Sunday, December 14, 2014

How Awesome Is Your Ultrasignup Score?

In October I mentioned that my friend John commented that my UltraSignup score would suffer after choosing to run the Condor 25k with a friend rather than race it. It wasn’t the first time I had heard someone from the Corvallis trail running group make mention of Ultra-Signup scores. My friend Scott once went on about how small races help your USU score whereas the big well known races are likely to hurt your score. I had heard the guys playfully banter about who had a higher ranking. And my friend Gaby asked me at the conclusion of the 2012 Gorge Waterfalls 50k, “Jeez, did you have to win by so much? You made this one of my lowest Ultra-signup results!”

Yes, it is obvious people are paying attention to their Ultra Signup scores, but just how important do people really think they are??

Ultrasignup arrived on the ultrarunning scene in March of 2009 as the brainchild of Mark Gilligan. Today USU handles the registration for approximately 80% of all ultramarathons and many shorter distance events as well. The company tries to upload all of the race results that they are aware of, even if the race does not use USU for registration or timing. RD’s can assist in this massive data collection by submitting results to USU in a spreadsheet format.

Mark admits that he was interested in knowing about his competition going into races, but looking up each person individually took an enormous amount of time, especially for the larger races. He said he was interested in putting together a system to help participants (including himself) easily analyze the competition. The idea for quantifying results came to him one night while having beers with friends after work: The score for each race is calculated by dividing a runner’s time by the winner’s time and the percentage becomes the runner’s score for each event. An individual’s aggregate score is just an average of each individual race score. It was a simple calculation that allowed people to see how many races someone had run and what their quantified average of past results were, which created a general runner rank. The system also benefitted ultra fans, allowing them to quickly identify top competitors or “race favorites”.

The system is decidedly less complicated than something like the BCS ranking system which involves a combination of expert polls and computer calculations. It is this simplicity that it allows it to be applied universally to the ultra-running community, but unlike football there is no accounting for “strength of schedule”. The formula does not take into account the number of participants in a race, the number of people a runner beats, or the strength of the competition in the race. The winner of a ten person fat-ass in the middle of December gets the same reward as the winner of Western States on Ultrasignup. Likewise, a runner could have an exceptionally good race but if the winner destroys the course record on that particular day, the Ultrasignup score may not reflect the accomplishment. But the method of dividing one’s time by the winner’s time was certainly not a novel concept in Ultrarunning: race series, like the Montrail Ultra Cup and the Oregon Trail Series, predated Ultrasignup with their use of the same formula to determine runner rank within the series.

Mark says he has gotten numerous suggestions on how to improve the algorithm, but few are as simple as the current system. And Mark states: “It is not our intent to inject subjectivity, it really is just your average of how you have done over the course of your running career.”
But recently there have been changes to the USU system and the ensuing discussions on the Ultrasignup Facebook page made me realize a lot of runners take this rank really, really seriously. In fact, Mark says he knows of a few situations where egos have been put in check after people have been called out on their low rank. And there are stories where people have sized up potential dates based on their Ultrasignup scores. Now that’s taking it seriously!
One of the changes involved timed race events. Previously these had not been calculated into the score, but these results have now been averaged in (using a modified formula of runner’s distance/winner’s distance). Those who frequently run timed events were strongly in favor of this, basically stating they wanted “credit” for these results. But opponents stated these races are often used for training or running a specific distance with no intention of running the entire time and they didn’t want to be penalized for this. The second change involved listing the DNF’s, though that had no effect on the actual score.
With all the banter and importance placed on the Ultrasignup score, I have decided to share my wisdom and experience (61 Ultrasignup results!) on how to achieve an Awesome Ultrasignup Score:
- If you are having a bad day, you should DNF. Sure the DNF’s are listed now but they don’t actually hurt your overall ranking. On the other hand, sticking it out through a tough day will earn you a score significantly lower than you are used to. My rough day at Western States in 2012 earned the ranking of 58%!
-Never run competitive races. Whenever a lot of fast people show up, the time between you and the first runner is likely to be a lot greater, meaning your score goes down even if you think you had a good day.
- Run a bunch of small, non-competitive races to pad your score. Better yet, go to a fat ass with Ultrasignup registration and race it all out. I like to race and I like to have some runs as training runs. Local races are perfect for this. And high placings at these races that nobody outside of your state has ever heard of (or cares about) can not only boost your ego, but also you USU score!
- Do not do any races for fun. Do not do any races for training. And certainly don’t run with anybody slower than you.  Two years ago, I ran the Pac Rim One Day with my daughter. I thought it was pretty fucking awesome to run an ultra with her when she was only 8 years old. But Ultrasignup didn’t - they reamed me with a 35%. My recent endeavors to help a friend meet her goal at the Condor 25k were also frowned upon in the USU system.
- Do not race outside of your strengths. Last year I thought it would be fun to run a mountain half marathon to mix things up and get some good vert for Western States. But I am not great at steep uphills or steep downhills and I certainly don’t have the speed to compete in a half marathon. Ultrasignup corroborated this with a lower than average score for the day.
- Never race against Ellie Greenwood. A couple years ago, I had a decent run at Chuckanut (it was on the top 20 all time list at the time). But Ellie set the course record that day. Likewise, her two speedy runs at Western States hurt my scores on the day. Fast chicks and dudes can do a number on your score even if you have a good day. It’s best to just not run any races against them at all.

;) Ok, hopefully, everyone knows I don’t mean any of that! (Well, except the part about Ellie Greenwood. Nobody has a chance against her :). My point is that ultrarunning is a lot more than a computer generated score. Enjoying new places, hanging with other people, being active, and even toughing it out on a bad day are all things that enrich our lives and make us better people. Being competitive and pushing yourself to do better and even beating others is all part of this sport, too, and I certainly relish that aspect of ultrarunning. But it is good to keep it in perspective.
Amongst all the Facebook feedback and suggestions, a few commenters hit the nail on the head. One said his Ultrasignup score was “not something I think about when I am running an ultra. Stats and rankings don’t mean much.” Another person noted, “I don’t need to be ranked to love this sport.” Even Mark Gilligan, the founder of Utrasignup, says: “the ranking is just for fun so don't take it so seriously. It was added to the site after a few beers so take it for what it is.”
Ok, so fess up! Has the ranking system ever influenced your race decisions, such as what races you run or whether or not to drop? Be honest - How seriously do you take your Ultrasignup score?

Monday, December 8, 2014

Camp, Qatar, and Conniving Commies - Part 2

(Ok this took a little longer to finish than expected since writing Part One. I was on call last week which means the little things take a backseat! Hope it was worth the wait!)
We have arrived in Doha!
I was excited about being in a completely new area of the world for me and to be part of the US team, but I had a lot of trepidation about the race itself as things went quite poorly for me after Angeles Crest and I really struggled with my recovery. The first two weeks after AC I ran 2 miles, then 12 miles the week after that, and then just 18 such that 4 weeks out I had barely run 50k. Every run sucked. I was tired all the time. My muscles ached. I skipped runs and cut many others short. But knowing I had big races ahead I pushed myself to 60 miles the next week, but then had to drop to 35 the following week. Then decent weeks of 70 and 80 miles, but after that I was so fatigued I was back down to 28. Not only was I tired but I was so frustrated. I mean, who needs ten weeks to recover from a measly 100 miles? Apparently, I did, but I did NOT like it one bit! Finally, I took 5 days off and then decided I would just run as easy as possible for three weeks. I have been wearing a heart rate monitor since June but this is the first time I really put it to any use. I forced myself to keep an easy effort and I mean easy: I averaged about 9:00-9:10 pace for the next three weeks, but I did 85, then 96 and finally 75 which included Autumn Leaves 50k. It was my slowest Autumn Leaves in 5 tries (including two 50 mile splits!). Remember I only did 85 miles in the 5 weeks between Western States and Angeles Crest and after 3 months of piddly training I was understandably out of shape. But, I felt really good at Autumn Leaves and there was no undue fatigue afterwards. I was ready to train again. Unfortunately, I had less than 4 weeks till race day. I made the most of that time but I knew I wasn’t where I would like to be for such an important race.

Given the circumstances, I figured it’d be a real stretch to break 8 hours, a time that I feel is kind of the bench mark for “World Class” for the women’s 100k, and a good deal off of my PR of 7:43. But part of racing to your best is being realistic and I knew it was unrealistic to target a time much under 8 hours. Besides that is still 7:44 pace for 62 miles!

I laid low in Qatar the few days before the race without running a single step. But there were plenty of other things to attend to like interviews, doping control, prepping for 20 aid station stops, and opening ceremonies.
iRunFar interview with me, Amy and Meghan
Hangin' with the cool kids in doping control

I may be a dope, but I am not a doper! 
 Team USA!!

Finally it was time to race! But the 6 pm start was a novelty to me. What do you do all day and what are you supposed to eat?? I tried to nap, but was unsuccessful due to a phone call from house keeping: "Your 'Do Not Disturb' sign was on so I was calling to find out what time you wanted your room made up." Apparently, 'Do Not Disturb' has a different meaning in Qatar! For food, I decided on my usual pre-race breakfast, just at 4 pm!

Pre-race I did about a half mile "warm-up" though it was still plenty warm at 6 pm (around 75 degrees) and then used a camel for a few hip stretches. ;)
(My camel photographer sucks!)

My teammates and pretty much everyone else was out in front of me at the start. Of the 199 World Championship starters it looks like my 23:48 first 5k put me in 193rd place and that was still 7:40 pace! Well, Thank Allah for the 15-20 locals in the open race or I would've been battling for DFL! But you can't say I went out too fast or that I wasn't running my own race! I told myself I was the "sweeper" for our team - bringing up the rear but there in case anyone ran into trouble. Unfortunately, the US ladies ran into a lot of trouble and being calm and in control early on was the best thing I could do for the team.
Here we go loop de loo

This course has been talked about a lot with its three U-turns
and its very unforgiving surfaces. But overall, I don't think it is a slow course, as many people have said. Max set an American record, Ellie had a fast women's time, and there were 13 men under 7:00 and ten women under 8:00 (both records), so fast times were possible. But the course was just so hard on the body, that the real challenge was enduring the completely unforgiving and unrelenting pounding on the rock hard tiles.

The course featured cushy brick tiles ;)

I was already feeling the beating by 35k and by 40k I knew my legs had some serious damage on them - not good when you've got 37 miles to go. My quads burned like I had done some serious downhill repeats, my hamstrings were strung super tight and the rest of me just ached. But ultra-running is all about enduring, right? Buck up and keep running! 

It was a little encouraging to be passing so many people and knowing I wasn't the only one hurting. But it wasn't fun to see some of my teammates struggling, too. By 25k, Larisa had dropped (with what ended up being a fractured ankle), and I caught up to and passed Emily around 40k as she was having back pain from all the pounding. But Meghan Arbogast wasn't giving me any kudos for moving into scoring position for our team. On the out and back she gave me a stern admonition, "You better finish!" Uh oh, I think I just got a death threat from the Queen! 

Super soft stone tiles ;)
That was certainly motivational, but my true motivation came from three ladies in burkas who were out cheering on the course. They yelled "Go USA!" every time I passed, but then one of them yelled, "Run to make women proud!" Wow - that struck a cord! I knew I wouldn't give up because I wanted to exemplify the strength of women. This was an opportunity to inspire women from all different cultures and heck yeah, I wanted to make women proud!

Still, no matter how motivated you are, there are physical limitations and I was definitely getting beat up from this course. I never had any melt down but my pace slowed quite a bit in the last third. Mac must've started to worry because he met me a bit away from the support zone. "Do you know what place you are in?" he asked.

Finally, I was going to get an update on the race! I knew I had moved up a lot. "No, what place?" I asked him eagerly.

Lovely, but unforgiving granite tiles
And cobblestone when you got sick of tile
(all course photos via Mike Wardian)
"You're in third for the team so your time counts now."

"Yeah, I know. I got it." Mac later told me that once I said "I got it" he knew I was going to be fine, but all I meant was that I got it that I was in third for the team! But I did think I could make it to the finish long as my legs didn't collapse or fall off altogether, which seemed pretty likely given how they felt.

The last 35k was pretty miserable. People ask what you think about when you run. Well, I spent a whole lot of time doing miles to kilometer conversions and vice versa: How many miles is 35k? How many kilometers till I only have 20 miles to go? If I am running 7:45 pace what pace is that per kilometer? It is amazing how slowly your brain functions at that stage in a race and I was able to kill a lot of time that way. There were also several women that I could see on the out and back and I kept my sights ahead trying to to pick them off. But mostly I just ran "from tree to tree", checking off the landmarks as I ran: start line, right hand turn, row of air conditioners, 1 km mark, 1st water stop (dump on my head!), U-turn, 2 km mark, turn around, half way point,  3km, second water stop (more water on the head), 4 km, US aid station, back to the start/finish. Until the final 5k, the remaining mileage seemed unbearable, but somehow I kept making my way around that loop. My pace slipped below 8 minute miles till I finished the penultimate lap in 7:35:10. If I wanted to break eight hours it was time to pick up the pace! But so much of running is mental and when you really want something, you find that your body actually does have a little more. I hit the next mile in 7:48 and knew I was going to make it.

The enduring paid off. By the end of the race I had passed 128 people to finish 65th overall, 10th female and second for the US team and under eight hours at 7:59:11. For being an "old lady" I got a World Masters Association gold medal for my age group. Meghan finished 8th in 7:52 and Amy Sproston rallied for the team after struggling to finish 18th in 8:14 as our third scorer, for an unofficial 4th place team finish. 

But the Russians decided to run a few of their athletes "incognito" and not put them in team uniforms or anything that even closely resembled the official Russian attire (two of the girls were in plain pink and purple tank tops). The Russians have a history of being a bit conniving at the 100k World Championships. They have had complaints of pacing filed against them, they don't bring their athletes to the parade of nations, they turned in their list of athletes two weeks after the filing deadline this year and then they didn't run in identifiable Russian uniforms. Our team manager was upset because they hadn't been able to keep track of the team standings accurately. Great Britain was also upset because one of the "incognito" Russians was running up front all day with the three British ladies and they didn't know who she was. A joint protest from the US and Britain ended up in a Russian disqualification (several reports said the officials were mis-tracking these ladies during the race, too) and the US women's team moved into third. It's not really the way I would like to get a World Championship medal, but at the same time, I do think it is important that everyone plays by the rules and that the rules are upheld. So, did we earn the bronze medal? Well, maybe not, but I do think we deserve it. "Team Oregon" medals again!! (except Meghan went and moved to California! - traitor!).
Team Japan, Team Great Britain and Team USA
Out of my five lifetime road 100k's this was my 4th slowest, but given all the circumstances, I do feel like this was a really good race for me. I feel like I performed to the best of my ability for where my ability was at on that day, and for that I am proud. I can only hope it makes other women proud, too.

Splits: 23:48, 23:05, 23:19, 23:12, 22:51, 22:53, 23:11, 23:10, 23:09, 23:32, 23:13, 23:41, 24:19, 25:16, 25:24, 25:02, 25:20, 25:10, 25:37, 24:01. The fall off was almost entirely due to leg pain and stiffness. My second half heart rate was actually lower than the first half. Max King reported the same thing. It is just hard to keep working at the same pace when your legs hurt that bad!

Fuel and Fluid: 4 Ensures, 3 S-caps, 1 gel, 3 Honey Stinger individual pieces, 1 liter orange Fanta, 2 Naprosyn, 1 Ibuprofen and approximately 40 bottles of water over my head (after taking a small sip) = 186 cal/hr
Closing Ceremonies
The Souk