So, How Many Hats Do You Wear?

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Pensacola, Florida, United States
Husband. *Dog Dad* Training Specialist. Runner. Triathlete (on hiatus). USATF LDR Surveyor. USAT (Elite Rules) Certified Official, Category 2. RRCA Representative, Florida (North). Observer Of The Human Condition.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

I Got A Feeling Somebody's Watching Me



I think it was a Thursday evening about a week ago. I had crawled off the couch & headed to bed after an evening at the track & my late-week recovery protocol of rehydrating, eating dinner, and watching Travel Channel's "Man vs. Food." I love "MvF": Some of the items Adam Richmond encounters can be enough to make me want to eat...or not. More often than not, it's eat. Suzanne hates the show, however; she believes the challenges glorify gluttony. However, I consider Richmond an object lesson in how NOT to live my life - on the edge of a heart attack. I do keep a mental checklist of the dining establishments he visits for future business travels.

Suzanne was watching YouTube videos while I engaged in vicarious voraciousness. She pointed out an interesting video analysis of the running form of American and Kenyan marathoners a mutual friend of ours sent her. I took a look at it the following weekend, after another friend sent me the link via e-mail. The front end of the video explained a sub-two-hour marathon could be run by an American marathoner if they were to become more biomechanically efficient, specifically in the amount of vertical travel taken during each stride, the range of motion of the hips & the angle of the foot as it strikes the road surface.

I'll agree to a certain degree that biomechanical efficiency (an observable variable) is a very important aspect of good road racing, but it's not the only important aspect. Cardiovascular fitness, thermal regulation, hydration, nutrition, mental conditioning - some measurable & observable variables, others hypothetical constructs - can all be included as necessary cards in a "winning hand" for distance runners.

But the greatest runners in the world can be sidelined by poor nutrition or hydration; Anthony Famiglietti, for example, was literally shut down by years of lousy diet & had to do a complete work-over in order to regain his competitive mojo. Steve Prefontaine didn't have the highest VO2 max score, but was still a dominant track runner, in the U.S. I bet you can probably think of a fellow runner who "crushes" workouts, yet folds like a house of cards when they toe the line on race day.

But, back to the video:

Later, a gentleman is administered a muscle manipulation, stretching, & massage treatment modality, after which he is sent out on the track to run 400 meters. He runs eight seconds faster than his personal best time for the 400. I don't want to "throw stones" at the company who developed the video, but an inquiring mind like mine thinks there are some confounding variables here. Did the gentleman in the video run faster directly because of the muscular and myofascial manipulation, or was this perhaps because someone was paying attention to his effort?

I'm no genius, but I vaguely recall from my Educational Psychology course/s back in college a little concept called the "Hawthorne Effect." For those who might not be familiar, there were some industrial psychology experiments done during the 1920s & 1930s which had to do with changing the lighting (brightness) in a Western Electric plant. The Hawthorne Effect suggests workers were more productive & more motivated because someone was taking an interest in their activity. I bet that little effect exists even within my own athletes.

For example, I cut my track workout short the previous Tuesday because my achilles' tendon & heel were began to ache. However, I had my athletes do the last two repeats of the set. One of them has the tendency to tighten her shoulders up & swing her arms a little wide; we work to relax & drop the shoulders at speed on a regular basis. As she came midway into the turn, about 125 meters into the repeat, she looked at me walking the opposite direction at the outside lane of the track. Immediately, her arms & shoulders relaxed & her pace increased slightly. I couldn't help but chuckle as I watched. I asked her about her form change at that point. She said, "yes, right about the time I saw you and heard your voice I knew to relax the shoulders."

"In fact, during the middle of the 5K we raced in late September I could hear your voice inside my head telling me to relax...especially during the first mile when you were still close by, & when I was approaching the turn-around on the course & could see you."

Sometimes it's the training, the technique, or the modality that helps the runner to improve. Other times it's the coach - or knowing the coach is nearby. And watching.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

S'weat's New?

Every once in a while I write something that upsets the few - outside of my immediate family and some close friends - who actually take the time to read this blog. Many of them overlook the caveat I shamelessly adapted from the blog of Canadian triathlete & two-time Olympic medalist Simon Whitfield: "Whatever is said here - as with any blog/"tweet"/mountain top announcement - is an opinion, a perspective, a rant, a cry for help; some innocent chest-thumping, painfully-inane humour, useless/useful banter and/or all of the above. Take all that is written within with the amount - grain, shake, shaker or entire box - of salt to make it palatable. Heck, you can even apply that to this disclaimer..." Today's thoughts may do exactly the same. However, these are my thoughts, supported (on many occasions) by reading, research & - at times - trial & error.

My body loves working out twice a day but my joints & tendons are too old to handle the cumulative stress of running on pavement for 60-to-70 miles a week. When I lived in Tampa I could drive 15-to-20 minutes from my home and run on dirt trails. However, I haven't seen trails like those where I now live, & I only get to run trails now when I travel up north. Thank heavens for Jay Yanovich at the gym on the base where I work, as well as my wife, Suzanne.

Jay is an ultrarunner & served as my strength coach in years past - he suggested using the elliptical trainer as a way to get that second workout without beating my achilles' tendons to death. My wife managed fitness centers in her younger days, she also knew the benefits of ellipticals. So when I've done a little too much on the pavement & I'm eating ibuprofen like candy I take a couple of days to do the elliptical at our local gym.

There are some people in this world who have high sweat rates. I'm one of them. The easiest warm-up leading into a workout or race can have me soaked within five minutes. When the comments begin, I often inform the source, "I sweat when I think." Naturally, when a person with a high sweat rate works out indoors on an exercise machine, all that sweat stays in one confined area. And when the workout is over the majority of my cool-down before going home is taken up by toweling down the machine & the area immediately surrounding.

The other day, the gym owner stopped to talk to me; I had just started my workout on one of the machines. "Mike, some folks have commented to me about your dedication & your effort, but they complain that you leave the machine soaking wet when you're done." I told him, "Ed, I wipe off the machine after every workout, believe me. I know what my sweat can do to machines...and electronics..." I - pun intended - stewed in my own juices for the 40 minutes of my workout, then walked to the office to get Ed's attention. I then showed him my exact post-workout wipe-down of the elliptical trainer. When I finished, I pointed to the footpads, which were still damp, & said, "This morning, the footpads were a little less damp than that, but everything else I showed you was the way I just wiped." Ed smiled, shook his head, & said: "Yes, I guess this is a gym, right?" The tone of his voice told me we were on the same page of sheet music.

I guess people look as critically at the way I work on machines as I look at the way they, um, don't work on the machines.

I marvel at elliptical trainer users who never get the RPM count above 60 per minute. I also marvel at users who never get their heart rate any higher than 50 percent of their maximum rate. And what really gets me spinning like a top is the user who decides to use the reverse pedaling workout. Really? Do you, when walking or running, go that slowly? Do you spend 15 to 20 minutes of your life continually walking or jogging in reverse? Unless you're an offensive lineman or a defensive back for the Saints I can't see any need for going in reverse on an elliptical trainer.

The objective of an elliptical trainer is to simulate the act of running without the potentially damaging impact. The most efficient runners, according to research done by Jack Daniels, Ph.D., & other coaches, have an average footstrike of 160-to-180 steps per minute...that's 80-to-90 RPM on the elliptical trainer.

I know the objective of most elliptical users is to burn fat rather than to maintain or build cardiovascular fitness, but most fat burning programs on the elliptical trainer are assuming a heart rate at least 50 percent of maximum heart rate. Ellipticals, for dinged-up runners like "yours truly," are used both to burn off that excess fat & to maintain or build the cardio. In that case, getting to 50 percent is not so much the issue...cardio enhancement needs a heart rate closer to 70 or 80 percent of maximum.

So, if you see me sweating all over an elliptical trainer, don't worry: I promise to wipe down everything that might potentially be touched by your skin. Now, let's talk about this time you're wasting on the machine, shall we?

Monday, October 18, 2010

One Toe Over The Line...


I went out and ran my first 5K road race in many months a couple of weeks ago. I needed to run a test 5K to assess my fitness level & adjust some of the training intensities, & the weather was just beginning to feel less like Florida. 'Why not?' I said to myself. I didn't perform anywhere near as well as I hoped, but it proved some things I already knew:

A four-week training vacation at the beginning of the summer is never a good idea.

Ten excess pounds does add an extra minute of time to an estimated 5K race performance.

Change...and inertia...can coexist.

Over a cup of coffee & breakfast with my wife & Walter, a local running friend, I took a thirty-minute analysis of what needed to be adjusted in my training & began to make a few small repairs (some of which are in earlier blog posts).

While running a tempo workout the other Wednesday, I passed an old friend. He caught up with me at the bar where we meet after the run & complimented me on how well I had been running lately. Randy loves racing 5K events; he'll not hesitate to jump in his truck & drive an hour so he can run for 25 minutes, then drink light beer for two hours.

From Labor Day to Thanksgiving, here in the Panhandle, there can be anywhere from one up to to three 5K races for a nearly unbroken string of weekends. It then eases off a little into the holiday season & kicks back into swing just after New Years' Day. Randy asked me where I planned to race this weekend. I had to tell him, 'nowhere, my friend.' Not that I don't like racing 5Ks.

When I first started racing, a 5K road race could leave me napping in the recliner for the remainder of the day. As I've matured...all right, aged...I've become more functional. Slower in my walk, but more functional.

About five or six years ago we had a large group of guys & gals who would meet to run at 6:00 a.m. on Sundays. The first mile usually would be kinder & gentler; most of the group were still waking up during that time. Inevitably the pace would pick up a little by the first incline. You could sometimes tell who had raced the day before. One of the guys, a fellow by the name of Gary, once told me it was not good training to race the day after a race. He used to tell me, "Mike, the day after a good race I like to go easy. The day after a bad race I like to go easy." Gary's "easy" the day after a race was often tougher than his race pace. Looking back at that statement & the source; it was one of those "things that make you go 'hmmm...'"

Once the guys (and the occasional chick!) forgot we left our bib numbers on the coffee table the previous afternoon & would begin to string out the group, my coach would have to remind me to not get "happy feet." It was a historical inevitability the front-running pace would eventually slack off. The group always reformed before the water stop at 40 minutes into the run.

Racing, when done right, is painful business. Even if you don't have a number on your chest.

What is it about pinning a bib number & toeing a line with a herd of runners that makes otherwise sane persons suddenly become brain-dead about how hard they need to run? I've often warned my athletes an "easy effort" on race day is almost impossible unless they're truly disciplined. Too many good potential 10K, half-marathon or marathon performances have been spit-canned by jumping into a 5K "just for fun."

The occasional race is a good thing. It serves as a social outlet, sharpens up a runner's skills, & lets them know exactly where they stand in the grand old pecking order of runners. But sometimes too much of a good thing can be harmful. My friend Betsy decided to run four...or five...marathons in a year about two years ago. When she asked what I thought about her running the fifth one that year I had to take a very deep breath and stifle the urge to shriek in horror: "Are you out of your mind!?"

There are several rules of thumb which ought to be followed, more or less, when it comes to recovery or hard training after a race:

1. A day of non-impact exercise or rest - I prefer rest - for every hour of racing.

2. A day of easy training efforts for every mile raced.

If you have developed a good base of training & love to do half-marathon distance races, you can probably segue into a 12-week cycle after a week or so. Marathoners can probably segue into a new 12-to-16 week cycle after two to three weeks.

As always - like Jiminy Cricket - let your conscience & your body be your guide.

Because it will tell you when you aren't following the rules.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

How Much Time To Run?


If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers. "Gravity's Rainbow," Thomas Pynchon (1973)


Sometimes when an athlete comes asking a question, or makes a comment about something lacking in their training, they tend to present the question in the form of their own desired solution. People who love long runs will frame their question so the answer is more likely to be "long runs." People who like intemediate-to-long distance repeats will frame the question, hoping I will answer with their preference. However, there are more important questions which need to be asked when it comes to training.


I like to start by asking the person about the amount of time they can comfortably set aside for run training without drastically affecting their work, their personal life, the interests of their fellow family members. Available time also affects the body's ability to recover from training stress.


Work is the most obvious limitation when we talk about time constraints. Since our town has several military training bases I occasionally work with semi-accomplished post-college runners. Most of these young men & women don't need me to deal with the small details; just provide a few good workouts while they're in student status. Some are good recreational runners who want to stay fit and train for a few races. I usually remind them the life of a military student is well-filled once they start their course of instruction, but I've always made myself available to their needs. As for civilians, some employers are more willing to flex work hours than others - depending on the workplace, the interest of the boss, and the runner's work ethic. But then, sometimes the person works a specific shift or has to open or close the shop. It is what it is.


"Life," John Lennon said, "is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." There are things which are outside of the box of your control; traffic on the commute home from work, weather conditions, just to name two. There are things which you can plan for within reason, like school activities, religious observance (if you are so inclined), time for bonding with the family. And family, in my humble opinion, trumps (nearly) everything else, save for medical conditions. You, ideally, will be a runner for quite some time, but you will always be a parent, spouse, child, sibling. Your family members will be your first line of support in whatever you do, long after your coach or training partners have gone down the road.


Once the athlete can say how many hours they have available during the week to train, I can multiply by seven to give an "optimal" baseline number of miles/week. The optimal baseline, in my humble opinion, lets me recommend the longest distance the athlete should race as their goal event/s. I've been of the opinion runners can target three-to-six 5K races on a training volume of 25-to-30 miles a week. Training volume for two-to-three 10Ks per training cycle would be somewhere between 30-to-45 miles. Half-marathons or marathons would require anywhere "north" of 45 miles a week.


An important caveat: Just because a person has enough time to train for a race as long as a marathon does not mean they will have the physical ability to train for it. This is the dirty little secret many "Couch-to-Finish Line" programs don't enjoy speaking about. A friend of mine once coached a well-known program, and he saw too many first-year, really, just-off-the-couch, runners injure themselves during the program. I personally believe a runner should, if they are coming off the couch, race no longer than 10K during their first year. I wouldn't recommend anything longer than a half marathon until after at least two years of solid, consistent, injury-free training. It takes that long for the body to assimilate the stressors which come with run training.


So, what do I think needs to be part of a typical week of training?


Rest needs to be placed in the weekly training schedule, at least one day. There are some coaches who recommend a day of rest for every decade of life, starting with the 40s. So a guy like me who has been running for 16 years would probably benefit from 1-to-2 days of rest every week. I usually have at least a day or two days worth of cross-training during the week, but I listen to my body & sleep in or take a complete rest day when I'm feeling a little too beat-up.


Once a week, there should be a long run which takes up 20 percent of a runner's training mileage/time. Running coach Jack Daniels' recommends the long run to be no more than 2.5 hours, even as part of his marathon training protocols. I've always done my long run on Sunday morning, but some coaches, like Patrick McCrann of Marathon Nation, schedules his training plan long runs for Saturday, with a 40-minute run which focuses on skill & form for the next day.


I've tried the easy run on Sunday after a hard Saturday run & think it's pretty nice. That "kinder, gentler" run gives me a chance to run with less-experienced runners at a relaxed pace, socialize, & focus on my form.


During the middle of the week I schedule a "semi-long run" if training for half-marathon or marathon, or do a tempo run to work on race-day speed. This workout is usually sandwiched by a once-a-week speed workout which can be anything from fartlek, track repeats of 200, 300 or 400 meters at efforts ranging from just above aerobic to "See God" pace (that's a pace where if you took one more stride at that pace you would probably see God), or tempo run. The last piece I try to add works on strength. These can be hill repeats/bounding of 150, 200, or 300 yards at varied effort levels, or track repeats of 500-to-2400 meters.


There are important pieces of the training puzzle which need to be put into place, but you should first ask yourself honestly how big the puzzle can be before you begin to set the edges.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Big Plan B

*BEEP*

That was the low battery warning signal from my (formerly) trusty Garmin 310XT GPS receiver. The sound was immediately followed by a slight buzz, silence as the receiver shut itself off, & an unprintable comment from my mouth. I guess it wouldn't have been such a bad thing if not for the fact I was driving out to run a tempo run with a group on a Wednesday evening.

My wife asked, 'do you have a charger in the car?'

'My charger, unfortunately, is attached to my computer back at the house,' was my reply. As we continued the 20-minute drive I was stewing in my own juices of stupidity. I know I put the receiver on the charger the previous evening, so how could this be? I resigned myself to the thought of going out for what former triathlete (now triathlon coach) Chuck "Chuckie V" Veylupek calls a 'caveman run.' This would be an acceptable compromise. I took a deep breath, let it out, & returned to conversing with my wife about life, the universe, & everything. You know, the kind of stuff married couples talk about when there's nothing else to do...wink, wink, nudge, nudge...

My wife then pulled out her new smart phone to check her voicemail & realized her phone had been off all day. She had a little trouble turning the phone on & assumed the battery was dead. I managed to reset it, & then realized, 'hey, these smart phones have GPS. If I download a run mapping program (like iMapMyRun) I should be able to keep track of the pace I'm supposed to do for this tempo run.' So, with precious few minutes left before the group was scheduled to leave on the run I tried to download the software. However, I couldn't get WiFi or set up the phone in time to download. That's where the ability to "Plan B" a workout is a valuable skill.

When talking about training I repeatedly have borrowed the John Lennon song line: 'life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.' This is so true as a runner or as a coach. I can lay out a training schedule in macro for 16, 18, 20 weeks out from a race, but more often than not it's going to get adapted, truncated, or...worst of all...pitched in the wastebasket as life takes hold of the stick & throttle. Even the micro level of an evening's (scheduled) track workout gets adapted; heavy cranes & lighting equipment, soccer matches & "facility fascists" can take up part or all of the track & leave an inexperienced (or unprepared) runner - or coach - wondering what to do as a "Plan B."

While in a two-year internship with the Navy I spent periods of time ranging from two weeks to two months at training commands. The assignments had the obvious drawbacks of living out of a suitcase, with access to hotel treadmills, & so on. But I learned how to adapt my training to the conditions. During a two-week assignment to Orlando I learned that light poles along this nice long stretch of road near my hotel were set at approximately 50 yards. So, all I had to do was count the number of light poles for my interval workouts; run three at 5K pace, walk one to recover, repeat six times, jog eight poles...I'm certain you get the message.

Frank Shorter once was quoted as saying 'hills are speed work in disguise.' So, running up a section of hill or bridge for a period of time (or distance, if you know it!), then jogging easy or walking down can provide a great workout. A 300-yard hill near the track facility where we train has three points marked on it; if a soccer match is going to keep us off the track for most or our entire workout I can always go down the hill. Sometimes the soccer matches are not interrupting; I'll do a set on the hill just to break up the monotony.

Training by perceived effort for a long enough period can help a runner develop a sense of pace; after a while you know what a nine-minute per mile pace feels like, as well as an eight-minute pace, & so forth. The most important thing in understanding pace sense is to know how a particular pace FEELS. I always marveled at my coach's pace sense when we would go out on easy runs during the weekend. I had purchased my first heart rate monitor/foot pod combination & was geeking out checking our pace during one run. He asked me at one point what my heart rate was; I looked at my wrist, then told him, to which he replied, 'yeah, I figured that. We're at the right pace.' Sometimes, it is safer to not ask how they do it. They just do it. I've got a few paces pretty well nailed down after eight years of training by perceived effort, so I can tell how hard I'm working give or take a few seconds now.

But I don't have a good sense of time, with the exception of swimming in a pool. I can tell you exactly how long it takes me to swim 50 or 100 yards, even though it feels like forever, give or take a second. (It must have to do with that love of oxygen.). So when it comes to running a particular period of time at a particular pace I'm doomed if I don't have a watch. So rather than the planned tempo workout of eight minutes at the pace I need to run a half marathon, two minutes easy, eight minutes at threshold, two minutes easy - repeated twice - I had to adapt. I decided to count telephone poles; eight at moderate effort, two easy, eight at hard effort, two easy, repeat until the end.

Adapting a workout to meet life's demands: So simple, even a caveman - or a smart runner - can do it.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

All God's (Running) Children Got Shoes...

I got home the other evening from a five-day trip to San Francisco, where I had the pleasure of accompanying my wife on one of her telecommunications conference/business jaunts. I don't enjoy business travel, but I can tolerate what can be best described as "pleasure" travel; trips where I don't have to do too much save for drink beer, drink coffee, eat, exercise, read, and sleep. Those trips are usually "earned" by participating in a small amount of "sherpa" activity, carrying back extra or excess "stuff" in my luggage which probably shouldn't have been brought (or bought!) by my loving wife in the first place.

So, I often bring clothing items I can readily jettison on the last morning of the trip, which usually includes a single pair of running shoes at the end of their effective life span. I decided to sacrifice my oldest pair of shoes on travel after seeing one too many shoeless indigents walking down Caroline Street in Key West, FL. To a homeless person, a beat-up pair of running shoes is better than no shoes at all. I try to clean the shoes a day or two before the end of trip and leave a note for the housekeeping staff. The act of perhaps helping another person in a world of hurt by giving them something as simple as a pair of old shoes also helps me try to not hurt myself by running in a pair of running shoes which is too old.

Every so often I get an athlete who complains of sore feet, ankles, shins, knees...sometimes even sore hips and low back. I immediately look to their shoes to see their condition, then ask the question most runners cannot answer: 'how long - in miles & months - have you had those shoes?" If a runner has pain & their shoes have less than 300 miles/six months then the root cause is either something biomechanical, something overuse, or they're in a pair of shoes which isn't right for their foot type. But it's more likely that the runner cannot tell me how many miles or how many months they have had that particular shoe...which usually means they've had the shoe too long.

Most shoes will last an average of 400 miles or eight months, whichever comes first; a ballpark figure which has wiggle room on either side based on the runner's weight, weather conditions, sweat rate & terrain choice. Runners (like me) who sweat a great deal & run in humid climates go through shoes at varying rates throughout the year; shoes purchased in October or November last a few miles/weeks longer than shoes purchased in March. Lighter, less-sweaty runners can almost figure out down to the week when they'll need a new pair. I keep track of the cumulative mileage for each pair of running shoes I have - I rotate between three pairs because I do sweat - on my training log spreadsheet. If I start feeling an ache in the foot or ankle I can look at the mileage & determine whether the cause is training volume/intensity or if it's time to look for a new pair of shoes.

There are several ways to tell whether a pair of shoes is near the end of their lifespan. The most humorous, & probably the most noxious, sign your shoes are dead is when they literally smell dead. I've taken a "truly dead" pair into a local running shoe store to get a replacement, & they begged me to leave the shoes outside at the curb in a biohazard baggie. But that's really the most extreme case of zombie shoe you should ever see. Personally, I hope you never go that long between shoe purchases.

The biomechanically-challenged runner will wear the outer sole rubber off at the places we used to wear out our old Converse Chuck Taylors, at the heels or the balls of their feet. I've seen some shoes with the outer sole under the big toe worn smooth. Typical runners, however, will have crushed mid-sole, where all that nice, white foamy EVA has serious crinkling along the sides of the shoe. You can also tell if the midsole is dying or dead by taking the sockliner (another term for the shoe's insoles) out & giving the EVA a push with your fingertip. If there's no give when you push or rebound when you release the midsole is probably dead.

Lastly, when the EVA looks & feels good and the outer sole looks like a champ, take a close look at the places along the shoe where the upper portion of the shoe joins with the sole. If there is a break between the shoe upper & the sole, the chances are high it's time to replace the shoe. Those are usually the most heart-rending replacement times for a guy like me, because I've just become happiest with the fit & feel of the shoe. But, regardless of whatever emotional attachment you might have with that old shoe, when it says "it's not you but them", it's time for them to leave. New sockliners (insoles) should only be placed into those old running shoes if you plan to use them for kick-arounds, gardening, or lawn-mowing. Or if you're one of those folks who likes your workplace footwear to say, "yes, I am a runner," or, "yes, I like to get paid to do things while wearing ugly running shoes."

But a job where you can get away with being paid while wearing ugly running shoes is a beautiful thing. Ask any coach.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Off (Or On?) A Tangent

I've run road races since 1995, but never really learned about how to run a course until I raced the 2003 Recycler Run in Ft. Walton Beach, FL. It was there Brian McMahon taught me how to run a race course. The Recycler Run course winds through a residential area, but what made this course even more interesting, outside of the live oaks on both sides through the neighborhood, were the gorgeous sweeping turns. There might have been two miles of straight road on the course...in total, but at no more than a two-block stretch at a time.

We had a gorgeous, cool, overcast morning for the race, so it didn't take long for us to get comfortable on course. I was pacing former Pensacola Runners Association president David Harris, who wanted to run 19 minutes for 5,000 meters, so we needed to run about a 6:19 pace. A pack of us were moving at about 6:20 pace, with Brian just a little ahead. We caught up with him & kept a comfortable clip. As we exited a corner, I could feel a little bit of a nudge from Brian, who was off my right shoulder. Brian & I at that time had a history of pulling a little college cross-country physicality (elbows & shoulders) on each other, so this was nothing new. I nudged him back.

He nudged my shoulder again, & said: "Mike, run the tangent." At that point I suddenly realized what he was doing. I always heard the shortest distance between two points was a straight line but to that point in my racing career had never practiced the technique. This had a lot to do with some of the courses I raced in Tampa being straight out-and-back types.

I could see a couple of guys perhaps five seconds ahead of us; at first glimpse they appeared to be drunk & weaving from the left to the right side of the road. Ah, so they were running the tangent. Brian & the rest of us commenced to play "follow the leader" until the turn-around point on the course, then headed back. I not only ran a good race, bringing David painfully close to his goal of a 19-minute 5K, but also learned that day road racing is a thinking person's game.

You can't go into a road race, shut your mind off & expect to run your best. Pacing yourself is one thing, & smart training is another, but you can needlessly waste precious seconds on a road race by not knowing the course & not running the shortest possible distance.

Most people know I measure courses for USA Track and Field certification. It's one reason I don't run a lot of races in Pensacola. If I show up for a local race three things happen: I'm asked whether the course is certified. I'm asked if I measured the course. And, I'm confronted by runners who say the course was long, according to their GPS receiver.

There aren't many races I'll run which are not on a certified course. I want to know the distance is reasonably accurate (which USATF defines as "not short"). This way I can tell how well my training has progressed over time. I've written much about the USATF measurement protocol, so I won't go into detail here. But even I forget about the technical limitations of GPS receivers & the USATF/AIMS (AIMS is the international marathon measurement authority) protocol. When I ran the Rock n' Roll/Mardi Gras Half Marathon last year in New Orleans my GPS mile splits would beep initially about five seconds (eventually a minute) before the measured mile splits. I fussed for a second, & then remembered the additional 5.28 feet/1.609 meters which were added to each mile to make certain I didn't run less than a half marathon.

But a lot of GPS wearers don't take the time to understand the measurement protocols, don't know the limitations of their equipment (up to 25 feet of error at a single point) &, most importantly, do not run the shortest possible distance on the race course.

Rather than take a winding section of road - some sections are more winding than others - let me use a standard 400-meter track as an example:

- The width of one lane of a standard 400-meter running track is 1.25 meters.
- An athletic track lane distance calculator (http://www.brianmac.co.uk/tracklane.htm) shows the distance around a 400-meter track, in lane three (3.75 meters out from the inside rail) is 415.71 meters.
- Multiply the additional distance by 12.5 (the number of laps in a 5,000 meter track race) and the total distance is 5,196.375 meters.
- The width of one lane of a two-lane roadway with a shoulder is approximately 3.75 meters, a little over 12 feet in width. Even when the five added meters for USATF's short course prevention factor is subtracted, that's an additional 191 meters of distance to run if you're one lane of road out from the tangent for the entire race.

Lose your concentration for five seconds if you're running a six-minute per mile pace & you can add a little over 20 meters to the distance run at a 5K.

In closing, even a set of legs, a heart & lungs in the best of shape can be defeated by a brain that's not prepared on race day. Knowing the course & running the tangents can save a runner from running an unnecessary additional three percent of course distance.