Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Race Against Time

We race all the time against clocks, others, and ourselves. However, every race is really just a race within a race. The race of life. The cliched metaphor of all running cliches. A quote from the latest Rocky film "Creed" also points this out. In one particular scene Apollo's son asks a 69 year old Rocky just how good his father, the former world champion, really was.

"Apollo? Yeah, he was great. He was the perfect fighter. Ain't nobody ever better."
"So, how'd you beat him?"
"Time beat him. Time takes everybody out. It's undefeated."

It's undeniably true. Time wins 100% of the time, and there is little we can do at a certain point, but embrace it, or fail miserably trying to fight it. We've seen what time does to celebrities that turn to plastic surgery and extreme diets trying to squeeze every last ounce out of the youth and good looks that made them famous decades ago. Professional athletes also try to get the last bit of talent out of themselves in order to secure another roster slot and another paycheck for another year. Just one more season, game, or at bat. Ultimately, time catches up and we can no longer do what we did at the peak of our abilities.

Runners, recreational and competitive alike, will share in the same challenging journey when they reach that pivotal turning point. I am 34, but I would guess my physical peak for strength was probably age 21-24. In college my flat bench press max was 260 lbs and my decline bench was an impressive 285. If I hadn't started running long distances, my guess is that I would have continued getting stronger, from a weight lifting perspective, until my late 20's. I reached my peak in terms of sprinting speed and jumping ability also in college, which was when I could run the 55 meter dash in 7 seconds flat and had a 30 inch vertical. While neither of those are super impressive, I doubt I would come anywhere close to being able to do those things now. There is a chance if I focused all my time on sprinting, jumping, and lifting I could get somewhat close to my old feats, but with every year I get older it becomes less likely and less practical.

I am somewhat fortunate that I started running later in life and am finding myself improving even after 13 years of running and a over a decade of marathons and ultramarathons. I think being a bit more disciplined has allowed me to improve, while in my earlier years of running I just ran countless miles and races without any real strategy or goals. In addition, I would say the two other major factors in how I have continued to improve are because of more mental grit, as well as less time on mountain trails. Basically, when I set several ultra PR's last year, it was taken with a grain of salt because it was on a paved course instead of trails like my previous PR's had been. However, like all things and all people, I too will face a day where my body simply will not allow itself to go any faster. This may be 10 years from now, 5, or tomorrow. Sometimes you just have to put it all in perspective and really be thankful for all the things your body has been able to do up until this very day.

Last week Ryan Hall, one of the most iconic distance runners America has had in the past 15 years, retired at the age of 33. Of course, he has run competitively since he was 13, but it's still sobering to think his body is completely tapped out of elite level performances at roughly the same age as myself. 20 years of intense high mileage and a 100% focus on running would most likely wear down any body, regardless of your genetic gifts. Being able to perform at our best is really just a matter of borrowed time. Most professional athletes have 3-5 peak years in them, with a rare few that can stretch it out to 10, or more, with good health. Similarly, it seems marathoners and ultramarathoners fall within that same time window, proving once again that the human body has a very limited window for it's highest level of output.

Aging is inevitable, but aging gracefully is definitely a choice and an attitude. Competitive running age groups, and age graded performances, allow for people to compete against their contemporaries even when they can no longer compete with the front runners. Being able to modify and adjust goals is another way we can challenge ourselves. A 60 year old might not be able to run the same times at the same effort, but the key to pushing one's self is to find where that 100% effort is at any age.

The turning point: For a few lucky ones, most runners will discover their turning point over the span of a few years. Sometimes it's in their late 30's, or early to mid 30's if you started running very young, or perhaps well into your 40's. Someone like the legendary Ed Whitlock is a prime example of the ideal way to age, granted he is a genetic anomaly, and shows that it doesn't always have to be some drastic fall off. Ed ran his marathon PR of 2:31 at age 48 and then 32 years later ran an age group record 3:15. Essentially, by average, his marathon pace dropped 3.14 seconds per mile, per year, since he was 48. Granted Ed could have probably been a low 2:20's or even sub 2:20 marathoner had he run in his prime, but the idea is that without catastrophic health issues, runners do have the realistic opportunity to run into advanced age. However, like I said, Ed is an anomaly, and even the healthiest and fittest runners will likely see the most noticeable performance drop off in their mid 60's after gradually slowing their previous 10-15 years. From observation, ultrarunners in their mid 60's typically see a more significant drop off due to the longer time parameters of the events and the fact that extreme distances and terrain can be less forgiving on older athletes.

The gradual injuries: Getting older is as much about being more prone to injury as it is the accumulation of wear and tear. For most folks, even like myself, the longer you live, the more time your body has had to experience an injury. The more active you are and the more dangerous the elements and activities you pursue, the more likely these things are to occur. Over the years I've seen a lot of younger runners enter ultrarunning, either in college and/or in their early 20's only to burn out and be completely out of the scene five years later. Lack of moderation is partially to blame, but also the fact that getting overuse injuries at a younger age is a sure way to cut your running life very, very short. In older runners, these same gradual injuries are more likely to become catastrophic injuries, and sadly some that require surgery and a permanent end to a running career.

The catastrophic event: These are usually the saddest to witness as there are often things that could have been done to prevent them. I will also add that there are different types of catastrophic events, and some runners can even return to full health and fitness, as in the case with broken bones or muscle tears. However, some of the most difficult major injuries aren't caused by a single traumatic event like a broken leg, but rather years and years worth of break down. A catastrophic event may not even include an injury, so much as a break down of the endocrine system or hormonal imbalance that caused folks like Ryan Hall to retire and Geoff Roes to all but vanish from the competitive running scene. Much of this, or entirely all of it, might be caused by training at a high level for years at a time. It is honestly not shocking that the peak "career" for elite ultrarunners nowadays only lasts about 5 years, with a few exceptions. Long distance road runners and track athletes can see upwards of 10-15 years at the elite level because they aren't subjecting their bodies to 150+ miles of training per week in the mountains. Keep in mind an elite road runner can run 120 miles per week in 10-12 hours, and an elite trail runner might need 16-20 hours to cover the same distance on technical trails. Road runners are also running marathons in under 2:30, while a typical 50 to 100 mile ultra might might take 6-17 hours even for the first place finisher. The key factor is time and repetitive pounding.

With all that being said, the older runners I know who are still running relatively fast and healthy have done so by cutting back on mileage, running fewer stressful events, and limiting themselves on the number of difficult races beyond 50 miles to maybe 1-2 per year. They also focus on easy recovery as well as not waiting until a major injury occurs before incorporating moderation into their running lifestyle. Basically, run less now so you can run more later.

Monday, January 4, 2016

A Look Back at 2015

It's hard to believe another year has come and gone. Each time around the sun seems to be more fleeting than the previous one. 2015 seemed to be the year I did a lot, but it felt like a little.

The year started off with a pleasantly surprising 100k run, where I posted a huge PR of 8:53. During that same race I also set personal bests for the 50k and 50 mile distances. In addition, my 100k time was good enough to qualify me for the legendary Spartathlon Ultramrathon. I also served as a pace leader for 6 marathons and 3 half marathons, as well as finally qualifying myself for the Boston Marathon. Here and there I snuck in a few small trail races, but I still consider myself semi-retired from ultras and still retired from 100 milers. Yes, the 100k was an ultra, but in terms of races that could take 12-24+ hours, I am still mostly retired. Lastly, I volunteered at quite a few local road races and ultras and was forced to say farewell to one of my favorite races that traveled down the OBX.

In terms of total running, I finished 2015 with 3,127 miles, which is a new one year distance PR and also marks roughly 30,000 lifetime running miles. To be honest, this isn't really a PR I wanted to obtain, simply because I found myself running out of pure boredom much more than I would have liked. I'd honestly rather have a more active local social life and "only" run 2,000 miles per year. So, I guess I made lemonade out of lemons and figured running bored was better than sitting around. Anyway, 3,127 miles tops the 3,122 miles I ran in 2013 and the 3,100 miles from 2010. The strange thing is that it didn't feel like I ran nearly as much, and yet I still ran the most I ever have in one year. I can partially attribute this to a much more efficient and balanced approach to running, where in previous years my mileage would vary from 10 miles a week to over 110 any given time of the year. Needless to say, that approach didn't work.

My highest one week mileage total in 2015 was 95.6, but included a 100k race. In regular training weeks my mileage never went above 85.1, which was a peak build up week for the 100k race I just mentioned. The next highest output week was 76.1 miles, which again was a build up week for fall marathon training. My three lowest mileage weeks were 40, 41, and 42 miles respectively which were either recovery weeks, or taper weeks. The remaining bulk of my yearly mileage came from consistent weeks in the 55-65 mile range, and another dozen weeks in the 65-75 mile range. No real extremes in terms of super low or super high mileage weeks.

I guess I should also point out that about 90% of my total yearly mileage was on paved roads, which meant it required significantly less time to obtain my distances. In other years, the opposite was true when I spent about 90% of my time on trails, but often running a pace 1-2 minutes per mile slower than what I run now. If you factor that 2,700 of my miles in 2015 were run at a pace at least 1 minute per mile faster than in 2013 and 2010, I actually ran about 40 less hours in 2015, but covered more distance. So, I did in fact run more with less. Another common theme from last year. I will also conclude that 3,000 miles per year nearing 35 years of age is probably going to be the high end of what I can do without diminishing returns. While I felt pretty good and fresh up until my 3,000 mile mark in 2015, without fail I started feeling a noticeable physical burn out as I continued pushing my end of year mileage in an effort to break my previous PR.

So, what does 2016 have in store? Well, I probably won't run 3,000 mile again, and honestly I don't want to. I'd love to cut a few minutes off my marathon time, maybe get down to a 3:05, and secure a 2017 Boston Marathon entry. I don't really like being on the bubble for not getting accepted, but I'm not sure how much time and effort I really want to spend training again. It's hard work if you do it right. I'm also entertaining the idea of doing Spartathlon in 2016 or 2017, but there is no way on earth I want to put my body through the damaging training needed to get through Spartathlon's 153 mile course. Still, I can't deny how amazing it would be to represent the US in another country and raise the American flag across the finish line to the statue of Leonidas. It's all still a bit too early to know. I don't foresee doing any 100 milers, though I will likely show up to a few small trail races to get my fix of dirt and trees. If anything, hopefully 2016 will bring some fresh new adventures, life closer to mountains, and an item or two crossed off the bucket list.

Happy trails 2015 and cheers to an exciting 2016.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015 Gear Reviews

These are some short summaries on running/hiking gear I used in 2015. A few of the items I have used for a while and intend to continue using into 2016. This list only contains the items I used the most, otherwise it would be a very long list.

First, I will start off with shoes, which are the one thing every run requires. I also incorporated a mileage to cost score. Basically, I've bought shoes for $120 that only lasted 300 miles which is 2.5 miles per dollar. Think of it like a miles per gallon score for shoes. A poor score would be 0-3, 4-6 is average, 7-8 very good, and 9+ exceptional. For trail shoes, expect to get at least 100-200 fewer miles per shoe depending on how technical the terrain is you use them on.

Hoka One One Clifton 1: When I bought my first pair of Cliftons in the fall of 2014, I was uncertain how a maximal cushion shoe could function as a lightweight racer. Those doubts were put to rest in 2015 as I not only ran a 100k personal best in the Clifton, but also a marathon PR. While a weight of 8.1 ounces for a men's size 9, advertised as 7.6 oz, is still a bit heavier than most racing flats, the range of comfort made it suitable from anything to a quick 5k to possibly a 100 mile ultra. I was also skeptical that the lightweight EVA midsole would not hold up over time. However, I was pleasantly surprised to put 500 miles on them before retiring them as a recovery, easy mileage back up shoe. My Cliftons currently have 600 miles on them and the only major wear issues are the upper getting stretched out and some of the light green outsole being worn through on the outer heel. Basically, they have stretched to about a half size larger, but still have enough intact sole material where it doesn't effect mechanics. The 7.5mm offset made each stride effortless and bouncy. I will probably get 700 miles out of them before donating them, which is good because I just bought 2 more pairs. It should also be noted that 100% of my mileage has been on flat roads. Any kind of trails or gravel could cut the shoe's life in half. The Cliftons retail at $130, but can easily be found for under $100 on ebay. I paid anywhere from $75-85 for each of my 3 pairs.

Mileage to cost score: 700/$75 = 9.3

Adidas Energy Boost 2: In an effort to ween myself off of maximal shoes like the bulkier Hoka One One, but also retain cushion for higher mileage road running, I sought the Energy Boost. The 10.4mm heel to toe drop seemed quite noticeable right off the bat, but also noticeable was how the "boost" material seem to make the toe off transition seemless. The one piece mesh upper does a wonderful job hugging the foot, though can get a bit heavy when wet. At 10.0 ounces it is a good high mileage shoe, but a bit too heavy and high off the ground to be suitable for racing. That said, I was still able to get in quite a few solid tempo runs faster than my marathon pace in the Energy Boosts, so you can definitely run faster in them if you wanted to. Plus, after 600 miles, I am very pleased that the Boost material feels the same as it did the first day I wore the shoes, and the outsole has also held up nicely. Though the original $160 sticker price is way too high, it should't be hard to get them cheaper online. My two pairs were both $55, which is amazing considering the mileage I have gotten out of them.

Mileage to cost score: 600/$55 = 10.9

Adidas Adios Boost: These are basically a stripped down version of the Energy Boost. The soft single piece upper is replaced with lighter weight material and tongue. The shoes have a significantly lower stack height, which gives them a good ground feel, as well as the fact they come in at 8.3 ounces for a men's size 9. The Adios Boost felt comfortable and fast out of the box, but also felt a bit long and narrow. I could definitely see these being used as a racing flat up to a marathon, and possibly some ultra distances on flat terrain. The Boost material is still present, but much more subtle than in the Energy Boost. While I don't expect to get the same life out of them as I did the Energy Boost, I suspect 400+ miles to be a strong possibility. Retail is $120+, but I got mine in ebay for $40, which was a ridiculously good bargain.

Nike Terra Kiger 2: I bought these last year for $50 on sale (retail $100-120) so I figured I'd give them a try. Right away I noticed how light they were (8.1 ounces) and how small the heel drop was (4mm), yet without sacrificing foot protection like some lighter models do. The lugs provided great traction on rugged trails, as well as on snow, but the light heel cup material means the potential for a loose fit. I also found that the Terra Kiger was a bit too tight around the top of the foot, despite providing ample room in the toe box. The gusseted "burrito" tongue was a great bonus, and while comfortable for quick trail runs up to 10-15 miles, I have my doubts how comfortable the cramped upper foot space would be for an ultra. Maybe I just have weird shaped feet, or maybe the Terra Kiger is a bit off. Either way, if you run lots of trails and see these on sale, they're worth a shot. I don't live near trails, so my pair only has about 50 miles on them, which isn't enough to say how well they will hold up. So far so good though.

Montrail Rogue Fly: I am on my second pair of Rogue Flies and these are by far my favorite trail shoe. At 7.8 ounces they feel like a racing flat, but have also held up at races like the Hellgate 100k. An added bonus is that they feel good on roads too, which is great when a race has both road and trail sections. The 10mm drop doesn't really feel like 10mm, and the upper is made of a very lightweight and comfy mesh. The only real downside to the Rogue Fly is that it is not meant for really rocky and technical races, and the upper does nothing to protect your foot from kicking roots and stones. I got about 300 miles of hard trail running out of my first pair of Rogue Flies before they started to rip near the top of the foot. Still a great shoe considering you can usually find them on sale for under $60 online.

Mileage to cost score: 300/$40 = 7.5 (not bad for trail shoes)

Saucony Triumph ISO: These are my newest, and yet heaviest pair of shoes I own at 10.3 ounces for a men's size 9. Out of the box they felt lighter than expected and required no break in time. My first run was actually a track work out, which these shoes probably aren't ideal for, but they worked better than expected. The ISO fit reminded me a lot of the Energy Boost and also provided the same nice foot hugging fit. I intend to use these as a high mileage trainer to give my legs and feet a bit of a rest. The heel height is only a few mm less than the Clifton's, yet doesn't feel super high off the ground with it's 8mm drop. While, I wouldn't use this shoe for faster paced runs, it didn't feel terribly awkward running sub 7 minute pace either. However, given the solid foot protection and support, I would consider the Triumph ISO a better option for a road ultra. Retail on these can be a bit steep at $140+, but I got mine at a post Christmas sale for $69 at a running store, so cheaper options are out there.

Now, onto to the rest f the stuff I used a lot this year.

Asics Storm Shelter Jacket: This has been an awesome waterproof jacket with 360 degree reflective paneling. While not super lightweight, it still makes for a great option for hiking and running in the rain, or snow. The layer of mesh on the interior along with the arm pit zippers offers good breathability and also helps ward off some of the sweat and moisture build up that frequently occured in my other rain coat, the North Face Venture jacket. Other great features of the Storm Shelter include a detachable hood, a nice fitted collar with draw chords, draw chords on the waist area, a cell phone pocket, sealed zippers, and also built in thumb holes so you can wear the arm liner like a pair of gloves. Having been caught in massive multi hour downpours in both my Storm Shelter and North Face Venture, I can honestly say it was no contest. The Venture jacket had no draw strings for the neck area, which allowed rain into my collar and rain also leaked through the cuffs. The plastic feeling material of the Venture also means that even when rain is kept out, you will still get wet from sweat and condensation, especially if the weather is very muggy and there is't even rain. While the North Face Venture is still an okay option in case of rain, I now reach for the Storm Shelter when I know there is rain.

Patagonia Houdini: The Houdini is probably the jacket I have traveled with the most. It has served me as a light wind breaker, summer bug shield, and winter running coat. The only negative thing I can say about it is that the water repellent finish (DWR) which kept me dry in quick downpours when I first bought the jacket no longer does anything. Despite using every method possible to restore the DWR, the Houdini lost it's ability to repel water after only a a couple years. Thankfully, it does dry out very quickly, and even when wet it does a decent job blocking wind. The Houdini still makes for a great jacket in cool weather and at just 3 ounces, is wonderfully easy and light to carry as it packs into its own pocket.

Marmot Stride: Another light weight jacket for cold weather running or hiking in temps of 45-65 degrees. The Stride is windproof, but also has mesh side paneling to allow for breathability. The jacket is lined with a nice soft interior which helps absorb sweat and also adds a bonus layer for warmth. The cons of the Stride are that the jacket can get a bit heavy when it starts getting wet and easily stains from things as simple as water. It does not dry out quick. However, it does have a nice draw chord around the neck, as well as waist, to help prevent heat loss. The third cell phone pocket is a nice bonus.

Arc'teryx Atom LT: The Atom LT is one of my go to winter jackets. It is windproof and the water repellent finish has kept me surprisingly dry during the few rain storms I've been caught in. The Atom also has mesh side panels that allow for ventilation, which is a particular nice option when using the jacket during rigorous physical activity. Though lacking a draw string, the hood fits well, despite being sized so that you could wear a helmet under it. The Atom LT has been a fantastic coat for winter hikes in 25-45 degree weather as well as running in sub freezing temperatures with just a single layer underneath. The bottom line is that the Atom LT is incredibly comfortable, functional and lightweight. You can't ask for much more out of a jacket.

North Face Thermoball: I have to admit, when I first saw the Thermoball two years ago, I thought it was a silly attempt by North Face to create a gimmicky fashion statement. A few years later, the Thermoball has become one of my favorite everyday use jackets. The Thermoball material, as advertised, does a surprisingly amazing job at retaining warmth without the added bulk. While it doesn't quite have the warmth of 600-800 fill down, the Thermoball also doesn't take up as much weight and doesn't overheat you as soon as you go inside, or the temperature rises a little. The dozens of small square shaped compartments all over the jacket also means that the material doesn't clump up like down, or even primaloft. This is an especially nice thing to not have to worry about when taking your jacket out of the wash. Hence, the fill always stays equally distributed and warm, and there are no random cold spots whee the fill has gone missing. I will also add that the Thermoball also does a good job blocking out wind and even staying warm in the rain, even though not necessarily advertised as an all weather jacket. My only wish is that the Thermoball had a draw chord for the neck. This is an ideal, and very lightweight, coat for active sports in sub 40 degree weather or casual wear in 40-60 degrees.

GoLite Men's Roan Plateau: This is the warmest jacket I own and it replaced my Mountain Hardware Sub Zero jacket (which I still use). GoLite's 800 fill down is the lightest down jacket I have seen in quite some time. Everything about the Roan Plateau is pretty amazing. The down is well distributed through the compartments and has no cold spots. The lined collar is snug, comfortable, and does an incredible job preventing heat from escaping through the neck area. The down is very windproof, but also about what you would expect as far as when it's wet. Great for temps under 32 degrees and it's even been warm in windy 20 degree weather while only wearing a single layer underneath. Definitely a great purchase for the price if you can still find one.


Nathan Trail Mix: This replaced my Amphipod RunLite belt which I got sick and tired of due to the bottles always sliding around. The Trail Mix offers a nice wide elastic belt that actually stays in place. A extra perk is that the belt stays in place even when wearing wind breaker type material which my Amphipod belt would slide around non stop. The Trail Mix is also relatively light at 10 ounces and the rubber capped soft 10 ounce bottles are much better than the hard plastic tipped Amphiopd bottles. My teeth thank you. Otherwise, the Trail Mix has a large rear pocket for storage as well as two elastic band that you can strap clothing to. Price is slightly high at $45, but I got mine for $25.

Ultraspire Kinetic: This replaced my Nathan packs which had more rear storage, but less front pocket space. As a big fan of NOT having to constantly take my pack off to get things or refill water, the Kinetic was the perfect option. The Kinetic weighs in at 21.8 ounces, which sounds heavy, but feels relatively light, yet made from sturdy materials. The clipless belt system is much better than having a large plastic clip sitting on your belly. However, my favorite thing is the four front pockets that have a wide range of what they can carry. They are strong enough to carry something heavier like a camera or phone, and light and stretchy enough to not squish food and gels. The 26 ounce bottles and their placement take a little getting used to, but after some practice you can get pretty good at grabbing them on the run and putting them back. I also found that you can turn the bottles so our arms don't hit them on the back swing, which was one of my concerns early on. The only real downside of the Kinetic,as stated earlier, is a lack of rear storage for something like a jacket, but then again it's not that big of a deal either.

Raidlight Olmo 20: I finally decided to test out the French designed Raidlight brand. While Salomon and Ultimate Direction have already had front bottle packs on the market for a few years now, I really wanted to try something different. The Olmo 20 is not really a running pack, so much as a hiking pack you can run in. It has the front storage I was used to having with the Ultraspire Kinetic, but also had the rear storage I had with other larger packs. However, at 21 ounces, the Olmo 20 is lighter than my Kinetic while also having 20 liters of capacity. I will admit that finding the correct fit took a bit of time, and I was initially displeased with how much the front bottles bounced around. However, once the fit was secured, the bottles felt snug and running in the pack was quite enjoyable. Speaking of the bottles, they are 25 ounces each with an insulated a pipette so you can drink without having to even remove the bottles. The thing that separates the Olmo from many of the American brand hydration packs is the amount of functionality that decades of European fell running and mountain running have been able to put into its design. There are pockets everywhere and room to carry just about anything you could think of having in the mountains. Even if you don't need to carry much, the light weight material means you aren't lugging around pounds of dead weight to potentially carry things you don't need. Basically, the Olmo 20 is just as good for carrying one 20 ounce bottle and some granola bars as it is carrying 100 ounces of water and a days worth of food and clothing. The pack is retails for about $130-150, but usually can't be purchased in the US.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

How to Get Faster Without Getting Faster

These are just some quick thoughts I had about things you can do right now to cut time off your next race. Obviously, training hard and efficiently, as well as losing weight and having a good diet are the primary ways to get faster, but these are a few logistical tips that can help you get to the finish line quicker without gaining any speed.

Carry less:

Having been to a number of races over the years, it never ceases to amaze me how disproportionately too much stuff people carry for the distances they are running. For most folks the big culprit for extra weight is water. Even at 5k and 10k races I see people with hydration packs, despite the fact that water is provided every few miles on the course. Even if you are walking these distances, unless it is extremely hot, you will not need to carry water, or food. For half marathons and marathons, it might make more sense to carry a water bottle and food, but a 70 ounce pack is still overdoing it when you have the option to refill something smaller, like a 20 ounce bottle, every couple of miles. Every extra pound of weight you carry could add 10-15 seconds per mile to your pace. Carrying an unnecessary 3 lbs of water could add 6-7 minutes to a half marathon and 10-15 minutes to a full marathon. Plus, you need to consider how the extra weight will effect your muscles and joints which will be working harder to support it.

The second biggest culprit for carrying excess weight is gear. Now, let me be clear, I've done ultras where you might have several hours between aid stations, or a drop bag. Given that amount of time, you might have to carry gear you may not end up using. I'm talking more about when you have 4-6 miles between aid stations, and likely no more than an hour in between. If you are on flat trails, or not in the mountains, there's a pretty good chance that carrying a flashlight, extra batteries, trekking poles, a spare rain jacket, extra socks, gloves, a camera, a cell phone, a solar charger, 20 granola bars, 5 apples, 4 bananas, water filter, a dead yak, and using a 20-30 liter pack is a bit of overkill. Remember, you are paying for a race to supply you with what you need at the aid stations, so you might as well use them.

Lastly, as far as carrying extra weight, is the small stuff. Lots of small things add up, and even people like myself can be surprised how much it can all amount to. I put this to the test this past summer and fall when I analyzed a breakdown of the items I planned to run with during one of my fall marathons. The first gear list looked pretty minimal on paper.

- 6 gels (6 ounces)
- 10 ounce Nathan bottle with Nathan Trail Mix Belt(21.2 ounces)
- arm sleeves and calf sleeves (6 ounces)
- Standard running shorts and tech shirt (9.5 ounces)
- Standard hat (2.3 ounces)
- Adidas Energy Boost 2 (19.7 ounces)
- iPod Nano (1.5 ounces)
- Garmin Forerunner 310 (3.5 ounces)

Total weight: 66.4 ounces

Notice that this list is all pretty standard stuff for running, but still weighed in at over four pounds! We tend to forget how much we are carrying, especially when the weight is distributed over the entire body like our running gear is. I then modified my gear list, with the biggest changed being that I wasn't going to carry any water. I also chose not to wear any compression clothing, as they would soak up sweat and add weight. The remaining clothing and shoes were swapped out for lighter options, which was a more dramatic weight cut than I expected. Of the original items, I decided to keep the iPod and Garmin and figured it was worth the extra weight to be able to stay motivated with music and know my pace and distance. The new gear list, which is what I ended running with, ended up like this.

- 6 gels (6 ounces, fyi no gels were provided on the course)
- Nathan 5k pack to hold the gels (3 ounces)
- Brooks hat (1.5 ounces)
- iPod Nano (1.5 ounces)
- Garmin Forerunner 310 (3.5 ounces)
- Saucony singlet and shorts (5.3 ounces)
- Hoka One One Clifton 1 (16.2)

Total weight: 37.0

Wow, what a difference! 66.4 ounces dropped down to 37, which is almost two pounds lighter. The big factor here was straying out of my comfort zone and not running with water. The comfort zone is one of the biggest reasons people carry too much stuff, and challenging yourself to run with less and less will help you feel more at ease. Coming off summer training, I got used to running with water, so it felt a little weird going into race day without having instant access to hydration when I needed it. However, race day temperatures were between 40 and 63 degrees, so just a few sips from the water stops every two miles ended up being adequate. When you realize you can carry less and still have what you need, it can be a very freeing feeling, and it also feels awesome to be lugging around less dead weight.

Part two of this post has to do with more with ultra marathons and aid station management. Basically, ultrarunners can be notorious for taking way too much time at aid stations. The longer the event is, the more time people seem to spend at aid stations. I know quite a few runners that are faster than me, but because I take significantly less time at aid stations, I actually finish ahead of them.

- If you have a crew and/or drop bags, proper planning can get you what you need very quickly. Why spend 10 minutes aimlessly clamoring through stuff you did't need, when you could grab and go everything in under a minute? If you did this for a race with 15-20 aid stations, there's a good chance you could cut an hour off your time just by being better organized.

- Beware the chair. This is a regular saying at ultras and it's true. While most of us like to have a few minutes off our feet during a long race, it's much harder to get going once you have been sitting. An object in motion stays in motion. During a 100 miler, I could understand wanting to relax for 5-10 minutes, but even then you have to ask yourself what will keep your momentum going. Is a 20 minute break going to help you mentally and physically recharge, or will it cause you to shut down? Assuming you are feeling good, sometimes it's easier just to grab the essentials and keeping moving forward.

- You can also prep for an aid station before you reach an aid station. This is as simple as getting your bottle/pack ready to refill, or eating something just before you arrive so you can grab more food and go. You can also remove gear you know you will be leaving in a drop bag, so you aren't having to stop and change at the aid station. Also, if there's no need to stand around, it's just as easy to grab food and eat it while walking. Basically, if you can do something just as easily walking as you could standing still, then choose the walking option.

- For races 50 miles and under, stopping for a couple minutes is about the most you will ever need. Again, if you really only require 30-60 seconds to refill water and get food, but instead stop for several minutes, it could add a lot of unneeded time to your day.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Doping and Ultrarunning

I have always hoped that the sport of ultrarunning would stay clean of performance enhancing drugs, but today I can confirm that is no longer the case. Elisa Desco of Italy, a notable European mountain runner, will be toeing the line with other elite women at the 2015 North Face 50 mile championship in San Francisco this weekend. What makes her different, however, is the fact she is coming off a two year ban for testing positive for EPO in 2009. Yes, 2009 was a long time, and yes her ban has been over for two years. However, this is the first time in ultrarunning where a known doper is being allowed to compete, and compete for a $10,000 cash prize at that.

When I entered our beloved sport in 2004, the only things one could gain from a race of extreme distance and difficulty were memories, blisters, a muddy pair of shoes, comradery, a feeling of personal achievement, and maybe a buckle or medal. Running 50 and 100 milers were seen as a way to get out and experience the wild beyond the traditional confines of mundane everyday life. It was the juxtaposition of the outer wilderness and the battle of the inner self. It's where the we sought the intangibles, and while much of this experience is still a very real part of ultrarunning today, some of it feels very lost. This may have been more so the case in the decades before I even knew what an ultra was, all the way back to the days of Ted Corbitt and the ultra(esque) European footraces of the 16th to 19th centuries.

It's a new era of ultrarunning for sure. It's a time when the pros equal the cons in terms of financial growth, sponsorship, and marketing. Deep down, money can be found at the root of all of it. Money is clearly a non factor for almost all participants, and for many elites, it's still not the single motivating factor as to why they run and race. However, it is absolutely a factor as to why they might cheat.

Lucrative prize money and sponsorship are the reasons why so many athletes dope, and it is no different in the world of distance running. Recently, we've seen icons like Lance Armstrong fall from grace after finally admitting to years of lying about doping. Then this past year, news broke about at least 40 Kenyan runners that had tested positive for PED's as well as a large number of Russian track athletes. The US side has also taken some hits, with controversy surrounding Alberto Salazar's methods of prescription and OTC drug use, and possibly more. Then again, we're talking about the world of high payout professional running, so while sad, this shouldn't have been much of a shock. The low profit community of ultrarunning could never have these issues, right?

Well, in the past five years ultra races have started churning out cash prizes of up to $10,000 at races like Run Rabbit Run, the North Face 50 mile championships, and $5,000 for the UROC 100k and Speedgaot 50k. While this is hardly comparable to a $100,000 purse for winning a major marathon (which also have time and record bonuses up to $50,000 each), combined with sponsorship and minimal "fame" it is certainly enough to push people to get whatever small competitive edge they can. It should also be noted that some of these events are at high altitude, which is yet another reason someone might try using something like EPO. Again, where there is money and social status, there is usually a trail to PED use. If there is no reward, there is no risk.

I certainly don't want to stir up any gossip, but my suspicions tell me that PED's have already entered the world of ultrarunning. It also gives me pause when groups like Carmichael Training Systems, which have been tied to PED use in the past, are now coaching elite ultrarunners. I have also witnessed runners improve by leaps and bounds and seen people do things 80 and 90 miles into a race that seem unbelievable. Some could say that we don't yet know the full potential for humans running long distance events, so it's possible that people will only get faster and faster. However, I can still recall all the times I watched the Tour Du France and saw someone relentlessly attacking a climb after two weeks of non stop racing and wondered, how is that possible, only to find out they were doping. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

But, seriously, does it really matter for someone like me who only runs as a hobby? I think so, because we measure a sport by the abilities of all participants from first to last. It's kind of ironic actually, because I remember a race where a unique award was given to the last finisher, so there ended up being a few folks "competing" to be the slowest. A bit of a slap in the face to someone who really is a back of the pack runner if you ask me. The same goes for the front of the pack. Anyway, back to the point. As a participant of any race that gives out prize money, anyone that pays an entry is contributing to that prize. I don't want my money going to a doper, nor do I want to see my elite friends losing to people who have cut corners. It just brings the integrity down a notch and makes you wonder just how far down the grapevine this trend will go. If someone is going to cheat for $10,000, what's to stop them from cheating for $1,000 or $500. Even winning one local race per month could earn someone several thousand dollars for the year.

How about using PED's for no prize money? Why not cheat to get into the Boston Marathon, the Ironman World Championships, or New York City Marathon?

Honestly, if I don't like the fact there are no PED policies in place in ultrarunning, then I can certainly choose to not run ultras with cash prizes. But, I don't like is the principle that someone else's PED use could limit my enjoyment of something, and trust me, this isn't about me and what I enjoy, but instead what other people are doing to damage the sport. But, the time has come. We now have one known PED violator competing for money, and I would be foolish to think she will be the last. So, while I will get my ultrarunning fix by doing small local trail runs, it still ticks me off that the pureness of the sport in general has lost something for the sake of monetary gain.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

More with Less

In 2013, I ran 3,122 miles. It was the most I had ever run in a single year, and it sounds like a fairly impressive total. However, if I look back on those 3,122 miles, most of them were very slow and probably included a lot of hiking. I partially blame 100 mile races as the reason I felt obligated to put in such intense mileage, with a handful of weeks eclipsing the 110 mile barrier. But, in the end you can't blame a 100 mile race for making you slower. However, there is hard evidence that you will definitely lose speed putting in the high mileage supposedly needed to be successful at longer distances.

Still, the truth is that the more I ran, the slower I got, the less I enjoyed running, and to make matters worse, I had the slowest race results I had ever had. Lots of quantity with almost zero quality. During those 100 mile weeks, I would wager that 80% of the miles fell in the 9:00-10:00 minute range, the remaining 20% were only in the 8:30-9:00 range, and sub 7:00 miles were a non-existent part of my routine. It's no wonder I never got faster.

It is now two years later and I have replaced those 100+ mile weeks with 50-60 miles per week year round. This past year I only had two focus races, instead of my ludicrous schedule of 8 or 10, and trained for several months specifically for each. This meant I was doing higher intensity training for only 20 weeks of the year, peaking at 65-75 miles per week for only 4-5 of those weeks, and keeping my remaining year round base at 40-50 mpw. That year round base of 40-50 mpw might be one of the most important things I have done.

During my first several years running, from 2004-2007, I used to have this cycle where I "trained" several months for a race, ran the race, then took several months off where my mileage would drop down to 0-20 miles per week. Again, this meant that every time I started to build up some momentum and gain fitness, I lost it in the ensuing months after the race. So, while many of the races I did from 2004-2007 were just to finish the distance, it's no surprise to see why I never got any faster either.

2007 to 2008 was the year I transitioned into speedier running. I stopped doing ultras when I moved to Hawaii and my weekly mileage dropped to a fairly sane 25 miles per week, with the occasional long run up to to a volcano or nearby lava field. I also did something I had never done before, and that was speed work. The funny thing is, I didn't consider what I was doing speed work until much later. Basically, there was a 0.40 mile loop around the property I lived on and I would do repeats around it so I wouldn't have to run on a dangerous main road nearby. Out of curiosity, I would occasionally try to run the 0.40 gravel loop as fast as possible. By the time I left Hawaii several months later, I had knocked exactly one minute off that time. While not super fast, it truly amazing how much speed I gained just by running faster on less mileage.

Unfortunately for me, I went back to doing a crap ton of ultras from 2008-2013 and completely stunted whatever gains I could have continued to make. However, I wouldn't call the 5 year span from 2008-2013 a total waste. I did have a handful a decent races and there were periods of time I was wise about my running. I also learned a lot about what works and doesn't work for my body, which could prolong my running life far longer than if I hadn't had all those races. However, one or two good races per year doesn't balance out the other 7-8 bad races per year I usually had.

The big question is what have I learned? I've learned that beyond 80 miles per week, regardless of the distance I am training for, I will not see better results. I ran my fastest trail 100 miler coming off 3 months of 40 miles per week, and my slowest trail 100 miler coming off 3 months of 80-115 miles per week. I ran my slowest marathon after several months of ultras and 80+ mile weeks and my fastest marathon after a six month break from ultras and on 55-65 miles per week. I ran my 100k personal best while training on roughly 50-60 miles per week during the winter, while I never even came close to that running 80+ miles per week on trails. Last year, after running only 25-30 miles per week for Ironman training, I came back and ran a 7:47 trail 50 miler...which even included 12 minutes getting lost. Basically, reduced mileage has also improved my ultrarunning, which seems to go against the theory that running super long all the time gives you better endurance.

The bottom line is, for myself, lower mileage and fewer ultras have been the key to getting faster and staying healthy. How does that work? First off, ultras require more time to recover from and can be much harder on the body. I used to think 50 miler on trail was easier on the body than a marathon on pavement because the trail was easier on the body. I no longer believe this to be true. A more "gentle" pounding for 7-12 hours will always be much harder on your body than 3 hours on pavement. Exhibit A, look at the long term damage done to boxers who get hit with padded gloves for 12 rounds compared to MMA fighters who have minimal protection fighting for only 3-5 rounds. Anyway, the longer the recovery time, the more time if will take to be able to run at the level required to gain fitness no less maintain it.

Running high mileage weeks ultimately makes you that much more fatigued for your next run. Your body doesn't get the time it needs to rest and rebuild and you put yourself at risk of having your mechanics fall apart. If your form starts to go, and you keep trudging through more runs, your risk of injury goes up immensely. This is also the very reason why back to back longs runs are overrated and not a feasible part of training. One back to back long run might be good just to get a feel mentally and physically what it's like to run on tired legs, but doing on a regular basis has no real benefit and will most likely hurt your running.

You have to run faster, if you want to run faster. I know some training gurus say that lots of easy mileage builds the aerobic engine, and you don't need speed work. Well, if this is true, I would have seen an improvement from all those freaking slow 9-10 minute miles I did in 2013. If you're not running at a higher intensity for 20-25% of your weekly mileage, there's a good chance you aren't just going to magically bust out a fast one on race day. However, recovery miles are just as important as your faster runs because these are what allow your body to rest, rebuilt and get stronger. Ideal recovery pace would be 1:30-2:00 slower than goal marathon pace. I've found that if you run recovery miles too fast, your muscles breakdown faster than they can rebuild, and if you run them too slow too often, you risk losing aerobic capacity.

That said, my new ideal training week consists of 55-70 miles broken down like this: 7-9 mile tempo slightly slower than half marathon pace, 12-15 miler each week about 30 seconds per mile slower than marathon pace, alternating weeks of a long run 15-20 miles at 40-60 seconds per mile slower than marathon pace, alternating weeks of repeats of 400m to 1 mile at paces near or faster than 5k pace, and finally the majority of my recovery miles (about 75% of total mileage) in the 8:15-8:45 range.

In closing, cutting back on weekly mileage has allowed me to stay fresher so that I can get in the quality speed work needed to get faster. It has allowed me to recovery quicker for the next workout, and it is much more time efficient. Compared to 2013 where most of my miles were over 9:00, none of my current mileage is over 9:00. In fact, my logic is that if I am too tired to comfortably maintain a 9 minute mile, I'd be better served with a day off or short walk instead. Also, the pace of my recovery runs is now a good bit faster than before, while still staying in the easy recovery zone. Finally, I've probably run more sub 8 and sub 7 minute miles in 2014 and 2015 than the previous ten years combined. Though I am now obviously older than before, I'm seeing training paces drop a little lower as I have found success in moderation. It also doesn't hurt that I also lost 12 lbs since 2013 and my body has a lot less stress on it when running. And perhaps the biggest proof that reduced mileage has worked is the fact that in 2015 alone I have set personal bests in the marathon, 50k, 50 mile, and 100k.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Finally: My first Boston Marathon Qualifier

Crazy to think I wrote these very words on this blog in February 2014.

"Friends that are much faster than me are barely qualifying for Boston. I mean, geeze, I'd have to average a 7:05 pace for 26.2 miles. That is 1:25 faster than the fastest mile I ran in high school, and a faster pace than anything I could muster for 10k as an adult......As of 2013, my half marathon PR was a 1:37, improving on 1:42 from 2009, but even that projected out to a 3:14 marathon and I knew there was no way I could maintain the same pace for another 13.1 miles. Again, it seems my potential is a 3:20 to 3:25 marathon, though I have yet to run faster than a 3:33, and am still a long, long, way from Boston."

Well, as it turned out, this past weekend at the 20th Steamtown Marathon, I ran exactly a 7:05 mile pace and qualified for the Boston Marathon. To put it bluntly, qualifying for the Boston Marathon is literally something I never thought I would ever do. Granted, I am still keeping all this in perspective, as I know I'm not nearly as fast as many men and women out there. I am still largely a middle of the pack runner. In fact, I'd be lying to say I haven't been jealous of people who can easily run 20-30 minutes under their qualifying times year after year. For some, running Boston isn't a challenge and is just another race on the calendar. For me, I had never been fast enough to even entertain the notion of attempting to qualify. Boston was always a race for those fast runners, and I'd always have to settle being the spectator. Add the fact that I never had a pedigree in running, my high school personal best mile was a 7:30, and my V02 max was measured at a pedestrian 47. While I found moderate success at running longer ultras, it definitely seemed that I was better suited for slow and on trail, versus fast on road.

But, my mindset changed and I decided settling was not good enough. For me, getting over that doubt came down to not caring about what I should be able to do, or not do. Things like the McMillan pace calculator have always told me that I wasn't a fast enough 5k or 10k runner to ever qualify for Boston, despite putting in the specified training. Apparently, 42+ minute 10k guys like myself have no business trying to run sub 3:10 marathons. Well, you know what? Who gives a crap?

Anyway, I suppose a short recap of the Steamtwown Marathon is in order.

Race report part:

After a dedicated 10 week training block, I can honestly say I did not feel ready to BQ at Steamtown. I had a lousy half marathon that was supposed to be a key training run and my final 20 mile long run ended up being 10 miles of running and 7 miles of walking. I also knew that while Steamtown is a fast downhill course, the final three hilly miles can be brutal for the ill prepared. For every person that has said Steamtown is a fast course, I've heard another person say how challenging and hilly it was.

Race morning was absolutely perfect and was the quintessential brisk fall day. Temps hovered near 40 degrees at the start and rose into the mid 60's with plenty of sunshine. The fall foliage was already in bloom and several weeks ahead of what I would normally see in Virginia. It was truly a magnificent day.

At the start, I lined up with the 7:00 minute mile group and darted off into the cool morning air after a resounding cannon blast. Although the race is relatively small with 2,300 runners, I still got stuck weaving around people running much slower than the corral they started in. Much of the first half of Steamtown is very pleasant downhill and the key to success is fighting off the urge to run too fast. I honestly felt like I was jogging, but was still consistently just under a 7:00 pace. It wouldn't have been hard to drop 6:30's, but I'd have risked blowing up the quads for later. Around mile 8 we passed through the small town of Carbondale and were greeted by many enthusiastic and friendly supporters.

I passed the 10 mile marker in 1:09:52 and the half in 1:31:45. My Garmin had me at 1:09:33 at my exact 10 mile split and 1:30:44 at exactly 13.1. Exactly where I wanted to be and still feeling good. Miles 14-17 were part of a scenic walking path along streams and through the woods. I noticed runners picking up the pace through this section, but then slowing down as we neared mile 17. This is where I was thankful I decided to wear my gps since a lot of the runners I had been pacing with were starting to slow and it would have been easy to naturally slow with them if I hadn't had a pace to look at. Around mile 18 my legs started to get that typical heavy feeling and the course was starting to level out a bit and had a few more uphills. Much to my pleasant surprise mile 21 came in at 7:08, 22 in 7:03, and 23 in 7:06. I felt good and was ready to tackle the 200 feet of gain that awaited me for the final 3.2 miles. As they warn, the Steamtown Marathon truly begins at mile 23.

The notorious mile 23 hill was as tough as people said it would be. Thankfully, the crowd support lining both sides of the street was amazing and definitely helped power me up to the top. There were plenty of folks walking the entire hill, but I knew any walking would cost precious time in the end. Mile 24 took 7:40 and was the slowest mile of the day, and yet it still allowed me to pass a number of fading runners. I spent most of mile 24 recovering from the hill with zapped legs and also fought off some nausea. Mile 25 took 7:30. With 1.2 miles to go I banked whatever time I could before the final hill at 25.7 miles called "Homestretch Hill". Like before, the crowd support going up the hill was amazing and most welcome. Mile 26 came in as the second slowest mile at 7:32. However, Homestretch Hill continues on a slight incline for another quarter mile after you think you've reached the top. After cresting the true "summit" of Homestretch Hill I was able to sprint the final downhill and through the finish chute. Clock time 3:08:05, watch time 3:07:57. After a very, very long time, like 12 years, I had finally qualified for the Boston Marathon!

It's crazy to think that I had just done something that no more than 20 months ago, I considered impossible. It really makes you wonder how often we impede our own potential by placing limitations on our perceived abilities. That said, I'm just scratching the surface with faster road running. I spent so many years trying to run farther and longer, I never put serious thought and effort into getting faster.

Though Steamtown is a fast downhill course, I calculated that my slowest 3 miles negated 10 of my fastest downhill miles. The math proves that. My slowest three miles (24, 25, and 26) took 22:42 and when averaged with my faster first 10 miles in 1:09:33, the pace for the 13 total miles was a 7:06, which is just slightly slower than my overall pace. In fact, Although the course has 955 feet of net downhill, it also has roughly 400+ feet of uphill, so it's really not a guaranteed PR course. Thankfully, though I live in an area with no hills, I was able to do weekly repeats across the 1.2 mile long Jordan Bridge, which is a favorite hill training spot for locals. Once a week for 10 weeks I would do anywhere from 8-11 miles up and over the bridge, which usually netted 1,000 ft of gain/loss. As much as I focused on the uphills, I made sure to really push the downhills at a pace much faster than marathon pace, usually in the 5:45-6:15 range. In retrospect, those hard workouts definitely paid off given my quads felt strong much of the day at Steamtown.

On a bittersweet note, this would have guaranteed an entry into Boston any other year, but it may not have been far enough under the qualifying time. In recent years you only needed to run 1:02-1:38 under your BQ to gain entry, even if qualified, but this year it was a whopping 2:28 under. I also recorded 26.53 miles on my gps, which means I could have done a much better job at running the tangents. I actually hit my exact 26.20 mile split in 3:05:45, which was pretty sweet to see, but not when still several minutes from the finish. Typically, I assume I will get anywhere from 26.35 to 26.40 miles during a race, even on a certified marathon course, due to the difficulty in running the exact tangent lines. However, in retrospect I probably added distance weaving around slower runners the first few miles and being a bit tired and "lazy" towards the end. It may have been the difference between a 3:07:57 and a 3:06:xx. Hopefully, it doesn't cost me a trip to Boston in 2017.

Lastly, I wanted to add that the Steamtown Marathon was a really wonderful event. It's small enough where the race feels quaint and personal, the expo isn't crowded, and race weekend logistics are super easy. I slept in my car near the start which allowed me to have a one block walk to the shuttles in the morning and one block walk to my car at the finish. When you arrive at the start you get to wait in a nice warm school gym before heading outside to the starting line. The course was also one of the prettiest I have ever run and the local crowd support and volunteers were amazing. I definitely look forward to running Steamtown again.

Nutrition: 5 gels taken at miles 7, 11, 15, 19, and 23

(with fellow Asians at the finish)

(Downtown Scranton)