Friday, September 4, 2015

It's not about the bike

I got into an accident the other day. Riding my bike, a car cut me off, and with no time to react I went into her windshield and rolled over the hood. Luckily for me I'm fine, a little bruised and a little pissed off, but things could have been so much worse. 

I filed a police report and the driver is 100% culpable and I'm working out the details of getting her insurance to buy me a new bicycle, but the thing that driving are nuts is people's reactions. The general sense of "you're brave to be riding in this city", because everyone just assumes that the roads belong to cars. That because I was on a bicycle, I was "asking for it". I'm a driver too. I drive a car far more miles than I'll ever ride a bicycle. It's not like this is some black and white issue, with all cyclists raving anti-car lunatics, and all drivers aggressive massholes out to kill the cyclists. Nobody wants to get in an accident. But sometimes, shit happens, and hopefully you'll end up on top, no matter what form of transportation you're using. It's my choice to ride a bike to work, because that's faster, easier, cheaper, and is good for the environment, my physical health, and my emotional state. I ride according to the law, I wear a helmet and appropriate reflective clothing and lights, I ride defensively and I actively look out for idiots. That wasn't enough. 

This accident - it had nothing to do with the fact that I was on a bicycle. Had I been in my car, my airbags would have gone off. I understand that those airbags would have made me less bruised than I am right now, but that's irrelevant. It should NOT be "brave" to ride in Boston. It's my right. 

So as soon as I have that new bicycle, I'll be back out there, actively looking for idiots, and hopefully avoiding them better. 

Sorry 'bout your windshield.

More sorry 'bout my bike.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

WOC Long Final

I've been visualizing the long distance race at WOC for the last 12 months. Practicing for it, preparing for it. This was the race I was most excited about. I knew I'd have the usual sorts of disadvantages of living in the States and working a full time job with typical US vacation, but you start every process with a look at where you are right then, and you go from there. Where I was, and where I am right now, is an athlete with a whole lot of commitments to a lot of things that are not athletics. I like it that way. When I set my goals for this race, before I'd even been selected to run it, I was aiming to land in the top 40 in the world, and I had a decent idea of how to do this. Through the spring and summer, training went well, all the markers were being hit. My terrain running was faster than ever. My legs had more spring than ever. My map reading skills were fitting me comfortably, confidently. My emotional state was calm, collected, excited and positive. Prior to last week, I would have told you, I'm ready. Bring it on.

I picked up a cold on Sunday last week. The sort of thing that only really matters when you're at a competition where your result depends on being able to run hard. There wasn't much I could do except rest it out, see if my body could kick this thing before the start of the Long Final, but things weren't looking good. As an athlete who can be drug tested at any time, there's a limited arsenal of over-the-counter drugs at my disposal, and because the limits for things like decongestants are given in µg/mL of urine, the pharmacist had no idea what dosage would be safe. So I just bought more cough drops and toughed it out. My lungs got continually worse until about Wednesday night, and I figured if things weren't looking up tomorrow I'd put in an alternate runner, but that's a tough decision when you've got the last 12 months of training focused on a single race. I woke up Thursday with better energy and less rattling in my lungs, so I figured I was on the upswing. Decision made. I'm starting this race, and by golly, I'll be finishing it.

The Long was held at an area called Glen Affric, and it's known as one of the few areas of Scotland still in native vegetation. This means lots of knobbly pine trees with deep grass and moss underfoot, though there were still some remnant pine plantations. The center of the map boasted a rugged open moorland, heather and moss and crags, which is fantastically beautiful, and fantastically physical to move through. Every training that we've done in the forest here has been taxing, but there is a method, some sort of barely-controlled stumble-tumble-gallumph, that works relatively well to move through the thick heather, at least on the downhills. I haven't yet discovered any method that works for me on the uphills, besides grabbing the heather with my hands to help pull me up. To get to the start, the organizers sent the athletes on minibuses from "quarantine" (in this case, a community center, with no connection to the outside world, so early runners can't send back any information about the course or terrain) to the start. The minibuses had a pretty ambitious trek, crossing a super narrow bridge (like, fold the mirrors in narrow), lumpy roads, and finally a narrow muddy mountain track, for several miles, twisting along the edge of a cliff overlooking an utterly gorgeous lake, with snow still hanging on to the edges of the mountains beyond. Rugged, remote, beautiful, and raw. How can this place not inspire you?

Oh, I forgot to tell you about the midges.

Take a look at that long leg (see it closer here ) - how would you get to 5? How about the legs to 8 and 12? 

I still had quite a bit of rattling in my lungs when I breathed too deeply. My plan for the race was mostly survival - I knew I needed the navigation to be perfect, since I couldn't move too fast, and I was ready to be braindead at really slow speeds, thanks to said lack of lung capacity. My plan also involved remembering how much I love to orienteer. Because it really sucks to be at a World Championship race and know before you even start that you aren't going to be able to perform how you know you're capable, so it's easy to get down in a negative spiral.

I started out well, but at a glacial pace. Watching my GPS track after the fact still makes me cringe. I wobbled my nav too much on my way to #2, and Mojica, the Slovenian who'd started 3 minutes behind me, caught up there. I couldn't keep up, so I continued to trudge along, slogging through my own race. As I pulled myself hand over hand up a steep slope of heather on the long leg, my thoughts tried to pull me down. I couldn't breathe, I was already walking, and I couldn't go any slower. I had to stop twice, hands on knees, just trying to pull in the oxygen, until I could move forward again, maybe 15-20 seconds lost. This sucked. 

As I neared the 5th control, a whole pack of runners caught up. I tried not to let that depress me, and instead upped the pace to keep up, having finally exited the heather and entered forest, and hey, I can run in a forest! Sudden infusion of energy, and I pulled to the front of the pack, confident and smooth and almost happy. I lost them taking a different choice to the 8th control, but being in the forest again was good for me, and I focused on the relentless forward progress. 

By the 13th control, I'd burned through what little energy reserves I had. Despite taking my final energy gel, my muscles were completely finished, and I started to stumble a lot more than I normally do. The final loop in the field killed me. I would trip, fall, and get up. Trip, fall, and get up. Trip, fall, and get up. Relentless forward progress, slow as it may be. Maybe I don't know any other way than to pick myself up and keep running after a fall. Maybe I was thinking about my teammates, and how if I could finish in the top 60, I would earn us points towards keeping our two start spots next year. Maybe I was thinking about my little GPS dot, on a computer screen at home, with my friends and family watching it stumble along. Maybe I was thinking about my team, down in the arena, watching my struggle. I was embarrassed to be in this state, embarrassed and ashamed to have thought that I would be a match for this race, but I was determined to get to that finish line. I don't think I know any other way. 

Spoiler alert - finished the race! Got to sign autographs for adorable little British children.

The "is it over yet?" face.

It's hard for me not to feel disappointed after this race. I tried to prepare myself, knowing that the sickness would tax me of my strength, and I think I can be proud that I managed to fight the whole way. I ran a very "clean" race, with no real navigational mistakes, but it is immensely frustrating to know how much better I could have done, maybe just one more day of recovery. I still ended up in 55th place, which earned a few meager points for the USA, and who is to say that the alternate would have run any better? The best place by any of them in the Middle distance two days earlier was 59th place. But that doesn't make the frustration any less. The World Championships arena is a very difficult place to have a bad race.

If you're feeling down about something, go do something else that makes you happy with people you love. Works every time.

Lovely running once you get above the heather. 

One more castle - this one's a repeat, Inverness castle, but it looks a lot better from this side, so I threw it in.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

World champs sprint qualifier

There is always time to smell the roses. 

My single outcome goal for this race was to make it to the Final. I suppose that’s obvious – if you aren’t trying to make it to the next round, why enter the first round? – but looking at past WOC qualifier sprints, I knew this would be a stretch. I needed ~10-15% improvement. I tried to approach things systematically between team trials and WOC, scraping a percentage point or two off here or there in every aspect of my training. Two of the areas I drastically improved upon since March were my ability to run a “clean” sprint, and my attitude/emotions regarding sprint racing in general. I think I can thank Becky for both those improvements. The harder improvements were in running speed; I’m still no faster than I was in 2013, despite a lot of trying hard :). So I knew my navigation was paramount. The legs will just serve as a vehicle to deliver my brain to the next navigational challenge.

You can see the GPS replay here.

I wanted to stay focused on the process, because when you start to think about the outcome, that just messes everything else up. I had four major ideas in my head: 1. Read everything to the first control. 2. Smooth your route. 3. Lift your vision. 4. Read the entire leg. I started well, really looking around. I think a minor route choice error to 2 – in trying to smooth my route through 1, I didn’t smooth the route to 2, and went through the parking lot rather than turning around at 1 and cutting corners through the field, maybe adding 20 meters. 5 seconds? But, I executed on my route with full confidence. Planned and executed 3-4-5 well. Watching the GPS, I think maybe I am over-emphasizing the smoothing of my route - sometimes, it pays to turn around, because you run a shorter distance.

Made my only mistake on the way to 6 – I had my head buried in the map and turned into an alley that was very clearly not my alleyway. Quickly turned around and let out a big fat American “FUCK!!”, which had some spectators giggling. Whoops. Stayed un-flustered, despite probably 15 seconds lost. I slowed down a little as I crossed the field to 7, just to figure out the long leg to 8. Left didn’t look viable, and I got as far as figuring out that I could get through the narrow way on the right route, and then I saw the steps into the field and made the snap decision to go that way. I cut every corner I could through the fields and executed well, this was one of my top-10 splits. Shows that the speed is there, but I need to be better about engaging my brain!

I was running a bit behind a Finn and a Latvian, not sure who caught who, but we saw a lot of each other through the rest of the course. I was feeling comfortable, physically, fast-cruise-y. 9-10-11-12 I planned and executed well, still seeing Finn and Latvian when we had more common controls. 13 was the final tricky one, but I’d read it early, and knew my entry and exit. Then just go-time, though I did double check the map a few times to make sure I was going to the right flags.

Finished with a good sprint, winning the final two splits, but quickly felt like I could have pushed a lot harder. I think the fact that I don’t do enough orienteering races is the problem – yes, I could have pushed harder physically, but who’s to say I wouldn’t then totally blow it? I felt like I executed well on every process that I wanted to, and ran it as fast as I knew how. This is it, this is all I’ve got. My “it” just isn’t fast enough. I am totally pleased with how I ran my race. Probably one of my best sprint races ever! How I can be so dissatisfied and satisfied at the same time is one of the cruelties of this sport.

One of the joys of having improved my sprint technique so much this spring is that now I truly enjoy orienteering sprinting. This is not something I could say before. I was able to actually enjoy myself out there, and rather than fear what was coming up next I felt smooth and in control. Flow.

I have six days until the Long Final. So excited!

Thank you, Becky, for making me appreciate sprinting!

Start of the sprint relay, the day after the sprint qual. I didn't run this one, but went to cheer my teammates. 

More cartwheels

Silly selfie with Kseniya at the opening ceremonies. 

Friday, July 31, 2015

WOC run-up

The last week has been spent in preparation for the mental side. I have taken time to experience the new terrains I'll be racing in, getting comfortable with ducking down narrow passageways that look like somebody's backyard, figuring out techniques for wading through the heather, but since I'm in the middle of a physical taper, none of this takes very much time. Maybe 45 minutes of training time, after driving an hour to get to a map, feels very inefficient, but it is what you have to do. This year, to fill the interstices between trainings, I joined forces with team members Samantha, Kseniya, Ethan, and Tori, and we've spent a lot of time castle hunting. Many castles to hunt in this country! It's been a lot of fun to have a small group to travel with, relaxing and taking our minds off of the looming pressure of the World Champs.

We've been staying in Lagganlia, an outdoor education center in the Cairngorns National Park, sharing it with the British junior squad who are having a national training camp. I'm still not sure how we got so lucky, some connection through Becky and her parents, who are coaches of various juniors there, but it was great to be able to have a place that felt like home at the end of each day. The Brits were super welcoming, and the coaches were very accommodating. We stayed in little glorified tents called "pods", and it has rained every day so far, sometimes quite heavily, which means everything is damp and cold. I guess that's summer in Scotland!

Now for a boatload of photos..

The trip actually started with a conference in the wrong direction - in San Diego. Zan flew down from San Francisco for the first weekend, and we had a good time running up in the mountains (Mt. Laguna was only an hour away, and beautiful orienteering!), with a brief run along the Pacific Crest Trail, too! It was a fun way to start a hectic week, but the conference was totally worthwhile, even if it didn't help with the pre-jet-lagging.

San Diego looks different than Scotland.

So, one red-eye flight to Boston, where I went to work to wrap up all sorts of loose ends, and then off to Scotland on the second red-eye, for two weeks! I arrived in Edinburgh, picked up the rental car, and miraculously we had only minor hiccups finding all five passengers. We did a fair amount of sprint training in Edinburgh, Livingston, and Stirling, and got the chance to check out Stirling Castle before heading north through the Highlands.

Alex atempts to be Rob Roy.

View from Stirling Castle.

Once in Lagganlia, we were staying in "pods" - little elf structures scattered through the woodland. They were very cute, but also very cold and damp. Luckily they warmed up nicely with two people in each.

The next castle to see was Inverness Castle, which was very well restored. I am less excited by that than the medieval castles that are half falling apart, but it was still impressive. We also spent some time trying to find wellies, which I knew as gumboots but apparently that's not what they're called here. Sam and I were being way too picky, wanting the short little ankle ones, so we still have wet feet, but Kseniya and Tori were successful in the search. Ethan, being still in college, declared that it was better to just wear sandals all the time.

Yep, it's cold and damp and rainy. Haven't really seen the sun yet.

I love grocery stores in new countries. That's probably strange. Here, we found American pancakes! That's definitely strange. Pancakes are best hot off the griddle, not wrapped in plastic.

Castle Roy. It was under construction so we couldn't get too close, but it wasn't very big. This one was from the 13th century, and apparently it was just a wall, with lean-tos inside.

Yep, I found a river- this is the River Feshie, behind our pods. Good trout habitat!

We found this awesome little road to go check out the first castle of our rest day, where we successfully hunted OODLES of castles. It was a small castle in the middle of the lake, but the views were pretty awesome.

I love these open hills. Too bad all that brown stuff is heather, which is really quite physical to run through. Deep, spongey, woody, and an uneven surface.

Baby highland coo!

Found ourselves a distillery for a tour; interesting to learn about how the stuff is made, and on such a quantity. This was the Glenlivet distillery. I would have liked to sample more, but could barely take a sip since I was driving. The Speyside area had a zillion distilleries, must be something about the water, I guess.

We found some fish and chips for lunch on our rest day - gotta do that at least once!

This was Balvenie castle - pretty cool. It was under construction, but that was good, as it meant we didn't have to pay, and we could wander around and it was all to ourselves. 

More in Balvenie castle

Cartwheels in front of a castle.

Final castle of the highlands - Loch an Eilean, near our pods. This one had a little trail around the lake, so we did a morning run there before coming down to the warmth and sunshine of Inverness.

Friday, July 24, 2015

15 Minutes of Fame

I've made it into the Boston Globe before, through no doing of my own, but now we're going even bigger- orienteering made it into the NYT! Mostly this is a story featuring Thierry Georgieu, arguably the world's best orienteer (but can he defend the title in two weeks?), but there's also a video, featuring a whole lot of yours truly, talking about orienteering.

Not a bad video - the author did a great job of editing.

Bear Brook half marathon

With just two weeks left before my departure for the World Champs, I figured I had time to squeeze in one final training weekend. Ed was off working, so I jumped into my car and managed to beat most of the Friday night rush hour traffic to land at Earl's Trails, in western MA, by 6pm. This was enough time for a relaxed shake-out run through a course from 2012, that Phil had streamered for me earlier in the day. Given how little forest orienteering I've been doing in the last month, this was a bit of a skills refresher, before the heavier work on Saturday. I was pretty psyched to get into the forest. Some wobbles, but overall a very positive outing, followed by a wonderful dinner with Phil, Margi, Peter, and Gail. I miss my days in the Valley.

Saturday had two pretty intense sessions on tap, designed by coach Boris - first up were some orienteering intervals, and the afternoon was a downhill course, designed so that you hit higher running speeds, and thus push the navigational limits rather than the physical ones.

The morning intervals went pretty well, but with temperatures in the mid 80s and a dew point to match, it wasn't easy going. The mosquitoes were out feeding as well, adding a sense of urgency to any sort of uphill where my speed dropped. Super duper thanks to Peter, for going out and hanging streamers for the interval, and to Phil for the streamers on the course.

Morning intervals

Afternoon downhill course

Sunday, the plan was for a long run, and I figured what better way to get in a long run than with a bunch of crazy other friends on a trail wearing a number? Rather spur-of-the-moment, I signed up for the Bear Brook half marathon. They were offering a full marathon as well, but I felt like that was a bit much for a simple Sunday long run. Of course, I didn't check the start time before signing up, and turns out the start time was a glorious 6am. Oops. With a 2 hour drive ahead of me from western MA, I decided the better plan would be spend the night in southern NH with Kathy, so I packed up after dinner and moved houses. I woke up twice to anxiety dreams about missing the start, but luckily it all worked out, and I had plenty of time.

This race cost about three times what the usual barebones Grand Tree races cost, and while I'm totally cool with that (I happily paid the full entry, after all), it attracted a different crowd. Many more women, and probably 80% of people were wearing bright neon colors, with tons of women in running skirts. Strange. I wasn't sure who was who, since I haven't done any of the NH trail race series, but I figured the course map looked pretty flat, so my plan was to stay pretty cruise-y in terms of pace. Hopefully that would be enough to win.

The marathon took off, and shortly thereafter the half marathoners followed suit. The two races were on nearly completely different trails, so we didn't have the problem of lapping slower runners - a really nice touch. The course started with a series of short climbs on singletrack, and I quickly discovered that my calves were pretty unhappy about the double orienteering intensity session yesterday. Two women were ahead of me, but I knew from experience I'd just have to go at a pace where my calves could recover, and hope for a full recovery once they were properly loosened. On the extended downhill back to the river I reeled in one of the women, so I figured that was good. I actually got a bit ahead of her, because the downhills weren't done yet, and then I really started to enjoy the course.
The trail wound through pine forest, mostly flat, really beautiful. Eventually it climbed up into a recently-logged area that was filled, and I mean FILLED, with blueberries. Ripe blueberries. Plump blueberries. Such delicious-looking blueberries. I wanted to stop. Just for a little while... just one handful? Somehow I made it through that section without a blueberry break, and I still don't know where that willpower came from!

Maura, the lady I'd passed on the downhill, caught up to me at the aid station, and we ran together for a bit. The trail was still flat enough that it wasn't hard to keep cruising, despite the fatigue in my legs, and my mentality shifted a bit from attack to defensive. I let that woman in first leave my thoughts, and started considering how to win the fight for second. It's not the most aggressive mindset, and it doesn't lead to winning races, but sometimes it's what you've got. I ran through the final aid station, not needing anything, and Maura stopped, and when she didn't catch me on the final climbs I knew I had it in the bag. Took it slightly more cautiously on the downhill to the finish, and then I was across, safely in second.

Of course I wish I'd won, after the fact, but that wasn't happening today. I still won a huge pile of schwag for 2nd place - coffee, home made jam, sunglasses, and, most importantly - a ribbon proclaiming that I can tie my shoes! Given my daisy-chain approach to tying my Inov-8s, I felt like that was appropriate.

After a quick dip in the lake, a cheeseburger, and a lot of cold water, I was ready to go home, but first, I had some business to finish - that blueberry patch needed a visit off the clock!

Monday, July 6, 2015

Fashionably late

They say that optimistic people are always late. I'm an optimistic person.

Anyway, I was in Vermont with Ed for the weekend, and the only things on the agenda were reading my book and watching some fireworks. This was pretty great, which is to say, I have no flippin' idea when I got out of bed on Sunday, or what time I decided that what I really wanted to do today was to run over some mountains.

I did know that I wanted to be in Concord MA at 5pm. I probably should have done the math backwards on that one, but there may have been some denial going on - better just not to know. There are signs of improvement, though - I actually told Ed where I was going. "I'm going to run down that ridge we ran last summer, you know, the one with the views and the trees and the bugs? Yeah, but I might deviate from that ridge if some other trails look inviting, and I'll probably try and make it a loop".  "ok, I'll start looking for you in a couple days".

So, I'm running along, totally loving life and loving that I can move my body like this and it just GOES where I want it to and I'm so thankful that I can do all this stuff and use my feet to carry me up to cool views, where I do cartwheels and yip and yeehaw and careen down rocky muddy trails. Sometimes it's very good to run alone. Somewhere along the way my watch dies, which is fine, it's rechargeable. But that meant I didn't really know how long I'd been running. Oh well, I still have like half a bottle's worth in this water bottle I'm carrying, so I can't have been out THAT long. I come to a junction, and I'm fairly positive I can turn it into a loop if I just keep going. The endorphins are pumping, the birds are singing, the sun is shining, life is great. My hunch pans out and it's the right trail, and eventually I come back out to the gravel road, which takes me back to the notch on a swooping, scenic, gradual downhill cruise. This is fun!

I'm still feeling good when I get to the car, and I've still got a sip or two of water left, so I can't have been out THAT long, and I've never seen the other direction of this trail, so I figure I'll go that way for a bit, just to see where it goes. Well, I tend to have a bad case of just-around-the-next-bend-itis, and I may have seen where it goes a little too long, but eventually I hit a flat area and decide that I'd better turn around while the turning around is still all downhill. Another fun little cruise-y downhill, and I'm back to the car, but I'm pretty solidly caked with mud up to the knees. Nothing to worry about, but this definitely calls for a mountain stream, nothing else will do. It's a short drive, and I try not to rub my legs too much all over my car seat, but then I'm at a stream, so I spend some time splashing around cleaning up and cooling off, and now I'm TOTALLY presentable for a party! Just 2 hours of driving left to get there! Back to the car, and I check my phone and see the time for the first time in probably quite a few hours, and there's a big oops, I'm already 15 minutes late...

So, that's how I showed up three hours late with mud between my toes. There was still cake, beer, and cheer, and I got to go for a sweet run, so on balance, I'd say this day was a win.