Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Chrissie Wellington's Brain Training Advice

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been spending time this year preparing for the mental challenge of finishing the fall Superior 100. This article from Chrissie Wellington on CNN.com is right on target.

Ironman champ: Train your brain, then your body by Chrissie Wellington

Friday, February 10, 2012

A letter to myself

As part of my preparation for the Fall Superior 100 I have been reading about willpower. One such book is Kelly McGonigal's The Willpower Instinct. In it she suggests that one way to make the little choices that help with long term goals is to get in touch with your future self. One way of doing this is to write a letter to yourself, from the prospective of your future self. So here it goes, my letter to myself: written on Sept. 9, 2012 a day after the Fall Superior trail races.

Hi there Sad Sack,

We did it! We finished our first 100 mile race on the Superior Hiking Trail. The legs hurt today. They hurt bad, but it's OK because every time the pain gets a little overwhelming I just look at my Finisher's Buckle and the hurt kind of dissipates. In order to make sure that you end up feeling the same sense of accomplishment that I am feeling right now, I want to tell you a few things.

First, definitely do that 50K you are reconsidering on Feb. 12th. That was a tough run, and the trails were icy, but it really helped around mile 58, just around Sonju Lake to remember that run.

Also, it's not too late to start some serious hill work. I know that you are not a fan, but coming up out of the Manitou gorge, you'll be glad you did.

I can't stress enough how necessary it was to lose those last 15 pounds over the summer. Imagine 20,000 feet of incline. Now imagine it with a 15lb pack attached to your waste. See? Believe me, that extra snack just isn't worth it.

Keep up the core work. I saw a version of us out on the trail who didn't do the core work I did. He ended up DNFing due to back spasms. Poor dude. All that work and if he had just done that little extra bit he would have been OK. I guess he'll have the monkey on his back another year while we are out celebrating.

Finally, make it up to the Superior Hiking Trail as often as possible this summer. I only made it a couple times. There is really no other way to prepare for this trail than by spending time on it. I think your legs will be better off than mine if you can manage to get up here more often in July and August.

That's it. There's no way I can describe the feeling of accomplishment you get when crossing that finish line. You'll just have to find out yourself, and you will, if you just make the little choices along the way that brought me here.

Finisher Ross

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Sawtooth 2012 training plan - the backbone

Sawtooth 2012 is ten months away. That means it is time to start preparing for my next attempt. I need to be much better prepared than I was this year, both mentally and physically. I have spent a lot of time thinking about I can do this, and will share my plans here.
There will be several phases in my training plan, starting with a four week recovery phase that I am currently enjoying. Doing the Wild Duluth 100k and Surf the Murph 50 mile two weeks apart to a toll on my legs, and I am finding I need a bit of down time before I begin to start the more serious phases of my plan.
I will discuss the various stages of my training cycle as I go through them. However, all stages of my training will be united by the backbone of my training plan. This backbone consists of a four week rotation of different weekend runs; back to backs, thirds, long runs, and recovery.

The back to back runs are a staple of any ultra training plan. The purpose of these runs is to simulate some of the physical duress of an ultra, but to implement it in a way that is easier to recover from than if all the miles were done at once. Essentially this means doing a run of 20 - 30 miles on Saturday, and another of about the same length on Sunday. As I get closer to Sawtooth, I plan to do these runs such that the Sunday long run is actually done late Saturday night. Besides the benefit of the back to back runs, this will give me some experience with night running.

The following weekend I will do a single longish run in which I split the run into thirds and run each third 30 seconds per mile faster than the previous third, ending with a pace that is at my current marathon pace. For example, for an 18 mile run I would do the first six miles at 9 min/mile, the middle six at 8:30 min/mile, and the final six at 8:00 min/mile. I used to do these runs regularly when I used to run marathons, and found them useful for learning to run negative splits as well as for getting some fast miles done on tired legs. More than anything else, these runs will help prevent me from settling in on that ultra slow ultra pace. As such, they will be done on roads or maybe even a treadmill during January and February.

The next weekend will be my ultra run. This will be a continuous run of at least 31, but as many as 62 miles (or more). As much as possible I will try to coordinate these with races, though at least of few of them will need to be done solo. It is the solo runs that will probably help my mental preparation more than anything else. 

The four week cycle is rounded off by a rest weekend. Most runners suggest a recovery week every third of fourth week in order to give the body a chance to acclimate to the stress, but also as a way to avoid burnout. For me, this will probably mean slowish trail runs of 10-12 miles.

I have already penciled in all of my weekend runs from now until Sawtooth. Once ultra season starts, the races don't conveniently fall into a four week pattern, so the four week cycle needs to be adjusted. For example, the Kettle 100K and Black Hills 100K (both on my wish list) are only three weeks apart. The most expendable run is the thirds run, so I am planning on doing Kettle the first weekend of June, followed by a rest weekend, and then back to backs the week before Black Hills.

Even though I am currently in my recovery phase, I have already started these four week cycles, though the runs are shorter than they will normally be. Last weekend I did 15 on Sat. and another 15 on Sunday. This weekend I will do a 15 mile "thirds" run, and then 31 miles at Afton after Thanksgiving.

I am convinced that if I can stick to my planned weekend runs for the next 10 months, no matter what I do during the week, I will be in good shape for my next attempt at Sawtooth. Much better shape than my last attempt, at any rate.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Wile E. Coyote

I've always identified strongly with Wile E. Coyote from the classic Roadrunner cartoons. I certainly appreciate his perseverance in the face of what is essentially an unachievable task. He is a modern Sisyphus, an animated Captain Ahab. Mostly, though, I like is eternal optimism in technology.

Here is a song by the great Billy Childish with Thee Mighty Casesars celebrating "Wiley Coyote". I like running to this one.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Recovery Week

I love participating in ultras. Really. I hate the week afterwards, however. Sometimes the week after a race is so difficult for me that I wonder why I put myself through it at all.

First there is the fact that I can barely run for a week. I kinda need to run to keep an even keel in my life. I get grumpy when I don't run. Ask my family. Ask my students. I just taught 3 three hour labs in the last day and a half and I was on edge the entire time.

Then there is the fact that I never get anything else done on the weekend of a race; no chores around the house, no grading or other work related responsibilities, nothing. This means I need to spend the following week catching up on all the stuff I should have gotten done over the weekend, in addition to keeping on top of all the new stuff life throws at me.

Making matters worse is that I seem to need at least twice as much sleep as usual during recovery week. I need a lot of sleep as it is. I can never seem to get enough after an ultra.

I also eat twice as much as usual during recovery week. Seriously, when I'm not sleeping, or thinking about sleep, I'm eating. I just can't ever seem to get satiated.

I know this all normal. Expected blowback from what I've put my body through.

Mostly though, I'm just a little irritated right now that it is going to be months before I get to do it again.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Surfing Murph

I probably shouldn't have registered for this race, coming as it does just two weeks after running Wild Duluth 100K. I registered for it impulsively after getting an email telling me that the cost of registration was about to increase. At the time I had no idea how beat up I was going to feel after Wild Duluth: if I had, there is no way I would have registered. Maybe the 50K, but not the 50M.

Still, I'm a sucker for October races; it is easily my favorite time of the year for running. Plus, I love doing any race when I can wake up in my own bed, run an ultra, and get back home in time for an evening with the family. So, despite some serious misgivings I got up at 4AM and made the drive out to Burnsville.

My goal was to run sub 10 hours. I knew that this is a relatively fast course, despite the rolling hills provided over the first 5 miles of each 17 mile loop. Plus I ran a 10:07 last year despite some serious foot injury that occurred around mile 40. What I didn't know is if my legs would be recovered enough for me to hold on to the required pace for the entire course. My plan was to run the first loop in 3:20, just fast enough to give me a shot at meeting my goal time, but not too fast that it would burn me out. After that, I would see how my legs felt, either trying to hang on for the 10 hour mark, or slow it down and enjoy the day on the trails.

Things started well. I got through the first hilly section right on pace and picked it up a little bit in the following flat section. I was going a little too fast and slowed it down, intentionally taking more time than needed at the aid stations, and walking even the run-able hills. After the last aid station of the loop, I started getting some pain in my foot in the exact same place I got injured last year. What the what? Was this psycosomatic? Did my brain remember how much I hurt in this section last year, and start sending my phantom signals? Or was this a real overuse injury in the making? After my injury here last year, I couldn't run for six weeks. I did not want to go through that again. I was thinking the smart thing to do would be to just run the 25K and call it a day.

However, I remembered the two things I learned from Wild Duluth. Don't give in when going through a bad spell, and bring your own ibuprofen. Plus, my legs were still feeling pretty good, so I decided to take some vitamin I, and do at least one more loop and see how things were going at that time. I got out of the start/lap/finish aid station at 3:17, just about perfect. As I started heading back through the hills on the second loop my foot was not happy an I was wondering about the wisdom of my decision. Once I finished the hills however, the ibuprofen had kicked in and I was starting to run comfortably again, and at a good pace. Because I didn't spend nearly as much time at the aid stations the second loop, I was to complete it in 3:12.

Still on pace for a sub 10 hour finish, my legs were still feeling good, and my foot problems had been beaten back, I never even considered not doing a third lap. Also, since I was no longer worried about my legs holding up, I pushed through the hills a little harder this time, getting through them faster than either of the first two loops. It was around this point that I started to experience a little of that elusive feeling known as the runner's high. I felt as if my head were filled with helium, just floating above the trail: connected to my body by a string, but barely aware of how hard my body was working.

I usually don't run fast or far enough for the endorphin rush that causes these feelings. In ultras I run too slow, and when I'm going fast enough it is only in shorter runs. I enjoyed the feelings of well being and positivity, but became concerned of the inevitable crash. I tried to zero in on a pace that would allow me to keep feeling good, but avoid a burnout. Fortunately, I found this pace and glided through the final in loop in 3:06 and finished in 9 hours and 36 minutes.

It was a great day for running, and really enjoyed the less technical terrain that allowed me to run most of the way. The volunteers were awesome and the aid stations well stocked. It really is a great way to end the season. I did hear some people had missed some turns, got lost, and did some extra distance. This led to some griping by those involved, but really, I had no problems and am not sure where the confusion occurred.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Wild Duluth 100K

The Wild Duluth Races have to be among the most beautiful in the Midwest. That's saying a lot, as there are some really beautiful races in these parts. They are also very well organized, have great volunteers, and some pretty sweet bling. The hoodies for the 100K participants are especially nice this year; and my finisher's beanie is going to worn proudly all winter. If you haven't run this race yet, put on your calendar for next year.

My own race was nearly over almost as soon as it began. Things started well enough, a lovely, crisp fall morning with a nearly full moon lighting the still dark sky, perfect for running. About half a mile in, things start to get interesting with a pretty good climb up the Superior Hiking Trail to Engen Park. It was here that I took my first of what would be many falls on the day. At first glance, it wasn't a bad fall. In fact, I caught myself on the way down and was up before I fully hit the ground. However, it was just enough to start an episode of piriformis syndrome that would haunt me for the next 20 miles.

What is piriformis syndrome? The piriformis muscle is one of the gluteal muscles that runs behind the hip joint. It happens to run right past the sciatic nerve. This proximity means that if the piriformis muscle spasms, the sciatic nerve becomes strangled, resulting in pain throughout the hip area and down the back of the legs. And I am talking biting a bullet to avoid screaming pain. Piriformis syndrome is not uncommon in runners, due to their often tight hip adductors and weak abductors. I have had piriformis syndrome off and on for a couple years, though it has been a few months since I have had an episode. Well, it turns out that the little fall I had, combined with the cool of the early morning, was enough to start some muscle spasms in my piriformis.

This began a downward spiral that I couldn't escape from. The spasms and pain dramatically reduced my range of motion in my stride. This decrease in my range of motion meant I was much more likely to fall on the very technical trail I was covering. So I would fall, which would set off another bout of spasms, which decreased my range of motion even more, which....well, you get the idea. I tried stretching, I tried walking, I tried relaxing through visualization. At the 8.8 mile aid station I got a butt massage from one of the volunteers who was a licensed physical therapist. I told you they had awesome volunteers! Each of these helped, but only until I tried running again.

Honestly, if I hadn't just DNFed at Sawtooth, I would have dropped in the first 10 miles. I was frustrated, nearly in tears with pain, and unable to get out the negative loop. I decided to keep going only because I knew it would be good mental training for my next attempt at Sawtooth. However, due to my walking, my breaks for stretching and massages, I was at the very back of the pack. This didn't bother me in itself, but was afraid I would make the 50K cutoff of 9 hours. At around mile 17 I saw my River Falls running buddy, Jenny, who was running the 50K. She noted that I was at the back, said she was worried about me and asked if I needed anything. I asked if she had any ibuprofen, she did and gave me four which I downed instantly. Within a couple miles I was feeling better. My range of motion was back and I could run without pain. She absolutely saved my race.

The trail gets much less technical from the 20 mile aid station to the turn around. I was feeling good finally, and had the advantage of not having worked very hard at all for the first 20 miles. I picked up my pace and began steadily passing other runners. I also started to make up some time on my watch, and over the next 22 miles felt like I was flying down the trail. I even took another fall around mile 35, but it didn't start any spasms, so yay!

By the time I got back to the climb up Ely's peak, around mile 42, I had nearly worn myself out. Still I was able to keep pushing pretty well, and wanted to get as many miles in as I could before night fall. I made it to about 50 miles by sunset. The last 12 miles were pretty much a power walk. Any time I tried to run, I would trip over some unseen root or rock, and decided it just wasn't worth the effort. Others must have been having the same problem, as while I wasn't passing people any more, I also wasn't being passed. Well, until the last mile or so. At this point a couple passed me and ended up finishing 5 minutes ahead of me. There is no way I could have run that last mile 5 minutes faster, they must have been flying. They sure flew past me.

The sweet finish! Met and congratulated by Kim and Andy, the race directors, and presented with my finishers beanie. What a great moment. I ended up finishing in 16 hours and 22 minutes, a full 8 minutes faster than I had predicted to my wife. They way things started, I didn't think there was a chance of that happening, so I was very happy with that time. It was good enough for 21st out of 57 starters and 45 finishers. 

My night wasn't over, though. I didn't want to pop for another night at the hotel, and anyway, I had promised my mom and dad a ride to the airport early Sunday morning. My reward for being done running for over 16 hours, was a three hour drive back to River Falls.

Two days later, my feet are still swollen and I still can't walk down stairs without holding on to the railing, but I am recovering and looking forward to 50 miles at Surf the Murph in less than two weeks.

I learned a lot this race: always carry ibuprofen, don't quit when things are bad early, and to start strengthening exercises for my abductors, and stretches for my adductors. I don't want to ever go through that again.