30 October 2014

gear review - Nathan quickdraw elite handheld hydration bottle

my preference is to be the least encumbered runner that i can possibly be.  that's why i don't run with music, and (to my friend trevor's great surprise when we first started training together) why i don't usually carry any water on my workouts.

however, having set my sights on tackling my first ultra this year i decided that perhaps it would be wise to invest in some kind of hydration system ... whether it be a packstyle bladder and tube or a belt and multiple bottles or a handheld container.  after some consultation with seasoned ultra and trail running competitors, i decided to give the Nathan quickdraw elite a go.

on the one hand:
the nathan quickdraw plus (QDE) is a well thought-through product.  from the multiple front pockets - including a zippered one large enough for most smartphones should you choose to carry one along - to the adjustable velcro sizing strap and the standard-ish sized 22oz sport water bottle, this piece of gear is designed with the runner's comfort and accessibility in mind.

some of the best features of the QDE are:
  • easy-to-open and close rubber nozzle - use your teeth to yank it open and slam it against one of your glutes to shut it again!  durable and leakproof.
  • quick-fill - no fiddling with bladders or trying to pour juice jugs into itty bitty bottle openings.  the wide mouth on the QDE makes aid station stops a snap.
  • open-hand fit - the webbing on the handhold has a thumbhole to secure the bottle to your hand and allows you to have a loose grasp on the QDE, meaning that you carry less tension in your upper body while running.
  • washability - the bottle can endure the dishwasher and the harness can go through the laundry cycle.
  • protective equipment!! - i'd read elsewhere that one of the upsides to using handheld hydration is that in the event of a trip and fall the bottles can help cushion the landing and save some abrasion.  and yes, i did unwittingly put my QDE to the test - and yes, it helped the tumble look a little more graceful!

on the other hand:
really, what's not to love?

ok, i guess that there are a couple of (minor) points that i could make here:
  • arm swing - whether using a single handheld or a pair in tandem, carrying bottles will affect your otherwise unencumbered arm swing.  it just takes a bit of getting used to - but i certainly didn't find it distracting or detrimental.
  • temperature - the few times that i've ventured out in cooler weather with the QDE i found that my hands were colder than normal if i'd filled the bottle with cold water.  i know that it stands to reason, but after a while the temperature of the water rose a couple of degrees (probably more from body heat than air temperature) and it wound up being comfortable enough.  there were just a few early kilometres of stinging palms.
you can check out my video review of the QDE here: 

the bottom line?  this is a great piece of equipment for any runner, but in particular those who enjoy trail/ultra running.  thumbs up (through the webbing)!

17 October 2014

on the run ... with brett larner

welcome to another interview in the on the run series ...

when it comes to political news the media often has foreign correspondents on the ground providing in-depth insights into what's really happening in that zone or territory.  for the running world, one of the most important foreign correspondent voices is brett larner, the founder of Japan Running News.  as someone born in western culture but now integrated into the japanese world, brett provides a unique window into one of the planet's most fascinating and successful running nations.
. . . . .

1.  At first glance it seems like you're a citizen of the world - a Canuck by birth, college studies in the US, now focusing on music in Japan. Where does your heart consider home?

(a) Winnipeg - I'm Canadian by birth and will always be a Canuck!
(b) The USA - having studied and run for Wesleyan College, that's where my formative days were spent
(c) Japan - studying and performing the koto brought me here, and I've been here a whole lot longer than I thought I would be
(d) Wherever my wife is!
(e) Other

BL:   "E" - I don't really feel any particular connection to a specific place.  When I was five we moved from Winnipeg to Atlanta, and I think I've moved twelve times since then, usually internationally.  As a result I'm fairly rootless and tend to view things as transitory.   I do love Tokyo, though.   It's a good place for people who don't really fit in anywhere and I've lived here longer than anywhere else, so in those regards I guess it is home even if you can't really be at home in Japan as a non-Japanese. 

While it's true that studying music initially brought me here and that I worked professionally for quite a while, I stopped performing and recording professionally about five years ago.  I still play privately and for fun but it would not be accurate to say that I focus on music.  My focus now is on running-related things.

2.   Your web platform Japan Running News has been active in helping bring some of the outstanding Japanese talent to major races in other parts of the world (e.g. Yuki Kawauchi to 2013 and 2014 NYC Marathon, Yoshihisa Hosaka to 2013 Toronto Waterfront Marathon). What would be the key contribution(s) of JRN in making these appearances happen?

(a) Connections - it's all about who you know, baby
(b) Dollars
(c) Providing chaperones and translation services
(d) All of the above
(e) Other

BL:   "D" and "E" - All of those things play into getting Japanese athletes overseas, but I'd like to think that JRN's main contribution has been to help get people outside Japan interested in the running culture here, its high level of achievement that is otherwise mostly invisible, and in some of its most unique and compelling people.  That was my main motivation in starting JRN since it impressed me so strongly when I came here, and to the extent that I have any connections they have all come from faithfully sticking to that mission for the last seven and a half years.   I never imagined that it would lead to actually working directly with athletes, but I'd only been doing JRN for a little over a year when races started contacting me about getting Japanese athletes, and less than two years before I did it for the first time at the 2009 Copenhagen Marathon.  Their elite coordinator Gavin Doyle was kind enough to bring over two good Japanese amateurs, Toyokazu Yoshimura and Chihiro Tanaka, and they were both kind enough to win. That got things rolling.   Thank you, Gavin.

3.   It sounds as if there was a bit of a pot stirred up on LetsRun.com around comments that quoted you as saying that when compared to achievements in American marathoning history, Yuki Kawauchi's marathon performances in 2013 expose a potentially serious systemic problem with the US training program. What was the key issue in this debate for you?

(a) The difference in focus between Japan's long distance running and the U.S.'s all around approach
(b) The contention that Japan's marathon success might be attributed to physical stature (average Japanese male height of 5'7")
(c) There are too many other competiting opportunities for sporting success and development in the American system
(d) The real issue was lost in translation
(e) None of the above / Other

BL:  "D" or "E" - (d) or (e) I didn't know there was a pot stirred up, or a debate.  When it comes to long distance Kenya and Ethiopia are the best without a doubt, with a few other African countries close behind. Japan and the U.S. are the only other countries really able to compete with them and I'm curious about what each is doing to try to bridge the gap.  How do you keep the fire burning when you know you're not the best?  I find it really interesting to look at the two of them in comparison and see the differences in approach, where each of their strengths and weaknesses are.   Since Japan is quite insular there is not much awareness elsewhere of how good it really is and people tend to assume the U.S. is superior without any question.  Whenever I have put together the numbers that show where Japan outperforms the U.S., like the KGRR surpassing the NCAA in producing quality collegiate distance runners, most people have seemed to find it as interesting as I do but it has often touched a nerve with others. 

In the case you're asking about, I haven't really thought about it since then but as far as I recall I was saying that given how good the U.S. is at other distances, the fact that one person could equal the best year in its history at a distance at which it has a long record of accomplishment suggests problems in its development system, which for whatever reason produced a response saying "Japanese suck at middle distances because Asians are genetically inferior," of which the less said the better, instead of talking about the actual question. It could have been an interesting discussion.  Maybe next time.  I still think that looking at where each country's system has success and each trying to learn from the other would help both take a big step forward.

4.   Many people have tried to dissect the 'East African mystique', especially with the last five marathon WR holders originating from that locale. However, there's no question that formidable contenders in many marathons (both female and male) originate from Japan. In your view what's the biggest contributor to Japanese running success?

(a) The pack/ekiden mentality
(b) National pride in the land of the rising sun
(c) The oriental culture of discipline
(d) High mileage training
(e) Other

BL: "E" - I'm personally highly averse to exoticism and mystiquing.  The existence of a well-established support and development system that extends all the way from junior high school to the pro level, skillful marketing to a commercial base that can support distance running as a spectator sport with regular TV broadcasts, and a history and legacy of excellence.   That system got Japan to that level of excellence before anyone else, and while it plateaued for a long time and has always held back the best Japanese athletes from reaching the medal contender level of Rupp or Ritzenhein it still works in mass-producing quality.  Japan may not be producing Lamborghinis or Ferraris but it is unmatched in turning out reliable Hondas and Toyotas.

*** you can follow brett's reporting on Japan Running News' twitter accounts here and here.  the rendezvoo point also encourages you to support JRN by donating online here so that all of us can continue to learn and grow from the experiences of japanese runners, and those runners have opportunities to learn and grow from encounters beyond the borders of japan.


10 October 2014

race report - 2014 County Marathon

this story starts in the world of social media.

as an aspiring social medialite, a couple of years ago i started putting more attention into developing a presence on facebook, twitter and the blogosphere.  it was through connecting with the running community on twitter that i came into conversation with erin mcdougall who is the organizer for pace bunnies for the County Marathon.  he asked whether or not i'd be interested in being a pacer for this year's edition of the race, and given that i was looking for more ways to become a contributor to (and less of a consumer of) the running community i agreed.

the pace was yet to be determined.

at the time of asking (early this spring) my posted PB in the marathon was still 3:18:14 - and so in terms of comfort i suggested that i might be best suited to be the 3:45 pacer.  erin then let me know that was normally 'his time', and wondered if i might perhaps be open to being a faster pacer at 3:30.  my response back was that i would see how the mississauga marathon went, and then get back to him.  after posting my new PB of 3:14:43, i agreed to take on the 3:30 pacing duties.

my good pal lewis asked to join me for a road trip to picton, ontario and i was happy to spend the time with him - so he arranged to be a race crew volunteer.  we headed out on saturday of race weekend to hit the only day of the expo (and of race kit pick-up), and what started as an uncomplicated 3-hour trip extended itself thanks to a demonstration/blockade on the skyway bridge leading into picton.  apparently an unannounced protest by the native canadian community of tyendinaga over missing aboriginal women shut down the main trafficway into this little town, resulting in a 50-minute detour for us.  given that we'd given ourselves enough buffer time, it was a non-issue that day, but meant that we would have to plan for a different route in the morning.

the expo took place in the "Crystal Palace" in downtown picton, a picturesque barn of a building that is an elaborate community hall.  there were perhaps three or four vendors (including one local running retailer), a table selling previous years' race-branded gear, and the designated kit pick-up tables.  it was a straight-forward in-and-out affair, although i did get to meet kailey the race organizer along with a few other key race team members.  each of them were incredibly friendly and obliging - consistent with all that i'd heard about the character of this event.

i'd booked a hotel (prior to lewis' request to join me for this trip) at a small motel in napanee - about 30 min. away from picton ... if the skyway bridge weren't closed to traffic.  we timed the trip to the motel at just shy of an hour, and adjusted our morning plans accordingly.  after checking in, we headed to the fish 'n' chips restaurant next door on the hotel concierge's recommendation.  a quaint little joint that was hopping with familes and seniors, and good, sizably-portioned homestyle cooking.  i even had a quarter of a club sandwich leftover which i refrigerated for my pre-race breakfast.

after that it was just time to lay out my gear for the next morning - and aside from trying to figure out how to best affix the two rabbit ears to my hat the biggest decision that i had to make was whether or not to be shod in the Skechers GOBionic 2 or the GOMeb Speed 2.  i'd brought both pairs with me as i was unsure what would work best ... the GOBionic 2 was the newest iteration of my #1 ranked running shoe, but the GOMeb Speed 2 had gotten me across the finish line at the mississauga marathon in BQ time.  i decided that i could give no less than my best effort to the group of aspiring 3:30 runners and chose to wear the GOMeb Speed 2 racing flats.  i'd prepare for this race like i was preparing to go and nail my best possible time so that there would be no sense of 'coasting it' for this race.

race day
as part of the parking crew, lewis had to be on-site by 6am - which worked out fine for me.  it meant an early 4am wake-up (anticipating the detour around the blockade area, which turned out to have been cleared up overnight ... but we didn't check twitter in time) but traffic was non-existent.

however, we did drive through plenty of nasty, windswept rain showers.  all the way into picton i was hoping that there would be clearer conditions by the seaway.  though we arrived in spit and mist, by the time that i boarded the shuttle bus (the race is a point-to-point, so we parked at the finish line) to the start area the precipitation had let up - but there was a distinct autumn chill in the air.

the start line was adjacent to an arena so the runners all huddled in there in the warmth, with plenty of indoor washrooms and even an indoor track for warmups!  i spent the time meeting the other pacers, as well as making myself visible to anyone who had designs on trying to lay down a 3:30 time ... which was not hard to do given the size of my ears.

the headband was necessary because only two staples were holding each ear to the hat

the starting chute was about 700m away from the arena, and when it came time to head for the lineup it was still awfully brisk - even though the sun had come up there were plenty of clouds to keep it just a few degrees cooler.  if i had to guess i would have put it at about 7°C, which i knew would be perfect once i got moving.

just prior to the starter's gun firing i met some of the group who would plan to become my posse ... and it began with a barrage of "what's your strategy going to be?" questions.  i let them all know that i was aiming for even pacing and splits, which seemed to set everyone at ease.  there looked to be about six or seven who'd be in the 3:30 wolfpack, which felt like a nice critical mass to me.

as we started the group countdown one runner came through the crowd in a harried fashion, slicing his way to the front of the chute.  his thin kenyan frame pretty much justified what would otherwise be a presumptuous and inconsiderate move - this was gilbert kiptoo, previous winner and on this day attempting to break the course record.

[photo from countylive.ca]

the initial kilometres were spent with nicole (aiming for a BQ time), robin (who knew about me from a mutual friend - whom i've only met online - anna), steve (who'd seemed to have run just about every major marathon in north america), michael (a first timer in the marathon), and a couple others whose names i didn't catch.  within the first four kilometres we picked up kaitlyn (a school teacher on maternity leave who was running the first leg of the 5-person marathon relay) and settled into a relaxed, even rhythm.

well within the first 10km i began to notice that my Garmin 305 was clicking off kilometre splits some 100m before the roadside markers - and then 125m before - then 150m before (you get the picture).  i've known for a while to 'not trust the GPS', but this was a bit disconcerting especially since i needed to help shepherd every across the finish line in 3:30, not just when my device decided that we'd travelled 42.195km.  so i decided instead to just watch my elapsed time and compare the pace bands i'd printed against the roadside markers, and that ended up working well.

kms 13-23 were the real battlefield this day - while everyone was talking about and anticipating the 30-odd metre climb from km 38-40, it was the stretch just after the little town of bloomfield that we began to run into the wind.  gusts hit about 35kph, and definitely began to break up our pack.  even for michael who stayed stride for stride with me it would eat up some first-half energy that would end up making him pay at around the 35km mark.

in terms of the aid stations, they were more frequent than i'd been accustomed to in other races (at every 2km) and several stocked not only water and electrolyte drink but also handed out gels.  there was only one station that seemed to have been unstaffed, but given that there were so many extras along the way this was not a big issue.  and the crowds were great - with the various hand-off points for the relay race as well as the half-marathoners beginning right at the halfway mark of the full marathon, there were plenty of cheering crowds.  they may have been thin at points, but they were no less supportive and vocal.  what a great rally of support from the local community!

at about 29km michael and i caught up to steve (who had put some distance after the 1st km) and also picked up another runner named wynand.  wynand had originally been a first-leg runner for a relay team, but also just that morning registered to finish the full marathon.  he switched bibs after the first relay point, and was using this as a training run having just come off of a disappointing DNF at this year's edition of the canadian death race apparently he had to bail after about 81km of the 125km course - but who am i kidding?  i'd probably have posted a DNS for something called a "death race"!  as i quickly perceived that wynand's accent was south african our conversations turned to the comrades marathon (which he'd completed numerous times) as it is on my bucket list of races.  

after 35km michael began to fade (in that section which wynand described as the "marathoner's graveyard") and it was just wynand and i until about 38km when wynand paused at the aid station to take his salt tablets.  i negotiated the vaunted hill without much difficulty as it was probably talked up more than it needed to be.  with a quick check of my watch i saw that i was still ahead of schedule by about 45 seconds, so went into easy cruising mode for the final 2km or so.  with about 1km left wynand caught up again, having worked hard to make up the lost ground - and with a quick tap on the shoulder i saw him break off ahead as he would go on to a 3:28:58 finish.

the finishing chute was loud, crowded and energetic.  as i approached i could hear the announcer say "here comes our 3:30 pacer - within 30 seconds of his time.  next time you want to run the County Marathon, make sure you connect with our pacers who are right on time!"  i crossed in 3:29:39 (clock time) which was a real win for me, and i felt great.  after receiving my medal i saw my buddy lewis helping to keep people moving out of the chute and toward the bag check area.

i hung around to see steve, michael and robin finish their races - and was immensely proud of each of them for their accomplishments.  i also was watching for nicole, but when she didn't show up after the 3:45 bunny came in and it started to rain (big drops), i bailed into the Crystal Palace where there were refreshments, free beer (!), and the posted results.

inside i caught up with a number of other runners that i'd connected with, including michael who introduced me to his wife and then asked her to take a picture of he and i together.  together with a conversation with robin post-race about how much she appreciated my pacing, these were the moments that provided me with a sense of accomplishment as a first-time pacer.  in some small way i'd hit the mark.

lewis and didn't dawdle too long as we both wanted to hit the road at a decent time, but we did pause to say thanks to kailey and erin for their help in bringing us to the County Marathon.  all in all it was a very memorable race for all the right reasons - and i have designs on checking in on it again next october.

if you're looking for a small-ish, super-well executed half or full marathon next fall you will definitely want to check this one out!

as for me - next stop, the Hamilton Marathon Road2Hope on nov. 2!