The Big 3-0

Q: Was there a defining moment in your life when you made a decision that changed the course of the rest of your life forever?

A: I walked out of a bar on my 30th birthday and ran 30 miles cold turkey. It hurt bad, but it changed the course of my life ever since that faithful event. –Dean Karnazes (Ultramarathon Man)

Today is my 30th birthday. The Big 3-0. We spent the last two nights partying with friends and family. Today, I spent much of the day running. Inspired by the story of Dean Karnazes, now one of the best endurance runners in the world, I decided to run 30 miles on my 30th birthday. And as if that weren’t enough, I also chose to run the 5.5 mile Allerton Park trail race.

Foo Dog statue at Allerton Park

more statues at Allerton Park

Last night at dinner with my family we reminisced of my first trip to Allerton Park as a young boy with my grandparents, aunt, & brother. My grandmother and aunt talked with disgust about rumors of wild parties & orgies that supposedly took place at the Allerton estate while Robert Allerton was living there decades ago. They then asked me if I knew what an orgy was, to which I (as a 9 or 10 year old) apparently responded, “No, and I don’t want to know.”

Gardens near finish line

In addition to the beautiful gardens on the grounds, Allerton Park has some of my favorite trails in the area. The only other time I ran the race was 2003. That year I was in very good shape. I ran the entire race in 10th place. Then in the last half mile seven people passed me. This year I am in roughly equally good shape and I hoped to equal or better my previous result.

I arrived early to get in a good warmup (and start working on my 30 for the day). I’ve run this trail 4 times in the past month, so I knew it fairly well. I was amazed to see how high the water in the Sangamon River was, givin the small amount of rain we had this week. Apparently this river has a very large watershed. The trail was very muddy, and flooded in dozens of places. Most of the flooded areas could be avoided by running to one side of the trail or the other. There were four or five places where the water simply could not be avoided so we had to run through. A few were only ankle deep. One was close to knee deep.

The trail was very muddy, with four or five water crossings

I started the race near the front. I was in 6th place at the first turn when we headed into the woods. I stayed in 6th place almost the entire race. I passed another runner around mile 3 to move into 5th, but that runner passed me back around mile 3.5.

The 5.5 mile race course makes a loop around the Sun Singer statue

With my heart rate over 180, I was really starting to tire by the time we reached the Sun Singer. I generally try not to look behind me in races, but I did at this point and I was kind of glad to have a lead of around 40 seconds over the next runner behind me. From there I eased up a little and cruised the remaining 1.5 miles. I still ran hard, but I tried not to overdo it. I finished in 6th place overall (out of 396 finishers), 2nd place in my new 30-34 age group. I was very happy with the placing. My time was slower than I would have liked, but so was everyone else’s time. The trail was really slow today.

Rob finishing the race (photo by Kelly Bails)

I chatted with some friends at the finish line, grabbed some water and bananas, walked back to my car, changed shirt/socks/shoes, and started running again. Very slowly. Along the way I helped out my friends from Second Wind Running Club (who organized the race) by taking down the flagging tape that marked the course as I ran. I cut the loop a little short so I could make it back to the finish line for the awards ceremony. I received a race towel for finishing 2nd in my age group. As I sat on the grass I stretched out quite a bit. Running that hard really left my muscles tight, and by that point I had only run 12 miles.

After the awards I ate more and started running again, still very slowly. It was rather uneventful until mile 22 or so when I started to have a lot of pain in my right hip flexor. I stopped to walk, but that didn’t help much. Around that same time Melissa called me on my cell phone to offer moral support, which helped. My plans were in serious jeopardy and I was still 2 miles away from my car. So I walked about a mile. My hip wasn’t getting any better. I started running again. I immediately noticed my hip hurt less when I was running than when I was walking. If that wasn’t motivation to keeping running I don’t know what was.

I limped along at 12 minute per mile pace for the remainder of the run. I passed the imaginary 26.2 mile mark (marathon distance) at 5:09, probably the slowest I’ve ever covered that distance in five attempts. I’ve previously done 2 marathons and 2 ultramarathons. Even though this 30 miler wasn’t actually a race, I’m probably going to call it an ultramarathon anyway.

Running through the water crossings on the last lap of the 5 mile trail was pretty unpleasant. My feet and been wet for over 5 hours and now they were sopping and I feared I would get blisters. I looked at my watch as I passed 29 miles and realized I could finish under 6 hours if I didn’t dally. So I actually picked it up and ran closer to 10 minute pace for the last mile. I finished the 30 miles in 5:59:04.

After the run I hobbled back to the car, took of my wet shoes & socks, and drove 30 miles home barefoot. I shoveled food and gatorade into my mouth the entire way home. I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to stand up without too much difficulty when I got home and my hip no longer hurt at all. Even now, 7 hours later, I’m still able to move around. Tomorrow will be another story though.

This was the farthest I’ve ever run (I’ve done 28.4 miles on two occasions) and it hurt. It hurt more than I expected. It was the race that did me in. Had I run slowly the entire time I don’t think I would have had as much difficulty. Fortunately, I never bonked, and my muscles never cramped up. Had it not been for the late hip flexor pain (or the water crossings) it would have been a truly delightful day in the woods.

The Carpenter Park Cyclocross Race

Photo by Eric Smith, all others by Melissa

On Sunday Melissa and I headed to Carpentersville, a northwest suburb of Chicago, for the Carpenter Park Cyclocross race. This race is #4 in the Chicago Cyclocross Cup, a weekly series of races each fall.

Cyclocross is a fascinating type of bike racing. It began a hundred or so years ago as a way for road cyclists to maintain their fitness in the off season. The race organizers go out of their way to make the race as hard as possible. The races have…

bumpy grass,

steep hills,

lots of turns,

barriers to run and jump over,



Riders make loops on a relatively short course for a set amount of time, kind of like a criterium. Cyclocross bikes are kind of a cross between road bikes & mountain bikes. They basically have the frame of a road bikes, but wide knobby tires and cantilever brakes to allow mud/grass/leaves on the tires to pass through.

This particular event had multiple races for different categories of riders. I raced twice, first in the Masters 30+ race in the morning, then later in the category 4a race in the afternoon (this is why I’m wearing long sleeves in some of the photos and short sleeves others).

The masters race lasted 45 minutes and it was exhausting. Cyclocross is anaerobic–a 100% effort the entire time. I started towards the back of the pack and moved up several places during the race. Passing is a challenge, because there are so many tight turns. I ended up 19th out of 31 riders in the 30+ division. My friends Greg & Gene raced at the same time, though in different divisions. Gene was 18th in the 40+ division and Greg was 4th in the 50+ division.

Between my two races we watched our teammate Anona finish 4th in her first cyclocross race, the womens category 4 race.

The mens category 4a race was much bigger, with 52 people starting at the same time. I got off to a bad start and spent most of the race wasting energy passing people. Fortunately this race was only 30 minutes, and it went much faster. I finished 29th. Two other local riders fared slightly better. Nick was 7th, and Dan was 18th. They both intended to ride the cat 3 race, but they arrived too late and rode the cat 4a race instead.

After the 4a race we checked the results and we were about to leave when I looked up and saw Erik the Bike Destroyer riding the cat 4b race, so we stuck around and chatted a bit with him as he collapsed onto the ground after the finish. Ah, cyclocross.

So, I wasn’t terribly successful, but I finished both races (unlike my 1st cross race) and I had a great time. I’m still pretty new to this. These were my 3rd and 4th cross races and they were good learning experiences for me. I’ll probably try some more this fall.

After the race we made the obligatory stop at Veggie Bite in Chicago. We met my cousin Scott and his lady friend at the Wicker Park location (to which we had never been). It was much busier than the south side location where we’ve gone before. The BBQ tofu was fantastic.

The Marathon

The 2008 Chicago Marathon was yesterday. A number of acquaintances from the local Second Wind Running Club ran it, along with 40,000 others. Seven years ago I ran the Chicago Marathon. It was one of the most miserable experiences of my life.

To put things into perspective, I used to be a very good runner. I’m not going to say I’m bad now, but I used to be much, much better. My freshman year of college, when I was running cross country and track at the University of Illinois, I did a 20 mile training run in around 2h06m (6:20-ish pace) and it hardly phased me. The following day I did 5 x 1 mile intervals at 5:00 pace. If I had run a marathon when I was in this peak condition I probably could have done it in 2h45m or so.

I continued running even after my collegiate career ended. I ran relatively well, but I still foolishly held myself to the same standards as I did at my peak, so I was never really satisfied with my performances. My last year of college my friend Mike Perry decided to run the Chicago Marathon and I trained with him a couple times each week. He ran really well, finishing in a time of 2h55m.

Shortly after that I got a job. I worked insane hours for the first 6-8 months. I ran almost every day, but I was no longer walking 4 miles to and from class each day. I ran less. I sat more. I gained weight. By early summer 2001 I had had enough. I decided to run the Chicago Marathon. I roughly followed a training plan I found on the internet that lasted 14-16 weeks or so. I worked my way back up to running 17-18 miles.

As the race approached, I thought I was ready. People would ask how fast I thought I was going to run but I didn’t have an answer. I had no idea. I now realize this was a bad sign, but at the time I didn’t think too much of it. I thought I was going to cruise through this race, just like 100 other races I had previously run. I didn’t have the respect for the marathon distance that it deserves. And it bit me in the ass.

The morning of the race I was so nervous I couldn’t eat anything. I ate nothing. My stomach felt like it was filled with vomiting butterflies. I put an enormous amount of pressure on myself. After all, this was my marathon debut.

I started fast. The first 8 miles I cruised, exactly as I intended. One third of the way through the race I was on pace to run 3h00m. By mile 10 my stomach was growling (a lot). At mile 14 I ate a banana at an aid station, but it was too late. I stopped to walk for the first time. I was barely half way through the 26.2 mile race and I had bonked.

By mile 16 my hamstrings started to cramp up. I couldn’t run farther than a quarter mile before having to stop to stretch out. The last 10 miles of the race were truly miserable, and they lasted an eternity. I had to stop in the middle of the finishing straight in front of the huge crowd to stretch out a cramp in my calf. The calf cramped again about 10 meters from the finish but I couldn’t stop at that point, so I hopped the last 10 meters across the line. I finished in 4h18m, about an hour slower than my (somewhat unrealistic) worst case scenario estimate. I now have a much greater respect for the distance.

Rob, hobbling back to car, beaten

I ran a much faster time (3h50m) in my second marathon (which I ran in a snowstorm), but the experience was almost as miserable as the first. I have also run two 28.4 mile ultramarathons since then, both of which went much, much better. If my knees hold out I will probably run another road marathon next April at the inaugural Illinois Marathon. I think I’m due for a good one (i.e. enjoyable) someday.

The Glen

As a child growing up in Danville I used to love to go to the nearby county and state parks with my grandparents, aunt Marcia, and brother Travis. We would go hiking and fishing for hours on end. Kickapoo, Kennekuk, and Forest Glen were my favorites. As an adult living in nearby Urbana I still visit these same parks, though I forego the hiking and fishing in favor of trail running and occasionally mountain biking.

This morning I went with a group of local trail runners over to Forest Glen county park southeast of Danville. We ran the backpacker trail, which is somewhere between 10 & 11 miles (there’s so much elevation change the GPS I was wearing did a poor job measuring the distance). I’ve run this trail twice before and every time I come away thinking this is one of the hardest trails in the area to run.

The first third of the trail is deceptively simple. The middle third becomes challenging. The final third is brutal. The latter half of the trail follows the Vermilion river bluffs and the trail traverses many hills that are steep and/or tall. This most difficult section comes right at the end when you’re already tired from all the previous hills.

A few of the runners brought their dogs out. I was half expecting pandemonium, but it worked out pretty well. I only tripped on a dog one time :)

The Fall King

I never rode a mountain bike before moving to Nicaragua two years ago. Then I rode nothing but a mountain bike for a year. I learned quickly. After a couple weeks of shorter rides, one weekend I rode around Volcan Maderas. It took 3h (I later did it as fast as 1h45m).

The next weekend I rode around Volcan Concepción. It took 4h30m. As I was riding the last kilometer through the village of Mérida I approached a very small ditch. Rather than move 10 feet in either direction I decided to roll right through it. I was tired. My front wheel rolled down one side of the ditch. Just as I was expecting it to roll right up the other side my bike came to a complete stop. Before I could get my feet off the pedals I just fell over sideways.

It didn’t hurt. But there were a lot of locals around, and many people saw this. It wouldn’t have been so bad had there not been a group of half a dozen adolescent boys right in front of me. Of course, they laughed hysterically at the sight of a gringo falling over on a bike.

One of them somehow knew enough broken english to explain to me what had happened: “You fall! You fall! You the fall king! You fall!”

I fell one other time in Nicaragua, under similar circumstances. I reached a steep uphill without enough momentum. I came to a stop, couldn’t put my foot down fast enough and fell over sideways. This fall had a much smaller crowd, thank goodness.

Today I fell while mountain biking. Well I wasn’t actually mountain biking. I was standing still in the gravel parking lot ready to start mountain biking. I had one foot on the pedal, shifted my weight that direction, couldn’t get my foot off the pedal fast enough, and fell over sideways mid-conversation with a friend. This one actually hurt a little bit more than I initially let on. Now my leg is scraped up and my knee is bruised. ¡Que terrible!

I am the fall king.

The Kiss

I was just going through a box of old photos when I came across my all time favorite, the kiss. Melissa lived in Paris her junior year of college and I went to visit her over the semester break.

This photo was taken January 1, 2000. The previous night we celebrated l’an 2000 at the Arc de Triomphe, before walking 12 miles across town back to her dorm. On January 1st we watched a parade (I seem to recall a number of French police officers on rollerblades). Following the parade we walked to the Eiffel Tower and took this photograph. I framed the photo with Melissa in front of the tower. I then rested the camera precariously on a fence post, set the timer, and ran over to her. As I heard the shutter click I knew we had a keeper. We developed the film at a French camera shop so the prints have thin white borders all the way around (as is the style there).

A few months later two straight male friends of mine from ASP saw this photo and decided to imitate it when they backpacked through Europe together. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of it, but it was pretty funny.

The End of September

I only ran 43 miles the entire month of September (up from a measly 29 miles in August). I really made them count though (two good races and two good fun runs). This is as far as Melissa runs in a week. I’m going to have to get some longer runs in the next couple weeks in order to have any chance of running 30 miles on my 30th birthday.

I also increased my swimming quite a lot to 18.9 km in September (up from 11.2 km in August). I have that to thank for the 3 minute drop in my swim time at the National Championship tri compared to Evergreen. Now that it’s getting dark so early I imagine this will continue to increase for the next couple months.

September 2008

Bike Distance # Rides Avg per Ride
Bianchi 72.46 Mile 12 6.03833 Mile
Big Red 45.33 Mile 3 15.11 Mile
Dahon 6.5 Mile 1 6.5 Mile
Pocket Rocket 190.505 Mile 12 15.8754 Mile
Thundercougarfalconbird 276.82 Mile 8 34.6025 Mile
Total 591.615 Mile 36 16.4337 Mile

January – September 2008

Bike Distance # Rides Avg per Ride
Bianchi 546.19 Mile 85 6.42576 Mile
Big Red 266.15 Mile 19 14.0079 Mile
Dahon 164.63 Mile 29 5.6769 Mile
El Fuego 23.02 Mile 2 11.51 Mile
Litespeed 334.465 Mile 13 25.7281 Mile
Pocket Rocket 827.635 Mile 40 20.6909 Mile
Thundercougarfalconbird 3034.76 Mile 85 35.7031 Mile
Total 5196.85 Mile 273 19.0361 Mile

The Wrong Turn

Ralphie: Oooh fuuudge!
Ralphie as adult: Only I didn’t say “fudge.” I said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word.

On Saturday I competed in the Charleston Challenge Duathlon. The race wasn’t very big, less than 100 participants. The distances (2 mile run, 19.2 mile bike, 2 mile run) suited me fairly well, and I was still near peak fitness from the triathlon national championship race so I liked my chances for success. On the other hand, I heard mixed reviews about this race from friends who have done it in the past. There are half a zillion turns on the bike course and (from what I heard) they are not always marked very well. I know two different people who missed turns on the bike course. One lost a little bit of time, the other lost enough time that he simply abandoned the race.

Charleston, IL is only about an hour away so I didn’t have to wake up unbearably early. I arrived at the race venue (an elementary school) with plenty of time to prepare. First they had a children’s race (actually three separate races based on age). They ran a lap around the circle drive, the bicycled around the school. It was entertaining. A number of the children still had training wheels on their bikes.

Next was the grownups race. I warmed up a little on the bike, trying to keep my eyes peeled for the orangish markings on the road that denoted the turns. I think I can handle this. I re-racked my bike and went for a short run. I needed to get used to running fast because I wasn’t going to have any time to warm up during a race this short.

The race began. I started at the front and went out with the leaders for the first half mile or so. At that point two guys started to pull away. I was in third place. I decided to let them go and keep my pace under control. The course was not marked and I wasn’t wearing my GPS, so I had no idea how fast I was going. Sometimes the adrenaline rush at the beginning of the race can mask the sensations you normally use to feel your pace.

My senior year in high school at the conference track meet I ran the first 400 m of the 3200 m run in 62 seconds. I had a 10 second lead on the rest of the pack at the end of that first lap. The rest of the race didn’t go so well. I somehow hung on to finish second place, but I really should have won. I learned a valuable lesson that day about starting too fast.

Anyway, I maintained my position the rest of the first run leg. By the end I let the two leaders gain 15-20 seconds on me. The next runners were another 10-15 seconds behind me. I entered the transition area and glanced at my watch, astonished to read 11:08. If the course was accurate I had just run my fastest two miles in 10 years.

I had a quick transition and began the bike a little winded, but feeling good. The road curved through a neighborhood before approaching a stop sign. I lost sight of the leaders through these curves. I race volunteer was standing at the intersection pointing to my left. Hmm. I didn’t see any markings on the road indicating this was a turn… I wonder why he is pointing. I looked to my left and saw a pickup truck (who had the legal right of way) coming to a stop. Oh, good. The volunteer was just alerting me to the presence of the truck. Now that the truck is stopped I can continue through the stop sign. The volunteer stared at me as I passed, though he didn’t say a word.

As I rode the next couple blocks I began to second guess myself. The road got narrow. I still couldn’t see the leaders. Did I just make a wrong turn? I looked back behind me and saw a steady stream of cyclists turning left at that intersection.

Oooh fuuudge!

I slammed on the brakes and turned around as fast as I could. As I reentered the course the same volunteer again stared at me, and again didn’t say a word. I was mad. Furious. On the plus side I unleashed that anger on my pedals and rode the next few miles like a man possessed. I quickly passed a slew of riders, nearly everyone who had passed me while I was off the course. I saw one more rider off in the distance and I chased him for miles, over half of the course. We were going almost the exact same speed and I wasn’t gaining much. The course turned. We went uphill, downhill, uphill, downhill.

About halfway through the bike I could tell he started to slow down and I regained a little motivation as I slowly reeled him in. I made the pass convincingly, but then slowed down a bit. He passed me back on the next downhill. I passed him back on the next uphill. He stayed just a few seconds behind me the rest of the ride. I couldn’t see anyone else in front of me and I was beginning to wonder whether I was leading the race. Could it be so?

I finished the bike leg in 53:48, averaging 21.4 mph. I should have ridden faster, even with all the hills, but the numerous turns made it really difficult to maintain a high speed. I reached the second transition with the other guy hot on my heels. I overheard a friend of his tell him he was in 4th place. Crap. I never caught back up with the two leaders. Oh well.

I pulled away from the guy on the run and finished a couple minutes ahead. My second run split was 12:22. My finishing time was 1:18:25, good enough for third place overall.

From studying the results I estimate I lost about 45 seconds from the wrong turn. A shame indeed, but the second place finisher was far enough ahead that it wouldn’t have made any difference. So I let it be. I was also second place in my age group, for which I won a major award (er, a large trophy). Frankly, I’m kind of glad I didn’t pick up the 1st place trophy… it was way too big.