Steel City Road Runners, two months after (aka “Stepping Down, part2″)

Two months ago, I stepped down from the SCRR ambassador position. This decision was motivated by many reasons detailed in the previous post. but the main one is that the new leadership team decided to forget the initial core values and turn the community into a product. But running a product requires good management.

mgmt

The post-race cookie run in 2013: let's get warm and stay together indoor!

The post-race cookie run in 2013: let’s get warm and stay together indoor!

The reaction to the initial post varied: some people started to ignore me completely, others were really supportive while others did not care at all. In the meantime, several things happened: the CEO from Pittsburgh Three Rivers Marathon, Inc. reached out to me and apologized in person for what happened, for the behavior of one of her employee (which obviously, shows that she really cares about this club – probably more than many of the members!), others asked me to join a club and others encouraged me to start my own group. Yep, a lot of things happened but my goal was clearly not to start something. I want to support the running community. Finally, after I left, people told me that actions have been taken to address the issues I reported. Seems that change was going on.

The discussion started a debate, so it was time to take actions and continue the marketing operation by:

  1. recruiting new customers (aka members): a lot of actions have been made to increase the number of customers. I am guessing the underlying goal was to get more money for the club. With an average membership price of $28 (see financial reports), they need to recruit a ton of new folks!
  2. applying band-aids and patches instead of addressing real issues: there are many examples but two come in mind
    1. the runs no longer started from the marathon office but from remote businesses (bakery, bar, etc.). The goal is probably to hide the fact that there is no solution for having bathroom and indoor room for runners. Interesting fact: the run of the day of the status report took place in a garage. To compare with last year (with less money and members), the meeting took place indoor in a warm room and runners had access to nice bathroom.
    2. the website is still a mess and the only change made was some edits here and there. But it cannot hide the fact that the website management system is outdated and editors do not have the appropriate skills to edit the website (for example, some pages contains 12MB of data so that a visit to the website can consume more than 10% of your data plan in case you have a limited wireless plan!).  Plus, some information are still outdated or just totally wrong (for example, SCRR is NOT a non-profit itself but a part of a non-profit) which makes you wonder if the editors really know what they are writing about. On top of that, the connectivity of the service provider is a mess and the website is not accessible through comcast or other universities. The highlight was on Black Friday when  the site was not accessible while the club offered a deal to renew the membership: probably a nightmare for a product manager! With a website and marketing costs of $10K (see the official financial report), this is not acceptable.
  3. getting more sales representative (also called coaches or ambassadors): the club reached out to get more people involved! It’s like a party, everybody is welcome to recruit more customers! Problem is the requirement to enter the club is as the efforts for managing them: none. The mission: get more members to get more … money! The ambassadors are supposed to suggest ideas to improve the club, but so far no idea suggested since 6 months has been implemented. Some will say change take time, I hope the members are expecting to train for the marathon in 2016. Unfortunately, there are great people in the team but none of them are very considered or valued as they should.

Change happened

On December, 13, a meeting was held to present the results of a satisfaction survey made on the members and present the financial report. Basically, this should show the satisfaction but also where the money goes. The satisfaction survey was sent by e-mail and also and two respondents will be chosen to win a $100 gift card for replying to the survey (yes, it seems that people needs motivation for trying to improve what they are supposed to love …). The results were presented in a garage during what is called the annual cookie run (which happened one year ago indoors … see pictures included!).

One thing that is good about numbers: you cannot fake them. If you do great, no matter what people is saying, they will show how well you are doing. The opposite is true as well. You can argue, discuss, nothing replace actions, proofs and numbers. Now, let’s discuss the numbers from the satisfaction survey and the financial report.

The Satisfaction Survey

The cookie run version 2014: please come in my garage in December!

The cookie run version 2014: you are welcome in a garage that looks like a food pantry during the cold weather December!

More than 300 persons replied to the survey (329 exactly), so, it seems to be representative of the club members. The survey shows that they are more females than males, so, it seems that SCRR is a good place if you want to find your partner or just try to date somebody (and I will not argue with that!). An interesting fact is that the club has members from several surrounding states (Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, etc.). One surprising fact is the target race: the more popular race is the half-marathon (more than 80% of the members plan to run one) while the marathon is the target for almost half of the members.

The surprise is the satisfaction index: 3 out of 5 are satisfied by the club. It clearly shows the failure of the last efforts made on the club. In addition, when replying to such survey, people are not very critical (I gave myself a 4 to this question) so a 3 is a dissatisfaction warning. After more than 6 months with the new leadership team, it shoes its inefficiency, lack of consideration for members concerns and failure to make SCRR a place runners appreciate.

Yeah, less than 60% of satisfaction! Champagne!

Yeah, less than 60% of satisfaction! Champagne!

While asking to get the slides and discussing them on social media, some members tried to argue and highlight the good services provided by the club. I admire fair people and the willingness to be positive (at least, we need some!) and I would just ask two questions:

  1. “Would you buy a car if only 60% of its owner are satisfied with it?”
  2. “Would you eat in a restaurant where only 60% of actual customers recommend it?”

As SCRR is now branded as a product and not as a community, this is how people look at it. And as a brand, a rating of 3 out of 5 puts you in an outsider position. With such a rating, you cannot claim yourself a leader and give you the label of the “premier running club”. A rating of 3 out of 5 is a red flag that shows you have to work and change. And right now: stop discussing on social media between a small group of less than 100 happy fews and start to reach out to more than 1500 members – you need to change their minds. Self-satisfaction can be rewarding once primary objectives are met.

What is supposedly included with your membership

What is supposedly included with your membership

The financial report

lolcat-moneyThe finance is the most interesting part. Two main slides were presented: the one that presents what is included with your membership and another that details the costs breakdown for the club.

The report claimed that your $40 membership is worth $241 with:

  • $15 for a tech shirt – the real value of such apparel is around $5 (low estimate) to $10 (high estimate). Investigating the finance showed that the real cost is about $3 (see below).
  • $15 off the marathon entry – that is just a way for the marathon to promote their own event! This is just a coupon you could get in many other ways! It is an early bird discount that is also a way to attract people to get in!
  • $55 for the marathon week-end – dude, for that price, I cater a barbecue company, order hundred cases of champagne and celebrate with ribs and pulled pork! With more than 1380 members, and considering that only 25% of the cost is paid by SCRR, it means that the marathon week end costs $300K. It would be interesting to see the receipts …
  • $1 per training run, so $156 in total since the club proposes 156 training runs (logical, you will go to all of them, right?) I have no idea that a training run costs me anything, especially because SCRR stopped to provide any food and just give water. In addition, the club provides less than 156 runs (many runs are skipped because of holidays, upcoming races, etc. and others are just track training). Claiming this number is just a way to create a fake value: a training run does not cost anything.

The real joke (or ripoff, depending your perspective) is in the detailed costs breakdown that explained the costs and revenue for FY15. Let’s have a closer look:

  • $3.5K for social events: members pay for social events (for example, the Christmas party was $30 per person) so, why it costs $3.5K to the club and thus, to members that even do not participate? This is just not fair – why the membership from people in other states should be used to organize parties in Pittsburgh? Even if social events are useful and definitively fun, this should not be done at the expense of the money used to run the core activities.
  • $4.3K for training runs: the most insane cost since the cost of labors are already charged in another line. The club stopped to offer anything but water during training runs and thus, costs are limited to the cost of water and printing maps. Why almost $5K are charged for that reason? Do they finally print the maps on parchment paper and serve bourbon for hydration? Again, there is no detail and I cannot see any reason for that? Is water and cups so expensive?
  • Almost $10K for marketing and website: The website costs about $1K per year (according to the website provider costs) so it means that the marketing costs about $9K. Is there any marketing materials? There was some postcards here and there but nothing that is worth $9K. Considering the website quality (my grandma made better designs years ago) and the marketing activities, this is definitively a joke.
  • $11.7K for merchandise with 8K in merchandise revenue. It means that the merchandise costs associated with the memberships costs about 3.7K (so, less than $3 per t-shirt, which is good number to consider to evaluate how much the value of your membership) and that SCRR merchandise is selling pretty well!
  • 12K for the marathon week-end: dude, this ice cream and photo-booth stands cost a lot! Definitively, I am very curious to see the actual costs breakdown for the marathon week-end, especially because the finisher tent was (as far as I remember) sponsored. Also, this is interesting that the expense for the marathon week end is $12K whereas the club itself value it at $75K. Is the leadership team trying to over-value what is offered?
The SCRR Budget

The SCRR Budget

 

These reports (both survey and financial) show the lack of professionalism and management skills. I am critical? Probably. Hard and Rude? Probably but you are hard with who you love, you want the best of them! Let’s compare these numbers with other related organizations in the Pittsburgh area. Take the example of BikePGH and their annual report. This is clear, well detailed and do not try to hide any information. Is it difficult to have a clear transparency?

Is the Steel City Road Runners membership still worth it?

After that, you may wonder if getting a membership is worth it. I still recommend people to sign up! For $30, this is a very good deal, and the membership pays off quickly considering the free tech-shirt, the discounts for local races/stores and the access to the private area during the marathon. The membership is totally over-valued but still a good deal. For sure, you cannot really expect too much from the community side but if you consider the membership as a product, it pays off. If you are only looking for a community to establish connections and join a nice club of runners and meet new people, that can be an idea but you might also consider trying other options (other clubs, groups in your neighborhood, etc.)

Should I join Steel City Road Runners for training for a race?

It depends on what is your actual goal and how serious you are about running. If you are looking to train between a 5K and a marathon, Steel City is more than enough: all you need is to log more miles, establish connection with running buddies and learn your training routine (nutrition, bathrooms, etc.). The final decision is more driven by your ability in adapting your own training. My suggestion will be to go with Steel City: if you are planning to run a marathon, you have to learn how to train and there is no better way to do it by yourself (which, on the long run will pay off). On the other way, learning to run from scratch 26.2 miles can be intimidating and you might want to pay for a better support. Still, SCRR provides runs, the supported is not as good as it used to be but can be at least a start.

What’s next?

customer

Bad customer satisfaction: who is to blame?

The actual survey showed by numbers that the reboot of the club initiated months ago did not work. This is a fact and not a personal attack against anybody: many people are working very hard to improve things (by organizing social events, reaching out to members, providing coaching tips and advices, etc). Let’s face the numbers: members satisfaction is really bad and money is wasted. Calling this club the “premier running club” with such a rating is just inappropriate and/or inaccurate. The survey results may not match the efforts made but is a measure of the club benefits with the members expectation and SCRR does not seem to provide what the members want. The financial report also showed that with good management SCRR can be sustainable without the support of any other organization. Running an independent, non-profit group is totally feasible from a financial perspective.

How to improve satisfaction? There is no magic formula but before starting to think about how to improve, one might think about to remove what did not work. Get out people that failed in being respectful and transforming this club. Stop the wave the self-satisfaction on social media and face reality (i.e. satisfaction of club members not social media users). Work on the core values. That might be a first idea.

I wish a good luck to the leadership team, the coaches and ambassadors for trying to fix the issues and giving their time for working on this (especially after being this position for a while and experiencing the related frustration!). This post will probably hit a new statistics record and show who care or not about this topic with folks starting to totally ignore me and others supporting me (trust me, I appreciate both but not for the same reasons!). But as usual, people will protect their position, interest and benefits, come back to denial and continue things as they were. Until it starts over again.

On a personal side, looking back two months ago, I am glad I left the position because the benefits (mostly, a complimentary SCRR membership – about $30) are not worth the constraints and resources it requires (attending training runs 8 times a month in various locations, participating to private meeting at the marathon office). It gave me an opportunity to make many other things (focus on work, having a better – in terms of quality – training, finishing a 50 milers before the end of the year, starting new projects, etc.) and being part of other communities. I no longer believe in the values promoted by the leadership team but I want to be supportive for newcomers, help and be there to share the friendship and camaraderie. For that reason, I will be there in SCRR (probably less present over the next months) and around other running groups.

And as mentioned before, I will keep my SCRR membership (probably more with a customer perspective), will be happy to meet new folks, run with new buddies and participate in social activities … until the next change!

And to conclude, I hope you will enjoy this wonderful cartoon!

I wish all of you a merry Christmas, a happy new year, and hope to see you soon, “for the love of the run”!

hamster

CTOTW #8: Watch your weekly mileage

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

Today, we have not one tip but two (lucky readers!): about how much to increase your weekly mileage and what weekly distance you should do before a race. When it comes to increase your mileage, stick to the 10% rule by increasing your weekly mileage by 10% at max. Failure to do so (increasing too much) will then result in injury, intense fatigue and potentially stop running. In addition, do not add too many days from one week to another. Try to observe a regular training schedule (for example, from 3 to 4 days a week). If you want to add a day, please do so but try to balance the mileage in order to avoid potential injury. This rule has been discussed in a lot of forums, some people disagree, other proposed another method but so far, it seems to be the one that works!

 

Yup, overtraining sucks!

Yup, overtraining sucks!

 

There is also a lot of debate about the weekly distance you should be running during a race. I am terrible in training plans and never followed one. It is too boring and I always felt that a training plan forces me to do a particular efforts whereas to me, running is a fantastic method to refresh my mind and get away for any constraint. However, there is a rule I always observed regarding the weekly mileage: try to be comfortable running slightly more the race distance during few weeks. For example, if I you plan to run a marathon, logging 30 miles a week for a few weeks is probably a good strategy. If you plan to run a 50miles, having several weeks with 60+ is a good idea. The main reason is a big part of running is mental: by making more than the distance within a week and having rested appropriately, you know you can do it. Another reason is by running the distance several times, your body is still used to the efforts and exertion of such an effort and would then be ready for the physical part of your endeavor.

Finally, monitoring your weekly mileage is very easy and can be done automatically using your smartphone an an app such as mapmyrun , a GPS watch. So, there is no reason for not doing it!

Delaware Canal Half Marathon & Bucks County Marathon – race report

How it started …

Long time ago, I was in a bad mood, a bad shape and needed to change my mind. Get away, see something else, get this feeling of freedom when running in the nature. Several friends reported that the Bucks County marathon was fantastic. The marathon takes place during a week-end on Sunday. There is also a half-marathon on Saturday and you can sign up for both with a discount. I signed up for both events (Half-Marathon and Marathon) early on March, 23 2014 for $120. This is quite on the expensive side (the Rock the Canyon that combines two similar races is priced at $110 but has clearly better perks, I will come back later on that).

It turned out that in the meantime, I signed up for a 50 milers the week end after. The strategy was then to consider this race as a last training run, an endurance effort were I can see how my body can run 39.3 miles over two days. Might be a good evaluation of my fitness level before pushing it for 50 miles in a single day.

gate3eight-map

Copyright by Michelle Sipe

 

Packet Pick Up and Hotel

If you run both race (what is called the “Bucky” challenge), it is recommended to pick up the packet early on Friday night. This is what I did but I also took the packet for a friend that signed up lately a week before the race. It turned out that his registration was missing. For the price he paid ($180 for late registration), this is clearly a mistake from the race organizer.

Once you take your packet, you get a confirmation on your e-mail for your race number. Unfortunately, my girlfriend has a wrong number e-mailed to her. Over all the week end, nobody from the organization staff was able to provide a firm and definitive answer about how to fix this issue. That sounds really unfortunate and the registration management was clearly not handled properly.

The race negotiated a discounted rate for the hotel: $109 for a room at the Element in Ewing. As I try to give my business to organization that support the race, I stayed in that place. That was definitively a neat decision: the room has a lot of space, the hot breakfast is served early enough so that you can take it before the race and they allow a late checkout at 3pm on marathon day. On top of that, the shower is fantastic (especially great after a nice race when you stayed in the cold for several hours). If you plan to run the race, this is definitively a nice place to stay.

The Delaware Canal Half Marathon

The Delaware Canal Half Marathon starts early at 10:00am. As the weather can be cold at that period, this is clearly a neat choice so that you start when temperatures are the best! Unfortunately, the race started lately because people were still trying to register. This was an opportunity to see a fellow runner, Beth, that ran the Rock the Canyon Challenge with us in July. Good to see fellow runners there! On the other hand, staying and waiting in the cold is not a wonderful experience but fortunately, this did not last too long. The starting line is next to the Canal. The route is an out and back on a graveled path and the elevation profile is non existent. Clearly an easy course if you plan to test your endurance.

Starting Delaware Half Marathon SCRR style!

Starting Delaware Half Marathon SCRR style!

 

The route is scenic and go over a beautiful path. You will discover beautiful houses, ducks, bridges and so on. As shown below, the elevation profile is not an issue at all. During the race, water and gatorade are available quite often and as you pass twice at each one, you do not even need to carry a bottle of water. On the other hand, there is no nutrition but this is definitively not an issue at all for such a distance. If you feel you might need fuel during the run, consider taking a gel or any nutrition you can handle.

delaware-half-map

Once you finish, you received a bottle-opener medal and can refuel with plenty of food available (burgers, pasta, chili, etc.). For the runalcoholic, no alcohol is permitted on the park so you will have to go somewhere else to celebrate with a beer! Once I crossed the finish line, I see Beth again. Even if she was considering to run the marathon the day after, she finally decided not to do so because of an injury. On our side, we tried to find out why my girlfriend got the wrong bib number assigned but no staff gave clear instructions. We came home with a picture of the bib, hoping that everything would be solved.

delaware-half-ep

The Bucks County Full Marathon

The Bucks Country Marathon starts at 09:00am. The weather was less collaborative, a little cold but this is appropriate while running: after a couple of miles, your body is warm enough so that you do not feel any cold. Hopefully, the race started on time with several waves of runners.

Start the Bucks County Marathon

Start the Bucks County Marathon – SCRR style!

The course follows the same route as the half-marathon but go further. Instead of turning and coming back after 6.5 miles, you make a turn after 13.1 miles. The elevation is still the same: not existent. As for the half-marathon, this is a great way to train your endurance, especially when doing both races: you can then evaluate your endurance on (about) 40 miles. If you are planning an ultra soon, this is definitively a good way to see where you stand in your training.

bucks-county-map

If having no nutrition during a half-marathon is not a big deal, it can be a real problem for a longer distance such as a marathon. And at the Bucks County Marathon, the only nutrition available was a box of gel available at mile 8 and 16. The box was laying on the ground, several runners did not even saw it. This is definitively not appropriate at such a price and with so many runners. Again, this is clearly a mistake from the organization staff.

Over the race, there are several portable toilets. Not a lot but enough for anyone if nature calls during the race. Again, as the route is an out and back, you have several opportunities to stop.

bucks-county-ep

Once you cross the finish line, you get a bottle opener medal, the same as the day before but with another logo. No variation with the previous medal. And no additional bling if you complete both races. On the other hand, when completing both race at the Grand Canyon Marathon week-end, finishers got an additional medal as well. Here, nothing and even the staff was rude (see below).

Making the Bucky and post-race communication

One of the benefits of doing the Bucky is potential additional perks. In fact, you are supposed to get a shirt or hoodie when you complete both races. Unfortunately, after crossing the finish line, nothing was there. I asked the volunteers if something was offered for people completing both races and the dude told me “There is nothing, congratulations Mr Bucky”. I really think this was not appropriate considering the lack of organization from the staff and that the race is on the pricey side.

After the marathon, I asked somebody from the organization staff that told me the registration was not correctly handled and there were some mistakes. There were definitively a shirt or hoodie offered to runners completing both races (half marathon and marathon) but they were not available and would be sent by mail.

However, after the race, there was no communication. No e-mail about the results, the pictures or even the fact that the registration for the bucky challenge have been screwed! The main communication media was facebook, but people should not have to use a social media platform to be informed the race. Obviously, in addition to the registration, the communication was clearly screwed as well.

Let’s do it?

It totally depends on what are your objectives. If you are looking for a good training race, that might be a good idea,  if you get the early bird rate ($120 for two races, still reasonable to train on a nice route). But the late rate ($180) is clearly too expensive for a training run. Sure, the route is nice, but considering the issues runners encountered, this race is overpriced.

On the other hand, if you are looking for a nice supported race with a good support and people cheering, go somewhere else. Put more money (and maybe not if you get the early bird rate) and sign up for a nice marathon, such as Pittsburgh or Richmond (the same week-end by the way). At least, you will get a nice medal and a real support.

 

Yep, difficult to compare the Bucky medals with the one from Rock the Canyon ...

Yep, difficult to compare the Bucky medals with the one from Rock the Canyon …

Pros

  • Nice course overall
  • Very (too?) flat, good endurance challenge
  • Good race hotel
  • Good post-race party with food option
  • Race pictures at a reasonable price so that you do not feel someone is trying to rape you when you checkout

Cons

  • Expensive for what you get (no nutrition, same medals, etc.)
  • Can be very cold
  • No nutrition on the race
  • Staff organization, bib number management was messy
  • Out and back (personal opinion, I rather prefer a loop or a point to point)
  • The benefit for doing the Bucky is not so great (look at the medals!)

Information

CTOTW #7: don’t believe the hype

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

believehype

Many folks think the last apparel or shoes will increase your performance. Bullsh1t: Do not believe the hype.

Running, exercising is a matter of dedication, it is spiritual and physical commitment. It does not depend on the color of your shirt, the brand of your shoes, the jacket you wear or the size of your wallet. We are all equal in this sport: we all start from the same point and have to cross the same finish line. What happens in between depends (mostly) on you and you only and there is nothing that can change this fact.

You might be tempted to buy all the new trendy stuff, thinking it will make you better and improve your performance. Just be honest, it will not make you better, it will make you feel, which is a big difference. You probably want the new trendy stuff but you do not actually need it. And actually, many runners carry too many accessories but do not need it at all.

You are all set for your first 5K!

You are all set for your first 5K!

Just focus on the basic: all what you need is a good pair of shoe that fits you (and stick to it!), a comfortable short or pant, a tee-shirt and a handled bottle in case you are going very far. You can consider gloves and other light additional gear in case of extreme weather but not so much. Nothing else, the rest is superficial.

  1. Stop thinking the new fancy gear/shoe/whatever will make you a better runner. It will just make you feel better
  2. Instead of focusing on your gear and accessories, focus on your training
  3. Do not use too many accessories, it adds weight, potential discomfort and will ruin your bank account. Keep the money for a hotel room when going to a race

Let me finish this CTOTW with a funny story. Three years from now: when I was working in The Netherlands, my weekly highlight was a trip to Amsterdam  to look if a new issue of Runner’s World was available. Once, there was a review of the Newton shoes and, after reading it, I was really excited and definitively wanted to try them as soon as possible. I thought I would solve all my issues and will make me a stronger, faster runner. Unfortunately, at that time, Newton was not available in the Netherlands and I was not a so serious runner to order them online (plus, delivery there was really expensive). So, when coming in the USA, the first pair of shoes I bought was the Newton. I was so happy that I go for a run the very same day. After one week, I started to experience pain in my knee and kept going. I eventually switched to another shoe but keep thinking the Newton was the best shoe (hey, Runner’s World recommended them dude!) so it must be true! I kept using it until I got injured. Back then I started to use Hoka and never got injured. The take-away: do not believe the hype, stick to the basics, try different things and just keep what works for you, regardless its price, color, size or shape.

 

Nittany Valley Half-Marathon – Race Report

How we got there?

Happy Runner

Happy Runner

During a recent training run, Katelyn, a fellow runner in Pittsburgh told me she signed up for the Nittany Valley Half Marathon! This is a low-key marathon in State College, PA. As I love State College, I wanted to do it. After a long discussion (2 minutes) with my partner in crime over google talk, we were all set to go to this race. We did not take a hotel and drive directly from Pittsburgh to the race. An e-mail was sent the day before the race to indicate where to park. Also, the e-mail reported that this was a low-key race and there was no bag, swag or goodies as in other races.

We parked at 0950am (the race starts at 1000am), head to the starting line and realized that … people have a bib on their shoes and you have to pick up a packet! The website or the e-mail never communicate anything about packet pick-up and we were picking our packet 2 minutes before it starts. Hopefully, the issue was clearly minor and were able to start. The race director took our packets so that we were able to run the race without having to carry our tee-shirts and get them at the finish!

The race

The race took place on December, 14 2014 and started at 1000am close to the Snyder Agricultural Arena. The course starts with two loops for about 2 miles and continues on the road until the end. It is mostly rolling hills with more incline sometimes but nothing really serious. Around mile 10, you pass by some beautiful areas with water spots (Spring Creek). If the weather is great, you can have a really good time there.

Do not get me wrong, this is a very simple and basic course. Nothing really special but the Race Director is friendly, there is not a big crowd and if you are looking for a easy relaxing course, this is definitively a good option to finish the year!

 

Nittany Valley Half-Marathon Map

Nittany Valley Half-Marathon Map

 

There are three or four water stops that offer mostly water and gatorade. I did not pay attention at what is offered because I do not take anything for such short distance. If you are worried about stopping to the bathroom, there was bathrooms located at the aid station around mile 8. On the other hand, one great surprise during this race was the (probably unofficial) beer stop at mile 12. I saw some friends from the trail community and I was pretty happy to see these guys! I did not take any nutrition or fluids during the race except at this stop!

 

Nittany Valley - Elevation Profile

Nittany Valley – Elevation Profile

 

Once you finish, you can go to the packet pick up site (Snyder Agricultural Arena) where the award ceremony/post-race party takes place. Food is available (Subway is a sponsor) and you can hang out for a while with fellow runners. There are also bathrooms available at the finish line in case you want to change your clothes.

Let’s do it?

Well, this is a very simple and friendly race around State College. You never go off the road but you hit some beautiful spots on the area. Even if this race is not very special, you can do it as a good supported training run. Considering the price, this is definitively reasonable and, if you never visited State College, this might be a good opportunity to visit the city as well! If you end up doing that, consider passing by Happy Valley Brewing, they have a good draft list and good food options, perfect to replenish the batteries!

15352279613_ff3616d630_kPros

  • Easy and friendly race
  • Cheap ($30 + $2 processing fee)

Cons

  • Course on the road only – no trails
  • Bad communication from the race director

Informations

 

CTOTW #6: break, then repair

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

You do not develop your body by training and exhausting it. In fact, when you are doing a intense physical activity, you are damaging your muscles, bones and other parts of your body. This is why over-exercising will lead you to injury. In fact, this is by resting and adopting a healthy diet with the appropriate nutrients that your body will recover, rebuilt the broken parts and make them stronger.

overtrain

Overtraining might not be the best strategy

For that reason, if you want to increase your strength or endurance, you should rest a lot and adopt a healthy diet.

  1. Do not work on the same muscle group two days in a row
  2. In case you are running every day, vary your workout (for example, one day with hills repeat, another day with a tempo run that focuses on cardio)
  3. Always put a lean protein (chicken, non-fat greek yogurt, tofu, turkey, egg) in your meal to ensure good recovery
  4. Adopt a consistent sleep patterns by going to bed at the same time every day
  5. Do not overeat at night in order to ensure a good sleep quality
  6. If you experience pain, avoid to train hard in this, go easy and let it recover for a few days

References

CTOTW #5: if you cannot run, just walk

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

Running all the time is sometimes difficult mentally and physically. At some point, you reach a state when you need a break. Some folks in the runner community say you have to keep pushing, even if it hurts. Bullsh1t!

Running should be a something you like, a way to get away from the stress of our busy life, a way to reconnect with our body. Not a torture, something we want to quit right away to come back as soon as possible in front of a screen. Continue to run is painful? Then, walk, take a break for a few minutes.

By taking some walk break, you will:

  1. improve your recovery between several runs (especially useful if you run often)
  2. reduce the likelihood of potential injury
  3. increase your ability to get further: your body will then recover during your walk so that you will be ready to run a few more miles

This is something recommended by several professionals, such as Jeff Galloway. But the same principles are also promoted by the Lafay method for core training. This is not a big surprise because the same strategy applies in many domains when you want to develop a new ability. Success is a long-term investment and if try to push too much too quick and you will fail. Just be smart and keep a conservative approach: push when it feels good and take a break when you do not feel so great.

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.