Lessons Learned Running a 100 Mile Relay Race

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Seven years ago I took part in GE Training at their Crotonville, NY campus. Much of our time was dedicated to navigating corporate politics and developing large-scale, effective teams. According to the curriculum, building a functioning group could take months or even years. There are four levels in a team’s life cycle according to Bruce Tuckman’s model of group development: storming, storming, norming and performing. That is some unwieldy baggage if you need to get something done right now.

On the flipside you’ve got Minimum Viable Product (MVP),  a concept popularized by Eric Ries. The basic idea is to build a product quickly and inexpensively with just enough features to attract early adopters. As you add users you iterate and add to your product based on the feedback from customers. It’s all about immediacy, speed and agility.

In the years since I took that training it’s been fascinating to watch large corporations dump traditional business strategies, adopting MVP and Lean Startup principles. They’ve had to reinvent once-sacred processes in an effort to bring better products to market faster.

Last summer I took part in the 100 On 100 Relay, an epic day-long race. We had to come together as a team, run like hell for fourteen hours and survive a grueling endurance event. This meant embracing concepts from both Tuckman and Ries to get from one end of Vermont to the other.

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We had a clear goal. Our team of six people had to run 100 miles along Vermont Highway 100 from Stowe to Okemo. The race organizers provided us with a map and first aid at transition points. Apart from that we were on our own. It was up to us to organize, delegate, hydrate and operate our minimally staffed running startup for one long day.

We organized. I only knew one teamate well. I had run a few times with another, but hadn’t seen him in eight years. Another I raced with once in 2006. Two members I had never met before that morning. I was going to spend the next fourteen hours packed into a car with them. We had to make it work.

We made decisions. We hadn’t chosen which legs to run prior to the race. Fifteen minutes before the start we picked our assignments consisting of three legs per person. Each runner was responsible for roughly seventeen or eighteen miles. One leg in the morning, one leg in the afternoon, one leg at night. Our first runner was off at 8:15am. The rest of us tumbled into the car. We formed immediately. You get pretty friendly pretty fast while sweating and farting in a crowded SUV packed with runners.

We acted immediately. There was no dithering or hesitation or non-performance. We each got a number. #1 was responsible for legs 1, 7 and 13. #2 was on the spot for 2, 8 and 14. And so on. When your number was up you took the fluorescent snap bracelet and started running. It was your job to get your ass and the snap bracelet five, six or seven miles down the road.

We found our roles. At first there was a bit of politeness and hesitation about who would drive or who would sit where. Pretty soon someone would grab the keys and go. Someone else would carry water to the runner. It was no longer about courtesy. Now, it was about doing our job and iterating as we went. Feedback was constant and fixes were put into place immediately.

We cooperated. We normed quickly. One of us would buy ice while another would check the map for our next transition spot. One would get water ready for the incoming runner while another would make sure our outgoing runner was ready. We acted on instinct and nobody slacked. Our organization was flat and everybody gave it everything they had.

We suffered and endured setbacks. The only storming came from external forces. We ran through soupy lung-sopping humidity. We endured a massive thunderstorm and got soaked. There were hills that crushed souls and hot open spaces that burned skin. We ran in the dark on a lonely highway with only reflective vests and headlamps to protect us from oncoming cars. Our only job was to get further down the road. I ran my first leg like I was racing a 10k and after three miles I crumbled in the heat like a house of cards. My pace dropped by two minutes per mile. I crawled up a final massive insult of a hill with my stomach gurgling, my spirit destroyed and my energy reserves gone. I still had another tow legs and twelve miles to cover. I would never make it. They would find me out.

We brought the best out of one another. While one runner put in mileage the rest would follow by car. The team was there every couple of miles with water, Gatorade, or whatever the runner needed. The cheering and encouragement from the support vehicle made all the difference. We even had cowbell! Plenty of cowbell.

cowbell

Our greatness combined transcended all our individual weaknesses and shortcomings. We were performing. I found the strength to head into my second leg. I had seven miles to race with nothing left. Left foot, right foot. The sandwich hollering in my gut was declaring its independence, yet I was determined to keep going. I gave everything I had to the team. Somehow, leg two was a vast improvement over leg one. By leg three I was done, but the spirit and unity of our group carried me forward. Without them I couldn’t have covered that final five miles in the dark on a meandering dirt road. I couldn’t let these people down. They were my team.

We succeeded. Together we ran 100 miles. One step at a time. One mile after another. Somewhere around 9:58pm our sixth runner climbed the last pummeling hill in the dark and crossed the finish line. We gathered around and hugged like we had known one another for years.

We celebrated. At the end there was beer for the drinkers and food for the eaters. After eighteen miles of running and fourteen hours of riding shotgun just about anything is gourmet fare. We destroyed piles of baked beans, pulled pork, hot dogs and fruit as if they were the greatest delicacies ever prepared.

What we had done in that day takes organizations forever to accomplish. We came together, bonded over a quest, faced countless challenges and made it across the finish line. We will never unite as a group again, but in one day we formed, stormed, normed and performed. We produced, iterated and pivoted like a well-tuned startup. In the end we slayed the goddamn dragon and went home happy.

All Hail the 97 Pound Weakling

Charles Atlas ad

I am the 97 pound weakling, perhaps not the original, but I have always been super scrawny. Like the kid in the Charles Atlas ads that peppered the back pages of comic books for decades, I am a skinny. Even when my weight topped 240, I was a slight man under a concealing layer of flab. Peel away the spongy exterior and you find a pale, stickboy suitable for ass kicking. As a kid I dreaded the beach and wore long pants and long-sleeved shirts to conceal my scarecrow body.

While I have gone on to become a strong swimmer, cyclist and runner, I never have been able to put together a weightlifting program for any consistent period of time. I can run a marathon, but I can’t do a pull-up. I’ve cycled 150 miles in one day, but I have never been able to lift much more than baby weights. I have mastered cardio, but success with adding muscle has always eluded me.

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Bullworker 1 – Hartnett 0

Yes, I have tried many times over the years. From weight training classes in high school to sporadically working with a trainer over the last year, I have set my sights on the weight room, but the treadmills and spinning classes have called my name. As a kid I even bought a Bullworker thinking that might help me turn it all around. It ended badly with the spring-loaded apparatus breaking during an exercise involving a door jamb. Before I could react, the fist-like end drove into my chest knocking me to the floor. That was the end of the Bullworker as well as a spirited three weeks of bodybuilding.

Over the last few years I’ve gotten back into shape, challenging myself to dozens of road and trail races. After a half decade of sedentary middle age I am feeling pretty good about my fitness. I set ambitious goals and have been able to accomplish them with a little hard work.

I noticed this past year that my race paces were increasing instead of decreasing. How could I be running more yet slowing down? Perhaps it was middle age, but I suspected an overindulgence in bagels and pizza played a role. It had been months since I weighed in so I stepped on the scale. Ooof! I rocked that bad boy at 238 pounds. My suspicions were correct and I opted to try Weight Watchers. It has been several months of fruit, vegetables and a constant gnawing hunger, but I have dropped 45 pounds. For the first time in nearly a decade I am under 200 and my running feels better than it has in years.

But…

This very welcome weight loss has revealed a skeleton in the closet. That skeleton is me. It is wonderful to see my bones, but I wish they weren’t so damn bony. The 97 pound weakling is back!

Can a slight man well into middle age get results from a weight training program? That is my 2017 goal.

It doesn’t help that I HATE lifting weights. It’s boring, it hurts and doesn’t offer the same endorphin rush and head clearing bliss as a five mile run along the waterfront. I’ve managed to put together a decent program for a few weeks at a time, but soon dread the workout and opt to do cardio instead.

My hope is this time it will be different.

My targets are simple. I want to maintain roughly the same weight, build some muscle and bang out 100 push-ups and 12 pull-ups without stopping. I can struggle through 45 pushups now and the pullups aren’t happening at all. I’ve got one year to get there.

How will I make it happen? My plan is to lift three times per week. I’ve got a trainer who will love seeing me concentrate more on weights. He isn’t a fan of all my sissy running. I hope to work with him a couple of times per month and find some lifting pals so all the big guys on the gym floor won’t beat me up.

Two things will help me build momentum. One, I am going to set clear goals every week and evaluate my progress. Second, I am going public with my goal and hoping friends and colleagues will keep me honest and cheer me along.

This goal went in effect today, January 1. I will document my workouts as I go and write an update every month. I won’t horrify you with the before pictures. Let’s hope I have something to show by the end of 2017. Wish me luck and I will see you at the gym

A Few Thoughts On Spotify Running

Spotify Running image

Let’s talk about Spotify Running. About a month ago Spotify announced a new musical experience specifically designed for runners (all part of a larger fitness initiative). They created non-stop soundtracks that use your smartphone’s accelerometer to determine your tempo and provide the perfect beat to match your stride. The desired effect is a motivated runner pumped by the magic of music.

First of all, I don’t generally run with music when running outside. Running is all about simplicity for me. All I need is shorts, shoes, shirt and socks. It is my legs against the distance. II don’t want distractions and crap to carry. I want to hear the cars, the birds, the breeze and the sounds around me. It isn’t about creating a “portable interior” so wonderfully described here by Maria Popova, it is getting out of the car, bus and office and being outside.

However, when it is treadmill at the gym time, bring on the music. I want to while away the tedium with loud, motivating music. I’ve already created a ton of my own mixes on Spotify that can carry me through a four or five mile stationary jaunt so Spotify Running needs to be as good or better. Time to put it to the test.

Once you tap on running it brings up Running Originals and Running Playlists. Running Originals consists of six instrumental compositions in a variety of styles. Each consists of several “chapters” that are roughly three to six minutes long. The overall mixes are about 30 minutes. Once you start running it finds your pace and the music begins.

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BURN is the first original, composed and recorded by Dutch DJ Tiësto. Spotify describes the track as “massive running beats.” It is definitely the best of the originals with a propulsive club beat that immediately jolted my pace. Like any faceless dance music that kicks ass in spinning class or on the dance floor BURN was magic for seven or eight minutes and I got bored. Like really bored. Soon it feels like and endless loop trapping everyone in the club for an eternity.

Next up is EPIC, listed as “powerful cinematic music.” The dip in quality from our friend Tiësto’s track is significant. This track is the music playing in a generic action film as the squad silently moves in and prepares for the explosive third act. It is dark, propulsive and has all the charm of needle-drop music which is my main issue with all the Running Originals. They have the beat to keep you moving, but they don’t have the personality to keep you interested. Once again, I switched to a new track after about a mile.

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SEASONS is “orchestral music at your pace” which begins with a plaintive, but insistent piano supported by strings, woodwinds and percussion. The sweeping minor keys rise to big crescendos and fall to quiet moments of sad contemplation. This track raises another issue for me. You’re stuck in the mix you chose unless you awkwardly open the app on the run and switch to another original. SEASONS is a bit of a downer and there’s no way I could run with this as a backdrop for more than about five minutes. It would be a great to mix and match the originals to give some dynamic to the run rather than one mood fits all.

Then we dip into LOCK THE FLOW a slightly beefier take on The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” The “shimmering electronic beats” offer up the second best original mix and I could actually see myself giving this one another shot. It’s got a great beat and you can dance to it, but also has some nice subtleties and range that make for interesting listening.

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“Happy, blissed out pop and indie” reads the description for BLISSED OUT. Again this is largely anonymous light EDM that pumps along at a nice click, but doesn’t go anywhere. The guitars and drums on Chapters 4 and 5 are a nice change up, but the mix lost me long before.

The final original beckons you to “step into an action movie.” THE CHASE is the weakest of the whole bunch. Dark, foreboding and just really boring, this one is the most generic of the bunch. It feels familiar in mediocre action film way. Once again it has all the right features, but none of the heart and soul of real music.

The Running Playlists are fascinatingly random, but also pretty adventurous. There are plenty of familiar bands mixed and matched with a lot of lesser known undergound and indie artists. Right now it offers thirteen mixes to choose from and the range of styles is broad and deep. Hip hop, rock, country, metal, electronic, indie and oldies are just a sample of the variety. The tracks rip along at running tempo and provide a great musical score for a quick run or long haul.

Overall, I am impressed by the effort. Spotify clearly had runners in mind when they commissioned the originals. As mentioned above I want to mix and match the Running Originals to give my running soundtrack a deeper, broader and less monotonous dynamic. The interface is clean and easy to use with the exception of changing the music on the go. If this is just the beginning I am excited to see where they take it.

Has anyone else tried Spotify Running? I would love to hear your thoughts.