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1/8/07 I'm back

Well, I meant to put the blog down for a few days, not a few weeks. Anyway, I'm back. I had a really good time at the Castlewood Adventure Race last weekend. Bummer for Doug, though. He turned his ankle and couldn't continue. We stopped to tape it up and then hobbled to the next control. Fortunately, it wasn't very far and the control was manned. I was allowed to continue on my own.

Back at the Start/Finish/TA, Doug got the ankle iced and elevated. He was able to stand on it, but it looked to me like he's going to miss some training. I'll get a race report written in the next few days.

1/9/07 Newest member of Carol's Team

Rob Wagnon, one of our Directors, and his wife Deb had their first baby over the weekend. The girl is a healthy 8 pounds 2 ounces. Deb is doing fine and Rob is ecstatic.

1/10/07 2007 Hit list

As I mentioned before the break, I think my skills hit list for 2006 was too long. This year I want to be more focused. To start with, all my skills training is going to be unified by one common theme: speed.

Well, duh, isn't that the goal for any racing skill? Yes, in the generic sense, but by speed I specifically mean performance in the vicinity of VO2Max. This is motivated by two things. First, I think my base speed is a bit slow given my overall fitness. This isn't too surprising given how much I've been focusing on endurance. Second, I'm making some changes in how I schedule my training so I can spend more time with my family. I don't expect to decrease the total volume all that much (I'll target 600 hours, which is a 10% decrease from 2006), but the long workouts will be less frequent. Endurance takes a long time to build, but it tends to stay with you. Speed (if you'll pardon the expression) is fleeting.

So, on to the list:

  • Single blade paddling. Yup, same #1 from last year. Progress is being made and I'd like to keep that going. I should have more time to train this now that I've finally got my own canoe. Also, Yaya doesn't mind coming along, so I can do this and still get to spend some time with her.
  • Speed in the terrain. Last year saw real improvement in my weak area of terrain running. I'm definitely faster in light vegetation. Now, it's time to work on going faster in open woods and rocky areas. I'll do more of my stamina and speed workouts in the terrain rather than the track this year. I'll attach a specific goal to this one: to run the Rockwoods Test Loop in under 30 minutes (6 minutes/K). That's a tall order, but I think it's possible.
  • Mountain bike descending. Another carry over from last year. As with last year, I think this is just a matter of getting out on trails more.
  • Sprint orienteering. I didn't do many sprints this year, but I really like the format. The combination of rapid decision making and spiked pulse means you're right on the edge of disaster the whole way. That's exciting. I'd like to be good at it.
  • Swimming. This doesn't come up in Adventure Racing too often, but I'd like to do more triathlons in the summer. That means doing something about my rather pathetic swimming skills.

1/11/07 Lake Wappapello

Yesterday, I got in a run at Lake Wappapello State Park. The park is near Poplar Bluff, Missouri, about 2.5 hours south of St. Louis. It occurred to me that it would be a great venue for an Adventure Race.

It's not a particularly large state park (7 square kilometers), but it's adjacent to a lot of other public land. With the adjacent land there's enough for a 24-hour event (or even more). However, the reason it struck me as such a good venue is that you could do a really good 8-12 hour event without even leaving the park. That would make it a relatively easy race to put on.

The lake is big. So big that with some thoughtful course setting, you would have to really navigate in the boats. That would be a nice change from our usual Midwestern paddles that can be summed up as, "go downriver until you see the take out." The park has about 15 miles of mountain bike trail and at least that again in abandoned vehicle tracks. The trail is marked poorly enough that you'd have to navigate on the bike just to stay on trail (I had no map and ended up running a couple extra miles with all my missed turns). Finally, the woods are pristine. Fast, high-visibility, and with enough relief that the typically vague USGS contours do a pretty good job of representing the terrain.

I don't know if I'll put a race on there or not, but the idea is enticing. If you think you'd be interested in participating, drop me a note and that might help convince me to do it.

1/13/07 Castlewood race report

Is here.

1/14/07 Three's a trend

For the third time in six months, our power company has left over 100,000 people without power. The first outage was this summer when a wind storm knocked out lines to half a million people. At the time, the utility said that it was the worst power disaster in their history. While nobody was happy about it, I think most people were willing to let it go as a fluke.

A month ago, an ice storm knocked out power to over 500,000 people. That's a mighty unlucky coincidence and both the Illinois and Missouri legislatures initiated hearings on why so many people keep losing power. Now, just as those hearings are about to begin, another ice storm has taken out power to over 100,000.

No doubt Ameran/UE will claim that these are "acts of god." Perhaps, but why is god so pissed at them in particular. Lots of cities get ice storms without flipping the switch on a quarter of their population. When you also consider the dam break at Johnson Shut-ins a bit over a year ago (wiping out a pretty nice area for outdoor activities), it starts to look a lot more like they are just not taking routine maintenance all that seriously.

Drive down nearly any residential street in St. Louis and you'll see power lines going right through the trees. Apparently the feeling is that it's cheaper to let nature trim the trees and then rebuild the power lines than to keep them trimmed back in the first place.

This seems to be a lesson that everybody has to learn the hard way. I didn't take bike maintenance seriously until I got hit with a string of races ruined by mechanical failures. You'd hope that people would be a bit more forward thinking when they are providing electricity to a metropolitan area, but it appears not.

1/17/07 How'd he do that?

I reran the course from the 2005 Missouri Champs today. In the race I made two terrible mistakes. Today I ran fairly clean at close to competition pace and finished nine minutes faster. I'd call that a good session, except for one thing: it's still seven minutes slower than what David ran in the meet.

Normally, David and I are pretty close. If one of us loses badly, it's because we made a big mistake. I don't ever remember us being that far apart on speed. Early 2005 may well have been the high-water mark for David's fitness; he was really flying all through the spring, but in other races we did together, the difference wasn't nearly so big.

It's tempting to just say he was outrunning his navigation and got lucky. Even he admits that's partially true. He was executing an "all or nothing" strategy and felt like he was on the verge of losing contact with the map pretty much the whole race. I think there's more to it than that. The terrain is just too technical to be over your limit for nearly 9K and not pay for it.

I think what David experienced that day was what some running coaches refer to as "transcendent running." Sometimes a runner will get into a mental state that is so completely focused on the task that they are able to run faster than they ever have and it doesn't even feel hard. This state is generally associated with long races like the marathon, but runners have reported the effect in shorter events as well.

The difference between transcendent running and simply pushing harder is that the transcendent runner becomes detached from what their body is doing. Although they are pushing very hard, they are completely lucid. Obviously, this last bit is key for orienteering. Running faster only helps if you can still navigate.

While I've had lots of cases of "runners high", I can only recall one time where I was truly in the act of transcendent running. It was actually skiing, not running, but the effect was the same. It was the final 10 miles of the Canadian Ski Marathon. I had gone through a really bad patch midway through the second day (each day is 50 miles), but as I started the last leg, I felt like I was no longer inside my body. It was like playing a video game. I was still controlling things and was aware that I was working, but there was none of the usual sensation of effort.

I think if that happened to me in an orienteering event, it would be worth quite a bit. If it ever does, I hope it's an event I care about.

1/18/07 Adventure compass

Well, I'll give 'em credit for trying, but I'm giving up on Brunton's Adventure Compass. I've been using it for a few months now and have decided it's not race ready.

Strangely, the part that I thought might bother me turned out to be a non-issue. I'd still prefer the standard needle to their little rotating disk, but I can read it fine on the run and at night. I haven't made any directional errors due to misreads while using it.

The main problem is that the needle is just not stable enough. I'm sure this was simply a price decision, as Brunton certainly knows how to make a stable needle (the needle in my Brunton 1S Jet was used by the majority of the medalists at World Orienteering Champs). Then again, maybe it's a design flaw: the disk is more sensitive to fluid movement in the capsule. Whatever the reason, the needle floats around a lot. I find myself checking the compass more - not because I can't read it, but because each reading is different. I've got fairly good at mentally averaging the readings, but I'd rather just see the same thing every time.

Durability is another issue. This one stems from the adjustable declination. In order to make the adjustment easy, the capsule comes off the plate without much force. When that same force is applied in a race, you've got a compass in pieces. You can put it back together in less than a minute, but again, why would you want to?

I hope they keep working on this one. I think the basic idea of putting the UTM and declination tools right on the compass is a good one. If the compass has to cost $60 instead of $40 to get that right, I don't think that would dissuade too many buyers. Meanwhile, I'll go back to my 1S Jet until they get it right.

1/19/07 Forerunner

On the equipment upside, I've come to terms with Garmin's Forerunner 305. I got this a few weeks ago after reading several favorable reviews. At first I wasn't all that enamored with it. The instantaneous pace fluctuated quite a bit. Since the timekeeping capabilities of the device are sufficient to compute speed (any stopwatch is good enough for that), I had to assume that the GPS tracking wasn't as good as claimed. However, I plotted a few tracks and found them to be very accurate. I think the problem is that even deviations of 1 meter are enough to screw up pace calculations when you're only moving at 4 meters/second. You can spread the pace smoothing out over as much as 30 seconds, but the displayed pace is still pretty unreliable.

I figured that pretty much nullified the usefulness of the device for me. I don't really care too much about the actual distance I've run - I measure my training in time and intensity. I wanted to use it to run tempo workouts on the road and to help pace in running races. It wasn't obvious how to do that without a current pace that was reasonably accurate. After poking around with it some more, I found that you can reconfigure the display to give you lots of different information. Included are lap pace and lap distance. This means I can run a few miles, hit the split button and run tempo for a while. The lap pace settles in after the first minute or so and the heart rate confirms that my effort is in the right range. Since getting the displays set up the way I like, I've enjoyed using it.

One thing I won't be using it for is to "push" myself in training. Using electronic devices to dictate your pace is a good way to mess yourself up. There's still no substitute for listening to your body. My concern is actually the opposite. I want to know when I'm going too hard so I can knock the pace down before cooking myself.

This may be particularly helpful in the upcoming marathon. The early pace of a marathon always feels ridiculously easy. It's hard not to get carried away and run the first few miles too fast. Hopefully, I'll be able to use the Forerunner to keep me from doing that.

1/20/07 How to use a small area

Let's say that you live far away from any orienteering maps. Let's also say that you're either unwilling or unable to create a full-blown orienteering map of a large area. Does this mean you can't do any orienteering training? Not at all. You just need to know how to use a very small area.

The map clip above is a recent workout at Castlewood State Park. This is a medium-sized park that is completely mapped (although, as one of my early efforts, the map could be better). Most of the park is not particularly interesting from a navigation standpoint. This area is. It's less than .2 square kilometers, but it's loaded with little details, mixed vegetation, and subtle contours. Even though I know the area well, it takes some concentration to run it accurately.

In a meet, you'd be doing well to get two or three controls in an area this small. In training, you can cram in lots of controls. In fact, the more controls the better since it forces you to keep reading the map and not just run from memory.

Granted, running a little course like this every week will not suddenly make you an elite navigator. But, adding a session like this every month or so would pay big dividends if your only other nav training was running rough courses on USGS maps. Certainly, the gain would be enough to warrant spending an afternoon doing the fieldwork to make the map.

1/22/07 Blowin' it

This is the part of a long prep cycle that drives me nuts. All the real work to get ready for the marathon is done. There's not much chance of getting significantly better between now and mid February. All I can do is blow it.

I had felt like that had already happened. The last few weeks, I've had a rather persistent case of dead legs. That's normal during buildup since you're doing more hard workouts (albeit with less volume), but things just felt harder than they should be. Fortunately, the last few days have proved that to be incorrect. I'm running OK. The half-marathon this weekend will be telling.

I'm going to use this cycle to test my theory about long races requiring a short taper. Conventional wisdom is that you run your dial-in race 4-5 weeks before the marathon. I'll be running the half only 3 weeks ahead. I'll also be putting in an interval workout and long run the following week. Finally, I'll run the Frostbite 3-mile hard as a final tune up just a week before.

Trying a new routine in the last few weeks is taking a risk to be sure. I like that. It will make things more interesting going in without the safety net of a proven routine. If I'm successful, it will be rewarding to realize I've figured out a better way to prepare. If I fail, well, there's always another day.

Naturally, I've learned most of my training techniques from others. Some of the advice has been bad, some good. Some advice might have worked for some, but didn't for me. Similarly, the short taper may work for me but turn out to be terrible advice for somebody else. The only way you know is to give it a try and see what happens. I find such experiments particularly interesting when the idea is your own.

P.S.: I'm not suggesting that I'm the first person to think up a short taper - just that I came to it based on my own experience rather than reading it in a book or something like that.

1/23/07 Wire

My current consulting project is with Alan Wire, a company that makes copper wire. Wire isn't something you give much thought to. If you need some, you know you can get it at any hardware store. Unless, of course, you're a utility company with miles power lines damaged by recent storms. You don't pick that stuff up at Home Depot.

Every wire company in the Midwest is cranking out utility wire right now. It's much more interesting to watch than making the smaller wire that comprises the bulk of their business. This is some big, thick wire. The stranding operation involves loading up a bunch of spools onto cylinders that spin in opposite directions while the stranded cable gets rolled onto a huge reel. It all happens on the kind of machine that will kill you and grind up your remains without registering a blip in production.

To their credit, Alan Wire has an excellent safety record. The shop floor is loaded with signs that make the typical race waiver look rather tame. Most are no-nonsense, but there's always some room for some gallows humor. My favorite is a take on the Mastercard commercials:

Safety goggles: Free.
Protective clothing: Free.
Paying attention: Free.
Having enough fingers to tuck in your shirt: Priceless.

1/24/07 Inspiring loss

As I get into the last few weeks before running my first road marathon in over 10 years, I've been thinking about things that have inspired me to work hard. Many people cite great successes when they look for inspiration. I've realized that, while I often do get an emotional lift from success (be it my own or someone I care about), the gritty determination required to succeed has more often come from failure.

One of the events that had a tremendous impact on me was the 1976 Olympic marathon. Although I've never seen a replay of it, I can still vividly recall the scene as if I saw it yesterday. Frank Shorter entered the stadium at Montreal a little less than a minute behind the leader, Waldemar Cierpinski. As he came through the tunnel, he could see Waldemar on the backstretch, 200m from gold. Upon spotting the German, he shook his fist. He was pissed. He had failed. Later it would get a bit more ugly as accusations of steroid use came to the fore, but at the time Shorter was just mad at himself for coming in second.

Shorter was probably the closest thing I had to a true sports hero growing up. When he won the marathon at Munich in 1972, I knew I wanted to be a runner. By 1976, I was running 30-40 miles a week (probably a lot more than a 12-year-old should be running, but my body held up OK). As I watched the closing miles, I had at least some understanding of what it meant to want to suffer at the end of a long run. The fist was different. This wasn't physical suffering, it was the pain of failure (I suppose, as ABC was doing the broadcast, I could use "the agony of defeat"). Shorter's gesture literally changed my athletic life. From that point on, I stopped worrying about physical pain and focused on the mental.

Of course, I have lost many hundreds of times since then. I'll "lose" in Pensacola in the sense that I'll certainly not be the first to finish. I've come to terms with enjoying the challenge of an activity without being the best at it. But a big part of that enjoyment comes from putting in performances that are excuse free.

It's pretty rare that I don't feel like training, but it happens. More common is just not wanting to do a particular workout that I know I should. I always want to eat more than I should. I think of that fist and it's easier. I'll never be the athlete that Shorter was, but I still don't want to shake that fist.

1/25/07 Benchmark

Running the proper pace for the first few miles of a marathon is absolutely crucial to finishing well. If you run too slow, you'll have a hard time making up the time. The more common mistake is to take it out too fast and pay big time in the final six miles. Those who run several marathons a year can generally determine their proper pace by looking at their recent finishes. If the pace fell off after mile 20, the early pace was too fast. If it the second half was slightly faster, the early pace was right.

If you don't have a recent marathon performance, you have to find some other way to estimate your pace. The most common way to do this is to run another reasonably long race under similar conditions and then calculate the "equivalent performance" for the marathon. There are many calculators available on the web that will estimate your marathon potential given a performance in a shorter (or longer) race. They all work pretty much the same way, exploiting the fact that almost everybody runs a pace that is proportional to the log of the distance. Attackpoint has a particularly easy one to use.

The longer the race and the closer to the marathon, the better the estimate will be. On the other hand, you don't want it so long or close that you aren't recovered from the effort when the marathon roles around. This weekend I'll be running the Frostbite Half Marathon to determine my pace. If I'm going to break 3 hours at Pensacola in three weeks, I should run this one in around 86 minutes. I'm hoping I run it a bit faster than that since it will likely be warmer in Pensacola than here in St. Louis. If I finish under 85 minutes, I'll be pretty confident taking out the marathon at 3-hour pace. If not, I may have to start just a bit slower and hope that I can run negative splits.

1/27/07 Frostbite Half

I ran the Frostbite Half Marathon today. It was a good run for me. I used my Forerunner to help me with pacing. I'm usually pretty good at judging effort by feel, but I've run so few races of this distance, I think having the Forerunner really helped. The heart rate graph shows a nice pattern of steadily increasing pulse with just enough left over for a kick in the last two miles.

I still think it's important to base your effort on what your body is telling you. However, this is as good a job of pacing as I've ever done in a long running race, and I have to give some of the credit to having the heart rate and pace data available during the race.

1/28/07 Cold Nose

Today was SLOC's annual Cold Nose meet. It was supposed to take place two weeks ago, but got postponed when the ice storm closed Babler State Park. Given that drastic step, I expected to see a lot more storm damage in the woods, but most of the forest was quite runnable. The Red (advanced) course didn't use much trail, so I can't say what shape they are in.

The courses were set by Bill Langton. This was his first time designing courses for SLOC (I believe he's put together informal courses for other groups). I think he did a pretty good job. The leg to the left was typical (click on the image for the whole course): some route choice, a little fine navigation, but mostly just blasting through the woods. It's pretty hard to do much else at Babler, but that's not entirely bad. This is, after all, a race and how fast you can move is a reasonable thing to test.

The latter half of the course featured a lot of climb. My legs were a bit soft from the half marathon yesterday, but I handled it OK. Clean navigation carried the day; I made less than a minute of errors to take the win with 66:42.

1/29/07 Hang 'em high

Bill Langton did a nice job of designing courses at Babler yesterday. While it didn't spoil the meet, he did fall prey to one common rookie mistake: he hid the controls.

If the controls were supposed to be difficult to see, they would be 2" tall and camouflaged, not a foot square and bright white and orange. If you arrive at the feature (or, in the case of a large feature, the right part of the feature as indicated by the clue), you should have no trouble spotting the control. This rewards those who can "spike" the control (running directly to the right spot) and get out of there loosing just a few seconds to punch. If everybody has to get to the feature and then spend 10-20 seconds looking around for it, you've equalized away a valuable skill.

The fear among many course setters is that the control will be visible from too far away and obviate the detailed navigation into the control. This may well be the case, but that's not really such a bad thing. If you spot the control from 100 meters away, it probably means you had a really good idea of where it was supposed to be and were looking ahead. Again, that's a skill that should be rewarded. On the other hand, if you are getting really close to the feature and still can't see the control, you're probably going to slow down and double check the map to make sure you're really in the right place. This punishes the person who is confident enough in their navigation to know that they should be looking right at the control.

Some terrain (such as Babler) is just not suited to testing fine navigation. In areas where visibility is good and the feature density is low, it's difficult to place controls fairly without them being visible from a long way off. Trying to overcome that by hiding the control behind unmapped features (such as hanging it underneath a large log that has fallen over a ditch) and/or hanging it really low just introduces an element of luck into a leg that has probably been run at very high speed. An additional 15 seconds looking for the control is a significant augmentation of a 400m leg in open forest.

While there's really nothing wrong with having the control visible from a ways off, there are ways to mitigate the problem, even in high-visibility areas. By far the best way is to use features that have a distinct far-facing side and hang the control on that side. For example, if the feature is a boulder and the leg approaches from the west, hang the control on the east side of the boulder. From the clue, the runner can know that they probably won't see the control until they get to the far side of the boulder. This is particularly effective when there are multiple similar features on the map. A competitor that spots the right boulder from a ways off and runs to it quickly will be rewarded for correctly identifying the feature whereas a less confident runner will lose time trying to see the flag before they are in position to do so or checking each feature.

Another way to limit the visibility is to set legs that shield the control site until the very end. A reentrant may be visible from a long ways off if you are on the opposite side of the valley, but if you are coming over the top of a ridge and then dropping into the control, you won't see it until you're over the crest. If you miss your approach, you may still spot it from a long way off, but you've still lost time running back to the spot where you should have come over the ridge.

One related no-no (but a common practice nonetheless) is to put controls inside pits. While it's true that this uses the mapped feature to hide the control, pits are generally difficult to spot unless you are very close. This creates what's known as a "bingo" control. Some runners might get lucky and hit the control cleanly, while others who miss by just a few meters will lose time. A control should only be put in a pit if the pit is so large that it is visible from 20-30m away or there is enough feature detail near the pit that a runner can be expected to navigate precisely to the pit.

1/30/07 Why go low?

There is nearly universal agreement among top orienteers that hiding controls is a bad thing. Are the elite a bunch of whiners who don't want the sport to be hard? Far from it. A technically demanding course favors the top navigators, so if it was merely a case of making things harder, the top guys would be all for it. The problem is that hiding the control adds an element of luck that can dilute (or even reverse) the differences in ability.

So, why do so many meet directors hide controls? I think it stems from the fact that when you are doing the fieldwork for a meet, you are seeing the forest much differently than you see it when you are competing.

By the time a control is hung, a meet director has probably been to that site several times. That makes it seem a lot easier than it really is. You're generally moving a lot slower as well, so you see the control from further off and it takes longer to get to the control after seeing it. Many meet directors have never run courses at the "elite" level, so they don't realize how much more difficult it is to lock in on a control at that speed. They also don't realize how rare it is for a top competitor to be out of contact with the map. A top navigator doesn't benefit much from spotting the control because they already know that's where it should be.

Make no mistake, it's best to set controls so they are not seen until the feature has been located. Shielding the control with mapped features is not only fair game, it's the way the game should be played. But, once the competitor has successfully solved the navigation problem and arrived at the feature, there should be no need to spend additional time looking for the actual flag.

1/31/07 Babler choices

Here's a leg I liked from the Babler meet. It's not a particularly technical leg, but it does have some good route choices. The main choice is whether to go relatively straight along the top of the ridge or take the left route on trail. The left route then forks again depending on when you want to leave the trail.

The woods were pretty fast. If I hadn't raced the day before, I probably would have taken the ridge route. I chose the trail route more to limit climb than to benefit from the trail. I had intended on taking the late exit to save going over the spur, but forgot about that and ended up taking the early exit. This leg was right before the finish and I was getting a little hazy. Just goes to show that you have to stay focused even when you've chosen an easy route.

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