JFK50: race report

How it happened

Some weeks ago, a friend of mine announced he was running his first ultra. As I wanted to do one, I thought this might be a good opportunity. After checking the website, it appears that registration was still opened. I sent a check of $210 and after a few days, my name was on the registered runners. I was ready for an adventure in Maryland!

Joining this event was not just about running but also the opportunity to evaluate the efficiency of the training I set up for myself. I am not a registered trainer but help people and defined my own plan. I wanted to have evidence that it actually works: if I can complete an ultra injury-free, this would shows and proves that the way I trained is sound and adequate (at least for me). In addition, last weeks were though and intense from a physical and mental perspectives. I needed to find an outlet, something that will give fresh air to my mind. Running has always been a good way to meditate, so, I was also hoping that this run will help me to find a way of redemption. Also, the JFK50 is the oldest ultra marathon (first edition in 1963) in the country. More than a thousands runners join this event every year. So, doing it is also an experience for any ultra runner and I was curious to see how it was.

After figuring out the race day details (hotel, packet pick up, etc.), I was all set. My partner in crime will then follow and support me along this 50 miles race. Even if I do not need anything special, having somebody can be useful, especially for your first experience. I did not plan anything special, the only request I had is to have the ability to switch shoes after the trail section, around mile 15.

Planning and establishing the best race strategy

Planning and establishing the best race strategy

The Race Strategy

After signing up, I looked at the race description: aid stations, stops, elevation profile, etc. After few minutes of investigation, it seems that the first 15 miles were the only one with hills (in the Appalachian Trails), that the course had a lot of aid stations all along the 50 miles and that there was a lot of parking for potential spectators. Then, the strategy was quite simple:

  • no nutrition/support,  no backpack. Just a handled bottle and the aid-station food/fluids. Start to drink at mile 8 (when starting the down hill section) and eat around mile 10 (prepare to stabilize the sugar level)
  • no specific drop bag, just ask my partner in crime to come after mile 15 to switch shoes after the hilly section
  • take it easy on the hilly section (first 15 miles on the Appalachian trail) and then, alternate run/walk on the last 35 miles. Try to find my own pace during the run
I am not drinking, I am preparing for my race

Preparing for my race

For the last part, I relied mostly on my last training runs. During a 18+ miles in Moraine State Park, I felt quite good. So, I figured that doing the same thing on a smaller distance would be ok. Also, I completed 40 miles the week end before during the Delaware Half-Marathon and Bucks County Marathon, which are very flat courses. I figured it should be ok to go for 35 miles on flat course, once I crossed the 15 miles section in the Appalachian Trail.

Finally, as for the preparation, I stick with simple rules:

  1. do not overeat or “carb-load”: through the week, I ate a reasonable diet with about 2500 Kcal per day packed with vegetables, grains (almost no meat during that week!) and fat (load the peanut butter buddy!)
  2. do not exhaust my body but do not taper as well: stick to tempo runs, keep doing 10 miles a day to commute but do not try to challenge myself or try to work specific muscles
  3. be sure to get enough rest: sleep between 7 to 9 hours a night all week long

Again, these are very simple rules but this is by following them that you avoid any unexpected issue and make sure you will be prepared on race day.

 

How I get there

We drove the day before the race from Pittsburgh, PA to Hagertown, MD. We got early enough to get the packet at 04pm, check in at the hotel and prepare for race day. We stayed at the Hampton Inn in Hagerstown and could not ask for more: the rate was reasonable ($89/night), the room has plenty of space, the hotel was 15 minutes from the starting line and they were very accommodating with runners (with breakfast starting at 04am on race day!). I could not have asked for more and if you plan to run the race, I definitively recommend this hotel.

Packet pick-up was very basic: you get your bib, get your tee-shirt and … that’s all! The expo is almost significant with very few vendors. There was a Hoka sales with 20% off. Also, before going to bed, we explored the area and ended up at Dan’s pub, a very nice location for beers, sandwich and desert. Everything you need to visit the bathroom at every aid station.

The swag contains few stuff: t-shirt, bib and timing chip. About the timing chip, you have to return it, this not a disposable chip! So unfortunate, especially considering the price charged for this race! The swag could contain more (a sticker, a discount for local food vendors, etc.) and I was disappointed on that side.

The course

JFK50 - Map

JFK50 – Map

The course is pretty basic (see the workout on mapmyrun): you start at Boonsboro (in the main street), go on the Appalachian Trail for 15 miles. Once you get out of the Appalachian trail, you go on 27 miles on a flat trail. The last 8 miles are on the road and you finished in WilliamSport. The start is pretty steep, you have to run on a hilly section. It continues to go up until mile 5 and there are still some part to climb for a couple of miles. Once you reached that point, this is all downhills.

You stay in the woods until mile 15.5 on a technical, rocky section. Runners not experienced with trail running should be very careful and watch out for potential rocks that might be hazardous and let you fall. Once you get to mile 15, this is flat until mile 42. The route is very scenic, which helps to avoid the boredom of the elevation. You can see the river, the waterfalls and the nice color of the fall season.

Once we get to mile 42, you go on the road (some parts have to be shared with cars!) for the last miles. This is not very steep but rather rolling hills. Some appreciate coming back on the road, other are totally mad at seeing some hills. Obviously, once you get to that point, your brain is not longer able to feel the difference and just keep going until the finish.

 

JFK50 - Elevation Profile

JFK50 – Elevation Profile

 

 

20141122_094252

Coming from the Apalachan Trail

 

Race organization

You start the day at Boonsboro and meet at the High School. A pre-race meeting takes place were basic instructions are given (do not litter, take care on the trail for rocks, eat your veggies, etc.). After that, you walked about a mile to the starting line in downtown Boonsboro.

You can start at two different times: 5am or 7am. The early start (5am) is dedicated to charity runners, senior athletes or people that completed 10 JFK. Other folks asked to start before and they were denied. I assume the race organizers have a good reason but obviously, I do not understand the rationale for such a decision: road closure are already effective, insurance is already paid for early starters, so, if somebody wants to start early, why it is not possible to let him go? Considering the entry fees ($210) and that the race was not sold out (heck, considering the price, this is not such a surprise!), it is hard to understand why they made such a decision. For some people, making the cut-off is difficult and completing this race is just a dream: why not letting them start early so that they can increase the probability to make it to the start line? For sure, there are constraints for the cut-off (for obvious safety reasons, letting runners in the dark is just not responsible), but the reasons for not letting people starting early are more difficult to understand.

JFK50 cookies - Photo by Harriet Langlois

JFK50 cookies – Photo by Harriet Langlois

Overall, the race is pretty well organized: there are aid station very regularly so that you do not have to carry any nutrition or more than a bottle of water. Also, when being appropriate, roads are closed (especially for the first miles and the last eight miles). In the Appalachian Trail section, there are a few spots with volunteers that are able to provide first aid support (in case you fall). Overall, the support is very good and appropriate if you plan to make your first ultra/50 miler.The race volunteers are wonderful and there are stations every 2 to 5 miles (so you can do the whole thing without support). I ran the race with a handled bottle of water and just rely on what was provided at the aid station. All stations has basic stuff you can expect at an ultra: M&M’s, P&BJ sandwich, pretzels, etc. Some of them provide even more: aid station 19 made cookies with “JFK50″ on it (see picture), aid station 34 was offering home-made cookies served by Santa and aid-station at mile 38 had red velvet cake! JFK50 is probably the race you can eat more calories than you spend (which is probably true for all ultra races by the way).

My fantastic crew

Fantastic support crew

 

Also, at mile 34, I see a guy with an incredible (the Disney movie) costume, a lot of US flags that was cheering. This is the type of support that give you extra energy and help you when you are in a down time/period at that moment.

There are spectators area over the course at mile 15.5 (after the Appalachian Trail section) , mile 27 and mile 38. It can give the opportunity to a friend, family member or whoever you want to cheer and potentially give you new clothes, items, nutrition, etc. My girlfriend came at each spectator spot and that was a huge motivation: knowing that somebody is waiting for you is a motivation and help you keep pushing during the last miles before the spot. The spectator spots seem very well organized as well, with plenty of parking for everyone!

 

The finish

The finish area was simple on the outside: the finish mat and … nothing else! Then, you have food, massage and the award ceremony inside the High School in Williamsport. Volunteers are making and distributing various food items (pizza, pulled pork sandwich, etc.). A nice thing is to be able to have a shower (with hot water!) in the gymnasium, which is appreciated after such a race!

Support on this course is ... incredible (photo by Jimmy Wilson)

Support on this course is … incredible (photo by Jimmy Wilson)

One of the main disappointment I got was that my girlfriend paced me during the last 3 miles. Good opportunity to have somebody to run with before crossing the finish line. Obviously, considering that I was close to the 9 hours finish, it really helped me to avoid walking and make it under 9 hours. As she started to step away from me in the last feet, I asked her to join me. I wanted to cross the finish line with her, holding hands and take a picture of this achievement together. When arriving, the guy from the timing company asked us if she had a bib and we say “no”, did not ask to leave but grabbed her and was about to push her away. While asking pacers not to cross the finish line is ok, being violent and rude is clearly not ok. I have to admit that it really diminished my experience, especially at the finish, one of the highlight of your day. Again I understand the rule, but it has never been written in the instructions or notified by the dude.

Homemade cookies at Aid Station 34 (photo by Jimmy Wilson)

Homemade cookies at Aid Station 34 (photo by Jimmy Wilson)

After the race, I discussed the matter on the facebook page of the race to share this experience and the comments astonished me. Some folks reported that it was normal and they were thankful to the guy for not letting my girlfriend crossing the finish line. But this rule was never written and they are many races you can cross the finish with your pacer. Beyond these considerations, this fact highlights a big difference in this community and the competitive approach of some folks.

From my perspective, I still does not understand some folks are so inquisitive, aggressive and appropriate with others: running is not about achieving a goal or a time. This is about finding yourself, being happy. Engage, with others try to establish a connection in a society where we are more and more lonely and where we are more careless to each other. If I want to cross the finish line with somebody else, as long as I (or she) did not cheat and does not diminish the pleasure of somebody else, who cares? If this means a lot to me to cross the finish line with the person that is part of this adventure since several months, is it the business of somebody else? Is that such a big deal? Does it change the experience from other runners? I do not think so and after reading comments and considering the time wasted to argue, it showed me what I do not want to be.

After discussing with some folks, I see an interesting fact that would interest many preachers of the “carb-load”. A 56 years-old dude finished the race in 7:45. But what is amazing is that the dude proved that many new training techniques and buzz products are bullshit: he fueled himself only with water and 5 pieces of dark chocolate. Nothing else. I admire such folks with a contrarian approach that demonstrates running is more a matter of training and dedication than using the right gear or adopting the last trendy product.

Pacer disallowed to cross the finish with its associated runners? Nothing in the rules!

Pacer disallowed to cross the finish with its associated runners? Nothing in the rules!

 

 

 

 

 

Waterfalls before coming back on the road (photo courtesy of Jimmy Wilson)

Waterfalls before coming back on the road (photo courtesy of Jimmy Wilson)

 

Let’s do it?

The JFK50 race is a big deal: is a part of the ultra-running community in the USA! If you are looking for a good first ultra marathon, that is definitively a good easy one with a flat and scenic course. There is a good support to do it without having to carry nutrition. The volunteers are amazing and this is a pleasure to run from aid station to aid station. On the other hand, this race is expensive for what you get (the swag has nothing special) you can really find something cheaper with a similar support (think about the Groundhog Fall)

The JFK finisher medal

The JFK finisher medal for the 2014 edition

Pros

  • Amazing volunteers (homemade cookies anyone?)
  • Good support: spectator spots well organized, lots of folks for aid station, road closures, etc.
  • Easy route for a first 50 miles
  • Scenic view for … well … a lot of miles!

Cons

  • Expensive ($210!), sounds like the Disney of ultra-marathons
  • The swag is very basic (especially for that price)
  • No possibility to ask for a 5:00am start so that it might be hard for slow runners to make the cut-off

Links

CTOTW #4: Keep It Simple and (very) Stupid

This is the fourth post of COTW (Coach Tip of the Week). If you want to access previous tips, you can get the full list here.

 

Carb-loading is bullsh!t and is rather a way to stuff your stomach with a ton of bad food what will makes you hit the bathroom stop before crossing the finish line. Fueling your body is not a matter of a meal before race-day but rather adopting good and sound nutrition guidelines. Running a lot of miles does not allow you to eat whatever you want and is rather a good reason to stick to good nutrition strategy that will help you to replenish your batteries and build stronger muscles.

Several folks already discuss this topic (such as Galloway with his book on running nutrition or Karnazes that talks about his nutrition strategy) and the rules are pretty simple. Just need to stick the the KISS (Keep It Simple and Stupid) rules:

  • Seek for efficiency: avoid empty calories and bad fat. Want carbs? do not take candies (sugar without anything else) but whole wheat bread (low Glycemic Index, fibers, vitamins, etc.). want protein? stick to non-fat greek yogurt (yes to the additional pro-biotic) or fish and avoid the fatty beef patties! A better switch guide is available in the “Eat Smart” section of “Eat Move and Love”)
  • Moderation and balance are keys: avoid extremes, do not follow strict rules or guidelines. Do not follow any extreme diet (paleo, vegan, vegetarian). Rather than decrease your weight, it will decrease the size of your wallet and over consume your time and sanity. Also, indulge from time to time, having a beer, a glass of wine <whatever-is-not-part-of-your-daily-diet> should be an exception, not regular. But it is totally fine to make exception from time to time.
  • Plan ahead and stick with whatever works for you: stop wondering what you are going to take for dinner. For your daily routine, try to know what you like, what you can process and makes you feel good. You can also plan ahead and cook ahead of time so that everything is already prepared and you know what is your food intake (in terms of calories, nutrients, etc.)

 

Eating the same dinner every day can be ... well ... boring

Eating the same dinner every day can be … well … boring

In fact, most of people think that having a daily routine seems boring, but at the end, this might be efficient for you: you will not have to think about what you will eat, once you composed healthy meal, you can then focus on something else (family time, work, planning your training, etc.).

Also, many people usually ask when they should eat. The old following proverb still apply:

“Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper!”

By taking most of your food intake during the first part of the day, you will ensure you get enough nutrient to fuel your body. In addition, avoiding heavy meals at the end of the day ensures that you do not overload your body with too much food that might then creates discomfort when sleeping. If you are looking for meal examples and other recipes, some are available on the recipes section of “Eat Move and Love”.

CTOTW #3: Forget the carbo load

My grandma used to tell me: “you need to eat in order to run all these miles” Also there is this old saying: “your body needs energy!”. Bullshi!t!

During your training, your body adapts its metabolism and improves its ability to burn fat and turn it into energy. After a certain period (about 45 minutes to 1 hour), your glycogen stores in your muscles are depleted and your body starts to take energy from your fat. That is why you need to (1) not overeat to prevent stomach aches, (2) be prepared to consumes food on your run to get immediate energy and (3) work on getting your body used to transform fat into energy.

For sure, you will need enough fuel to put your ass to the finish line. But overloading your stomach with plenty of sugar (because honestly, most carbs are just sugar) will rather trigger GI issue, bloating and eventually make you sick in the middle of the race. On top of that, carbs (and sugar) are rather factors of diseases and contributors to get diabetes. There comes the question of why you run: if you run to be healthy, getting your body be used to a ton of sugar is just counter-productive.

Your grandma can still argue that you still energy before a long run but in fact, as race day is coming, your training is reduced and, if you do not change your diet so much, your body get (and store) more calories. What matters more is to be sure that your body is well healed and rested. Make sure you get enough sleep during the week before the race.

 

carbload

On the other hand, you need to get enough energy during the run, not before. Your glycogen store (long story short: where your muscles keep the energy before taking it from fat) can last for about an hour. So, make sure you get energy during the run. Energy bar, gels or anything else you want and are able to handle. The idea is to maintain the sugar level within your body rather than playing with it like a roller coaster. Finally, selecting the food you can get during your run is something you have to try while training to avoid any inconvenience on race day. Recently, a trail-runner drops into a course in La Reunion (La Diagonale des Fous) because he did not store his food in a fridge. He got food poisoning, got sick and eventually dropped.

Healthy Salad that follows current diet trends

Healthy Salad that follows current diet trends, best solution for planning a trip to the bathroom at mile 6!

So what should you eat before race day? Same thing as you are used to. Stick to food you can easily process (vegetables, soup, etc.) and do not overeat so that you avoid any GI discomfort and any sleeping issues before race day (an overloaded stomach can trigger discomfort when sleeping). On my side, I eat the same thing as I do every day (mostly peanut butter toast for breakfast, lentils/bean soup for lunch and tomato soup with peanut butter toast for dinner). If I am outside and hang out with some friends, I might take something else (even a burger) but it does not really matter because I stick to healthy rules all week long (which is most important than eating crap all week and just stay healthy before race day). Again, the most important is to stick to healthy choices most of the time and having some exceptions from time to time.

Pittsburgh EQT 10 milers, 2014 edition

Hungry to pace!

Hungry to pace!

On Sunday, November 09 2014, I ran the EQT 10 miler in Pittsburgh. I was honored for being selected as a Pacer for this race and has to stick to a 8:30 min/mile pace for 10 miles.The race starts in Station Square in Pittsburgh and go for 10 miles in the Western part of the city. At that time of year, the weather can vary a lot. It can be the perfect running condition or just let you miserable for a while. Hopefully, this year, it was great!

You can pick your packet on Thursday at Fleet Feet in Pittsburgh or on Friday and Saturday in Station Square. The bag contains a nice long sleeve tech shirt from North Face, some goodies and discounts for local shops. The expo is really minimal with few local vendors and shops but, as I am not a big fan of race expo, it did not really matter. But if you are looking to shop for running gears, they are great shop in the area!

Going to the race can be challenging. Parking is very packed in the garage in station square and it is better to come early to be sure to be on time. We were on site at 0650am and parked just at 0715am. If you want to be on time, avoid the long and packed lines, park in downtown and walk (or run!) to Station Square! As Fedex provides a drop bag service, you can easily walk there, wear a coat, drop it at the package drop and have it back at the finish line!

Pacer on duty

Pacer on duty

The race started at 800am with several waves depending on your pace. Everything goes very smoothly. The route goes on the West End bridge and let you discover the West part of the city. Unfortunately, it is not very scenic and does not offer the best of Pittsburgh: you run mostly in the industrial area and, when passing nice neighborhood, the route avoids them so that runners go in side streets. This was a deception because you do not run through the cool neighborhoods that use to cheer runners. Instead, it shows creepy parts of Pittsburgh. Why starting in the West of the city whereas the starting line is close to an active neighborhood (South Side)? Why we do not go through the Mexican War Street or even East Ohio Street? This is unfortunate that the route does not highlight Pittsburgh’s neighborhood, this would be a good way to attract people, invite them to discover more of this city and sign up for the marathon. The marathon route is great and Pittsburgh folks are great to cheer and be supportive. Having a EQT route that covers some parts of the marathon would be a great idea! This would just shows how this city (and its marathon) is so great!

EQT Route 2014 version

EQT Route 2014 version

The elevation profile is not too bad and the race director did a great job to avoid big hills. This is something that definitively scare many runners coming from other cities: Pittsburgh has the reputation to have many hills. So, when pacing, runners often ask when is the next hill or when are we done with hilly sections. Hopefully, the course is almost flat (look at the elevation profile below) and the average runner should not have a hard time during the race. Also, there are water stops (with water and gatorade but no gels/food – which is totally not necessary for 10 miles!) and aid stations. After crossing the 10 miles mark, you get a finisher medal and walk through a line with water, food (banana, bagels and probably other things I forget!) that ends in Market Square in Downtown (where you can get coffee from various vendors!).

EQT version 2014 - Elevation Profile

EQT version 2014 – Elevation Profile

If you are considering to sign up for a fall race, the EQT 10 miler is definitively an appealing one. Good support, nice running weather (if you are lucky), this is a great simple fall race. Even is it would be nicer with a better route, the swag and the finisher are nice and considering the other races in the area, it will probably become one of the must-go fitness event in the area.

Useful informations

CTOTW #2: Cross your train or hope to drop

Cross-training or not cross-training? The question has been around for a while in the running community. If you want to last and continue to run for long without injury, there is no debate: cross-train. Running requires not only the support from your legs but from your whole body. Other muscles will support your efforts, either running, lifting big stuff or having fun with friends when skying during winter. By training other parts of your body, you will not only strengthen your other muscles but also improve your cardio ability, improve your breathing and no longer look at a guy with strong legs and thin body.

 

Well, do not overtrain!

Well, do not overtrain!

 

The nature of this additional activity will impact your performance, the development of your strength and the impact on your running abilities. So, chose carefully and select something that will

  • exercise other muscle groups than your legs (arms, abs, chest)
  • develop your cardio vascular capacity (improve your breathing capacity)

Some ideas about potential activities? Swimming an hour, riding your bicycle, using an elliptical (that uses both arms and legs) or lifting weights are good activities that will complement a good training plan. As for running, start slowly and increase the intensity and duration every week or two weeks. The goal is not to set new records but to exercise other parts of your body. As for running, these activities are not expensive (you can find a pool in many gyms or university and you can even use body-weight training – I personally use the Lafay method, I will develop that later)

 

skippingworkout

 

One key is to find the right balance between all these activities. A common rule is to run three to four times a week and cross-train two to three times a week with the following rules in mind:

  • Alternate the cross-training with running: it will then let enough time for each muscle group to recover. Using the muscles break them, they are growing when sleeping and resting.
  • Do not have two activities the same day: you will be at risk of over-training, potential injury and do not let the muscles to heal and recover
  • Keep at least a rest day (you can still go for a nice walk to exercise!)
  • Take your time and do not push too much: it would then has a side-effect on your running training program (not enough juice in the tank to run).

What I am doing? I run about 10 miles every day and cross-train every two days during 20 to 30 minutes by using body-weight training or swimming at a medium intensity. Push-ups, abs (everything from the Lafay method) all positions that could train your body using your own weight (it just adapt the workout activity with your weight – the heavier you are the harder!). For sure, my muscles are not exceptionally big and I do not look as s body builder but is this not the goal. On the other hand, it provides enough support for running every day 10 miles and be able to keep running more than 80 miles a week injury-free. Again, this is a matter of setting goals and objectives and, in that context, cross-training seems to work, hope it could help you as well!

CTOTW: Your body is your buddy

This first Coach Tip Of The Week (CTOTW) is simple, basic but fundamental: treat your body as your best friend. Running, exercising and maintaining a healthy lifestyle requires a strong support and neglecting one part impacts the other. Nurture and understand this relationship, learn from it because you will stick with it forever. This symbiosis is essential:

  • listen to him: when you are injured, your body will tell you you have to stop pushing, take a break and rest. Failure to listen will result in injuries, soreness, change of mood, etc. Needless to say, it will impact more than your physical or fitness performance.
  • ask him for support: when you will need it, your body will then provide the power you need to run, lift and do whatever you want. Once you know how your body works, you will be able to push for more.

 

bestbuddies

 

How to start? This is pretty simple, stick to some basic rules:

  1. value your body: maintain it (wash it, cut your toenails). Let your body feels he is wonderful and desired. How can you be confident in something you do not value?
  2. sleep: it will give a rest to your mind but also to your body. We will come back later on this topic later but this is during your sleep that your muscles are built: running, weight-lifting or swimming destroy your muscles, you rebuild them (stronger) by eating the appropriate nutrients and resting. Do not keep awake lately: most of the time, you do not do useful stuff lately and second, you have less time to recover. Learn how much sleep is enough: if you wake up tired, you do not get enough.
  3. eat well: treat your body as a temple. Choose the appropriate nutrients when eating, avoid the stuff that will make you feel miserable. Do not overeat but also do not be anorexic as well. Of course, there are exceptions and we will discuss that in a next post. Learn what is good for you: try different recipes and watch the consequences during the next days.

 

eatinggloberito

This sounds very simple but this is by sticking to these rules that you will successfully improve your performance without impacting the rest of your life. And if these rules are simple, following them is not so easy, there will be many moments when you will be tempted not to follow them. This was highlighted recently: In 1979, 2,500 men were asked to follow five simple rules – eat well, work out, drink less, keep their weight down and never smoke. Nearly four decades on, just 25 pensioners have managed to stick to the plan. But they are all far fitter and healthier than the volunteers who gave up. In other words, stick to these rules, you will save your health, money and probably sanity.

This first CTOTW not discuss specifically a training plan or some particular running advices. On purpose: most of the training also comes from some rigorous living guidelines. It focused on some essential pre-conditions that will help you, not only to train but adopt a more healthy lifestyle.

Introducing Coach Tip Of The Week

Recently, a friend of mine asked me to make her a training program to improve her marathon time. She is a sub-2H half-marathon and already completed a full marathon under 5 hours. Basically, there is a good fitness base and the goal is to improve it and aims for a sub 4.5 hours or even sub 4 hours marathon. Obviously, such an improvement can be done because the person is already willing to run (we do not start from scratch) and the body is already used to run.

However, improvements have to be made in several areas, either physical (make your body stronger), nutrition (balanced meals with adequate nutrients to refuel the batteries), lifestyle (get a lot of sleep) or even mental (keep pushing when you want to drop but learn to drop when you body needs it). Working on these different aspects is crucial, this is by improving each of them that you will improve your fitness level and eventually, your performance. For sure, you can keep pushing, train a lot and have a better time but it will then be at the expense of something else. Running a lot without getting enough sleep or having inadequate nutrition? This will eventually put you on the road of injury because your body will not have enough time to recover. Reducing fat and calories intake while running 40+ miles a week? The idea of dropping will come back at every step.

Coach Advice Number 1

Coach Advice Number #1

Before starting a program for my friend, I will then propose some “Coach Tip of the Week”, also known as CTOTW. This will be a tip about one the topic listed before: Physical, Nutrition, Lifestyle or Mental. Some people might argue that I do not have a coach certification and I am not legitimate to provide such tips. Even without a certification, I think my previous weight-loss, the completion of several road and trail races without major injury gave me enough experience and credits to give potential useful advices. On the other hand, if you suffer from serious injury, I would recommend to always see a doctor and seek for professional medical advice.

Sharing these posts publicly might also help other fellow runners. For that, new tip will be then posted one or twice a week and this will start next week! Hope you will like it … or not!

Harvest Hustle 5K – race report

How I got there

I was at the conference on Portland, OR. I woke up at 08am and, after taking my morning coffee, went out for a run to discover the city. After a couple of minutes, I see many runners on my left and decided to follow them. After a mile, I found out that other runners had a bib and saw signs on the course. People start to cheer and there was also cheerleaders. It was pretty cool!

So, I just found out that I joined a race. I did not know the distance and decided to follow the runners and see what will eventually happen.

The race

I cannot say what the starting line looks like because I join the group after starting my regular morning run. I cannot also say much about the swag because I did not register or pay for the race. I assume people got a t-shirt and a chip for the time. The race is an out and back on closed road and follows the river. Pretty nice, especially because the weather was collaborative. As an out and back, you basically see the same things all over.

There are one or two water stops (I do not remember exactly), so, if you feel you need water for a 5K, you even do not need to carry your own bottle. Once you finish, you receive a bag with food and a water bottle.

Let’s do it again?

It was a fun to join a running crowd for my first run in Portland. Even if I am not addicted to 5K races, it was funny to crash into a race. However, considering the price ($30), it seems a lot for 5K. But if you live in the area, that might be a good fit. On another note, I am glad I can keep sleeping on my two ears after having raced a 5K without being registered. It seems that having accurate race results really matters for part of the community and I am surprised (and glad) for not having been reported. Feeling safe now!

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Stepping down

Talking about the Steel City Road Runner club is not. After 18 months, being part of this group is one of the reason I loved this city so much. I will remember forever my first run with SCRR, my first discussion with Shannon about this club and the difficulty to understand each other because of my frenchy accent. This is also how I met Jon, the dude that inspires me to run ultra marathons (the guy ran several four 100 milers the same year). I was definitively hooked: running was part of a new lifestyle, not just a thing to stay healthy and in shape. It started to be my religion, my drug, my addiction and the Steel City Road Runners became the church when I got my regular fix. For that reason, I wanted to give back to the group, contribute and improve it. As the group was getting more popular, new leaders were required and volunteer positions were posted. I applied immediately: I wanted to give, be part of the magic of this group. I was nervous to be rejected: what if I do not qualify? What if I am too weak and not good enough to be part of this group? After a couple of weeks, the decision came on July, 31: I was selected as an Ambassador. I was then able to be part of the community and propose my own improvements! It was an opportunity: the club was growing and faced many challenges. I was then happy to be part of the team that will address these concerns.

However, after more than three months into the program, I am sad to say that it is probably better to step down. I will try to summarize why I stepped down, and what are the problems SCRR is facing now.

How it happens

Once I was selected, all Ambassadors had a meeting with the new group leader, a new employee from the marathon office that was now in charge of the club and coordinate all volunteers. The meeting was very confusing: we were not invited to introduce ourselves (our name was not even asked!) and we were required to provide idea but were not invited to present them.

The only objective that was discussed was to increase the number of members. Make SCRR bigger. Growing. Talking quantity. Not quality. I thought my objective was to represent the members and act for their best interest. So I tried to talk about their concerns and talk about what they reported:

  • no restroom: we were previously offered to use the marathon office bathrooms for our events. Unfortunately, as the club was growing, this created some issues related to having a big crowd in a small space. A member broke a window, others hang out after the run. We were no longer welcome and for a good reason. However, we still need to offer bathroom. I proposed several alternatives but they was always turned down.
  • pre- and post-run, no post-run nutrition: SCRR previously provided post-run nutrition and snacks. This was done by using $50 gift card from sponsors and buy chocolate milk and snacks at a grocery store. It was a good way to finish the run and refuel: people hang out a little longer, discuss and connect each other. Now, people are hungry and come back home right after the run (or get breakfast somewhere) soon rather than staying around. Was was a great way to connect with the rest of the group after a good workout. The club no longer provides that. The new club representative reported that is was “not a priority”.
  • membership perks: all the membership benefits were removed from the website. Looking at it, there was no longer a good reason to be part of SCRR. The webpage was not talking about the perks on the day of the marathon. Nothing about the runningwarehouse.com discount code (just 15% off with free shipping!). Nothing about having supported runs (of course, they no longer exist!).

After expressing these concerns, the meeting was over and it was promised that these concerns will be addressed in a timely manner. This was three months ago.

 

Feeling cold because you have to go to a portable toilet in the snow during our run? Not a problem, our sponsor offers a pair of socks! Lucky you!

Feeling cold because you have to go to a portable toilet in the snow during our run? Not a problem, our sponsor offers a pair of socks! Lucky you!

 

Follow-up

A second meeting took place on October, 13. The meeting started with a 5 minutes video totally meaningless about team building. The same type of video you watched to build self-confidence that you can manage a project or lead a team. None of the issues reported previously were addressed or even considered, the new club representative considered them as a “low priority” (words repeated several times). Regarding the concerns expressed previously by the members:

  • no restroom: it was ok to use the restroom again without evidence or document. As we need to prepare the marathon training program, it was critical to have a place we can rely on. After asking for more details, I was offered (in an e-mail signed by the new representative and the CEO of the marathon office) that as a volunteer, I was invited to repair the damages done by the club members. It showed all the consideration the office has for its volunteers and ambassadors and the plan to use them as a cheap labor.
  • pre- and post-run nutrition: it was reported by the new group leader that this was not a priority and that it did not matter. I was amazed that a new person in the group seem to know what the members wanted (in that case, why are we supposed to report members feedback and suggestions?). A coach told me that if people comes for that, it was better not to have them in the group. I was also surprised by such an aggressive behavior. So, I made my experiment to see how much it would cost to provide support. I organized a unsupported run with 18 people and provides post-run snacks and nutrition. It costs me roughly $15 and half of it left after the run. After working on number, it seems that offering post-run nutrition would cost between $2000 and $3000 per year. With an operating budget of $40k, it seems we could afford that. Instead, I was offered (still by the representative and CEO of the marathon office) to find local dairy provider and have a sponsor agreement to get post-run food. This showed the marathon office priority for the club.
  • membership perks: the only update was focused on non-running perks such as discount for food or cultural events. Even if a running group can grow as a social group, it must adhere to basic and core values. Providing support for runners must be and stay the first priority for such a club. By putting support as a low-priority and starting to highlight social perks clearly shows the new focus of the group.

At that point, it seems clear that the club was no longer focused on supporting its members but to forcethem to embrace a specific vision. Finally, the meeting agenda focused on other minor aspects. It then started to be clear that we were not used to provide feedback but just spread and good word and believe in the proposed propaganda.

 

Exclusive discount for SCRR members, forget the 15% at running warehouse we have since several years and that is better!

Exclusive discount for SCRR members: forget the 15% at running warehouse we have since several years and that is better! For information, the Fleet Feet discount is shown on the members perks while the Running Warehouse is hidden. Why?

 

Forget your Freedom of speech

One of the topic during the meeting was the social media policy. When joining the facebook group, SCRR members acknowledge to respect the group rules. The rules are basic: no defamatory message, personal attacks or arguments. But even sarcasm or humor is no longer appreciated. A fellow known runner once made fun of the marathon office on facebook and his post was deleted. Forget that the dude was one of the best (and probably biggest) advocate for the group (the dude is well known in the community and run probably more than 50+ across the country). Most of the folks I know found its words funny, especially because it was also a sarcastic way to report the issues the club was facing. However, it seems that the leadership team did not appreciate this type of humor and censored the post right away. This was a clear first warning: our words must be supportive for the club, do not discuss issues and be polished and clean.

On my side, I invited the members to a training run I organized on a Sunday and put a disclaimer to notify this was not a supported event (which, basically, is probably a good thing to avoid having any issue is somebody hurt himself on the run). I got an e-mail right away from the club representative inviting me to “Please consider “re-wording” your disclaimer, or not having one at all“. The representative also indicated that : “As an Ambassador for SCRR, you are part of our staff so I would ask you to remember that when you write something for the public to see.“. Problem is: I did not want to be part of her staff, just be supportive for my friends. There was a willingness to control my freedom of speech for just inviting somebody to an event. But also asked me to adhere to a polished language.  Something totally clean, tasteless, boring. Again, by joining a fun group, who the hell wants that? We want fun, we want to make fun of ourselves, we want to have great time! Screw the conventional language, the SCRR representative, I am not part of this group to speak as in a professional conference! I am here to have fun, to speak, to feel free.

In other word, fellow ambassador and Comrade, please comply with the party policy!

Solving problems SCRR style!

Solving problems, SCRR style!

 

Willing to help? No thank you

Another area I tried to help: the website. Let’s face it: the Steel City website is poorly designed, mostly because of its CMS, wildapricot. The system does a poor job for resizing pictures, layout text, etc. If you are not a webdesigner, it can produce a really bad content that is compliant with w3c standards and has a browser-dependent rendering. In addition, there were some features the members wanted: a database of our routes, a directory of the members that plan to attend to run, having a mobile-compliant website, etc. The user experience was just a disaster and loading pages was just terrible and took a lot of time (some pages require to download more than 3Mbytes, which can kill your data plan if you are using only a mobile access with a limit).

All these issues are normal for a club that does not have a focus on technology: the club leaders are probably not web-designers and have something else to do. Maintaining the club, coordinating volunteers and organizing events take already a lot of time! I offered to help. I designed a database system to record and search for maps to run around Pittsburgh. I also proposed several times to help to improve the website. As I did a lot of webdesign and work on many online software, I think I could help. As a previous developer of mobile applications, I was thinking to make an online app to synchronize runners agenda and automatically check-in at training runs. Of course, I offered that at no cost. The offer was always turned down and never had any follow-up.

 

You have some ideas? They are no longer yours

When going in the first meeting, the new club representative asked us to come with two new perks for the members. I came with two perks in mind:

  • trail running 101: introduce members to trail running. Schedule two trail runs per month during the months, provide support, pacing groups and have sweeper to make sure nobody is left behind or is injured without support. Each run will end with discussions between runners to exchange advice, tips and good area/trails to run in the area. In other words, build a trail running community within SCRR. I proposed this idea at no cost, I just needed an acknowledgment and the ability to put my training on the calendar. After the meeting, I asked how to implement the idea. I was told that it was not a priority and will be implemented with a coach from Greensburg (and was not aware of that). This is clearly not the way I wanted my idea to be implemented and after being notified, it appears that the idea was no longer mine but was taken over the leadership team.
  • a training race for the fall season: many of us come to the Run for Gold race. It is a cheap, friendly race on a scenic trail that is perfect when training for a race in the fall and see where you stand in your training schedule. Unfortunately, it is far from Pittsburgh (2 hours to drive which is not convenient in the morning), so, one idea was to make a race with a similar characteristics (under $30 for non-SCRR and $20 for SCRR members for something around 15 to 20 miles) around Pittsburgh. I wanted to make a french race, had sponsors, a plan for nice finisher medals (Eiffel tower medals anyone?), specific wine-stop (forget the water kiddo!) and a friendly and friendly post-race party (want to refuel on wine and cheese?). The idea was proposed and immediately turned down. Several folks in SCRR told me they will be willing to help me to implement the idea and I already had enough potential volunteers. Such a perk would come for free and would probably attract more than a pair of socks. But it seems this was not the opinion of the new leadership team.

thankyouambassador

Let me attract you with rewards

During the meeting, it was reported that ambassadors and coaches will be rewarded if they support the club during wellness events. The rewards? Gift cards, coupons, etc. That was a huge miscommunication mistake and a lack of appreciation of the reasons people join this program. Coaches and Ambassadors did not come to get a reward and do not care about having a $25 gift card to shop for groceries. They are here to be active, be supportive for their communities. Not to be a cheap labor at the service of a poorly managed organization. Why should we rewarded? We love working for this club!

Even if the general idea was to reward people, it was one of the biggest mistake because it shows the real consideration from the marathon office to the coaches and ambassadors. They assume to be a cheap labor and execute what we were instructed by the new club representative. We were not considered as ambassadors able to act, help the group and support the members by implementing new ideas. From that moment, it appears clear that our ideas will not be implemented and the club will not let us give us the freedom we wanted.

SCRR is working hard to attract new coaches and ambassadors

SCRR is working hard to attract new coaches and ambassadors

Let’s focus on our core values …

What is the current problem with SCRR? The club is just trying to focus on numbers and quantity. Adding members. Such a policy an usual trap and pitfall when an organization grows and loses its core values. So, what are SCRR core values: a club for runners by runners.

Nothing else.

But among the months, many benefits were lost:

  • members no longer have training programs (unfortunately, the club tried to use runcoach last year but this was mostly a disaster as the software has plenty of issues and was not accurate)
  • maps are not as attractive as other clubs (fleet feet propose maps with a specific theme each week, which gives a context for your run and introduces specific area of the city)
  • pre- and post-run support is no longer there (no post-run nutrition and bathroom as discussed before).

On the other hand, during the meetings, the focus has been to reach out to new potential members and present SCRR as an organization that promotes wellness, friendship. This can be great, but this should definitively not be the first priority and not be at the cost of our core values. Having 10% discount on a fitness class? Some might appreciate but the majority is here to have support for running.

Because at the end, all what our members want is to run.

Making a great club would not cost so much. With an operating budget of $40k, this is easy to make an organization that does not sacrifice the core benefits. Many tasks can be done almost at no cost: there are many volunteers that will be more than happy to help. Of course, it requires a good organization and this would be the role of the club coordinator and representative: trying to find synergies and synchronize collaborations, not to over-control every contribution and turn them down. A minimal budget would be $10k to cover the basics, the actual budget could then offer a lot of margin to provide additional perks (such as access to a private space with bathroom for the Pittsburgh marathon).

Starting to change things is not difficult and can be done quickly with a very simple plan such as the following:

    • reach out the members. now and find out what they want
    • publish the financial numbers, show how the memberships are used and stop any rumors about potential misuse
    • classify the recommendations of the members
    • implement the changes

Based on that, it is possible to decide what changes will make sense and implement something that is requested by the members, not the leadership team. Because after all, the leadership is here to serve the members. Not the opposite. Without the basic understanding of what the members want, this is going to fail because there will be no approval from the members.

 

training

 

… and define who we are

There has been discussion about what is the structure of SCRR: an independent non-profit? a company? something related to the marathon office? For now, this is clear that the club is tightly related to the marathon office. But the question of having a real, independent club has never been debated. Each situation has his pros and cons and the members would have to choose what structure is the most appropriate:

  1. if the club is related to the marathon office, we can have support from this bigger entity. This can be useful to connect with other organization related to running and overall, wellness activities in Pittsburgh. On the other hand, this also create some issues:
    1. be transparent about the budget. Rumors have circulated during the last weeks that the marathon office considers the club as its ATM. One solution would then to publish the accounts. This would also shows who is paid and how much they are paid. Some SCRR members are paid by the marathon office but knowing exactly the details would help the members to know how the organization works internally.
    2. identify duties for all members. It means that the club must have an organization chart with established duties. I requested such an organization chart for the current club. After one month, I have been given a PowerPoint chart with the name of the ambassadors/coaches without the name of anybody from the marathon office nor any assigned duty. In other words, they just tried to avoid to discuss that.
  2. if the club is independent, it needs to define its own structure (a non-profit for example). The leadership team could be selected by a yearly election or anything else that will bring more transparency than the actual organization. On the other hand, such a structure will bring other challenges:
    1. coordinate efforts. Need to have several people for each activity with potential backup. This will also need to coordinate all efforts. On the other hand, this can be done efficiently and cheaply with an appropriate management system (and there are software to manage that with mobile- and web-applications).
    2. secure funding across the years. Make sure we have enough to support the club activities. On the other hand, with a $40k operating budget, there would be already enough to cover the club needs.

No matter the structure, each option has pros and cons. So far, the choice has been to be associated with the marathon office. However, the relation with this organization and showing a proof of independence has not be demonstrated. On the other hand, this is important to show that the club is dedicated to support its members and nobody else. Having evidence (publishing organization charts and the yearly budget online to all members) would then address this aspect and then stop any rumors or criticism from the members or potential competitor.

 

scrrbenefits

And now what?

For sure, this article will initiate discussions, animated debate and potential minor changes. After stepping down, several persons asked me to reconsider my decision. I was also offered to have a discussion from the CEO of the Pittsburgh Marathon. Yes, with the same person that endorsed an e-mail that invited me to repair the broken glass of their building and never show any consideration for our efforts. I do not think that this is going to make a difference and this three months experiment was probably already enough.

There will probably be some quick actions/efforts to defuse the bomb and stop the debate. I would be not surprised to have a group e-mail or many facebook to explain that change is coming for the best and that what is reported in the current post wrong. Unfortunately, actual coaches and ambassadors have evidence to support each argument developed here, you can just ask for it: this is your club and there is nothing to hide. But beyond that, the best proof is just the facts: the new leadership team took over the SCRR leadership since three months. Since then, nothing happened. The changes that have been implemented are not related to running and the probation period is over. Is implementing quick changes take so much time, we should then be worried of what would happen when bigger changes are required.

On my side, I will still stay in SCRR as a member (assuming I am still on the members list). I want to keep running, support my family, the people that keep inspiring me along these years. I do what I love, love what I do. I do stuff because I believe this is the right thing to do, not because somebody told me this is the way to go. And this is not going to change.

scrrjesus

321 Ride – report

On October, 12, I ride 62 miles from Connesville, PA to Pittsburgh, PA on the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP). The reason? 321ride, a bike-friendly event made to support the Woiner Foundation which mission is to fight melanoma and pancreatic cancer by increasing awareness, supporting patients, survivors, families and fundraising for research. I completed the event in a team with three friends and my partner in crime. The team’s name “In Memory of Beth” was chosen by one of my friend that lost her cousin last year because of cancer. I was very glad and proud to be part of this journey and I know that this adventure really matters to them.

Riding early in the Morning: embrace the fog!

Riding early in the Morning: embrace the fog!

You do not have to ride that long to support the Woiner foundation and when joining the event, you can choose between a 7, 25 or 62 miles ride. I choose the latter (metric century ride) because it goes on a beautiful trail and this was a good reason to cross train. You start in downtown Pittsburgh at 600am, where breakfast is provided by Panera Bread. Then, buses bring you (and your bike) to Connelsville. Once you get there, you just follow the trail all the way to Pittsburgh.

Funny ducky before West Newton

Funny ducky before West Newton

The buses arrive in Connelsville around 7:45am and you are ready to go around 0800am (time to get the bike stocked in the buses). Depending on the weather, it can be really cold so it is highly recommended to have many layers with appropriate gear (gloves, socks, etc.). This can be a real safety issue, several people had issues. If you have difficulties to stay warm, consider taking hand warmers. After one or two hours, the temperature increases significantly and you can then remove one or two layers.

Aid station at Boston, PA

Aid station at Boston, PA

The trail go through different cities: West Newton, Mckeesport or even Boston. Most of the trail is in the nature, without any other traffic. The organizers set up aid station every 20 miles where you can put air in your tires and refuel the machine (usual race food is available: bagels, bananas, orange slices, etc.). During your journey to Pittsburgh, you will cross many beautiful areas (the waterfalls around Boston are wonderful!). Considering that the race takes place during the fall, seeing the leaves falling makes this ride colorful! Finally, once you get in Pittsburgh, you enter the post-race party. Food is provided (full lunch!) and there is an expo where you can hang out.

Should you do the next edition? Definitively! This is a great opportunity to do a long ride with support so that if you have any mechanical issue on the way, you will get help and will probably able to continue your ride to Pittsburgh (Trek of Pittsburgh, a sponsor of the event, provides support along the route)! Also, having aid station stocked with food avoid to carry too much stuff in your bagpack.

Top individual fundraider!

Top individual fundraider!

 

Finally, when signing up for the race, you can make your own fundraising campaign for the Woiner foundation. In case you do not want to do it, you will have to donate $50 to the organization to be able to ride! Being a runner and participating regularly to road races, I was interested to start a fundraising campaign since a long time. So, I set a goal of $500. This goal has been reached within a couple of weeks and, the total of the donations summed to an amount of $1025, which makes me the top individual fundraiser! This was a real challenge to do it but also a real pleasure. I will probably consider to do it again, for the same organization or another. Thanks again to the Woiner foundation!

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