Monday, 20 April 2009

P-K on the Left Coast

This week's post comes to you from beautiful Port Coquitlam B.C., where P-Ker Rejean Chiasson and I are recovering from the first of two big 10ks-- by the numbers, Canada's two biggest 10ks, in fact. Yesterday, the two of us were joined by D. Wykes on the start line of the Vancouver Sun Run, Canada's largest race, with an entry list 60,000 names long. Thirty-one minutes and nine seconds later we were all safely across the line. Another 60mins later, we were all on the big awards podium (and on the jumbo-tron!)inside BC Place, with Dylan having placed a hard-fought 2nd to resident Kenyan Willy Komosop (in a road P.B.--29:12), Rejean having battled to a P.B. of his own in coming 5th place among Canadians and 8th over-all(earning his first ever prize money in the process), and yours truly having finished 2nd master, but in a new 45-49 Canadian record of 31:09(pending ratification, as the course may be officially considered "aided"). Rejean and I were well pleased with our efforts, while Dylan, believing with good cause that he could win the race, was of mixed mood-- happy about his shape, but a little disappointed with his finish place. He will return to Flagstaff for a final two weeks of altitude preparation before tackling his seasonal goal race-- the Cardinal Invitational 10,000m in Palo Alto California.

Rejean and I will spend the remainder of the week here in "PoCo" with my old and very dear friends Richard and Sue Lee (Sue, a two time Olympian and former Canadian 10,000m record holder, also happens to have been the winner of the first Sun Run, 25 years ago). On Friday, we will cross over to the island for Sunday's Times-Colonist 10-- the Sun Run's little brother, with a mere 13,000 entries (although capped).

The Sun Run and Times-Colonist 10ks are spectacular harbingers of the beautiful B.C. spring time. They also represent triumphs of successful sport and fitness promotion. Both started on a fairly modest scale and have been slowly built to their current size through the simple medium of newspaper support (the Vancouver Sun and Times-Colonist papers run daily run-training segments and other race-related stories starting in early January that serve as encouraging reminders to potential entrants to get themselves into shape in time for the big day). Each year, thousands of B.C. residents from the Lower Mainland and Island challenge co-workers and family members to toe the line in these athletic rites of spring. Along with the fabulous array of immaculately maintained parks, running, biking and hiking trails found in virtually all municipalities out here, the Sun Run and Times-Colonist 10ks are two more reasons why B.C. residents are on average the most fit Canadians in the federation and, indeed, among the most fit people in all of North America. While smaller jurisdictions could never hope to replicate the full scale of Sun Run and T-C events, there are simple lessons to be learned from these races about how to promote running as both a mass-fitness activity and a competitive sport. Through the effective use of one old medium-- the daily print newspaper--and one very old one--word of mouth-- the sponsors and organizers of these events have managed to encourage tens of thousands ordinary residents to accept the challenge of running and walking over 10kms of their community's streets. And, through a dedication to the competitive sides of things-- the sponsorship, through travel support and prize money, of top fields of Canadian and international distance runners-- the Sun Run and T-C have provided a needed boost to elite sport in this country. (In addition, a significant percentage of the proceeds from the Sun Run go to support the annual Harry Jerome International Track Classic, which provides a rare North American venue for world class track and field competition).

So, with the temperatures warming up nicely and the buds beginning to burst, Rejean and I will spend the remainder of the week soaking up all that B.C. has to offer in the form of soft trails and beautiful vistas. On Sunday, we will line up once again in front of the massive throngs, hoping for even faster times (and perhaps a little cash, to keep things interesting!)

P.S. I, in particular, will be hoping for another decent time. With the Sun Run possibly considered and "aided" course (due to the net elevation drop), I'll need another 31:31 or better to erase the old national 45-49 record.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Guest Blog # 1: D. Wykes, Reporting From Flagstaff

The following is my first of what I hope will become a regular series of "guest blog" contributions. This one is courtesy of Dylan Wykes, who is currently in Flagstaff AZ, doing his first stint of altitude training. As he details in the post, he is living and training with a group of fellow canucks in pursuit of fast track times at a series of meets in California beginning at the end of this month. Next week, I plan to send a report from the Vancouver Sun Run, where Dylan, Rejean Chiasson and I will be running next Sunday. Enjoy the blog, including the photos at the end, which show the canuck house in Flagstaff and a couple of shots of said canucks at work and repose.


The trip started with a 10,000m track race in California at Stanford University. Stanford is notorious for hosting tracking meets that provide elite distance runners with well paced races under ideal weather conditions. Both of these factors were both as ideal as I had heard and expected when i toed the line of Friday March 28th for 25 laps around the track. Unfortunately my performance was not quite what I was hoping for. I was able to get in the middle of a pack of 20 guys running at 2:50/km pace. I only lasted til around 6-6.5km before I started to feel the effects of maybe going out a bit too hard. It was a long way home from there. I managed to rally a bit over the final 1km for a time of 28:58, about 20 seconds slower than I was hoping for. But, it was a great experience. It made me realize how important mental tenacity is when racing on the track. Running so many laps can be very challenging mentally, no matter what the speed. But, I think I learned a lot and will be able to improve with the experience I gained in this race.

After some great authentic Mexican food, a quick sightseeing trip to San Francisco, and one missed flight, I eventually made it to Flagstaff, Arizona (only 4-5 hours after I originally planned) where I would be joining 5 other Canadian distance runners to training for the next 4-5 weeks, before taking another shot at the 10,000m on the track.

I was greeted at the tiny Flagstaff airport by my former college teammate and roommate Martin Fagan -- an Irish marathon runner who recently ran an amazing 60:57 for the half marathon (2:53/km for 21km!). Martin has lived and trained full-time in Flagstaff for the past 1.5 years and would prove to be a valuable asset in showing us the ropes a round the town and telling me about the do's and dont's of training at altitude.

Martin drove me out to the house where I would be staying with five other Canadians: Olympian - Eric Gillis, his Speed River (Guelph) club mate John Corbit, New Foundlander's Colin Fewer and Grant Hendrigan, and last but not least west coaster Richard Mosely. Prior to this trip I'd spent very little time outside of competitions with this group of guys. But, as many distance runners are of the same breed, I had no doubt we'd all get along. To help matters our house is a massive spot with no shortage of activities to keep us busy between training sessions including 3 flat screen TV's, a golf arcade game, a pool table, and a ping-pong table.

Flagstaff, which is at 7,000 feet above sea level has become a hot-bed for altitude training camps for distance runners. After just two days of running up here it was easy to understand why. From the center of town there is an "urban trail" system which stretches in three different directions for a nearly endless number of miles. The trails are well groomed red-dirt/gravel. From our house - 5 miles outside of town - you can connect to the urban trail system or run on a variety of quite dirt roads, or single track trails which also seem to go endlessly.

The training here for me thus far has been great. I've tried to be fairly conservative in my approach. Easy day runs are run very easy up here in the thin air. I am used to running at a fairly good clip in my "easy" days back home, so this took a bit of an adjustment. But, I knew it would be important not to try and run to hard, especially during the first 3-4 days "up" here. My first taste of the thin air came on a hilly run the first afternoon here. You go into oxygen debt so much quicker up here, and I almost maxed out going up a short steep climb at about 9min/mile pace! But generally when running easy you don't really sense that you are running at 7,000 ft altitude (as long as you really do run easy). Workouts on the other hand are a much more difficult task. During our first workout I sort of felt like I was running in slow motion, but I was clearly working hard because I was breathing heavily from the get go. It was an odd sensation. Workouts have also been difficult because I am used to reading into times and paces and distances covered as a measure of my performance in workouts. That is very hard to do up here as there is no real golden rule for how to convert the times and paces you are running. But with the help of Eric Gillis (who training up here for one month last year before running his Olympic qualifying time of 28:07 for the 10,000m) and the other guys at the house I've been able to get through the workouts thus far without killing myself and feeling pretty confident about the efforts. In general, the environment of living and training daily with 5 other guys with similar mindsets and goals has given a great boost to my training. It's been a refreshing change from the long, cold, lonely miles logged in the brutal winter that was served up in Kingston this year.

In between runs I have had quite a bit of school work to do to keep me preoccupied. But, when I have found a few hours of spare time we've enjoyed a few trips into the town of flagstaff, for the occasional meal and pint of beer. One place that offered a unique experience was the "pay-N-take". It's hard to describe exactly what this establishment is. It's part bar, part convenience store, part beer and wine store, bar espresso bar. You walk in and one half of the place is a wall of bridge fridges with an amazing selection of micro-brewed beers from all over the states. You can grab the beer of your choice and choose to either pay for the beers and take them away, or have the bar tender open them up for you and relax in the other ha lf of the establishment which has a few chairs and tables and a typical bar. It's a pretty chilled out setting and they were playing some good tunes (radiohead and new order came on the short time we were there). Apparently the owner is really into cycling and the place has been a gathering spot for endurance athletes to enjoy a little break from intense training camps in the thin air.

Other activities have included a billiards tournament (which I won), a few poker tournaments (which I did miserably in), and a lot of time spent surfing the inter-web.

There has also been one failed attempt at a trip to the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately we probably picked the worst day of the first two weeks up here to make the 80 mile drive to the South Rim. The unsuccessful trip started with unsuccessfully getting the two newfie's (Colin and Grant) out the door with any sense of urgency. Although they won't take the blame for any delays, we ended up arriving at the car rental place 10 minutes after it had closed. But, in hindsight, this was probably a blessing in disguise as the snow was pelting down and the visibility was terrible. Hopefully I will be able to make it there in the next few weeks and send some photos.

On April 19th I am going to head up (north), but down (to sea level) to Vancouver for the Sun Run 10km road race test out any gains I have made in the first 3 weeks here in Flagstaff. Should be fun to meet up with fellow PK'ers making the trip - Steve and Rejean.

Monday, 6 April 2009

P-K Profile #3-- Agathe Nicholson

When you've been around the sport as long as I have you have met and gotten to know a lot of runners-- hundreds of them. And because you've met so many, you can't help but begin to compare them. Who's the fastest? The most naturally talented? The hardest trainer? The fastest kicker? The wildest post-race...ahem...celebrant? Although I only met her a few years ago, and although she's only been a runner for the same period of time, Agathe Nicholson is very high on one of the most important of my lists of rankings: that of toughest racer.

The best distance runners, whether age groupers or internationals, are naturally selected for the ability to endure physical discomfort while keeping their focus firmly on the prize. Some runners, however, manage to take this ability to a completely other level. In pursuit of their competitive goals they are able to go regions of the mind and spirit unknown-- or, if known, then feared-- by more ordinary athletes. More ordinary runners will set goals in the weeks and days leading up to race only to abandon them when the moment of truth is at hand. There are rare athletes, on the other hand, who will, as a matter of course, chase their goals into the deepest regions of a psychological hell far too hot for the rest of us. Athletes of this cast are so rare that, once met, they are seldom forgotten.

Being what runners call "tough" has nothing to do with natural ability. There are very gifted runners who never perform to the best of their ability because, for one reason or another, and often because they are so gifted, they lack this characteristic in sufficient quantities. And there are less naturally endowed athletes whose ability to psychologically endure would put some Olympic medalists to shame. Since Agathe Nicholson came to the sport late-- in her early 40s, and as an ex-smoker and mother or two-- we will never know how she would have measured up on the natural talent scale. But, as anyone who knows her or who has had the misfortune of racing within her competitive range can attest, Agathe is a rare specimen when it comes to her ability to "go deep" in a race or challenging workout. On my personal rankings, Agathe is among top three toughest distance runners I have ever met (with the toughest being all-time Canadian great Paul McCloy, once among the top 10 cross country runners in the world, Africans included.) Put Agathe's mind in my body, or in the body of anyone with above average natural ability, and you have at least a national champion. Put her mind in the body of someone with exceptional natural ability and you have an Olympic champion. Simply put, Agathe has a world class ability to push flesh to the breaking point. If you are a runner, ask yourself the following simple questions: How many times have I required medical attention following a race? How many times have I collapsed or passed-out? How many times have I completely forgotten the final stages of race? Agathe's answers to these questions is "several", and that's not counting what she's done to herself in workouts! My own most memorable "Agathe" moment: When, standing trackside on a warm evening in July, I looked into her eyes with 600m remaining in a 5k race and told her the time she needed for the final lap and half to meet her goal. She looked back at me, nodded foggily, and visibly tried to launch an exhausted drive for home. Five hundred agonizing meters later, she would lose her bearings completely. Weaving across the track from lane one to eight, she would search vainly for a finish line that she could no longer see or sense. To this day, she has very little recollection of those last 600m. I often imagine how tired she must have been when she gave me that little nod of recognition not 60 seconds before all hell would break lose. And Agathe is no drama queen. She has done none of these things for effect, and probably considers them tokens of weakness and failure rather than indices of exceptional fortitude.

And, as anyone in the local group will tell you, Agathe's raw intensity is frequently directed outward at her club mates and training partners. Shame on anyone who fails to do his or her best on Agathe's watch as a cheerleader or workout partner! Even I have been the object of Agathe's exhortations; and,for all my experience and calm under fire, I've always felt a little humbled by her emotional heat. She is the one athlete I have coached from whom I felt I have learned, or perhaps re-learned, almost as much as I have taught.

Along with--and of course largely because of--her exceptional psychological strength, Agathe has been a remarkably successful racer in her short career as a masters runner, demonstrating a fantastic range. She hold P.B.s of 4:56 for 1500m and 3:05 for the marathon, the latter set in her debut at the distance at the age of 47. (For her other P.B.s, see the P-K Profiles page). And, she is far from through yet. Now in the final stages of a second successful marathon build-up (this one, having been carried out in the winter months, requiring all of her fabled guts) Agathe will run Boston in exactly two weeks. Her goal is a personal best, but we're both hoping for a low or sub-3 hours. The vagaries of the marathon being what they are, no one can say if she will meet her goal. As sure as the sun will rise on the day, however, she will not fail for lack of will.