ve convinced myself I’m not terrible at anything and I can pass people here and there in different technical sections of races where I convince myself they don’t want to work as hard as I do.  I don’t remember passing many people the whole race at WGP, though.

As we made the final turn in the first lap, we entered what Max Fischer would have called “the shit.”  This was some rough-going, shoe-stealing mud and slop.  It feels a little dangerous and I definitely love running in conditions like this.  I don’t know my first split but I soldiered on to the second loop which had a couple moments of false hope.  First, after one guy I’ve seen at a few races crushed the climb up Kite Hill, I caught him about 30 seconds later, bent over and sucking wind.  He caught me in the flat section back down by the road, though.  Then in the twists in the final ~800m, I caught one of the high schoolers who was out for the race and passed him, telling him “good job.”  Apparently, he decide “that’s what you think, hippie” since he started letting loose in the last ~500 and put a good 80 yards on me by the finish.

So I crossed the finish in 11:51 – my worst time on the WGP XC course and in 32nd, 8 places back from my standing in the 2 mile road race a couple weeks earlier.  This was a hard, good race and every time I race I learn something about my limits, fitness, other runners, terrain, and running in different conditions. These short races are hard, but it’s a different and good challenge compared with the longer distance runs I’ve been doing over the past year. I guess it’s good I enjoy them since there are still three to go!

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Last Chance Marathon recap

This past year I did some volunteer work coordinating the pacers for the Seattle Rock n Roll Marathon and the Seattle Marathon and while recruiting for the different pacer legs I met some more runners.  One is Terry Sentinella who, like a lot of ultrarunners I’ve met, has a great and inspiring back story that’s worth reading. Anyway – Terry is the president of Skagit Valley Runners and race director for a marathon on New Year’s Eve called, appropriately, the Last Chance marathon. I hadn’t run a marathon in 2011 and told him I was thinking about it though I hadn’t really prepped at all.  So on December 16th the race reached the 200 entrant cap and he sent me a note on Facebook asking if I was interested. That night I was also deciding to sign up again for the 2011-2012 Club Northwest Winter Grand Prix series of 2 mile and 3k races and all of a sudden I had 28 miles of racing to do before closing out 2011! So, I started training (and by training, I mean tapering).

The race starts at Fairhaven Park in Bellingham, about 90 minutes from Seattle and I drove up the morning of. The weather was chilly (highs in the 30’s) but overall really not that bad – considerably better than the snow and ice that some people told me they’d had in past years. Checkin at the park was pretty straightforward and efficient. They had a large shelter reserved for the day and simple timing system outside.

Going into this, I knew this wouldn’t be a good marathon and also knew that I didn’t want to trash my legs because if I focus on the Winter Grand Prix I have a shot at placing in my age division, so I committed to trying to learn something about the marathon and simply “run 26.2 miles” rather than “race a marathon.” The course is a 6.5 mile out and back – once for the half and twice for the full. Terry’s family staffed an aid station at the turnaround and some volunteers from the Leukemia and Lymphoma society staffed another aid station about halfway out. For a mom and pop race like this with such a low registration fee – I have to say the aid and support were terrific and dramatically exceeded my expectations.

Anyway – on with the race recap…

Just before 8AM, Terry gave a short talk about the race then he lined up with us and at about 8 everybody was on our way.  I was a little surprised to see the leader taking everybody out at a fairly fast clip – this isn’t a competitive field or a fast course, so I settled into a nice comfy pace and was just out jogging with the group.  After winding through the parking lot the course runs about a mile on a paved regional trail before winding down through a ravine in Aroyo Park.  I thought this might be a nice sociable run, but nobody really seemed too keen on talking (I had accidentally followed the Chuck Bartlett advice of not brushing my teeth before the race) so after fumbling a while with a broken zipper on my vest and screwing with getting the headphones from my iPod out, I had Jonsi taking me out nice and easy and was soon enjoying the run.

After Aroyo park you come out on a mostly flat gravel trail which is very wide and easily handles a couple runners in both directions. To the right of the course is Chuckanut Bay and Bellingham Bay. It was kinda foggy, which was good because (I told myself) the clouds were keeping what little heat there was trapped low.

This was definitely the coldest race I’ve run in. a lot of people were really bundled up and I wore my 2007 Seattle Marathon pacer vest over a short-sleeved tech shirt over a long-sleeved tech shirt.  I also had my earband and gloves on, but stuck with shorts.  That was probably just about right for most of the run (but by midway I was feeling comfortable enough to ditch the gloves and earband). The whole time I just tried to keep staying relaxed and not pass too many people.  I had to stay focused and avoid race mentality – the last race I did was a 2 mile road race where I ran at about a 5:40 pace and I didn’t want to go faster than an 8:00 pace and regardless of how small it is or what my goals were, it’s hard for me to to pin on a bib, line up for a gun, and be in a race and not want to push.

About 43 minutes in, the leaders (most of them from the half but a couple from the full) came cruising back and I knew that I must be getting close to the turnaround.  Naturally I was still sizing up who I thought was in the full vs. the half and tried to get a sense of my placement, but there were a couple early starters making it hard to really keep track.  Anyway, we got to the turnaround and I took my time, had a gu, understood why the Mandarin Orange gu’s were on sale at the running store in Austin, had a salt stick, filled my bottle and left the aid station at 54:19.  I wanted to leave no earlier than 52:30 (for an ~3:30 final time), so that was fine.

By now I’ve got the greatest poet of our generation, none other than Kanye West accompanying me on my run.  This is a fun part of the run, too, because now I’m seeing a ton of the other people from the full and half.  I noticed two guys from ChuckIt I haven’t seen in a while and whose names I’ve long since forgotten.  Pretty soon I’m blown away by Kanye’s lyrical mastery.  What are you going to rhyme with “okay,” maetro? “okay“!!!  Indefatigable!  I’m feeling pretty good around now – a couple tweaks from earlier are shaking out and I started to appreciate the course:

Before long I’m getting back into Aroyo Park. I realize this will be by far and away my favorite part of the course so I try to enjoy it.  These descents and climbs twisting on single track and with a couple sketchy, muddy steps – just enough to add a little element of technical (and judging from the people I’d seen a couple miles back, enough to take a few people down) – this is fun and why I run.  And Kanye’s belting out my favorite jam from 808’s and Heartbreak and all is right.  Then I need to climb out of from the park on the far side.  Shit.  Guess this will be a little work.  It’s not a hard climb, though, and I’m still feeling totally good as I hit the paved trail back to the parking lot.

As I get to the midway point, some guy is screaming at me and the woman coming in behind me “HALF OR FULL?!  HALF OR FULL?!” while Kevin Douglas relaxes taking down times.  I wasn’t quite ready to respond but suspected the right way for me to go was the aid table / course and *not* the finish chute (I was right!) and I hang out briefly, grabbing a drink, some potato chips, and a wedge of PB&J before I fill my bottle and head out again – leaving the table at a 54:24 split.  The second leg is more of a mixed bag.  The first couple miles are fun, again, and Aroyo Park is especially fun – this time I’m seeing people I passed a couple miles ago who are clearly struggling just to get through the half. I’m not a sadistic person, but I bet it’s pretty universal to running that if you’re feeling strong, well ahead, and seeing people struggle that it raises your confidence.  Or maybe I’m sadistic.  Or maybe it was Les Savy Fav.  But I was feeling pretty great.

But by the time I left the park and got back to the paved trail it was clear that I’m going to see WAY fewer people out here now.  There were a couple people for me to keep my pace behind and I could tell I’d run a long time by now so I’m getting a little fatigued by the time I hit the gravel trail.  The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society had volunteered to support an aid station about midway on this leg and I’d run past them the first time, but this time I stopped for a few of their chips and some Chomps and chatted with them. They’re in good spirits and I’m still feeling good but I’m definitely questioning my decision to run a marathon on new year’s eve so I tell them they made the right decision to volunteer rather than run. Before long, I’m off to the last turnaround. The leaders in the full have passed me by now, too, and I realize the guy who’d been leading has slipped to #2 but I don’t have a great sense of where I’m placed because now the trail is starting to get a couple people on it who are running well, but aren’t involved with the race.  I’m probably about 12th though.  I stick with, but behind, a couple guys as we’re getting to the turnaround and I really take my time with the smorgasbord and company this time – runners who got to the aid station probably a full minute after me have left before I finally get going – this leg split 57:52 and my total time 2:46:36.

I know on the way back that I’m not going to get 3:30 and am feeling perfectly fine about that. I want to not trash my legs so that I can run fast at the 3100m race the following Saturday, so I’m hanging behind a couple guys who’d left the aid station before me. I notice Takao Suzuki is out kindly documenting the race and try to give him my best game face.

~21 miles into the Bellingham Last Chance Marathon (credit: Takao Suzuki)

There are a couple dips in the interurban trail where you descend probably 50 feet and climb back up.  These aren’t particularly easy and in one of them one of the guys I was following starts walking and this is when I decide that it’s OK to start pushing a little.  I pass him on that uphill and slowly start reeling in the next guy.  About 3 minutes later I realize he’s not in the race.  OK – next up…is that Leukemia and Lymphoma aid station.  Here I do pass the next guy who was ahead of me as he stops for some support.  Robyn has served me well the last ~45 minutes and as I’m getting back into Aroyo Park I can’t remember what I queued up next.  The surprise of a long playlist is one of the nice bits of variation you leave for yourself in something like a marathon or ultra. I should mention that for the most part I’m pretty opposed to headphones in races. I think it’s important to be aware of your surroundings and pay attention to keep yourself and others safe. Despite this, in some particularly long races with low registration numbers, you can be out for at least an hour between aid stations with nobody around and it can really help break up some monotony, so in some long races where I haven’t thought much about my mile splits, I’ll wear headphones.

So now I’m probably ~3 miles from the finish and Terrible Love comes on.  I thought I’d queued up Monument to Thieves but it’s probably better not to go straight to the endorphin clinic and I start dropping the hammer anyway.  You’ve got a pretty clear view from one side of the ravine down the switchbacks of the course ahead and on the other side for the climb back up and I can’t see anybody ahead of me so I just push as much as I comfortably can and keep going.  This is the first time I’ve ever run this hard after 24 miles without some seriously debilitating cramping so I’m definitely appreciating that.  After getting back up to the trail after a bit I notice a couple guys ahead of me and realize they’re probably ahead of me in the race (later I’ll learn that I was 9th right here).  I look at my watch, project I’m probably a little over a half mile from the finish, possibly within striking distance of breaking 3:40, queue up my favorite song from High Violet and decide to catch them.

Getting close to the end of a marathon is a great feeling.  This is the fifth one I’ve done and it’s pretty different every time, but this is the first time I’ve been going out just to cover the distance and having sandbagged the first 26 miles probably made me feel even better.  As I caught the guys ahead of me I told them we were all really close to 3:40 and we were probably going to all make it or just miss it, trying to see if they wanted to go for it and if we could help push each other.  All three of us started pounding pretty hard but I wound up edging ahead and by the last turn to curve back to the finish I knew I wasn’t going to hit 3:40, but damnit, this was the finish and I was on a bloodbuzz.  So I almost killed some toddler who’s idiot parents let him hobble around on the last 100′ strip of sidewalk on the course (they were there for the race so they understood my situation and were not furious at me) and I crossed the finish in 3:40:37 – a 54:01 leg split.  The two other guys came in 8 and 12 seconds behind me, the guy I passed at the aid station was 5 minutes back, and the guy I caught in the ups and downs shortly after the turnaround was 12 minutes back.

I hung out for a bit after the race, chatting, eating snacks that other runners had contributed to the giant goodie table (doritoes, Christmas cookies, a grilled cheese sandwich, a bowl of tomato soup, one of Terry’s IPA’s, a Coke Zero, some Red Vines and a lot of stuff I’m sure I forgot) before changing and eventually heading back to the car and driving home.

So overall, I think this race was really, really good.  The field was small and though the course got a little narrow in parts in Aroyo Park, it seemed just about right and there was enough lead-up to that part for us to get stretched out and not have to fight one another for placement.  The gravel trail out along the main stretch of the out and back was easily able to handle groups up to about 8 runners or so.   The placement for the support made this much better supported than I expected (basically with support every 3 miles). The weather this day was chilly but totally OK (and apparently a LOT better than some past years).  Overall, I think I’ll have a hard time not wanting to sign up again next year.

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Blue Scholars and Tuba Man

First – probably for today only, the Blue Scholars new album, Cinemetropolis, is available for $5 from Amazon MP3. Everyone should buy this. If you’re unimpressed by the beats in the first cut you need to check your pulse.

While listening to their homage to Seattle’s neighborhoods and unsung heroes, Slick Watts, I went looking for information on Slick and found this short form video they made for the song and featuring the ex-Sonic.

The video seemed a little weird to me because I can’t pretend I’ve got the sports or local roots to fully appreciate it. But toward the end of the video while they’re sitting around a gabling table reflecting on the games, Saba nails it:

…out of all of that – nothing’s gonna compare to seeing Tuba Man playing outside the game.

Tuba Man (Ed McMichael) was practically a Seattle institution. He was this awesome, friendly guy who you’d find outside almost every sports event in the city and usually inside the game, too. Before the games, he would sit outside the Kingdome, Key Arena, or Safeco gently tooting his tuba. A lot of the time it didn’t really sound like music, but that was well beside the point – his bleating was the perfect soundtrack to a dark Seattle night before an NBA game or even in the summer. He played for money and was always happy to talk with anyone who approached. If I was on closer terms with him he might have shared some of the giant jugs of juice he always seemed to surround himself by, I don’t know, but I definitely remember introducing to my dog, Io, one winter while he was playing near the fountain at Seattle Center. Io was VERY curious what animal was making the noises coming from Tuba Man’s horn and wanted to go up and say hello but as soon as he heard Tuba Man’s booming voice he decided they wouldn’t have a lasting friendship. Tuba Man laughed about this and kept playing.

My other memory about Tuba Man is that trying to find him inside the games was always like a real life “Where’s Waldo?” He was usually there – I remember during Mariner’s games he had a big foam M he would put on his head and whenever the home team scored he would get up and dance (march) in his seat until they stopped playing the “we scored” music over the PA. He was awesome. His story ends sadly and if you’re interested, you can read about his murder on the wikipedia page. I think he’d be happier to be remembered as he was in life, like in this video:

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Kim Jong Il is dead

Perhaps you’ve been living under a rock, or perhaps you just haven’t been connected to something electronic for the past hour, but Kim Jong Il died today at the age of 69. A couple months ago I started researching North Korea (or the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea / DPRK) and found the whole thing fascinating. Here are some semi-structured collected thoughts on some of the things I found (and conclusions I drew).

  • North Korea is a wildly crazy country, unlike possibly anywhere else on the planet right now. My sense is that the control of information, propaganda, and quasi-abuse of the people living there is, on an ongoing basis, just about as bad as anywhere in the world. Consider that there is essentially no internet connectivity in the country and there are approximately 1 million telephone lines in a nation of about 24 million.  The “no internet” thing seems a little over the top, if not entirely surprising considering the amount of control over information that most people realize the government exercises, but the idea that 19 in 20 people do not own a telephone is just hard to fathom.
  • Vice TV, which is apparently some offshoot of MTV, went there a couple years ago and produced a multipart Guide to North Korea. I feel this is very much worth the time investment to watch. You can’t simply decide “I’d like to go to North Korea” and book a flight on Delta to Pyongyang, but it is possible for Americans to visit (and at least a couple flickr users have). There are a couple sites that describe how this works, but my impression is that the Vice guide has it right: applications are screened heavily, people who are likely to cause trouble are usually rejected (it’s a surprise Vice got in), and the itinerary is highly, highly controlled.
  • Pyongyang, despite its population of >3 million, seems like a ghost town.  By all accounts, if you walk around the city at any time of day, you’ll encounter no one.  People just don’t seem to go from place to place, out for lunch, out to shops or restaurants, walk pets, or socialize.  “Accounts” are sparse, so maybe this isn’t quite like it seems, but if you consider that this is probably a bigger city than Chicago and the capital of a state with nuclear bombs, I find it a little surprising and alarming.
  • People who visit North Korea seem to all wind up on a very tightly controlled and scripted tour of the country. I haven’t researched this too closely in a couple years, but it seemed like a couple organizations would help field your application that would go to the government and it seemed that most of the people who visited brought back artifacts that indicated that most of them had the same tours as one another and the same tour as is documented in the Vice video series. The tour inevitably leads to an incredible performance of “mass games” (emphasizing what can happen when millions of people perform in unison or some kind of Marxist dystopia / Stalinist wet dream) with hundreds of thousands of North Koreans performing for a couple international tourists.  It’s wildly, wildly crazy to think “this didn’t just happen ‘some time’ – one of these performances might be going on right now and there is an entire nation of people raising children whose greatest life memory might be a performance in one of these shows.”
  • Finally – you can’t get much information on North Korea.  For instance, what’s the hotel that every international tourist stays at?  Well, it’s here on this (easily controlled) island in the middle of the river in Pyongyang – but where is that?  Why can’t you find any hits for “Hilton Pyongyang” if you search Google maps?  In part, it’s because North Korea is essentially the only place on the planet where there is no information of this sort in the public domain. Even the Gaza Strip and Monrovia have some street, but as soon as you get to the border between South Korea and the North, it’s like you hit the astral plane and no one knows what’s there.  There is a project, though, at nkeconwatch where you can download a huge Google Earth database of roads, place names, and place markers of sites within North Korea.
This is enough for now.  This is a fascinating place on the planet right now from a social, political, military, and technological perspective. If you’re interested, I hope you’ll find some of these links helpful for further research.

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Why is gmail so good at spam filtering?

Today I posted a message indicating gmail’s spam filters are good and Greg mentioned that it sounds like gmail is much better at this than the University of Washington.  This reminded me I like blogging and I wanted to write short background on what I know about this topic (which isn’t an incredible amount, but it’s a fair deal and more than most people probably want to know). Before talking about why gmail is good at spam filtering, it’s worth identifying a couple entities involved in junk email, or spam.

  • Spam is unsolicited junk email.
  • Ham is the email that gets through spam filters. Not all of this is email you want – it’s just what gets through the filters.
  • A false positive in spam filtering means something gets tagged as spam and gets filtered from your regular view of email but it was email that you wanted to see.
  • A false negative is a miss in spam detection.
  • A spam filter is a system used for sifting through your incoming email, applying a set of rules, and identifying its likelihood of being spam or not and taking an action based on that.
The title of this post asserts that gmail is good at filtering spam and I think most people who use it would agree with that.  Before switching to gmail, I maintained my own POP3 server with a private hosting company and immediately learned that doing this without some spam filtering system yields a totally unacceptable email experience.  It’s absolutely necessary for anyone who wants to use email (and not get overwhelmed with junk email and doesn’t try very, very hard to live “off the grid” in some sense) to not have some spam filtering.
So at the time I used SpamAssassin – it was very good. Most spam filters evaluate email messages against a set of rules that give the message a score indicating its likelihood to be spam or ham. These scores are evaluated with Bayes’ theorem to get some aggregate likelihood that the message is spam or not and a tolerance is defined in that system for ultimately deciding whether the message is shown.  I may be oversimplifying some details, but that’s the general approach and I suspect something like it is at least a part of gmail’s spam filtering (if not all of it).
So I mentioned SpamAssassin was good – why move away from it?  I don’t really think there is a good reason and if I were still maintaining my own mailserver, I would almost definitely continue to use it. But I’m not, and I don’t want to and there are tons of great engineers who work at Google who are trying to tempt me to not care about stuff like this and let them do that work for me and I let them.
Now to get to the point – why is gmail’s spam filtering good and why might it be better than a lot of other systems out there?
  • When you use gmail, you agree to give google a LOT of your personal information.  And they are very good at turning semi-unstructured data (like multiple GB of email) and finding patterns in it that can be useful for building rules that simpler systems don’t have access to.
  • Your mail and contacts are one. In most personal or hosted mail systems, your address book might seem like it’s in the server, but it might not be.  It might be stored on another server that sits right next to the server that your mail is on, but the spam filters might only have access to your email and not know who are the people in your personal address book that you want to always allow to send you email.  Google and gmail definitely know this, so even if your brother sends you a message that fires 10 alarms that make it look like spam to most spam filtering systems, Google might be able to have the “contact” rule trump those other rules.
  • Google has all the other email in gmail to use to identify spam, too. Say some spammer crafts a clever message and it gets through every spam filter in existence.  Now 5,000 gmail members all see it and mark it in their inboxes as spam – you are customer number 5,001.  I don’t know that google/gmail *do* this, but they could certainly use that as a filter, too, to retroactively identify the message as spam and yank it from your inbox and push it to the spam folder.
To summarize: Google have tons of engineers working on this.  They’re good at aggregating data.  They have a lot of data about you to pull from beyond simply “what’s in the email” to determine whether a message is probably spam.  And they have a lot of data from other people, too, to tell whether something is spam.  All of that adds up to, for me, almost never seeing spam and almost never having legitimate messages flagged as spam.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayes’_theorem

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