A Staten Island triathlete and endurance coach ventures into the ultramarathon realm where there are seemingly no limits to human endurance. In 2013, he successfully finished the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (picture of 2013 Grand Slam finishers above; I'm second from right), becoming only the 282nd person (since its beginnings in 1986) and only the fourth New Yorker to finish four of the oldest and most prestigious 100 mile ultramarathons in the U.S. in only 10 weeks.

Friday, December 27, 2013

2013 - Quite A Year!

I don't really know how to start describing this year.


For one thing, it's been transformational. I am definitely leaving this year a different person than when I began it.

It began with a limited scope largely between two running clubs. One in NJ, and one in NY. It's ending with a huge family of like minded endurance athletes, ranging from a very talented group of ultrarunners and triathletes in New York City and those in NJ.

It's also seen some down times. The tragedy that has befallen my aunt this past fall is one. But it adds to the transformation; it reinforces the belief that I should approach every day like it's my last and live it to the fullest.

There are also other down moments, but all it did was steel my will and honed my focus in setting my goals and getting them done.

Of course, I cannot describe 2013 without mentioning the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. There are so many ways to fail in that quest, but I managed to find a way to succeed in capturing the prestigious Eagle Trophy.

Receiving my Eagle Trophy at Wasatch.


The Slam was the single most transformational event in 2013. I left the Slam a completely different person than coming in. Thinking about all I had to go through just to finish the Slam:

1) The 115 degree temperatures at Western States. The race is normally very hot, but it just happened to be the second hottest in Western States history.

2) The huge blister issue at the tail end of Western States. Basically going the last 28 miles in bleeding and bandaged feet.

3) The extreme humidity of Vermont.

4) The thin air at Leadville. The huge pain tolerance I had to undergo just to reach the finish line at Leadville (and the redemption of the DNF I had there two years ago).

5) The unusual extreme humidity and the ups and downs, literally and figuratively, and the final ecstatic moments at the finish at Wasatch, where I finally realized I was actually going to make it.

6) All the voices in my head telling me to stop in every one of the races I did.

7) The numerous tiresome pushes up mountains.

8) And finally, the moment of truth ascending Hope Pass for the second time and realizing that persistence does pay when I finally got to the top.

Just one failure at all the trials listed above, and I would have failed.

Anyway, it's given me the courage to go out and do other things without fearing failure. Starting a new triathlon and endurance club is one thing. More personal issues like dating is another. They are all "leap of faith" decisions with some risk that they might fail. And if they do fail, it's not the end of the world. Failure is just a good way to realize the mistakes you did, and start over again without making those mistakes. This year has given me the self-confidence I need to act on some tough decisions, and see where they lead.

I do leave 2013 on a very high note. The friends that I've gained in the larger area that share my interests is certainly a plus. There are several people I know that have won a slot in next year's Western States and are contemplating doing the Slam. I will definitely lend them any "words of wisdom" and my experience that I had in the Slam this year. There are also a number of us who are in the UTMB lottery for Europe next year along with me. I hope that we all get in so that we can have a blast together in France. All the local triathletes I know are aiming high next year, shooting for some lofty goals (half Ironman, full Ironman, first triathlon, etc.). I will definitely lend them a hand as they work hard to achieve those goals.

2013. Transformation indeed! I will definitely never forget this year; it's been quite the journey.

On to 2014!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Random Thoughts: Warm Day - Badwater Shutdown - Commitment

It's the first full day of winter, it's 70 degrees outside, and I ran the trails in shorts and a running shirt.

Maybe it's time to grab my wetsuit and go for an open water swim too!

Let's do this. ;-)


Anyway, I mentioned that free, informal Fat Ass events were going to be the future of recreational sports. I opined about this in this blog several times in the past.  Bascially I stated that the rising cost of permits and insurance would start to make formally organized races prohibitive and expensive.

Well, there's now another reason, one that I didn't predict. Government intrusion.

From the Inyo Register:

Death Valley suspends sporting events in park

Inyo residents are expressing fear and outrage in the wake of Death Valley National Park’s “moratorium” on permits for sporting events within the park.
The National Park Service said it is implementing the suspension to allow staff to evaluate the events and safety concerns, due to extreme conditions in the nation’s largest national park.
The fear among Southern Inyo residents is that the park’s move may be the death of events like that Badwater Ultra Marathon, which, according to the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce, are responsible for contributing $1.2 million to local communities each year.
The Lone Pine Chamber is kicking off a letter-writing campaign urging DVNP to allow the events to continue while the safety evaluation is being conducted.

Not mentioned here is that the Badwater Ultramarathon has never had a death in its races, and that those who undertake this challenging event are very experienced, fit individuals who have prepared for the elements in this race.

Yes, there is a danger from heat, but athletes who tackle this race are much more fit than regular people who don't normally exercise and are better equipped to tackle the elements.

They did this briefly with the perversely named "government shutdown", in which the government actually had to pay its park rangers MORE to keep the park closed to the public. Does that actually make sense to you? No? You're not alone then.

If the government was truly shut down, then how come MORE people were payrolled to keep the public out?

But hey, I always say that the more government tries to control its people, the more they actually lose control of its people. The Badwater Ultra race was actually created from humble beginnings, when people used to solo their attempts on the course, mailed in their proof, and got an award to show for it. It looks like it will have to revert back to its Fat Ass format again. Forget the permits and let the government be damned, right?

A lot of the old-fashioned purist ultrarunners are pointing to its Fat Ass beginnings anyway; so be it.

Still, laws tend to make a precedent for things to come, and there are a lot of formalized ultras that run through national parks. Will they be denied permits too? I don't know, but organized events might actually be an endangered species at this point.

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I'm not a guy who takes excuses really well for someone's shortcomings. I have allowed a little bit of slack with excuses as a coach, but I think it's to everyone's detriment, really.

I don't like excuses. If I make up my mind to try for a certain goal, I make sure that I'm committed to it. If I know that I cannot commit to certain goals every year, I make sure not to waste the time and money for it.

The Grand Slam of Ultrarunning taught me about this commitment. Personally, I've suffered a couple of major setbacks the past couple of years. But when I committed to the Slam, I was not going to let anything detrimental get in my way. Ever.

The demands for my athletes should really be the same as the demands set for myself. That means setting a razor-sharp focus on your training, giving it 100% or more in effort, and having few excuses, if any, for not training for races.

Although I do understand that people have other aspects of their lives to worry about, but the choice to be fit should be a priority in their lives and should be set equal to work and family for the most part. I think it's very critical to have that fitness so that they have the ability and the confidence to tackle those other parts of their lives.

Anything less than 100% is not a good reflection on them, and not a good reflection on me.

My coaching is never really about money anyway. The money issue is a minor part of my life now; I don't need to take on "not so committed" athletes just for the money. As a matter of fact, I did stop coaching two people in the past two years because they weren't focused on the regimen I gave them.

And I limit the total number to about 5 people. That is it. People who are interested in getting coached by me have to show me that they are committed to it. Otherwise I do drop them after a while.

In principle, if you're going for a certain goal next season, commit to it first before you start putting in the time and money. Mediocrity might be the way a lot of people define their lives, but it shouldn't be around yours, and I definitely don't want to see it around me.

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If I don't blog again until Christmas, I do want to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. And don't eat too much! The 2014 season is around the corner and you got work to do after the holidays.



Saturday, December 21, 2013

Random Thoughts / I Still Feel Like an Ultra Imposter / Oh, no! Speed Again?

Today is the Winter Solstice. Hmmm, doesn't feel like it. As a matter of fact, it's supposed to go to 70 degrees tomorrow.

No complaints though. Running in shorts on the snowy/icy trails was a blast. Even with the snow and ice I ran a pretty fast 6.5 miles in 59 minutes. The snow and ice are definitely good for balance.

Maybe I should want all this snow and ice at the Watchung 50k next month, my first race of 2014.

As for the rest of 2014, I still do not have concrete plans. The UTMB lottery is September 15. The Tahoe 200 is a possibility. An Iron distance race in Atlantic City is a possibility. Maybe even a quintuple Ironman in the fall.  I don't know how this schedule is going to shake out.

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The Grand Slam finisher's photo made Ultrarunning Magazine:






And of course, my name appears in next year's Grand Slam application:


I'm a tiny mention in there, but I think you'll see it if you click on it.



To be honest, I still feel a bit in awe that I actually finished the Slam. Maybe the phrase, "you are your own worst critic" comes to mind here, but there are some days where I still feel like an outsider looking into the ultra world. Maybe even an imposter, especially sitting with what I think is the most talented and fittest group of athletes I've ever been involved with. I feel like I still have a lot to learn from this sport; I still have a lot of questions and most of those people sitting with me have the answers.

Yes, there is still a lot to learn in the ultra world, like trying to actually excel at the 100 mile distance. Not just finishing but moving up in the standings. What kind of training would it take to do that?

Well, I had a conversation with a friend in the Raritan Valley Road Runners the other day. When asked, "would I do the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning again?", I said sure, but I would definitely try to do better next time. When the topic moved to getting faster for the 100, I answered that I might actually have to go to the track after all and do some faster intervals.

If that is the case, I feel like I'll be going around full circle here. Yeah, track workouts make sense for 5ks, they make sense for half marathons, and even marathons, but 100 milers?

If I want to do well in 100 mile races, the answer is YES!

So now I'm actually contemplating adding track workouts to the routine. The workouts wouldn't involve 400 meter or 800 meter intervals, but longer sessions like the mile or 2 mile intervals. Or longer. Cruise intervals would be the norm here, but it would be definitely faster than the comfortable pace.

It's just interesting how speed creeps up on me, wherever I go. Even at the 100 mile distance, I cannot avoid it.

Maybe I'll finally get rid of the speed element at the 200 mile distance. No? I didn't think so. LOL!




Monday, December 16, 2013

Resolving Conflicts In Your Race Schedule

Like any other serious athlete, there are so many races to choose from for your upcoming season. A couple of new races have been added to the list as well (maybe the Challenge 140.6 in Atlantic City in June or the Princeton 70.3 Triathlon in September).

And now you are actually starting to place these races on your calendar. And you KNOW you cannot do all of them, so you place on your calendar the races you *really* want to do and put the others on a list as a possibility for the following season.

Don't mull over your race choices too much.


So you look at the resulting list, and you successfully narrowed your list down to...20 races.

Yikes!

I know people who do much more of that in a year. A lot of the Marathon Maniacs in this NY/NJ area have a schedule at least double that. And that's fine.

But if you're looking to really excel at some of the races, you'll need to narrow that list down to four or five "A" races so that you can structure your training plan towards those races.

Because you're not going to be 100% at your best at all 20 races in your schedule. I've yet to meet even a professional who can stay at the top of his or her game for the entire year.

And the races you don't list as "A" races? You can go ahead and do them, but it might be best to hold back a bit on most of them so that your training doesn't get disrupted too much in gearing for those "A" races. Holding back gives you a much quicker recovery.

So mull over your schedule, decide which of the races you're doing will be the ones you'll try to PR in, and then structure your training around those races.

This way you can have a year of quality along with your year of quantity next season.

Finishing high in selected "A" races is a good goal too.

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Conflicts, conflicts, conflicts! Way too many conflicts in organizing my 2014 schedule. And there is still uncertainty.

The uncertainty stems from two ultra lotteries that I will be putting in for next year.  UTMB and Massanutten.

Massanutten is there to re-qualify me for the Western States lottery at the end of next year. There are no conflicts there, win or lose.

Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) is a different matter. On December 19, I will be putting in for UTMB (maybe along with two others from the Raritan Valley Road Runners' haven of equally deranged ultrarunners) in France on August 29. I have historically a 40% of winning a spot in the 2014 race. Which is a much better chance than the Western States and Hardrock lotteries I didn't make at the beginning of December. The actual lottery drawing for the race is January 15.

Beautiful Alps of Europe!


And on January 4, the registration opens up for the Tahoe 200. I would love to do this race, but the date is the concern. The race starts on September 5, 2014.

Beautiful Lake Tahoe! Oh, no, I can't do both!


So if I submit for the UTMB lottery on December 19,  then register for Tahoe 200 on January 4, what will happen if our names get drawn in the UTMB lottery on January 15?

Do one of the toughest 100 mile races in the world on August 29, then just 6 days later do a mountainous 200 mile race?

I don't know, but doing 300 really tough mountain miles in one week doesn't sound too smart at all. Not to mention the travel east to Europe, the west to Nevada. I mean it can be done, but as I stated above I would love to really do well in one of these races. That means I either do one or the other.

But what if I don't register for the Tahoe 200 and then don't make the UTMB lottery? Then I'm left with nothing.

The Tahoe 200 does have a refund policy in which I get almost all of my money back with the exception of the online processing fee. I might have to go that way with that. I don't really want to do that with the good folks putting on the Tahoe race, but it's the only way to guarantee myself in at least one of the two races.

So I will probably put in for Tahoe 200 on January 4...which leads to another conflict. A minor one, but something to address.

I would love to do the Watchung Winter 50k on January 4. It's a smallish race, but one I always like to do. I see a lot of friends in that race, and so I don't really want to miss it.

But the Tahoe 200 registration opens at 11AM Eastern Time, smack dab in the middle of the race.

Since the race is not one of my "A" races, I have a feeling I will be fumbling for my phone in the middle of the 50k and registering for the Tahoe 200 on the spot.

With only 200 spots in the race, and *a lot* of interest in the race, I have a feeling the field will close out quickly, so it's necessary to be applying as soon as it opens, at 11AM.

Now that would be interesting...registering for an ultra while doing an ultra. LOL. I just hope I don't trip on a rock while applying. Texting and running can be dangerous, especially on the trails. ;-)

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One last thing...I with all this ultra talk, I will have a triathlon season next year. Right now, the Challenge Atlantic City 140.6 is very high on my list of things to do in 2014 as well as the Jersey Shore races and the Staten Island Triathlon. :-)

Thursday, December 12, 2013

To East Coast Winners of the Western States 100 Lottery - So You Think You Can Slam? Some Questions To Ask

You checked the Western States lottery on Saturday December 7 and saw your name on the list. You got in!!! Congrats on winning a coveted spot in the Western States 100, the oldest 100 mile race in the world.

This is certainly on your "want" list in 2014. Should you gamble and go for the Grand Slam too?

Now of course, a question pops into your head...do you want to try for the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning? I mean heck, you got into Western States, maybe after 4 or more years of trying. That is a very important question, and one that you have to mull over the next couple of weeks.

The Grand Slam of Ultrarunning involves running four races in 10 weeks. You start out with Western States in June, then Vermont in July, Leadville in August, and finishing with Wasatch in September. It's a long, tough haul, but like all ambitious ultrarunners, you dare think about taking that challenge.

I will give you the good and the bad of attempting the Grand Slam. Please understand that although I myself finished the Grand Slam in 2013, I am by no means an expert on it. I will though, give you my experience as an East Coaster and what decisions I had to make before I decided on the Slam. Your situation might be a little bit different, but the main issues are the same.

The issues:

1) High degree of failure - This is obvious. There is a substantial degree of failure in any one of these 100 mile races. You're doing four of these races, in about 10 weeks. The chance of failure is extremely great. You're going to have to take that leap of faith and hope that you can get to that finish line at Soldier Hollow at the end of Wasatch.

2) Financial Cost - You're an East Coaster. Three of the races are out west. That poses a bit of a financial burden. The entry fees for the four races are well north of $1200. Plus three flights out, hotels, maybe a rental car, meals, days off from work, etc. That adds up to a LOT of money. On something that you run the possibility of failing at. Think about it; if an unforseen circumstance causes you not to finish Western States, then the other three races don't count towards your main goal any more. Sure, you can still do those races, and have a great experience with them, but it would be definitely anticlimatic as you are not in the running for the Grand Slam anymore. That's a lot of money that has been spent for not achieving your goal.

3) Terrain - The last two of the races in the Grand Slam are high mountain races. These mountains you will never truly see in the East Coast. You still need to develop a pair of "mountain legs" for the Slam, otherwise, you're in big trouble. I cannot stress this enough, I'll repeat this in red caps...YOU NEED TO DEVELOP "MOUNTAIN LEGS" FOR THE SLAM!!! This is the biggest priority in getting prepped up for the Slam. Even with the lack of big mountains here in the East Coast, there are fortunately special ways of developing that critical pair of "mountain legs" designed to bounce up and down those high mountain peaks. Hill and mountain repeats are one possibility. Road and mountain cycling (which I did a lot of in the ramp up to the 2013 Grand Slam) is an excellent alternative as well, really blasting your quads to "larger than life" status, and well designed to bound up the mountain slopes. One other alternative that you can use is the tire drag. Some miles using this apparatus will put some serious work on your quads!

You don't have to use a tire this big; even a smaller tire will help develop your quads for the high mountains.


4) Altitude - A big tripping point for East Coasters in the Slam. Please DO NOT underestimate the difficulty of Leadville and its altitude. Leadville is pretty flat in places, but the altitude (10,000+ feet) gives every runner, especially low-landers, a huge penalty, one in which, coupled with the aggressive cut-off times of the race, combine to kick any unsuspecting East Coaster out of the Slam. The race is relentless; only those who are WELL PREPARED will get to the finish line. The only way to directly reduce that penalty is to get up to Leadville at least a week before the race. If you're cash strapped and cannot do that, you can indirectly reduce that penalty by being in the best shape of your life. If your body is extremely fit, it can definitely better handle the reduced oxygen and you will suffer less. This requires a well prepared training plan that puts you at the top of your game by the time you toe the line at Leadville.

5) Commitment - If you're putting all this money into the Slam, the least you can do is commit to it. It's really a common sense issue. Why spend your hard-earned money on something you're not committed to? Make a deal with yourself, "if I'm going to shell out thousands of dollars for the Slam, I had better make this the main focus for the year. I will put 110% of my effort into completing the Slam."

6) Friendships - This is one of the biggies! I cannot put into words the benefits of the friendships that were forged with the other Slammers in the group. Most of us leaned on each other at some point in these Grand Slam races to get to the finish line. I was in a lot of trouble in Leadville trying to get up over Hope Pass. Two other Slammers I was running with motivated me enough to get up over Hope Pass and over to the finish line with an hour to spare. In the Slam you gain friends for life!

7) Satisfaction - This is another biggie...if you complete the Slam, you join a very elite fraternity of people and a special spot in the sport of ultrarunning. You get a great trophy and recognition from other athletes in the sport that you have achieved something that few other people have done. Remember that only 288 people have completed the Slam from its beginnings (1986-2013). That's about 10% of the people who have been to the top of Mt. Everest!


The complete schwag associated with the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. The Eagle Trophy on the left, the four bib numbers and belt buckles in the shadow box, and the finishers medals/plaque in the foreground. And maybe some media attention too. :-)


What made the choice for me to decide on the Slam in 2013? I am not a very rich person, so cash was an issue for me. But when I won a spot in the 2013 Western States, I realized that I might not get another shot at the Slam in several years. Maybe never! So I decided to enter the Slam, and shell out the cash, with the promise that I will get into the best shape of my entire life and that if I do fail, I was not going to be removed from the Grand Slam without a fight! I've had my number of battles in the Grand Slam, but for each one, I've steeled my resolve and got myself to the finish line every time. I could have easily dropped out in a couple of them, but instead willed myself to the finish. That is what it's going to take to complete the Slam.

So make your decision accordingly. You're going to shell out a lot of money for it. Will you back it up by committing yourself totally to it? Only you can answer that question.