Monday, December 30, 2013

My Best 2013 Race Photos


As Northeast Race Photo, I took pictures at about 90 races in 2013. It's impossible to create a truly "best of" album since there's so many variables for what it would be the "best" of. Best technical quality of the photo? Best focus? Best athlete in action? Best shots of race winners? Best shots of back-of-the-pack runners? Best representative of a given race, or type of race? Best shot that makes you feel something? Best shot of a given person? There's too many subjective possibilities; I'd end up with a seriously HUGE album. So, forgoing any attempt at objectivity, here's my totally subjective Best Of 2013 album that:

-shows the diversity of races and race types I shot,
-shows a diversity of conditions I shot in, 
-presents photos in chronological order throughout the whole year, and
-contains some of my personal favorite pics (though not even nearly all)

I admit to being particularly partial to photos of fathers and daughters being active together. Nothing against fathers and sons, or mothers and sons or daughters, but there's just something about the father/daughter dynamic that gets me, and I think its because there used to be a sort of cultural lack of that kind of thing in the pre-Title 9 era, at least around where I grew up. It just warms my heart to see how far we've come, and to see people being Good Parents. And I think it's a good reminder of what's really important here.

Some special types of shots have already been promoted on this blog. Leapers, for example. But I also like dramatic action shots; trail runners splashing in streams is a huge favorite, and the start of a swim wave at a triathlon can be a spectacular moment. Biking is a tough one to get interesting shots of when you're set up to get a shot of everyone (not every panning shot or dramatic angle will work, so I avoid them when shooting races where I want at least one workable shot of everyone), but there are a few I think are pretty sweet nevertheless. And I'm partial to trail running in general. I just love being out there in the woods or on the mountain. So that type of race may show up pretty frequently.

Full disclosure: some of the shots in the album are of friends and people I know. Did I choose them over similar shots of others because I like these people? Yeah, probably. One of the many perks of being friendly with the photographer =)

If you have a favorite shot from any of the 2013 Northeast Race Photo galleries, and you think it belongs in the Best Of gallery, please drop me a line with the link to it and I'll gladly add it to the album.

It was a lot of hard work, but I'm really pleased with the galleries for most of the races I took photos at in the past year. I'm planning to keep shooting at races in 2014, so stay strong, look sharp, and happy racing in the coming year, my tribe. Cheers! 



Sunday, December 29, 2013

Ten Things That Used To Be Better

Ten things that used to be better, why, and how they could be better again

In the spirit of all the top ten type lists that were making the rounds last week, here's a slightly curmudgeonly, negative-but-with-positive-intentions, non-comprehensive end-of-2013 list of ten things I can think of at the moment that were once significantly better than they are now, and that could easily be made better again. Counting down, but in no particular order:


10. ASICS DS-Trainer running shoes

Since its debut in 1995, this was my runaway favorite running shoe. I ran my first marathon in a pair. I could go into a store and buy a box of 11½'s without ever trying them on and know I’d get 400-500 great miles out of them. Until around 2011-2013, that is, when they altered the design such that it went from a comfortable, breathable ride to a poorly ventilated ankle weight. And the colors got really bad too; the men’s 17 model was a nauseating baby blue and the 18 model looked like a garish bumblebee.

How to make it better: Make it more breathable, more comfortable, and better looking. Go back to the design of the 15 model, which was perfect.

ASICS DS-Trainer 18: this is seriously supposed to be a good-looking running shoe?

ASICS DS-Trainer 15: the perfect running shoe.

*******

9. Honda Civics (and maybe sedans in general)

I drove a ’97 Honda Civic for about twelve years. That thing was affordable, comfortable, and just kept going. In 2006, a major redesign signaled the beginning of the end for this car. Sightlines were cut off by too-far-forward posts, dashboards began to prioritize rear-view camera LCDs, and wipers started moving in opposite directions instead of together.

How to make it better: Stop putting stuff right in the driver’s eyeline, be it bright dashboard lights or side-curtain airbag posts. And for crying out loud, just make the wipers go in the same direction again already.

a typical 2013 Honda Civic cockpit;
WHY would they put BRIGHT BLUE LIGHTS right above the wheel in front of the driver's eyes???
at least this model doesn't have a giant LCD rear-backup camera screen taking up console real estate

*******

8. Athlinks

A textbook example of a potentially great website that definitely needed upgrading but got wrecked instead. The original version allowed you to easily see all your race results since race results started going digital (generally late-90's), compare times from similar distances and see averages, and check in on your friends’ times. The new version has larger text makes it hard to see enough without lots of scrolling, loses the “averages” feature, and often never finishes loading and instead leaves me looking at a blinking icon.

How to make it better: Anything at all would be an improvement over this atrocious redesign.


I liked it like this

whereas THIS mess simply sucks
(this is all I ever see; that torch icon just blinks and the page never loads)

*******

7. Google Maps

So, Google did an upgrade to its incredibly useful Maps feature in mid-2013. Now they pointlessly make you do an extra step to get to the Maps feature from the main Google search page. And they eliminated the "terrain view" option, which I used pretty much every single time I used Google Maps, which was often.

How to make it better: put Maps as an icon or hyperlink back on the main Google search page (and while you’re at it, stop making the text jump up into the URL bar from the search box; isn’t that what the search box is FOR??), and for cryin’ out loud bring back the terrain view feature. Jeez, Google.

Mount Desert Island, ME, with terrain (you can see where the mountains are)

Mount Desert Island, ME, without terrain (mountains? what mountains?)

*******

6. The X-Men

Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m a 42 year-old man. But I submit to any smirkers out there that there’s more here than you realize. I collected comics as a teenager, primarily due to Chris Claremont’s strong writing run on the X-Men in mid-80s. “Classic” storylines like the initial Brood arc, the first Wolverine miniseries (the “failed samurai” one with the ninjas in Japan, drawn by Frank Miller, that the recent movie was based on), the Asgard annuals, and Inferno were all worth a look. There was some fantastic artwork during that time too (Paul Smith, Art Adams, etc.). It all tanked in the 90's, when the writing sucked and the art focused way too much on exaggerated muscles, hyper-inflated boobs, and absurdly giant guns. And when every uniform seemed to feature a diagonal utility belt. More than a decade passed, and I never thought about comics during that time.

Then, to my surprise, there was a revival. Around 2005, someone told me that there was some stuff worth looking at again. I discovered that between maybe 2001 and 2006, some amazing work had occurred. Writers like Grant Morrison and Joss Whedon had fantastic runs on X-Men titles. The artwork veered between daring (Frank Quitely) and exquisitely detailed (John Cassaday) (and occasionally atrocious -- Igor Kordy, cough cough). And there were some OK years after that, too. There was much to like about the Messiah Complex, Manifest Destiny, and Second Coming stories, and the ultra-violent X-Force stuff was a welcome and darkly gorgeous look at what it would really be like with heroes who relied on claws, swords, and guns in battle. But it all sort of fizzled after a while, and the past few years appear to have tended towards lackluster and disappointing (Jason Aaron's early Jean Grey school stories notwithstanding).

How to make it better: Be daring again. And stop stalling with super-long setup stories; jump right in with the good stuff, please. Also, in the movies, bring back Cyclops (who pathetically died off-camera in the third movie) and pay attention to what made X2 so fun.

Paul Smith's first three issues

an Art Adams splash page panel

*******

5. U2

Whether you like them or not, there’s no denying the top-notch craftsmanship that went into U2’s early work, from the October/Boy/War trio right on through The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree to Achtung Baby in 1991. After that, I admit, it’s more subjective. Personally, I really liked about half of the songs on the Zooropa, Pop, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb albums; I’d even say some of their best stuff is in there. But their most recent album, No Line on the Horizon, in 2009, just felt like they sort of gave up. There’s one good song, Magnificent, and one almost-beautiful song, Fez, that could have been something great but which feels like a half-finished demo. The rest is pure meh. After what seemed like a slow decline for the band, this last album was a precipitous dropoff.

How to make it better: On the next album (there's supposed to be one in 2014), either stop writing stupid lyrics for obnoxious music (Get On Your Boots? I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight?) and show some passion for the material (Crumbs From Your Table, Original of the Species… yawn), or call it a day and cede the stage to musicians with more fire in them still.

what's not to like in this list?

*******

4. flickr

I feel terrible about including this one. I really enjoyed flickr for several years, from 2007 to about 2010, before the rise of the thousands of competing social photo sharing sites. Users were generally a pretty sweet mix of professionals and amateurs, and the social dynamic of it was surprisingly positive and fun (though you could find plenty of negatives too). A combination of factors contributed to the experience losing its luster, including the ubiquity of smartphone cameras, Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, a gradual erosion of the most interesting users and commenters, and maybe blogging in general. And then around 2011 or 2012, they changed the basic structure and look of it all and did away with the original structure and layout. Long-time users either had to accept the upgraded appearance or spend a lot of time reorganizing their account.

How to make it better: I’m not sure this one is recoverable. All good things?

Now I just see shame messages directed at me; I don't even know what a "photo book" is. 

*****

3. the “edit polygon” tool in ArcView

[all you non-GIS map software geeks, please feel free to skip ahead]
Look, all I’m saying is that in ArcView 3.3 it used to be incredibly easy to edit a shapefile and move vertices in a line. Click click done. The key thing was that whatever shapefile you had highlighted in the Table of Contents was by default the one you wanted to edit when you clicked "start editing." When the switch to Arc 8 was made, that ease went away, and weirdly, it’s never really come back. Why, ESRI… why?!?

How to make it better: Make it really easy to edit a polygon again. I shouldn't have to navigate to the shapefile I want to edit when it was already the one I was clicked on in the Table of Conents.

"When I made maps, we edited polygons easily, and we LIKED it!"

*******

2. journalism

This is a tough one, because I don't have a solution and I was trying to stay positive here. My basic assertion (which is hardly original) is that with newspapers tanking and firing reporters, TV news (seemingly) requiring ever more sensationalism to garner ratings, and the rise in popularity of bite-size blog segments that merely parrot parts of original stories from elsewhere (often with no oversight or fact checking), I just don’t see how we’re not going to end up with a massive and society-damaging erosion of journalistic integrity. And in the big picture... that seems REALLY bad.

How to make it better: I don’t know. Anyone?


*******

1. my marathon time

In 1997, I ran a 3:22 marathon in Virginia Beach. Since then, I’ve actually gotten faster at a lot of shorter distances and added ultramarathons to my list, but my marathon times have never gotten any better. It’s not age; I’m 42 now, but plenty of guys in their fifties break 3 hours on a regular basis. My more recent ones have hovered around 3:37 or so. I need to run a 3:15 to qualify for Boston, and as a lifelong distance runner I kind of want to do that.

How to make it better: eat fewer cookies and train my butt off in 2014? 

'nuff said

So there you have it: my somewhat curmudgeonly list of things that I care to gripe about, none of which in any way make me feel really old right now. What about you? Got any must-list Things That Used to be Better? 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Sunup to Sundown

TARC Fells Winter Ultra 40-Mile Race Report
Stoneham, MA (December 7, 2013)

A week after enjoying my first 50K at Pisgah back in September, I enthusiastically signed up for the 40-mile option at this year’s TARC (Trail Animals Running Club) Fells Winter Ultra races. The event, self-described as "a nightmarish course of rocks and roots," takes place in early December at the Middlesex Fells Reservation in Stoneham, MA, primarily using the rugged Skyline Trail around the reservoirs there. You can choose from two options, a 32-mile race and a 40-mile race. All runners do four 8-mile loops, and the 40-mile racers do a fifth. The elevation profile shows the course constantly rising and falling, which might seem odd for a course so close to Boston. The profile is entirely accurate.

Here’s a current course map.

At first I only made the waitlist, and to be honest I breathed a sigh of relief about that (it takes a lot of time to train for an ultra, and I’m a busy guy with a lot of really important time-wasting to do). Getting waitlisted is essentially a license to relax; getting in means its real. Anyway, as if to mock the relief I felt, I got unwaitlisted the very next day.

My preparation probably lacked enough intensity and I’m sure I could have used a few extra back-to-back long runs, but in general it went quite well considering all the extra challenges life's thrown my way recently. I basically trained for a marathon and counted on my years of trail and distance running experience to get me through. At the very least, I went into it feeling confident that I’d make it if: a.) I went slow enough, and b.) my ever-present nemesis—too-tight hamstrings—didn’t pop up along the way and demand "seizure time" (boy do I hate seizure time).

Naturally, I didn’t sleep much the night before. Just before 3AM, I roused my groggy girlfriend, Jen. Soon we were driving east in the dark for a few hours along the snowy Mass Pike, with me trying my best to stay positive and not think of all the ways the weather could make things go wrong. We arrived at the small parking lot where the start was around 6:15, and magically found a spot right near the food table. I got my number, chatted with some familiar faces, prepped my gear bag, and tended to all sorts of last minute clothing checks. Temperatures hovered in the 20s, the sky was fully overcast, and a light breeze began to pick up. 7AM arrived before I knew it, and the shivering pack of compression sock clad, hydration vest sporting, and soon-to-be-lost-a-lot racers headed out for some trail running.

Loop 1: Away We Go

Having absolutely no idea how to pace myself for eight unmarked miles on a trail I’d never been on before, I opted to start near the back of the pack. This was probably the right call, but it quickly became apparent that I’d want to hop ahead of at least a few people on the first climb to avoid feeling frustrated. After that initial shuffling of the deck, there was very little passing for the rest of the race.

A light snow cover made the woods all white and covered some of the smaller rocks, but in general it didn’t make much of a difference. My ASICS DS-Trainers held traction as surprisingly well as they always do, and aside from a few clumsy stumbles I never slipped or fell. I wore a new pair of running tights, a long-sleeve shirt, and some cheap cotton gloves, along with a lightweight shell (that I took off 2 laps later).

Like most of the pack, I ran the loop clockwise, believing it was better to tackle the tougher climbs first. This may have been a wise choice for another reason too; the trail network is very dense at the Fells and it’s really easy to miss turns. I’m generally a pretty decent trail-finder, but all bets are off in a race. At any rate, I was happy to be behind a train of people who knew the way.

The trail relentlessly roller-coastered over countless rocky hills. Once, it climbed straight up a steep ledge, requiring hands-on effort, but usually it was less technical than that. In between the rocky knolls, it frequently followed short, flat, straight stretches where it was possible to open up my stride and really run for a moment. Following tried-and-true advice, I walked every uphill and ran/jogged all downhills and flats. Around halfway through, a climb tops out at a vista on Pine Hill where there’s a sweeping view south to the skyline of Boston.

The halfway aid station, which is really closer to two-thirds of the way around, was staffed by an extremely enthusiastic and helpful group of volunteers. They cheered as runners approached them, offered to fill my water bottle, and provided just the right amount of conversation without being too chatty. Seriously, I wanna give some kind of Awesomeness Award to those guys.

The remaining three miles or so are a little bit easier. There’s still a considerable amount of elevation change to reckon with, but the hills aren’t as high or even nearly as rugged. I ran near a group most of the way, though the order changed a lot as people occasionally took wrong turns and briefly got off track. It’s particularly easy to miss the correct route the first time you go around the west end of North Reservoir.

The first transition (T1) took a little bit of time. I probably talked to volunteers too much, but I was well ahead of my goal pace so I didn’t mind the loss.

Total loop 1 time, including T1 = 1:34 (11:45 pace)

Loop 2: Getting in the Groove

I slowed down some during the second loop, mostly on purpose. I still felt good, but wanted to make sure I’d have enough in the tank later on. Though it would have been nice to change directions for variety, it seemed self-evident that continuing to run clockwise would greatly reduce my chances of wasting valuable time getting lost.

While certain landmarks and junctions started to look familiar, the landscape looked a lot different this time around as the snow melted and new surfaces were exposed. The sun began to poke out from behind the clouds. The dog walkers were also starting to come out. There were many, many dogs romping around out there (all very well-behaved and welcome sights, I’m happy to say). There was also a man-sized yeti wandering through the woods at one point (really).

Ben Kimball at the 2013 TARC Fells Winter Ultra 40-Mile
Somewhere around mile 14 
(photo courtesy of Douglyss Giuliana)

I started the loop solo, but ended up running a lot of it with veteran runner Jim Roche, who was doing the 32-miler as a training run at a pace just slightly faster than what I was doing. I kept up with him for about six miles, but hung back slightly after the halfway aid station. Partly I wanted to play it safe with pacing this early on, and partly something wasn't quite right with my body in the latter part of this lap.

Does anyone actually want to hear about the uncomfortable sensation I started to feel deep down in my core? The one that eventually became incredibly urgent and forced me to bushwhack off the trail a ways and lose at least 5 minutes? No? Good. We'll leave it at that then. Except maybe to note that I proudly practice proper emergency-in-the-woods ethics (dig hole, bury, etc.). And that I felt a lot better afterwards. Oh, and also that I’m quite thankful for the existence of, you know, um, leaves. Sigh...

Total loop 2 time, including pit stop and T2 = 1:45 (13:08 pace)

Loop 3: When Slow Food Isn't Better

Jen came with me on the third loop. Not as a pacer, specifically (I’m not sure I care that much for the concept of having a pacer), but just for company, and to enjoy a nice challenging 8-mile trail run of her own. It was really nice to have her along.

I slowed some on this lap. Partly it was due to a distinct overall decrease in energy, and partly it was simple fatigue, but at least a few minutes were due to waiting for my soup to cool at the aid station. To be clear, this was NOT the fault of the volunteers; it just meant that as an ultra newbie I hadn’t learned the art of quickly cooling a cup of scalding hot chicken noodle soup by cutting it with a splash of water. Whatever the reason, I clocked a significantly slower lap time.

My shoes and socks had gotten pretty wet from all the melting snow, and I changed them back at transition. I wasn’t sure if it would be worth the time, but quickly realized that the comfort of dry feet was a simple luxury I could smile about and be thankful for the entire rest of the race.

Total loop 3 time, including T3 = 2:00 (15:00 pace)

Loop 4: Second Wind

The notion of not making the cutoff time before the final lap tugged at the back of my mind. I knew I’d be fine if I kept up a similar pace, but I wasn’t sure what my tightly-tuned Achilles had in mind and I’d only ever run longer than marathon distance once before. I felt good after the food, though, and managed to keep the blue shell of one of the superhuman race leaders (who were heading out for their fifth loop now) in distant sight most of the way up the first hill.

In my head, I found myself singing Peter Gabriel’s “Growing Up” a lot. If you don’t know this later song of his from 2002, treat yourself; it’s an underrated gem with a great pulsing beat. “My goals like to travel…”

To my surprise, I did considerably better than on the previous loop. I felt more energized and less draggy, and the miles ticked by without incident. The southern section did seem to take longer than before, especially some of the climbs just before the aid station, but I think that was just a mental delusion.

My body was holding up well. I’d fully lubed my feet up in the morning and didn’t feel any hot spots. Food from the aid stations (soup, potatoes, PB&J sandwiches, cookies, more cookies, etc.) was staying down. And the clothes I had on seemed like the right amount; I was sweating some, as usual, but not as profusely as I do in warmer weather. I felt like I picked up the pace some, and indeed arrived back at transition about 10 minutes quicker than on the previous lap.

TARC Fells Winter Ultra 40-Mile
finishing lap 4
(photo by Jen Garrett)

Total loop 4 time, including T4 = 1:52 (14:00 pace)

Loop 5: The “Last” Loop

Feeling a surge of energy from the relief of knowing that I was well ahead of the cutoff time for the last lap, I ran out the lollipop stick one more time. Part of me wanted to try running the loop the other way for variety, but I was wary of taking a wrong turn so late in the game. So I took the left again and started back up the familiar hill one more time.

Everything on this loop was last, including me (almost). That’s the last time I cross this particular rise, the last time I see that view, the last time I need to make that turn, and hopefully my last pee break. And finally, the last time I approach the loud cheers of the halfway aid station (did I mention I love those guys?). I ran several of these miles with Meghan and Tara from my local trail running club (yeah 413!), but pulled ahead again not long after the aid station.

Jen had run out to meet me somewhere around mile 38, and I saw her sitting at the top of a rise just past a soft, pine-needle-covered stretch. We trudged the final two miles in together. I wasn’t much for conversation at that point and I certainly couldn’t focus much on anything more than each footstep, but it was nice to have some company again. We reached the finish right at sunset.

After literally running from sunup to sundown, eating 6 chocolate Vi Fuel gels, taking 8 Endurolyte capsules, eating an inhumane number of chocolate chip cookies, and spending every conscious second paying acute attention to the uneven ground beneath my feet, it felt so good to simply stop. Though I did have one more cookie, just for good measure.

Total loop 5 time = 1:54 (14:15 pace)

-----

My total time was 9 hours and 21 minutes (14:15 average pace), and I placed 12th out of 13 finishers for the 40-mile race. I’m perfectly happy with that, for several reasons. This was my longest run ever over 31 miles (and only my second ultra); there were quite a few DNFs for the 40; and my 32 mile split would have had me place in the top third of that race. But mostly I’m just finding satisfaction in knowing that it’s possible, that I too can do it. And naturally, as you might expect, now that I know I can run 40 miles…