Friday, September 17, 2010

Grand Slammers

Grand Slammers: "

Photo: Erin Mulder

GrandSlamImage3Running a 100-mile ultramarathon is an extremely difficult feat. But, running four of the country’s oldest 100-mile races in a span of 11 weeks? Come on!

Thirteen folks completed all four—the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, the Vermont 100-Mile Endurance Run, the Leadville Trail 100, and last weekend’s Wasatch Front 100-Mile Endurance Run—this past summer, competing in what is known as the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. Somewhere between 10 to 20 folks do the Grand Slam each year.

This year, 34-year-old Neal Gorman from Washington D.C. set a new record for the lowest combined time over the four races. Gorman’s time of 74 hours, 54 minutes and 16 seconds bested Joe Kulak's previous record of 75:07.

Gorman, who owns an insurance brokerage firm in Richmond, Virginia, is recovering from an impressive second-place overall finish at the fourth and final 100-miler in the Grand Slam series, the Wasatch Front 100-Mile Endurance Run. I caught up with him on his drive back from Utah to D.C.

“The Grand Slam sort of came out of nowhere this summer,” he says, explaining that he raced the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 in 2008, and ran part of it with Kulak. “After running the Vermont Trails 100 and then the Wasatch Front 100 in 2009, I got a better feel for running that distance, learned how to do it well, and how to feel okay. And I thought, ‘Next year, there’s so much energy around Western States. If I get in, better do the Grand Slam.’ Why not? It seemed like a pinnacle effort that would really create a lasting memory that would just be fantastic.”

NealGormanGorman got into Western States, paid the $80 fee to register as a Grand Slammer and began chasing the engraved eagle each finisher is awarded at the end, should they complete all four hundreds. “It was a fun, long-term goal,” he says. “I love those, by the way.”

Gorman says that, for him, Western States was the hardest of the four 100s. “I created a bad patch for myself. I felt fine, but I had nothing, and I just wasn’t right for two or three days after that. I just chalked it up to heat, and that it was my first 100 in a while.”

You’d think one bad hundred would make a person concerned that they’d be racing three more within weeks. But Gorman remained level-headed and optimistic.

“I trained to think about it one race at a time,” he says. “Vermont was next, and I just thought, ‘I’d like to do better the next time and have a good day.’”

He had a good day, and then he had a good race at Leadville, and went into Wastach with a goal of running under 21 hours and 30 minutes to break Kulak’s record. “I knew Wasatch would have to be a top-notch performance,” he says. “I was like, ‘You’re going to have to go after this like a prize fighter. Stay focused, and don’t relent.’”

Gorman finished an astonishing second place at Wasatch, behind winner Nick Clark, and set a new Grand Slam record with just over 12 minutes to spare.

“I felt like stars were aligning all summer,” he says, crediting good weather, great pacers, working under his running coach, Russell Gill, and his innate ability to sense oncoming injuries early and treat them accordingly. Sometimes, that meant running through pains, which seemed to work for him.

When asked if he’d do another Grand Slam summer, Gorman replied with a laugh, “Seriously, just beat me with a whip. It’s too good of an experience to pass up.”

Gorman isn't alone in his enthusiasm. "There were so many spectacular moments," says Aaron Mulder, who finished with the third fastest Grand Slam time this year after only getting into running in 2006. "The scenery of the four races was vastly more beautiful than I was lead to believe. My biggest regret might be not sacrificing just a bit of time to bring and use a camera."


Friday, September 10, 2010

2010 Shenandoah Mountain 100

Pardon the tardiness of this post. I wrote most of it a while ago but...

Rolling happily up to the finishing line. Yes, I thought I was that cool that I took my hands off the handlebars.

There's something about riding in the back country... It's a totally different experience. Being out there in general is amazing, but I guess since riding in it is fairly new to me it just stands out. The SM100, while maybe not as "out there", and was certainly WAY more crowded then the Iron Mountain 100k, did it for me.

I can't really pick out a whole lot about my race (term used lightly since I never really felt like I was trying to race); I think most of it comes back as a blur aside from a few standout things. I immensely enjoyed my time riding though, and I have every hope and desire to go back and do it again; maybe next time with a solid understanding and a more serious goal for what I want to do out there.

First of all the scene is amazing. Matthew and I got out there in the early afternoon Saturday, set up camp, did some bike work with the assistance of Jonathon W (including major last minute changes generally severely recommended against... whoops!), and then joined by Evan E did a quick shake down ride out the start of the course. Over all on the ride I thought I felt pretty good, though when the other three opened it up a little coming back my legs quickly felt a bit tired and my lack of confidence on the sketchy, dusty and sandy corners glared a bit too bright for my liking. Luckily this section would be mostly uphill so at least the sketchy stuff would be somewhat less treacherous.

The race provided pasta dinner was excellent and as the weather grew chilly the DCMTB crew headed for the warmth of our sleeping bags. The next morning we woke to the sounds of a dirt bike racing through the campsite horn blaring at 5am, prepping us for the 6:30 start time. Aside from pulling on the bike shorts with cold chamois butt'r my prep went smoothly, though I felt a bit rushed as the start time loomed.

Now for my first and only major complaint of the day. The staged start, where people lined up based on their expected finish time; a great concept but like in running races, people just don't quite do it right. Matthew and I lined up at 11 hours, since that was essentially our goal finish time. It seemed like we were all alone though, with what seems like less then 100 of the starting 550+ riders being around or behind us. I have no better suggestion on how to line up the start though so my complaint here is really just more of a bicker, and hopefully next time I'll be lining up farther on up the line anyway.

So, the long fire road slog to open the race was a bit frustrating for me. It seemed like half the time was spent waiting while a group of riders four wide blocked a group of 20+ riders trying to go up faster. On the single I felt like I was wasting energy early on riding a pace I didn't feel comfortable with and putting myself behind people (possibly for a long time to come) that I didn't want to be behind. So, I wasted more energy punching it when I could to get by the big groups until finally things started to spread out a bit more.

I topped out the first climb uneventfully and began the first downhill. I don't remember a lot from the downhill over all but I did notice my rear rim making contact with rock a couple of times before we got to the bottom. So, instead of blowing through the first water aid station as I planned and like everyone else, I stopped for a pump, added a couple of quick pumps of air to the rear and went on my way just praying I didn't give myself a slow leak since I'd left my CO2 valve/mini pump sitting on the tailgate. Whoops!

The first of many long, slow, flat/slightly downhill sections for me.

Again, more of a blur in my mind as we rode Hankey Mountain for the first time, Chestnut Ridge, and Brailies (not sure in what order) though I remember a few fairly punishing downhills where I was on the verge of loosing control of the bike at times, others where i was comfortably flying, and still more where i was just squealing my brakes hoping to make it down in one piece.

On the climb between aid stations 3 and 4 I was stuck in a line of people that were all walking a fairly technical and steep bunch of trail. In the end I think we all hiked the final 15 minutes up the climb, and while I'm not quite sure how much I would've ridden without the hold up, I know I wouldn't have walked as much as I ended up walking there. Unfortunately, the hiking didn't provide the rest I might have hoped for either.

A few of the road sections proved to be some of the most difficult parts of the race for me as they continued for mile after monotonous mile. On the single speed I couldn't do much aside from a simple steady spin while geared riders flew by me on the slightly downward angled sections. This is the only time I was feeling uncomfortable on the bike the entire day since I couldn't stand to pedal with any effectiveness and likely the emotional hit of watching rider after rider pass by me only added fuel to the fire.

Eventually though the road gradually turned upwards and I was happy again. I caught up with Pooch who mentioned Klasmeier was just ahead and that added a bit of extra motivation for me. I got to the sharp right that turned quickly up towards aid 5 and MK was peeing in the bushes. As I made the turn he called out for me to wait up and as I hit the steeper slope I did for a short bit, but when I saw he still wasn't back to his bike after what was probably a few seconds but felt like minutes, I continued on my own up the hill at my pace figuring he'd understand with it being my first SM100 and everything. Upon his finish he told me, not too happily he'd needed water badly, so in hindsight my decision wasn't that of a team player and I'll be more mindful of situations like that in the future.

The climb to aid 5 was great for me. It was a steady, steep but not too steep climb and it allowed me to get in the zone and just keep going. I was riding well and still felt surprisingly strong some 70 miles into the race, passing people constantly, mostly those riding with gears. Aid 5 like all of the others was excellent and someone took my bike and filled my bottles while I grabbed some food. I was again in and out within a couple of minutes at most and the climb (apparently) continued upwards for a while though I don't really remember that.

There was a crazy fast dirt road down hill with big rollers and huge red mud puddles, one of which I of course hit and then it was the road back to Hankey mountain. Starting up Hankey I felt a slight twinge of dread, remembering from other peoples accounts how terrible it is late in the race but I zoned back out and kept pushing up. I think what made it not so bad was telling myself that it was going to get worse the entire way up the climb. When I topped out the climb I swore to myself there was more, that I was only at a false top out and I was saving some energy and mental effort for what I though was another five miles of killer rolling fire road and one final steep though not too long climb back into the camp ground.

Suddenly, I was in a random campground with the course entirely taped off, then it was a jeep road between tents and cabins and I finally realized where I was, not even a quarter mile from the finish. At that realization I started whoopin and hopping, speeding down into the field, over the rollers and up through the finish with a huge grin on my face. Best yet, I was in at 10:28, a full 30 minutes better then I hoped for and an hour and a half better then I planned for!

All in all a great experience for a first SM100 and first 100 even. Aside from the long road sections I was always comfortable in the saddle and the legs had plenty of juice. The recovery wasn't even nearly as bad as the last 50k I did and though my nutrition on the day wasn't perfect, it got me through at the effort level I was riding at with no problems.

Finished... and a bit confused.

So, in planning for my next attempt, aside from being a little better prepared going into the race, I think I want to make sure I'm strong enough to push a 32x19 and really be able to attack and enjoy the downhills. This year I swapped out to a 32x20 after planning on the 32x21 when Jonathon, who generally spins way more and better then me told me he was riding 20. Probably not the best idea the day before the race and I started questioning my wisdom midway through the race but the legs held out with no problems. The 32x19 would just be that much faster on the roads/flats and force that little extra bit of speed out of my on all the long steady climbs. Sweet.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Is This Really the Best a Man Can Get?

Is This Really the Best a Man Can Get?: "

A teacher argues for the expansion of No-shave November.

An untrimmed mustache is a despicable thing. I know this because I am an American, and because it's the rules. Mostly these are the unspoken, unwritten rules of culture that everyone grows into, but sometimes they are right there in black and white.

The start of each new high school year brings a review of institutional rules, and beneath the grumbling malcontent this engenders, lie larger questions of values and culture that are rarely, if ever, addressed. And for reasons that are never clearly expressed, students are expected to unquestioningly comply with a number of broader cultural expectations—restrictions on facial hair among them.

I, on the other hand, am the art teacher. I do not like pat, one-size-fits-no-one answers to questions. So, I will take a moment to talk about facial hair. But before I do, I must admit that since the school where I teach is a private school, they have perhaps a little more leeway with the rules than do their public school brethren—and in my experience, they tend to use that leeway to allow students a bit more facial-hair self-expression than is perhaps typical. Nonetheless, “rules is rules,” and there comes a point when even at my school, the hammer gets dropped on students brazen enough to sport a pair of lightning bolt sideburns.

As a college preparatory school, we are theoretically attempting to prepare students to move into the professional world, a world that by and large thinks creatively-sculpted facial hair is something better left to the denizens of television shows and community college. It would be valid, I think, to question if this particular cultural bias is quite as relevant as it once was, but I would like to go a layer deeper and ask why we feel it necessary to scrape and shape our facial hair at all. And—despite what billions of advertising dollars have been spent to make us believe—the natural state of most faces (at least in my particular racial and cultural milieu) is to be gloriously bearded.

That is not what bothers me, though. People are welcome to do whatever weird and wooly things they want. What bothers me is that because of all this face-scraping, Americans throw away around a billion disposable razors a year. That is a lot of plastic and aluminum being dumped on and into the earth and oceans that sustain us. It is also depressingly ridiculous, given that there are sharpeners available (it’s even possible, I have recently discovered, to sharpen a safety razor on your arm hair) and that—let’s face it—straight-edged razor shaving is a dead sexy, manly skill to have.

I know that men’s faces are not entirely to blame for all that, but I cannot help but feel that it might be a good place to start fighting back against the marketing machine that demands consumer-conformity to some artificially fabricated smooth-faced ideal. You know, make them find some other unnecessary product to trick us into buying—maybe one that does not end up filling the crops of seagulls with tiny bits of sharpened aluminum. Is high school the appropriate place to begin this sort of fight? I do not know.

It is unlikely that I will be persuaded to stop slicing away at my face any time soon. I am guessing that the weight of culture and long-borne insecurities press down on me far too strongly for a drastic change like that. Plus, I love my job.

For our teens, though, there is still hope. It’s a new generation, a generation unwilling to blindly accept the market-driven traditions of its forebears. Perhaps if we were willing to stop enforcing our problems on our youth, they would find the space and freedom to start helping us fix them.

Josh Barkey is a high school art teacher in North Carolina.