Thursday, 5 December 2013

Running in a Calgarian winter

Calgary, with its proximity to the Rockies, gives a wide range of weather at most times of year. In the winter months, it is likely that there will be a few (cold) shorts-weather days. 
Those "bonus days" notwithstanding, it will mostly be more wintry than winter. The fair-weather runners will retreat indoors. For myself and some fellow runners at the more enthusiastic end of the scale, running season virtually never stops.
I say virtually: when there's a blizzard (such as recently on Monday December 2), I hit the gym. Temperature is not really a problem in and of itself. Wind chill from speeds of 30 km/h+ and blowing, driving snow on top of -20 makes it hard to even move and get an effective workout in, never mind the general discomfort. A wind chill factor of colder than -30, such as Calgary on December 6 (a Friday) is another line I've yet to cross. I saw just one runner that day, literally wearing ski gear. 

So when it's not cold enough for a Michelin Man impression, what should a runner wear?
"There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing," said someone I can't be bothered to google. The above is a pile of everything I put on to run on December 4, a Wednesday. It was around -20 with a light wind. 
A breakdown:
Base layer shirt and running tights. The first layer being tight will keep heat in most effectively. Tight and sexy = weather safe and a general feeling of well being.
Track pants and 2 long-sleeve tops on next. The thickest top on last. I'm wearing a "neck-gaitor" as my chin and neck get especially cold. 
A wind breaker tops off the clothing. Then accessorize. 2 pairs of gloves, and light wind-breaker mittens. A runner-specific balaclava with a mesh mouthpiece for easier breathing. As well as preventing heat loss from the top of the head, wearing it also means breathing in warmer air. It avoids the freezer burn sensation on the throat and lungs. 
Hood over the top and finally, ski-goggles. Snow or freezing rain in the eyes can sting, but mostly condensation gathers on the eyelashes and can freeze. I once blinked too slowly and my eyes stayed shut, and I had to open them with my fingers - not before having run an extra 50 metres.
The head of course generates a lot of heat once the heart rate is up. The hands are need the most protection rather than head, somewhat the opposite of walking. The toes, as long as they are dry, only need one pair of socks. My guess is the running action repeatedly shakes blood into the feet and toes and the heart is also pumping it quickly, so there's none of the waiting at the bus stop numbness.
Almost every step is going to involve a slide of some kind, in every direction. Experience and muscle memory will teach a runner to identify all kinds of winter surface in a split second - snow on ice, ice on snow, snow polished into ice, "mashed potato" snow on polished ice, etc. Overall, gentle short steps crossing the road (uneven polished ice), and slow down before going downhill (speeding up is the main way of correcting a slide) are 2 good rules of thumb.
The most dangerous surface by far is water on top of ice in spring from continuous melt/freeze and freezing slush splashing on top of a shoe's toebox.  That's one final sting that winter has in its tail - when it is otherwise spring. 
Downtown Calgary does somewhat spoil runners with the amount of pathway clearing (although caution is advised passing under bridges). This means that speed work is not impossible in winter, though still of course difficult. 
It's not quite so user-friendly in places such as Fish Creek Park. Deeper snow and the extra friction and weight from all the extra clothing uses extra energy. I unscientifically guess that this requires up to 20% more effort. One rule of thumb is to run for the same length of time that the planned distance would take if running in better weather. Do loops close to home in the worst weather if your planned route is a little remote.
Shorts weather is of course better than taking 10 minutes to put on heavy and restrictive clothing and subjecting oneself to a winter pounding while looking like a slightly camp, flailing Darth Vader. 
Many of us head out the door anyway because of the delight we take in doing what many call "crazy". The pleasure of defying the weather is comparable to the challenge of going for a PB, and the overall joy of running. "You make it sound so exciting," someone said to me at work. "That's because it is!"

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Banff Ekiden

"Runners do it on their own.." Not quite, sometimes we're into the group thing. I was kindly invited to join the Bonavista team, most whom had done of the Harvest Half, to do the Banff Ekiden. Fortunately I'd saved myself from myself at the end of that race once a PB seemed out of reach, so 2 weeks later I'd be in reasonable shape. As a general rule I can manage one race a year under 4 weeks after a previous race. 
To Banff! Great to do a race there, and the Ekiden format is a hassle-free relay. The start and finish of 5 different legs is in the same place. Weather was sunny and slightly cold, a bit hard to know exactly what to wear.
Perhaps next time, I'll see if everyone can wear and pass on the headcam (what's a little sweat between co-film makers?), this day though I recorded the start and handovers and wore it for my final leg. 
1st was Rich, managing not to get too caught up in the start line mania. The same couldn't be said for the kid in front of him, who enjoyed a few yards of glory. 
Enough to make you break out into Oh Canada was the news that the first 2 legs had been altered due to bear sightings. 
Speaking of beasts, Brent was next up for leg 2. Rich had run a stormer despite feeling the strain of his 3rd race in 3 weeks. 
Brent came in to hand over to Nicole who was doing legs 3 and 4, a total of just under 10k. Brent had a lie down right after finishing, having laid it all out on the road. 
Some teams were laying it all out in the wrong place when their changeover came, the next leg being in the bathroom at the time. Quite a few runners need to learn the art of a well-timed CC (confidence crap - "going" so you can be confident that you won't need to "go" at an inappropriate time). 
"2 Legs" Nicole came around to start leg 4, took off her long sleeve with leg 3's number on, and carried on with her second race number on the short sleeve underneath. Great idea, whoever had it.
Right after leg 4 started, I immediately went for a CC. So voided, I lined up to start my leg and watched for leg 5 runners to see who I'd be chasing for the 11.7k. One lady went past, but more than 3 minutes elapsed, so too far away. Then a rather quick looking guy started his team's fifth leg. While his wearing the race day shirt was cause for optimism that he wasn't all that good, I didn't think I stood a chance after 1 minute had gone by. 
Up the hill came Nicole and I took off like a ferret up a drainpipe.
Straight up a hill and past a 20 speed limit sign. Should I turn myself in?
When you come to a fork in the road, take it. The right hand one as it turned out.
Once past a couple of camp grounds, the road undulated and was mostly straight. There were periods when I couldn't see anyone or any cars. Faced with just the wonder of the Rockies and the sound of the breeze, a thought inevitably drifts into the mind: "here, one may truly fart in peace."
So parped, in the distance I saw a blue dot. Mr Race-Day-Shirt. Keep to your pace, you're gaining. 
Time before that to fulfill a request I had received to get some selfie footage.
The coyote I saw is above the letter h. The wide angle of the camera makes it look pretty distant. Half-glancing as it crossed the road, it knew I was there. 
Also very much there about a kilometre later was the super-fast shoulder-height lady who passed me on her way to a world record or something. 
By this time, the course was heading down hill back towards the finish again, into quite a headwind. I caught up to Mr RDS and decided to draft him for a few minutes.
Squeezing past some cyclists and an SUV who quickly remembered the golden rule that runners always get priority, RDS decided to run on the road while I took to the pavement. 
After seeing him nearly get flattened by a Dodge Ram, I decided I would wind it up for the final k before the hill, about 1k long itself. 10k pace was fine for that downhill part. I had figured that I would not have much pace up the hill, no matter what speed I did before it. 
R'n'B took me up the hill in a valiant effort to keep me in front of RDS. He came past at what looked like 10k pace however. An indication that he might have paced himself better. 
I had no big finish strength left. Still, I made up what I had thought to be an insurmountable gap of over a minute and came in 5th quickest on my leg.
A Mobot at the finish (what else?)
7th overall team out of 81, we were 3rd in the "open" category - an all-male category, however we would have placed in any other anyway. 
My second encounter with nature came straight after the finish, as I was getting my breath back. Frame by frame, I can see the fly go from left to right before turning around and heading for just below the camera.
Marshal at the finish line shortly after I had crossed: "can I have your chip please? As soon as you can breathe."
Me: "Cchhhthhspeuthhh! Hock!... sorry I just swallowed a fly...acchh spit!"
Recovered, we all compared notes. We all gave our best on the day and our category placing has earned us gift cards from Strides running store. First monetary instrument I've won from running. 
This is the 4th relay I've done and hands down the best. Nice weather, best looking location possible and a great team. Cheering on my teammates and the atmosphere of the start/ finish was actually more exciting than my leg itself which was a test of not only speed, but above all discipline (quiet roads through a forest, no spectators and few runners in sight). 
A-Chang was as ever great to have at the finish line, and kudos to Kristi for being team manager and keeping excitable runners organized.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Harvest Half Marathon 2013

For me, the final countdown to this sublime race starts 2 Thursdays beforehand, when I take the 20 minute walk from work to package pick-up at the Tech Shop. I registered as soon as I could in April, and when they gave me my stuff my bib was #1!

It was with a mix of irony and genuine happiness - finally number one. "Maybe you'll win," said one of the volunteers. "Well, I was 7th last year," I replied. I could've sworn I heard a gasp behind me. Honestly, I'd love an AG medal which in itself is luck in terms of who else shows up. It is however inconceivable that out of 1,000 runners there'd be nobody capable of under 1.27. 

So despite a foot injury that had cost me a few training runs, I thought I should try for a PB despite not feeling confident of having the legs to do it. 

Back in my GB sprinter's top then, good for cool weather despite its sleevelessness. And my wife likes me in it. Rich was back in action 5 weeks since BQ-ing. He also brought an entourage of other fine runners with him. 

Once again, I led the first block as we started under cloudy skies. It was rather windy on the mainly westward approach to Fish Creek Park. This is an uphill section that climbs to varying degrees, seemingly unending. During that section, I made a close-up pass by a group of deer which had wandered up to a neighbourhood golf course from the park. I've seen them during this race before, but now finally get them on camera.

Plunging down into the park, my favourite section I call the roller coaster. The steepest gravel part scares me every year and I take small, quick, comedic steps. A right hairpin, a sharp downhill left into the trees, the path snakes to the first wooden bridge, a quick view of the creek and then into thick pine forest. 

Emerging from the trees to a grass plain and a hairpin and past the 7k mark, the pace felt hard work. A plunge back down again to the 4 bridge section, I wore the camera backwards as planned. To keep it steady I pulled it down almost to the point of making the strap a blindfold. 

After the 4th bridge a quick but steep hill and more twists to Votier's Flats. A slightly different route this year which added another sharp turn. I reckon the older, straighter route works better. 
One runner in a blue shirt who had been in front of me since the start of the park was acting as my pacer even though I kept trying to tell myself to let him go. 

Getting to Sikone Hill I was 20 seconds ahead of schedule. The hill costs 40-60 seconds so the gamble of this race would be whether or not I had anything left after the hill with 3.5k to go. Getting up to speed was tough going, and at the 18k sign I was about 20 seconds behind. Trying to crunch a few numbers which I find hard enough sitting down, my hamstrings started to feel like they were going to seize. 

The gamble hadn't worked, so just cruise home. By now I know the course so well I knew there'd be few surprises. The only one in fact was the finish line having been moved further back. Rounding the final corner with its grass bank, there it was, rather than 100 metres away. This somehow brought out the urge to celebrate more than most non-PB performances, so I Mobotted my way to the line to quite a bit of laughter. 

I even hit on the idea of taking my camera off and filming myself as I crossed the line. 
1:28:23 is not my quickest, but still a great morning's work. 9th this time, and 6th in my AG. I'll most likely have to wait until my 40s for an AG medal.
Once again this race was everything running should be, both challenging and fun as well as carrying many other wider meanings.

Monday, 26 August 2013


After the Calgary Half at the end of May, it was going to be 5 weeks and then a short drive south to the town of High River for the Canada Day Half Marathon. The weather had other ideas. Every time I've raced outside Calgary, I've been greeted with bad weather - high winds in Quebec City, and very heavy rain in Sacramento last December. 

The Calgary Half was, for May and June of this year, a rare dry day. On June 20, it rained heavily all day, and the usual flow of melt water from the nearby Rockies came all at once. High River is so called for a good reason. It was by far the worst affected from the floods. 

Instead I entered the Mountain Equipment Co-op race in Calgary. MEC has 8 or so races a year for just $15 each, I think I'll do a lot more of them in the future. You can take your pick from 5, 10 or even half marathon in some of them. I thought I'd try the 10 this time, even though there was a hill that would prevent a PB. 
I saw a couple of familiar faces there - Paul the barefooter was there with his 2 sons. At the startline I chatted with Felix, a teenage rocket I'd last seen at the start of last year's Stampede Road Race. What chance a sub-40? It would depend on whether this out-and-back course had 2 hills or 1. 

A quick start - aren't they all - and it seemed like more than 7 weeks since my previous race. A girl who looked about 13 stayed ahead of me for about the first 5 minutes. She'll be quicker than me next year. Passes and re-passes, then I stuck with a guy who overtook me on the downhill. 
The "flat" part in the middle went somewhat uphill. 1/2k before the turnaround was a "no sub-40 min 10k today hill". The guy I was shadowing took  on some Gatorade at the turnaround, I had my own. He disappeared after that. 

It was boiling hot, a beautiful spot, but hard to keep the sub-4 minute kms coming. A quick low-5 from Paul helped though. 

Back up that 1st hill and sweating heavily. I felt like toast at the top, but was surprised to be able to hit 4:00 minute pace. It took a while to get there, and just before the end, the no-bottles-guy tried to pip me at the line. I found enough speed to stay ahead - all that for 6th place! 

So a bit frustrating to be in what I thought was PB shape but without a course to match. That said, it was a beautiful day and MEC puts on a great event. Doing some of the charity runs makes me feel a bit of an intruder at times, but this is just pure running for a great price.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Calgary Half Marathon 2013, a PB despite the melodrama :)

So, the plan: seeing as my PB of 1:26:48 was set on a hilly course (Harvest Half last September), I decided to pace myself for a 1:26:00. However, any PB would do, and if not that I feel that a half has gone well if I can add to my collection of sub-90 minute performances.

In direct contrast with California in December, race day took place in a good weather window after heavy rain for the previous 3 days. Slightly chilly at sunrise, newcomers were easily spotted: dressed appropriately for standing still at the start line at 6:45am. They would all be literally wearing their regret later.
There was some kind of Zumba dance at the start line - one of the group came up to me to dance a bit, and all I needed was 3 seconds to show why I'm a runner. 
There were 4 or 5 Kenyans who do this race, I took a few steps back from Kip Kangogo (won the half) and Bernard Onsare (won the full) so as not to get in their way. Compact yet lanky frames, I felt like saying hi but didn't want to disturb them for their pre-race thoughts.

A tidy getaway with my camera facing backwards, by the Saddledome 300 metres or so later it was time for my annual standing appointment with Adam, this year with a more aerodynamic haircut. Going for a 1:20, I would loved to have joined him, but that's under my 5k pace. 
The world-record attempting group of 10 tethered runners were doing the full marathon at a slightly slower pace than my half. Most of them had individually done 2:40. "Any of you have those shoes with wheels on the soles?" was the wittiest thing I could think of. 

Just after 3k near the zoo, is the steepest incline, a c-train travelling parallel to the course gave a blast on his horn. A few spectators by this time were saying things about my camera, Team GB top or even quickly reading my bib and encouraging me by name. Always a nice touch. 

The course has been tweaked this year from last year's broad departure from the old one. There are fewer corners, crossing the downtown core is now 3.5k all along 11th ave. There was a nice breeze along here, and just after passing photomeister Neil, the full marathon course branched off. Unfortunately the 2 solid "pacemakers" I had chosen went off on that course. Next time I'll make sure to draw level so I can see the bib and check they're doing the same distance.

Kensington Road is a welcome addition to this year's course. If 17th avenue can be added then it would be perfect. Just after that is a right turn on Memorial Drive and the turnaround just under 2k later. Kip Kangogo flashed past the other way, 4k in front of me just as I passed 2 girls who saw my camera and said "I've always wanted to do that." It's great, but the editing takes forever. 

After the turnaround, it was quite a lonely run east along Memorial Drive. There seemed to be no-one within 100 metres of me.
At 17k, I felt a twinge in the hamstrings which is familiar to me from all 3 of my full marathons and one half. About 5 seconds up on 1:26:00 pace, I felt 4k was a little far out to maintain it. I decided to back off just a bit and get the PB anyway but with less risk. 

Threading through 10k runners who got in the way from time to time (though not too bad and much improved over previous years), tightness in the legs came and went. 
At the 20k sign they got a little tighter, and I tried to keep them a little straighter. Not far to go. With the Stampede Stadium in sight, all that remained was a left curve, about 75m, then a right and another 75m or so. Getting to the right hander, my right hamstring cramped and pulled me up. Not one step further. A quick deep stretch and I glance at my watch I said to myself, probably out loud, "can still get a PB". Rounding that last corner, I made for the line in lopsided fashion as fast as I safely dared, quasi-Terry Fox style.

As I crossed the line to see the clock giving me a PB by 4 seconds, I did the Mobot and let out what I would like to think was a roar, though it might have been more of a meow. Such melodrama. 
Doing a few more stretches after the line, I was fine to walk afterwards. 
1:26:44, and a PB it is. No matter what, disappointment is not allowed. If on the other hand I had missed it by a few seconds, that would've been annoying. Motivation is what comes from the "what might've been" part of the race. I have a few ideas, such as more hills in my training and negative splitting my next half - matching PB pace then accelerating for the last 10k. 

A great occasion once again, the Calgary Marathon weekend gets bigger and better every year. Next year is the 50th anniversary, and I have my eye on a 3:10 in the full, using the Hanson method.