The world’s best races – as arbitrarily selected by me

On the comedown from last week’s Razorback Endurance Race, I’ve find myself obsessively planning the next big run. Given the reduced mileage during recovery what else would one do?

This is always a fun process for me, starting with the aspirational (yeah, Badwater seems like a good idea) and finally settling on something that actually meshes with my geography, timing and capabilities.

But as I was clicking through the Internets I got so excited about so many races that I figured I’d pass along some of my personal dream runs. Note: This list is pretty stupid. It is totally lacking in insight (you already know about all of these and you also already know that they are awesome) and rigor (I picked randomly and my list will change tomorrow). Still, it’s fun to think through some of the coolest runs you can possibly do.  (Most pictures courtesy of The Internet)

  • 4 Deserts race series – This is too crazy to even contemplate. As highlighted in the awesome Desert Runners (free on Netflix!) the insane freaks who run these races do 150 miles over 5 days in some of the most challenging terrain in the world. The sheer accomplishment is mindboggling but this isn’t for normal people. This is for true masochists who want to spend thousands of dollars to torture themselves in new and bizarre ways. Still…

    "The Final Desert"

    “The Final Desert”

  • Western States – So I’ll obviously never get to run Western States, nor should I be allowed to. This is where the most hard core runners in the US get together to decide who’s really the best. I’m obsessed with this race mainly because it’s where modern trail ultra running was invented in an amazing story highlighting inspiration, perseverance and idiocy. If you don’t know the account of how a cross-country horse race became the World Series of endurance running, read up

    Western States

    Western States

  • Berlin Marathon – So this is a pretty plain vanilla big city European marathon. So why am I so desperate to run it? Well, Berlin is freaking awesome. Location, history, architecture and people make this a great place to spend some time. As importantly, the race takes place during Oktoberfest, making a 10 day trip with a marathon, hiking in the German alps and drinking aggressively in Munich a totally reasonable thing to do. A thing I must do…

    Berlin

    Berlin

  • Relays – I’ve written about the Bourbon Challenge elsewhere, but there are so many options on this one. The Ragnar series seems pretty good. Hood to Coast has the most street cred here, having basically invented the category 34 years ago. An awesome race with top flight runners, this just seems like a great way to spend the day running and commiserating with a bunch of friends

    Hood to Coast

    Hood to Coast

  • NYC marathon – I love the race, if not the organizers. They’ve done a bunch of dumb things over the years, obviously culminating in the Hurricane Sandy nonsense. Having said that, the race itself is great, largely because of the incredible crowd support and spirit. It’s hard as hell to get in via the lottery, but if you’re willing to raise money or run the stupid NYRR series of races designed to line the organization’s pockets, then the race is a fit reward for your efforts.

    Runners and supporters celebrate NYC marathon finish

    Runners and supporters celebrate NYC marathon finish

  • City2Surf – If you happen to be in Australia in August, this 8.7 mile run from downtown Sydney to the beach at Bondi is a great way to spend the day. I love these events that attract massive local support and 80,000 runners line up every year. Since only a very few are taking this race particularly seriously, it feels like a street party as much as a racecity2s
  • Leadville – As detailed in Born to Run and countless articles. While the altitude and elevation changes make this race absolutely brutal, it’s the tight cutoff times that really distinguish it. Most of us can finish an ultra and, given enough time, even one of the true monsters. But finishing Leadville means finishing fast. Wearing one of these belt buckles around really means something. Some of the hardcore out there are saying that Leadville is no longer what it was but that doesn’t mean it’s not still an amazing race and a huge achievement

    Leadville

    Leadville

  • Comrades marathon – It’s pretty bold to call yourself, “The World’s Greatest Ultra Marathon” but who am I to argue? 18,000 people sign up every year to run 56 miles in South Africa. That is so much larger than the biggest US ultras that it boggles the mind. Another cool flourish is that the course switches direction each year so you get to choose if you want to run the uphill or downhill version based on what year you sign upOkhalamba ADP - Comrades Race Day
  • Badwater – They call themselves the world’s hardest footrace and that sounds about right. Extreme temperatures in Death Valley and an extreme climb towards the end of the race (also, they don’t pussyfoot around with 100 miles – this is 135) make this pretty crazy. Running on the Sun highlights the insane dedication that goes into competing in something like this

    Badwater

    Badwater

  • Jersey marathon – no, not that Jersey. Mainly on the list because the Marathon Globetrotters (of which I am proudly a provisional member) are having their annual meeting there this year and I’m trying to convince Awesome Wife Kelly that it’s totally worth flying for a day to run a race on a tiny island we hadn’t previously known existed. There’s a chance

    Not THAT Jersey

    Not THAT Jersey

  • Razorback Endurance Run – Okay, only because I just ran it. But still, pretty freaking awesome

    Razorback sunset

    Razorback sunset

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Running against MJ

Alternatively titled: Learning humility from the marathon

Long, boring story that you won’t care about:

In 2010 I traveled with some friends to New Orleans to watch the first round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament.  During Kentucky’s blowout win over East Tennessee State my friends and I began a “bar debate” that got so spirited, angry and nearly violent, that all present still talk about it to this day.  The question that inspired such passion: could my four friends and I replace the Kentucky players and hold off East Tennessee State with a 19 point lead over the last five minutes? What started as a funny little discussion to while away a blowout became a heated screaming match that nearly resulted in us getting ejected from the arena by a burly, humorless security guard. You know why that argument was so much fun? There is absolutely no way to know who’s right. I mean, short of actually going out and playing those guys, all we could do is conjecture and raise our voices for emphasis. And five otherwise reasonable guys had wildly different opinions. (Editor’s note: I’m a bit embarrassed to say that at the time I was in the affirmative on this argument. Now I think we’d end up losing by 10).

That’s because there’s almost no way to quantify how good an average joe is vs. a great basketball player. Or boxer. Or football player. Or, well, you get the point.

BRILLIANT conclusion:

And this is one reason why running is so fascinating. I know exactly how I compare vs. every other person who’s ever run a marathon. More interesting, I know exactly how much better (or, more appropriately, worse) I am than the greatest runners out there. Think about this: When I run 400 meter repeats, I basically sprint in at around a 6 minute per mile pace. When Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto broke the marathon world record in Berlin with a 2:02:57 finish, he averaged 4:42 per mile. This is an insane thing. I can tell you – backed by math and science – exactly how much more awesome that guy is than me. He runs 26.2 miles at a pace 1:18 faster than I run a quarter mile. GOD DAMN.

So while we are all pretty convinced that Michael Jordan can beat us one on one, we know by exactly how much Dennis Kimetto will beat us in a race.

The ideal running WAG

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So I’ll acknowledge up front that this is a bit of a self-indulgent post. Self indulgent because I believe that:

1) having a wife or girlfriend (or boyfriend) who supports your running in just the right way is critical to a successful relationship and a successful run;

2) there are a few easily-identifiable but under-appreciated criteria that separate the good running WAGs from the not good running WAGs

3) that I happen to have the best running WAG out there, Awesome Wife Kelly

Note: We here at Run David Run are not sexist or any other ist, so far as we know. HABs are equally judged along the following criteria.

So here goes. Running WAGS should:

  • Be supportive: Getting out of bed at 6 AM to go on a long run is hard. Abstaining from alcohol the night before is lame. A supportive WAG who doesn’t hassle you (too much) makes these things much easier
  • Be interested: Showing genuine interest in what is probably a pretty boring story is priceless. I’m telling the story because I’m excited about it and I know nobody else will care. It’s nice to have a WAG who is the ONE person in the world who does

    IMG_1391

    Post-race support

  • Know when to pretend to be interested: It’s simply not possible for anybody, no matter how much they love you, to actually be interested in a five minute discussion of different methods to tie your shoes to reduce arch pain. Sometimes it’s okay to nod and look attentive while you’re really planning out your weekend in your head
  • Have a firm leash / strong backhand when needed: Sometimes we become too self-obsessed. It is also your job to keep us in check
  • Be a great cheerer: Screaming our names, making signs, acting like getting a PR is the most important thing in the world. These things make a huge difference for us. If you don’t run you may not know how important it is to look forward to a great reception at mile 22, but it really, genuinely is

    This time the whole family came to cheer

    This time the whole family came to cheer

  • Be awesome

Unrealistic, but possible extra credit:

  • Be an awesome cook
  • Be okay listening to audio books about running
  • Don’t scream about sweaty running clothes taking over the bedroom

Thanks to Awesome Wife Kelly for embodying all of these things and many, many more

Why stickers are the best souvenirs

So this is a pretty silly post. Silly but crucially important to your future happiness and the fate of mankind.

One of the great paradoxes of our time is that as society has become wealthier, people, as a whole, have not become happier. So much more stuff, but it’s not translating into joy. A flood of recent research into happiness outlines many, many potential causes of the paradox. The good news about this academic research is that much of it is really actionable – kind of like a Facebook “Do these 10 things to be happy” post, but like actually based on smart people doing massive amounts of research and synthesizing their results in peer reviewed journals.

One of the nuggets I’ve taken away from my reading in this area is that accumulating possessions has little impact on happiness, whereas accumulating experiences does. While the causes and consequences of this finding are complex, it can be (poorly) summarized as such:

Things depreciate. You enjoy your car, watch or television more on the 1st day you own it than at any other time. Things also have carrying costs (insurance, gasoline, storage space, etc). So you continue to pay for these items forever, but like them less and less every day.

Experiences appreciate. You’ll think fondly of your last vacation / surfing lessons / marathon for the rest of your life. Even if the experience itself wasn’t that great in the moment, you’ll actually like it more in retrospect.

Summary: Buy experiences, not things.

Awesome Wife Kelly and I have begun to adopt this philosophy into our lives, deciding to aggressively prune our possessions and declutter our lives (also after reading Marie Kondo’s fascinating book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” which is equal parts self help guide, practical advice for living a simpler, tidier life and mystical treatise. In the US they would have her committed, in Japan she’s a celebrity). We have gone through everything we own and decided if this is something that makes our lives better or if it’s something that sits here and makes our lives busier and more crowded. Even following round after round of discarding unwanted items, this perspective helped us clarify a lot of decisions that used to seem hard.

The point here isn’t to preach or even to persuade. It’s simply to give you the necessary background for why stickers are the absolute best souvenir.

photo 1

I’ve pasted stickers over a good portion of my personal possessions (always in a tasteful way). They’re on the crappy Ikea dresser that I see every morning. I’ve got a sticker from the Virginia 24 Hour Run for Cancer on my coffee grinder (one of the all time essential pieces of equipment in our house). My Kindle has a sticker I brought home from Finland. Every day I see these stickers, they remind me of the great moments of my life and they make me happy.

photo 3photo 2

They do not take up room. They do not cost money. They do not provide stress.

Sure, running shirts from the marathon are cool. So are branded water bottles that say “New York Marathon 2009”. But too often these great reminders of life events require too many trade-offs. I have so many damn running shirts piling up they are overflowing my drawers. And now I can’t throw any of them away simply because it has the name of a race on it? Even worse, these shirts are usually of pretty mediocre quality. So now not only do I have an overflowing drawer, but bleeding nipples. That’s a whole different type of experience and one I choose not to repeat / remember.

Forget it. Buy a sticker. Peel, apply and enjoy.

Running is fun

So much in life is obligation and boredom. Work, commuting, grocery shopping (Awesome Wife Kelly asked me to note that I do not actually grocery shop, but it does sound awful). Even lots of the stuff we choose to do with our spare time is not stuff we truly want to do (think: shopping for clothes, attending your wife’s middle school friend’s kid’s birthday party). Even lots of the stuff we like to do isn’t fun (I like going to MOMA but I can’t remember walking out of there high fiving anybody). Take a second to sift through your average day or week and think about how much fun is in there. Pretty scary.

And this is something that gets worse as we get older. Kids have all sorts of fun all the time. Their life is all fun. This is why kids are constantly laughing and screaming. It’s also why they cry so much – being told you can no longer play on the jungle gym because you have to go learn fractions seems like something the CIA would do to captured ISIS soldiers. It’s a fact of life: As we get older the amount of our lives dedicated to FUN shrinks so tiny that it’s just about gone. You know it’s true because there’s a chart illustrating it.

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Which brings me to my point (and probably the point of the entire blog) – RUNNING IS FUN.

Sure, it’s other things too. It’s healthy, it’s active, it’s outdoors, it’s social. But these are all beside the point. I run because it’s fun.

Running fast is fun. Starting strong and wondering how you’ll be able to make the full distance at pace. Building speed as the run goes, feeling the very first signs of resistance in your muscles. Maintaining your splits as each lap gets harder, until you can barely hang on. As you’re about to die, pushing for the final sprint, stretching your stride, struggling to fill your lungs. The burn throughout your body as you push just a bit further than you have the right to. Collapsing just past the finish and falling to the ground panting. All of this is fun.

Running far is fun. Long, slow running with lots of time to think. Falling into a zone where you know you could keep up this pace forever. The subtle boost and light feeling you get a few minutes after eating a caffeinated gel. Going two miles beyond the scheduled run just because it feels so damn good. Watching the rest of the runners blow by you, knowing none of them will still be at it in three hours. And especially that post run double bacon cheeseburger (and IPA).

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Fun post-race beers

Running to explore is fun. Arriving in a new city, throwing on your shoes and doing a quick five through unknown streets while the rest of the crew is sleeping. Getting lost and fruitlessly asking for directions in a suddenly foreign language and then unintentionally coming upon some grand castle, cathedral or bridge. Stopping in the middle of the run to take a picture of something you’d never expected to see and may never see again. Getting to parts of the city you’d never see otherwise. And then relating all of it to your non-running friends as they are simultaneously jealous and bored (but much better rested).

Random discoveries in Helsinki

Random discoveries in Helsinki

Running outside is fun. Especially when you get to run in actual nature. As a New Yorker I very rarely get to do this, but what an incredible treat when I’m visiting a friend and get to run on unexplored trails, with rough, uneven ground underfoot. Forgetting about the time and the pace and just following the trail that looks the most beautiful or interesting or challenging.

Running outdoors

Running outdoors

Boring runs are fun. That stupid 5 miler at a slow pace in the middle of the week or the last 12 miler during the taper. They start off so boring and lame, something you just have to do because the book said so, but you’re quite certain you will get nothing out of. Then suddenly you realize you’re half way through, you’ve barely broken a sweat and you have yet one more tangible proof point that your training has worked. That’s really fun.

Every once in a while running will stop being fun for me. So then I simply stop running (sure, if it’s in the middle of training for a race I’ll finish up with the training, then stop). At first I think it’s so nice to have more freedom in my schedule, to be able to sleep in a bit more or to be able to cross train. Then suddenly I’ll wake up on a Saturday morning and just have a burning desire to go for a nice long run. Almost inevitably I’ll get home energized and excited and I won’t be able to wait to get back out for my next run. Because running is fun.

The best (and most common) advice is also totally useless

Ask a runner for advice and you constantly hear the same refrain: “It’s really personal. Everybody is different. What works for me might not work for you. You have to use trial and error and figure out what works best for you.”

This is undoubtedly true. I’m constantly shocked at how different human beings are and how vastly physiology, mentality, preferences, etc. change from one meat filled bag of flesh to the next. Whenever I see an elite runner almost literally flying through mile 25 I just can’t believe they are made up of the same parts I am. Whenever I talk to some over-the-top genius who can wax poetic for hours on concepts that barely make sense to me (often times in spite of years of study) I find myself wondering how these things can come so easily to him or her while I’m stuttering like Elmer Fudd. DSCN0467

And yet – D’uh. People are different, that’s true. And you cannot simply follow my running routine and diet to optimize your performance – for example, extra spicy jambalaya and tequila are not an ideal pre-race meal for everybody. But I can’t imagine you thought you could. I’m pretty sure I need to drink and eat less during runs than you do. I also bet that I can run on less sleep and more hung over than you can. On the other hand, my left ankle is made of tissue paper and requires stupid levels of pampering to get through a fast walk, let alone a marathon. So yeah, odds are you and I are different.

But that’s not helpful advice. It’s like the sommelier who tells you “Good wine is the wine you like to drink.” Whenever I hear this (and I hear it frighteningly often) I want to ask for my money back and also, maybe punch somebody. There’s a reason you spent thirty years in wine school and there’s a reason I bothered to ask you, an expert, the question. You have knowledge that I don’t, I respect your opinion and want to hear your thoughts. If, at the end of the day, I don’t like that wine, I’m not going to buy any of it. Also, it smacks of false modesty, but this doesn’t seem the right place for a rant on the wine industry.

The reason we seek advice from friends, mentors, coaches, elite athletes, jerks with loud mouths and louder opinions is that it’s a place to start, a way to find a baseline from which we can then experiment with all that great trial and error. So, this blog will be unabashedly full of advice. Advice about things that work for me, most of which will not be optimal for you, but will likely be a pretty good starting point. At the very least it should be an entertaining read, a lesson in what not to do and an example of how to drive your wife crazy.

Hope it’s helpful.