Top 5 Races

As I approach the Milwaukee Marathon (less than four weeks now!) it seems like a good time to start unleashing some Top 5 countdowns on the blog.

I actually thought of this idea just yesterday while I was trying to convince a friend to join me for the Music City Trail Ultra in Nashville this spring. I told him the race was in my Top 5 favorites. That got me thinking: What are my Top 5 favorite races?

So here’s what I came up with, from #5 to #1:

#5 – La Jolla Half Marathon – Ben, you’ve said this is the only Half you would do as a destination race. You’ve said that the 2015 shirt is one of your all-time favorites (that’ll be another list, folks). How is this only your #5 favorite?

Well, simply put, I like four more races more than La Jolla. But this is an absolutely excellent race. It’s easily one of the bigger Half Marathons I’ve run, and the organization is second to none. The waiting area to start is HUGE and there’s definitely no shortage of bathrooms at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

The course itself is absolutely spectacular. You’ll get some spectacular views of the ocean, and most of them at points in the race where you won’t be in too much pain. And boy are there points of pain. There are two big climbs (miles 4 and 12) and one HUGE climb right in the middle up to Torrey Pines. Running along the ocean, through Torrey Pines, and through neighborhoods is great, and the course support is the best I’ve had in a Half.

The finish area in La Jolla Cove is also a huge party. How many races have chips and guac for finishers? Answer: not many. Plus there’s plenty of drinks food, and other things for you when the race is over.

It’s a pricey race for sure, but well worth it, especially if you make this into a vacation. Or are out there for work, like I have been

#4 – Mount Desert Island Marathon – I’ve had friends tell me that this Maine race is their all-time favorite, and it’s easy to see why. This race typically sells out, and that’s no surprise either. Easily the most scenic race I’ve ever run, and it isn’t even close. Maine in mid-October? The changing leaves are breathtaking.

The race is a point-to-point adventure (actually…four of my top five are point-to-point) through Mount Desert Island. Yes, it’s a hilly race, but if you hill train, that’s not a huge deal. You’ll run through some mountains and see entire forests of multi-colored leaves. Then there are the parts where you run along the water and through some small fishing towns.

Frankly, I could write an entire post just about the scenery here. Spectacular.

Getting to Bar Harbor can be a bit of a hassle (and expensive), but again it’s totally worth it. The small town is extremely welcoming of the influx of runners, and there’s plenty to do when you aren’t running 26.2. Put this one on your bucket list.

#3 – Music City Trail Ultra – Ok, so maybe I should have told my friend that this race was in my top 3. But this is an awesome (and challenging) 50k adventure in the Tennessee mountains. And it’s about as low-key as you would expect from a group of people getting set to run 31.1 miles through the mountains.

This is probably also the only race I’ve ever run where I thought in the first mile “What have I done?” The biggest hill you descend and then ascend is when you hit mile 1. It’s a beast, and a taste of what to come.

A good chunk of the race is on single track or jeep roads, but there are significant portions through the forest where you are guided by small orange flags. Oh, and don’t forget the water crossings! John, the race director, made a comment this past year that his races demand blood. That’s not exactly a joke. I don’t think you can make it through the MCTU 50k without leaving some blood in those mountains.

Oh, and this is the only looped course in my top 5.

And how tough is it? No one has broken 4 hours on the course, and typically only five or six runners run under 6 hours each year. It’s brutal. But awesome.

#2 – Twin Cities Marathon – I actually made the comment on Sunday that I was a little sad I wasn’t running Twin Cities again this year. This race bills itself as the most beautiful urban marathon in the US. And it is. The leaves are changing color in Minnesota in early October, and the race takes you around multiple lakes and across the Mississippi River.

I mentioned earlier that the crowd support at La Jolla is very good. Twin Cities leaves that in the dust. There is rarely a time you’re on your own and without support. There’s one stretch by the river where the crowds disperse a little, but they come right back once you cross the river and ascend the hill.

The finish line is also the most epic marathon finish I’ve run. And yes, that includes finishing inside Lincoln Memorial Stadium in Nebraska. The finish to Twin Cities sends you down a hill directly toward the picturesque cathedral in St. Paul. There’s a big screen showing all the finishers, and there are bleachers (that are filled) lining the road. Epic.

And yes, I might be a little biased about this one, since my Marathon PR is here. But really, this is a premier marathon that I would highly recommend.

#1 – Gopher to Badger Half – If you know me, or read this blog, then my #1 race is no surprise to you. I LOVE this race. And yes, a HUGE part of this is because this was my first Half, and I get to see a lot of friends each year when I run this.

But this race seriously gives you everything. Hills, flat, neighborhoods, country roads, river roads, bike trails, and a bridge crossing the St. Croix. Plus you run from one state to another, and how badass does that sound?

The finish line area is also excellent. Live music that goes into the afternoon, and plenty of food and water for finishers. I don’t want to rant about how great this is here, because I’ve done it so many times on this blog. But this is a superb race.

Honorable Mention: Dam to Dam, Living History Farms, Grandma’s Marathon

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Trust in Training

Where did the last month go? Remember when I wrote about Travel and how that can effect training? Well, apparently it can effect blog posts as well. So let’s get caught up.

For most of us running a Fall Marathon, training is either hitting it’s peak this week, or just passed it’s peak a short while ago. Basically, from here on out it’s marathon weekend after marathon weekend.

I have friends lining up for the Quad Cities Marathon this coming weekend, and you better believe I’ll be following Eliud Kipchoge’s run at Berlin this week as well. The first weekend of October brings us to the Lakefront Marathon, which I’ll be volunteering at, and the Twin Cities Marathon, where I know more people running. The week after, I have a few more friends lining up for Chicago. Of course, October 15, is the Milwaukee Marathon for me, and the Des Moines Marathon for many in my running group. Those in my group not running Des Moines are toeing the line in Kansas City the week after. And then two weeks after that, I turn around to run Indianapolis with a friend.

With all of the races coming to a head, all of us running have been doing the same thing for the last few months: training.

Once, someone told me that no training plans go by smoothly; there is always something that disrupts you. This year for me it was a nagging cold (still nagging), for some it is injury, and others it could be a lack of time.

As I told a friend training for her first Full at Chicago this year, not every training run will be good. I experienced this on Saturday as I got bulldozed by a long workout. But it’s important to remember that one bad workout, or a couple missed miles, ultimately will not doom your race. Lots of bad workouts and missed miles will…but not one or two through a whole cycle.

We hear the adage all the time that you should trust your training and enjoy the race. I don’t know if I’ll ever think I’m “enjoying” my time in a Marathon or longer (or shorter for that matter), but trusting in training is key. As a personal example, I know that I’ve been hitting my workouts (with the exception of last Saturday), and in workouts and races I’ve been seeing stark improvement.

You always need to hope everything comes to together on race day, of course. But if you’ve done your training well, and you have confidence in it, you’ll make it through that Fall race just fine.

The Traveling Runner

When late August and early September roll around, it means one thing for me: Travel.

I travel a significant amount for my job (although a lot less this year) mostly between September and Thanksgiving. There are obviously huge advantages to traveling for work as well when it comes to running. I get to run in new and different areas and a lot of times I get to reconnect with running friends I’ve made in different cities. This is also a big reason I’ve gotten the opportunity to run races in states I wouldn’t otherwise travel to.

But sometimes training on the road can be a challenge. When I travel in the Midwest, I’m typically driving about 1,000 miles per week (Monday-Friday) and meeting with about four to five high schools and their students per day. Some days it can, admittedly, be a challenge to get out and run.

Other than weariness, there are a couple other challenges to squeezing in runs when you aren’t operating on a usual schedule. One big one can be lack of knowledge of the area. I hate getting lost on a run, especially if I have a time crunch. If you don’t know the area, or where to run, it can be difficult to get out and get a quality run in. Often, I find myself running slower with the same effort, because my brain is firing at a million times per hour. Do I turn here? What about that way? Where does this path go? Will I have to turn around? None of these things are problems when you are running in a familiar place.

Time is another big one. Your window to run may be smaller when traveling, so it’s important to make the most of it. If you know the area, get used to waking up in the morning, you can always wake up early (even if it sucks sometimes). But a lot of times you may need to squeeze in a run between meetings or appointments. Example: when I used to travel to Colorado and California, I would have (or would schedule in) about a five hour gap between high school visits and college fairs. There’s your running window. But that can be a challenge as well. You have to get ready, run, hope nothing slows you down or extends the run, shower (hopefully), and get back to your appointment.

There have been many times in Colorado where I ran and went straight to my next appointment after changing clothes in the car. No shower (sorry high schoolers…I don’t need to impress you). I’ve also been known to go from a race to work without a shower. Whoops.

However, other than seeing new areas, there is a HUGE benefit to running while traveling. If you are running a destination race, or travel outside a regular distance to run a race, you know what to expect. You’ll know how to prepare outside the comfort of your own home. It is different prep, but as they say, practice makes perfect.

I get to encounter this starting tomorrow. I’m off to a different city after I’m done in the office tomorrow, and I’m sure as heck not interested in finding a spin class in a different place, and then going at about 8 with no dinner. So it’ll be morning spin and a rush to shower and get to work after. Then the toss up of going for a morning run on Thursday, or heading out after driving back to work. Morning please.

Here’s to the traveling runner.

Race Recap: Gopher to Badger Half Marathon

As I’m sure many of you know (because I say it all the time) the Gopher to Badger Half Marathon is my all-time favorite race. The 2017 edition marked my 4th consecutive year making the running trek from Stillwater, MN, to Hudson, WI.

I probably like this race so much because it was my first half. But it is a great course, and I get to see a lot of my college friends up here as well.

Weather for this one is always a huge question mark. Since the race is always in mid-August in Minnesota, you could legitimately range from low 40s to the triple digits, and don’t forget about the humidity. It seems like this race alternates between hot and cool weather each year. My first year, the temps soared, the second we had an overcast 60 degree day, the third year we were back in the 80s, and this year we had a crisp 52 degrees at the start.

All in all, you couldn’t ask for better weather for an August day. low 50s at the start, and probably low to mid 60s at the finish. High humidity, but a low dew point and minimal wind made for a good day.

This year, I got on one of the later buses to the start, but still had plenty of time to mill around at the start line, get ready to run, and hit the porta-pods twice.

I took my place near the front of the corral, slotting in just behind the top runners. The race got started a little late, but we were off and running soon enough.

G2B is a tricky race to start. Flat roads, some turns, and then a gradual downhill welcome you to the first mile. Aka, it’s super easy to get out way too quick. This year, I fell in right behind two women runners from UW-La Crosse, and we were quickly joined by two other runners as well.

We clipped off the first mile in the low 6:20s, which was a little faster than I had planned, but it felt easy (don’t first miles always feel easy?) and I was with a strong six person pack at this point, so I stuck with it.

The first six miles of this course roll you with hills, so it’s a lot of ups and downs. Our group quickly ran down two other runners, as we alternated who led the pack, and who drafted. One of our six left us after the first two miles, but another runner who we had caught jumped in with us. So still at six.

We stuck at an even pace for the first four miles, but mile five started to see some movement. Personally, I got going ahead of the group a little around 4.5 to position myself for the second aid station, and that plan worked well as I got my water and hopped back in with the group.

Soon after, another runner came flying past us, and instantly in my head I was telling myself to NOT CHASE this guy. Still feeling good, it’s instinct to go with that runner, and one person in our pack did. But as a whole, our group stayed together.

That is, until we hit the 5th mile marker. My watching pinged the split of 6:33, our slowest yet, and I could sense the group fading a little. So naturally I threw down a 6:13 mile and blew our group apart. I’m not sure who all tried to come with me, but I know two of the women weren’t too far back.

Coming over the second biggest climb, and down the longest downhill, I passed another runner, letting him know what the rest of the course looked like.

And what that was is two miles of flat road before the next turn. Back here, I stopped for a quick bathroom break, and was passed by two of the La Crosse women. We would basically play hop scotch the rest of the race.

I opted in for a Huma gel at the aid station at mile 9, as I got ready for the final push. Miles 9-11 have you roll on a few more smaller hills down by the St. Croix River, and you hop on roads as well as bike paths down here.

The last aid station is right when you hit the 11th mile marker, and it’s in the middle of the climb to the top of the I-94 bridge. I took the rest of my gel here and prepared for the finish.

Coming across the bridge, I was passed again by one of the other runners, and she blew me away the final mile. I was passed by another just after getting off the bridge, and did all I could to keep her within striking distance, even though I didn’t know if I could come back for the pass.

Weaving along the river on the Wisconsin side is the longest mile in the world. Once we got within eye-sight of the finish, I noticed the runner ahead of me slowing, and used the last 400m (the course is about 200m longer than 13.1) to come back for the last minute pass.

I clocked in (officially) at 1:25:07, although the race clock said 1:24:58, in a pace of 6:27 per mile, which equates to about a 1:24:30. In other words, the race went well.

Can’t wait for next year.

#Goals

Lets talk about goals.

We all have them when it comes to running, regardless of talent or competitive levels. For some it’s time goals, for others it’s just making sure you run consistently through the week.

Today, I wanted to talk about my upcoming race goals. My schedule isn’t as jam packed as normal with races, which I’ve done deliberately to focus on my upcoming fall races.

First up is actually this weekend with Gopher to Badger. If you’ve followed this blog, or just know me, you know my affinity to this race. I love it. I feel like right now I’m in shape enough to chase my Half PR this weekend. Of course, last time I made that attempt I chased way too hard at the Rock N Sole Half, and had a bad time in the last half of the race. Still, getting that PR is the goal.

After that, I don’t go again until the Milwaukee Marathon. And the goal for that remains the same. Go and get under three hours and qualify for Boston.

Then, naturally, I’ve got Indianapolis a mere three weeks after Milwaukee. That one is going to be much more for fun. I’ve got a couple buddies running that, so it might be a nice opportunity to run 26.2 with them around one of my favorite cities.

Of course in November you’ve also got your obligatory Turkey Trot races, but that’s neither here nor there.

The next goal race for me will be my return to Nashville for the Music City Trail Ultra. Last year I finished 5th. I’d like to improve that finish to a top 3 effort this year.

And finally my lofty, and stretch, goal. I’m planning to finally tackle the 50 mile distance in May at the Ice Age Trail 50 in Wisconsin. Honestly, that should be the goal in and of itself. But it’s not. Guys, I’d like to win.

But that’s it! That’s what I’m training for, and setting my sights on. And it starts with Gopher to Badger this weekend.

You Have To

On my last drive back to the homeland of Wisconsin, I was catching up on the BibRave podcast. A large part of the episode was dedicated to the hosts’ (Tim, Jessica, and Julia) recap their races at the Mt. Hood 50k and 50 mile.

In the 50k recap, Julia was recounting a part of the race where she had to pass or hold off another runner (I can’t remember which). While passing a runner she knew, she said she wasn’t sure if she could pass/hold off the other runner; to which her friend replied “You Have To” and ran off.

Three words. “You have to.”

I don’t know why, but I thought that exchange was just great. Maybe the fact that I’m a fairly blunt person and a competitor at the same time. But really, I think that these three words are worth remembering, and repeating, during any challenging run or race.

Think about it. This is the exact same premise of running an out and back, or a loop that has no option to turn back early. Even if you’re struggling, you have to finish, there is no other option.

As runners, we struggle a lot with the mental side of running at times. I know I do. If it’s bad weather, you can push or skip a workout. If you’re feeling bad? Cut a run short. Are those few miles two months before a race really going to effect you?

Normally I refer to my motto of “That Marathon won’t run itself,” when I run into those training slumps. But that doesn’t really help when you’re actually running the marathon.

With some lofty race goals coming up in the next calendar year, I’ve got a feeling I’ll be returning to those three words many times through training and on race day.

You Have To.

I’ve Been Here Before

Has it really been two weeks since I last wrote? Well, I guess training, work, and moving really occupies a lot of time.

This is a topic I thought about two Saturdays ago when I was running in downtown Milwaukee with some friends.

If you know me, or have just been keeping up with this blog, you know that I love my home city. I think Milwaukee is one of the best and most underrated cities in the country. That’s a big reason why I’m thrilled about the excitement over the Marathon every year.

However, the city of Milwaukee has never been kind to me when it comes to road races.

The first road race I ran in Milwaukee was the Brewers Mini Marathon, and I was primed for a PR. It seemed like the perfect day for a PR. Training was going well, it was beautiful weather, and the course even followed a lot of the Milwaukee Marathon which I was running about 6 weeks later.

That was all derailed fairly quickly by a bad hamstring and IT Band, which resulted in a rather uncomfortable quad as well. Basically, my right leg was battered and beaten. Naturally I finished the race, but far from a PR.

Like any competitive runner, I didn’t rest as I should have and trained on and off to be ready for Milwaukee. Like I said, the race covered a lot of the same road, so I knew I could easily visualize the second half of the marathon.

I didn’t get to the second half of the marathon, though. With my leg still injured, my race ended at the intersection of 28th and Wisconsin Ave. Mile 10.

Any and every time I drive down Wisconsin Ave, I notice that corner. I consider it my biggest racing failure and that feeling, and that spot, has been seared into my brain.

Fast forward to the next summer. Healed, and two marathons into 2016, I was ready to check another Milwaukee bucket list race off my personal list. The Rock N Sole Half in mid June.

As you could probably guess, it was hot for this race, and I paid the price of going out too fast. The last nine miles were a death march, resulting in my worst half.

Land that brings me back to my training run a couple weekends ago. Our route encompassed a lot of the places in which I struggled badly in Rock N Sole. From the exposed and open boardwalk and Summerfest peninsula to the hill rising you into a local park. I remembered it all, and made mention of those places to all of my running partners that day.

Those mentions included my comments on the final mile of the Milwaukee Turkey Trot (which we also ran that Saturday) in which you can see the finish line all the way from the turnaround.

Thats the mental side of running. We remember the pain and painful moments much more than the great moments. And do we remember the great moments? Of course. Running the final stretch of the Twin Cities Marathon. Emerging out of the woods to a sprint finish at UW Parkside. Passing the leader with two miles to go in a trail race.

We seem to hold onto those bad moments just a little more. And many times, they define how our future races go as well. You hit those spots and you remember how terrible it was, how tired you were. And suddenly your legs get a little bit more heavy in that moment. Those painful memories take hold a little more. That’s when it’s up to you to use those as motivation. That won’t happen again.

I look forward to steamrolling my way through the Milwaukee Marathon this October. And you better believe I’ll know exactly when I’m coming up to 28th and Wisconsin Ave, so I can make sure I power through that part of the race.

Let’s Talk Gear

Yes, yes I know. I already have a gear page on my blog. It’s not the most up to date, but if it was, it would be a vast page.

So let’s talk about the important stuff. What do I run with? The smartass answer to that question would be: shoes.

But we’ll start down there, if you will, with socks. Every runner knows the importance of a good pair of socks, and a lot of us are loyal to a fault when it comes to a brand. For me, that brand would be the Thorlo Experia socks. They’re light weight, cushioned, and breathe extremely well. Recently they’ve come out with a compression line as well. I’ve got two pairs already and love them. A little lighter than the standard model, but still plenty of cushion.

Moving up from there, we get to the all important Watch. I, like many. Utilize the Garmin Forerunner 235. Gotta have my heart rate and all my other data. I absolutely love it.

Side note, have other Garmin users noticed a quicker satellite pickup with their watch? Mine seems to be going super quick.

Next up, I’m a big sunglasses guy. You’d wear sunglasses if you were going on a 10+ minute drive, so why not when you run? Same difference.

Last year, I invested in a pair of Tifosi wrap around sunglasses. Oh man, these were worth the cost. Super light, comfortable, and don’t fog up. Sometimes I think they make my face look like an insect in race pictures, but that’s a personal problem.

I also have a pair of Bahamas 1 from XX2i as well. I use these mainly as a casual pair, but they can easily double for running as well.

Otherwise, I’ve got a cheap pair from REI and from the Ironman line of gear. These are both fine, but not as good as the Tifosi pair. That extra $50 makes a difference, guys.

And that brings us to the rest of the head.

I love my hate. Never go on a run without one. Normally I’ve used standard running hats (the Shamrock Marathon gave us a finishers hat, one of my favorites). However, even since I picked up a BOCO Trucker’s hat at the La Jolla Half Marathon my life has been changed. I’ve already accumulated a few BOCO truckers hat, and my BibRave one should be arriving in the mail soon.

Sometimes, instead of a hat, I’ll bust out my Buff instead. This is absolutely perfect for moderate (think around 50 degrees) temperature runs. It can double for warming my head, but also just as a sweat catcher.

I do own a buff from the Polar Dash as well. But due to its size, it’s better utilized (for me) as a neck and face warmer once winter descends.

Thats it for my warm weather gear! Once winter arrives, I’ll revisit this post with some winter gear.

What kind of gear do you like to use, or never leave home without?

#MidwestProblems

I’m Wisconsin born and raised, currently living in Iowa, and interviewing for jobs in Minnesota. I also went to college in the Twin Cities metro (just on the Wisconsin side). Basically, I’m a Midwest guy for life.

As those of you in the Midwest know, running here is an adventure and a half. In the summer, we’re bombarded with warm temps, and suffocating humidity. Plus, in Wisconsin and Minnesota, the mosquitoes will probably just carry you away.

And then there’s winter. I’ve run in air temperatures as low as -14 in the past year, and who knows how cold the wind makes it. Plus your casual blizzards in March, and this year (in Iowa) we had a significant amount of ice as well. I legitimately may own more cold weather gear than warm weather gear.

But the reason for this post is the warmth we’re experiencing in central Iowa. Yesterday, I woke up at 4:30 for a track workout, hoping to avoid the heat, only to wake up to 85 and humid weather. I mean, I guess it wasn’t in the 90s?

We’re in the midst of a very warm summer. Looking at the forecast, today is the coolest day…with a high of 85. Throw in the humidity, and it’s rough out there.

Around this time of year, we see a lot of posts about the benefits of running in warm weather, especially if training for a fall marathon. And I totally agree with all of them. Even when the temperature drops to the 60s, it is noticeable on a run. For a fall marathon that may drop into the 30s? Yes please.

I read an article once saying that training in high humidity was comparable to altitude. I don’t know about that, but I’ll take it.

So if you;re looking at the forecast and dreading the heat and humidity, just remember it will all pay off in your fall race.

“Why You No Like Us Anymore?”

I think most of us runners have, in some capacity, a group of people that we run with.

Whether all of your runs are with an organized group, or if you just have some friends that you get some miles in with. We all, likely, run with other people at some point or another.

I’m big on group runs, especially for those Saturday morning long runs. It’s a lot easier to get 15+ miles in with a group of people than it is to do it solo. But sometimes, I think, it’s good to fire off some long runs on your own.

The title of this post is something that was said to me by a member of my running group here in Ames. I haven’t been at a group run in over a month. Yes, running a crap ton of races did impact that. But now a big impact of this is coming with my new training schedule as laid down by my coach.

And as much as I love running with everyone in my group, I’m fine with this. My two best training cycles were the ones going into Grandma’s Marathon 2015 and for Milwaukee 2015 (until I got hurt of course). For both of those, I had a significant amount of time to myself on solo runs.

I’ve got a feeling that a lot of these solo runs will continue, as I continue to approach travel season.

It’s also good for me because, as I’ve mentioned on this blog, I tend to wind up running alone quite a bit in my marathons anyway.