Thursday, July 24, 2008

University of Okoboji Marathon

I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting much from this event, just another long run; a ‘training run’ so to speak in the quest to try an Ultra.

I had read and heard many unflattering comments about Okoboji; very little aid, safety concerns running along busy highways, course markings were off, the medal is a piece of crap and so on. Some of that was very accurate, but sometimes it’s good to experience and form your own opinion. Here is mine.

The University of Okoboji Marathon takes place in the far northwest corner of Iowa. One might be a bit surprised when visiting this part of the country. Okoboji and the surrounding communities are a recreational oasis in the middle of farm country. Here, the logo of Sea Ray on 40 foot speed boats out-numbers the famous green of John Deere tractors. If you’re a water sports enthusiast, you’re going to love Okoboji.

If you’re looking for the university’s campus, look no further than the ‘Great Lakes of Iowa’. “What,” you say? OK, let me explain. The curriculum for this university includes swimming, water-skiing, boating, diving, shopping, partying and so on. Here, you don’t really graduate, you celebrate. The university is mythical except in the minds of the student body. You get my drift, right?

Sue and I made the drive from KC and set up camp (yes, I mean camp literally) at Gull Point State Park. The campground is scattered with majestic oak trees and the beach is only a short walk away. Since I chose a site with electric, our tent was tucked neatly between two RV’s. That’s the price you pay for being a runner and needing electricity for important things, like having a fully charged iPod! With a fully inflated air mattress, I slip off to dreamland early, as the race begins at 6am.

Early the next day, we make our way to Pikes Point State Park on the opposite side of the lake, where the marathon and triathlon start. The marathon consists of about 100 runners, so there is little congestion and no problem at all with parking at the start. A full moon and the rising sun work in harmony to provide plenty of light on a beautiful 65 degree morning. Right on time, the gun goes off.

The early parts of the course wind through the residential areas of the eastern shore of West Lake Okoboji. The area reminds me of my old stomping ground, Houghton Lake, Michigan, where Trunk lifters out-number permanent residents by a substantial amount. The weekenders are affectionately known as ‘Trunk lifters’ (or not so affectionately by some) since we all make the trek up from the big city, open our trunks and unpack Friday night, then open the trunk again Sunday and prepare for the trip back home. The lake homes vary from cute little cottages, to huge mansions with spectacular views. I would be perfectly content in owning any one of them!

By the 5th mile, we swing into the town of Arnold Park and run for awhile along the main highway through town. It’s mostly a 2 lane road lined with restaurants, gift shops and resorts. I spot a night club advertising Karaoke tonight; if I finish the race OK, I’ll be back there later! As we turn across the southern end of the lake, I spot a water-skier slicing through the calm waters. I was a pretty decent water-skier myself when I was younger. The numerous flashbacks keep my mind occupied and the first 10 miles breeze by effortlessly.

Around the 10th mile, we begin to see the bikers from the triathlon pass us. This section of the race is along a major 2-lane state road, so it is a bit unsettling to have a bike whiz by at 20 some MPH as they are crammed between the big SUV on their left and the runner on the right. OK, safety is a bit of a concern through this section, but it’s only a few miles. The gravel shoulder is groomed quite well and provides a more comforting zone in which to run. It’s not a horribly busy road, and I’ll bet the majority of the traffic was vehicles dropping off runners at the half-marathon start, which is just up the road. Surely those drivers understand how to be cautious?

As we turn off the main road and back toward the western shoreline, a quick look to the western skies reveal very ominous dark clouds. It’s beginning to rain now, but it looks like heavy stuff isn’t far behind. I’ve met up with another runner, Joshua, a young pre-med student from Iowa State who is running his first marathon. We seem to be going the same pace and will end up running the rest of the race together. He seems to be thriving off the ‘old man’s experience’ and I am using his youthful enthusiasm to help me. As we run by the entrance to the state park where we’re camping, I spot my wife waiting with gels and Gatorade. I take a minute to pull off my iPod and give it to her, as there is nowhere to hide it once the rains come. This turns out to be a good decision; the downpour arrives shortly after.

As we pass the halfway point, I’m right on my desired split time of 2:10. By now, we’re soaking wet as the rain continues at a steady, moderate pace. Other than having heavier shoes from the moisture, the rain actually feels good and it doesn’t really bother either of us. The miles through the teens alternate between a paved trail following the highway, with some turn-offs into the western shore residential area. Luckily, the bikes stay out on the main highway, so we won’t have to contend with them any longer.

As with my last race, the miles between 18 and 22 seem to be the toughest. I haven’t checked my pace in awhile and am disappointed to see that I’ve fallen 5 minutes or so behind my goal. I never felt like I slowed down, and I don’t own a Garmin to confirm. As it is, I probably won’t be coming in with a PR today, but it’s still a pretty respectable time for me. We pass the start line again and the last 5-6 miles are the same course again, so we know the terrain and what to expect. Unfortunately, this is probably the hilliest part of the course and we have to run it a second time. Now, don’t be fooled, there may be a few hills in this section, but they are generally short and not too steep.

Finally, I can see the tracks of the roller coaster at Arnolds Park Amusement Park, which means the finish line is close. Joshua and I have stuck together since we met up around mile 10 and now we both kick it into high gear for the final stretch. Simultaneously, we cross the mats for a time of 4:27:53. A look at the website’s official times show that Joshua was one second behind me; surely he held up just slightly as we crossed, respectfully allowing his elder to beat him. I’m sure he could have blown me away if he wanted – what a fine young gentleman.

After the race, I could be found sitting around the campsite with a Leinenkugel Creamy Dark in one hand and an Arturo Fuentes Hemingway cigar in the other. I have a deeply satisfied feeling after the race and even though my time was a bit more than my goal, I think I enjoyed the entire experience of this race more than any other.

Later that afternoon, we went for dinner at The Wharf, located right on the channel between the east and west arms of the lake. We took a seat on the patio and watched the parade of boats pass by. Unbeknownst to us, this weekend was Homecoming. Logically, there would be a Homecoming Parade and of course, at this university, the parade would be on the water. Each boat was decorated in a unique theme, from Santa's Vacation to the Toga Party.
So far, I feel like I’ve breezed through my first few classes at the ‘U’, but there are a few more credit hours I need to complete before leaving. Yes, Karaoke 101 is being taught at the local night club, a place simply called Cocktails. The place is packed full of people from all walks of life; young and old alike and farmers whooping it up with doctors. There are also folks from Willie Nelson’s crew (who just finished playing an outdoor concert down the street), but Willie himself did not make an appearance. Being one of the few brave souls, I was able to sing multiple times. Here’s the list of songs I sang or should I say butchered:

Wherever You Will Go – The Calling
Down in the Boondocks – Billy Joe Royal
Semi-Charmed Life – Third Eye Blind
I Think I Love you – The Partridge Family
Mustang Sally – Buddy Guy

A perfect ending to a perfect weekend

Now, let’s look at the race itself and hear my thoughts on the issues I’ve read about.

* Very little aid – There were aid stations at least every 2 miles (except the first one which was about 3 miles) with both water and Powerade at most. No GU, no fruit or other foods, but I found it to be adequate. It would be smart to run with a running belt if you don’t have any of your own personal support on the course.

* Safety concerns on course – Yes, this is somewhat true through the highway 86 section, but I really didn’t feel in danger at all. I eventually moved to the gravel shoulder allowing a larger buffer zone. The entire course is open to traffic, but the majority is run on uncrowded residential streets.

* Course markings are off – I found the course to be marked very well, all directions are painted on the road, so you need to pay attention. The directions are not at all confusing. It seemed that the mile markers were accurate, at least through the first half where I was watching my time. I did not watch as closely the last 10 miles. There are no clocks on the course at all.

* The medal is a piece of crap – Quite true, by far. Most of my 5K medals are nicer! Oh well, who runs a race for the medal anyway?

Monday, July 7, 2008

Psycho Psummer

Within miles of the urban setting of Kansas City, lies a hidden paradise for trail runners. Wyandotte County Lake Park is the setting for a number of different trail events in the area; this race featuring a 50K, and a 15 miler. One might be described as 'Psycho' should they consider running one of these tests on hilly, rocky, muddy trails in the mid-summer heat of the Heartland. Myself and hundreds of others aren't as crazy as you think.

If you ever considered doing a trail race, you may want to choose a race put on by the Trail Nerds of KC. Ben Holmes and his gang do a first class job with these events.
  • There is more food than any marathon I've run - how 'bout a freshly grilled burger after the race! Or a vegan burger should you so desire
  • The friendliest volunteers - seriously, they genuinely make you feel as if you're the most important person on the course
  • The best looking shirts you can actually be proud to wear
  • A Trail Nerds bandanna - soaked in ice cold water and personally draped across the back of your neck by Ben himself after you finish
  • Free photos by Dick Ross, who shoots for many of the local races

It was a near picture perfect morning in KC for a run in July, and at 8am we were given last minute instructions from Ben. "The ticks have been bad this year", he warned, "so be sure to address them properly, they prefer to be called Arachnid Americans!!" After a good laugh, we're off.

I met up with one of my running buddies from the Olathe Running Club, Margaret, and we started off together. After the first big downhill, my fat old body couldn't fight the gravity and I sped out in front of Margaret and never did get back with her. I felt really bad, I wanted to be there to encourage her if she needed, but she's an outgoing, energetic young lady that would have no problem finding support.

My strategy for this type of run will be to walk the steep uphills and run the rest. I was doing quite well for most of the first half, but began walking some of the easier hills after the midway point. The course is predominately single track, with many rocks and roots and uneven footing. There is a few sections of paved road and a small section of gravel road. The terrain is certainly varied enough to make it interesting. There are plenty of great views, but don't look up too long, or you'll risk planting your face on a rock!

The women of the Trail Nerds are fondly referred to as 'Mud Babes' and of course, the trail delivers the goods. Somewhere in the last 1/4 of the course, the serious mud is lurking. I try unsuccessfully to dodge the mud, but to no avail. At one point, my shoe is sucked right off my foot! Later, I came across a beautiful clean stream, stop and wade through the deepest part (which is only ankle deep) and clean off my shoes. There, that will make things easier now.........well, that didn't last long, but remember; MUD IS FUN!

With the extra mud in tow, I finally leave the trail and begin the last leg across the open green pasture leading to the finish line. I'm feeling good about my time, but sad that the run is almost over. This is such an enjoyable and challenging course. The timer shows that I finished in 3:14:11, which would be the best pace I've run on this course yet.
Maybe next year I'll attempt the 50K.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Out of Retirement

Part of what running a marathon teaches you is that you can accomplish just about anything through hard work and desire. Couple that with a craving to relive some of the glory days of my youth and the idea of skating began to fester in my mind. It's been over 4 years since I last laced up the skates and I'm not getting any younger.

The argument went on in my mind for weeks. One side of the brain (which we shall call Mr Brightside) kept saying, "great exercise, the perfect compliment for stronger running." The other side (known as Capt Cautious) would respond, "one awkward hit against the knee and your marathon days might be over."

The battle would continue, but let's look at this objectively. Is there a risk that I twist an ankle or knee on a trail run? Yeah, that's realistic, but it doesn't stop me from running. Have I been injured before playing hockey, yeah, Capt Cautious would promptly point out; 1 concussion, 1 separated shoulder, 1 knee strain over the last 5 years I played. Not horrible odds, but a bigger risk, nonetheless. Ah, but the rewards are sweet. It's not the competition that drives me, rather the thrill of the game itself. The satisfaction of threading a picture perfect pass to a teammate as they score is powerful to me.

The whole idea was born when last month I went out to watch my son play his league game. On the other sheet of ice that day was a couple of old teammates playing in a separate game. After their games, we caught up in the lobby and my old teammate tried to convince me to come out and play again. They had a non-competitive session called 'Pond Hockey' that was a laid back, relaxed game for fun. The ability levels of the players ranged from relatively new skaters to elite players, my skill level would probably fall somewhere in the middle.

"Give it a try", she said, "you'll fit right in." Yes, my old teammate was a female, but believe me, she can play with any of the guys in those leagues! My appetite was whet that day.

Well, it looks like Mr Brightside has won the debate!

Last night I made my way to Pepsi Ice Midwest, plopped my butt down in the locker room and began to lace them up again. My wife said I was like a little kid that day, scared and nervous while preparing all my old equipment for the event. Every little detail was covered, from what color jersey to bring to making sure the skate laces were in good condition.

Jimmy Rutherford - Detroit Red Wings
1970 –1983

All of my fears were washed away once I stepped on the ice and made that first crossover and turned to skate up ice. It's like riding a bike, it all came back to me right away. I could still stop quick and still skate backwards.

During the game, I quickly discover that running does not give me the power to skate effortlessly like I thought it might. Only a few shifts into the game and I'm gasping for air and the legs feel like I've already ran a 10K. Yeah, skating is tough and this is going to be great exercise. After awhile, my heart rate starts to settle a bit and the hard work over the last few years begins to pay dividends. The legs are tired, but as with marathon running, I'm able to keep going and skate effectively.

Overall, I'm extremely satisfied with my comeback attempt. I did well enough skating and stick handling, grabbed a couple of assists, made my share of dumb passes, over-skated the puck a few times, but in the end, I was still standing; injury free.

After the game, we had a cookout with both teams in the parking lot with burgers, brats and of course, plenty of beer. I don't think I've ever met a hockey player that doesn't enjoy a beer after the game! The guys were all so nice to me and encouraged me to come out and play again. I'll admit, I had a blast, but haven't quite decided if I will play regularly or not.

I'll see what Mr Brightside thinks.