Sunday, July 31, 2011

Hills and Thrills at the Bix 7

There's something about this wonderful summer weather we've been having (brutally sunny, average temperature 267ยบ, average humidity 650%) that makes me crave a good uber-hilly race. After all, nothing makes you feel like a rockstar runner like toughing it out through the Trifecta of Running Pain: heat, humidity and hills.

So when fellow FASTie, Kristi, tried to talk me into running the famous Bix 7 with her, it didn't really take a lot of convincing. This 7-mile race is famous not for being fast and flat, but for being hot and hilly... and also tons of fun. It's hard to imagine how a race held at the hottest time of the year on a challenging course could be much fun, but the key to having fun at an event like this is to not race it. And that was our plan.

I arrived in lovely downtown Davenport, Iowa on Friday evening and even though I had a hard time finding a place to park (and finally ended up paying $5 for a garage), getting in and out of the packet pickup was a breeze. The expo was so-so; about what one would expect for an event this size. I browsed around briefly, but nothing really caught my interest. The race swag was also unexceptional, but considering this race only cost $30 or $35 to enter (I can't remember how much, exactly), it's no more or no less than one would expect: a cotton t-shirt and a color poster. The real "swag" of this race is the post-race party, as you will see shortly.

This race attracts a very prestigious elite field, thanks to the thousands of dollars in prize money offered to top finishers. Apparently Joan Benoit Samuelson and a whole bunch of Kenyans were among the elite runners this year. And I totally ran with them. True story.

Okay, when I say I "ran with them" I actually mean I saw them fly past me as they were heading back toward the finish line and I was still shuffling along at Mile 2. But I digress...

This is a pretty large event, especially considering it's in, well, Iowa. I mean, what else is in Iowa besides... corn? So for a race in Davenport to draw a field of over 18,000 runners and walkers, including some very big-name elites, it's really quite impressive. And that the race is so well-organized to handle such a large field is even more impressive. Kudos to the race director!

Kristi and I arrived at the race start early and got positioned in our assigned starting corral. The sun was shining, the air was warm and sticky, and we could see Brady Street hill (with it's 7% grade) looming ahead of us. Oh, we were definitely in for a fun time.

We ain't scared of no hills!

Before we knew it, the race was underway and we were making our way toward the starting line. We were probably positioned in the middle of the field, and it only took two minutes to cross the starting line. Not bad for a race this large.

The first 1/3 mile climbs over 100 vertical feet, and while this sounds like a pretty steep climb, it really wasn't that bad. Of course, I say this as a person who was not racing. Kristi and I ran the hill at a leisurely 11:00 pace; we weren't in any hurry. There were a lot of people in this race. A LOT. Even if we had wanted to run faster up the hill, I don't think we could have, just because it would've taken far too much effort to weave around the slower people.

When we crested that first big hill, we picked up the pace a bit, but we knew the hill climbing was far from over. Indeed, I believe the worst hill in this course is actually the last one, at Mile 5-6. It's not the steepest, but it comes at a time when you're already pretty tired from climbing all the other hills. And it's looooooong.

So just how hilly is this course? Well, for the sake of comparison, I pulled up my Garmin data from the Steamboat 15k, "Illinois' Toughest 15k". That course (which is over 2 miles longer than the Bix) has a total climb of 310 feet. The Bix has a total climb of 394 feet. So the Bix has nearly 85 more vertical feet of climb, but over a shorter distance... which, in theory, makes it significantly tougher.

But not if you're just running it for fun!

Kristi and I ran at a moderate pace, enjoying the multitudes of spectators and entertainment acts along the way. There was nonstop live music the whole seven miles, and the cheering spectators along the sidelines were all drinking either coffee or beer... or both. I was very impressed with the people of Davenport for all their enthusiasm for the race. There wasn't a single spot along the course that didn't have spectators lined up five deep.

Water stations were plentiful and well-organized. I think I actually finished the race better hydrated than when I started it. We stopped at every station, not only to get water to drink, but also to get water to pour on ourselves. We were ever-so-thankful for those spectators who had set up hoses to spray water on the runners, and for the patches of shade provided by trees along the course.

We were also extremely thankful when we reached Mile 6 and it was all downhill to the finish. And what a downhill it was! That 7% grade we climbed at the beginning of the race? Well, now we were going to run down it. And boy did we fly! We ran the last mile at a fairly comfortable effort, but it ended up being an 8:21 pace.

As we rounded the final turn, we could see the finish line up ahead. Kristi began to surge. I followed suit. She wasn't trying to break away from me; she was just trying to push me a little bit. She knew I could keep up. And I did. We sprinted and crossed the finish together. (And in case anyone is curious, our finish time was 1:08:41. Not too bad for a fun run!)

Then we began our hunt for the food and beer. And that's when things got really interesting.

If you like junk food, the Bix is the race for you. Bananas, bagels and Gatorade? That stuff is for wussies! You won't find any of those things at the Bix. What you will find are popsicles, Hostess cupcakes and Twinkies, potato chips, chocolate milk, cereal bars and beer. And it's an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord. I did not eat all of those things, but I enjoyed a Hostess cupcake and an orange popsicle (very refreshing on a hot day!). And a couple of beers.

Now, when they say it's all-you-can-eat, they mean it's all you can eat within the boundaries of the post-race party. You're not supposed to bring a shopping cart and fill up the trunk of your car with food to take home. That's just plain rude. And they apparently do crack down on food-snatchers, according to the website. But that didn't stop this guy from oh-so-subtly stuffing his shorts pockets with Twinkies and cereal bars.

Are those Twinkies in your pockets, or are you just happy to see us?

But what makes the post-race party so interesting isn't the food and beverage. It's the people. There are some fascinating people at this event (besides Mr ShortsStuffer above). Allow me to share a few of them with you.

The funniest thing isn't this guy's Spongebob hat or his bitchin' beard, but the fact that he gave me his email address because he wanted me to send him this picture. HahahaNO!

It seems I have my head in a strange (very strange) man's armpit. We all smelled bad, though, so it didn't matter. I vote for this guy for best outfit, hands down.

Those two guys were just the tip of the iceberg. There were hundreds of runners in silly outfits and costumes, including a whole team of Marilyn Monroes, and a group of people dressed as Angry Birds characters. There was even a costume contest, with prizes and everything! I seriously regretted not having worn my tutu. This was definitely a tutu-worthy event.

So after some discussion, Kristi and I have decided that next year we need to get a big group together to run this race, come up with an awesome team costume idea, and rule the costume contest. There are prizes at stake, people! I don't actually know what the prizes are, but I'm sure they are wicked cool. Like a million bucks, or a new car, or a coffee mug or something like that.

So who's in??? You could win a million dollars! (But don't count on it.)

Peace. Love. Train.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Running oot and aboot in Canada, eh?

In celebration of spending the last four days in Canada, I'd like to invite everyone to join me in a rousing chorus of the Canadian national anthem. It's sung to the tune of "O Christmas Tree" and goes like this:

O Canada, O Canada
How lovely are thy maple leaves!

O Canada, O Canada
How lovely are thy maple leaves!

With moose, poutine and hockey too,

Beer for me, back bacon for you,

O Canada, O Canada

How lovely are thy maple leaves!

jazz hands*

Now some of you (especially those of you who are actually Canadian) may argue that that is not the Canadian national anthem. To that I say "Well, not yet, it's not! Geesh!" I am petitioning the Canadian government to have the anthem changed because mine is (1) easier to remember and (2) far more descriptive than the current anthem, which does not once mention maple leaves, moose, poutine, hockey, beer or bacon. Plus, I'm pretty sure it would be the only national anthem in the world that incorporates a dance move.

Now that I've started this blog post in the proper way (with the singing of a national anthem), allow me to explain what the heck I was doing in Canada. I was visiting my BFF, Shelley. You all may recall that I ran the Flying Pig races with her earlier this year, and last year as well. And we also ran the Niagara Falls International Marathon Relay last fall. It seems every time we get together, it's to run some sort of organized distance event. And while this is fun, and a great way to get motivated to train for an event, it's also kind of stressful because the entire get-together revolves around race preparation. So we decided it was high time to get together, not to run a race, but to simply hang out and do whatever and not have to worry about the pressure of a looming event.

This did not stop us, however, from running. A lot. You see, we're both in the midst of marathon training. I arrived on Saturday afternoon and we immediately began carb-loading for our Sunday morning long run.

Beer is a carb, right?

Carb-loading, Canadian-style.

I mean, come on, you can't go to Canada and not have Canadian beer (Steam Whistle, in this case). I'm pretty sure it's a law there. Anyway, I digress...

Shelley had carefully planned a route for us to run that would take us all over the city of Hamilton. It looked great on the map. If only had known she was secretly plotting my demise, one painfully steep step at a time...

A lovely tour of Hamilton on foot, eh? Just you wait...

So Sunday morning arrived and I got up early to eat some breakfast. Shortly thereafter, we headed out the door into a veritable steam bath. I had checked the weather just before we left and the humidity was 100%. We may as well have been underwater. We struggled to catch our breath for the first several miles, thankful that the skies were cloudy. The route started out as any other run, mostly flat with a few gentle slopes. Then we made our way to the Chedoke Radial Trail, which was a gradual net downhill for a couple of miles. Then we turned left and headed through the city toward the bay (home of the famous Around The Bay Road Race), which was also a gradual downhill.

It was a scenic run, with beautiful views from the trail, and charming old homes along the city streets, and paved trails right along the bay. It was early enough in the morning that there were very few other people or cars out, so the city was peaceful. As we ran, the humidity began to slowly dissipate, and the clouds stayed overhead to provide us much-needed shelter from the sun. We chatted about this and that and were having a grand old time.

A few miles into the run, on the Chedoke Trail, still looking happy. This condition wouldn't last long...

But then we began making our way back through the city from the bay and I quickly came to the realization that Shelley had just been lulling me into a false sense of security with all those gentle downhills and scenic vistas.

Let us all remember the first rule of running a loop route: S/he who runs downhill must eventually run back uphill.

And that's when the fun really started. At first, it was just a gentle climb. No big deal. But then we rounded a corner near the Chedoke golf course, and it became immediately obvious that I was going to die. The road rose up sharply ahead of us, and I could feel my breath becoming short. I struggled to reach the visible top of this mountain. I wished I had a rope so I could just pull myself up.

Then the path leveled off. Whew!

But my relief was short-lived because then we reached the bottom of the Dundurn Stairs: a nearly-vertical ascent of 350 steps up the Niagara escarpment. It wasn't even possible to see the top of the stairs from the bottom; the stairs appeared to vanish into the clouds. It was 13 miles into our run, and I was already feeling pretty beat up from the humidity and the climbing we had already done.

If you listen very carefully, you can hear the sound of my legs crying.

After guzzling approximately 3.4 gallons of water from the fountain at the bottom of the stairs, we began our ascent. At first, it wasn't so bad. Every dozen or so steps, there was a small landing that gave us a few seconds to catch our breath.

But as we continued to climb higher and higher, getting closer to outer space, the air thinned and breathing became more difficult. I could have sworn we had climbed 15,000 feet. When we finally reached the top of the stairs, I died.

But I got better!

And a mile and a half later, we were back at Shelley's house, feeling exhausted but accomplished.

Total climb: 837 feet. Ouch. Ow ow ow. Ouch!

After taking much-needed showers, we refueled with Kraft Dinner and maple syrup, and enjoyed a nice game of hockey while listening to The Barenaked Ladies. I also worked on my mastery of the Canadian language. It's really not that hard and I would be glad to teach you all how to speak Canadian. Repeat after me, kids: I'm going to leave the hoose to go oot and aboot, eh? That translates roughly to "I am going out now, ok?"

Now, you would think that after such a crazy hilly run and so many leg-torturing stairs to climb, that we would choose flatter routes for the rest of our runs together. Well, you would be wrong. Shelley, that evil Canadian wench, made me run the stairs again on Monday and Tuesday too. The runs were much shorter (5 and 7 miles, versus Sunday's nearly-15 miles), but the stairs still hurt and I swear she cackled gleefully the whole time. It is for this reason that I believe Canadians aren't nearly as friendly as they would have us believe. They're all like "Come to our great country and eat some poutine and enjoy some socialized medicine!" and then once they get you there, they torture you with hills and stairs and death.

I'm planning to return to Canada in October for the Niagara Falls International Marathon, but now that my eyes have been opened to the true motives of the Canadian people, I will be much more cautious. I am going to keep working on my Canadian accent, so I can blend in better. And I will wear my bright red maple leaf shirt, because that surely doesn't say "I'm a tourist!". If they think I'm just another Canadian, maybe they won't torture me. Maybe...

Although I might be willing to endure a little torture (in the amount of 26.2 miles) in exchange for a shiny medal, eh?

Peace. Love. Train.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Longest 6.5 Minutes Of My Life

It's that time of the year again: the time when we all gather around Running Central on a steamy Friday night and instead of joining hands and singing Kumbaya, we run 'til we nearly puke and then drink a lot of beer. I am, of course, talking about the Main Street Mile: a screaming-fast downhill one-mile race in downtown Peoria that ends with the best post-race party in town. It sounds great in theory, but this race terrifies me to my very core.

I know what you're all thinking. A one mile race? You're a marathoner, Emily.... How hard could it be for you to run one little mile?

Ha. Hahahahahahaha!

See, that's the problem. I'm a marathoner. I excel at running LSD (long slow distance). Well, maybe "excel" isn't the right word, but it's my preferred modus operandi for running. Given the choice between a 5k and a half-marathon, I will pick the half-marathon every time. To put it bluntly, running fast sucks.

So what compelled me to register for the Main Street Mile again? Well, the price was right. That is to say, it was free. Us lucky (and I use the term "lucky" pretty loosely here) FASTies got a free entry into the race just for signing up for the Summer/Fall season of FAST.

Also, I was told there would be free beer at the finish line.

So on that hot and sunny July evening, I toed the line with my fellow FASTies and ran like hell in a very short but very painful attempt to reach the beer as quickly as possible.

Some of you may remember that I ran this same race last year, and surprised myself with a finish time of 7:10 (under the pseudonym of "Unknown Runner"). My goal this year was to run under 7:00 (under my actual name). All I wanted was to have a 6 in front of my mile time, even if it was 6:59.

This year, the race was divided up until three heats (versus last year's two heats). I was told that the first heat was for anyone planning to run slower than 8:30, the second heat was for paces from 6:00 to 8:30, and the final heat was for anyone faster than 6:00. That meant I belonged firmly in the second heat. And that meant I had plenty of time to stand around and get nauseatingly nervous while the first heat ran. It seemed to take forever for the second heat to begin.

Off goes the 2nd heat! I'm buried in the middle of that pack.

The race started and I ran as fast as I could. And then I quickly realized that I wasn't going to get very far at that pace, so I slowed down a little bit. I felt like a flailing idiot. I am not used to running that fast, and it feels very strange to do so. I probably looked like a flailing idiot too. Fortunately, there is no photographic evidence of this (at least not that I'm aware of). So when you all think of me running this race, picture me moving quickly and gracefully like a gazelle.

For reasons I cannot quite explain, although I suspect it has something to do with the space-time continuum and the general theory of relativity, a 10-minute mile feels much shorter than a 7-minute mile. I felt like I was running and running but time had stopped and I wasn't getting any closer to the finish line. The air was unusually dry for this time of year, and my throat was getting sore from breathing so hard. I just wanted to be finished.

You wouldn't think running downhill would be so difficult!

Finally, the finish line was in sight and it took every ounce of strength I had left to keep running toward it. After I crossed the finish, it took every ounce of strength I had to not throw up. Once I got over my nausea, I finally looked at my Garmin and was shocked and very pleased to see 6:35. Not only was that sub-7:00, it was way sub-7:00. It was a PR by almost 40 seconds!

According to the official results, my time was 6:33.45. Incredibly, I also somehow managed to place 2nd (out of 45!) in my age group. Not only that, but many of my fellow FASTies had amazing PR's, and there were many who placed in the top three of their age groups. And to top it all off, Team FAST was second place in both the men's and women's team competitions, getting beaten only by Team RC (who are pretty much impossible to beat). There were many FAST victories to celebrate! We headed over to the post-race party at Sully's where the music was thumpin' (thanks to local band O-Face) and the beer was flowin'. It was going to be a very good time.


It didn't take long before we were all dancing and singing along with the music. I'm actually fairly certain I got even more of a workout from the dancing than I did from the race.

Gettin' funky, FASTie style!

The highlight of the evening was when our very own Coach Brad was invited on stage to sing Roadhouse Blues. And for someone who claims to be completely tone deaf, he wasn't half bad. But maybe that's because we had all had a couple beers by that point, and anyone would've sounded good (kidding, Brad!).

Belting out the tunes!

I could tell a lot of fun stories about the post-race party, but I think most of them are "you had to be there" kinds of stories. So if you want to know how much fun the Main Street Mile post-race party is, you'll just have to come and find out for yourself next year. But no partying if you don't run til you nearly puke first!

Peace. Love. Train.

(all photos courtesy of Steven Blanchard)