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ITI Analysis and Other Observations

Posted Mar 03 2013 8:30pm
It's been quite some time since I've posted anything on here. Not a whole lot is new with me. Still far from recovered, but slowly getting a bit better with the passing months (with some definite bumps in the road along the way). As my health improves I'm becoming gradually a bit more active, but my main focus lately has been on things other than running. It's easy for me to go for a hike or a bike ride and take it really easy. With running though it's not so easy for me to keep it mellow. For this reason I've mostly been avoiding much running, as a means of avoiding overdoing it too soon.

I took a trip with Elle out to southern Utah a couple weeks ago. Forgot how much I love it out there. I'm not sure exactly what it is even, but I can be anywhere in the Utah desert and just walk off into the landscape and explore for hours on end. Most places I've ever been I need to seek out things within the landscape that interest me: creeks, mountain viewpoints, interesting plants, etc. In Southern Utah though, I can be anywhere and just walk off through the land and be entirely captivated by the simplest things: sand, rocks, juniper trees, pine cones, etc. Even in Alaska, where I love the land so deeply, it isn't as intriguing to me on a micro scale as is Southern Utah. Corle and Elle have spring break in 3 weeks, and I'm counting down the days, because we're taking off to Utah as soon as they're both out of class for 9 days.

The past week I've spent closely following the Iditarod Trail Invitational. It's been a crazy year for this race (I guess every year is a crazy year for this race). The top 7 or 8 bike finishers all broke the previous race record. The interesting thing about this is that they really weren't riding any of the stretches any faster than many previous years, they just didn't take any rest. They were certainly aided by a trail that didn't seem to have any serious bad stretches (unlike last year in which the entire trail was pretty much "bad"), but more than anything I think there were just so many strong riders that they just kept pushing on with no rest. This seemed to break a few of them, but many of them were able to hang on to the end, going more than two and a half days without any legitimate sleep! It will be interesting to see if this is a trend that continues into future races (when the trail is good). My approach to this race has always been to rest a little more than most people, and then move faster when I am on the move. This is in the foot division though, in which you pretty much have to sleep because you are going to be out there well over 4 days no matter how you do it. On a bike though, it seems like this year's race may open up a door in which riders at the front of the pack essentially ride the race with no sleep. Of course this all is dependent on trail conditions, and in well over half the years to come it just won't be an option at all to finish in under 3 days (at which point you almost certainly need to mix in a more substantial amount of rest).

In the foot division, Dave Johnston went for it right from the start and made the first ever serious threat to Steve Reifenstuhl's race record of 4 days 15 hours. In the end Dave came up about 4 hours short, but his run could have changed some things for the way this event is approached by runners in the future as well. Until this year I think most people (myself included) thought that Steve was essentially a maniac, and that no one would ever make a serious attempt at doing this race faster than he did on foot. I can put together the pieces in my mind to see how you could do this race in about the time that Steve did, but this would be absolutely best case scenario, as soon as one thing goes wrong that sets you back 2 or 3 hours you are not going to make it. My thought has always been that over the course of 350 miles something will have to go wrong. For this reason I have always thought of Steve's record here as the most impressive performance I am aware of in endurance athletics. I still feel this way, but it was really cool to see Dave come so close to cracking the puzzle. Can't wait to hear Dave's perspective on it. My guess is that he can easily pick out some areas in which he could have made up 4 hours, because that's just the way racing is.

Beyond this I was super stoked to see my good friend Joe finish as strong as he did. He tied for second in the foot division, and his time is certainly one of the fastest ever on foot for a rookie in this race. Normally I don't take much credence in the idea that being a rookie is a huge disadvantage in a race. Even in a 100 mile race you really don't need to have much knowledge of the race and the course to have a great race. You are going to go out and run the entire course in one shot, it will typically be marked quite well the full distance of the course, and at the end of the day all you really need to do is go out and run the thing as fast as you can. Course knowledge might be able to get you and extra 10 or 15 minutes, but when people talk about past experience on a particular course meaning anything much more than that I think they are over dramatizing the  situation. In the case of the ITI though, I do think race experience is a huge factor. You aren't doing this race in one strong push as fast as you can go. You are constantly making decisions about when to push on, when to rest, when to push hard, when to take it easy. You go through several different phases over the course of the race in which you are so worn out that you can't continue to move. You rest and then move on. The management of these cycles is the most important part of doing the ITI quickly. As Jeff Oatley, one of the most accomplished ITI cyclists told me: You are constantly making decisions about what to do at a given time in the race based on where you will be and what you will be doing 50 or 100 miles down the trail. If you have never seen what lies in the next 50 or 100 miles you will have a much harder time making the most efficient decisions. Yes, it could be said that this dynamic exists in any race that you do, and to some degree I suppose it does, but in the ITI you go beyond a tipping point in which this kind of knowledge and experience can go from making a 10 or 15 minute difference to something more like a 15 or 20 hour difference (or more). All of this said though, I'm pretty sure Steve Reifenstuhl was a race rookie when he set the race record in 2005 (which either debunks my whole theory here, or makes his performance all that much more impressive - probably a bit of both).
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