Elite blog: Nate Jenkins

You may not have noticed the “Elite blogs” list I have in the right well of this page, which contains all of two entries. I’m still looking for blogs from elite runners that are worthy of inclusion in this list, but so far I’ve only found two.

Over the past six months or so I’ve become a huge fan of Nate Jenkins. He is a self-coached runner and — always near and dear to my heart — fundamentally a marathoner (although he races other distances). What I love most about his blog is its honesty. His posts are completely lacking in pretention; they are unadorned, from the heart, and full of fascinating observations from a man who is learning how to coach and run as he goes along.

Here’s a wonderful post that represents the best of his chronicling of life as a distance runner.

Amended: The new home for Jenkins’ blog is here. It’s still worth poking around at that first link above at Flotrack to read his other musings.

False starts made worse

This little tidbit appeared in the New York Times today. It seems the IAAF is proposing to do away with “do over” false starts. For the unitiated, here’s a basic primer:

A false start happens when a runner literally “jumps the gun” at the start of a race. Imagine six 400m sprinters lined up in their blocks. They’re crouched down with one knee on the ground. The starter (the person holding the gun) says, “On your marks.”  Next, the starter says, “Set” and all the runners’ butts go up in the air, knees off the ground.  Then there is a short pause, after which the gun fires, and the runners start running. In a false start, a runner — let’s say the runner in lane 2 — starts running after the starter has said “set” but before the gun has been fired. When this happens, the gun is fired again to signal to the runners that a false start has occurred and everyone makes their way back to the start to try again.

The accepted rule today is that first false starter is forgiven. However, if in the same race there is another false start — let’s say that this time it’s the runner in lane 5 — that second false starter is eliminated from the race. The first offender, runner in lane 2, suffers no penalty.

There are obvious problems with this. For one, it can be abused by a savvy runner. A runner is free to commit a false start on purpose, with no repercussions, increasing the chances of eliminating a competitor in a second false start. Also, false starts tend to rattle runners. If you watch track races, you’ll see the racers going through all kinds of exercises to focus on the task at hand. Some of the rituals (slapping themselves seems to be the newest trend) seem ridiculous, but I believe they serve a purpose and that a break in concentration in the miliseconds before the racer is ready to perform has got to take its toll.

The proposed change would drop the “first time forgiven” approach, immediately eliminating the first person who false starts. On its face, it sounds like a good change. But it fails to take into consideration the vagaries of race starts. By this I mean the variations in the time between “set” being called and the gun being fired. Watch enough track and field meets and you’ll notice that some are rife with false starts. Why? Usually because the starter “holds” the runners too long. Imagine being lined up in your blocks, then told to (get) “set,” and then being held for two or three seconds. Every muscle is twitching to get started, but the gun doesn’t fire.

I’ve watched meets where there are multiple “two false start” races, which is truly tragic. And it’s usually because there’s some geriatric standing there with a gun, holding runners way beyond what could be considered a reasonable pause. For awhile, I began to develop a conspiracy theory that this trend was a deliberate attempt to add drama and tension to televised coverage. In fact, for me it had the opposite effect, as I was forced to sit through many wasted minutes of false start coverage at the expense of more expansive coverage of longer events (“Wow. Watching Carmelita Jeter walk slowly back to the blocks and spend three minutes slapping herself is great, especially when it means I only get to see the last three minutes of the men’s 5000m race.”)

But I don’t really think these things are deliberate. I think it’s simple ineptitude. Worse, no one at these meets seems to notice that there’s a connection between delayed gun firing times and recurrent false start problems. The long hold times continue, and so do the false starts.

I think it’s fine to change the false start rules, but only if a standard “hold” time is adopted. That might mean automating starters, replacing humans with slow trigger fingers with a machine that will always fire a gun, say, exactly one second after “set.” But it need not even come to that. If you can find a starter who can say “a thousand one” and pull a trigger, you’ll probably reduce an enormous number of false starts with that action alone. Failing to address the common cause of false starts  just puts more pressure (and punishment) on athletes, and will likely go one of two ways: either we’ll see the same number of false starts or they’ll drop off — right along with race times, as runners hesitate to get out of the blocks quickly for fear of being booted out of the race.

Race Report: Colon Cancer Challenge 15K

As previously posted, this race was to serve as the sloppy joe heart of an ambitious sandwich run. So, it was not truly a race. I’d say I ran at about 95% race effort. Which was a shame, because I still ended up with an excellent finishing time (and 7th in my AG). After crossing the finish in 1:07:18, I momentarily regretted that I hadn’t run harder. But then I remembered that I still had to run another six miles and immediately got over that.

I prepared as well as I could for today’s training run plus race. I took care to eat a lot of carbohydrates over the past two days, drank a lot of water, and got a lot of sleep. I also gave myself plenty of time to get to Central Park this morning so I wouldn’t feel rushed. Since the race didn’t start until 10:15AM, this wasn’t difficult to do.

I got to the park at 8:45, picked up my bib and chip, dropped off my bag, and got to work on the first loop. I’d forgotten that there was a four mile race as well this morning, which started at 9:00. So I had lots of company running around the park. I started my loop at the same time the race started, which got my adrenaline going (even though I wasn’t racing this one). Seeing the leaders speed by behind the pace car shot my heart rate up into the lower 80%s. It’s weird how you can get that vicarious race thrill just looking at other runners.

Things settled down about half  a mile later and I puttered along, up over the big hills and down around the bottom of the park, averaging a 9:17 pace at 74% max heart rate. This was harder than I’d wanted to work, but when I ran slower I felt like I was crawling. Besides, I felt good and I knew I only had a 15K race and another six miles to run after this, ha ha.

With the foreplay out of the way, I stripped down as close to my underpants as possible, choked down a mini-bagel with honey and dashed over to the race start. Until I can complete a NYRR race with a pace of sub-7:00, I’m stuck in the penultimate corral. I got two seconds closer today, but I’m still stuck in corral number two with my 7:14 best pace time.

As long as I’m in this predicament, I’ve got to learn to move up to the front of that corral, as I started more toward the back — it was packed in like sardines at the start — and as a result ended up in a 7:30 pace mob for the first quarter mile of the race. Once I got clear of the crowd clog, I opened up a bit and was running sub-7:00 to try to get back the lost time.

Today was one of those days when I didn’t trust my watch, but in a good way. It kept telling me I was running 6:49, or 6:57, or 7:04 and I kept thinking, “Well, that can’t be right.” Then I’d pass a mile marker and clock and do the math and figure that the watch was not lying. I felt exceedingly good for the first half of the race, just flying along and not really feeling the effort. At one point early in the race I peeked at my heart rate, saw it was 85% and thought, “Well, I need to start running faster than this.”

I really started to feel the effort just before mile eight, which coincided with a decision to try to pick up the pace. Just beyond the mile marker, I ran past NYRR president Mary Wittenberg, who gave me an “attagirl” in the form of a hale and hearty, “All right! Good job!” I know nothing about Wittenberg, but I’m always delighted by the fact that she runs so many of her own races, and impressed that she’s no slouch either. It turns out she beat me by two seconds despite the fact that I came in ahead of her, which means she must have started after me, passed me at some point, then got passed by me again. Where would we be without racing chips?

I motored along for the last mile plus, clocking a 6:35 for mile nine (assisted by a significant downhill grade) and 6:47 for the last bit. There were three women, of which I was one, coming to the finish very close, with me in third. About 30m from the finish I thought I’d see if I could pick off one of them, and, lo, I did, passing her with about 10 feet to go, while momentarily ignoring the fact that I still had some running to do after this foolhardy move. I didn’t care. Oh, I’m at 94% mhr? A temporary annoyance! It was fun to outkick someone on whose heels I’d been running for the last nine+ miles.

With my momentary victory in hand, I jogged back over to baggage to down some food before the last leg. The third loop wasn’t notable in any way. I ran a shortened loop, just under six miles at 8:42 pace, 75% mhr. Surprisingly, I didn’t experience the anticipated relief at having gotten those miles over with. I still had energy and experienced what I can best describe as a pleasant, satisfied exhaustion, not the other, look-what-the-fucking-cat-dragged-in kind that I’m all too familiar with.

Today’s race was a success. Not only did I better my time from last year, but I did so with much less effort (avg 87% mhr vs. avg 90% a year ago), and with an obvious handicap going in (not to mention already having 78 miles on my legs for the week). My pacing was a lot more even too.

I’m really itching to run next Sunday’s 30K now. I’ll be better rested (with just 52 miles on my legs), plus it’s a flat course that I’ll be actually racing all out.