Monthly Archives: July 2012

Ten Toughest Endurance Challenges

By Pete Williams

An Ironman 70.3 race is among the toughest challenges (you may actually do)

The folks at Livestrong.com asked me to make a list of the “toughest endurance challenges (you can actually do).” So no double Ironman races, 100-mile runs, or marathon swims.

I doubt if anyone has done all 10 since you’d have to be into distance running, adventure racing, triathlon, stand-up paddleboarding, and open-water swimming. Plus several of the events only have been around for several years. But I’m guessing someone will knock out all ten at some point.

If you live in Florida, you’re in good position to tackle the list since 6 of the 10 events come to the Sunshine State.

Here’s the LIST. How many have you done?

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Triathlon Training by Obstacle Racing

By Pete Williams

The bike leg at Fort DeSoto Park

ST. PETERSBURG – I wedged my way through the crowd Saturday for a look at the results of the Top Gun Triathlon, doing a double take at the number next to my name.

59:32.

I had broken an hour in a sprint-distance triathlon for the first time anywhere, including three previous attempts at Top Gun. This despite riding my bike just once since the St. Anthony’s Triathlon three months ago and undergoing just three modest swim workouts during that period.

Granted, the Top Gun swim course apparently was 80 yards shy of its usual quarter-mile and nobody could remember more favorable conditions for the 10-mile bike. The giant American flag at the entrance to Fort DeSoto park was still, the park’s notorious winds absent.

Still, I ran a fastest-ever 5K run leg at Fort DeSoto, broke my overall PR (set in 2009) by four minutes and finished seven minutes ahead of last year’s effort. I finished 32 seconds ahead of a friend of mine the same age who I’d never beaten, a guy who finished four minutes ahead of me in mid-April at the Escape from Fort DeSoto Triathlon, a slightly longer course, and who crushed me by thirty-one minutes at the Olympic-distance St. Anthony’s Triathlon two weeks later.

Later on Saturday, I headed to Crystal River for the Twilight Triathlon and finished three minutes faster than last year – despite doing two triathlons in one day.

How could this be?

Maybe I’m onto a training secret: get faster by not training. This could be a best-selling book.

Actually, it probably has a lot to do with training for obstacle races. I’ve done nine in the last nine months, ranging from the 5K (Warrior Dash, Highlander, Mud Crusade, Hog Wild) to the 5-6 mile range (Savage Race, Dirty Foot Adventure Run) to the 9-mile Super Spartan Race  to the 12-mile Tough Mudder. Then there was the YAKathon, sort of the middle ground between obstacle racing and triathlon with a 1-mile kayak (or stand-up paddle), 6-mile mountain bike ride, and 5K obstacle run.

Some triathletes scoff at obstacle racing since there’s little-to-no swimming involved and because some participants walk much of the course.

But if you push yourself through obstacle work, both in preparation and the race itself, it’s a brutal all-around workout that produces incredible results. Consider:

TRANSITION TIMES: One of the toughest things about triathlon is transitioning between the swim and the bike and the bike and the run. It’s not just a matter of efficiently changing gear but also catching your breath, getting your legs to adjust, and maintaining speed. Even the best triathletes struggle with transition at times, especially running the first half mile after the bike when your legs feel like cement.

Still, that’s only two transitions. Obstacle races have two dozen running-obstacle-running transitions. Sure, the transitions are more modest, but there’s a lot more of them. Obstacle races are won by people who clear obstacles quickly and regain their speed immediately. Do enough of those and triathlon transitions seem a lot easier.

It’s funny. After doing a lot of obstacle races, it no longer bothers you to run 1.5 miles in sand during a triathlon, as is the case with Top Gun. In fact, it feels easier not having to stop and deal with an obstacle every couple hundred yards.

During triathlons, you’ll often get passed on the run by people who appear to have fresh legs. Some of them do, since they’re competing as part of relay teams. But on Saturday I passed a few people with “R” on their right calves. Part of that is conditioning from obstacle race transitions. The rest has to do with interval training and obstacle-specific work.

INTERVAL TRAINING: It’s no secret that interval training, alternating between hard bursts of effort and lighter recovery periods, is the most effective way to get faster. But runners and triathletes often fall into a lull of training long and slow. I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone.

But obstacle races encourage interval training. Traditional running intervals are effective (i.e. two minutes running hard, two minutes walking or jogging, etc.) but what really works is alternating between strength moves and running.

National races like Tough Mudder and Spartan Race have aligned themselves closely with CrossFit. It makes sense since all three have soared in popularity over the last two years and all three market themselves as grueling, tough-as-nails endeavors.

The one shortcoming with CrossFit is that there’s not much running involved. CrossFitters often cruise through obstacles at races but move slowly between the challenges. (Of course, a lot of runners and triathletes race through the course but struggle with the obstacles.)

But if you can alternate between strength/core moves and running, as the folks at the CrossFit gym TNL Tampa do on Saturday mornings, you have an effective program to thrive in obstacle races. Eric Stratman, the owner of CrossFit, says he jumps in an occasional triathlon and does reasonably well despite not training like a triathlete.

I was skeptical of his claims until Saturday. Apparently if you want to be a faster triathlete, cut down the hours on the bike, swim, and run and just train for a few obstacle races.

 

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Hog Wild: Worth the Wait?

By Pete Williams

Navigating the muck at Hog Wild

DOVER – We’ve done interviews with Men’s Health magazine and The Tampa Tribune this week and both wanted to know if we thought this obstacle mud run craze will last.

I’m bullish on the category, but events such as today’s Hog Wild Mud Run here just east of Tampa show that there are growing pains. The Hog Wild’s 5K course was one of my favorites, with some of the filthiest, wettest, most creative obstacles I’ve seen — and I’ve now done nine different races: the three major national tours (Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and Warrior Dash) along with five Florida-based races and Muddy Buddy, which downsized this year after owning the category for years.

The finisher’s medal was one of the better ones I’ve seen, the nylon race logo backpack/goody bag was a nice touch, and we hope Hog Wild will start a trend by not charging for parking and spectators.

It’s not easy to come up with new obstacles and, admittedly, nothing Hog Wild did was that out of the ordinary. But like a good chef, it’s all how you mix the ingredients. The race sent athletes into the water numerous times, including one deep creek crossing where they were pelted with tomatoes. The last 200 yards was a relentless up-and-down through some of the nastiest. waist-deep muck we’ve seen at mud races. This course went mostly through cow pasture owned by the Tampa Police Mounted Patrol – at one point a herd of 30 wandered into the spectator/vendor area – and the smell was horrible, in a good way if that’s possible.

Unfortunately, Hog Wild blew some of the goodwill it might have created by under staffing the check-in line. We were among the first to arrive at 7 a.m. and knew they were in trouble with one small tent and three people total to handle both check-in and distribution of timing chips.

Hog Wild water slide

That’s not enough for a 200-person 5K race, let alone a 1,500-person obstacle event. It wasn’t long before athletes were waiting up to 90 minutes, missing starting times and beginning the race in a bad mood. Hog Wild sent more volunteers over – maybe about 10 total – but they never caught up.

Given the competition in this field, it’s tough to cut a first-time event much slack, let alone an event like Hog Wild that debuted last November with 800 athletes. David Morejon, the co-organizer of the event, told The Tampa Tribune earlier this month he’s raced in 96 triathlons. He should know what it takes to handle traffic flow. (Yes, like triathlons Hog Wild offered pre-race packet pickup Friday at Tampa’s International Plaza, but that’s asking a lot for mud run participants.)

You know how you can tell a race might have issues? If it offers deals via Groupon or Living Social. Hog Wild advertised heavily via Living Social and it drew the cast of thousands, but it didn’t have the staff, calling for volunteers as late as this week. We saw this earlier in the year with Mud Crusade, another shorter-distance, deep discount race that was forced to cut corners for the thousands they let in for next-to-nothing.

It’s a devil’s bargain. When you offer 2-for-1 deals for as little as $49 via Groupon or Living Social, you’re only taking in $24.50 – or $12.25 an athlete. That makes your race look bigger, but that doesn’t always make it better. And it leads to short-changing everyone. Why not keep your price at market rate – $49 to $79 per athlete – and focus on putting on a great race for a respectable crowd of 800 or so?

Your revenues will be comparable and you’ll have 800 gung-ho ambassadors for your quality event – assuming you have a terrific course like Hog Wild – instead of 2,000 people who stood in 95-degree temperatures for 60 to 90 minutes before starting an endurance race.

Hog Wild also could have done a better job marking the course. I was in the first wave and got turned around in the woods three times. And Hog Wild continued the frustrating near-industry-wide trend – which includes Tough Mudder and Spartan Race – of offering a unisex, 100 percent cotton T-shirt cluttered with sponsor logos.

To say the obstacle race category is flooded would be an understatement. There are at least two events scheduled in Central Florida for every weekend in October. Athletes returning to their cars after Hog Wild had a dozen postcard flyers waiting on their windshields.

The races that survive will be the ones that offer value. Forget the Groupon and Living Social Deals. Keep your price point at between $49 and $79 depending on registration. Be well organized, with enough volunteers and staff to handle traffic flow. Focus on putting together a great course – as Hog Wild did – and provide a fitted T-shirt without sponsor logos that your young athletes will wear, especially women who control family budgets and rally groups that do obstacle races together.

Put on that race at that price point and you’ll attract the masses who will support your race rather than paying $125-plus for Tough Mudder or Spartan Race.

That’s what I told Men’s Health and The Tampa Tribune. Give us that race, which is not far from what we saw today, and we’ll be pumped.

Hell, we’d go hog wild for it.

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Cloud Racing

By Pete Williams

On Running’s new Cloudracer shoe

For the last few months we’ve been running in Cloudracers, the newest shoes from On Running, those funky, brightly colored shoes with little padded cushioning devices on the sole.

We first wrote about “Ons” last fall. Though there’s a tendency to want to group them with Newtons or even minimalist footwear, they probably belong in their own category. The company’s technology is called “running on the clouds,” which brings an element of core training to distance running.

The Cloudracers, like racing flats, are meant for actual racing, though like any shoe it’s important to grow accustomed to them during training. I’ve never owned a pair of racing flats, so perhaps I’m not the ideal guinea pig, but I love the feel and the light weight of the shoes.

Core training transformed the fitness industry over the last decade as athletes realized they could generate more stability around their hips, midsection, and shoulders by training on unstable surfaces such as physioballs balls and BOSU balls. Such devices force the athlete to recruit more stabilizer muscles, thus building more strength and stability.

Athlete and Co-Founder Olivier Bernhard.
Photo: Braschler/Fischer

Olivier Bernhard (left) figured he could produce the same effect with a running shoe. The Swiss triathlete, a six-time winner of Ironman races, had grown frustrated with nagging knee and Achilles injuries for which doctors and trainers could not find a solution. Bernhard, after all, had textbook running form.

An engineer Bernhard worked with in Switzerland realized that there are two forces at work when running: the vertical and horizontal impact. It’s the horizontal impact that causes the most damage to muscles, ligaments and joints, though existing running shoes only absorbed the vertical impact.

What if they could create a running shoe that would allow a runner to land as softly as on sand and to push off as effectively as on concrete? The result was On Running, with models like the Cloudsurfer and Cloudrunner launched in 2010.

The technology, Bernhard says, is similar to a physioball, where the body must adjust to remain stable. “Think of these shoes as having a bunch of little physioballs that are continually providing feedback to your foot to stabilize your landing and stabilize the hip,” he says.

The Cloudsurfer

I’ve been running pretty regularly over the last nine months in my black-and-green Cloudsurfer shoes. The Cloudracer has a lighter feel and since the the 18 padded cushions aren’t as pronounced on the Cloudracers, there’s a comparable racing-flat feel to them.

The idea behind a race shoe is to have something as light and airy as possible and that’s what the Cloudracer feels like.

Running on the clouds.

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This Race is No Picnic

Editor’s Note: David Adams, a University of Tampa student and U.S. Army veteran, is comparing obstacle race preparation and other endurance regimens to the training he underwent in the military. In a series of stories for EnduranceSportsFlorida.com this summer, he’ll write about his progress.

By David Adams

Navigating the Picnic Island water obstacle

TAMPA – This time, I felt fresh and ready to compete. It was my third crack at the Picnic Island adventure run, the off-road summer series at a waterfront park in South Tampa.

The event Friday evening, like the previous two, was a 3.6 mile trek that included man-made obstacles and natural barriers. Competitors must be prepared to run over logs and mounds of dirt and gravel, crawl under nets and jump over tires and hurdles along the course. The route also takes athletes through water, which is always challenging.

A field of more than 500 showed up to compete in the final contest. As always, the race started at 6:45 p.m., which brought the temperature down slightly from the afternoon highs. The weather was less humid than at the start of race two, and I was thankful for the breeze the storm over Tampa had brought in. The competition almost was postponed because of lightning, but luckily the storm passed, allowing the race to start on time.

I started near the middle of the group, using the same strategy I had in the second run. Running along the beach, I began to pass competitors and reached the part of the pack I felt matched my fitness level. The trail wove around the park and doubled back several times.

The cargo net obstacle early in the race

I find when I run past a part of the course multiple times it tends to play mind games with me.  The psychological tactic of weaving the course around on itself was one of the most challenging aspects of the race from my perspective.

Like the first two races, there were three obstacles just after the halfway point. The first is a short crawl under cargo netting, followed by tires, and finished up with a small hurdle to leap over. After the obstacles are completed the back part of the course forces runners into shallow water, then through marsh and muddy areas before coming out onto asphalt road. After a short stint on the asphalt, contestants are brought back into the grass, and double back on yet another part of the track they already have run.

The race ends with a run through sand, heading into waist deep water where participants must wade out to a buoy and circle it before heading for the finish.  Once I reached the buoy, I summoned what was left of my endurance and ran as hard as I could through the water and to the finish line.

Crossing the finish line, I looked at the clock: 34:07. It was displayed in large bright green numbers, and I’m sure onlookers could have read the disappointment on my face.

The author post-race

Over the last three months, I have been tailoring my training in an attempt to improve my time each race. The first run I completed in 35:35, which left room for plenty of improvement.  During the first race, the tide was high and the back part of the course went through waist deep water. Unfortunately, the same could not be said about the final two adventure runs, and I am forced to own my finishing times with no “high tide” excuses.

I completed the second race in 34:17, and while the time was more than one minute faster than the first heat, the lack of high water left me disappointed with my result.  As well as finishing in what I felt was a slow time, my overall place dropped between the first and second races.  I finished 101st overall in the first race, 117th in the second.  Much to my dismay, I only rose to 114th overall at the end of the third race, with a finishing time of 34:07.

This three-race series has taught me a lot about where my cardio fitness level is and has given me the motivation to improve my endurance. Although I am pleased with progressive improvement after each run, I realize that I can do better. During the final event, I had to slow to a “jog” twice, and was out of breath just after the halfway point. I felt like I was in better shape at the start of the first run than I am now.

A foot injury in June forced me to stop running for nearly three weeks, and afterwards I did not train with the same intensity I had earlier in the summer. Like the drill sergeants said in basic training, “The only person you’re cheating is yourself when you slack during workouts.”

My foot injury caused a drop in my self-confidence, and I ended up cheating myself out of a great finishing time at the end of the final two Picnic Island runs. I don’t intend to let that happen again.

Now that I have fully recovered, I plan to hit the road harder than ever. My goal is to compete in my first triathlon by the end of my time writing for Endurance Sports Florida. Athletes spend months getting ready to compete in these events, and I believe that triathlons are one of the most physically demanding competitions that anyone can take part in. I have serious respect for triathletes, and am amazed at the men and women who are strong enough to regularly compete in them. I hope that by the end of the summer I will be physically and mentally ready to compete in my first triathlon.

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Mark Verstegen on Glutes

By Pete Williams

U.S. soccer standout Abby Wambach, who has trained at Mark Verstegen’s Athletes’ Performance, featured in ESPN’s “Body” issue

I’ve had the great fortune to help Mark Verstegen write five Core Performance books. Mark, perhaps more than anyone, popularized core training, the notion that we should be training our hips, torso, and shoulders for functional movement rather than looking at our bodies as a collection of parts the way bodybuilders and fitness models do.

Mark spends a lot of time getting everyone from elite athletes to everyday people competing in the Game of Life to fire their gluteus maximus muscles, these marvelous muscles of locomotion that we abuse all day by sitting on them.

Why is this such a big deal? By sitting on our glutes all day, which we do in our technology-based society, our glutes shut down, our hips become tighter, and we become vulnerable to back problems and a host of other injuries and ailments.

Mark suggests firing your glutes all day long. Squeeze your left cheek and then your right as you’re walking along or, yes, just sitting around. This will go a long way toward countering the effects of sitting on your ass all day, though obviously it takes a little more than that. The Core Performance program is a great place to start.

For an article in ESPN the Magazine’s terrific new “Body” issue, writer David Fleming approached Mark at the NFL combine in Indianapolis in February and asked Mark what’s the most important part of an athlete’s body.

Mark’s response is both informative and amusing and he sums it up by saying “it’s all about the ass.”

You can read that story HERE.

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Yakking up the YAKathon

By Pete Williams

Typical bike terrain at the Yak-a-Thon

CLERMONT – Maybe it was the kayak segment, the 90-degree heat, the brutal six-mile bike slog through a rolling cow pasture or a 5K run with just enough obstacles.

Whatever the reason, this morning’s debut of the “YAKathon,” a tough kayak-mountain bike-run through the Roper Ranch here just west of Orlando, may have found the happy medium between obstacle racing and triathlon.

Jonny Simpkins and Wendy Carson, who launched their Rock On Adventures company last year with the popular Highlander Adventure Run, have pledged to come up with events that depart from the obstacle run bandwagon that everyone seems intent on jumping onto.

So while they’re bringing back The Highlander for a third edition on Sept. 22, moving to the Roper Ranch from last year’s Bartow venue, they’re also coming up with things like the YAKathon, which was unlike anything we’ve attempted.

It began within a half-mile run to the water, where athletes either jumped in one of a flotilla of rental kayaks provided or into one of their own they staged earlier in the morning. The run was just enough to separate the pack – there were six waves of 50, one each half hour beginning at 8 a.m. – to avoid a bottleneck at the launch.

I raced with two of my kilt-clad Running Commando teammates and didn’t think I’d be the only stand-up paddleboarder in the race. It was an interesting experiment to see how a SUP rider fared against a lake full of kayakers over a one-mile loop. The thinking is that kayakers have an advantage with a two-sided paddle; sort of like Darth Maul and his double-bladed light saber matched up against Obi Wan Kenobi.

Plenty of obstacles on the 5K run course

But I maintained my position in the water and even had a few people suggest I had an advantage, even though my movement was restricted because – and I’m embarrassed to say this – I was wearing a (required) life jacket on a board for the first time in nearly two years of paddling. Personal flotation devices are a sore subject among paddleboarders, who see SUP as more like surfing. In reality, the Coast Guard is right to declare paddleboards vessels and require life jackets and I soon will be purchasing one of the inflatable waist PFDs that will save my life without restricting motion.

It helped that I was paddling my fast YOLO Predator race board, which I could yank out of the water and haul back to transition more quickly than the kayakers could lift their boats. On the other hand, they paddled in shoes and I lost time taking my shoes off in transition before getting on the board and putting them back on before running a half-mile back to the bikes.

Perhaps Vibram Five Fingers would have been the happy medium, though I hate to think what it would have been like pedaling 6.2 miles in them. Simpkins and his crew mowed a path through the pastures and I’ve never been on a better marked course in any off-road race, with hundreds of red directional arrows. But navigating a bike over rolling terrain consisting mostly of grass over sand was challenging. The closest thing to a hard surface was an occasional brief grassy strip of packed-down dirt.

Part of a gauntlet of obstacles over the last 200 yards

In theory, the YAKathon was comparable to a sprint triathlon, though I’ve never felt more sluggish getting off a bike and heading out on a 5K run. Simpkins took us out on a reverse version of the course he laid out for the Monster Bash Dash 5K, the zombie-themed run he debuted in May and will bring back Oct. 27. There were countless minor obstacles – low-lying branches, fences, 3-4 foot walls, and a series of obstacles over the last 200 yards.

I finished in 1:42:13, which is 30-35 minutes slower than a sprint triathlon time. I cramped up on the run, something that only happens in longer triathlons. There were plenty of water stops, but I didn’t take my pre-race hydration seriously enough.

Lesson learned. The YAKathon is a serious challenge, one non-swimmers and triathletes will enjoy. We’re pumped to see what Simpkins and Carson come up with for The Highlander in September. By hosting all of their events in one sprawling venue convenient to Tampa and Orlando, they can overlap courses and obstacles, giving them something of a homefield advantage.

Rock On Adventures was among the first to give out the soft, fitted Tultex T-shirts, and they delivered another a great shirt to go with a promising race.

We’re looking forward to next year.

 

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