Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee (GVRAT) 2020…


 … or "How I kept from going totally insane for four months."

In March it became apparent that the COVID 19 virus was going to have a bit of an impact on trail racing, at least in the spring. In April, it became apparent that I had grossly underestimated the impact. I did a few virtual races by running/walking the streets in the neighborhood, but I needed something a bit more.

Along came the GVRAT

Mr. Lake (not his real name, and I would be surprised if he would even answer to it), or Laz as he is more commonly known, recognized that there was a need for a summer challenge. Mr. Lake has a knack for coming up with challenges. (Barkley Marathons, Big's Backyard Ultra, A Race for the Ages (ARFTA), and others.)

He had already established a very challenging race across Tennessee called the Last Annual Vol State Road Race. It's 314 miles from a spot on the northern end of the state to a spot on the southern end. From Missouri to Georgia. With no aid stations. And a ten day cutoff.

That race wasn't challenging enough for what he had in mind - he wanted something that would take several months. He wanted it to be something that reasonably normal people would have a decent chance of finishing, but something that reasonably abnormal people would also find challenging. 

Like going across Tennessee, but the long way, diagonally, from a point at the southwest corner to a point at the northeast corner. The longest possible distance. And even though it's virtual and people would cover the distance while staying near home, it needed a real course - not a straight line as the buzzard flies.

The two courses across Tennessee. 

It was billed as a 1000K course (math people will want to call it a 1M course), but precision is not a strong point of Mr. Lake, and it ended up being just under 1022K. Or right around 635 miles. 

More than double the Vol State race. 

But we had four months to finish, from May 1 to August 31. 123 days.  All you had to do was cover about 5.2 miles per day. Every day. You could choose to cover 20 miles on one day and take a few days off, and many took that approach. Others, like me, took the approach of consistently shooting for  around five miles a day. You could start in June or July and just cover more miles per day and catch up.

A quirk of the course was that you spent a considerable amount of time outside of Tennessee. The first 25 miles was spent in Arkansas (followed by spending a stupidly long time trying to get across Memphis). At a bit over halfway, you dipped down into Georgia. And as you neared the finish, you found yourself crossing into Virginia for about 30 miles before dipping back down into Tennessee to finish. Very much not the way a buzzard would fly it.

About the buzzards

Speaking of buzzards, a fun addition to the race was a wake of buzzards (I looked this up and find it appropriate) as pacers. Important point (maybe) - they were all female. A second important point - they never took a day off. Your progress was always with respect to a buzzard. Their names:

  • Buzzard: She was the one that methodically made her way across Tennessee, about 5.2 miles a day, and the one I paid the most attention to. 
  • DCCC Buzzard: She was the next one I could chase (about 6.5 miles per day). I finally had to ask what the name meant - think Roman numerals. She was the 800 mile buzzard for those that finished but wanted to go a little bit further.
  • Thousand Buzzard: As her name implies, she was the 1000 mile buzzard (about 8.13 miles per day). You could enter to chase her once you finished the main crossing, and you would get a pin for catching her. 
  • Double Buzzard: A surprising number of people, once they finished the main crossing, had time to head back. This buzzard paced them (about 10.33 miles per day).
  • Dr Buzzard: This was tough to work out for me. I already knew the Roman numeral trick, but "DR" is not a Roman numeral. It turned out that another way to refer to a doctor is as an MD. That IS a Roman numeral - she was the 1500 mile buzzard (about 12.2 miles per day) for those that finished returning across Tennessee that wanted to start back across for the third time.
  • Triple Buzzard: As her name implies, she paced those that wanted to make three crossings (about 15.5 miles per day). Sheesh.

And I should also mention the Gingerbread Man. Not a pacer, but a "runner" intended to lead the whole way. And he did.

So, how did I do?

I managed to make it across the state in 118 days (along with 257 others). I had no double-digit days and no zero days. I'm proof that just about anyone could take on this challenge. (The biggest finish day was the next to the last day, day 122 with 841 finishers. The final day had 632 finishers.)

A bit less than half of my spreadsheet. It's not as fascinating as it looks.

I decided to create a spreadsheet to track my runs/walks and progress. (The column with sporadic green shows whether I am ahead of the buzzard or behind it. The blue cells indicate runs as opposed to walks. There was a lot of walking done.) I kept thinking of things to add to it as I went along, and because of it, I can give you a few of my stats:

  • 218 runs/walks: There were 218 official run/walk events for me. The shortest was 1.05 miles and the longest was 8.74 miles.
  • Treadmill runs/walks: I only had four treadmill run/walk events, accounting for a whopping 5.66 miles. Partly this was due to our treadmill having issues. But even once it was fixed, I tried to avoid it since I was pretty sure I was why it had issues in the first place. (Who knew pizza and Cheetos weren't good for the treadmill belt?)
  • Trail runs/walks: I had 32 run/walk events on trails in the area, accounting for 161.26 miles. Most of those miles were on flat trails that had as few people as possible on them. Once in a while Mrs. Notthat and I would venture out to proper trails, but all too often, so did many others.
  • Neighborhood runs/walks: I had a staggering 182 run/walk events through the neighborhood, accounting for 468.65 miles.
  • Miles run vs. walked: I ran 90.12 miles and walked all the rest. (That's not quite true - there were some mixed events with a bit of running and a bit of walking that I just lumped in with walking.)
  • Minute/mile average: I averaged 18.01 minutes/mile. Note that a lot of these walks were with our two dogs, and I did not pause the timer for poop duty. And wow do they like to smell everything.
  • Time: You did not log time for this race, so officially, it took me 118 days. I actually spent 189 hours and 49 minutes on these events.

I spent a remarkable amount of time wandering around in our neighborhood. A typical day would be a morning dog walk followed by a lunch or evening run/walk - always with my eyes set on getting around five miles in.

A dozen random "courses."

I tried to make the neighborhood miles as interesting as possible, but they still got very redundant. Early on, there was a lot of chalk on the sidewalk that would help.

Another huge help was that the city restricted traffic on a nearby street which made it much easier to navigate while dodging others.

I must have passed this fence 50 times before I noticed that someone was using it to store gum for later.

In the end, the neighborhood miles were fine. And wildly better than treadmill miles.

How did others do?

When Laz set up this event, he hoped for maybe a couple thousand people to sign up. Maybe 3,000. He ended up with nearly 20,000 people registered. 

And immediately had some technical issues to deal with, such as how do you handle that many people trying to log miles every day for four months. I can only imagine the flood of emails that would come in daily about one issue or the other. After some growing pains, it became a fairly smooth process to log your miles every night, and then in the morning, you could look in a massive table to see your progress. 

One thing that amazed me was how I could wind up at some random mile point, say, 413.2 miles, and look at the table to see that there were maybe 40 others at that exact same point. It was fun to picture what this would have really been like if we were all actually on the roads.

Not all 20,000 finished. 326 people never logged a single mile. 818 never even made it to Tennessee and are still wandering around Arkansas. But 13,737 did make it across. 

A group I find interesting are the 32 that made it at least 99% of the way but didn't finish. (99% would put you within 6.5 miles of being done.) 10 ended at about 99.9% - most less than a mile from the finish. Some of those I believe were competing to see how close they could get to finishing without actually finishing. (Look, nobody ever said runners don't come up with stupid ideas and goals.) I do worry that some of those were runners that truly thought they had finished, but really needed just a bit more - and that makes me sad.

I'm sure Mr Lake will get an email or two.

There were also a lot of runners that had issues come up - maybe an injury, something in the family or at work - that severely restricted the time they could spend on this. Those people will be able to continue logging their miles for a bit and eventually reach their goal, and they are awesome.

And then there are the over-achievers. Those that wanted more miles. More crossings. More buzzards to chase after. 

  • RAT (Race Across Tennessee): 13737 earned the right to be called a RAT. Three runners managed the 635 miles in just 12 days (53 miles per day average).
  • 1000: 2718 ran at least 1000 miles. The fastest did this in 22 days (a 45.45 miles/day average).
  • BAT (Back Across Tennessee): 1487 made it all the way back to the start. The fastest did this in 27 days (a 47 miles/day average). 
  • CAT (Cross Again Tennessee): (I don't know what CAT actually stands for - the "C" might just be the next letter after "B.") 142 made it across Tennessee a third time, the fastest doing it in 47 days (a 40.5 miles/day average).
  • GNATS: (Maybe this is an acronym, but I think it just meant these were people that were causing Laz an annoying amount of extra work he hadn't bargained for.) These are people that did more than three crossings:
    • Four crossings: 24 made it.
    • Five crossings: 9 made it.
    • Six crossings: 3 made it.
    • Seven crossings: 2 made it.
    • Eight crossings: 1 - Mathew Jenkins covered 5080 miles in 119 days - an average of 42.7 miles/day. That's truly astonishing.


One thing that came up was whether you could enter your miles in multiple virtual events. 

As it became apparent that real races were not going to be happening this summer, a number of race companies jumped on the virtual race bandwagon. There were a LOT of races similar to this that involved crossing a state (Mrs Notthat and I ran the Maryland version). There were a number of races that involved supporting local race companies (we did several of those too). 

Because GVRAT was four months long, there was a lot of overlap. Which brought up the question - if I run eight miles, can I log it as eight miles for multiple races (double-dipping) or do I have to split it between the races? 

All the virtual races I saw explicitly allowed you to double-dip, which makes sense since most of them were not really races, but more like training programs designed to give you a goal to shoot for. In my mind, I looked at them as ways to support local race companies and didn't feel the slightest bad about using my miles for two at once.

A number of people decided to not double-dip - if they ran simultaneous races, they ran miles specific to each race. That's pretty awesome, but well beyond what I would be able to do. If I had taken that approach, I would have only been able to participate in one race at a time, and GVRAT at four months would have been all I could have done. (Some of those people avoided GVRAT just for that reason.)

And that's about it

This event was challenging but fun - pretty much exactly what I was looking for. In addition to the event's large Facebook group, there was a Northern California-based Facebook group started by Jen where we could commiserate and whine about the buzzards. Laz would regularly post insightful things that covered everything from his bewilderment at people that refused to read the rules or do a tiny bit of research on their own, to inspiring things that made you feel great and maybe convinced you that, in spite of what you were thinking, you really could get this done.

We were to have the choice of a buckle or medal once we finished, but by the time I finished, all that was left were buckles, which was fine by me.

Everyone that registered got this shirt. The "1000" sticker was included with the buckle.

The back of the shirt, with one of those stupid buzzards.

Laz and his team really outdid themselves for this event. For almost all of us, this was going to be our one shot at participating in a Lazarus Lake event.

Well, until he created another audacious event - the Circumpolar Race Around the World (CRAW). I don't know much about this - I've been avoiding looking into it very closely - but it makes going across Tennessee look like a walk around the block.

For now I'm good with being a RAT.

That's it - move along…

Saturday, July 27, 2019

"Summer" Golden Gate trail race - where's the heat?

As I get older, I am becoming more reluctant to get up early to drive to races with early start times.

There are MANY races in the Marin Headlands, and it's not hard to understand why - there are several natural staging areas with parking and many fantastic trails. Trails that are also popular with locals and tourists that are more interested in the views and a peaceful outing than whether they can get a PR on a treacherous downhill bombing run. This can lead to conflicts, although most often everyone seems to coexist fairly well.

The park services though (this area is run by several different ones), have decided that starting the races earlier will get the runners off the trails earlier (that checks out) and make the trails a bit more welcoming to others later in the day.

When I saw that Coastal's Golden Gate race started at 7 AM, I decided I wasn't interested. It's a one hour drive to get there, which meant waking around 5 AM, which is a time my old, reluctant self is not interested in seeing.

But then Not A Canadian started talking to Mrs Notthat, convincing her that getting up at 5 AM can be fun. She even offered to drive. So I was dragged into the race, maybe not kicking and screaming, but at least frowning and sighing heavily.

NAC and I decided to run the Half Marathon while Mrs Notthat ran the 5M loop.

Modified course due to PG&E work.
PG&E (motto: "Ticking People Off Since 1852") has been doing something (NOT installing escalators) on some of the key trails used by many trail races in this area, so the course had to be modified a bit. Well, a lot. The overall affect on distance and the amount of climbing you had to do for the main loop was minimal, but it added some challenging course marking/monitoring to make sure runners stayed on course.

Those smaller climbs near the end felt a LOT taller than that.
I've run the standard course a couple of times, so I was actually a bit excited to get to be on a few trails I've not been on before. I also tend to like out-and-back bits since they allow me to see runners ahead of and behind me. And I can always use a nice rubber band.

One thing we didn't have was sunshine. The start/finish was at Rodeo Beach (motto: "No Bull Riding, but Wow Do We Have Clowns"), and was just a bit under the thick marine layer covering the area. It was cool, but not really cold. That was saved for once you climbed up into the marine layer.

The first climb starts almost immediately.
NAC and I started together, but I was shocked to find that we were much closer to the front of the corral than I'm used to. (But what NAC is totally used to.) Shortly after we headed out, with me running faster than I should have been, I was able to pull over and let the majority of the runners go by while I took my proper place at the back of the pack.

The gun barrel points the way.
We didn't climb much before we were in the marine layer, where it was much cooler and very moist. The good part was that the coolness really didn't feel bad since the climb had warmed us up a lot.

Those stairs are not OSHA compliant!
A good thing (maybe?) about the marine layer was that you really couldn't see how much climbing you had left - the trail disappeared into the mists and you were allowed to imagine it started downhill at that point. (It didn't. Ever.)

The sun struggling to burn off the marine layer. The sun losing. The climb never ending, no matter what it looks like.

All distances start with the same climb. At this point, the 5M runners are done climbing and can head back to the finish on a glorious downhill. All other runners turn left do a bit more climbing, then head down to the first aid station. Also glorious downhill, but we all have a second big climb in our near future.

"Which way do I NOT go?"
Just before starting the long downhill to the aid station, there was an intersection that normally is not a big deal for the runners, but due to the course change, it could be a bit confusing, and was worthy of a volunteer to make sure we all headed the right way. (We would essentially make a loop and end up back here, on a different trail. It would be sad to mistakenly make a wrong turn and do that loop again.)

The Tennessee Valley aid station, view from the glorious toilets.
Getting to the first aid station at about mile four was awesome for the normal reasons (food! hydration! encouragement!), but also for a bonus reason - this one had a couple of toilets, and I really needed one. I lost some time in one of those toilets, but my comfort afterwards made it well worth it.

Back up into the marine layer.
When you left that aid station, you immediately started up the second big climb - the infamous Marincello trail. It's a long, consistent, fairly mild uphill. Real runners can run up it (and many of those real runners, running one of the longer distances which included a bonus loop,  passed me as I slogged up it). I dream of one day being able to run up this thing, but at this point, a power hike is what I had to settle for.

Wait - is that real sunshine?
About halfway up that climb, the sun made a brief appearance, finally justifying the sunglasses many runners had been carrying all morning.

It didn't last.

Back to the marine layer. (And nearly done with the second climb! Maybe!)
"Which way do I go?"
I finally made it back to the course monitor and now had a nice, long downhill stretch of trail.

Eventually I made it back down near sea level and out of the marine layer. We were on the 5M course, but this is where we turned off of it and started the bonus out-and-back bit.

"Hi there Saile, not your real name!" He was a bit over a mile ahead of me, heading back with his coveted rubber band.
Pick a color - any color. Maybe.
An amusing thing (to me) was that this guy asked if he had to grab a specific color of rubber band - I said it just had to match his shirt color, which caused a brief bit of consternation before he realized I was not someone to be trusted. How he avoided taking a swing at me, or at least making a rude gesture, I will never understand. (For the record, I picked one that matched my shirt nicely.)

"Hi there Htebazile, not your real name!" She was running the 30K, and while she was almost a mile behind me, she had also run about five more miles than I had. Would she catch me? (Duh.)
The second (and third, kind of) aid station and Bermuda Triangle Quadrangle, about mile 10 and 11.
The second aid station was a bit confusing, with runners coming in from two different directions and heading out in two other different directions. The first time you hit it, you were to make a left and do a one mile loop. The second time, you also made a left, but this left pointed you to the finish.

Of course the little loop had a hill.
"Hi there again Htebazile, still not your real name!"
As expected, it didn't take long for Htebazile to catch up to me. (Note: She had ended up second overall in the previous weekend's Brazen Dirty Dozen, with well over 60 miles in 12 ours. That she was even standing up, let alone running a 30K was astonishing. Passing me was not astonishing at all, other than the trick of me getting ahead of her in the first place.)

Ah! Rodeo Beach ahead!
The race finishes with a fairly flat sprint (ha ha ha) along the road.

NAC and Mrs Notthat encouraging me to go faster.
Mrs Notthat had finished her 5M races hours ago, and since I didn't see NAC on the out-and-back, I knew she was WAY ahead of me and also finished long ago. They were huddled in the car for warmth as I trundled by. "Hurry up geezer!" It was nice to get some final encouragement.

At least I got this nice picture of me for all my grief.

Picture by NAC. Weird grimace/grin by me.
The finish! Finally!
I wasn't sure what to expect as a finish time since it had been a long time since I'd run a hilly Half. I figured anything less than four hours would be OK, but I really wanted to be under 3:30. Maybe 3:15?

Ha! Not today. I ended up with just under 3:34 - honestly not bad, but a bit disappointing. The toilet break didn't help, but it also didn't set me back enough to cause me to miss that 3:30 goal. On the positive side, my body was fine (if a bit soaked - I sweat a lot anyway, and spending so much time in the clouds just makes me even wetter). It was fun to push myself a bit.

The medal and bib.
In the end, it was worth the early wake up to run this race. Mrs Notthat did awesome (as always) in her 5M race, but just missed out on an age group award (she missed third by 66 seconds and second by 70 seconds!).

It was fun running on new (to me) trails. I missed the amazing views you are normally rewarded with at the top of the climbs, as well as the great view of the Golden Gate Bridge you get with the normal course, but it was nice to do something a bit different.

A huge thanks to Coastal Trail Runs and all the volunteers that helped make this a great event!

That's it - move along…

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Dirty Dozen turns ten!

In 2010, when the Brazen Brain Trust (BBT for short) decided that spending a whole day at Point Pinole was a good idea, Mrs Notthat and I rolled our eyes and said no. (That first year, they did not offer the "Dirty" distances like they do now. They did have the twelve and six hour options and teams like now though - we could have done that easily.)

Some race details

Simplified course map. 
The basic idea of the race is that you run as many of the big loops as you can in six or twelve hours. For the last hour, you get to run the small loop. (Partially run loops don't count, so you really don't want to be caught out on the course when the horn blows.)

That runner was that close to finishing a little loop when the horn sounded.
The length of the loop made it easy to add 5K and 10K races that run near the end of the six and twelve hour races. Some run both, and even add a Dirty race to a timed race just to get the bonus shirt and medal.

NotThat history at this race

I've mostly regretted skipping that first race since there is a lot of glory in being able to say you've participated every year. (OK, "a lot of glory" might be a bit strong, but for many of us, it's actually "a LOT of glory.") I've been to all nine events since then, and Mrs Notthat has been to eight.

Mrs Notthat has run the twelve hour solo twice, the twelve hour as a two-person team twice, and the Dirty races (5K and/or 10K) four times.

Six times I've run the twelve hour solo (once taking advantage of the rule that you really only have to complete one lap since my knee was a total wreck). Twice I've run one or both Dirty races.

The thing I had never done was run as a team, so that's what Mrs Notthat and I did as Team NotThoseLucas.

One thing I've done twice now is signing up for a twelve hour race but showing up late - getting there at 7 AM means leaving home at about 5:30 AM, and in my old age, that's not as much fun as it sounds. Showing up late means you likely won't win (ha ha ha), but you can still get as many laps done as possible.

Note: If you decide to do this, do NOT cross the timing mat under the arch when you start your first lap. Stay away from the arch and start your first lap a few yards from there. Your first lap will have an absurd time since it is based on the race's 7 AM start time.

Race expectations

I'm not in great shape, and I had no idea how my body would deal with running a lap, then sitting around eating and visiting while Mrs Notthat ran a lap. Mrs Notthat has not run more than a 10K for well over a year - it was unknown how many laps she would be able to get with her body able to do a bit of recovery after each lap.

Realistically, I figured three laps for her (just under ten miles - her longest distance in over a year) and I would try to get four laps (basically a Half Marathon).

I underestimated Mrs Notthat by a fair amount - if it hadn't gotten windy and cool towards the end we might still be there running laps. (No we wouldn't.)

This chart sounded like a good idea when I put it together, but it's not easy to work out. That's the races Mrs Notthat has run since 2015. 138 of them. Click it to see it bigger, but I'm not sure that will really help.

The race (finally)

The race officially started at 7 AM, but we arrived a bit after 9 AM.

Picture by Yloy (not her real name, but close!). 
We had one bib on a belt that we had to pass off between each other. (The results do not reflect who ran which lap, so for bragging rights, you have to keep track of that yourself.)

Mrs Notthat ran the first lap, starting around 9:31, and since we started late, she got the credit for the longest lap (3:16:43!) - in real life that was almost for sure the fastest lap for our team.

From there, we alternated turns.

Running along the shoreline.
Running through the trees.
The aid station.
The final ridge - you can see the arch, you can hear the music, you can smell the BBQ.
We have done many events on these trails, so we know them pretty well. If you are pretty sure running multiple loops will drive you crazy, this may be the course for you. There is a lot of variety - open exposed areas, densely forested areas, some minor hills (about 150 feet of climbing per loop), and mostly dirt/gravel trails with a bit of pavement, just because.

"Which way do I go Yllom and Nhoj, not your real names?" This is a tough gig to volunteer at since it lasts so long and has just enough complexity to make it interesting.
"Which way do I go?" Finishing a lap. It could get interesting when there were people finishing a Dirty race, a big loop, and a small loop - you needed to know which of those applied to you.
"What took you so long?" Passing the bib off to Mrs Notthat in the race's festival area. There were so many tents and awnings this year!
It was mostly sunny, but breezy, especially later in the afternoon. The cool breeze was not much of an issue when you were running, but when you were standing around waiting for your next turn, it could really cool you off and make you a bit chilled.

"Oh, you've done a race with a blowup arch? Cute." The scary thing is that I'm fairly certain that Brazen has several more arches they could set up. 
In the above picture, the farthest away arch was for the Dirty 5K/10K runners, the red one was for the big loop runners, and the blue one was for the little loop runners. Next year I'm expecting an arch for the BBQ line. Maybe another for the porta-potties.

Meanwhile, out on the course…

Mrs Notthat and Refinnej (not her real name) powering through a lap. Picture by Brazen paparazzi.
Clocky (his/her/its real name) sporting tight tights and inspiring runners out on the course.
Wait, what?
There were a number of "inspirational" signs along the course that were updated regularly. Weirdly, the NotThats were mentioned on one, and it took me a while to work out what it was saying (think a spelling-challenged "Luke").

"Hi there Nerak and Eibbed, not your real names!" Sisters, who live in wildly different parts of the country, talking about sister things on the trail. 
"Of course I'm ready for another lap! I've had hours to rest while you were out there!" Mrs Notthat thrived in this format.

Let's wrap this up

And that's about it. We started about two and a half hours late, and made up for that by leaving an hour and a half early (the cool breeze became an enthusiastic cold wind in the afternoon).

Runners in the timed events got a nice hoodie and a medal that doubles as a coaster.
I got my loose goal of a Half Marathon worth of loops (four), but the real star was Mrs Notthat who somehow ended up with five loops, nearly 17 miles! Looking at that chart from early on, you can see that this was the first time she had gone beyond the Half distance since early 2015! Being able to recover a bit after each loop really helped her go so much farther than I had expected. As a team, we came really close to the 50K distance, but held on to last place in the two-person teams with a firm death grip.

I'm not convinced I like the team format - it's great for socializing, and it's nice to get extended breaks, but restarting the legs got tougher for each lap.

An interesting thing about this race is that you would think, over the course of twelve hours, you would often see the other runners. In actuality though, because it's a fairly long loop, you can end up not seeing some runners at all, and that's one thing the team approach helps since you are spectating a lot of the time.

In any case, it was a blast and a lot of fun to catch up to so many friends, as well as watching the proper runners really pushing it to win their races. (A fun thing - the overall top finishers in the twelve hour solo event were women, each pushing the other to get one more lap done! The winner managed a bit over 66 miles! Wildly impressive!)

That's it - move along…