Monday, November 10, 2014

The Value of Rest and Feel

After a generous amount of good running from December 2013 to August 2014, the body finally demanded a long, hard rest.

The thought of how badly I needed a rest really hit home when I was listening to Nick Nudell (head race medic) at the AC race briefing describe the effect of running on kidneys. He explained that we were guaranteed to have some amount of blood in our urine after jarring our kidneys for 50+ miles of mountainous trails. My mind quickly wandered to all those miles I'd done in just the last few months; the strongest thought was the feeling of going out for a 25 mile run on a Sunday night to notch another 100 mile week. I can feel the distinct ache of every step contrasted with the intense relief of finishing at the car. The craving for the bucket seat of my car like was as strong as an exhausted swimmer reaching for the wall.

On several occasions, I had run in Santa Monica Mountains one morning, and again in the Sierra Nevada's 10-24 hours later. The traveling, work, and non-stop running eventually wore out my body and my will to wake up and seek out my flow. Having spent the last 3 months running little to no miles, I really have started to get why things didn't go as well at Western States and Angeles Crest.


Spent, 2014 AC100 Finish, Photo by Alli Castillo Potrekus

I believe it was some time in the middle of May when I hit a tipping point in training: I was drawn more to the post race hotel room, than the race itself. This was a big problem because I had two very easy step back weeks, and I felt guilty about them. So, illogically (but logically at the time) I ran 120 miles for my peak week, and then another 100 mile week. It was like I was a home owner upside down on a mortgage, but too far into the investment to throw it away. It's something that dominated my mind and sent me into the a very critical view of ultrarunning for months.

To be perfectly honest, there were a good 40 miles at Western States and Angeles Crest that I hated running. I was thinking like those people that spend so much time on couches, that they start to look like couches. Those people that ridicule runners for ruining their knees, wrecking their bodies, and accusing the sport of being some barbaric war of attrition for idiots. I would be lying if I wasn't dreaming of hanging up my shoes for good at the bottom of Volcano Canyon and Winter Creek.


Rob Krar, Leadville, Photo from Denver Post

Rob Krar taking three hundred mile wins this summer is a powerful contrast. He was confident and in control of his training, and when he had to summon great efforts on Cal Street, Sugar Loaf, and Steamboat at 3am, he had the energy and strength to do so decidedly. It wasn't like he got lucky or winged anything, he did his homework working on his weaknesses, doing his equalizers, running hard workouts, resting when he needed it, and hammering it home when the moment of truth came.

Running by feel is something that is a bit of an overused and under appreciated term among top runners. Feel means something when you've been to your limits and injured yourself. The little physical and mental hints come across loud and clear like a traffic signal. If you've experienced all the bad moments and realize that they don't always have to be backed up by technical numbers like HR and training mileage (mine were both low in May), then you're experienced enough and talented enough to run by feel.

It's a beautiful thing to be able to breathe and hear your soul speak to your mind, but it's not something a coach can get many runners to do. I think this is the reason over training is so strongly discouraged by coaches that don't want to burn out athletes: there's not always a good way to pick up on the warning signs under the layers of runner insecurities (which are some of the thickest insecurities known to mankind). When a runner writes "Easy run" in their log after a run at 6:50 pace, they're throwing insecurities up to explain that they're capable of going faster, but they're not, and it was "easy" even though their real easy pace is 9+ min/mi. So, one can understand how a coach can get frustrated with athletes that want to always project an ease of everything they do in training, and potentially ignore obvious warning signs. Over training might as well be the devil, and something to constantly scorn upon.

That said, I'm glad all this happened this year, and I got more in touch with my body. It took a few months to get back to it, but this Sunday as I climbed to the top of the Acorn trail in a mediocre 49 minutes from town, I felt really good and happy to be gasping for breath. The joy of getting a rush from hammering a climb was so invigorating that I'm going to go do it again tomorrow. And so, with that.. I'm back in training for 2015 because the stoke to get out and fly over the dirt feels 100 times better than the thought of a lazy day on a couch.



Enjoy this Vacationer Mix, it's a good one for workouts:

Monday, August 18, 2014

2014 Angeles Crest 100 Recap


“I’m a lover and a fighter
A worker and a writer
I am a dreamer, woken up by fits of rage”
 
- The Show Ponies “Choppin’ Wood”
 
Relief in Altadena, Photo provided by Rony Sanchez
 
When I think about the Angeles Crest 100, there’s this inevitable emotional trail that my mind starts to wander down. I have confidence that my body is capable of a great performance, but I also have the stress of repeatedly losing control of the situation by being too focused on chasing (relatively) high speed splits on each section. Essentially, I love the potential that’s laid out for a great performance each time I line up to race it, but I hate the way it consumes me and takes me away from thoughtful and cognizant decisions.
 
So when I found myself galloping along the PCT above Wrightwood and throwing up my breakfast from sheer joy and excitement to be in the moment, I had to stop and curse the damn course for rattling me loose so early at mile 6. I wasn’t hungry, and there really wasn’t a pressing need to be attached to my breakfast, so I wasn’t too torn up about it. Chris Price caught up and we ran with Jorge who was equally concerned about maintaining a consistent pace and not getting caught up in the excitement of early splits.

The strange thing about AC is that though your body might warn you about your true effort levels being higher than your perceived effort levels, the trail encourages you on and distracts you from hearing its warning signs. The regurgitation was a warning to focus on my stomach first, yet it would take until mile 47 to remember to do exactly what worked last year.

With Pringles at Inspiration Point, Photo by Sally McRae
 
So, I ran along at a good pace with Chris, cruising along the PCT to Inspiration Point to make sure I hit the unnecessary 1:33 to mile 9.3. I didn’t feel hungry because we were running well, but I made sure to get 2 gels down after inspiration point on the way to Vincent Gap (mi13.7).

Vincent Gap, Photo by Jack Rosenfeld
I’d had a good run up Baden-Powell three weeks before, but that was when I was fresh and fed. However this time, it was 7:11AM, I’d slept poorly, ate 2 gels, ran 13.7 miles, and started to second guess myself. So, I ran very slowly (with a couple hiking breaks) up the lazy switchbacks to the top. A few folks passed me, and I felt dumb, but I started taking in more calories and resetting my body. The penalty was a few minutes at the top, but I was ready to reel in the leaders.
 
It’s important to enjoy as much of the course as you can, and I had no problem enjoying myself on the scenic and fast terrain down to Islip (mi26). I was 8 minutes behind my goal CR splits, but I was focused on being present and continuing on strong.
With Matt, Monica, and Matt at Islip, photo by Kyle Robinson


My crew was caught off guard as I called audibles to change plans, but I got out with what I needed to reel in the leaders (Chris, Jorge, Guillaume, and Michele) a little closer over Mt. Williamson. It was humid and warm, but I enjoyed myself again on the descent and came in to Eagle’s Roost (mi30) in the driver’s seat of my race.

Rapid Cooling, Photo by Hillary Coe
Everything I needed was already laid out and I quickly swapped shoes into my 1400’s for the flatter terrain ahead. I chugged down my protein drink and felt heavy with my pack, ice bandana, and full bladder, but it was necessary to catch up to the lead pack on the climb. Sure enough, I couldn’t see anyone on the downhill, but on the climb out of Cooper Canyon, I caught Chris and Michele near the bathroom and then Guillaume and Jorge a minute later on the PCT climb around to the north rim of the canyon.

Flowing with the Course, photo by Kara Clark
I almost threw up again, but I held my composure and mixed in walking and running to reach Cloudburst (mi37) in first, now 30 minutes behind my goal race. My splits were slower than last year and my thoughts drifted from CR to a low 18 hour finish.

Running out of Cooper, Photo by Hillary Coe
Cloudburst Aid, Photo by Anibal Corsi
 
My crew sprang into action again, and I felt a boost from their energy and the crowd cheering for me. This time I didn’t drink much protein drink, opting instead for a quicker pace over to Three Points. Last year, I had trouble with breathing in the Purple Poodle, and in my pre-race visualizations, I had planned on wearing a dust mask to save myself from the hypoxic-asthmatic-allergic –race robbing-experience of last year. The weather was cooler, and the scent wasn’t thick in the air, but I still slid the mask on each time I ran past a patch of the nasty stuff.


Into Three Points, Photo by Peter McKinney
 
All this focus on Poodle made me forget about how hard I was in fact running, and how far I had come. In hindsight, the obvious action item wasn’t to rush out of the aid station with caffeine and sugar, but rather a little bit of protein mix that would keep me smoothly converting carbohydrates in my stomach like I had from Eagle’s Roost to Three Points (mi42). A mere 10 minutes of gentle running to let the Recovery drink do its work was worth a good 90 minutes. Yet, there I was focusing on trying to race like I was finishing a 50k.
 
Eventually I got to the middle of the section and started to bonk repeatedly. I would take down a gel, and then feel hungry in 5 minutes. I was out of luck because all I had left was a PB&J bar that was much thicker and tougher on my stomach than the recovery drink. I went to the bathroom, ate it, walked, and gingerly ran up the climb to Mt. Hilyer (mi49).
 
I realized I needed my protein stat, and took in 3 cups of broth with ice along with a Ginger Ale. Foolishly, I threw in a salt and the overly salty mixture came back out on the trail after 50 yards. I knew puking usually gave me a 30 minute adrenaline window to run before bonking again, so I took it and made my way down to Chilao. The tiny bump in the trail by Horse Flats had me walking, and I knew I was running dangerously low on fuel again.

Into Chilao, Photo by Hillary Coe
 
At Chilao (mi52), I expected to get caught by Guillaume or Chris. Instead, I saw Chris in casual clothes (his heart was racing too fast, so he had dropped) and Guillaume was nowhere to be seen (still 10 minutes behind). I revised my race strategy to favor the recovery drink, and it started to help me build back more energy as I left Chilao and started running more miles with my pacer, Peter.
 
As good as it was to share some miles with a friend, I couldn’t deny the overall exhaustion in my body as we grinded up to Shortcut Saddle (mi59). Unlike last year when I was moving slow because I couldn’t breathe, this year I was moving slow because my body was really tired and sore. I remember the distinct thought “wow, this feels a lot worse than mile 59.. this feels like 89.” I had tried to blend recovery and taper from Western States and maintain some sort of endurance from my training during the spring, but the ache in my right knee, the weakness in my quads, and the exhaustion kept my turnover flat and slow.


Approaching Shortcut Saddle with Peter Photo by Hillary Coe
 
I focused my crew on getting my recovery drink ready for the 15 miles to Chantry, but they had a hard time keeping track of all my requests. We got passed at the end of the aid station by an exuberant Guillaume as I waited for my bottles to get filled up. Finally we were off, and I worked to reel in Guillaume and share a kindred mile with him talking about the race thus far.
 
Guillaume was psyched and I was happy for him. I openly admitted that I couldn’t take any more risks to try to win the race, but I motivated to get to the finish ASAP where I could sit down freely and partake in luxuries like solid food and not running. Guillaume pulled away, and I started to drop Peter (who was running 15 more miles than he originally signed up for). I ran alone for a few moments until Ruperto ran flying by with his pacer pushing him on. The windy and open fire road exposed the scene unfolding below me: both Ruperto and Guillaume were speeding up, but Ruperto was slowly reeling in Guillaume. The recovery drink started to do it’s job and I got back up to speed. I reeled Guillaume back in and I cheered him on to keep eating to stay within striking distance of Ruperto. Unfortunately, I would later learn that he had more issues (like me) besides just eating enough.
 

Team Unicorn Presents: Adventures at AC100 from peter_in_la on Vimeo.

I hiked and ran up the perfectly graded fire road to Newcomb Saddle. I normally loved this area of the course because it was shaded and led to the first views of the city, but today I just wanted to get through it. I arrived at mi 68 just 3 minutes after Ruperto had left, but I was adamant about keeping my intake of recovery drink going. The descent into Santa Anita Canyon was lonely but I kept moving (except for a bathroom break).

Chantry. Photo by Alex Suchey
At Chantry (mi 75) I was now 7 minutes behind Ruperto, but all I could think about was doing whatever it took to finish (eat, drink, pace myself). Leaving with Matt, I listened to his stories and tried to keep my mind off the pain in my knees and exhaustion throughout my body. After running casually quick over the last 25 all year, I was at the polar opposite: labored and slow. The climb up Winter Creek was painfully slow (something that I should acknowledge is normal for everyone at AC), and it felt awful compared to last year when I ran strong and hard to keep Ruperto at bay.

I gave myself a couple minutes at the bench, and Guillaume came marching by with Christophe. I encouraged him on, and labored up the last few switchbacks to the Toll Road. “Just one last drawn out climb left, I can do this” I optimistically said to Matt. Instead, the downhill beat my body down, and I rolled downhill like a stubborn rock that has just enough momentum to slowly continue.
 
Hearing I was 33 Minutes behind Ruperto sounded awful, but I was more excited about the fact that I only had two aid stations to go at Idlehour (mi82). We refueled in the softly falling rain, and made our way into the canyon. It’s intense darkness reminded me of the first time I ran AC in 2010: OVERWHELMING. There’s something to be said for the layout of the course adding a distinctly tough emotional aspect. It’s more than just physically challenging when you’re vulnerable and tired and have to to head uphill and into the darkness instead of downhill and toward the light.
 
Matt and I talked about great ultra runners, and how somehow they found ways to keep everything together. It motivated me to try and get myself pulled back together, so I kept gulping my protein drink and slurping down gels as I trudged slowly through the canyon. We finally ran the last half mile out of the canyon in 4th place behind Guillaume and Michele who had passed me in the bottom of the canyon. Guillaume was in the Sam Merrill aid station (mi89) getting ready to leave when I arrived. He said his quad was done and he was going to have to walk to the finish, but he still hobbled out of the aid ahead of me determined to do his very best.
 
I refueled and had a rough time getting into gear leaving the aid station. We finally started running and pulled my body down the Sam Merrill trail. I was like a wheel barrow: mobile on my left leg, stiff on my right leg, and running with an awkward transition from left to right as we moved downhill. We finally caught up to Guillaume just before the Lake Avenue Junction with 8 miles to go. Later I would find out that the last 8 miles would take Guillaume a full 2 hours longer than me due to his rapidly deteriorating quad.
 
Matt and I saw lights chasing us, and the muscle memory from running the Sunset Trail so many times finally paid off as I got into gear pushing away from the chasing lights of 4th place Randy Vander Tuig. We took a full minute in Millard (mi96) to get down some broth and soda for the last 4.5 miles to Loma Alta.
 
Randy was still within striking distance, and his presence kept me excited enough to run the Arroyo well enough to minimize the pain. The relief of finally leaving the single track behind and hitting pavement was the sweetest feeling of my night. I ran the last 25 a full 80 minutes slower than last year (70 minutes slower than Ruperto), but I was proud of my resolve to pull my haggard body to the finish line, and earn a proper blood and guts AC100 finish.

20:41 Photo by Alli Castillo Potrekus
 It was in imperfect day, but I was grateful for my crews support and the entire field giving their best effort. Ruperto won the race on his 8th try, and it was awesome to see his efforts over the years come to fruition. All the work that the race family put it was apparent. The energy level at the race was strong and positive, which is the way it should be for a course of its caliber.

The RD's, Photo by Rene Auguilar
Epilogue:
To run as fast as possible at WS and AC takes a bit more dialed in training and also a bit of acceptance of the limited success. Five weeks seems like enough time on paper, but it really felt like this frustrating gap of not enough recovery and too much time to let endurance lapse from pre-WS training. For me, the way I ran and fought to finish strong at WS severely limited the amount of risks I could take and get away with at AC. Simply put, there’s only so much 100 mile magic you can pull out in a few months. If I had accepted my bad day at States more complacently and came in rested, I would have had more in me to fight for another win.
 
One thought that stuck with me in the humbling late night hours in Idlehour, was how I hadn’t had a break from running since December of 2012. I’m taking that break right now and re-evaluating everything about how my summer went, and what I want to do for the next 12 months. I think I’ve identified a genuine risk of overtraining, and a distinct need for more climbing power to help me race smoother through ultras.
 
Avoiding coming over trained is a popular talking point in ultra running, and the specific reason is that the body is going to be asked to absorb a tremendous amount of shock and stress. Any weakness, small injury, lattice tear line, etc. is exacerbated somewhere between mile 30 and 100. Essentially, it’s very much like a car crash: though you might want to hold on tight and fight it, all you really can do is absorb it efficiently. You have to take punches and keep moving. So, in English: I have to be more patient when I get to rough points in training. I can’t ignore speedwork and hill intervals, and I can’t let myself overindulge in long slow runs or neurotic mileage goals when my body is exhausted.
 
As I’m taking this month-ish off from running, I’m realizing that all this was not in vain. All my various adrenal/respiratory/muscular-tory/etc. systems absorbed a lot this year. I think going forward it allows me to worry less about my endurance abilities and focus more on my speed. It might seem like one could argue my bloody end at AC was indicative of a need for more mileage. Honestly, I wish I had done less mileage and avoided allowing for any nagging injuries a chance to come back. This is the big motivation behind taking time off right now: close up as many injuries as possible and give me a blank canvas to start training on in mid-September rather than an inadequate one week recovery.
 
I’m thankful for this experience. It’s actually really positive to be in that vulnerable state for so many miles and to be humbled again to motivate sincere training each year. As well as things went last year, I didn’t admit to really any mistakes. This year, I have a much longer confession..

At Bishop, running too much. Photo by Geoff Cordner
 
Our sport is cyclical: when you start competing, there’s a bit of beginners luck afforded to rookies: an ability to go into reserves, to make mistakes and keep moving. After a few years, there’s a bit more experience in utilizing different tactics to squeeze more fast miles out of the body, but that also comes with the ability to take it to deeper places of exhaustion and injury. The cycle comes full circle with veterans learning when to push and when to rest.
 
Just about everyone in the sport is after finding their limits, which means that this unfortunate low point in the cycle is unavoidable. It might be public or it might be secretive, but everyone goes through an “oh shit” moment when they realize they’ve done too much. It can be constructive with a cathartic realization, or it can be indicative of a destructive addiction with nature, adrenaline, physique, or socializing.
 
I couldn’t say no to a trip to New Hampshire two weeks after AC to run the Presidential Traverse, and sure enough my knees felt awful in the technical terrain. It was positive though because it reinforced my plans to take a solid month off from training. I know exactly what it felt like to run fast and long in early April, how frustratingly exhausted I was in May, the anger I felt with my body not responding at States, and the disappointment in running AC slower than last year. There is ample fuel for the proper fire.

"Enjoy when you can, endure when you must"
 
 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Pre-AC Preview 2014

The 2014 Angeles Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run is set to be one of the most exciting editions of the race in several years.

The course conditions are the best they've been since the fire, and I can state first hand that the trail has no "bad sections" and very few rough miles (of course, the trail isn't easy, it's just in relatively good shape). The weather might get a little warm, but breezes should kick in. Most important of all, the field of runners assembled is truly the best in Southern California at their peak fitness and focus for the year. 

Angeles Crest has been called the Western States of SoCal, and I have to agree with that in the regard that the ultra community really comes together to support runners and their goals of endurance. The race contrasts the landscape around the mountain of 10+ million laid back people. On August 2nd at 4:45 AM in Wrightwood, it's hard to find runners that look relaxed or sleepy (except Chris Price, but he always looks that way). The racers, crews, and volunteers take the day very seriously in hopes of carving out a piece of legendary Angeles Crest glory: a win, a silver buckle, a finish, or just a damn good war story for Sunday afternoon.

That said, all the main competitors this year are going to be laying it on the line. Here's the breakdown:

Chris Price: 

In all the years I've known Chris, we've rarely seen eye to eye on anything: Maximalism vs. Minimalism, high mileage training, pacing strategies, which race is the best, doing the JMT 10 days before Hardrock, clothing styles, which cheap beer is the best, etc. etc. However, this year, we're both honing in on AC. We've been training in the San Gabes for a few years now, and the challenging nature of the mountains has pushed us to get in the best shape of our lives. Though Chris struggled at Western States, he still carved out a sub 17 hour finish. Though that's not quite good enough for top 10 on today's stage, but it still is something telling of great potential. Using the 2 hour estimate for WS to AC, if Chris has another off day, he's still looking at a sub 19 hour. However if the cards line up right for Chris, he has the fitness to run below 18 hours. Chris is going to have to be pushed by someone else though to motivate him to run that fast (possibly me). Chris is a big guy with big shoes, that can open up on the downhills. The only thing we'll disagree on this year, is what time we'll get to Chantry.

Guillaume Calmette:

Having run many of Guillaume's volumous training miles with him this year, I can say without a doubt that the Frenchman is nearly bulletproof. When you run 170 miles in 7 days or 600+ miles in a month, you produce insane amounts of endorphins, adrenaline, and testosterone that challenge the very limits of the human body. The big question is whether you can do it on race day. If we could race 100 milers more often and not deal with the post race soreness and injury, I think Guillaume would start to show an undeniable trend of tough, blood and guts, smart, fast running. Unfortunately, you can't really run a 100 every month and compete at a very high level. So, on race day, it's not merely a test of how well Guillaume is trained, but how well he learns from mistakes and makes adjustments on the fly. He's still very young in the sport, and he has to have the courage to run up front and keep all his variables together. If he keeps his stomach happy, his body cool, and doesn't roll and ankle, he can be a threat past Chilao (mi 52).

Jorge Pacecho:

Jorge spends so much time on the course, that he can run the entire course blind folded and never trip on a rock or miss a turn. Earlier this year, the veteran struggled with injuries, but his fitness is incredible with a 1:11 FKT on the Mount Wilson Trail (6.7 mi, 4800ft+). Jorge has been unrelenting in his assault on the course record in the past years which has caused DNF's and epic blowouts. The untold story of Jorge's efforts over the past few years, is that he has been training better than anyone else in the country, but has had bad luck with his race day nutrition and energy. Jorge knows that the course record is incredibly tough, but he never waivers in his yearly assault. As a competitor, I have to admit that I'm always nervous in any race that Jorge shows up to because he has the talent to destroy the entire field. If Jorge finds good luck in his stomach, I won't be suprised if he breaks the record.

Ruperto Romero:

Ruperto shows an amazing level of toughness on only one day each year. He doesn't care much for other races, but when he lines up in Wrightwood, there's nothing else he wants to do but run well. I could see him taking the win on account of his efficiency, toughness, and determination. However, there's a few runners this year that will likely have breakout performances and run below 19 meaning that Ruperto will have to take more risks to stay within striking distance. One important thing to remember is that like Jorge, his power to weight ratio is very high meaning that he can save a lot of energy early on if he paces himself well and pushes hard at the end.

Erik Schulte:

Erik lives at the base of the San Gabriels and gets to experience a bit of awesome singletrack every day. The home course advantage will play to his favor if he can dial in his pacing and nutrition and have a good day. This is much easier said than done early in an ultra career because many mistakes just have to be made to feel out an ideal equation. If Erik finds his x factor on race day, he's capable of running a great rookie time.

Ricardo Ramirez:

Ricardo is the kind of guy that has a huge engine for running fast, but still needs to piece together the rest of his chasis. His road running PR's are super stout, and he can climb remarkably fast. The thing about AC is that there's a handful of technical sections, so he's going to have to be careful through those sections and also focus on maintaining his stomach while running further than he ever has before.

Michele Graglia:
There's just some people that are naturally talented, and Michele would have to be the most talented at looking good and running fast. Michele ran 2:44 up Mt. Whitney, and led most of the SD100 this year before getting lost. What does that mean on Saturday? It means he's capable of running really well and being very photogenic.


And then there's this guy:



Unlike Chris, I will rate myself. I have had some of the best training in my life this year, but I overdid it a bit and ended up exhausting my energy reserves at WS and was zapped by Robinson Flat. The thing about my training is that it's definitely carved my body into a more efficient long distance runner, and the remanents are undeniable on post Western States training runs. Running 24 miles from Vincent to Cloudburst, I was comfortably running my goal race pace or faster which is what I would want 2 weeks out, regardless of whether I had ran States or not. I feel ready to step into the arena and let the CR pace come to me naturally early on (unlike previous years). If something is a little off in the first 37, I'm more confident that taking the time hit is worth it to ensure I can open up my stride at Cloudburst and run the CR pace to Chantry. So, whatever the time defecit from Cooper Canyon's extra 1.2 mi (and any other problems in the first 30), I'm sure that if I can come into Chantry before 5:40 PM, I have a shot to chase down the ghost with a big push in the last 25. This is all dependant though on having a good day, and having the energy that I was lacking at States. In the event of another bad day, I'll still run smart and try to salvage a strong time because I love the course so much. I'm going to run anything from 17-24 hours, and I'm going to fight hard for the best time I can run on race day.  

Best of Luck to All Runners!


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

2014 Western States 100 Recap

Running is a weird sport. It can crush you or make you incredibly happy without much of an obvious reason. Thinking back on my 18:09 run at Western States, I can't say that I definitively know how or why my race transpired as it did. All I have are loose theories that are mostly ambiguous interpretations of a largely un-scientific part of ultra running (adrenal glands and the secretion of adrenaline and endorphins).

I'll start with the basic stream of consciousness I had on race day. As I climbed up the Escarpment I thought it was an amazingly easy pace. Lots of runners were nervous, but I was breathing comfortably. After Lyon Ridge, I had to go to the bathroom as the lead pack strided on. I felt tired and sleepy as I ran along with Chris Price. We both were surprised by how easy the pace was, but it seemed like the easy pace was the right thing to do. We were running with a pack slipping back off the lead pack, but my body felt devoid of energy: no adrenaline, no endorphins, no joy. I rolled along trying to get excited on the way to Duncan Canyon at mile 23.

My mind wandered back to a run I had done in early May on the first 30 of AC that felt very similar to today. I was moving slow and feeling heavy and sleepy. Nothing felt good, but I was stubborn about getting miles in. Along that run, I ate and tried to fuel my body to perk up, but nothing changed. As I slowly tumbled down into Duncan Canyon, I wondered how it was possible that I could be having such a bad day right now. I'd tapered for three weeks, and let my body sleep and rest as much as possible. I was really confused about how inconsistent this exhausted feeling was: a few bad days in May and some good days in June, and then a bad day on race day? This must just be a small weird phase in the race.

As we entered Duncan Canyon, Chris mentioned how his central governor felt stubbornly set on a low effort. It's as if the body and mind are in agreement that it's too early to endure any excessive pain. In my head, I did and I didn't agree that mile 24 was the place to be jogging. My body felt worse as I tried to run more of the climb out of Duncan Canyon, so I guess the central governor won.

Robinson Flat Approach (photo by Stephanie Devau)

I finally made it to Robinson Flat, and I looked bad (mostly because I want to take a nap and I feel exhausted). I sat to change shoes and to take in protein mix and Red Bull, but behind my sunglasses I was depressed. My bib number reminded me of my Dad saying "I know it's not fair, but that's life in the big city." So with a heavy heart I got up and hiked out of the aid station as the concoction in my stomach bubbled out onto the trail.

Over Memorial Day Weekend, I flew up the Bald Mountain trail. I ran so fast, I missed the turn and had to back track 10 minutes and run like a wild man down to Last Chance to catch up with a group of Bend runners (King/Howe/Arbogast) to share some miles with them. I felt alive and my legs snapped back comfortably and casually all the way to Foresthill. On race day, I crawled and tried to take in more caffeine and salt to snap my body back to life. Things started to get a little better by Dusty Corners, but I still was far from being back in the saddle. My crew wouldn't listen to any of my complaints about energy, they just tied an ice bandanna around my neck and shoved me off.

The difficult miles continued down to Swinging Bridge. The climb up to Devil's Thumb was a relief because my slow pace felt sufficient on the steep grade. The aid station (featuring a tactical OOJ) at Devil's Thumb was fiercely committed to getting my pack and bandanna filled as fast as possible and getting me out. I started to find a rhythm on the downhill to El Dorado Creek, but it was all for not as I left the aid station missing the single track and losing 5 minutes on the fire road.

One problem I was having all day was absorbing salt to help raise my blood pressure and energize my muscles but not too much to gain water weight. I would stubbornly stop drinking and eventually slow down and succumb to drinking more and sweating out the salt (which caused my cramping and muscle fatigue to come back). So, the climb to Michigan Bluff was embarrassingly slow, and I looked trashed again in Michigan Bluff. Volcano Canyon wasn't kind to me, and I stumbled along wondering how bad the day would end. Twenty hours seemed like the likely outcome in my current state.



Foresthill (Photo by Katie DeSplinter)

Guillaume greeted me at Bath Road and started pumping my head with ideas of a revival. I strided slowly up Bath Road and onto the main drag in Foresthill. The energy in that small town on race day is enough to bring you to tears. I was choked up so much that I regurgitated my protein drink (twice) for all the town to witness.

Foresthill reset button, pressed.


As bad as this story sounds, this was where things got good. My adrenal glands were kick started, and I slowly got back to racing. A few folks passed me on the drop into Cal Street, but I steadily started passing them all back.

As my revival started to feel good, the sage veteran Scott Wolfe came by and said "Dom, you were 40 minutes ahead of me at Dusty Corners, WHAT are you doing here?" He and his pacer flew by, putting down a blistering pace in hopes of establishing a relationship of veteran and rookie. Guillaume was with me last year when Ruperto blew past me at mile 71, and he was here again at mile 69ish. We both knew the game plan to hustle and keep the pressure on. It paid off as we arrived at Cal 2 as Scott was pulling out. A quick gulp of coke and the race was back as my legs relaxed and slid down the switchbacks to let me pass Scott back with ease. Seven minute hill came and I hiked/ran up it putting time and space between us.

Things were looking good, but this was a very atypical fueling plan for me. The problem with relying on excessive amounts of caffeine and salt is that it puts you in a dangerous place; a place where for no reason, you poop blood at mile 77 as the second place woman runs by. It was very concerning, and I eased up a bit on the pace and focused on taking in more water and less caffeine and salt.



Ruck-A-Chuck Crossing (Photo by Katie DeSplinter

I crossed the river and jogged most of the way up to Green Gate. Another "brilliant" protein and Red Bull cocktail had me on the side of the trail dropping my shorts a few hundred yards outside the aid station. I walked back into the run with Eli, and I started to click off some good miles again. Katie had been telling me that there was no one else ahead of me at aid stations, but I kept reeling in carnage.



Green Gate (Photo by Katie DeSplinter)

I think of Green Gate to Hwy 49 as a slightly more technical version of Cal Street (which is not really technical). My body was tense trying to get as many miles in before sunset, and my knee started to tighten up too much forcing me to walk a few steps every quarter mile. Another bathroom break at dusk, left me vulnerable to the surprise passing by Scott Wolfe again around mile 88. This was not going to be an easy fight. Eli and I rolled into Brown's Bar just a minute behind Scott and another runner, and before I could ask Hal Koerner where his red dress was, he was yelling "WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE? GO CATCH THEM!" I gave a quick hand salute, gulped down some Coke and took off out of control reeling in the first runner and then tumbling onto the Quarry Road with no sign of Scott.

We caught another runner and kept moving firm and quick. We finally saw Scott and his pacer hiking up the singletrack to 49, and I alternated a run-hike until we passed him and put a minute or two on him. Scott was moving really well on the downhills, so I rushed through the aid station and made the resolution with Katie to push hard up to the Cool meadow and do my best on the descent to No Hands. We caught Jorge Maravilla, and I grunted through the occasional technical sections to No Hands. The finish felt magically close, and we ran nearly every step to Robie Point. I caught David Laney and rubbed mustaches with him before moving onto the streets of Auburn and crossing the finish line, ecstatic to finish the day on my terms.



Done! (Photo by Stephanie Devau)


First mustache, first unicorn! (Photo by Steven Ingalls)

CLIFFNOTES:
So, if you didn't read all that, I basically struggled from mile 15-64, and then surged home.

SUMMARY:
I had too much of a good training cycle. I achieved training goals for consistency and mileage, I achieved PR's on routes that I might have never hit, and I built up a lot of mental toughness for enduring bad days. The problem is that my body wasn't really good at doing anything after that training block except... training. Give me 7 days, and I cover 100+ miles quickly. I'll need 1-2 easy days, 2 workouts, and 2-3 long runs. Typically, one of those workouts or long runs featured me breaking down and crawling along, too stubborn to quit because of the sincere belief that I would be stronger on race day for it. Well, that worked for helping me finish the race no matter what, but it didn't work for keeping my adrenal glands healthy.

From my limited experience with myself and other runners with adrenal fatigue, adrenal glands (which secrete the essential ultra running elixir of adrenaline, endorphins, and testosterone) are kind of like a really high class woman: they'll hold a grudge a long time if you piss them off, and they'll make you feel weak and worthless without them. I think my training cycle is at best 3 months, but mentally I like to train for races for 5-6 months. There's something about my engineering mind that enjoys long term, high investment, high return projects. Running a 100 miles just feels like it should be something that you prepare earnestly for months and months.

In hindsight, it's really something that you have to train for similar to the racing strategy: easy for the first 30, strong for the second 40, and fast for the last 30. I should have done less mileage and been more structured in February. Then towards the end of April, I should have been ready to do some strong/fast climbing. Through May and June, it should have felt easier to do some fast long runs to build confidence and simulate race effort. Instead, my build up had too much mileage in February, workouts that were too slow in April and early May, and then very few strong long runs in late May and June. I think for the modern sport we have right now, mileage numbers are a very relative thing to your lifestyle, ability, experience, and rest that you can get.

Mileage has a negative effect when you do a long run and can't relax and recover properly. Though I loved our trips to Auburn and the Sierras, I have to admit that I was too greedy on those long Sunday runs that put me back in the car for 6 hours, traveling back to LA at 1 AM to go into work the next day at 8 AM. I only was injured once for 2 weeks, and I still was running 50+ miles (while traveling), so my adrenals never got a good chance to reset fully. Once States rolled around, I was physically rested, but not hormonal-ly. I was nervous, worried, and on edge. The first 10 miles of the race probably drained my body just due to the sheer excitement of finally getting to race. The quick pace over rocky terrain required another surge, but they instead slowed down and went into "survival mode" for 50 miles. On race day I thought, "this is such bad luck!" but now I see a clear pattern of asking for too much out of life and my body.


Piute Pass in May (I was already overtrained, but still did a 33 mile run)

Running 100 miles really feels exponentially harder than a 50 miler. There has to be patience and stubbornness in the exact right places to prepare the body to not just survive, but also perform. Our sport today is full of talented runners discovering trails and endurance in ways that very few ever did before. My 18:09 time would have won the race a few years ago, but on a nice day with a field of savy and talented runners, it's a 19th place finish. That's something that's going to continue to be a trend around the world as the sport keeps expanding. This weekend at Hardrock, there will be a dozen "winning times" run, but only one very fast, talented, well trained, and smart individual will pull off the men's win.

Looking forward to AC, I'm planning on being more patient and thoughtful on race day. It's a course that I've run fast, ok, and slow on in every section multiple times, and the depth of experience I have should allow me no fueling or pacing mistakes. If I feel good at mile 17 on top of Baden-Powell, I won't hold back on chasing down a PR or the CR.










My Dad's final PHD thesis paper started off with the Goethe quote "Enjoy when you can, and endure when you must."

                                                                                 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Pre Western States Thoughts

I'm on my way to Reno, and eventually to Squaw Valley to run in the 40th annual Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. I've tried to figure out a way to explain my relative outlook on Western States, and why it finally feels natural and right in my 9th 100+ mile race.



My Dad's final PHD thesis paper started off with the Goethe quote "Enjoy when you can, and endure when you must." These are obviously good words for a number of challenging endeavors in life (and life itself), but I think that the application to running 100 miles has been especially calming. I'm wearing bib number 55 in honor of my Dad being born in 1955. My Dad was a hardworking Jewish man, who studied hard, and worked hard to achieve everything he did in life. Yet, he maintained a certain daily joy to engage in all the daily pains and joys. I think that I'm finding my stride in life and running, where I'm working hard to attain large goals, but I'm finding joy in all the highs and lows along the way.


Finding my fore-foot at Shadow of the Giants 50k - photo by John Magnussen
 
The way I read the Goethe quote, I think that it's not a flat "either-or" statement; rather more of decree to enjoy as much as humanly possible, and to endure what you must in life. On Saturday, my plan isn't just to suffer and destroy my body in hopes of beating the competition, but rather to enjoy the beautiful challenge to run from Squaw Valley to Auburn as fast as I can. I've put down some significant mileage, and my body is hardened and ready to endure the load. Whether my best effort wins the race, goes top 10, or just squeaks by under 30 hours is not important in the grand scheme of things. The main focus is rather to enjoy the opportunity I have.

Timmy's 2013 finish

I've gone up to Auburn almost a dozen times in the past few years, and I've come to realized that it's the Endurance (hospitality) Capital of the world. I've stayed with strangers in Auburn who have no clue who I am, but have become friends simply because they want to support my goal of running States. On top of that, there's proud locals manning the aid stations along the course because they love the race and they love supporting anyone trying to live the same incredible dream that Gordy lived out 40 years ago. The stands at Placer High School have a couple hundred people out each year, but that's just a small part of the community spread out over the Sierras at aid stations and checkpoints. Auburn is a town where most of the community cares and supports runners, I can definitely feel the magic from my visits. At the end of the day, it makes the opportunity to get to pin on a bib in this world class race is very special to me.

So, when the going gets tough, and the enjoyment turns to enduring, I'll be grateful for it all, and I promise to do everything possible to push myself to the finish as fast as I can.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Un-Obvious Western States 100

After a weekend of running long fartleks on the Western States course, I have to admit that secrets to running well on race day are.. Not obvious. The qualities are clear: titanium quads, great heat acclimation, intimate course knowledge, an ability to overcome low points, etc. etc. However, the questions of where to push, how hard to push, what the other runners are going to do, and how much pain is sustainable is not obvious.

My strategy this weekend was to pinpoint my limiting factors by running fartlek (varying fast and less fast pace) to simulate intense pain in various sections of the course and study my physical and mental reactions. Here's what I gathered:

-Little Bald Mountain to Last Chance is a great place to run a half marathon PR.. And blow your quads for Devils Thumb. I never felt too much pain on the downhills, but the climb up out of Deadwood canyon is way harder than it needs to be on dead legs.



-Turnover and control on sudden technical terrain takes discipline. Down south, AC doesn't have a ton of sections that let you open up your stride and then force you to break (or maybe I've already memorized them all). On Saturday I ran from the pump into El Dorado Canyon and got rather carried away before realizing I was coming into random rock gardens too fast and loose.

-The climbs have few sections where a hike will hold 16 hour pace, most of the climbs require a run for a super fast time. However, hiking does generate less heat and lets you take in more fuel than a run. I have to be patient but tough on myself to not lose time in the canyons when hiking can save a race or give up several minutes.

-Timmy took risks in both 2012 and 2013 that no one else would take. Place yourself at the base of all the climbs in the canyons, and imagine running almost every step- three canyons in a row in 100 degree heat. That's like playing Russian Roulette three times in a row, and putting an extra bullet in each time. Each canyon climb is smaller, but the risk of going too hard for three climbs in a row as the heat rises and the legs break down is very real. Fortune obviously favors the brave, but starting the race at 43 instead of 62 or 80 is really tough to comprehend. (Alex Varner, if you're reading this, the race actually starts in Squaw). Bottom line: fast times are really risky to chase after, and which risks to take is tough to tell.



-Speed is relative on this course. I'm not famous on Strava for blistering speed work, but I ran 1:59 on the Cal Loop on Sunday on tired legs with moderate effort. On race day, NO ONE will break 2:10 (ask race veterans). The heat and the fatigue of 62 miles will hold back every speedster. I feel like Sunday validated my training of doing tempo-interval double days, and long fartleks. I don't need to run my college 5k PR to be a competitive runner on Cal Street. I just need to endure and take the punches with a good attitude and a decent turnover.

-The course requires courage. You can't expect to train so hard that you won't have to take a punch on race day. Unfortunate things will happen for "no reason at all" and you have to be okay with feeling awful, stabilizing, and attacking the course again and again, all the way to the finish. 

That's about what I think of the race. I'm going to go out and run another good week of training and start a small taper 3 weeks out with the dramatic taper starting 10-14 days out. 


April 21-27: 51.2mi, 7:39, 8,000ft+: Recovery week from gashing my shin on a fall

April 28-May 4: 63.3mi, 11:41, 10,750ft+: Still recovering my Peroneus Longus

May 5-11: 120.6mi, 18:36, 23,115ft+: Back in, good long runs on the AC course

May 12-18: 100.9mi, 16:23, 15,000ft+: Good downhill quad hammering and heat on Sat in Bishop, nice PR up Mt. Wilson on tired legs on Sunday

May 19-25(26): 83.3mi (105.2mi), 12:14 (15:12), 16,500ft+ (20,000ft+): Took Monday and Friday off to rest and travel. 7 day total was okay, I learned a lot of stuff about States (see above). Happy with building confidence and exposing weakness concurrently.


RAC is making some great original sounds, I love this new release:

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Why I wear Injinjis



The air was dead still and I was dead tired. I was standing at Shortcut Saddle, looking North towards Charlton Flats; gazing upon a torn up, overgrown, hot, rough, mean section of the Angeles Crest 100 Course. I planned to run six and a half miles back to Chilao Picnic Area and then run back hard. I was about to relive the last 6 years of my ultra running career.



As I dropped down to the creek, I was flustered by a severely overgrown trail of flowers, shrubs and poison oak. The descent bothered me, which drove me to run faster and faster to escape the suffocating feeling. I reached the bottom and began the exposed climb to Charlton Flats. Almost every water bar had failed and my feet were wedged inward in the trough in the middle of the trail. My ankles yelled out for freedom to flex naturally, but the shape of the rut and the narrow trail were completely constricting. Upon reaching the top of the bluffs, I cruised down to the fire road and climbed over several downed trees. Every quarter mile featured a different maze of branches to weave through. When I finally reached Chilao, I was debating even running back.



For me, trail running has become about the freedom to move through terrain without any feelings of constriction or limitation. What I described above is a good metaphor of my first year of running long distance trails. When I first started, I wore heavy trail shoes, carried too much gear, and wore tight synthetic "running socks" that constricted my toes. I remember distinctly thinking that every run in the mountains was a risk, that I had to protect myself from the dangers of the mountains. As I developed as a trail runner, I started to wear lighter shoes, carry only what I needed, and wear Injinjis. Gradually I began to look at trails as a blank canvasses for my free-spirited legs. The only rules were to use whatever works: nothing more and nothing less. Though the lightest shoes felt great at first, I still needed some level of protection. Occasionally I tried to run without socks, but blisters would eventually form. Injinjis were (and still are) that perfect blend of freedom and protection. I can run 100 miles races with my Injinji Performance 2.0 with natural toe spay and no blisters. It's a beautiful thing to figure out your gear and connect perfectly with the terrain. Ultimately, that's why I have so much loyalty to the brand: the socks support my pursuit of freedom in the mountains.

After I stopped for a bit and ate, I turned around and took off flying out of the campground. I checked my watch a couple times as I negotiated all the hazards that would slow my progress, but I eventually forgot about time and ran free and hard. I leap over trees instead of slowly climbing them, quickly danced over the gaps in the trail, and drove headfirst into the brush overgrowth. By the time I reached Shortcut Saddle, I had ran my fastest time by some 13 minutes: 55:45-pure freedom in rough terrain.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Merits of the Full Blarney


I have to admit, I have a problem:

I can't take anyone's word for it; "it" being defined as any truth about life, running, work, relationships, etc. I have to empirically prove it to myself multiple times to thoroughly know the truth inside and out.

My training is an especially true testament to this; I can never accept truths that I haven't dramatically proven to myself. I have to put stress on my body in every possible way until I understand what's really going on. So, when I read that former pupils of Jim O'Brien had done blocks of ten 100 mile weeks*, I had to try it for myself. (See Larry Gassan's article, Bruce Hoff's comments, page 3)

Before this, I had only done blocks of 3 weeks above 100 miles before succumbing to the stress and needing a step back week. In all fairness, during this block I did have relative step back weeks with either less speedwork and climbing, or the relative ease of a 100 mile week after a 120 mile week. So, to be perfectly honest, this was just about sustaining a high minimum mileage, and noting the benefits and shortcomings.

The main benefit I felt was a deeper base during the periodization cycle. A base is the concept of doing so much consistent mileage per week that you can consistently hold a level you previously could not. Ultrarunning at its core is about handling more stress (yes there's strategy, experience, and other factors, but being able to go deeper into the pain cave is a BIG part).

Through December and January I felt like I was just getting back into shape. I didn't feel like I was in great shape at Sean O'Brien, but I at least know that I wasn't peaking early for Western States. From Feb 10-April 20, I've felt distinct signs of the consistency affecting my body as a whole.

First off, I feel like I've become more accustomed to pushing back 100 miles a week, and if I delay the usual runs for one reason or another, my legs feel hyperactive. Early on in the cycle, I had to put in a little extra effort to get my weekly miles in, but later on, it felt like I had the energy regardless of what I had going on at work or socially. In week 9, I went to Joshua Tree with friends and did less mileage than usual, but when I came home and went for a 30 mile run at 5 PM, it felt right (not easy, but right, like the balance of energy in my body was what it should be).

I also feel like I have gotten more efficient while struggling during tough parts of runs. I noticed one day that I was clicking off sub 7 minute pace near the end of a long run even though it felt like I was just plodding along. I associate this feeling with races I've had where I've been in pain and reeled other runners in or put time on them. It's not glamorous, it doesn't look pretty, but somehow I'm in just as much pain as another runner but moving faster. It's akin to two drunks arguing, and neither one is making any sense, but one seems to barely be putting together slightly more coherent thoughts and winning the argument. I think this is the gritty part of 100 milers where no one is running brilliant, but someone just has a little better "death run form."


-Not feeling good, but running 6 minute pace and taking selfies

The 3rd thing I noticed the most, is how my hormones have held steady levels better than before. Work, traveling, distractions, traffic, and everyday stresses have not defeated my energy levels as they normally have. I might be missing some glycogen in my brain from sleep deprivation and my legs might be sore, but my adrenal glands still fire up and respond after a few miles and a quickened pace. It's a big x-factor: how many hormones can your body secrete to keep you in a race when everyone else is lagging. The consist build through December and January likely contributed to this success.

I'd be lying by omission if I didn't talk about the hardships. As encouraging as it felt to see improvement, I did feel the limits of different body parts straining. Because I had a decent amount of steep and technical terrain mixed in, I felt on and off nagging pain in my achilles, knees, and shoulders. I did various stretching and strengthening to keep things on track, and I noticed I stick to my yoga and core work to keep my body together.


-Relaxing even though I'm behind schedule

It was not psychologically easy to put my shoes on and get extra miles in during inopportune times. In my head, I had some really hard mental workouts trying to avoid problem counting, and focusing on the good things that were happening. It's something I preach, but it always is easier said than done. Last night, I went out for my final 6 miles and I had far more reasons to go to bed. My calves were sore, my stomach was revolting against the Mexican food occupying it, the streets had speeding cars with blinding headlights that grazed my beard hairs, I had no endorphins flowing because the run was so short, and I had to go poop. There literally was nothing good about this run, but I made up things like "I'm flying, 8 minute pace feels like 11 minute pace!" or "I think there's less cars, is there a curfew in Santa Monica?" or "a tiny part of my stomach doesn't hurt". This was probably one of my best mental workouts I'd done in a long time.

All in all, I'm glad that I stuck to it. It did get a little easier as it went on, and I'm feeling really good about my last training block in May. I appreciate the empowering feeling and physical benefit of lots of good, hard miles and I feel ready to handle more of them. This combo of increased speed and distance gives me the most rational optimism for my summer goals.

 Sun and Moon share the sky, distance and speed share my legs

  1. 102.4mi, 15:35, 16,079 (fast first week)
  2. 102.1mi, 19:01, 27,742 (steep week)
  3. 100.6mi, 16:17, 18,074 (storms, long road run)
  4. 108.7mi, 17:42, 20,530 (a little increase, a little knee pain)
  5. 120.3mi, 20:02, 24,618 (peak week, a good mix of speed and distance)
  6. 101.7mi, 18:25, 16,814 (recovery/taper week for Gorge Waterfalls)
  7. 102.2mi, 15:34, 15,816 (Gorge Waterfalls 50k)
  8. 100.4mi, 16:17, 22,143 (Fastest splits on last 25 of  AC)
  9. 100.4mi, 15:35, 15,595 (Good long quick run in the Santa Monica's, and Joshua Tree vacation)
  10. 100.1mi, 16:38, 22,090 (relative recovery week)
1038.9 mi, 171:06, 199,502ft and 159,951 calories in 10 weeks