By Sean Meissner
“Before I knew it, I was registered for 5 races on 5 consecutive weekends.”
After a fall spent training diligently for a marathon p.r. attempt, I was rewarded with a knotty calf, thanks to an ill-advised Turkey Trot without a proper warmup. The Turkey Trot was only 10 days before the marathon, and the big knot was still there on race day. Despite my efforts to manage the knot, it gripped down hard around mile 16, making for a painful 10 mile limp to the finish. That experience caused me to take most of the rest of December off from running. It was a nice, restful remainder of the month, including a great road trip, visits with lots of friends and family, and plenty of good food and drink.
When I started running again in January, it was a bit of a struggle the first week or two as my body adjusted to regular exercise again with a bit of extra resistance. As usual, I had a few races I was registered for in the coming weeks, but I wanted more. In my quest to run more Arizona races, I scanned the local race calendar and added a couple more races to my schedule in the coming month. Before I knew it, I was registered for 5 races on 5 consecutive weekends. Uh oh…as a running coach, this is something I discourage my clients from doing. As I tell them, to truly optimize their potential at races, they just can’t race that often, even if most of those races are just training races. Even a training race makes us push harder than we would in a hard workout, so racing that often wouldn’t allow for nearly enough time for recovery causing even our training races to be sub-par. “But…”, I hear that a lot from clients when I explain my reasoning to their packed race schedules. I, too, started saying “but…” to myself. What if I tried a little self-experiment that I could then use on my clients who like to race frequently? I really was using each of these races as a step in my training and a chance to hang out with good friends at cool events while playing in the desert and mountains, as opposed to any of them being a goal race.
So I decided that, for the most part, I would run the first 75% of most of these races on cruise-mode, then push a bit the last 25%. This would serve a few purposes: remind me to hold back early in races, that negative splits are generally good, to push later in races when tired, that passing people late in races helps fuel the fire, and it would make it easier for my body to recover between races since I wasn’t pushing for so long in each race. Also, while I would have some easy days and rest days, there would be no tapering for any of these 5 races.
That is how I came to be registered for the Coldwater Rumble 20 miler on Jan 24, the Sedona Half Marathon on Jan 31, Kahtoola Agassiz Uphill on Feb 7, Lost Dutchman Marathon on Feb 15, and Antelope Canyon 50 miler on Feb 21. I really appreciated how all of these races were within a 2 ½ hour drive of my home in Flagstaff. Another reason I picked these specific races is that they were all so different from each other. If there’s one thing I love most about my running, it’s variety. I love running uphill, downhill, flat, rolling, technical, smooth, roads, trails, cross country, track, hard, easy, fast, slow, trail shoes, road shoes, racing flats, etc. For the most part, this variety has kept me injury-free for 30+ years of running (except for the occasional knotty calf due to an ill-advised, non-warmed up Turkey Trot).
The Coldwater Rumble 20 miler was really an after-thought, as my main purpose for attending was to support a buddy who was running the 100 miler. I would race one rolling, semi-technical 20 mile loop in the morning, hang out and crew for 6 hours, then pace for another 20 mile loop. It was a very logistically easy way to get in 40 miles for the day. The race was a great chance to run in the warm desert sun while stretching the legs out for the first time in 7 weeks. As planned, I cruised the first 15 miles, but even then, I found myself leading by 9. As I stopped at the last aid station at mile 15 for a quick bottle fill, I heard someone cruise by behind me without stopping. Without seeing the runner, something clicked in my head and I immediately switched to race-mode. I ran out of the aid station, passing runners from the longer races, before I saw my target about ¼ mile later. I was able to catch and pass him pretty quickly, then I proceeded to keep on the gas pretty steadily to the finish. Wins are always fun, and as this was at an Aravaipa event, it included a unique trophy. After an afternoon of eating, drinking, hiking with my dog, hanging out with friends, and crewing, I was ready for another 20 mile loop for pacing. Unfortunately, too much deep-sand running got the best of my buddy’s calf and he had to call it an early day. A group of us made the most of it over beers and burgers at a local brewery.
Enjoying the warm sun and cool saguaros at Coldwater Rumble 20 miler. Photo credit: Bret Sarnquist
My body felt fine after Coldwater, so the following week was my normal base-building phase with lots of miles, hills, stairs, and a short track workout, plus a massage that I was committed to weekly during these 4 weeks. As Kristina (my girlfriend) and I drove down to Sedona on race morning for race #2, I was looking forward to the hilly, paved half marathon I was about to run. Road half marathons are one of my favorite races, as they’re not nearly as physically taxing as a marathon, yet they’re long enough to take the kick out of 10k-ers, and they’re a great threshold workout. As with most road races, this one started out fast for many, but not me. I wasn’t tempted to go flying out of the gate, as I was committed to starting easier and finishing harder (hopefully even negative splitting), plus, I knew the course and knew the hills would get some of the anxious starters. By mile 2, I had passed about a dozen people and was running with the first woman in 5th/6th place. We were running smooth and working together, staying within about 10 seconds of each other for the next couple of miles. I eased up the long uphill near the turn around a little quicker than she did, and had a chance to see how the top-4 were looking. They all looked smooth and I was pretty doubtful I’d catch any of them. When I turned around, I kept cruising along, high-fiving friends along the way, thinking about how I was going to negative-split. At about mile 9.5, there was a long, steep, and nasty hill, and as that was about 75% into the race, I decided to start pushing to get my negative split. So I powered up the hill, then was rewarded with a nice, long downhill before the final uphill ½ mile grind. I was happy to run a 65-second negative split and feel good while doing it. Race #2 was completed within the objectives.
Post-race Sedona Half Marathon family pic
The next week was very similar to the previous with lots of miles, hills, stairs, a short track workout, and a massage. I even got in a great 23-mile road run just two days after Sedona. I was excited for the coming race, as I think the Kahtoola Agassiz Uphill is easily the most-fun race in Flagstaff. It’s held at Arizona Snowbowl Ski Area, and consists of ascending to the top of the Agassiz chair lift in 1.7 miles and 2,300’ of vertical (up to an elevation of 11,500’), then descending back to the base in 2.3 miles and 2,300’ of downhill. Competitors can choose to either run/hike up and down with traction devices on their shoes, or skin up and ski down. It’s an evening race, so is held after the ski lifts are closed for the day, many of the 300+ competitors dress up in costume, everyone hangs out for one of the best post-race parties in the ski lodge, feasting on pizza and beer, while swapping war stories with friends and listening for their name to win one of hundreds of raffle prizes. As this was such a short, and painful, race, and I knew it would take less than an hour, I decided to basically go hard from the gun for this one. The uphill was mainly going to be a lung-buster, while the down would mostly be a quad-cruncher. And so it was – the lung-burn felt painfully good going up and it was oh-so-much fun to fly back down. Despite being a fun, low-key race, it was still a Flagstaff race, so the normal competition was pretty stiff. I was happy to finish as the 7th runner in the traction division, and be part of the top old-man team. It was a great evening playing at the local ski hill in Flagstaff.
Not surprisingly, my quads were hammered the following week. With a marathon coming up the next weekend, and also being the one race in my series that I wanted to run a bit stronger, I took it easy that week. I skipped the track and stairs, instead opting for easy runs, yoga, strength class, and massage. Even with taking it easy, it still took until Thursday for my quads to recover from Agassiz’s pounding. I was good to my body and it responded well.
Working hard near the summit of Kahtoola Agassiz Uphill. Photo credit: Martos Hoffman Images
Costumes are popular, and fun, at the Kahtoola Agassiz Uphill. Photo credit: Martos Hoffman Images
I was excited for the Lost Dutchman Marathon, as I’d heard many good reviews over the years, plus it was going to be a bit of a reunion with Kristina’s family, my aunt and uncle, and my buddy Ryan from Bend, who decided to run it the day before the race.
Race morning started out with a nice cloud cover and calm winds, and a decidedly slower pace than the previous year’s 2:18 winning time, although one runner did open up a sizable gap after the first mile. The opening 7 miles are gradual downhill on a dirt road, and Ryan and I settled into a conversational pace, emerging onto the pavement in about 10th place, with the leader very much out of sight. Ryan decided to back-off a bit, while I kept running steady. Out onto the highway for a bit, then back into a subdivision, I passed a couple people and was slowly reeling in a few more. This neighborhood had a long uphill followed by a long downhill, hitting the race’s half-way point about the top of the hill. I had made my way up to 6th by then, and was greeted to my own cheering station from my aunt and uncle. That gave me a bit of a boost, and I was soon in 5th, still comfortably cruising. Another short bit onto the highway, then back onto rolling, rural roads for the final 10 miles. I typically don’t run well on constant up-and-downs, but this day was different, as I steadily reeled in 3 of the 4 runners ahead of me by mile 19. There was a mile out-and-back here, so I was able to see the leader and although he wasn’t looking great, he was almost 4 minutes ahead of me with only 10km to go. Still cruising along and not pushing the pace, I suddenly and unexpectedly caught him at 22 as he was walking while mixed in with half-marathoners. I didn’t actually realize I’d caught him until I saw the lead cyclist. Well, with only 4 miles to go and unexpectedly leading the race, I made a quick decision to race to the finish. As I pushed along comfortably hard, I took a couple of peaks over my shoulder to see where 2nd place was, but couldn’t tell because of the half marathoners. The miles passed quickly, and soon I was running across the finish line for the win. Winning marathons is fun, and when it’s a completely unexpected win, that makes it more exciting. The rest of my group had great races, too, with 3 p.r.’s, and one fastest marathon in many years. It was a great weekend in the shadow of the Superstition Mountains.
Cruising along at mile 18 of Lost Dutchman Marathon. Photo credit: Gary Meissner
Lost Dutchman and Me – Being awarded the coolest trophy ever by the Lost Dutchman. Photo credit: Kristina Siladi
The next week was a short rest week, as Lost Dutchman Marathon was on Sunday and Antelope Canyon 50 miler was on Saturday. Like the previous week, I focused on recovery, yoga, massage, and a few easy runs. Saturday morning came soon, my body felt okay, and I was excited to run 50 miles through some of the sacred slot canyons on the Navajo Reservation. The race started with my friend Andy taking a quick and sizable lead, while I held back and slowly warmed up my legs. The first 20 miles went through amazing slot canyons and were run on soft sand (where I was grateful to put my friend Meghan’s advice to good use – try to land flat-footed to get more floatation from my shoes). I ran through the 20 mile a.s. feeling good, unaware that I was in the lead due to Andy taking a wrong turn. I was enjoying the slickrock section for a while, then the novelty wore off, my enthusiasm and energy lagged, and about 10 people caught me in that section (including Andy, which made me realize I had been leading for about 8 miles). Once off the undulating slickrock and back onto the more runnable sand, I slowly found my groove again. Arriving at the 40 mile a.s., I was feeling good and ready to see how many people I could pick off in the final 10 miles of nice, gently rolling singletrack. Turns out it was 5, as I happily finished in 3rd place (not knowing until someone told me at the finish). I was very happy with the effort and felt good about myself for making it through my experiment in good shape.
AC2 – Minutes from the finish of the Antelope Canyon 50 mile. Oh the sand… Photo credit: Nico Barraza
After 4 weeks, I had done what I set out to do: run 5 very different races on consecutive weekends without killing myself in any single race. Not surprisingly, I was pretty tired for the next couple of weeks. I was happy with the immediate result of experiment, and took it very easy the following week, only jogging easy and walking the dogs a few days.
So, what advice will I now have to give my clients, or anyone else, when they ask me about racing frequently? Well, it’s fun and it’s doable. In addition to the normal things we should all do with our racing – don’t over-do it in any single race, rest after each race so you’re as recovered as possible before the next, take it easy if things aren’t going well and don’t get discouraged, have a good massage therapist, eat well, sleep well, etc – I think the keys to my relative success were: I consciously held-back for at least 75% of the 4 longer races so I wasn’t dipping much into my reserves, I specifically chose races that were very different from each other so I was less likely to get an overuse injury (and the variety was fun), I didn’t have a set training plan for the weeks between races so I could train based on how I was recovering rather than by what was written down, I have an extremely supportive girlfriend who was there for all but one of the races (and she raced in 3 of them), I have a big life-time base of miles, I typically run fairly high mileage, and I’m able to recover pretty fast.
Three weeks after Antelope Canyon, I went on a R2R2R adventure with some friends. Pretty early into the run, I could still feel the deep-down fatigue from all of the recent racing. Rather than grind out a potentially miserable finish, I decided to call it an early day, which in the Grand Canyon still means it’s going to be tough. Two weeks later, I ran the Crown King Scramble 50km and felt recovered by then.
For the stats geeks out there: 4 weeks, 5 weekends, 5 races, 113.33 racing miles, 400ish total miles, 16:01:22 racing time, 8:28 min/mi, two wins, one each 3rd, 5th, and 7th, a lot of race schwag (more on that in another post), one sore Achilles thanks to 30 miles of soft sand running, and a whole bunch of fun that’s pretty hard to quantify.
Pretty tired after all those miles of racing over the past month. Photo credit: Nico Barraza