Sports: October 2011 Archives


October 11, 2011

I've now completed two different flavors of ultradistance event, Ironman-distance triathlon and a 50 mile trail race. In terms of time these events are fairly comparable—my Ironman personal record (at Ironman Canada) was 10:13 and my time at the Firetrails 50 was 10:10—so I feel like I have some basis for comparison.

For my money, the biggest difference is that—at least for age groupers—Ironman seems to be raced at a much higher level of intensity than trail running. I think this can be attributed to a number of factors, some inherent and some cultural.

First, running 26 miles on road is really different than running 50 miles on dirt trails. Just covering that much distance on your feet, and having to constantly adapt to changing footing is really hard on your legs. Remember that even though the time in the Ironman is longer, a lot of that is on the bike, which isn't anywhere near as hard on your legs. Then there's the elevation change: the Ironman Hawaii run course has 400 or so feet of elevation gain; the Firetrails 50 run course has 7800 feet. When you put these two factors together, my experience is that you end up feeling a lot more beat up at the same intensity level; I was about as sore the day after Firetrails 50 as I've been after any Ironman, even though I went a lot easier. I don't think there's any way I could have raced a 50 mile trail event at the same level of perceived effort (e.g., heart rate) as I would an Ironman.

Conversely, you don't need to race a trail event the same way. Every halfway decent long course age group triathlete's goal is to qualify for Ironman Hawaii. The comparable objective in trail running is the Western States 100 (There are other big ultradistance running races, but they tend to be invitational only, rather than having clear qualifying criteria.) However, the qualifying procedures are radically different: Hawaii qualification is by place; each race gets some number of slots for each age group and the top N finishers who want to go to Hawaii get those slots. This means that if the person in front of you is in your age group, you have a very direct incentive to finish ahead of them, even if you're nowhere near actually winning your age group. By contrast, Western States qualification is by time: Every athlete who meets the time cutoff can apply and a lottery is used to decide who actually gets to race. This means you have no direct incentive—other than pride—to beat anyone in particular, since you can't stop them from qualifying (unless you trip them or something). Moreover, the Western States qualifying times are comparatively soft; out of 193 finishers at Firetrails 50, 140 qualified. Hawaii qualification rates are more like 10%. This means that you don't need to kill yourself, you just need to have an OK day. That's why you see people walking the aid stations in trail runs; good age groupers don't walk triathlon aid stations unless they're basically melting down.

Social Structure
Compared to the trail running, triathlon is intensely competitive. Obviously, trail running is competitive at the upper levels, but even mid-pack triathletes can be super-aggressive. I've been kicked, shoved, and swum over plenty of times, even in local races where I'm not in contention for anything. The bike and run tend to be less bad because people are more spread out, but there's still plenty of jockeying for position. This happens in road racing, too; people generally don't push too much, but I've definitely had to fight my way through a crowd plenty of times and there's a lot of bumping at the start. By contrast, trail running just seems a lot more mellow, even in situations that are inherently just as crowded.

I don't have a complete explanation for this. I'm sure it's partly just cultural, but I suspect it's also the setting you're in. Even nice road races and triathlons aren't typically in places that are that interesting. If you want to run on the Boston marathon course, nobody's stopping you, and to be honest, I'd describe the Ironman Hawaii course as more grim (20+ miles of asphalt and lava fields) than scenic. The only real reason to do the race, then, is to compete. By contrast, trail runs tend to be in nice places, often ones where it would be inconvenient to do a long run because you couldn't resupply yourself easily. This means you get a different, less competitive, class of people. Moreover, because the terrain is challenging and you're in the middle of nowhere, I think that people feel more like they're in it together.

One more thing: trail racing is super-cheap. Even a cheap Ironman, like Vineman, costs $350 in advance and $450 on short notice. Ironman Canada is $675. Plus, if it's out of town you end up paying $200-300 to get your bike there. I paid $120 at the last minute for Firetrails 50, and you can put your shoes in your carry-on. I'm not blaming the people who run triathlons: it's an expensive sport to put together. But that doesn't mean it's not nice to race on the cheap.


October 10, 2011

Back in 2008 I was forced to DNF at mile 18 of the Dick Collins Firetrails 50 due to an ITB issue. 2011 has been a pretty good year in terms of training, so I thought maybe it was a good time to give it another shot. I knew going in that I wasn't really ready: I've been increasing my training load but prior to September 2, my longest training day of the year had been 17 miles with about 2000 ft of climbing, which I'd normally consider barely adequate for a 50K, but not for 50M, but after the PCTR Santa Cruz 50K was cancelled, I went looking for another event and there Firetrails 50 was on the schedule.

Still, I was pretty iffy, and my original plan was to see how I felt on my long run September 2 (19 miles, ~2500 ft of climb) but then when I went to see about registering on Saturday, I noticed that the race was already full. I emailed the RD to see about a cancellation, and (unsurprisingly) the scarcity effect kicked in and I went from being ambivalent to actually wanting to race, so when I heard there was now a slot, I signed up. However, after Sunday, my hamstrings, which had been gradually tightening up, got super tight and no amount of stretching seemed to help. Luckily, I was able to get a last minute appointment with Joy at SMI; she didn't fix me completely, but did manage to get my legs loose enough that I figured I had a reasonable shot, especially if I kept up with yoga and stretching.

The race itself went fairly smoothly. I went out very conservatively, at around 10 minutes a mile. [This pace is a little misleading; you run the flats and downhills and walk the uphills, so you're actually not running 10 minute miles; you run like 8:30 or so, but with the walking it averages out.] Of course, over an event this long there are always a few snags:

  • There was a bee hive somewhere around mile 10 and I and pretty much everyone else got stung.
  • Around mile 15 the tape on my nipples started to come off and I ended up with quite a bit of chafing. Luckily, I was able to score some band-aids and duct tape at an aid station (the duct tape because practically nothing sticks to wet skin) and this mostly solved the problem though I felt some discomfort the rest of the way.
  • Around mile 27 or so, something went wrong with my left heel and I spent the next mile or so wincing every time I landed wrong. Eventually it resolved itself, though, and I ran the rest of the way without incident.

Around mile 40 or so, I started to get pretty confident I would finish, but I stick with a conservative game plan until mile 45, at which point I started to press the pace a bit. Obviously, I was pretty tired, but with only 5 miles to go and feeling like I was at maybe mile 10 of an ordinary day, I figured I could afford to push it. I blew through the 45.5 aid station without stopping and decided I'd just run the rest of it. I didn't have a GPS and there aren't really mile markers, but I suspect I was running about 8:30 pace continuously, and I passed maybe 10 people over the next 5 miles, and did the last mile or so pretty hard (maybe 8:00 or 7:30 pace). My eventual finishing time was 10:10 and change. (I don't know exactly because the results are screwed up and have me inacurrately at 10:34, which is definitely wrong.) This is easily good enough to qualify me for Western States (the cutoff is 11 hours for a 50) so I'm pretty satisfied with this time. I'm not sure if I really feel like doing Western States, but it's nice to know I could sign up if I wanted to (there's a lottery to determine who actually gets in).