A slave to the stopwatch

May 3, 2008

How does that old saying go? Something like, “You can take the runner out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the runner”?

I’m primarily a road guy not just because of my “drunken sailor” biomechanics on the trails, but also because I’m one of those people who has to time everything. For a given workout or race, I like to know my mile splits, how they stack up against my (and my competitors’) previous times, and on and on.

Getting this level of quantitative feedback is harder when running on trails of variable terrain and uncertain distance. But I’m here to say that, with enough research and planning, a trail run can be nearly as regimented and stressful as an equivalent road workout.

(Some would say that I should just loosen up. But if I weren’t obsessed with split times I wouldn’t be me.)

This week I decided to do the Seattle Running Company’s standard 14-mile loop at Cougar Mountain. But how would I judge the quality of the workout? To what would I compare my time?

Fortunately for me, I’m not the only one who keeps careful training records. Uli Steidl’s online training logs (2005-2008) list over 20 visits to the Cougar loop, with times ranging from 1:43:38 to 2:16. Even better, he recorded splits for a couple of his fastest runs: 0:12 to Clay Pit Road, 0:31-0:32 to Mine Shaft Trail, 0:42 to the start of the Wilderness loop, 1:04 to the end of the Wilderness loop, and 1:23-1:24 to DeLeo Wall Trail.

So I was off to test myself against Uli (or, to be completely fair, against Uli running at some unknown fraction of his capacity). I matched his splits to the start of Wilderness and then lost about a minute to him on each of the last three sections. I finished in 1:46:42, which seemed respectable.

Perhaps next week I’ll see how close I can get to Uli’s best two-loop time.


  1. Wow Greg! That's a fast time to run for that loop! And being able to run up the first hill in 12' is exceptionally impressive (this is assuming that you clocked it at the same place Uli does, which is where the log used to go across the trail, though even if you didn't clock it there, you'd only be off by 10 seconds max).Not to take away from this, but I think Uli has actually run it up in closer to 11' which just blows me away. He can confirm/refute this, but I'm pretty sure he did this recently, so it should be easy for him to find/recall. My fastest is 13:40-ish when continuing on to run the whole loop. Guess I've got some work to do, eh?Sounds like you're ready to go have a great race. Seriously, this is a very impressive time you've run.Keep up the good training, though I mostly hope you're able to have a run like this during a race so it "counts."Isn't it great to know others who keep track of times, too? Once a road runner, always a road runner…at least in some aspects, right? :)Cheers!Trisha

  2. Greg-It sounds like we are very much of the same persuasion-all runs must be quantified, analyzed, and used as a precedent for future workouts and goal-setting for upcoming races. I also frequently time myself on various loops while on the trails, and strive to incrementally improve those times with each new outing.It sounds like your training is going well-good luck beating the ghost of Uli and keep it up!-Michael

  3. Greg, that's a smokin' time. My best was earlier this year when I clocked in just under 1:46. I'm impressed considering your ineptitude on the downhills 🙂 Nice work!

  4. Greg,Good to know that at least someone looks at my training. Actually, I know a handfull of people do.Anyway, I looked at my "double Cougars" from the fall of 2007 again.The second one (Nov 6th)was not right, I ran 1:45 and 1:56 (not 1:51). Did not feel super that day – probably because I ran the first loop too fast :)The first one (Oct 22) I did feel very good and ran 1:47:30, 5 min break at aid station (car), 1:51:15.Hopefully we can hook up for a run or two at Cougar sometime the next few weeks. I usually have noone to run with if I go sub-1:50.Uli

  5. RE: Drawing with tykes…The next time you finish one of these loop de' loops of Cougar Mt., sit down with Phil and a box of crayons. Oxygen debt will free your artistic inhibitions, and the wee one will delight in watching your wandering eye (and rainbow crayola extremities) flow across the page. Inspired, Phil will follow suit… with the drawing. Cheers!

  6. The GEO ladders site (http://www.geoladders.com) has some facility where you can compare several different sets of GPS logs in animated fashion. There is some way of replaying several different GPS traces and watching at what point one passes another etc. This makes criterion courses even more entertaining. I don't have a GPS myself but this is a pretty good motivation for getting one. I think the mountain biker crowd – being more gear oriented – has the critical mass of GPS devices necessary to make this means of comparison an obvious thing to develop.

  7. Greg,I am new to the ultra culture, but I am pleased to be finding several like-minded souls – like you! I, too, have mostly been a roadie and I am one of the most obsessed split/lap timers on Earth. I even have a Jones counter mounted on a mountain bike to measure local race and training courses.As I ready myself for my ultra adventures this year, I am running more and more on a single-track loop trail – with lap splits varying by only a few seconds.As for Uli, I got to measure myself against him on a trail in northern NM 3 years ago. We were two chemistry teachers attending a workshop. We were both running in and exploring a trail system in Sebastion Canyon. Uli was putting in 10 mi. runs morning and evening and finished the week by pacing Jurek at Hardrock. That should have been my hint, but it just didn't register in my thick skull what he was capable of until I ran some 3 minute hard efforts with him. He is a beast. It wasn't until I returned home and googled him that I found out how talented of a runner he is.I am glad that I discovered your blog, Greg. Maybe we will meet up some day – but I will already know of your talent!

  8. Hi Shane,yes, I remember the IB chemistry training, and the runs around Montezuma. On one of my runs in Sebastion Canyon I freaked the crap out of a woman, almost literally. For those who are not familiar with S.C., there is a gated, old logging road that leads into the dead-end canyon, off a gravel road. Not exactly much foot traffic. Apparently a woman thought it was a great place to go to the bathroom in the middle of the trail, about 100m from the gate. Certainly didn't expect a runner coming out of the canyon….Anyway, I never paced Scott at Hardrock. I did a stopover at Western States to watch the race on my way home. I ended up pacing Eric Grossman from Forest Hill to Green Gate (where he had to drop due to an injury he sustained earlier in the race).Anyway, just want to say hi and good luck with your ultra(s) this year, but I do not want to take up Greg's blog for a private conversation.

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