Guts – Racing to Your Max Potential


Twist a runner’s arm, and he’ll admit that racing is not fun. It hurts! Especially at shorter distances, it hurts like a crazy mofo! And if it doesn’t hurt that badly, you’re not doing it right. That’s the conclusion I’ve reached after talking with many runners of all skill levels, and analyzing over 100 of my own race performances. Being in strong physical shape is essential, but it’s not enough by itself. If you really want to excel you need guts.

What sets the upper limit on your race efforts? Do you run so hard that you puke, that you pass out? Very few of us can say we have, nor should we want to. My point isn’t that you should race until you black out, but that somewhere before the black out stage, something else steps in and slows you down. Some rational impulse says “Why am I running so hard through so much pain? It’s not really that important.” Or maybe a core bit of your brain says “Emergency! Body stress levels are critical! Shutting down…” It’s not so much that you can’t run any harder, but that you won’t.

How close to your physical limits are you willing and able to push yourself? That’s what’s called guts. For some runners, once things start to get uncomfortable, they’re not willing to run any harder. If they’re happy racing that way, that’s fine. Sometimes you’ll see such people in the later stages of a race, chatting with others around them, a clear sign that they’re comfortable. Most runners are willing to push themselves to higher levels of discomfort in order to achieve their goals. One popular mantra says “The pain is temporary, the pride is forever”. But when they’re 2 miles into a scorching 5K, and feel ready to lay down in a ditch and die, will the lure of shaving an extra 5 seconds off their finish time be enough motivation to keep up the pace?

At the elite level, the runners are experts at pushing their bodies as close as possible to their physical limits. You’ve seen the drawn, almost haunted look on their faces in the final stages of a hard race – they are suffering severely. But they’re so motivated to run their best, they’re willing to endure almost anything.

Look at this video of Kenenisa Bekele, Mo Farah, and Haile Gebrselassie at the finish of last year’s BUPA Great North Run. Look at their faces while both Bekele and Farah run sub-60 for the final 400m of a half marathon. This is what it looks like to push yourself to the utmost.

Next time you’re at a finish line, hang out and watch the other runners finishing. Look at their faces and their body language, and listen to their breathing. Do they look like they just came off a stroll in the park? Do they look like they’re about to die? Do faster runners push themselves closer to their limits than slower ones, or is there no correlation?

Personally I’m no great shakes on the racing scene, but over the years I’ve found a few things that helped me push closer to my physical limits:

Track Workouts – A series of lung-burning intervals on the track hurts like hell, but each one only lasts a few minutes, making it tolerable. This gives you a chance to get intimately familiar with that “oh my God this hurts” feeling. When it strikes again in a race it won’t hurt any less, but it’ll be a familiar hurt, and you’ll know from experience that you can endure it.

Setting Clear Goals – The middle of a race is a not a good time to wonder what the point of all this pain is. If you can’t remember why you’re pushing so hard, you won’t. Aim for a specific time goal, a new personal PR, or some qualifying standard. Put that goal in your mind during every workout and training run. Let the desire burn. When the pain comes, you’ll have a reason to push through it.

Competition – Nothing helps push you to your limits like head-to-head competition. Seek out races with an evenly-matched rival, or pick up on a stranger running just ahead of your pace. Every time you’re tempted to slack off the pace just a little bit, you’ll see his shirt recede ahead, and it’ll give you a kick in the ass to keep up.

Smile! – In the middle of a race when you feel your worst, smile! This is my single greatest trick. Some primitive part of the brain sees that you’re smiling and concludes things can’t be that bad, and suddenly you feel a little bit better. Try it!

What other methods have you found to help race close to your physical limits?


Woodside King’s Mountain Half Marathon

king's mountain half marathon

I’m back! On Saturday I ran the Envirosports King’s Mountain Half Marathon, my first race in over a year. It hurt like hell, but it was a good hurt, and after running almost zero for 2013 it was great just to be racing again. Roar!

King’s Mountain is a trail race, through a pretty redwood forest and up a mountain, then down again. Envirosports calls it a half marathon, but I think it’s more like 11.5 miles… nobody seems to know for sure. Maps don’t plot the trails very accurately, and GPS loses signals in the canyons, and it’s such a twisty hilly course that distance isn’t really the best way to gauge it anyway.

Severals days of very heavy rain drenched the area before the race, but on Saturday the weather turned milder. It sprinkled on and off throughout the race, but was warm enough and not too windy, so I didn’t mind. Footing was a challenge, however, as the days of rain left many parts of the trail a swampy mess.

I felt pretty good at the start. After two months of “get in shape” training from a zero baseline, my race plan was:

  1. Keep a controlled pace on the uphill, then let it rip on the downhill
  2. Eat an energy gel every 30 minutes
  3. Don’t fall in a ravine

I succeeded on 1 out of 3!

There were 118 people in the race. From the start I found myself in the lead group, running eighth. This should have told me something was wrong, because I’m not that fast, but I didn’t feel like I was pushing too hard. Maybe everyone else was just slow? But after a half mile fatigue slammed me, and I realized I’d started out going way too fast. Classic mistake, and I paid the price as at least 20 people passed me over the next half mile.

We reached the steeper section of the trail, and the climbing began in earnest. I was running with a heart rate monitor, and my HR was pushing 170. Aiyee, bad news! WAY too hard! That level of effort so early in the race was courting disaster and blow-up. Every time I saw my HR, I tried to slow down, but somehow I always just sped up again. It was like my body was determined to go too hard on the uphill and collapse at the summit, and there was nothing I could do to change it.

I mostly kept pace with the people around me, trading places with a woman in pink shoes at least 10 times. My HR was going through the roof. At 35 minutes I realized I’d forgotten the energy gel. I got it in my mouth, but had trouble swallowing, as if my need to suck lungfulls of air wouldn’t allow me to close my mouth to swallow the gel. I actually felt kind of nauseous. The climbing went on and on, an endless suffering slog of 10 minute miles. My HR kept climbing, eventually reaching 177, which is within a beat or two of my max HR and way, way, too high for this event. At 59 minutes I finally crested the summit ridge, and I thought I’d never seen a more beautiful sight. I hit the halfway aid station and was totally spent, like I was ready to stop the race right there, but I knew the downhill miles would bring me back home. Ten seconds to refill my water bottle, and I was gone.

As I began the descent, for a minute it was all I could do to gasp for air and try to recover a little, but once my HR started to come down I took off. I was positively flying downhill, which was scary as hell. I had to pass about 70 runners who were still coming uphill, squeezing past them at high speeds on a narrow trail overlooking a steep drop. And the trail was a muddy Slip-n-Slide, with sharp switchbacks threatening to shoot me into a ravine with a single misstep. Fortunately my mountain goat skills saved me and I stayed on my feet.

Even in my fatigued state, I started to pick off runners as soon as I began to descend. Many people will squeeze to the side and politely let you pass if you chase them down from behind on the trail, but some competitive types stay firmly in the middle and force you to “make a pass” by vaulting over rocks and roots at the trailside. I was stuck behind one slower runner for a minute or two, and finally cut the apex of a switchback to jump around and ahead of him. But just as I leapt, he cut the apex himself on an even tighter line, and I almost landed on him. I just managed to squeeze by safely.

With about two miles two go, I was chased down from behind by two guys who I’ll call “Camelback” and “Vibrams”. They were hardly going any faster than I was, but I just couldn’t muster the speed or the willpower to stay in front. They moved by me, and began to fade into the distance ahead. But then a moment later they took a wrong turn at a trail intersection, and by the time they realized their mistake I was a few seconds in front again.

At about one mile to go, I was determined not to let them pass me a second time, but Vibrams went by again and Camelback was tight on my heels. It was the part of the race where I should have given it my last, best effort, but I was so wiped it was hard to care anymore. My brain floated in a kind of fog, wanting only to be finished. I knew we were getting close. I managed to put a little distance on Camelback, but Vibrams crept further and further ahead. Then unexpectedly I was gaining on Vibrams! He was fading, but I was fading too. At a quarter-mile to go I was right there, two strides behind him. On another day I might have summoned the willpower to sprint him down to the finish, but this day I just didn’t have it. He was tantalizingly close, but I just couldn’t get past. Looking over my shoulder, Camelback was nowhere in sight, so I let Vibrams go and cruised to the waiting arms of the finish line.

My finish time was 1:45:33. Just after finishing, I realized I never took any of the energy gels after the first one. Doh!

Was this a good race? There’s no easy way of measuring how good or bad my finish time was, since the course was a twisty roller-coaster and I don’t even know how long it was. I finished 30th out of 118 overall, and 4th out of 12 in my division, which is respectable. Vibrams finished 16 seconds ahead of me, and Camelback was 39 seconds behind. My average HR for the race was 165, or about 92% of max HR for an hour and 45 minutes, so that’s a pretty good workout!

I wish I’d finished a bit higher than I did, but it’s still a good result for only having trained two months, and killing myself on the uphill half of the course, and not taking in the calories I’d planned. I’ll probably do some more halves this spring, then the next big test is June 8 when I’ll do my first full-length trail marathon. Woo-ee!

Running vs Cycling Heart Rate

Any good book on running will likely talk about training by heart rate zone. While the exact boundaries and definitions of the zones may differ between sources, the general idea is that exercising while your heart rate is in different zones will provide different benefits and physiological adaptations in your body. Training at 60-70% of maximum heart rate helps you lose weight without being too taxing. Long workouts at 80-90% of max heart rate improve endurance and the body’s ability to cope with accumulating lactate in the blood. Intervals at 90-100% of MHR stress the body’s aerobic capacity, but can be exhausting. This kind of structured exercise based on heart rate zone is the cornerstone of many training plans. This is old news.

What’s new to me is how the mode of exercise figures into this picture. Most runners would probably agree that jogging at 60-70% of max heart rate is fairly easy: they can carry on a conversation without trouble, and maintain that heart rate for over an hour. But for some people, reaching the same heart rate while swimming or cycling may feel much more difficult, or even nearly impossible. Why?

My curiosity on this question grew out of two recent purchases: a home spinning bike and a heart rate monitor. I took the HRM on some runs around the neighborhood, and found that a subjectively “easy” running pace raised my HR into the 140s. In the 150s, the required effort felt moderate, and the boundary where “hard” began was around 160. A short sprint or uphill charge pushed it well into the 170s. For a typical easy run of a few miles, my average HR was 152 or so.

Then I tried the HRM on some spin bike workouts. I’d already been using the spin bike for a few months, setting the resistance so the subjective effort felt similar to my runs. I was stunned to discover that the spin bike barely raised my HR to 100. What?!

I cranked up the resistance, trying to bring my HR to the same 140-150 zone as my easy runs, but the effort required felt extreme. It was like sprinting up a steep hill. My legs turned into blocks of stone, and I couldn’t keep going for more than a couple of minutes. Just for fun (this is fun?) I tried an all-out sprint with the bike at a high resistance setting, and found that I simply couldn’t push my HR beyond 162 on the bike, even as I was gasping for breath and sweating a river. After much experimentation, I finally settled on a resistance level that felt subjectively like a hard run, but still only raised my HR into the 125-130 range.


Explanation Please

What the heck is going on here? Why was the heart rate on the bike so different than the heart rate while running, when working at the same level of perceived effort? And what does the discrepancy say about the best way to combine training for running and cycling?

I did some research, and found that many other people have observed the same discrepancy between running and cycling heart rates, though mine was a bigger difference than most. This discussion mentions a 5% difference or ~10 beats per minute, this triathlon site refers to a 15 bpm difference in max heart rate, and this article talks about the discrepancy at length but doesn’t give any specific numbers. Intriguingly, though, it does mention that the discrepancy appears largest among runners with little cycling experience, and that pro triathletes with lots of cycling and running experience show little discrepancy in heart rate between the two activities.

Unfortunately, I never found any source that gave a really satisfactory answer for the discrepancy, but there are two general theories that come close to an answer when they’re combined. Theory #1 seems to be that fewer muscles are used while cycling vs running, so the demand for oxygen isn’t as high, and the heart doesn’t need to beat as fast. Theory #2 is that the leg muscles of a runner-turned-cyclist are comparatively weak, and it’s ultimately muscle power that limits cycling performance, not aerobic capacity. Taking a step back, these theories could almost be viewed as two sides of the same coin. In essence, they’re both saying that the ability of the heart to pump oxygenated blood to the leg muscles is not what determines the upper limit of cycling performance (and presumably perceived effort). More succinctly: cycling is a strength activity, not an aerobic activity.

Regardless of why the heart rate discrepancy exists, the real question for runner/cyclists is what to do about it. For somebody like me who’s primarily a runner, but uses the spin bike to supplement my training, should I structure the bike workouts to match the heart rate of my runs, or match their perceived effort level? Again, I couldn’t find a really great answer to this question, and the triathlon site was the only source that even partly addressed the question. Their recommendation is to establish a unique max HR for each sport, which will likely be lower for cycling than for running, and then to calculate sport-specific heart rate zones. That’s more-or-less the same as training for the same perceived effort in each sport. In my case and in my present condition, that’s really my only choice anyway, since cycling at a HR of 150+ is too difficult for me to maintain for more than a couple of minutes.

Unfortunately I find this answer vaguely unsettling. If I do a spin bike workout at the same level of perceived effort as my easy runs, and my HR during the workout is only 120, what part of my body am I actually strengthening? Will I get any meaningful aerobic benefit out of it? Or am I just training cycling-specific muscles, which isn’t a goal at all? I’m going to keep digging and see what more I can learn.

Running Past 40

399413_10150473342399538_1584481795_nAnyone ages 9 to 90 can get outside and run, but if you’re competitive and enjoy racing, it sure helps to be young. As you age past 40, and the days of setting new personal bests are behind you, what motivates you to keep going? Do your reasons for running change as you get older? And what can an older runner do to stay competitive?

As I’m now a “masters” runner myself, these questions have been much on my mind. Watching the Olympics over the past weeks, I was struck by the fact that for the first time, every single athlete is younger than I am. Not that I ever had Olympic aspirations or anything close to it, but this was the clearest signal yet that my peak athletic years are behind me. That’s a sobering thought.

My running career began 12 years ago, at the age of 31, and I took to it with a passion. I’d never been into sports while growing up, and wasn’t particularly fit, but suddenly here was something athletic that I was actually halfway decent at. Improvement came quickly, and I collected a few age group awards at local races. New PRs came easily and often. I increased my training volume, ran several marathons, and later qualified for and ran the Boston Marathon. I read all the training books, logged every detail of every workout, and took the whole sport very seriously.

Four years on, around age 36, things started to change. New PRs became rare. I had to do a high volume of training simply to match my old race performances, and forget about improving on them. Before long, I started to lose interest. I’d been motivated to run 50+ miles per week when it was bringing me constant improvements, but I wasn’t interested in training that hard just to match what I’d already done in the past, or even slip backwards. I floundered, and cut way back on running. I haven’t raced a marathon since, and my training volume in the eight years since then has been much less than during that early period.

Miles per Year

I look at this graph with some regret. While it’s easy to judge things in hindsight, I probably gave up too easily. Yes, improvements had tapered off, but if I’d kept at it and maybe tried some alternate training methods, I probably could have eked out more. I read somewhere (Daniels’ Running Formula?) that whatever age he or she starts, a runner can normally expect to see continued improvement for about 10 years. I gave it less than half that.

For the past eight years, my running has moved in cycles of a few months of enthusiasm followed by more months of low or no running at all. Part of this is mental: I’ll get excited and build up my training volume for a few months, but then when it becomes burdensome or the rate of improvement begins to slow, I just drop it completely. The bigger factor, though, is injuries. In the early years it felt like I could run forever, and while I might be exhausted, my body was fine mechanically. In recent years my body has seemed more like a junker car, with something always broken. Problems with my knees and ankles are always plaguing me, forcing me to skip workouts and reduce training until I just give up. Eventually they’ll heal and I’ll start running again, only to be sidelined by a new problem.

2012 was a halfway decent year and I logged over 1000 miles for the first time in six years, and even set a new PR at 8K. But then I fell apart again, and ran almost zero for the entirety of 2013.


As 2013 wound to a close while my running shoes gathered dust, I wasn’t a happy person. I wasn’t getting much exercise, and I felt guilty, cranky, and depressed. Around Christmas I finally decided that I had to force myself to run a few miles a week, as a prescription for better physical and mental health, even if I didn’t feel up to it. I viewed it like taking medicine. So I ran three miles every other day for a while, and a funny thing happened: I felt better. MUCH better. I’ve often read about the psychological benefits of running, but this was a much bigger boost than I would ever have expected. It was like I’d suddenly gone on Prozac, while all I was doing was jogging around the neighborhood.

Then another funny thing happened: I started wanting to run more, to train, and to race again. To avoid burning out anew or risking another injury, I kept with the every-other-day running schedule, but bought a home spinning bike for extra cardio workouts on non-running days. I also changed my routes, dropping the road courses I’ve followed for most of my running life for new routes that are almost entirely hilly singletrack trails.

While it’s only been a few months, so far this combination is working great for me. I feel strong, I’m injury-free (knock on wood), and I’m actually enjoying my runs for their own sake instead of viewing them only as a means to an end. I’ve developed a new interest in trail running as well. Instead of running my 50th road 5K and being disappointed with my finishing time, I can run some crazy 10.73 mile trail race through redwood forests, and feel great about pushing myself and being alive. Next week I’ll be running a trail half marathon, and in June I’ve got the Skyline to the Sea trail marathon, my first full-length marathon in eight years.

So there is life after 40, at least for this runner. I may no longer be able to match my times from 10 years ago, but I don’t feel like I need to. I’ve come to appreciate the physical and mental benefits of regular running, outside any worries over races. And my renewed focus on trail running has opened up all kind of new possibilities: ultramarathons? Adventure races? Who knows what’s in store, but I’m excited to find out!


Are Race Entry Fees Too High?

If you’ve registered for a race recently, you may have been suprised by the entry fee. Even a low-key 5K race can cost $30, and many marathons have entry fees of $100 or more. If you only race occasionally, then these fees probably aren’t a big deal, but for those who race a few times a month, the entry fees can really add up. What does your entry fee buy you? What determines the cost of producing a race? Have the costs increased significantly in recent years?

Anatomy of a Race 

Your entry fees help defray the costs of putting on the race, which aren’t always obvious to runners. In addition to the direct costs of give-aways like T-shirts, indirect organizational costs can greatly increase expenses, especially for large events in urban areas. Typical expenses for producing a race include:

  • Give-Aways: T-shirts, finisher’s medals, trophies and prize money
  • Aid/Finish Stations: Sports drink, water, cups, energy snacks
  • Permit: Fee paid to the city, park, or other entity for the right to use the location or close roads
  • Timing: Start/finish clocks, timekeeping computers, timing chips and mats, web site for results
  • Registration: Fraction of registration fees paid to sign-up services like
  • Police and Traffic Control: Overtime paid to police for directing traffic and monitoring intersections
  • Emergency Services: Ambulance or EMT on stand-by at one or more locations
  • Staff: salaries for race director or other paid staff at larger events
  • Insurance: Event insurance to cover the risk of disasters or lawsuits

Race sponsors can alter the economics by contributing cash in exchange for naming or advertising rights, or by contributing non-cash assistance, such as stocking aid stations or furnishing T-shirts and prizes.

It’s interesting to compare a race entry fee with the price of ski lift ticket, since they have many costs in common. A marathon costs about the same as a typical lift ticket, but the ski operator has the advantage of spreading its cost of insurance, permits, staff, and emergency services over an entire winter, while the marathon must recover its expenses from a one-time event. Furthermore, no ski area gives you a T-shirt and a medal at the end of the day. Of course the marathon doesn’t need to maintain snow making and snow grooming equipment, so it’s an imperfect comparison, but by this measure the cost of a typical marathon appears quite reasonable.

In the final tally, the entry fees plus sponsor assistance must do more than simply cover the race’s expenses. Every race wants to generate a profit, whether because it’s operated by a for-profit event promoter, or is a charity event whose profits will go to an organization like Race for the Cure.

Rising Entry Costs 

Over the past five to ten years, have race entry fees have increased faster than inflation or other cost of living measures? It’s easily to grumble about the cost of races while forking over $40 for the latest 10K, but have costs truly increased at an unreasonable rate?

To answer that question, I took a look at some of my own races from the past nine years, and compared the original entry fee to the current entry fee for the same or similar race. All 2011-2012 fees reflect the lowest possible early entry fee, and do not include online registration convenience charges or other surcharges. All original race fees are from my records of what I actually paid, and may or may not reflect early entry discounts or online registration convenience fees.

For shorter races between 5K and 10K, most of the earlier races no longer exist. Instead, I compared a sample of earlier races with current races of similar distance, size, and location.

Past Races 
2003 Mercury News 10K – San Jose CA – $25
2004 HP’s Up and Running 10K – Palo Alto CA – $25
2006 Banana Chase 10K – San Francisco CA – $30
2007 Juana Run 8K – Palo Alto CA – $30
Current Races 
2012 California 10K – Stockton CA – $25
2012 Union City Sport Center 5K – Union City CA – $35
2012 Du Three Bears 5K – El Sobrante CA – $30
2012 Dublin Shamrock 5K – Dublin CA – $25

For this sample of races, it appears that race entry fees actually haven’t increased. 5K and 10K races typically cost $25 to $35 today, as they did five or more years ago. But for half and full marathons, the story is quite different:

Past and Current Races 
Kaiser Permanente Half Marathon – San Francisco CA – 2004: $30, 2012: $50
Austin Motorola Marathon – Austin TX – 2002: $70, 2012: $100
Des Moines Marathon – Des Moines IA – 2004: $59, 2012: $68
Boston Marathon – Boston MA – 2006: $95, 2011: $130
Wineglass Marathon – Corning NY – 2006: $65, 2012: $70

The longer races saw entry fees increase by an average of 34% over a six to ten year period. That sounds like a lot, but it’s the equivalent of only about 4% increase per year. While that’s a faster rate of increase than most other expenses over the same period, it’s not an unreasonable rate.

One expense that has increased over this period is the widespread adoptance of online registration “processing fees”. Ten years ago, most race registrations were made by mailing in a form, and the race entry fee was all that was paid. Today there’s often an additional $5 fee when registering online, beyond the race entry fee itself. For more expensive races like triathlons, the processing fee can sometimes be $10 or more. Yes, the sign-up service must get paid too, but I find it hard to believe that automated processing of an electronic registration should be more expensive than paying someone to tear open envelopes and transcribe information from hand-written registration forms.

Race Bargains 

Returning to the original question, if race entry fees appear justified, then what’s the frugal runner to do? How can an active 5K racer avoid racking up a hundred dollars a month in entry fees?

Racing as a bandit without paying the entry fee is definitely not a solution. While some people may find ways to rationalize banditing, or claim that they shouldn’t have to pay to run on public streets and trails, it’s an ethically bankrupt practice.

Some races have begun offering a “no shirt” registration option, which knocks about $10 off the entry fee. For runners who already have a whole closet full of race T-shirts, this is a great option. Unfortunately the choice is not often offered.

The best way to minimize entry fees is to seek out smaller events in out of the way locations. It might seem that events with 10000 runners would offer cheaper entry, thanks to their ability to spread fixed costs over more entrants, but this is rarely the case. The greater costs of permits, police, and emergency services combine with the added glitz of larger events to drive their costs higher. Of the four marathons mentioned above, it’s no accident that the ones in Iowa and rural New York State are far cheaper than those in Austin and Boston.

In the San Francisco area, the Dolphin South End club puts on races nearly every weekend, with an entry fee of just $5. Races are held in San Francisco or other nearby towns, with distances from 1 mile to 12K, and may attract anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred runners. For the frequent racer on a budget, it’s just what’s needed.