Monday, December 15, 2014

Ultrarunning Tropes

Aid Stations on High

Not as in a gift from Heaven.  This is the case where every aid station seems to be at the peak of a long climb.  So if you’re running smoothly and feeling good, you can be sure you’re nowhere near it.  Imagine the Sadistic Race Director placing the stations on the course: “They have to suffer to earn it!”

The alternative to Aid Stations Down Low.  For other types of course-induced suffering, see the Camber Chamber, and If Only I Could Use It.

Aid Stations Down Low

While it does correspond to the physical location, this primarily refers to the aid station location as it corresponds to the spirits of the runners.  Granted, there’s a certain overlap: When you’ve just finished a quad-pounding downhill and you’re facing a massive climb to get out of the station, it can be a tad difficult to put on your happy face. Then imagine it’s a cold night and the aid station features hot food, warm blankets, and seats around a giant bonfire.  Why would you drop anyplace else?

The alternative to Aid Stations on High.  For other course features that sweet-talk you into dropping, see Drive Them Loopy.  If it wasn’t the course itself, it might have been the Field Medic.

Aid Station Orchestra

A long stretch ends with an extended climb.  Because of the way the road or trail winds up the mountain, you can’t see much ahead of where you are at the moment. But you know you’re getting to the top when you hear the aid station ahead!  It must be no more than five minutes away.

Five minutes later, you still hear the aid station ahead.  Five minutes after that, you still hear it ahead.  In fact, you could run for a week and still hear the aid station ahead.  Whether it’s the way the mountain reflects the sound, or the outrageous pair of car-battery-powered speakers blasting into the night, this is the aid station you can hear for miles and miles and miles.

Similar to Circling the Drain except heard instead of seen, and Aid Station Ventriloquism except in this case it always seems to be just ahead.

Aid Station Ventriloquism

There you are, running along and hoping the next aid station is coming soon, when you hear it!  Off to the left!

After another minute of running straight, you hear it again, but to the right.  Then you turn toward it, but the sound is coming from behind you.  In fact, no matter whether or how the course twists and turns, it remains geometrically impossible to resolve the aid station sounds.  (Until that distant moment when you finally arrive.)

Similar to the Aid Station Orchestra, except for the apparent direction of the sound.  This might be caused by the geography, or it might be your grey matter messing with you like a Rebellion of the Mind.

The Camber Chamber

Trail runners love, well, trails.  But ultras are long races, and sometimes, the only thing that connects two good trails is a road.  (We’ll make believe for a moment the Sadistic Race Director isn’t just trying to punish us with more road sections.)

Now roads tend to be cambered to help the rain run off.  A runner can get used to that, I suppose, if we fantasize that all these trail runners are training extensively on roads.  Let’s say you can get accustomed to leaning left or leaning right, so long as it’s not shifting back and forth.

Enter mountain roads.  They’re constantly switching back and forth, curving left, then right.  For perhaps fifty yards, the left side of the road is flat and the right side leans down into the turn.  Then it flattens out.  Then the right side is flat and the left side leans the opposite into the next turn.  Then it changes again.  And again.  You can keep shifting sides to stay with a relatively level surface, but then you have to keep crossing the mess of loose gravel in the middle, not to mention you’re running twice as far by zig-zagging.

Other features that may (or may not) have been deliberate include Some Hunters Did ItTo Imperial, and Beyond!, and Strategic Use of Ice.

Circling the Drain

There you are, running along, hoping the next aid station is close.  And then — you see it!  Off to the side, and a little below.  The course descends a little and takes a sharp turn.  And there’s the aid station, still off to the side, and a little below.  Farther down you go, the course switchbacks, and there’s the aid station, off to the side, and a little below.  Some more gentle descent, another turn, and there’s the aid station — off to the side, and a little below.  The whole time you could practically reach out and touch it, yet it never seems to actually get any closer.

Similar to the Aid Station Orchestra, except seen instead of heard.  Contrast to Circling the Wrong Drain.

Circling the Wrong Drain

Right as you’re about to give up all hope, there it is!  The next aid station!  The lights are shining clearly through the night, just off to the side and quite close by.  You slowly weave and descend toward the station, catching glimpses of the light all the while.  Needless to say, it takes longer to get there than you expect.  Well past the time you should have reached the station based on your pace and the distance, you emerge into the clear, and…

It’s hunters or campers or some oddball’s cabin, not the aid station at all.  Keep on truckin'.

Subtype of Phantom Aid Stations.  For other lights that trick you into thinking an aid station is nearby, see The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Defensive Evolution

Aeons ago, you might have found pleasing dirt trails, with the occasional rocks embedded.  Over time, the rocks slowly grew and multiplied, until you might actually describe their trail home as treacherous.  This carried on until the founding of their natural predator: Nike.  As people developed the gall to run on trails, and the footwear to withstand it, the rocks were pounded, pummeled, and thrashed.  In fact, some were driven entirely into the ground!

Natural selection to the rescue.  The rocks that did not develop defenses were slowly lost, while those that did survived.  And the answer was simple: the rocks surrounded their trails with trees.  The weather grew cold; the trees dropped their leaves.  With the up-side of the hill to the left, and a small extra cushion of rocks to the right, the native trail rocks are perfectly protected by a good six inches of leafy camouflage.

It’s not that you can't run on these trails any more — it’s just that the rocks are safe.  They can quickly or easily trip up anyone running hard enough to hurt them.  Or worst case, the Rocky Rocks can toss off the offending runner entirely.  One way or another, this next generation of trail rocks will be safe for millennia to come.

See also If Only I Could Use This Downhill, though some of these sections are flat instead.

The Drive By

You may think you’re suffering now, but just wait.  At the moment you least expect it, you’ll hear a loud noise behind you.  Then it will approach, rapidly.  What’s going on?  It’s none other than the Sadistic Race Director, leaning out the window of an oversize pickup truck as he cruises the course.  Inevitably you’re on a narrow country road, so you need to jump to the ditch beside the road if you don’t want to be run down.  (Though by now, you may prefer it.)  Then he’ll ask why you’re not running faster.  Finally, having passed you, he’ll gun the engine and leave a cloud of dust in your way.

Often performed in a Camber Chamber.

Drive Them Loopy

Sure, you could arrange a lovely point-to-point course.  But that has all these logistical problems, like busing runners from one end to the other.

And yeah, you could make a loop that starts and ends at the same place.  But that’s just catering to the soft runners.  Even incorporating one short loop into a larger course doesn’t help, because they can get aid twice at the same place!

The true Sadistic Race Director will make a course with multiple repetitive loops.  By far the easiest way to get the runners to drop is to make them pass their own car every few hours.  The more often the better.  Three times is OK, while fivesix, or seven is starting to get somewhere.  Still, nobody would really call that “mind-numbing.”  Ten is the mark of an expert.  As a bonus, you can order way fewer finisher’s awards!

The only way to improve on that is to convert it to a 24-hour race, forcing the poor sods to run a 0.9-mile loop for twenty-four hours straight.

If you can’t arrange for loops, try harder; otherwise you’ll have to resort to Aid Stations Down Low.

Field Medic

Yeah, trail running has its hazards.  A moment of inattention, or an attempt to pass on a slippery slope, and you fall.  It happens to the best of us.  Now you’ve got some blood on your knee or elbow.  But after the first couple minutes, the injury fades from your consciousness. Because all things considered, it only hurts about a tenth as much as your legs anyway.

Then you get to the aid station, and someone insists on treating it.  No thanks.  But let me just clean it up for you.  No, really, I’m OK.  It’ll just take a minute, we’ve got the bandages right here.  I’m fine, thanks.  Here, look, the chair’s all ready.  Seriously?  Not only am I supposed to stop and let my legs tighten up, I’m supposed to sit down?  Like I’ll ever get out of a chair at this point?

Similar to Aid Stations Down Low, in that if you give in, you’re done.  They mean well, though, like Hey, I Just Work Here, and in contrast to Myyyyyy Precious….

Hey, I Just Work Here

Picture the runner, about to leave the aid station.  She asks, “what’s next?”  The aid station volunteer replies, “Five miles downhill to the next station.”

Now, aid station crew in general are helpful and dedicated.  But with this poor choice of question, the runner has stumbled upon the initiation pact of the Fraternal Association of Landmark Sequence Experts.  And there are two things she can count on:
  1. It’s well more than five miles to the next aid station
  2. It’s not downhill
Honestly, it’s not like they’re not helpful or friendly.  It just the pact, sort of like leave-no-man-behind, except it’s tell-no-runner-the-trail.  You’re better off not asking.

It’s virtually impossible to blame the RD for this one, similar to the Aid Station Orchestra and Running Backward.

If Only I Could Use It

Just imagine the Sadistic Race Director examining potential course routes.  “Look at this flat, fast section / gentle downhill.  What are we going to do about that?”  There are only two options: Beat the runners up so they can’t take advantage of it (If Only I Could Use This Flat), or find a better route (If Only I Could Use This Downhill).

For more advice on optimal course layout, see Aid Stations on High and Drive Them Loopy.

If Only I Could Use This Downhill

The easiest way to avoid soft runners excelling at a particularly gentle stretch of trail, is simply to find a better stretch of trail:
  • A field of treacherous rocks.  Not just some rocks in the trail, but you’re actually running entirely over rocks.  Big, loose rocks.  The steeper the downhill the better, unless you can arrange it to be a gentle downhill with a steep drop off to one side.  Bonus points if it’s at night.
  • A steep trail, with numerous switchbacks, and a substantial covering of loose dirt.  Anybody who runs too fast will slide right past the turnaround.  Perfect.  (Bonus points if there are thorn bushes to either side.)
  • A dirt trail with plenty of rocks embedded and more off to the side, exactly 1.5 runners wide.  Just enough to encourage a more aggressive runner to attempt to pass a more careful runner, but not enough for them to succeed without the rocks catching one or the other.
  • A rocky trail, if you cover it with leaves.  See Defensive Evolution.
Subtype of If Only I Could Use It.  See also If Only I Could Use This Flat.

If Only I Could Use This Flat

When you simply can’t avoid including a flat or gentle downhill in your course, you have only one option: crush the runners while they get there, so they’re left with no choice except to walk even the easiest parts.  Bonus points if you get them to walk backward just to relieve the pain.
  • To begin with, put it so late in the race that everybody’s exhausted.  Then:
  • Precede it with a long and brutally steep climb.  Just make sure there’s a couple hundred flattish yards in the middle so they think they’re done with the climb, then start it up again and double the length.  Only when they’re totally demoralized should they be allowed to reach the flat.
  • Or, precede it with a multi-mile steep downhill.  It must continue well past the point where it feels good.  If nobody calls it “an absolute quad-crusher” then you’re not trying hard enough.  Bonus points if they runners have to run back up the same hill later.
Subtype of If Only I Could Use It.  See also If Only I Could Use This Downhill.

If Rocks Are Good, More Rocks Must Be…

Yeah.  More rocks must be Gooder.

This is not just a matter of the Sadistic Race Director selecting a route with some rocks in it.  (Anything called a “rock garden” is clearly too small.)  This is when the entire “trail” is a field of rocks.  As in, you need markers every 10 yards to tell where you’re supposed to be going, because otherwise it’s just an indistinguishable pasture of rocks.

Now the rocks themselves may be shift-under-your-feet rocks, reach-out-and-grab-your-foot rocks, stub-your-toes-into-submission rocks, or oh-my-did-you-forget-your-shin-guards rocks.  By far the best, though, and this usually requires a climb, are the proceed-on-all-fours rocks.  This is when the runner has to climb from one rock to another to another, because there’s no apparent path forward and the trail markers go straight up.  (See Rebellion of the Mind.)

Bonus points if this category describes the entire course.

See also If Only I Could Use This Downhill, though as mentioned, climbs are preferable.

Late Start

No, not like, there’s an early start for runners who need an extra hour.  If you can’t finish in thirty-six hours, another one isn’t that likely to help.

This is when the whole race starts at 6 PM9PM, or midnight.  Just because, what kind of challenge is an ultramarathon if you’re not tired going in?

I’d say the Sadistic Race Director does this to compensate for an otherwise manageable course, except similar to the Drive By, it's more often just the icing on the cake.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

During a long, overnight race, the moon can be a beautiful companion.  Besides simply lighting your way, the spectacle of the clear night sky is a huge benefit to being there at all (instead of, say, home in a warm bed.  After enjoying a hot shower.  Wait, is any constellation worth this?)

And then you find yourself climbing a wooded mountain, in search of the next Aid Station on High.  Long, steep climbs are merciless enough to begin with, but now your mind is playing with you.  Should I have been there by now?  Surely I can’t be going slower than XX:YY per mile.  That means I should have been there by now.  And I really should be going faster than that, meaning I definitely should have been there by now.

Then you see it!  The lights of the aid station.  Up ahead, higher up, as the savvy runner knows to expect.  Just a few more minutes climb, and…

It’s still there, up ahead.  Higher up.  Keep climbing.

How high can this mountain be?  And why do the lights look just as far away as ever?

Then the trail curves, and you can clearly see the light — the light of the moon, that is.  What you thought you saw, it wasn’t an aid station at all, it was just a tiny peek of moonlight through the trees.

Which means you absolutely should have been there by now.  Keep on truckin’.

Similar to Phantom Aid Stations and Circling the Wrong Drain in that you’re not really there after all.  Caused by your mind messing with you, similar to a Rebellion of the Mind.

Myyyyyy Precious…

Aid stations are great.  And the volunteers are outstanding!  They light up the night, help each new arrival fill their hydration pack or bottles, prepare and distribute food, keep a warm fire going, and sometimes even dress up in coordinating costumes or post signs offering warm hugs to sweaty runners.  These are the people who guide every runner from one section of the course to the next.

Except for the one volunteer possessed by Sauron.  Whether it’s hot coffee on a long, cold night, or ice for your hat on a sweltering summer afternoon, this is the guy who has exactly what you need — but won’t give it to you.  “Have to save some for the next runner,” he says, attempting to sound apologetic.  But I’m sure he says the same thing to the next runner, and the one after that.  “Have to save some for the sweeps,” he probably tells the dead last runner.

Then he closes the station and takes it home.

Like the Field Medic or Hey, I Just Work Here, these are the things that add a little character to an otherwise unremarkable aid station.

Phantom Aid Stations

A runner often knows more or less how far it is to the next aid station.  After all, it doesn’t take too long alone and hurting in the woods before you start to think about hot food, a campfire, and some human company.

Then, just when you’re most looking forward to it and quite nearly convinced you’ve gone too far and must have missed it, you see the lights of the station ahead!

There’s just one problem.  As you run on and the course turns here and there, the lights shift either too much, or not quite enough; the geometry doesn’t seem consistent with the station being right next door.  But it’s overdue, and people actually hallucinate during ultras, so maybe it’s just your estimation that’s a little off.

You draw close, so close you can taste it… and then the course turns away, leaving the station behind for good.  It’s now been far too long, you way should have been there by now, and you start really assessing the odds that you missed a turn.  You might even ask another runner about the station, if by some chance you’re lucky enough to find one.

But no.  It’s just a trick of the mind.  Similar to Circling the Wrong Drain, except there was never any drain there to begin with.  Also see The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which is somewhere in between.

Rebellion of the Mind

You’re navigating the unfamiliar trail, weaving between trees and around rocks, diligently following the trail markers.  It’s a good thing the course is well-marked, because otherwise some of these twists and turns would easily go unnoticed.

Then the trail ends.  You’re in the middle of the woods, and there’s no trail marker, no place else to go.  You may spin around a full three hundred and sixty degrees, looking for a way out.

Then the horrible truth dawns.  There is actually a trail marker there, your eye just slid right past it.
  • Because your mind gave a cursory examination to the extremely narrow gap, and decided there was no way a human being could fit through that rock.
  • Or because you’re faced with a wall of rock, and your mind failed to even consider the possibility that the trail markers lead straight up.  (See If Rocks Are Good, More Rocks Must Be…)
It’s just your mind messing with you, similar to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  Well, the Sadistic Race Director probably had something to do with it too.

Rocky Rocks

Not like the boxer; these are the rocks that always rock one way or the other if you have the gall to step on them.  If you listen closely, you can hear a little giggle if you stumble, and a belly laugh if they toss you off entirely.

A staple of If Rocks Are Good, More Rocks Must Be… and If Only I Could Use This Downhill.  Also found in any water crossing, especially Runners on Rinse.  If they get you, you might encounter a Field Medic.

Runners on Rinse

Some courses have a creek crossing or two.  After all, trails go through mountains and forests, and these things have creeks from time to time.  So as a runner, it’s not always reasonable to expect dry feet for the entire race.

Still, there are courses, and there are courses.  Some RDs might select a course with drainage pipes crossing under the fire roads.  (Evolution quietly whacks those RDs for not being Tuff Enuff.)

The Sadistic Race Director, on the other hand, realizes that mountains have altitude, precipitation, and creases.  What does this mean?  Every mountain is a veritable feast of crevices, each with its own small stream.  All that water on top has to drain somehow, right?

Yes, you can abuse the runners by sending them up the mountain and down, up and down, up and down again.  But there’s some pleasure in variety.  You can also punish them by sending them horizontally around the mountain, in and out of every fold along the way.  Rest assured, they’ll have to run through a small stream at the nadir of every single one.

Often combined with Rocky Rocks.  For maximum effect, position a photographer on the far side, just out of range of the splash.  And don’t forget the spacing: socks appear dry after about an hour, and we wouldn’t want that, would we?

Running Backward

You know those super-fast runners?  The ones who are always getting single-digit bib numbers?  Once in a while, they volunteer for a race.  Yes, it’s great to see them giving back.

On the other hand, the way you typically see them is on a narrow trail, far in between two aid stations, running at high speed toward you.  First you get the panic moment of “I can’t possibly be running the wrong direction, uh, can I?”  Then you see clearly enough that they have no bib.  Next you get the panic moment of “What am I going to do if this guy keeps running straight at me?”  A half-instant before the inevitable collision, they step aside and ask, “Pretty far back this year, aren’t you?”

It’s impossible to blame the RD for this one, similar to the Aid Station Orchestra and Hey, I Just Work Here.

Sadistic Race Director

What more is there to say?  The easiest way to get to know someone is to run a course they’ve designed.  If your opinion hasn’t changed after three of their courses, you’ll know they qualify.

This exclusively applies to the race courses they’ve designed, not any other aspect of their character.  Strange how they can be so different, huh?

Some Hunters Did It

If one runner goes off course, we can laugh about it later.  Or at least, when we pass that spot next year, we can say “I think this is where Bob went straight…”  On the other hand, if half the runners go off-course, then obviously Some Hunters Did It.  Which is to say, since the course is always well-marked to begin with, clearly there must have been tampering…

Other issues that may (or may not) have been deliberate include the Camber Chamber, To Imperial, and Beyond!, and Strategic Use of Ice.

Rhetorical Question: If a hunting blind gets messed up, do they say, ‘Man, the trail runners have been here again…’?

Speed Dating

As the Sadistic Race Director, you know your runners have come here to suffer, and you figure you're giving them their money's worth.  There's just one problem.  All these married runners keep showing up for your race, bringing their wives and kids, and turning your Tuff Guy/Gal event into some wishy-washy comfort-fest.

Fortunately, there's a simple solution: invite a blogger to run your race.  Then they can write up how the narrow trail runs along the edge of a sheer cliff, but don't worry, you run that section at night in the fog, so you won't notice it anyway.  Or how they got hit by lightning but carried on to finish the race.

Giving spouses material like this to read should cut down on your married entrants by at least two-thirds, thereby restoring the original "rugged bachelor" feel to the event.

Similar to the Drive By and the Late Start, this is one of the techniques other than the changing the course itself that an RD can use to shape their event.

Strategic Use of Ice

Have you ever noticed, if there’s ice on the course, it’s never a small patch that’s easily avoided?  Either:
  • It spans the whole trail, from a progress-blocking obstacle on one side to the progress-blocking obstacle on the other.
  • It’s on a steep road climb, and invisible to boot
  • It used to be a thick layer of snow.  Then the Sadistic Race Director walked the course, leaving six-inch deep footprints.  Then it all froze, effectively turning the footprints into land mines.
We all know the RD can’t actually control the weather, so this could be innocent, similar to To Imperial, and Beyond!, the Camber Chamber and Some Hunters Did It.  But you know how they tell runners to be prepared to take advantage of any eventuality?  Uh-huh.

To Imperial, and Beyond!

Some race directors, I don’t know, measured the course.  Kilometers, Miles, whatever they chose, we can tell how far it is from one end to the other.  Others, you can only imagine threw some bubble gum at the wall and then guesstimated (and apparently, they are not very good guesstimators).  If you’re an RD and there’s a certain type of mile named after you, this might be you.  If there are sections of your course called “forever,” or aid station captains who say things like “it says 6.6 but it’s really 8 and it feels like 10,” then this is definitely you.  (Exception: see Hey, I Only Work Here.)

Contrast to Sadistic Race Director, who does everything intentionally; this might be more innocent, similar to the Camber Chamber, Some Hunters Did It, and Strategic Use of Ice.  (Might be.)

1 comment:

  1. Awesome! This is a very entertaining read for anyone who has run more than one of the Sadistic Race Director's races.