Over the years I’ve blogged about several things, a lot about running, but also a lot about other topics in daily life (some a bit too personal and thus pinched from public view after a scant few hours). Seriously, though, how many times can one write about the eight mile run he does routinely without lulling even himself into a deep sleep?
This is where the humble race report shuffles out onto the stage from behind the black velvet curtain and shyly acknowledges the audience of blog readers who’ve grown accustom to following varying levels of blog reading etiquette and mores. They question ideas when appropriate, plump up the original context with their own comments, and often rally to the defense of notions and even other people whom they will likely never meet in real life. The diversity and anonymity of the blog reader is not always for the thin skinned. But the race report seems to bring readers together in a like-minded circle of campfire warmth to share in the recount of self imposed race struggles.
Our friend, the race report, serves as reporter, lamenter, cheerleader, and historical reference. Races are unique, even the same event from year to year is unique. Players change, crowds grow, the venue morphs. And yet they are similar.
Other than the bib number, medal, or belt buckle (if you’re nutty enough to finish a 100 miler), the only thing that stands as a tangible reminder of the event is the race report, so respect and effort must be given to produce the best place holder possible of your great achievement, or, unfortunately sometimes, your suffering defeat.
So, what exactly makes a great race report, well, great?
For me, the prospect of death (like mountaineering) or at least scary close encounters with death (like Putnam Pass in the San Juans) seem to evoke the most memorable and lucid writing from me. There isn’t a lot of intrigue in the local trail half marathon just a mile from a large city, aid stations every 3 miles, and spectators at several trail intersections. However, consider a tough, remote mountainous 100 miler and now you’ve got a good shot at finding a way to kill yourself, or at least suffer tremendously, and terrific fodder for your race report. Other situations that virtually guarantee a good report are a competitive race to the finish, wardrobe malfunction, wildlife encounters, and crapping your pants. I’m not saying you can’t create a great race report on a shorter local event, you can. It just takes more work to squeeze the interesting parts (i.e. fabricate) from the experience.
There are varying approaches to the race report. Gary Robbins is adept at the humorous report, typically in a humbling, self-deprecating way. Geoff Roes lays it out in a realistic, journalist manner, leaving you knowledgable about the mundane facts of the race as he experienced it. Some reports are so overly detailed (dragged out) that you wonder how the person ever made to the start line after exhausting himself in the pre-race preparations, while others seem to be written by a half-witted sloth – “I tied my shoes and ran. The end.”
The astute reader will eventually see patterns to all race reports. There are ingredients that have become fundamental. Some of these include sandbagging, excuses (Major = I got hit by a bus walking to packet pick up. Minor = my iPod broke half way through “It’s Raining Men”), pre-race bowel movement details, running out of water, feet hurting, trouble with pre-race sleep, etc.
In part 1 of this post, I’ll layout my guide to writing a good an amazing race report.
The Build Up. Me on an exposed wall at 14k ft. I do epic shit.
You’ve just run an epic race, whether it be a half marathon in a local park or an ultramarathon in a place so remote that the pre-race briefing included costs involved in search and rescue operations. You planned, trained, worried, talked about it until friends’ ears bled, then lined up and did it or, maybe, didn’t get it done. Either way, it was an adventure and you need to do something to capture the details before they are diluted by the thin liquid of daily life.
If you ain’t so good at writing but good (and prolific) with a camera, you could put together a photo album of the race and call it a day. Photos say a lot but only you can personally and completely express how you felt during your race and words are the way, my friend.
It’s not difficult. You have the hardest part out of the way: the experience itself. You simply need to lay it out in a somewhat organized and hopefully entertaining way. Even if it’s not that entertaining, you’ll at least be able to go back to re-read it and relive the experience. It’s more fun to make it entertaining, though. Here’s how to do it.
1. The build up.
I like to use snippets from conversations with others about the race or quotes from emails, race reports, and/or the event website. This is the first opportunity to make people aware how difficult the race is and how your level of awesomeness for taking on such an impossible task is off the human charts. It’s also the first chance you get to slip in a little sandbagging. I like to use, “My training wasn’t great.” This phrase is so vague that it could mean you’ve only been running 98 miles a week instead of 100, or that you’ve been eating 98 delicious cream filled Twinkies a week and running 20 miles. Either way, the purpose is to soften the reader’s expectations of your pre-set abilities going into your epic race. Here’s an example:
“In the weeks leading up to the race my training was lackluster and I missed some sleep. I felt ok but something was missing.”
Read in context with preparation and build up to your race, those sentences blend in and subconsciously set the reader up beautifully for either a triumphant or disastrous outcome. “Man, he killed that race even though his training was lackluster and didn’t get much sleep!” or “Well, of course he had a bad race. His training was lackluster and probably didn’t sleep since January.”
Ok, let’s dissect that phrase. “In the weeks leading up to the race my training was lackluster (lackluster? what are we, like 90 years old – who talks like that? What is lackluster?) and I missed some sleep (like entire weeks of sleep or 15 mins one morning when the garbage truck woke you?). I felt ok but something was missing (WTF? something was missing, like a lung or your car keys?).”
The beauty is that it’s so vague you can twist it’s meaning when questioned post race.
Another key during the build up is making sure people understand that you’re probably the only human who’s badass enough to undertake such epic shit like this race. Any cool race has warnings; these are great to add to your build up. Here’s one (of many) taken from the awesome Hardrock Runner’s Handbook:
“The weather is a dominant factor for this run and can be at least as formidable as the terrain, remoteness, or high altitude. It is our general opinion that the first fatality we may have will be either from hypothermia or lightning! We would rather that there never be a fatality, and so we will continually be giving you warnings, cautions, updates, and suggestions regarding the exposure you must face when attempting this run.”
They all usually have warnings about wildlife encounters (more frequent than you might imagine), like bears, mountain lions, elk, buffalo, snakes, and other scary stuff (wait ’til you see the reflection of eyes in the woods on your first night run in the wild…).
Quotes from friends warning you of imminent death are great. Here are just a few from my Hardrock Race Report from 2011:
“Be careful crossing above the waterfall, it’s a fatal spot.” -Karl Meltzer
“Watch out for cliffs on the left. Fatal spot again.” -Karl Meltzer
“There is always one more climb. You will feel the worst when you are high on the passes so get off of them quickly, your condition will return to good quickly. I know this. I have sat there on the passes with death coming soon but just know it will be a matter of minutes before you feel better if you get down.” -Scott Jaime
“Virginius Pass, go across the Talus slope and pick up the route through the notch, it is steep, slippery, brutal.” -Karl Meltzer
How great are those!? Other guys telling your readers how badass you are for even thinking about doing this death defying event. It serves a couple purposes. It validates the difficulty and your bravery and it bolsters the sandbagging/excuses angle, sort of an ancillary benefit.
The rest of the build up varies in depth. This is where you write about the details of preparation. Write about some big training runs, about family and friends sacrificing for your self-centered venture, lists of every item you packed in drop bags, what you plan to start with, what the weather was like, things like that. Over time, I’ve gone from long lists of things I “need” for races to now when I basically make sure my privates are covered and I have some water.
Next up: The race itself…