Running should feel natural

Running should feel natural

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Watch these for Wanderlust!

Is running related to travel? Not inherently, but they both instill similar emotions.  The need to overcome obstacles, to do something that feels like a new experience to you, and to get out and see things you never thought possible.  Its your trip, your race, your adventure.  You may feel like if you just do one more big race, or travel to one more destination, you will feel complete; but often upon returning you are even hungrier for more.

"Wanderlust" has been kind of a buzzword lately, and essentially just means that you have a strong desire to travel.  I think running addicts have something similar.

The following 10 unordered movies are tops on my list in terms of giving me that urge to go out and explore.

Lost in Translation

A lonely, aging movie star named Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and a conflicted newlywed, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), meet in Tokyo. Bob is there to film a Japanese whiskey commercial; Charlotte is accompanying her celebrity-photographer husband. Strangers in a foreign land, the two form an unlikely bond after crossing paths in a hotel bar.

7 Years in Tibet

The true story of Heinrich Harrer (played by Brad Pitt), an egocentric Austrian mountain climber who became friends with the Dalai Lama at the time of China's takeover of Tibet.  After a failed mountain climbing attempt and a brief stint in a British Indian POW camp, he gradually learns selflessness from the young Dalai Lama.

Into the Wild

After graduating from Emory University, northern Virginia native Christopher McCandless abandons his possessions, gives his entire $24,000 savings account to charity and hitchhikes to Alaska to live in the wilderness. Along the way, Christopher encounters a series of characters that shape his life.

The Motorcycle Diaries

On a break before his last semester of medical school, Ernesto "Che" Guevara (Gael García Bernal) travels with his friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) from Brazil to Peru by motorcycle. The two men soon witness the great disparities in South America, encountering poor peasants and observing the exploitation of labor by wealthy industrialists.

Y Tu Mamá También

The lives of Julio and Tenoch, like those of 17-year old boys everywhere, are ruled by raging hormones, intense friendships, and a headlong rush into adulthood. Over the course of a summer, the two best friends, while living out a carefree cross-country escapade with a gorgeous older woman, also find connection with each other, themselves and the world around them.

Up in the Air

With a job traveling around the country firing people, Ryan Bingham enjoys his life living out of a suitcase, but finds that lifestyle threatened by the presence of a new hire and a potential love interest.  He soon begins to realize that a transient lifestyle may not be as rewarding as it had once appeared.

In Bruges

After a difficult job in London, a 2 person hit-man team is ordered by their boss Harry to cool their heels in Bruges, Belgium. Very much out of their comfort zones, the men find themselves drawn into increasingly dangerous entanglements.  Soon their perspectives on life and death are violently skewed in this dark comedy.

Wild

Based on the 2012 memoir by American author Cheryl Strayed, describing her 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995 as a journey of self-discovery.  We experience the natural beauty and challenges of her journey, along with memories of her past life.


Almost Famous

Set in the 70s, its the coming of age story of 15 year old William, a fan of rock music inspired to write for Rolling Stone. When his love of music lands him an assignment from the famous magazine to interview the [fictional] band "Stillwater", William embarks on an eye-opening journey with the band's tour, despite the objections of his protective mother.


The Beach

Twenty-something Richard travels to Thailand and finds himself in possession of a strange map. Rumors state that it leads to a solitary beach paradise, a tropical bliss - excited and intrigued, he sets out to find it. He is joined by 2 fellow travelers on an adventure to "The Beach," a mystical paradise. However, this paradise is less than perfect.

Descriptions paraphrased partly from IMDB.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Big Horn 100 Miler: Race Recap

The Big Horn "wild and scenic" 100 mile trail run.  This was the one.  If there was ever a goal race, a travel race, an experience: this was it.

Race: Big Horn 100 miler
Location: Dayton, Wyoming (Big Horn Mountains)
Date: June 19-20, 2015
Gain/Loss: 18,300 ft
Altitude: 4,000 ft to 9,000 ft
Time: 30:17:22

When you finish a marathon  you get a medal.  When you
finish 100 miles you get a belt buckle!

Intro

Though the race didn't start until Friday, we flew into Billings, Montana Wednesday night and drove down to Sheridan, Wyoming with some minor sightseeing along the way.  This was not only a requirement, since packet pickup and drop bag checking was Thursday afternoon, but served as a great buffer before the race to get adjusted to the local area.  In hindsight, I think getting not only 1, but 2 solid nights of sleep before the race was a huge helper.  I don't really recall being extremely sleepy at any point during the race.

Most of the cities out there are pretty abbreviated, but Sheridan did have a cute main street strip with a local festival going on.  There were a few options for western looking saloons and bars that I was eager to explore, however I wisely held off with the 100 miler looming.  The pasta dine-in on Thursday night gave us a great chance to catch up with the many other VA/DC/MD runners who made the trek out.  The Virginia Happy Trails Running Club coordinates an unofficial "travel race" every year; Big Horn was this year's and club members were out in full force.  It was scenic, different, and offered 18, 32, 52 and 100 mile distances.

A large group of runners representing the VA/DC/MD area from VHTRC.

After dinner was over I was really just anxious to get the race started.  I had no problem going to sleep on time and rising refreshed before heading to finish area in Dayton for the pre-race briefing.  We then caravaned to the race start, 5 miles deeper into the Tongue River Canyon where the first of many iconic rock formations awaited us.

I have pretty specific preferences as far as what equipment and fuel I use during a race, but overall its pretty varied from runner to runner.  While a common reaction to heat and extreme sun is to strip down, at a a certain point it is wiser to cover back up, namely with white or light colored clothing.  The sun can zap your energy levels, burn your skin, and suck out moisture.  Staying hydrated and cool is critical.  Dry air and light wind can fool you into thinking you aren't overheating, but once the wind stops you realize how intense the sun really is.  I wore a white tech T (moisture whicking shirt), a dorky looking white hat with ear and neck cover (to keep the sun off - also wore sunglasses), and I even used white arm sleeves for this race.  Being fare skinned and with blue eyes requires a little extra protection.  These arm sleeves are popular with cyclists doing day long rides to keep the sun off their arms and they worked great.  If you dip them in water and keep them wet they actually have a cooling affect on your arms in dry conditions.  I left my legs bare but put plenty of sunscreen on to all exposed areas, reapplying through the day.  Some people headed out with tank tops or even shirtless (assuming they would cover up later in the race), but I couldn't imagine being so exposed even for an hour.

I run with a Salomon hydration vest to refuel and carry some necessities.  The bladder holds 1.5 liters of water and I was refueling at every aid station.  Some people were getting by with just a hand bottle but I simply drink too much to make that work.  In my pack I also carry a lightweight shell jacket and knit hat in case the weather abruptly turns afoul.  In terms of food, I like to bring a few bars (Lara-bars and Cliff bars), a couple energy gels (like Gu), and some salt tablets to keep my salt and electrolyte levels up (S!Caps are pretty standard with ultra runners).  You want to at least attempt to eat and drink enough that you never really get to a point of being severely thirsty or hungry.  While gels and bars won't really sustain you the whole race, the aid stations have "real" food available.  I also have some spare toilet paper (just in case), chapstick, and my cell phone (mostly for picture taking, but also doubles as a music player).

Start to Dry Fork (0 - 13.4 miles)

Just before the start.
The starting line to the 100 miler was simple, just a few hundred runners competing for what little shade was available before saying goodbye to the many supporters who were also there.  The gun went off at 11:00am, as we were approaching the hottest part of the day.  This was a unique start time; most races tend to start early in the morning but I was happy with the 11:00am start as it facilitated another full night of sleep.

A few of my friends of similar abilities laid out a plan to loosely stay together at least for the first 1/3 of the race.  While the goal of a pace group in a road marathon may be to keep everyone in check and running fast enough, its quite the opposite in an Ultra.  Here we were trying to stay honest in going out slowly enough.  Going out too fast, even just slightly, in a race this long can result in significant fatigue later in the race.  That fatigue can set in as early as 25 miles, after the half-way mark, or even in the closing 20 miles of the race; not something I wanted to experience.  The heat, sun, and exposure only compounded the need to take it easy and take it plenty of fluids.

Running through the Tongue
River Canyon.
As we got started I was immediately struck by the landscape.  Full of rock formations and high country open spaces I knew I wasn't running in Virginia anymore.  We had some rolling hills in the canyon before starting some major climbs to get up into some alpine meadows.  Now the real mountains were coming into view.  We continued up and down a mix of single track trails and dirt roads, passing some minor aid stations before we reached the first major aid station, Dry Fork.  The minor aid stations typically offer water, an electrolyte drink (like gatorade), and some snacks; one would be wise to be eating, drinking, and refilling your pack at every chance, especially during the heat of the day.  The major aid stations were almost like little villages, with volunteers running around tending to the food & drink, race officials checking on your bib number and time, supporters offering up words of advice, and even medical personnel to keep an eye on anything out of the ordinary.

Dry Fork to Footbridge (13.4 - 30 mi)

Heading up some of the many hills.
For the Dry Fork aid station, as with any aid station, I had a plan ahead of time.  This consists of getting in and out as fast as possible, while taking the time to get everything I needed.  Basically, you don't want to waste any time, but you don't want to skip anything either.  Refill your pack, eat some real food, reapply sunscreen, put on some petroleum jelly if you are worried about chaffing, take a few sips of a caffeinated drink (coffee or pepsi for a quick boost) and grab some more food to go.  5-10 minutes should be sufficient for most aid stations.

I was greeted by my wife and several other friends and well-wishers. This early in the game its mostly moral support but they were also helpful in helping us refill and refuel.

As we labored on the group started to spread out a bit.  I was getting tired, thirsty, and hot, with some minor stomach distress around 20 miles in.  Its kind of humiliating to be feeling so fatigued so early in a race, but you just have to stay calm, keep going through the motions, and trust in your training and preparation.  After running in and out of some forested spots, we started descending down a huge ridge that would eventually lead to the next major aid station.  There were a few muddy spots, but nothing severe; after hearing about the "shoe sucking mud" at Big Horn, I figured those were still to come.  Descending the ridge we were treated to views of the rocky and rapid Little Big Horn river far below us. Coming down this section we were approaching dusk, a light wind prevailed, and the temperature had dropped a bit which was a welcome change.

Arriving at the Footbridge AS I had several realizations: first,  since we were now 33 miles in and sufficiently warmed up, we were getting into the "meat" of the race; second, that, while I wasn't feeling great, I felt decent and was coming out of my earlier funk.  It hit me that I was really out there, enacting my plan for the better part of the last 6 months, in a remote area of Wyoming.  Lastly, I realized that this is where the planning and prep would either pay off or go awry.  I had a drop bag packed here with spare shoes and socks, a headlamp for night running, and an extra layer of clothes (among other minor supplies).  I opted not to change shoes and save them for the way back down.  After refueling here I headed up the mountain now solo, for an intimidating 18 mile climb to the turnaround at the Jaws Trailhead.  The solo running did quickly yield to friendly conversation with some fellow runners, so I never really felt "alone".
You could see for miles!

Footbridge to Jaws to Footbridge (30 - 48 - 66 mi)

Probably about 6 or 7 miles into this climb (40 miles total in) I experienced probably my lowest point of the day.  It was still light out but approaching 8:00pm.  My head just wasn't in it and I was feeling very fatigued.  As a "flat-lander" living at sea level, I was extremely concerned that the high-altitude was finally getting to me as we approached 7,500 feet above sea level.  I slowed down, even sat down for a bit to gather myself, eating a Lara-bar and drinking some water.  Though I try not to take NSAID pills (Non Steroidal Anti-Inflamatory Drugs), I gave in and took an Advil.  I had serious thoughts about quitting at the turn-a-round, but remembering the advice of a good friend and fellow ultra-runner I promised not to really decide anything until I got to the next aid station.

Nightfall begins.  The moon was only out briefly before
giving way to a star filled sky.
I'll never know the true cause of my newfound powersource, but I started coming out of my funk and actually feeling better than I had felt all day.  By now it was almost dark and a cool 50 degrees.  We were also hitting some more sections of mud, but I figured it could be much worse had it been raining recently and it wasn't a  big issue to tiptoe around (or through) it.  By 9pm I was debating the use of a headlamp, and by 10pm I gave in.  While this section was a steady climb, many parts weren't steep or were even flat enough to run so I was keeping up a decent pace.  We crossed a few sections of raging river tributaries via ad hoc footbridges, key sections to pay extra attention to.

By now it was completely dark.  It may sound intimidating to run all night, but I have grown to enjoy it.  Staying cool was no longer an issue, and we dodged a severe weather bullet.  Apparently on any given day there is a 50% chance for Thunderstorms on the mountain, a scenario I was not looking forward to.  However, tonight the skies cleared up and we were treated to an impressive array of stars.  I passed a few more of the minor aid stations restocking and drinking regularly.  A friend of mine was having some stomach issues at one of them, but he is a far more experienced ultra-runner than I am so I knew he would come out of it.

In the "Jaws" aid station at the turn-around, looking fairly
strong, all things considered.
Now I did something I almost never do: listen to music while I run.  I like to carry earbuds as a "break in case of emergency" backup.  It wasn't imperative, but I was starting to get a little bored and with over 6 more hours of night running to go I queued up an Ultra-Running mix of songs I had put together back home.  It was a big aid to pass the time and added a very enjoyable aspect to the night running.  I also spotted a runner with a pacer who was muling for them, as in having their pacer carry their pack and give them supplies along the way!  This is not allowed, and while I wouldn't turn someone in to race officials for such a minor infraction, I didn't hesitate to make a snide comment: "Hey, while your at it can you carry my stuff too?"

At this point some of the lead runners were passing me on their way back down the mountain.  At least I knew I was getting close to the turn-a-round aid station at the Jaws trailhead.  They had up a big tent, complete with heat, chairs, and even cots inside!  This could be easy to get trapped in with the comforts of home.  I tried to stick to my typical plan.  I think I spent close to 30 minutes here, longer than I like, but this was a major aid station and at a crucial point in the race so it was time well spent.  I ran into the girlfriend of a buddy of mine, who provided some words of encouragement especially when stating something to the affect that I "did not look terrible" and that I was a little ahead of my very conservative schedule.  Close to 1:00am I headed back out into the night, but now with a full stomach, dry socks, an extra layer of clothes, and an insanely bright headlamp.

The way back down wasn't very memorable, just some fairly steady running and walking back down the mountain.  I realized why they call it "shoe sucking mud" at some point too.  As I tip-toed through a big water bog I mistepped into a squishy mud pit and lost a shoe!  My next step was in grass and I was able take a knee, fish it out and put it back on.  Around 60 miles in the light of the day was starting to creep over the horizon.  It was probably around 5:00am when it was safe to turn off my headlamp.  This is another big mental boost.

First glimpse of daylight.  The ground still appeared dark though.































I had forgotten how rocky the course was in spots.  Towards the bottom it got flatter but rock croppings still necessitated walking.  I traded places several times with some other runners and their pacers, but I eventually pulled away before we would get back to the Footbridge AS.  This aid station is often the most important in a run of this length, about 2/3 through the race.

Footbridge to Dry Fork (66 - 82.5 mi)

A view of the Little Big Horn River, near the Foot Bridge
Aid Station.  The water is flowing toward you.
This was another big stop, but well worth it.  Your preparation here can set you up for success or failure in the rest of the race.  I now got out my spare pair of shoes and socks I had in my drop bag along with the other usual supplies.  I "watered" my feet and dried them off, reapplied some petroleum jelly (to prevent blisters), and put on the new shoes.  That felt extremely nice!  I was even treated to a cup of coffee and a breakfast sandwich here.  Since it was now morning hours the presence of breakfast foods helps you kind of mentally reset to the next day, despite staying up all night.  Right out of Footbridge AS we had a massive climb to get up out of the Little Bighorn Canyon.  Comradery was provided by several other suffering runners around me.  This was a long hike, and even as it leveled out I felt the need to speed walk some portions.  The trail was very thin, a literal single-track, that caused for some precarious footing.

I continued refilling and reapplying sunscreen at the intermediate aid stations along the trail.  These are a logistical challenge for the volunteers to stock, as they would typically require the supplies to be brought in on horseback!  Just goes to show how dedicated the volunteers and race supporters are.  

Marveling once again in my surroundings I took another quick stop to take some pictures.  Things just kept going at a fairly steady pace until the Dry Fork aid station was within sight.  This was a bit of a tease, as you could see it from over 2 miles away!

Selfie-break while running up on one of the ridges.

Dry Fork to Lower Sheep Creek (82.5 - 92.5 mi)

At the Dry Fork Aid Station I was again greeted by some familiar faces, but this time was all business.  Restocking, eating and drinking were high priorities.  My friends were of great help in
Wide open, alpine spaces high up.
keeping me calm and on track.  Some runners use hiking poles in more mountainous races (like Big Horn), to assist with the steep ascents and even to help relieve some sore quads on the downhills.  I decided to make them optional, but I ended up picking them up here.  Though they were annoying to carry at times they were worth having to help me with the uphills.

I felt fatigued, both mentally and physically, but setting out with less than 20 miles to go I knew I could basically speedwalk my way to a finisher belt buckle and that alone was a boost.  Back to some rolling hills and tedious single track before one last monster climb up what felt like a 40% incline to the green meadows.  One of the toughest parts of the race for me was in the final descent down to the Tongue River Canyon.  Attempting to tip-toe down a steep grade when my quads were fatigued was a huge challenge.  I couldn't run for fear of falling or hurting something, so I again utilized my poles to trek down.

Now that most of the descending was over with the hiking poles would soon become a nuisance.  After buddying up to someone's pacer I was able to leave the poles at an aid station and the pacer knew someone there with a car who was able to transport them to the finish.  This made running on flatter surfaces much easier.

My GPS watch, a Suunto Ambit 2 had worked great, all things considered, but since it only pings a satellite once per minute and then connects the lines the result is a slight under reporting of distance.  I think by now I was like 3 miles under the true distance, which kind of played head games with me; "the race says its only 7 miles to go by my watch hasn't hit 90 yet?". All those little tangents drawn over curved paths add up.  No watch can last 30+ hours with constant pinging (the most accurate measure), so this is a good compromise.  To my amazement I still had like 20% battery life left!  Some runners actually recharge their watches during the race with portable USB power sources, but this sounded like a big hassle.  Its really nice to have some gauge on how far you ran in the last hour or so, and I love being able to go back after a run and look at my route on a map.

Lower Sheep Creek to Finish in Dayton (92.5 - 100 mi)

It just doesn't get any easier.  We were now back into the heat of the canyon in the hottest part of the day, near where the start was, and getting close enough that you could almost taste it.  Almost, since it would still be a couple more hours.  I refueled in the lower sheep creek aid station and, tempted by a sub 30 hour finish, got a little energy boost that let me run up and down some rolling hills.  Once we got back to the original starting line there was an aid station and 5 miles of gravel roads to go.  I blew through this one just getting a drink since my pack was still mostly full.  This was unwise in hindsight as those last 5 miles were on a completely exposed road, in direct sun, during the heat of the day.  I recalled my friend Natalie shouting "Erik, put some ice in your hat!"; she was running the 50 miler and we had been trading spots the last hour or so.

Fortunately, once I got down the road a bit some volunteers were riding around on bicycles handing out ice-pops.  I ate 2 which cooled me down and I was able to continue slow jogging toward the finish.  Another tiny aid station that just had water was 2 miles from the finish. I recall seeing a runner about 400 meters behind me who appeared to keep gaining on me.  I was convinced she was running the 100 and I didn't want to lose a position this late in the race, so this was good motivation to keep up the pace.  It turned out she was doing a shorter distance but it still got me moving!  As I entered Dayton and closed in on the finish park I was greeted by some enthusiastic friends along with my wife; I called her over and grabbed her hand to run in the last 200 meters with me for a photo finish! 

Done!  Though I was flirting with a sub 30 hour finish I was very happy to come in at 30 hours and 17 minutes, especially on a day when so many people had issues (heat, altitude, stomach, etc.) that affected their performance.  I briefly dipped my legs in the cold creek flowing next to the park to reduce some of the inflammation in my legs and also clean off the dirt.  I collected my Big Horn finisher blanket and enjoyed my post race meal.  The belt buckles, finisher jackets, and awards were presented the following morning (along with free breakfast) in downtown Sheridan, a slightly larger town in Wyoming where most people were staying.  Once back at our hotel I fell asleep at 8pm and slept harder than ever!

Side Notes:

  • The scenery at Big Horn was incredible, anytime I needed motivation all I had to do was take a look around.  At night (when you couldn't see anything) I would just switch off my headlamp and gaze at the stars.
  • The aid stations and volunteers were legendary.  The best food, best volunteers, best logistics I've ever seen at a race by far.  It was almost too easy: as soon as you roll into an aid station someone has already found you a chair, grabbed your drop bag, offered to fill up your water, and cued up some hot food on the stove.
  • Of course Big Horn was "hard", but any 100 miler is going to be difficult and I really never felt "Godawful, stumbling around, put me out of my misery" bad, so I think it went pretty well.  The runner support was a huge boost.  Looking at it objectively the race is actually considered as a tougher 100 miler, due to the mountainous terrain, exposure, and changing weather conditions.  Its one of only a handful of qualifier events for the prestigious Hardrock 100.
  • Most of the aid station had similar offerings: water and electrolyte drink; satly and sweet dry snacks like chips, pretzels, or candies; fruit like watermelon, bananas, or oranges; simple sandwiches; some had hot foods like french toast, quesadillas, or even bacon; salty soups or broths were served in the cooler hours of the night.  I would typically graze on all of this, and eat extra water-filled fruit during the warm daytime hours.  I like to walk out still eating and carrying a little extra; ill stuff a banana in my vest pocket and eat it on the go.
  • I use the term ultra-"running" lightly.  In races of this distance there is a lot of power hiking when it becomes too steep, careful walking when rocky, and even walk breaks just when you get too tired or are feeling out of it.  The goal is just to get to the finish as fast as possible, running optional!  There are time limits though, and if you don't make it to an aid station in time you can get timed out and pulled off the course.
  • Getting 2 solid nights of sleep was without question critical for success in the race.  I never got that tired at any one point, not even at night.
  • To my disbelief, I didn't get sun burned at all.  This was a big concern, especially being fare skinned and used to running in often shaded east coast woods.  I took a lot of precautions including my arm sleeves, hat with ear and neck cover, and liberal amounts of sunscreen.  The mud and dirt that would eventually cover my legs probably helped as well.
  • Elevation hits everyone differently.  While it can be mysterious, I think it helps to incorporate VO2max boosting workouts into your training routine.  I believe that while ultra-runners need mountainous, trail training runs, a significant benefit is obtained from running a lot of weekly miles (often on roads), and incorporating tempos and interval sessions to boost your body's ability to process oxygen efficiently.  This is the essence of VO2max training theory, heightening the body's maximum oxygen uptake capacity. There is less oxygen at higher elevations, so while you may be a strong climber at sea level, functioning with less oxygen in the air can be daunting.
  • It very important to take time off after a race, even if it didn't go well, and even if you Did Not Finish (known as DNF).  Your body needs to heal up and your mind must mentally reset to your next goals.  If you don't you can risk physical injury, general fatigue, or mental burnout.  Avoid the temptation to just say the race was training for the next race, trying to redeem yourself by running another one too soon, or generally not taking time to reflect and record some lessons learned.  This being said, its much easier to go into maintenance mode if your race went as planned; and, the more experienced you are with ultras the shorter your recovery typically goes.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Getting in the zone at Terrapin

I loved Terrapin from when I ran it last year for the first time.  The views, the course, the support, and the start/finish area at the Sedalia Center are all top notch.  Last year I was still getting my feat wet with big elevation change ultras, but this year I decided to really attack this thing and see what kind of improvements I could make.

A panorama of the start/finish area.  The finish is to the left.  The course is in the distance,
with the actual Terrapin Mountain over on the right.  You can see a runner coming!

This year wasn't about being conservative.  This year was about data.  Improving my total time, running a consistent effort from the get-go, minimizing time spent in aid stations, and trying to utilize my heart rate monitor.

Race: Terrapin Mountain 50k
Location: Sedalia, Virginia
Date: March 22, 2014
Gain/Loss: 6,970 ft
Time: 5:35:21

Heart Rate Monitoring

I have been experimenting more with a heart rate monitor this season.  Its a good data point to go off of since your heart rate always tells the story of how hard you are working.  Whether you are going up hill on single track, running on flat surfaces, or bounding down a gravel road your heart rate will tell you your effort level.

The "zones" tell your story and they are all based on your maximum heart rate.  These are different person to person, but its usually between 185 and 205 for people depending on various factors; I estimate mine at 195.  The easy pace, or recovery zone, means you are exercising but should not be exerting yourself.  This is often actually the best zone for losing weight and is fine for easy pace training runs.  The aerobic zone is what I will typically race long races in, marathons and longer.  The anaerobic zone really means you are at risk of burning out if you keep it up too long.  This is better for shorter races, interval workouts, or special sections where you give it an extra kick.  The max "red line" zone should rarely be reached, maybe toward the end of a 5k or in an interval workout (like "spinning" cycling classes).  Yet another advantage of heart rate training is that the theory applies to all forms of aerobic exercise, from running, to cycling, to cross-country skiing - you name it.

Get in the zone! No, not Auto-Zone...

My basic idea with Terrapin was to stay "in the zone", in my aerobic zone.  This would ensure an honest, consistent effort and (hopefully) not lead to burning out in the latter stages.  I was trying to target between 150 and 160 BPM.  If I started heading up a hill and was approaching 170 I would back it off and speed hike until things settled back down.  The converse is that when I was heading down some of the many descents - even if the pace felt fine - if my HR was dipping below 150 this meant I really wasn't working to my potential and would speed things up.  This even resulting in some sub 6:30 miles bounding down some of the gravel road sections.  There was the inevitable risk of burning out my quads, but I was okay with that.

Aid Stations

I've gotten advice before to try to carry most of your nutrition and to fill up your hydration the least times possible, ideally only once.  The other school of thought being to pack light, maybe just a hand bottle, and then make frequent but very quick stops at aid stations.  Since I tend to eat and drink a lot during races I decided to test out my new Salomon race vest, which I have been loving so far in training runs.

I filled it with some watered down coconut water to start, which has a ton of potassium and doesn't leave me with that stomach churning feeling that drinking an artificially formulated drink does first thing in the morning.  I ended up only having to refuel once, thanks in part to the cool, dry weather that day.  I refueled with watered down Gu Brew.

On a separate subject, I am back to just drinking whatever drink races hand out, be it Gu Brew or Gatorade.  After trying out of the alternatives like Nuun and Tailwind, I have to say that I really see zero difference in energy or performance from them.  They seem to have an x-factor of making you feel like some independent thinking expert, but I sure as heck can't tell the difference.

I packed (and ate) a few Lara-Bars, some Carb-boom gels, and a couple of salt tablets.  I did also grab the occasional banana and orange slice at various aid stations.

The Race


As soon as we set off I started out at an honest clip, not quite up front but trailing a little behind the lead pack.  Since there are half-marathon runners out there at the same time, you could be running next to someone with a much shorter day ahead but it actually looked like mostly 50k runners up front.  The beginning section on the road was runable but within a few miles or so became steep enough to necessitate walking in some parts.  I just had to go by feel for the first section.  My heart rate kind of goes bonkers at the start of a run, either reading high or low, before settling to a steady rate.

Our largest creek crossing came in this first section.  While I don't have a problem just trudging through, later on that hill my socks were getting bunched up and were not drying out and draining like they usually do.  This bugged me enough to pull over, take off my shoes and wring out my socks.  It was worth it and I immediately felt like I could run faster with lighter, less squishy feet, but it still hurt losing those 2 minutes.

I blew through the first pass of camping gap aid station and we started back downhill the other side.  Keeping an honest aerobic effort now meant running faster than I normally would downhill but the time gains were worth it.  I clocked a few miles under 6:30 pace here, and my quads could feel the pounding.  Running through 2 more aid stations and on some flat parts we started back up again.  One more time through camping gap, then turned off to the right into the next lolipop.  I saw the leader coming into the aid station from the other direction.  This guy was putting on an incredible performance and was over 10 minutes in front of the next contender.  This section had a lot of gradual ups and downs and was pretty runnable as well, other than the climb up to the first bib punch of the day.

Heading back to camping gap for yet a third time I knew it was time to refuel.  The race was more than half over at this point; we were something like 20 miles in.  This was a valuable stop, but again I hate losing a few minutes unless absolutely necessary.  Next was the final ascent to the top of Terrapin Mountain.  This part certainly required power hiking and its hard to imagine anyone picking up their feet here.  After going out to the rocky outcropping to punch our bibs again, I headed back down eventually toward "Fat Man's Misery", also known to me as "Tall Man's Misery".  This is a series of several boulders wedged together that you must squeeze through.  Fun!

We then experience an extreme loss in elevation down the backside of the mountain.  This is the toughest section of the course to me.  I have gotten better at downhill running on technical trails, but its just not worth the risk of falling for me to really go all out.  About 2/3 the way down is a huge rock garden that runners must tip-toe across.  Once we finally reach the bottom we are at the final aid station, where I got a quick drink and ate some more fruit.  Back up a small climb to the last major section of the course.

We traverse the front side of the mountain, and while there are plenty of minor ups and downs here it can mostly be run.  Having GPS enabled mileage tracking feels really advantageous in sections like this that can just seem to keep dragging on forever.  At least I knew how far I had gone and approximately how much was left.  In hindsight I wished I had ran more of this section and faster.  My energy was dwindling but I don't think I was on the verge of bonking.  My HR was now dipping below 150 consistently meaning a lackluster effort, but I was just too tired mentally to push it.  Once I started recognizing the end of the course was a big relief since it meant only downhill running from here on out.  We got back out on the gravel road and I was able to pick it up.  The last mile is marked with a "1 mile to go" sign and it soon turns into pavement.


I kicked my pace up a notch really hoping to come in under 5:40.  I was able to do so handily, just over 5:35, a 25 minute improvement over last year!  This probably meant 10 less minutes in aid stations and almost a minute per mile faster elsewhere.  Both huge wins in my book.  By now it was warm and sunny out, which felt great after the finish.  I gladly hung out to wait for the rest of my friends before heading on back to Northern VA.



Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sometimes you have to start over to come full circle

This year I will be running the 40th annual Marine Corps Marathon in Arlington, Virginia.  When I started running shortly after college I was soon eyeing the marathon distance, and lucky for me the perfect race for first timers was right down the road.  I ran Marine Corps Marathon as my first marathon and still holds a special place in my heart.

This year I will return to Arlington, to the course, to the monuments, to the pace groups, to all the Marines working the aid stations, and more importantly I will return to where it all started.

Since falling head over heals with Ultras some of my road speed has dwindled; I would like to think I can regain some of that this summer as I train.  I don't know what time I will shoot for.  I would like to think sub 3:10 is a safe bet, maybe run with the 3:05 group, or improve on my marathon PR and get lower into the 2:50s.  Its too soon to tell - you should always wait until you are about 2/3 through your training to quantify a time goal.  All I know is that I've regained my excitement over the marathon distance.

Most importantly at this point in time, is that after entering the Marine Corps Marathon lottery I got confirmation - I'm in!


Some people get a little too carried away with their first marathon.  I decided to stay patient and really build up to it when I really started running.  I had been running regularly for the past few months in 2008 but decided I should wait until 2009 to take the full plunge.  After getting my half-marathon time down below 2 hours I drafted a plan based on the Hal Higdon Marathon training programs.  I think I peaked at like 40 miles per week, typically did 1 speed workout on a track each week, more easy miles, a longer run on the weekend, some mixed in weights and cross training, and did my 3 critical long runs of 18, 20, and 22 miles.

The marathon distance was still no-mans-land for me, but looking back I really had a great training season.  I remember the excitement of my first half-marathon, my first "fast" 10 miler (at under 80 minutes), breaking 24 minutes in a 5k (thats sub-8 minute miles!), and the incredible feeling of my first long run.  It was 14 miles, a pedestrian distance now, but at the time I felt superhuman.  I lost close to 20 pounds in my first 2 years of distance running.  It was a lot of fun, and it awakened something in my that I didn't realize was lying dormant all these years.   I didn't think my finish was too special but in hindsight its pretty solid for a first marathon.


Since then I have run 8 more marathons, including a PR of 2:59:29 and 2 Boston Marathons, as well as 9 50ks, 2 50 milers, 1 100 k, and 1 100 miler, as well as thousands of training miles in between.   I feel like I have come a long way from not even being able to run 5 miles.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Whole30 Challenge: no grains, no sugar, and no booze for 30 days


"Let us change your life"

Thats a pretty bold claim, but I like a good challenge, and after trying vegetarian and vegan diets out in the past I was up for trying something new.

The program and many of its followers who completed it have some impressive testimonials.  The program makes claims of improved body composition, higher energy levels, better sleep, improved athletic performance, and eliminating generally unhealthy food cravings.  As a born skeptic, I take the sparkling testimonials with a grain of salt.  People who want to get you on board with their ideology typically only provide positive testimony from its followers.  Apparently there is a science to back it up which I didn't read too far into, but people can use science to "prove" almost anything, and it seems like every fad diet has a study that qualifies it as the best.

The biggest endorsements however came from some fellow Ultra-runners I know who generally follow a no-grain no-sugar diet, especially one gal I know how has a knack at the 100 mile distance. So why not? I took the plunge and committed.  I like to think I'm stubborn (in a good way), and that once I commit to something I do not ever back down unless I have justifiable evidence its wiser not to continue.

I was also prepping myself for a month of constant food preparation, not eating out, not socializing, often having to sound like that annoying "food restriction" person, and dealing with over the top pretentious advice and behaviors.  This program looks to reshape your "long-standing, unhealthy patterns related to food, eating and your body image" and rethink the "Standard American Diet - or SAD for short".  I like how the acronym has to sound negative of course.  What about the RAD (Regular American Diet)?  Prepare to be judged!!

These are whats in that powdered coffee creamer in the break room.  You
will not be eating this.  Then again, no human should ever consume this!

Anecdotes aside, this program sounds legitimate and the theories just make sense.  Basically, you are eating actual food, not processed crap that sits on the shelf and never goes bad.  Stuff you could actually go out and hunt or gather.  Ingredients you can actually pronounce!

What is Whole 30?

Taken straight from the website:

"Established by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig (of Whole9) in April 2009, the Whole30® is our original nutritional program designed to change your life in 30 days. Think of it as a short-term nutritional reset, designed to help you put an end to unhealthy cravings and habits, restore a healthy metabolism, heal your digestive tract, and balance your immune system.

Certain food groups (like sugar, grains, dairy and legumes) could be having a negative impact on your health and fitness without you even realizing it. Are your energy levels inconsistent or non-existent? Do you have aches and pains that can’t be explained by over-use or injury? Are you having a hard time losing weight no matter how hard you try? Do you have some sort of condition (like skin issues, digestive ailments, seasonal allergies or fertility issues) that medication hasn’t helped? These symptoms may be directly related to the foods you eat—even the “healthy” stuff.

So how do you know if (and how) these foods are affecting you? Strip them from your diet completely. Cut out all the psychologically unhealthy, hormone-unbalancing, gut-disrupting, inflammatory food groups for a full 30 days. Let your body heal and recover from whatever effects those foods may be causing. Push the “reset” button with your metabolism, systemic inflammation, and the downstream effects of the food choices you’ve been making. Learn once and for all how the foods you've been eating are actually affecting your day to day life, and your long term health."

I'm about to rethink everything I knew about giving your body energy.  As a big runner, I have been surrounded by pseudo-science on "carbo-loading" for endurance events.  I do not plan on taking any time off and instead getting a lot of miles in for my spring races, while at the same time eating no pasta, rice, or breads.

I also will not be consuming any alcohol for 30 days.  This is a challenge I have been meaning to undertake for awhile now.  While I by no means feel dependent on alcohol (beer is my beverage of choice), sometimes its good to give yourself a break and remember that there is life (and nightlife) outside of bars.  This should save considerable money too.


Its should be understood that Whole30 really isn't a diet, its a lifestyle change in the way you eat.  Seriously! Its not about your weight, calories, or portion sizes.  They even tell you not to weigh yourself or play the numbers game.  You are getting rid of bad habits and rethinking how you buy, cook, and consume.  You just: Eat. Good. Food.

What you can eat

The program's creators like to focus more on what you can eat than what you can't.  This is valid, and the food you eat is actually really good.  There are tons of recipes and resources out there, stuff like breakfast skillets, bacon & eggs, skillets, stews, steak, burgers, etc. (just be sure all the ingredients are compliant). Really tasty food, that is surprisingly easy to make and comes out looking like a work of art.  Lots of veggies, seafood, fruit, and sources for good fats.  Nuts are a great go-to snack (typically almonds, cashews, and pecans), as are olives.  Avocados are another versatile food that can top just about anything, and are a great source of the "good fat".

They even provide a handy shopping list on their website to get you started.

What you can't eat

While they do like to stress what you can eat rather than what you can't - Lets be realistic, there are a ton of can'ts involved.  Way more than the obvious stuff.  They sum it up well on their website.  It may sound stringent, but its not to be mean, its the result of a science.

  • Do not consume added sugar of any kind, real or artificial. No maple syrup, honey, agave nectar, coconut sugar, Splenda, Equal, Nutrasweet, xylitol, stevia, etc. Read your labels, because companies sneak sugar into products in ways you might not recognize.
  • Do not consume alcohol in any form, not even for cooking. (And it should go without saying, but no tobacco products of any sort, either.)
  • Do not eat grains. This includes (but is not limited to) wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn, rice, millet, bulgur, sorghum, amaranth, buckwheat, sprouted grains and all of those gluten-free pseudo-grains like quinoa.
  • Do not eat legumes. This includes beans of all kinds (black, red, pinto, navy, white, kidney, lima, fava, etc.), peas, chickpeas, lentils, and peanuts. No peanut butter, either. This also includes all forms of soy – soy sauce, miso, tofu, tempeh, edamame, and all the ways we sneak soy into foods (like lecithin).
  • Do not eat dairy. This includes cow, goat or sheep’s milk products such as cream, cheese (hard or soft), kefir, yogurt (even Greek), and sour cream.
  • Do not consume carrageenan, MSG or sulfites. If these ingredients appear in any form on the label of your processed food or beverage, it’s out for the Whole30.
Yes its not going to be "easy".  But then what is really worth doing thats easy?  They make a good point that if you think this is hard you should put your life into perspective.  There are really hard things out there, like battling a terminal disease, going to war, living below the poverty line, etc. - this is more of a minor inconvenience.  Who knows, maybe by the end of the month I'll like it!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Running and Adventure Tales to Inspire and Train you

The following are some great books and movies related to running.  Some are for training purposes, while others should just inspire you.  Though the training books are very literal, the inspiring stories (as I call them) tend to be better motivators.  Motivators to push yourself further, try something new, and follow in the footsteps of those who went before.  There are more out there if you look (The movie "Spirit of the Marathon" or the book "Relentless Forward Progress" come to mind) but I probably didn't like them as much.  I have yet to read or see all of these, but these are my favorites or at least are on my short list to read next.  I will continue to update these.


Inspiring Books:


Ultramarathon Man - Some runners have mixed opinion about Dean, but his book about running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days is an inspiring tale that relates well to the every-man.
Born To Run - personal opinions aside, this book sparked a new era in running and shook up a stale shoe industry.  Though enthusiast runners can punch holes in its theories, its as entertaining as it is inspiring and sheds light on ultra running to the masses.
Eat and Run - Scott Yurek, America's greatest ultrarunner and arguably the worlds best, describes his life growing up in the fast-food ridden midwest and his shift to a vegan diet while racing (and winning) ultrarunning's toughest events.
Marathon Man - The bio of Bill Rodgers and his journey from unknown grad student to winning the 1975 Boston Marathon.  "Boston Billy" helped launch the modern day running boom.

No Shortcuts to the Top - Not a running book, but the lifelong quest of Ed Viesturs to become the first American to climb the world's highest 14 peaks - all without bottled oxygen.
Once a Runner - A fictional novel about a runner's lifelong dream to run a 4 minute mile.  An inside account of the chaotic lives of elite distance runners.
The Perfect Mile - Throughout time a sub 4 minute mile was thought impossible to obtain with the human body, but 2 runners in the early 1950s set out on both a physical and spiritual quest to prove this wrong.
Running with the Buffaloes - An NCAA season running along with the University of Colorado cross country team as they devote themselves to excellence.
Unbroken - A story of impossible resilience and determination about a teenager who channeled his defiance into running and landed a spot in the Berlin Olympics.  He was soon sucked into World War II and had to endure a harrowing experience, first adrift in the Pacific Ocean and then in a Japanese prison camp.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the PCT - Cheryl Strayed's retelling of her adventure on the Pacific Crest trail as an inexperienced hiker grieving over the loss of her mother while recovering from substance abuse.


Training Guides:


A Step Beyond: A Definitive Guide to Ultrarunning - As the name implies, this book is an encyclopedia of knowledge about ultra running.  Over 500 pages of on training, nutrition, physiology, race summaries, even humor on the sport.
Advanced Marathoning - A science based approach to get you in great shape for the marathon, with advice on how to compliment your training with strength, flexibility and form.
Daniel's Running Formula - Running coach Jack Daniels, PhD, has a plan to get you into the best shape of your life with his VDOT based training approaches (VDOT is short for VO2max, the maximum rate of oxygen consumption your body can sustain).  With plans from the 5k up to the marathon, the workouts are brutal but will elevate your fitness to a new level.
Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide - Hal Higdon's often anecdotal guide to marathons, great for your first or 50th race (really!).  While beginner friendly, I still pick it up and read random parts from time to time.


Movies:


Apocalypto - A midst a declining Mayan Kingdom, a young man is sent on a death march to await his death, but instead flees his fate.  A deadly footrace ensues through the jungles to try and reach his family and his freedom.
Chariots of Fire - The classic running film about 2 British track stars and their desire to compete in the 1924 Olympic games.  Contains some familiar music as well.
Forest Gump - Everyone's favorite movie about the life of a challenged man who also happens to love running.  We all loved his fictitious run across America, not to mention some classic quotes like when asked why he was running across the country his response of "I just felt like running", or at the end of his journey where he bluntly states "I'm pretty tired...I think I'll go home now", and don't forget: "Run Forest Run"!
Indulgence: 1000 miles under the Colorado sky - a summer of running in the Rockies with Anton Krupicka.
Prefontaine - the 1997 movie about the Oregon running phenom and Olympic hopeful Prefontaine who died tragically before his peak.
Run Fatboy Run - 5 years after leaving his pregnant fiance, out-of-shape Dennis commits to running  a marathon to show his ex that he isn't a quitter.  Fatboy puts a comedic spin on training for your first marathon and a great visual representation of how to break through "the wall".
Run Lola Run - A fast-paced German thriller about a woman who must frantically run across town to find money to bail her boyfriend out of a crime ring.  Its told in three distinct "running" episodes.
The Runner - profiling ultra-running pioneer David Horton's speed record of the 2,700 mile Pacific Crest Trail.
Running on the Sun: The Badwater 135 - a documentary about the infamous Badwater 135 mile run and some of the participants, which takes place in one of the hottest places on Earth.
Ultramarathon Man - the very watchable film adaptation of Dean Karnaze's aforementioned book.
Unbreakable: The 2010 Western States 100 - 4 top ultra-runners all eye a win at Western States, one of the oldest and most prestigious 100 mile races in the world.  Only one man will stay "Unbreakable"!
Without Limits - another great movie from 1998 about the life of Steve Prefontaine, chronicling his life and Olympic experiences.




Friday, January 2, 2015

Reflecting on the Beast, staying healthy, and looking forward to 2015

The Beast


The final standings for the Beast have been released.  It took me 77 hours 47 minutes and 35 seconds to finish it.  It was over 315 miles of racing, and countless more time and miles in training. To recap the 6 races that make up The Beast:


Start of the Mountain Masochist 50 miler (courtesy of Mykkah Photog.)

The biggest irony here is that I didn't even mean to sign up for the Beast initially. I had thought about it, debated signing up for the shorter Lynchburg Ultra Series, or just making the Grindstone 100 miler my only goal for 2014.  Thanks to a few drinks and a persistent runner friend I went ahead and took the plunge last winter by signing up.  I was committed.

The Grindstone 100 Starting Line (courtesy of Mykkah Photog.)

The Beast has been a journey into being a real mountain ultra runner.  I had only done a few Ultra-distance races before 2014, and they were mostly flatter ones, the longest being a 50 miler.  My road marathons help lay the groundwork with fitness and speed, but they aren't comparable to mountainous ultras.  The Beast is a grinder, and when you come out of it you feel ready to tackle even the hardest, steepest, Ultras out there.  It teaches you what you are capable of and how to get yourself to what you aren't sure you can handle yet.

Staying Healthy


Tip-toeing over a stream.
I am really excited about 2015.  For the first time basically ever since I started running I have been putting in consistent miles and showing up for my races as planned.  The big key has been not being injured.  There might be a little luck involved with that, but I attribute it to a few key factors:
  • No "red-lining" - While I still get in some speed work and shorter races, I never really go "all out" or push it to an uncomfortable level.  This may be what it takes to PR in shorter races but its bad for longevity.
  • Less Pavement - Running on pavement is tough on your body, or at least on mine.  I try not to ever run more than 16 miles on pavement in training.  I'll feel more sore after an 18 mile training run on roads than a 50km run on trails.  Some people can handle high mileage strictly on roads; good for them.  Its a high risk of injury for me  as well as general burn-out and boredom.
  • No "hard" marathons - this is kind of a combo of the previous points.  While a road marathon is fine every now and then, running lots of them or trying to PR carries a high risk of injury and the need for significant time off after.
  • Shoes - I've figured out what works for me and what doesn't. Hokas seem to be working well.  I'm also losing my belief that you should be fitted for stability shoes to match your pronation level.  I used to run solely in Motion Control shoes and got injured all the time.  I've been running in Hokas which are considered neutral (with Orange Superfeet) for the past year and have felt great.  I have become more of a believer in developing your own personal natural running technique and less in shoes and other off-the-shelf equipment.  Shoes can help, but they are really a stop-gap solution.
  • Resting when needed and recovering right - I am finally not doing stupid stuff like running while injured, running back to back road long runs, doing speedwork on consecutive days, and other obvious bonehead moves that I used to do.  Even if im not feeling sore after a goal race I'll take some time off (as in no running for a week), and then a few more weeks to ease back into it at a low mileage level.
  • Skipping races or big training runs - I hate skipping races, but if I'm feeling really banged up or burned out I will forego a training run or even a non-goal race.  Sometimes I'll substitute a big cycling ride or I'll just completely rest from physical activity.  Its better to be conservative and get to your true goal races healthy and full of energy.
  • Finally used to being a runner - all these factors, all the training runs, races, and recovery periods just add up to your body being adept at running a lot.

Up Next


So while I have a slew of races planned for 2015, included a few goal races, one event stands alone:
The Big Horn 100 miler in Wyoming.

The Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming, site of Big Horn 100.  Pictures and a great race write-up from Asymptotic Running!

Here are the rest of my "A" and "B" goal races.


  • JFK 20k & MLK 5k, Jan 17
  • Elizabeth Furnace 50k, March 14
  • Terrapin Mtn 50k, March 21
  • Bull Run 50 miler, April 11
  • Big Horn 100 Miler, June 18
  • Reston Century 100 mile bike ride, Aug 30
  • The Ring 70 miler, Sept 5
  • Everything else I'm doing I try to consider more of a training run and therefor tentative if push comes to shove.  You can check the "2015 Races" sidebar for the rest of my planned outings.  I haven't really got anything planned past summer - its way to early to think about what you will want to be doing in Fall anyway.

    So here's to another year of miles in the books!