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.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Paleo Diet Blood Test

Several months ago I realized that I was getting too many of my calories from refined starches (think pasta, rice, potatoes, etc.) and, as I am wont to do, decided to go overboard in the other direction. This led me to what is commonly referred to as the Paleo Diet. This is essentially a version of the more general low carbohydrate diet - except that certain low glycemic fruits and most vegetables are allowed and encouraged.

I noticed two things that corresponded with this dietary switch; I lost about 15 lbs and I no longer had the energy I needed to do my long runs. I can't say for certain that either was a direct result of the dietary change, but I suspect this was the case for both. I would go back to a starch rich diet the day before a race, but that was normally the only time I would stray. The only supplements I take are a daily multi-vitamin and some fish oil pills.

A couple weeks ago I went in to see my doctor, and he ordered a fasting blood test. Below are the results.

Mostly good; glucose is fine, HDL is outstanding, and triglyceride levels are nice. The problem of course is the LDL,  the low density lipoproteins, more often known as the "bad cholesterol".

I am not sure what to think of this. Normally, I don't think that dietary cholesterol really effects blood cholesterol much, except in a small portion of the population. Am I in that small portion? I had been eating lots of cholesterol as of late, mostly in eggs, but also in other not so lean meats as well.

My blood tests came with a note from my doctor that he wants to discuss these results with me. I know he will want to put me on a statin drug. I am very resistant to this idea and plan to ask for another six months before doing another blood test.

In that time I will be moderating my diet again. I will cut back on the eggs and most offensive meats, and start adding back some healthy grains. Actually, I have already started doing this in the last ten days or so. In that time my weight has stayed the same, and I have gotten in three long runs. Including 20 yesterday at Afton State Park, and 24 today on my favorite trail, the Whitetail Ridge Trail in River Falls. Stay tuned.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Return to Training

It's been over a year since I have done any training. I've done plenty of running, but no training. For the past year I would run based on feel. If I felt like trail running, I would. If I felt like doing a tempo run, I would. I never felt like doing a long run that wasn't part of a race, so I didn't. It's been over a year since I thought about a running plan and followed through with it.

I know that in order to finish Sawtooth next year that will need to change, and it already is, but only sort of.

I have signed up for the Wild Duluth 100K in three weeks, so for now my running is more based upon preparing for that. This weekend I ran 10 miles on Saturday, and 21 on Sunday (even though I didn't feel like it!). It's been only two weeks since my aborted attempt at Sawtooth, and my legs aren't fully recovered. Next weekend, I am hoping to get in a pair of 20+ runs on the trails. After that I will begin to dial it down in preparation for the 100K.

After Wild Duluth I will probably take a couple of weeks off and then, starting in November, I will be starting a three month training segment designed to improve my speed and strength. More on that later.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Sawtooth Recap

You already know that this ended early for me, at the Finland Aid station, after about 51 miles.

I would like to tell you that I had to drop because the heat got to me, but that would be disingenuous. Some people did legitimately drop due to the heat, and for sure the heat took its toll on me, but the truth is I handled the heat pretty well. I went out slow and drank A LOT, so I stayed pretty well hydrated, all things considered.

I would like to tell you that I dropped because my shin got so bad I couldn't move, but that wouldn't be true either. To be sure, this also took its toll, and I was visibly limping by the time I got to Finland. Maybe I should have dropped because of my shin; even today it is noticeably swollen relative to my other leg, and is quite sore to the touch. In fact, I am starting to think that I should see my physician to rule out compartment syndrome. If it is compartment syndrome, it is a good thing that I did drop. Still, the truth is, that is not why I ended my race early.

I would like to tell you that I dropped due to stomach issues. This would simply be a lie. My stomach was feeling fine. I was eating and keeping it down. No problems at all here. In fact, I was generally feeling good all over. I was in a good mood, enjoying the night run. My legs were sore, but not more than I expected, and not so sore that I couldn't go on.

The truth is I dropped because I wasn't prepared, physically or mentally, but especially mentally. Credit goes to Matt and Scott for calling me out on this early. Seeing that I registered for the race with kind of a "why not?" mentality, they worried that I wouldn't have the desire to finish. In retrospect, this should have been obvious to me as well. I also wasn't prepared physically, but even this was a result of my poor mental preparation.

Let me explain. In 2011, I haven't done a single training run of longer than 12 miles. I did a number of races, from marathons to 50 miles, and called these training runs. The reason I did my "training runs" as races, however, was that I just didn't have the gumption to get up and go for a long run on my own. I could do it with the support of the race volunteers and the company of my fellow runners, but not on my own. The bottom line is that I just didn't want to run long unless it was part of a race. This did not serve me well.

I ended up getting to Finland at about 12:40 AM on Saturday morning, an hour and 20 minutes before the cutoff. I had been slowly significantly. Between Country Road 6 and Finland I had been passed by at least a dozen runners. Those runners were walking, of course, but were walking much faster than I was. This was the lack of physical preparation. The ruggedness of the Superior Hiking Trail was getting to me, and I was staggering along. In fact, I kept falling off the boardwalks. Between my limp and my stagger, I just didn't have the balance to stay on. Good thing it was dry!

By the time I got to Finland I was convinced that I had to drop. I honestly never even considered it a choice. There was only an hour and 20 minutes until the cutoff, and I was slowing down significantly. Ha. Now that the preliminary results are out, I see that there were at least a dozen runners who got to the aid station after me, and went on to finish. There was a choice, but I couldn't see it at the time.

I stuck around at the finish the next day, at least twice as sore as I've been after any other 50 mile run I had done this year, to watch the 100 milers come in. I found it incredibly inspiring to watch the last runner come in, minutes before the 38 hour cut off, and just barely in front of the sweeps. As impressive as it is to see someone run across the finish in just over 24 hours, it is much more inspiring to see the people who stuck with it, despite being just under the cutoff all along the way. Wow.

I'm glad I switched from the  50 to the 100. Despite the fact that I ended up only running 50, and having to pay an extra $110 for the honor. I got to see the first half of the course, but more importantly, I now at least have an inkling of what it will take to prepare for my second attempt, and first finish, in 2012. I am now inspired and will be doing those long lonely runs throughout the year in preparation.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sawtooth Spoiler

A recent study out of the UCSD Psychology Department concluded that readers enjoy the story most when they know the ending first.

So, with your increased enjoyment in mind, dear reader, I am giving away the ending of my Sawtooth 2012 story. I dropped at the ceremonial midway point, the Finland aid station.

You'll have to wait for the story itself.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Sawtooth Strategy

I spent the better part of my Labor Day thinking about and planning for my race this weekend. Much of this has been menial tasks like prepping my drop bags, predicting arrival times at aid stations for my crew (my wife, Ruthie, bless her heart), and packing.

Some of my time has also been spent on visualizing how I will handle certain race day decisions: some inevitable, some avoidable.

Unavoidable events that will NOT cause me to drop:

1) Pain. This one falls into the inevitable category. I can't imagine anyway at anytime that I could cover 102.6 miles on the Superior Hiking Trail without experiencing a good deal of pain. It would just be wrong of me to register for a race that will definitely cause pain and then drop out when the pain comes. I recently read Marshall Ulrich's account of his transcontinental run. In it he compares ultra running to a climb up Everest he once made. During the climb, one of the Russians in his team was ostracized for complaining about cold fingers. You don't climb Everest and complain about cold fingers. You don't run ultras and complain about sore legs. This includes my shin splints, by the way, which are getting better everyday.

2) Emotional lows. This is really just a type of pain, isn't it? It's also inevitable. The key is to recognize that this is a low point and is likely to be followed by an emotional peak. Unlike the pain, the low points will go away eventually.

Avoidable events that WILL cause me to drop.

1) An acute injury: severely sprained ankle, broken leg, concussion, that sort of thing. These are unlikely, but could happen, especially on the Superior Hiking Trail. If there is an ambulance there to take me away, I will drop.

2) Missing a cutoff time. Hopefully I won't encounter this problem, but if I miss a cut off time, I will respect the race rules and drop out. My predicted race times are hours away from the posted cut off times. If this does happen it is because something has gone seriously wrong.

Avoidable events that MAY cause me to drop.

1) Heat related problems such as dehydration or hyponatremia. It looks like Friday at least will be relatively warm. I've seen highs for the area reaching 80. I'm not too worried as most of the course is well shaded, and I'm hopeful that the dew point, at least, will be reasonable. Either way, this is an avoidable problem and I will be very cautious of it. At the first signs of problems, I will chill out at an aid station until I get back to where I should be. Of course, that could lead to missing a cutoff time.

2) Stomach issues. This could be a problem. I've not done a 100 mile race before, and don't know how my stomach will handle it. I've heard horror stories from others. The good news is my stomach is usually pretty solid as long as I'm not going too fast or working too hard. I'll eat early and go slow. Again, if this problem does occur, I plan on using my time at an aid station to solve it.

Are they any other potential issues I'm not thinking of? Please let me know.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Many Rivers to Cross - Jimmy Cliff

The unofficial theme song of Sawtooth 2011? It will be for me.

Consider -

"Many rivers to cross
And it's only my will that keeps me alive
I've been licked, washed up for years
And I merely survive because of my pride"

It's been covered many times, but Jimmy Cliff's version is still the best.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Lou Holtz on Success

I'm not generally a fan of Lou Holtz, but I was watching my beloved Badgers on ESPN last night, feeling discouraged after another painful run, when Lou came on the TV and prattled on about something or another.

He then said this - "Success is like wrestling with a guerrilla. You don't quit when you get discouraged, you quit when the guerrilla get discouraged."

I like that. What's the Superior Hiking Trail if not a huge guerrilla?

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Shin splints? Now!?!

It may be psychosomatic, but I have come down with a case a shin splints, or anterior fibialis tendinitis to be more precise. I last tried running on Monday evening; four painful miles. Well, the first two miles weren't that painful, but at the two mile mark things got pretty bad.

The problem started the previous Wed., four days after the Marquette Trail 50. I was out on a night run at our local trail and felt a little pressure on the outside of my left shin. I didn't think anything of it and in fact had completely forgotten about it until the next night, when I was reminded pretty early. I finished the six miles but was limping by the end.

Not having had shin splints before, I was not particularly worried. I thought I would take a couple of days off, and a few ibuprofen now and again, and they would go away on their own. I went out again for four miles on Monday (just hours after posting that I would finish Sawtooth), when the pain returned quickly and I began to panic.

Crap! Less than two weeks before Sawtooth and I can't run four miles? This is when I decided to get aggressive. I began icing and taking 800mg of ibuprofen every 4 hours. Yesterday, I also began searching the internet for advice. Turns out there are a lot of sure thing, quick cures for shin splints on the internets. I'm doing all of them! Stretching my calves, walking on my heels, walking on my toes, rolling out my shins and calves with a foam roller, taping, wearing a compression sock. You name it. I mean that literally. Please name a remedy, and if I'm not already doing it I will try it.

I also saw a physical therapist for the first time ever this morning. The good news is she didn't tell me not to run Sawtooth. She gathered quickly that I wouldn't listen. Instead she did some ultrasound therapy on the affected shin. Does this do anything that a heating pad wouldn't?

I haven't gone to my doctor yet. I would like to get a cortisone shot, but I'm afraid he'll try to tell me that if I try to do this run I may jeopardize my ability to run ever again, blah, blah, blah. I don't want to deal with that.

I'm going to keep up the try everything approach through the rest of the week with no running. I'm OK with not running. I know that there is much more potential harm to be done than any good. I will want to try to run this weekend, just to see how it feels. Probably on the treadmill so I can stop as soon as it gets painful.

The good news is that it doesn't hurt to walk. I know enough about Sawtooth to know that there is more walking than running going on there, especially for those like myself who are more focused on the 38 hour mark than the course record.

I still plan to toe the line next Friday. I'm hoping my new aggressive approach will resolve the problem, or at least abate it enough so that I can get to that point where my entire lower body is hurting so much that one squeaky shin will get lost in the noise.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Sawtooth Motivation

In response to my post "If Not Now, When?", I've been asked by Matt and now Scott to consider why I want to get to the finish. SteveQ also had a recent post to this effect.

I understand where this advice is coming from. When I went to grad school, I did so mostly because it was the next step after getting my bachelor's degree, not because I really wanted a post graduate degree. There were plenty of others like me, but there was also a group of students that knew why they were there. Often, these students were slightly older and had spent a few years in industry. I don't need to tell you which group of students tended to progress more rapidly to their degrees.

There is a tendency to step up to the 100 for a similar reason. It's the next step. To be honest, there is that aspect to my decision. I've done the 50 twice, now it's time to do the 100. However, if that were all there were to my motivation I could have chosen a different, easier 100, as many have suggested. Or a 100K. Or a 24 hour run.

 No, I want Sawtooth to be my first. But why?

A big part of my motivation is intellectual curiosity. I want to know what it is like, and I can't know by reading books or race reports. Trust me, I've been doing so for the last three years. I have to get out there and live it. Sure, it may seem like this won't help me when I get to Sugarloaf early on Saturday morning. By all accounts this will be a low point, where I may be tempted to think "Ok, now I know what it feels like. It hurts. It sucks. I don't need to know anymore," and be tempted to quit. However, I am prepared to tell myself, "No, this is what it feels like to get to Sugarloaf, this is not what it feels like to get to Caribou". Don't underestimate intellectual curiosity.

Beyond that, I admit that I want to be a member of the club. That special club of people who get to wear their red jackets because they have completed Sawtooth. Finish in less than 38 hours and you too can join this club. Who says hazing is dead?

Finally, there is pride. I have told plenty of people about my pursuit. Not to brag, because 99.9% of the people I have told could careless, but for accountability. My pride will help carry me through to the finish.

I said in my previous post that I don't know if I can finish. That is the intellectual truth. I can't know until I've tried. That doesn't mean I am not convinced that I can, that I will finish. Nor does it mean that I don't care.

In less than two weeks I will know that I can finish.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Marquette Trail 50 race report

It seems that not many runners from the Twin Cities area are doing the Marquette Trail 50 yet. I understand this to some extent. It is a pretty long drive, about 400 miles, from the metro area to Marquette, and with so many great races closer to home, it may not seem worth the hassle.

Let me start by trying to convince you to add this race to your calendar at least once.

First, the course is beautiful. A couple of climbs give rise to absolutely spectacular views of Lake Superior and the Upper Peninsula. I was not the only runner to sacrifice some minutes off our finishing times in order to take a moment and gather in the scenery from these peaks. There is also a rather long section that follows the Lake Superior shore line where you are about 20 yards or so from the water. On a hot day, I'm sure it would be tempting to take a quick dip to cool off mid race. The race also offers a nice mix of terrain: rocky, rooty, technical single track, soft pine, sand, horse trails, and old logging roads.

Best of all, though, is the low key nature of the race. There were only about 25 people registered in each of the two available distances, the 50K and 50M. As it turns out, however, more than half of the 50M registrants switched to the 50K before the start. This turns out not to be a bad choice. All of the beautiful scenery is offered in the 50K. The 50M follows the same course with an additional nine miles out and then back. The nine miles out were a gradual, but continuous climb; about 1000 feet over the nine miles and then you get to work your quads on the way back. Unless you need the distance, stick with the 50k.

For those of you who are fleet of foot, the race director offers $100 for setting a new course record. For the men's 50 mile race this is 6 hours and 53 minutes. Not. Going. To. Happen. Still, with such a small group of participants, perhaps placing was a realistic possibility even for a middle of the pack runner like myself?

The race starts at Tourist Park in Marquette, which offers camp sites for as little as $18 a night. Together with the reasonable $65 entry fee, this is a pretty affordable race. Our camp site was about 200 yards from the start/finish line. The course is very well marked, except for the first mile or so that loops onto some of the nearby roads and though that section isn't marked, you are led by a biker to make sure no one takes a wrong turn. That is, of course, assuming you get to the race on time and leave with the pack, which gets me to the story of my race.

I was excited to be camping so near the starting line, as it meant I could get a good night sleep  before the start. This was to be a welcome change after Voyageur, where I woke about around 3AM to make the drive up to Carlton. I set my alarm for 5:50 AM, this would give me plenty of time to prepare for the race and walk the 200 yards to the starting line for the 6:30 start. I even remembered to adjust my alarm for the fact that Marquette is in the eastern time zone. I did forget to turn up the volume, however.

My wife woke me up in a panic at 6:25. Crap! Five minutes until the race was to start. I quickly applied body glide along with some band aids to the appropriate places, changed clothes, put on my race number and grabbed my hydration pack. As I left the tent, I could hear the gun go off and see the pack begin to leave. As I took off to catch up, I realized I didn't have my Garmin on. Double crap! I did a quick cost/benefit analysis and decided to go back to the tent for my watch, which I had to dig for a bit. By the time I left the tent again, the group was no where to be seen. I ran to the start, got a quick overview of the starting loop from the race director and took off. As soon as I did, I heard a "You're going the wrong way". I hadn't had my coffee yet and was obviously having a hard time concentrating on the directions. I went back and he repeated the directions, and I took off again in the right direction. Needless to say, I took another wrong turn and ran into the lead group coming the opposite way. I retraced my steps, found another race volunteer, and finally got on the right track. I ended up passing a pair of 50K participants who were walking the race at around 2 miles. I think I ended up doing an extra mile thanks due to my miscue, probably costing myself a total of about 12 minutes or so with the late start.

I knew the 12 minutes wouldn't be a big deal. Over 50 miles and what turned out to be only 10 participants, twelve minutes means almost nothing. More concerning were the fact that I hadn't done any of my usual pre-race routine; no food, no hydration, no bathroom time. I didn't even get my shoes tied until the four mile mark. It wasn't until the first aid station, at about 10 miles, where I found my wife and got my breakfast, a Red Bull and a Cliff bar. By this time I had started to catch up with the other runners and managed to settle down a bit and began to enjoy the race.

It is after the first aid station that we began a climb up a seemingly endless series of steps to the Sugar Loaf peak, one of the fantastic vantage points I mentioned earlier. Taking a moment to gather in the view, and then descend to the lake side trail, I caught up with a group of four guys running the 50 mile race. In this group I met Marty, one of the Lapham Peak Runners group, who I ran with for the next ten miles or so. At the finish I would also meet Kevin and Angela from this group. What a great bunch. It is almost tempting to make the six hour drive across the state to run with these guys some Wednesday night.

The second aid station was at about 18 miles, just in time for me to refill my hydration pack. After this, the aid stations were much closer together and were all well stocked with the usual: water, Heed, Fig Newtons, gels of various flavors, potatoes and watermelon. Really everything you need for a 50 mile race. Aid station three marked the entry into the Top of the World loop. I really like this loop. Except for the climb up the peak, it is fast and offers a view worthy of the name.

It is at the 27 mile mark that the 18 mile out and back begins for the 50 milers. I met my wife here again, and she had another Red Bull for me as well as a bagel and cream cheese sandwich. I don't normally eat much in the way of solid foods when I run, and wanted to see how I handled it, knowing this would be a necessity for the Sawtooth 100. I wasn't hungry at all, but ate it anyway, and had no problems.

I've already mentioned that the out and back offers little to recommend it. This section was long, boring, hot, sunny, and mentally tough. Perfect prep for a longer run. This was also my first chance to see where I was in the race. About 4 miles in, I met Kevin coming back who would go on to win handily. About 15 minutes later, number 2 came by and not too long after, number 3. And then...no one. Was I number 4? I didn't think that was possible, even with the small number of participants. Sure enough, I reached the turn around and began the long stretch back, now downhill, in 4th place. I saw Marty and Andy running together about 2 miles behind me, in 5th and 6th place. This gave me the little bit of oomph I needed to finish strong.

I hope the reader understands that I don't care about my place in a race at all. The thought of placing never occurs to me. I also understood that this was clearly an example of small sample size, but I wasn't going to not take advantage of my good fortune. I pushed as much as I could for the final 12 miles or so. There was a difficult stretch of a few miles where this was pretty slow, but I still was able to average under 12:45/mile over the last 10. Pretty good for me.

Finally the finish. Just under 10 hours 30 minutes on my watch, and a few minutes over on the official time. A nice ceramic bowl as my reward for 3rd place master awaited me. Better yet, a nice evening out on the lovely town of Marquette with my wife.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Final Training Run - Marquette Trail 50

My wife and I are heading up to Marquette, MI tomorrow for the Marquette Trail 50. I am going to be doing the 50 mile race, thinking of it as my last long run in my preparation for Sawtooth.

A finish on Saturday will give me two 50 mile runs in the six weeks leading up to the main event. I simultaneously hope that it is sufficient and not too much.

I ran the 50k at Marquette last year and had a great time. It is a scenic and challenging course, with enough hills and technical trail to give me a taste of what I am in for in a few weeks. I'll have the race report early next week.

In the meantime, here is the link from Joe Jameson, the race director, with the course map and elevation profile.

Friday, August 12, 2011

If Not Now, When?

I sent off my registration for Sawtooth yesterday. Let me emphasize here, I did not do so because I am confident I can finish it. To the contrary, I have absolutely no idea if I can finish or not. Having no experience with a hundred, I don't know what it will take physically, mentally or emotionally. It finally occurred to me that the only way to find out is by taking the plunge.

Last year after the Fall Superior 50 mile trail run, I had planned to do the hundred this year. I put together a beautiful training plan that I was 100% confident in. I knew if I followed my plan I would be able to run and finish Sawtooth in style. As is so often the case with plans, however, life got in the way.

I won't bore you with the details, but by the time April rolled around I was so far NOT on plan, that it was all I could do to just finish the Chippewa 50K. The fact that it took 7 hours to do so does little to tell the story of what a struggle that race was for me. It was then that I realized that I would not be able to run Sawtooth this year, and that I would be happy just to get back into shape enough to do the 50 again.

My thinking was that once I did the 50 again, I could begin my beautiful plan anew and shoot for 2012. Then I realized that life would almost certainly interfere yet again, and I would never be able to go in 100% confident. If I couldn't be 100% confident, what would be required? 90% ? 50%?

Screw it. Excuse the double negative here, but I am not 100% confident that I can't do it either. It's time to find out. If not now, when?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Seeking advice - Stepping up to the 100.

As the title indicates, I am seeking advice on how one knows if they are ready for a hundred. Or more to the point, how will I know if I am ready to give it a go at Sawtooth this year.

I have only been running about  45 miles per week, though I do have a finish at Voyageur last week, and am also planning on running the 50 mile course at Marquette on Aug. 20.

I began the year with hopes of training for Sawtooth as my first 100 mile run. As the year progressed and my training wasn't what I hoped it would be, I scaled back that goal to doing a 100K at Wild Duluth. I'm beginning to wonder however, if it is not really just courage that is holding me back. Am I ready to give the full 100 a go? I fear that I will never get in the training I feel is necessary, and will continually find excuses to go with the safer distance. Any thoughts?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Predicting finishing times

I would like to know how others go about predicting their finishing times for trail ultras, especially those that they have never run.

Recently, I predicted it would take me 12 hours to finish Voyageur. I ended up finishing in just under 11 hours. While I am certainly satisfied with the time, I can't help but think I possibly could have done better if I hadn't straddled myself with the lower expectations. There certainly is an element of self fulfilling prophecy in predicting race times, at least if those predictions are relatively conservative. You predict a certain time, so you go out at that pace, and lo and behold, you finish near the predicted time.

One strategy I have used is to look at the previous results for a race, and shoot for the median time. I have noted from my previous races that I generally finish right in the middle, near the median. So for example, before running the Wild Duluth 50K last year I looked at the 2009 finishing times, noted that there were 58 finishers and the 29th runner finished at 7:18. I used that as a ball park for my own time, and sure enough, finished in 7:05. But again, I can't help but wonder if I could have done better if I had predicted a 6:15 instead.

It is worth noting that this strategy works best with more data. Using a single year's race data is of limited use unless the weather and trail conditions are going to be identical, and there was a relatively large number of finishers. I just signed up for the Marquette 50 mile race on Aug. 20th. There were only 9 finishers last year. Number 5  finished in 11:32, but number 4 finished at 10:08.

This strategy is also limited by my own self confidence. I see my self as a median runner. Maybe if I saw myself as a top 25% runner my times would improve?

Well. What are your strategies for predicting finishing times?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Voyageur Trail 50 Recap

Last week I predicted that while I would finish the 30th annual Voyageur Trail Run, it would be slow and painful due to my recent low mileage. While slow and painful are subjective terms, I can say that it was neither as slow nor as painful as I expected. In fact, I finished about 25 minutes faster than last year and felt far better despite the conditions being significantly less friendly.

Last year I finished in about 11 hours and 16 minutes, so there was clearly a lot of room for improvement. Still, as I have only been running about 45 miles/week with very few long runs I really didn't have any hopes of bettering that time. I ran a rather slow five and half hours at the Half Voyageur marathon a couple weeks back, so I was conservatively expecting a 12 hour finish.

I ran the course with my new Garmin 310xt. I have had the Garmin 405 for a couple years, but with a battery life of only 6 hours, it was of limited use during ultras. I set the autolap to 10 miles, since it is easier for me to think of a 50 mile race as 5 ten mile segments rather than one 50 mile whole. Since I was expecting a 12 hour finish, I set the Garmin pace monkey to 14:23. Knowing it would be impossible to run even splits the whole way, this would allow me to see how I was doing compared to my prediction. Here is how those ten mile segments broke down.

Miles 1 through 10. Those who are familiar with the course know that besides a two mile very technical portion near the beginning, this is one of the faster sections of the course. While the humidity was high (100% according to Weather Bug), it was relatively cool and only going to get warmer. Knowing this, I intentionally went out faster than the 14:23 pace a 12 hour finish would dictate. In fact, my Garmin buzzed after 1 hour and 56 minutes letting me know that I finished the first ten miles at an 11:36 pace. A quick check told me I was about 25 minutes ahead of my pace monkey. Nice. That meant I could slow down to the predicted 14:23 pace and still finish well ahead of 12 hours. Or more likely, give me some room to run even more slowly on the return trip.

Miles 10 through 20. This segment starts with the infamous power lines, a three mile section of multiple and relatively steep hills. They are steep enough that the down hills are not much faster than the uphills. Not surprisingly my pace through the powerlines was a very pedestrian 16:00. Still that gave me seven more miles of relatively easy, albeit mostly uphill, running to get my pace down to the desired 14:22. As it turned out, I ran the ten miles in 2 hours and 20 minutes, an average pace of 14:03. Almost right on what I needed. I was now 30 minutes ahead of the pace monkey. I was feeling relatively good still, though I was conscious of the increasing heat. It would have been hard not to be aware, as it was already becoming the topic of conversation with most of the runners. Around mile 20 I started to see the leaders on their way back already, meaning they were already a good 10 miles ahead of me. They all looked very strong despite the heat.

Miles 20 through 30. The first 5 miles of this section are mostly downhill, bringing the runner down Spirit Mountain into the Duluth Zoo turn around. I got to the half way point in 5 hours and 15 minutes, 45 minutes ahead of schedule. I figured this was just about right, as I expected a melt down on the return leg. In fact, I told my wife here that while I was still feeling pretty good, I was expecting things to get ugly as I was now at the limit of my lone long run over the previous eight weeks. Even so, I was able to go back up the hill at a pretty strong pace and finished these 10 miles in just over two hours. It was on the way back up the hill that a weather boundary passed, failing to bring any rain or relief. In fact, now that the clouds had passed, things were going to start heating up pretty quickly. Also, since I blogged about my New Balance Minimus trails a couple of weeks ago, it is worth pointing out that the loose gravel on the road down into the zoo played havoc on my feet. I'm not sure why it didn't bother me during the Half Voyageur, but it was now. Ouch!

Miles 30 through 40. I was now a full hour ahead of my pace monkey. If I good manage to only slow down to my originally planned pace of 14:23, I could finish in 11 hours. I hadn't even imagined finishing faster than last year, but I was still feeling pretty good so this became my goal. Since the last three miles of this section would be a return trip through the power lines, now in the heat of mid afternoon with a full sun overhead, I knew I had to take advantage of the mostly downhill seven miles that lead into the powerlines. I was definitely starting to feel the heat now, and was running along that fine line that when crossed leads to overheating. Fortunately the aid stations were well organized and had great volunteers. Plenty of ice and salt was available at every stop. If this had not been the case, I would have had some serious problems. Kudos to the race directors and volunteers!!! Thank you for saving my race! As predicted I slowed significantly through the powerlines and finished this section in 2 hours 22 minutes, a 14:15 pace, only 10 sec. per mile slow that the way out. Perfect.

Miles 40 through 50. With only 10 miles to go, I was starting to feel relatively confident that despite the low mileage, my legs would hold up and I would be able to finish faster than last year. I still had two concerns, however: I was still concerned about the heat as I saw many around me begin to succumb, and I was worried about the return trip through those last technical miles before Carlton. My race really fell apart in that section last year and I couldn't be sure it wouldn't happen again. The first couple miles of this section are mostly uphill and single track. It felt good to be back in the shade. I starting filling my hat with ice at the aid stations and was keeping the heat in check. I got to the last aid station still feeling strong, and knew that I could powerwalk through the technical stuff and still finish ahead of last year. In fact, it was starting to look like if I pushed things a bit, I could actually break 11 hours, so that became my new goal. Fortunately I met up with another runner here, and we were able to push and encourage each other through the most difficult portion. I finished the last ten mile section in 2 hours, 12 minutes. A finishing time of 10:52. Not fast by any means, but it certainly felt like an accomplishment to me. Kim Holak was greeting the runners at the finish and she handed me my very sweet finishers mug, and as a 30th anniversary bonus, a nice finisher's tuke! A great group of early finishers, including most of the leaders were still around and giving encouragement to the late comers like myself. Thanks everyone.

Post race. One last note. I was sure that even though I was lucky not to have lost my legs totally during the race, that the low mileage would at the very least lead to some very sore legs after the race. In fact, my legs were quite sore for a couple hours. However, a couple Aleve, some chocolate milk, a pair of compression tights, and a good night's sleep later I was feeling surprisingly good. In fact, I was able to get in a comfortable five miles the day after the race. Who needs mileage?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Mileage decline

I've been feeling under prepared for the Voyageur 50 this coming weekend, so I decided to go back and look at my running logs to see just how I am doing relative to recent years. I was shocked at just how far my mileage has dropped off. Consider...

In 2009 I had run 1840 miles by late July, including an average of about 75 miles per week through June and Junly.

In 2010 I had run 1440 by the same date and but most of that drop off had been in the beginning of the year, and I had still been averaging 70 miles per week through June and July.

This year I have only covered 1100 miles to date, and have only been averaging about 45 miles per week over the last couple of months.


This got me thinking about the benefits of mileage in ultra running and broke them down into the following three categories; mental, metabolic, and anatomical fitness.

Certainly high mileage helps one prepare for the mental grind of an ultra race. In fact, if the goal is to just finish the race (as opposed to win or meet some time goal) this is probably the most important benefit of high mileage.

Another benefit of high mileage is that it encourages a change in metabolic fitness. This includes an increase in the mitochondrial count of the muscle cells, an increased reliance on using lipids over carbohydrates for energy, and even a change in the ratio of slow twitch to fast twitch muscle fibers.

Finally, there are the anatomical benefits. To me, this is just a matter of your muscles and joints getting used to the pounding that occurs over 50 miles, and developing the other muscles that your body begins to rely on after 30 miles or so that don't normally get used in shorter races.

So where do I stand? Well, we will see, but I am breaking it down as follows. I think I am in good shape in terms of mental fitness. I ran three 50 mile races last year, and it seems that this is a type of fitness that you lose only very slowly. I still know what to expect, and I know that I can push through the inevitable difficult periods. I also think that I am also OK in terms of metabolic fitness. Not great, but OK. This type of fitness also is lost only relatively slowly. Also, I have been doing some cross training and that will help here. Where I will really be suffering is with my anatomical fitness. Here is where specificity of training is most useful. Even in the Half Voyageur I ran last weekend, I was getting aches in muscles and tendons I don't normally think about. I shudder to think about how my legs will be feeling after 40 miles.

My guess is that it will hurt, and it will be slow, but I will finish and by doing so, I will be increasing my fitness in all three areas for my next event.

Friday, July 22, 2011

It's Time to End the War on Salt

From ScientificAmerican.com http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=its-time-to-end-the-war-on-salt&WT.mc_id=SA_20110719

"This week a meta-analysis of seven studies involving a total of 6,250 subjects in theAmerican Journal of Hypertension found no strong evidence that cutting salt intake reduces the risk for heart attacks, strokes or death in people with normal or high blood pressure. In May European researchers publishing in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that the less sodium that study subjects excreted in their urine—an excellent measure of prior consumption—the greater their risk was of dying from heart disease. These findings call into question the common wisdom that excess salt is bad for you, but the evidence linking salt to heart disease has always been tenuous."

Thursday, July 21, 2011

New Balance Minimus Trail

Like many who read Christopher McDougall's book "Born to Run" a couple of years ago, I became interested in the minimal running shoe trend. I quickly bought a pair of Vibram Five Fingers' KSOs. I enjoyed wearing them around the house, and working out in them, but I ended up stubbing my toes whenever I tried running trails with them.

Soon, other companies began to spill out various versions of minimal footwear that were more accessible than VFFs. They tended to be easier to fit into, plus they looked like real shoes so you didn't have to answer as many questions about them. Last summer I got a pair of Inov-8's X-Talon 212s. These were light weight and very flexible, plus I really liked the super sticky outsole on more technical trails. I ran two 50 mile races in them last year with no problems. Interestingly, the only race I did have problems in last year was at the Surf the Murph 50 miler that I wore my very non-minimal Cascadia's by Brooks. I developed some overuse injury in my left foot after that race that prevented me from running for over a month.

This year I was going to get another pair of Inov-8 X-Talons until I started seeing ads for the New Balance Minimus shoes. I developed a pretty good case of shoe lust. They looked like the VFFs but with laces and without the individual toes. They have almost no cushioning, just a regular looking shoe over a Vibram outsole.

I've been wearing them on my runs, trails and roads, almost exclusively since I got them three weeks ago. They are very minimal; 7.1 oz with a 4mm heel drop and I have yet to have any problems with them. The real test was last weekend when I wore them during the Half Voyageur Trail Marathon. They performed very well with on the steep, muddy hills of the power lines, and on the wet rocks of the very technical trail right before you get to Carlton. They also dried very quickly after the inevitable streams and mud ponds.

Though I really like the Inov-8 X-Talons, I am going to be sticking with the NB Minimus for a while. I will definitely be wearing them during the full Voyageur 50 mile race next weekend. 

One note - they are designed to be a sock optional shoe. I have been wearing very light weight socks with mine, as I found that when I didn't I would get some rubbing in various places on my foot. At the Half Voyageur I wore Injinji toes sock, and didn't have any blisters at the end. As a bonus, I did have all of my toe nails.

New Balance also makes a Minus Life shoe, meant to be worn for walking. I am looking at getting a pair of these as well.

Monday, July 18, 2011

An interview

RJ: So, this is your second attempt at keeping a blog, is it not?

Ross: Yes. My first attempt was a miserable failure.

RJ: How so?

Ross: Nobody was interested, least of all myself. I posted maybe six times over a period of one year.

RJ: Yikes. So this is a reboot? How will things be different?

Ross: Definitely a reboot. I can't do anything about other people's interest, but I can at least be interested in it myself. I am going to expand the topics to include all of my obsessions, not just running. That will give me more to post about. Plus, in those times when I am getting burnt out with running, or just feeling down and unwilling to share about my running, I will have a diversion.

RJ: Will it be more entertaining?

Ross: Probably not, except to myself, I hope.

RJ: Are you going to be more committed to this use of your time?

Ross: That is the key question, isn't it? I have never been good at journaling. In school, whenever we were supposed to keep a journal, I would end up writing all of my entries they night before our journals were due. Even as a grad student, and later as a post doc, I was terrible at keeping my notebook up to date. I'm not optimistic, but we will see.

RJ: Formerly, your blog had been titled "The Rematch: Superior Trail Fall 50", how did that work out?

Ross: It was a push. My 2010 time was about the same as 2009, about 14:15. A little slower actually. However, with the heavy rain over night, the trails were much slower. Also, I felt about 50 times better at the finish than I did in 2008.

RJ: So what are your trail running goals now?

Ross: Right now I am hoping to finish my first 100K, with my sights set on the Wild Duluth 100K this fall. After that, I am looking towards doing a 100M next year, maybe the Zumbro 100.