Read These: I Became Obsessed & the 7 Pillars of Running

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Two recent articles are worth reading. If you have time then definitely have a glance.

Has extreme fitness gone too far?

‘It’s intoxicating – I became obsessed': has fitness gone too far? comes from the Guardian. It discusses some negative consequences for novice trainees caught up in extreme fitness fads. These hopeful gym-goers are lured into inappropriately brutal workout routines by attractive online fitness celebrities who may have no idea what they’re doing. In this world, boring concepts like patients, persistence, and gradual progress is replaced by more-is-better high-intensity punishment. Bad idea. I like this statement:

It is a sentiment echoed by one health and beauty magazine editor, who asks to remain anonymous because her views don’t tally with that of her employer. “These days, a strong Instagram following, good gene pool and even better spray tan can make you a fitness star, regardless of what qualifications you have. Not only do many of these ‘fitness stars’ know little about what constitutes safe exercise (the truth is that no amount of likes come in handy when you need to solve a gym-induced injury), they also create a false sense of what fit and healthy looks like – and it doesn’t always look 21 and great in a bikini. Add to that the fact that these social media stars get paid to shift fitness gadgets, gimmicks and protein shakes, and you’ve a whole load of dangerously misguided followers.”

So many of of these and similar workouts cater to the desperate hopes of people who want to be in cover-model shape right now!  Unfortunately, that isn’t the best mindset for gaining true health and fitness. The enduring fitness facts are there is no magic, there are no miracles, there is nothing new under the sun. The only path to long-term fitness and health is through persistent hard work, patience and (this is highly undervalued) self-acceptance. Read the entire article to gain all the insights.

Running wisdom from a wise man

In contrast to fitness extremism, we have the sober, reasonable, and frequently skeptical voice of Alex Hutchinson who writes the Sweat Science column for Runner’s World. His latest, and sadly, his final piece is titled The Seven Pillars of Running Wisdom.

I always appreciate his writing in that he discusses the science behind many of the latest running and fitness trends, strategies, and equipment. We are often told with certainty that some latest-and-greatest tech will revolutionize our running or that some extreme type of diet will cure all of our ills. Hutchinson discusses the actual science behind many of these claims The truth is typically far less exciting than the sales pitches we hear from the snake oil sales force. Big surprise here: most of the magic silver bullets are some familiar ideals: persistent hard work (sometimes very hard work), generally healthy diet, lots of patience. These are the best routes take for peak performance and lifelong health. The seven pillars are:

  1. Running is good for you “in moderation,” which is defined as “a lot more than you’re doing.”
  2. If it comes in a bottle, it’s probably not going to make you faster or healthier.
  3. The best technology for tracking and guiding your runs is the device between your ears.
  4. You probably got injured from doing too much, too soon.
  5. The magic workout, shoe, or superfood is whichever one you’ve been ignoring lately or have never tried.
  6. You can probably run better; start by running more.
  7. You’re capable of more than you think, but it will take time to get there.

Read the whole shebangabang to learn much and more!

Feet & Toes Should Be Strong and Able

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When was the last time you walked into the gym and said, “Okay, it’s foot day! Let’s get to work?”

Most of us aren’t too excited about building strong, healthy feet, probably not until we encounter pain. But why not? After all, it’s only every single step that we need those lower appendages to work well. Unless you don’t have feet, unless you walk on your hands, or maybe unless you live on a planet without gravity, then there’s no question you need a pair of mobile, stable, well-functioning feet.

And if we encounter foot trouble then we want to put in an orthotic, buy shoes with arch support, or do something other than make the feet stronger. Why is it that we don’t think to treat the feet like the rest of the body? Why don’t we see the need to work the feet like all the other muscles and body parts we have? I suggest that rather than resort to external aids we should work the feet in a wide variety of ways.  Here are a few ways to do just that.

I don’t promise that any of these exercises will fix a specific injury. If anything hurts then back off. See a physical therapist, chiropractor, or podiatrist for a full diagnosis and treatment strategy.

Big toe adduction/abduction

There’s no fancy name for this exercise. You can experiment with all sorts of bands. Please notice that I do this exercise under control. I’m controlling the exercise, the band isn’t controlling me. Allow the big toe to come in far enough that you feel a stretch.

Toe differentiation (aka yoga toe)

Can you do this? You should be able to. It may seem 100% impossible when you first try it. Keep working on it. Most people can figure it out in a day. Takes work and concentration. Take notice of my arch and inner ankle. Notice that the arch doesn’t drop, and my ankle doesn’t dive in as I move my big toe.

Toe grabs on a box

Sounds like one of Vincent van Gogh’s very obscure works. It’s not. I just don’t have a better name for it. It works well though. I learned it from Denver chiropractor extraordinaire Dr. Nick Studholme. You can do this on the top of a flight of steps or over a book.

Funny walks

This is a quick, easy way to engage, stimulate, and strengthen all of the muscles of the lower legs and feet. Try it and see how you feel.

Imogene Pass Run Race Report

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The stage

I ran my first Imogene Pass Run last weekend and it was a monumental experience. The race was both exhilarating and brutal. The environment and scenery were stunning beyond words (but here are some words.) Living in Colorado, we get used to seeing some amazing scenery. That said, the landscape of this race course was inconceivably dramatic. The San Juan Mountains are the creme de la creme of what Colorado is all about. My wife and I loved the town of Ouray and we can’t wait to go back.

The wife, dog, and spectacular Ouray, CO

The wife, the dog, and spectacular Ouray, CO

The weather was beyond perfect. No rain whatsoever until just after I finished in Telluride. I can’t fathom running this race in foul weather, but run this race in foul weather indeed they do.

Before going much further, I must give credit to my coach, Mary-Katherine Flemming for helping me prepare for this monster. My hiring her to help me was an excellent decision. She planned a variety of progressively challenging workouts, gave me honest, useful advice, and made me feel confident as I moved toward the race. I plan to enlist her again in future races.

Uphill

I was very pleased with my uphill abilities. None of the climbing was easy but 99% of the time I felt strong and able. The final mile was rough. And by rough I mean nasty. (I’m holding back on the foul language that’s essential to describe what I’m talking about.) The average gradient was 18.9% with a max gradient of 33%! Steep slopes plus an ever thinning supply of O2 was almost overwhelming. That the fastest runners are still running at this point in the race is an absurdity to me!

A brief pause before the summit. Look closely at the trail below. Can you see the people?

A brief pause before the summit. Look closely. Can you see the people on the trail?

Slow-slogging it was an attractive option at times. I saw many participants doing a sort of meandering tromp and the siren song of a slower pace was enticing. It definitely felt good to slow down just a bit. I didn’t allow myself to get comfortable though. I was there to do the best I could, not be comfortable. I didn’t “just want to finish.” So when the going got very tough I continued to push as hard as I realistically could while not blowing up.

I found smaller quicker steps were better than long strides. Try climbing stairs two or three at a time vs. one step at a time and you’ll experience this. Sure you can go faster if you take longer steps but you’ll burn out faster too. That’s not a successful strategy for this race.

The hard part is over! The MONUMENTALLY hard part is about to begin.

The hard part is over! The MONUMENTALLY hard part is about to begin.

 

Downhill

Savage and unrelenting are good words to describe the descent. The entire route was loose rocks and dirt of the sort that demanded constant attention, focus, and concentration. There was never ever an opportunity to coast, to relax, to take it easy in any way. To let the mind wander was to fall and f__k oneself up badly.

The start of a long, technical downhill. Much soreness awaits.

The start of a long, technical downhill. Much soreness awaits.

I experienced a very strange sensation during the descent. There were were times when I wanted to close my eyes and fall hard asleep. It was almost like I had narcolepsy or something. I’ve never had it happen before. I actually felt like I could’ve napped on my feet. I have no idea why. Do I have to mention that this experience was no help at all?

The technical descent demanded that I focus just a few feet out ahead to know where and how to place my feet. This was an exceptionally difficult task, especially as the descent took over an hour. The urge to let up a little, concentrate a little less, and look well down the trail was alluring but it would’ve been a disaster had I done so. So the entire descent involved determined concentration. If you’ve ever had to concentrate while (extremely) fatigued then you know it’s a uniquely difficult task.

I have no idea where that switchback road goes. I'd like to find out.

I have no idea where that switchback road goes. I’d like to find out.

 

Battling cramps with ducks & pigeons

I had some cramping near the top of the ascent. They continued to flare up during the descent. I had some cramping episodes during training runs and I wasn’t surprised to cramp during this race. What worried me is that I’d cramp badly and be reduced to a walk. That would’ve crushed me. Fortunately, I developed a strategy during training that allowed me to keep the cramps at bay to an acceptable degree. I employed that strategy in the race and though not perfect, it again allowed me to keep running.

I ran while internally and externally rotating my femurs. In other words, I’d run for several strides alternating between a duck-footed or pigeon-toed position. Somehow this would push the cramps away for a while. I had to do this several times during the descent. It’s definitely not an optimal way to run, especially over rough ground, but it worked. I also had to walk but only a very little.

My belief is that I employed the principle of reciprocal inhibition to relax my cramping muscles. Here’s an example: The muscle opposite your bicep is your tricep. Contract your bicep and your tricep will relax to allow for elbow flexion. That’s reciprocal inhibition and that’s how we move. In my case, my adductor muscles (inner thigh muscles, aka hip adductors and internal rotators) cramped. Thus I guessed that by activating those muscles’ opposite numbers (my hip abductors and external rotators) that I might be able to calm the cramping inner-thigh muscles. Seems to have worked. Further, it’s possible that by altering my bone and joint positions with this weird running technique it allowed some of the cramping muscles to rest just a little bit.

External rotation of the femurs

External rotation of the femurs

I won’t go into all the details of muscle cramps but I’ll say that it’s highly unlikely that it’s either dehydration or electrolyte depletion that causes them. It’s more along the line of intramuscular dis-coordination. For a brief and worthwhile discussion on the current ideas on muscle cramps and how to avoid them, then follow that link.

Internal rotation of the femurs

Internal rotation of the femurs

 

The final statistics

To see all the final stats for all runners go here. My numbers are as follows:

  • Time: 4:07:47
  • Overall: 451 out of 1227 finishers (Roughly top 1/3 of participants. That’s pretty cool!)
  • All males: 311 out of 645 (Top half of men. I’d love to improve on that.)
  • Males 40-44: 36 out of 82 (Top half. I’m happy about that too and improvement would be good.)

I like those results. This race was no easy fun run. You have to come prepared to finish it. I worked hard and I feel like I belong among some high-end athletes. I want to do my best and I want to get better. The top finisher in my age category finished in 3:02. I wonder how close I can get to 3 hrs… Coach Flemming, what are your thoughts?

(Honestly, I’m amazed that I’m thinking of running it again. After that finish I was certain that I didn’t want to run anywhere for any reason maybe ever again. What nonsense!)

What would I do differently?

I would love to get this thing done in under four hours. That seems realistic in good weather. If I want to race this race faster and/or just feel better then I need to improve my downhill conditioning.The descent is 7.1 steep, loose miles which is a very long distance. With that in mind,  I need to dedicate more time to running downhill on witheringly tired legs. There aren’t many opportunities outside of this race course to descend that far. (If you know of one in the Front Range area, please let me know about it.) I will confer with my coach on the subject but in my mind, I might want to incorporate something like giant hill repeats. For these I would run up something like Chimney Gulch, Mt. FalconDeer Creek, parts of the Bergen Peak Trail, or maybe best of all, Herman’s Gulch, then run back down and repeat the whole nasty process a few times. I think a few near-crippling workouts like this might help me survive the horror show/descent a little better.

Finally

Here is some superb photo documentation of the race. This guy isn’t me and I don’t know him but he deserves accolades for how well he captured the runners and the exquisite scenery.

The Imogene Pass Run Looms Before Me…

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The main event for the year is the famed/notorious Imogene Pass Run. (Three days and a few hours to race time! Am I ready? Doesn’t matter does it? That’s when I’m running.) The website gives the basic description:

“The Imogene Pass Run (IPR) is a 17.1 mile point-to-point mountain race within the western San Juan mountains of Colorado, run along a route which connects the towns of Ouray (7810 ft.) and Telluride (8750 ft.) by way of 13,114 foot Imogene Pass.”

This race has us climbing 5300 ft. After having run multiple 3000+ ft runs, I can confirm that THAT’S A LOT OF CLIMBING. I ask you to ponder, as I have, this passage from the course description:

“Mile 5.45 –   Lower Camp Bird bridge (9755 ft.), spanning Sneffels creek. At this point the runner might philosophize a little and consider just where he or she is in this effort called the Imogene Pass Run. At this bridge you have climbed 1945 feet (net) of elevation in 5.45 miles, at an average of 356 ft./mi., or 6.8% gradient overall. To reach Imogene Pass from here you must climb 3365 feet in the next 4.60 miles, at an average of 731 ft./mi., or 13.85% gradient overall. Your effort so far has simply been a warmup. The steep gradients of the named hills below you are now less than the average gradient ahead of you.”

If you’re not familiar with trail running and/or hiking then these numbers may not mean much to you. If you are a trail runner and you’re a mere mortal such as I, then your head might swim.

My coach, MK Flemming, says she has no worries about my completing the race. That’s solidly reassuring to me. My hope is that I complete it in a respectable time. (That it’s called a “Run” is optimistically generous. Most of us will be doing something like a power hike up that mountain.)

The site suggests that our run time will be similar to our marathon time. My only road marathon was 3:57. A finish time of 4-5 hours sounds good to me.

I’ve done the work.

Not only do MK’s words give me confidence about the race, but I also I know that I’ve put in the time and effort to prepare for this race. I’ve spent a lot of time trail running. Training started in March. I’ve completed several 4+ hour runs. The race tops out at 13,000 ft. and I’ve been in and around that elevation several times. Runs at 10,000 ft. and above have been common in my training. Gaining elevation has been bread and butter on my runs. Several times a week I’ve gained anywhere from 2000 ft. to nearly 4000 ft. of elevation. Much of that work has been done on 15-20% gradients which is what I’ll encounter on the IPR.

The only minor worry that I have is that I haven’t actually gained 4000 ft. during a run. I’d planned to do so but there aren’t many routes that boast that elevation. I considered ascending one of the nearby 14er peaks but most of those peaks contain scrambling over boulders and scree to get to the summit. Those conditions won’t exist at the IPR. Again, this is not a major concern to me.

Loving the process

In order for success to happen, one must find a way to love the process. (I’ve discussed the idea here.) The mountains are my favorite place to be. I crave time in the wilderness. Solitude and epic views are magic. I always want to go and I never want to leave. (BTW, Time spent in nature can have powerful positive effects on us.) Trail running in the Rocky Mts is more than just fun or recreation. It’s church. Some of my favorite runs include:

I can’t say my heart swelled for every run. A good portion of my training occurred on the steep pitches of the service roads on N. Table Mt., Green Mt. and the short but utterly ridiculously steep Mt. Morrison Trail. These weren’t the most scenic runs. They were nasty and dirty. Thinking of them, I envisage a world filled with the most towering foul language. Still, I love the process.

Loving the gear

All that time on the trail demands adequate gear. Two of my favorite items are these:

Nike Zoom Terra Kiger 3.

Nike Zoom Terra Kiger 3 plus some dirt.

The Nike Zoom Terra Kiger 3 has made my feet very happy. I’ve gone through two pairs. What I like most is the roomy toebox. I’ve had problems in the past with losing some toenails due to friction up front. I’ve had no such grotesque problems with these shoes. And though there’s plenty of room up front, the rest of the shoe is comfortably snug which is reassuring while running over variable terrain. The grip is very solid. The shoe is comfortably flexible and it has what seems to be just the right amount of cushion to protect my feet from sharp rocks and such.

Next, the Ultimate Direction PB Adventure vest has been an excellent purchase. It’s light, breathable, comfortable and it carries a lot of useful gear. Conditions can change rapidly in the mountains and it’s necessary to carry several items in case of bad weather or an injury. Starting at the top: 70 oz bladder, knit hat, soft flask, 1st aid kit and antiseptic, long sleeved technical shirt, waterproof jacket, light neck gaiter, gloves. I can also carry hiking poles but the race doesn’t allow them so I haven’t been using them. Not pictured: the phone which took this picture, lots of bars, gels, cheese sticks, and other fuel.

Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest plus most of the gear I carry in it.

Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest plus most of the gear I carry in it.

Finally

I am tremendously grateful to be able to train for this event. It’s been a memorable experience. I spent several years in my 20s unable to run due to chronic pain. That’s gone now. I’m very durable and strong. I take more than a little bit of pride in both my willingness to take on this race and my ability to train for it. This undertaking is not in everyone’s wheelhouse. It’s in mine though.

The Upside to a Bad Experience

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Shot down in flames! An arial representation of my recent half-marathon experience

Shot down in flames! An arial representation of my recent half-marathon experience

I recently ran the Georgetown to Idaho Springs Half-Marathon. It didn’t go well! I was tired, slow, and wasn’t prepared for a road race. I bonked right near the end. I was about 15 min slower than my best half-marathon time. It was overall a rotten experience — but with a silver lining! Upon review, that I ran poorly was no surprise. Why?

  1. Two days prior I ran a tough 12-mile trail run at a fairly high elevation. Fatigue often peaks at 48 hrs after the triggering workout. I ran the race with no taper. In fact, you could say I did the opposite of a taper.
  2. I haven’t been doing any real road runs. All my big workouts have been on trails. I’ve only done short, easy runs on the road. This lack of training on roads speaks to the SAID Principle, or the Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. In essence, the SAID Principle says that if I want to be good at a thing, then I need to do the thing. If I want to be a good road runner then I should run more on the road.

I thought that since I had been running a lot that this would be an easy run. I thought I had several advantages: First, many of my runs have been over 13 miles. Second, Those runs have been of long duration. I spent a lot of time on my feet. Third, this race was mostly downhill with little climbing. I’ve spent lots of time doing hard climbs and running fast, technical downhills. Overall, I thought that my running endurance base would’ve allowed me to complete the half- in a respectable time and that I would’ve felt good doing it. Nope.

My best half-marathon time was 1:47 so I started off with the 1:45 pace group. Didn’t take long for them to leave me. Then the 1:50 pace group left me… Then the 1:55…  I don’t remember if the 2:00 pace group passed me or not but I finished in about 2 hrs. I was wiped out. Felt horrible! I ran too hard for too long.

Upon review, I think a significant factor is that trail running is typically much slower than road running. And though I’ve spent many hours on my feet, trail running is different enough from road running that some of the benefits didn’t transfer. Further, I believe that running on dirt and rocks was different enough from running on pavement that my muscles experienced something to which they were unaccustomed, and that caused me significantly more fatigue than if I’d spent the same amount of time on a trail.

I can’t forget the importance of the taper. Two days prior I’d slept in a car at a trail head then run a long trail run at high altitude. Thus it was entirely normal that on race day I was full-on very tired.

But so what?

This wasn’t a big race. It was just something I wanted to do. It’s just another run. There was and is no reason to fret and hate on myself because of this lackluster showing. What I’ve learned in recent years is that in “failure” there is always an opportunity to learn. This is an exceptionally valuable outlook! It’s a lot better than flagellation.

Pain vs. Discomfort

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Everyone and anyone who’s been in a gym has heard the phrase “No pain, no gain.” What does that phrase really mean? Do we want our clients exercising in pain? What should effective exercise feel like?

In my experience, clients often interpret “No pain, no gain,” as “Pain is inevitable and it should be ignored.” I believe that for the good of our clients’ health, trainers should examine this misunderstood statement with their clients. This is a vital conversation, especially with clients who are new to training.

Pain & discomfort defined

I don’t recall if it was in a seminar or an article, but someone smarter than I once discussed pain vs discomfort. I’ve stolen the idea and used it ever since. (If you made this description and you’re reading this then thank you! It’s been highly valuable to me and my clients.)

My clients should understand that in order for exercise to do the things we want it to do — if we want to create favorable adaptations to exercise — then a client must exercise to the point of exertion and fatigue. The client must work hard. He or she might sweat, grunt, groan, and work to the point of fatigue and discomfort. A description of the D-word:

Discomfort:

  • Often a burning in a working muscle or muscles.
  • Comes with a feeling of fatigue.
  • Doesn’t alter the way you move (compared to a limp, for instance)
  • Is usually symmetrical if for instance you’re squatting, swinging a kettlebell, doing pushups, running or cycling.

Discomfort is a sign that we’re working near your accustomed limits. That’s a good thing, and that’s how you get in better shape.

I also tell my clients about pain. We don’t want pain. (Some minor, intermittent pain may be OK. More on that in a moment.) Some characteristics of the P-word

Pain:

  • Often felt in a joint, not a muscle
  • Sharp or electric
  • May not accompany fatigue
  • Severe pain alters your movement: Knee pain causing a limp or low-back pain altering how you bend down and pick up something
  • It’s often asymmetrical: Knee pain in one knee when squatting, shoulder pain in one shoulder during pushups or bench press, low-back pain on one side of the low back

If a client feels pain then we stop and we evaluate. Persistent, serious pain should not be a part of our day-in-day-out experience at the gym. Pain is not something to be ignored or masked with pain pills. Pain is a signal from the brain that something isn’t operating as well as it should be.

Color-coded pain

In another case of I-forgot-where-I-read-it disease, I read about a physical therapist’s color-coded, traffic-light guide to pain. I’ve adopted it and it helps guide me as to when to when or if I need to alter an exercise for a client due to pain. It goes like this:

GREEN: Everything feels fine; no discomfort anywhere. Client is ready to rock ‘n’ roll!

YELLOW: Minor, sporadic, or short-lived pain during the exercise but it’s not bad enough to stop or alter the movement pattern. We keep going as long as it doesn’t get worse.

RED: It hurts. We stop.

If pain becomes more intense, and/or more frequent, and/or lasts for more than a week then it’s probably time to seek medical care of some sort. Trainers should have a physical therapist, chiropractor, or some other licensed medical professional to whom he or she can refer clients.

I like this code system in that it’s rare that everyone is going to feel 100% perfect all the time. It’s not uncommon for us to feel something that is less than optimal but not so bad that we need to stop entirely. With the yellow reading, we can keep going through some minor pain, and we can avoid catastrophising around pain. If a client can experience a little bit of pain yet continue working then I think we can build resiliency in the client and protect against what’s known as fear-avoidance of certain movements. If we get to red then we can always stop and change things.

The fear-avoidance model. You don't want to be caught up in it.

Fear-Avoidance Model. Avoid it.

 

Unfamiliarity: Is it pain or discomfort?

Exercise newcomers may have no idea what it feels like to work hard. Their experience with muscular discomfort may be sporadic and in the distant past. Unfortunately, many people experience all uncomfortable feelings the same whether it’s joint pain or the normal sensation of hard work. They are different and our clients should learn the difference.

A classic example is low-back pain/discomfort. The epidemic of low-back pain is a unique pain in our culture. It is widespread and debilitating for many thousands of people. For those who suffer low-back pain there can be tremendous fear of recurrence. At the same time, exercise is an effective antidote for many forms of pain in older people, and for chronic (but not acute) back pain.

Numerous muscles attach in and around the low back. The glutes, erector spinae, lats, obliques, and other spinal muscles live and work all around the low-back area. Just like any other muscle, if you work these muscles hard then you’ll feel it. Exercises such as squats, deadlifts, kettlebell swings, and bent over rowing can cause serious — and totally normal — discomfort in the low back. Yet for many clients, any sense of low-back discomfort can be bad and scary. Thus it’s very helpful and reassuring to a client if a trainer can discuss the issue of pain vs. discomfort.

The spirit of “No pain, no gain”

The knowledge behind that phrase is well-informed and comes with good intentions. Plus, it rhymes! It sounds good. But clearly it can be misunderstood. (If I ruled the world, I’d change the phrase to “No discomfort, no pain.”) The truth is, no one will increase his or her physical capacity by sitting comfortably. Anyone who wants to get in better shape must work hard. At the same time, pain, as I described above, isn’t a normal part of working out. Pay attention to it. Get help if it doesn’t go away.

My First Ragnar Trail Relay: Just Don’t Blow Up, The Fajita Lesson, & Astronomy

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The Ragnar Trail Relay came to Aspen, CO last weekend. I ran the race with seven other people, mostly from my wife’s company. We were the Kenzan Running Club. This was my first Ragnar. It was unique among the races I’ve run. I like to recall specific moments after events like this and reflect on what I saw and felt. Experiences like this are the highlights of my life. The memories and emotions are important.

Most teams were eight-person teams like us. The race consisted of three loops: the green easy loop, yellow medium-difficulty loop, red hard loop. We all ran all loops once. I ran first (green), ninth (red), and 17th (yellow.) We were finished when runner eight crossed the finish line.

The Kenzan Running Club immediately post race.

The Kenzan Running Club immediately post race.

The night before

My wife and I camped out the night before the race. It was COLD that night. There was frost on the ground and tents in the morning. We slept well. Sleep was limited from there on out. It also didn’t stay cold.

Fortunately for us, some other teammates got to the camp site early and grabbed a prime spot. We were close to the toilets and the transition area. A word to the wise: If you do this race, get there early. Very early.

Don’t blow up

Teams were put into flights with the slower teams starting earlier and faster teams starting later so everyone would finish within a certain window. Flights left every half-hour starting at 10 am. We started at 1 pm. I was the first runner. The first loop was very warm, high 70s. No shade. Heat throbbed off of the parched trail. The temperature climbed.

The challenge in an endurance event is to take a very hard effort and spread it out over the entire course of a race. Every runner has started out too fast and paid the price at some point later in the race. That’s not good. At the same time though, you don’t want to finish thinking, “I could’ve run harder.” Another wrinkle was the fact that the race required us to run again and then again.

A few people passed me. Whenever I’m passed, I listen to their breathing and I watch how they move. Do they run strong and relaxed or brittle and tense? If it’s the latter of those two, then I know I’ll probably catch them sooner or later. I like passing people. I don’t win trophies and I’m not a top runner, but I truly enjoy beating other runners to the finish line, especially if I did it by running smart.

My mantra was, “Just don’t blow up.” That meant run my race, not someone else’s. Don’t give in to the urge to charge ahead early just to catch someone. If someone passes you, let them. Be patient. Wait until the end is near to hit the gas.

The most shade anyone would see on the trail.

The most shade anyone would see on the trail.

My coach made the analogy of holding on to an electric wire, the type used to keep cows away from the fence. You can hold on for a little while but you can’t hang on to that thing forever. If you grab ahold too tightly, too early, you’re cooked. You blow up which means you screwed up. The blow-up/electric wire paradigm played on a loop in my head throughout the race.

I was very pleased with my conditioning and performance. I was never overly sore and none of my joints hurt. I was especially happy with my downhill running as I had to do a lot of it in the dark on very tired legs. I never crashed or flew off the mountain into space.

A well-run operation

The organization and execution of the race was impressive. From what I can tell, the Ragnar race is a complex thing with a lot of moving parts. Everything seemed to operate smoothly. I didn’t detect any crises or surprises on the part of the staff.

Parking for team vehicles and shuttles to other parking areas worked very well. I was very grateful to see well-marked trails, especially at night. The workers were organized and helpful. The campground was crowded but very adequate. There was plenty of water available and food for purchase if you wanted/needed any beyond what you brought—and there were free ice cream sandwiches!

Now this is really important: The port-o-potty situation was excellent! The effort and efficiency in maintaining and cleaning those things was phenomenal! Thousands of people using those things over and over, round the clock—especially in the heat!—was a true marvel. What a relief to have access to mostly clean, well stocked toilet facilities. Don’t think I’m joking. This is a huge thing.

Epic view from the red loop. This is why we do this.

Epic view of Snowmass ski resort and from the red loop. This is why we do this.

The Kenzan Running Club

Our team was a very compatible group of people. We got along very well, had a lot of laughs and were very comfortable around each other. Everyone was well-prepared. We happily shared space, food, equipment, and encouragement.

To expand beyond our team, my impression of all the Ragnar competitors was very positive. I didn’t see any drama or dumb behavior. I saw no meltdowns, freak-outs, arguments, or fights. I did see a lot of courtesy, encouragement, and the always appealing magic energy that is shared among people suffering together. We passed each other and were passed while exchanging kind words. The camp site was somewhat crowded but we all made do and lived comfortably together. The trail running community tends to be a laid-back, respectful group.

Between runs

Managing rest was a challenge. We made constant efforts to avoid sunburn and drink lots of water. Staying off my our feet was a priority. We all spent a lot of time chasing shade as the sun passed over us from east to west. We were already spending a lot of time in the sun and any time spent in the cool shade was essential to feeling human. Lying in the grass under trees was heavenly and refreshing.

The Red Loop & the Fajita Lesson

The world isn’t perfect and neither was my race. Here’s the story:

There was a complimentary dinner Friday evening between my first and second runs. I had two thoughts:

  1. I’ll need a lot of calories for this event.
  2. I should have enough time between my first run and the second run for the food to digest and I’ll be OK to run. (On this point, I think we all felt like our next loop came much faster than we anticipated.)

Thus I ate a pretty big plate of chicken fajitas, onions, peppers, tortillas, guacamole and cheese. The magnitude of my gamble might seem obvious to you right now. It’s obvious to me now but due to some sort of faulty psychology, I thought my decision was reasonable. And it was hot…

Fast forward 2-ish hours. I felt okay and I continued to feel well enough during the long, steady, climb at the front of the 6.7-ish mile red route. I started at 8:10 pm. Twilight was coming on. I didn’t need the lights yet but I would soon. (More on night running in a moment.)

Almost time for moonset in Aspen, CO.

Almost time for moonset in Aspen, CO.

Fast forward a little further and it was time for a 2 mile, high-speed nighttime downhill dash over fast, swoopy terrain. There was jostling and sloshing. My digestive system lodged a prolonged protest. I knew this race would be tough and I welcomed the challenge. I didn’t welcome this. I began to fantasize about those port-o-johns. I thought my teammates might have to hose me off at the finish. By some combination of force-of-will and supernatural providence, I was saved. No hose down needed. That’s enough about that.

Running at night

This was a new thing for me and I enjoyed it tremendously. During my second run, the red loop, the hardest run of the race, I saw day turn to night. To my left, as I ran along the high ridge line I watched the pink sunset fade to black. On my right, a massively swollen blob of a moon rose and dominated the sky. I don’t see that happen every day. It was a stunning sight and a unique experience. (I took a pic while high up on the ridge line but it was no good. You’ll have to settle for the one up above which was taken after my 2nd loop at about 4 am. That’s not the sun.)

My wife, ready to march into the night.

My wife, ready to march into the night.

The early nighttime atmosphere was electric. There transition area buzzed with powerful energy. Music blared and thumped. A bonfire blazed. Everyone had on their nighttime running gear. We all looked like we were about to do battle with the Cylons, Klingons, and/or the Decepticons. We were sharp, confident, and energized. This was all happening before the wee hours, before the music got turned down so we could grab a few moments of sleep, before the deep fatigue set in and we were zombified.

Looking up at the mountainside from camp we saw the continuous trickle of bobbing little lights. Those were runners descending from the red and yellow loops back to the start/finish area. I wish I had a picture of that for you.

The finale

My final run started around 4 am and ended about 40 minutes later. For me, anything before 5 am isn’t morning—it’s night. This was far outside my experience. I had maybe three hours of sleep before the final leg but I felt OK. It wasn’t as cold as the prior night which was good. This was the yellow loop, or the middle-difficulty loop. I was grateful that the red loop wasn’t my last loop and I was very happy to avoid more exposure to the heat. Runner number eight came through and I was off.

The climbs were tough on the last two loops but the descents proved difficult both from the the fact that it was night and that my legs were very tired. The challenge was to descend as fast as possible without the legs collapsing and careening down the mountainside.

I like descending. There is a focus that’s required to run fast down a mountain. It puts one very much in the moment. It’s meditative. It’s not like sitting in rush-hour traffic. I passed a lot of people and only one person passed me. He was moving much faster than I.

Our final runner came in several hours later, between 11 and noon. A couple of our team fell and got skinned up a little but no one had any major injuries or issues. The race finished at 6 pm. We were grateful to be through before that.

Finished before the sunrise.

Finished before the sunrise.

The trails for this race were not very technical at all. They were smooth and relatively free of rocks and roots. Compared to most of the Denver-area trails on which I trained, these were sidewalks. That was probably a good thing for night running.

My lights were the Black Diamond ReVolt headlamp and the Nathan Zephyr Fire 300 flashlight. A lot of people ran only with a headlamp, but several articles I read about night trail running suggested a headlamp and a handheld light. I liked having both. I could see both the trail at my feet and further down the trail.

If I had it to do over, I would’ve brought a little less gear with me on the red loop. I brought more than I needed to drink and a winter hat and gloves that I didn’t need.

I might’ve also done a night run during training, just to get feel for the lights. I don’t think I missed without a night run though.

For anyone thinking of doing this race I strongly suggest you familiarize yourself with trail running. This was very challenging. I wouldn’t recommend it for a green beginner. That said, it wasn’t overly brutal. It was very doable. The vast majority of us were very mortal.

That’s most of my story. Our stats are below. Follow this link for a look at all the teams’ stats. I think we did well. Several of us want to do it again.

Kenzan Running Club
Finish Time
22:59:51
Overall : 82 / 227
Gender : 47 / 126
Categ : 35 / 99
Race No 181
Gender Mixed
Category Open
Status Finished
Splits
Split Name
Time
Time From Prev Leg
Loop 1 Green 00:40:32 00:40:32
Loop 2 Yellow 01:19:45 00:39:13
Loop 3 Red 03:00:30 01:40:45
Loop 4 Green 03:48:33 00:48:02
Loop 5 Yellow 04:40:19 00:51:45
Loop 6 Red 05:55:50 01:15:31
Loop 7 Green 06:35:32 00:39:42
Loop 8 Yellow 07:10:30 00:34:57
Loop 9 Red 08:26:52 01:16:21
Loop 10 Green 09:09:07 00:42:15
Loop 11 Yellow 10:01:45 00:52:37
Loop 12 Red 11:29:07 01:27:21
Loop 13 Green 12:18:18 00:49:11
Loop 14 Yellow 13:01:06 00:42:48
Loop 15 Red 14:20:57 01:19:50
Loop 16 Green 15:00:05 00:39:08
Loop 17 Yellow 15:43:38 00:43:32
Loop 18 Red 16:59:41 01:16:03
Loop 19 Green 17:54:44 00:55:02
Loop 20 Yellow 18:41:27 00:46:43
Loop 21 Red 20:21:08 01:39:40
Loop 22 Green 21:06:29 00:45:21
Loop 23 Yellow 21:49:06 00:42:36
Loop 24 Red 22:59:51 01:10:45

||Hide

http://www.racetecresults.com/MyResults.aspx?uid=16432-2143-1-58655

The Best Know How to Rest

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Our popular culture is filled with admonitions to “Just Do It” and “Push your limits.” We hear aggressively pompous questions like “What’s your excuse?” aimed at people who don’t adhere to some sort of arbitrary exercise pattern. A lot of this is good marketing but it’s not reflective of the reality behind truly great sports performance, career longevity, creativity, and good health. We don’t hear much about the massive importance of rest.

I’m very happy to see a discussion of rest in Sports IllustratedHow extended breaks in training help elite athletes—and why you should take them too is an excerpt from a book titled Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success by Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg. They offer the example of 42-year-old Bernard Legat the multiple Olympic medalist and world champion runner:

But here’s the thing: If we never take “easy” periods, we are never able to go full throttle and the “hard” periods end up being not that hard at all. We get stuck in a gray zone, never really stressing ourselves but never really resting either. This vicious cycle is often referred to by a much less vicious name—“going through the motions”—but it’s a huge problem nonetheless. That’s because few people grow when they are going through the motions. In order to give it our all, and do so over a long time horizon without burning out, we’ve got to be more like Bernard Lagat: Every now and then, we’ve got to take it really easy. In addition to his year-end break, Lagat also takes an off-day at the end of every hard training week. On his off-days, Lagat doesn’t even think about running. Instead, he engages only in activities that relax and restore both his body and mind such as massage, light stretching, watching his favorite TV shows, drinking wine, and playing with his kids.

Every hard-exercising, hard-working person should read this and take this advice to heart. This doesn’t just pertain to high-end elite athletes. In fact, the article does a very good job discussing how the need for regular and at times extended rest periods applies to everyone in any field of work. Learn it. Know it. Live it.

Tapering for the Ragnar Relay

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The Ragnar Trail Relay is next weekend, June 9-10. My workouts are now getting a little easier and a little shorter. Runs will continue to ease up with the expectation that I will peak for the race, feel good, and perform my best.

The past four weeks have been very challenging. My coach has been prescribing longer runs and runs with specific hard-effort drills. Hard runs have been on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Easier efforts have been on Mondays and Saturdays with rest days on Wednesdays and Fridays.

HRV

It has been interesting to watch my heart rate variability (HRV) as my training has progressed. Briefly, HRV is used to measure training status. With HRV, I can see if I’m fully recovered and ready to train hard (green), somewhat fatigued and in need of a light workout (orange), or very fatigued and in need of rest (red).

The art of overreaching

Typically, one should adhere to the green/orange/red training recommendations shown by the HRV app. Most days it’s a good idea to train hard if one is fully recovered, to back off if one is tired, and to rest if one is very fatigued.

There are exceptions to most rules and HRV training rules are no different. Hard training when the HRV is orange or red may be useful if applied correctly. (Overreaching is the term used for this training strategy. This article discusses overreaching on the bike but the same concepts apply to any athletic endeavor.) I have definitely been in the orange and red more often these past few weeks.

As a big, general rule, I love trail running. It’s a meditative experience, and my time out in nature is a very exciting yet calming experience for me. Some might call it spiritual.

But with a sustained increase in training, not only have my HRV scores dropped, my attitude toward running has changed. I’m not as enthusiastic about it. I often look at a workout and I think, “Ehhhh? God… What?! Hill intervals on top of other hill intervals for how long? Who thought this was a good idea?

This shift in attitude is no surprise.Too much training, and too much hard training done for too long can result in overtraining, which is nothing anyone wants. Overtraining symptoms may include mental decline, weakness, sickness, and injury. Overtraining may take months and potentially years to overcome, and overtraining is partway down the road to death! Apathy is part of my nervous system’s way of protecting me.

I’ve experienced this diminished mental state in the past during hard training but it’s interesting to analyze it alongside both the coach-prescribed workouts I’m doing and the HRV readings.

With no interest in either dying or being overtrained, why would I want or need to overreach?

It’s because overreaching + adequate rest = bigger & better performance. With training, we dig a hole. We beat up the organism to a certain degree. We stress muscles, bones, connective tissue, the endocrine system, circulatory system, the mind, and the nervous system in general. If we rest adequately (taper) then we should see the organism rebound, get stronger and thus be able to perform at a high level. The diagram illustrates the idea.

This is how training is supposed to work.

This is how training is supposed to work.

The value of coaching

I feel that working with a coach has been invaluable in that she is guiding me safely through these rocky training waters. She’s had me work hard enough to realize significant fitness gains and she’s kept me from working too hard and becoming overtrained. She’s said several times that she wants the hard workouts to be so hard that the race is a piece of cake. After last Sunday’s 2.5- hour, 12.4-mile gruel-fest through Golden, CO, I can say that I believe I’m firmly on the right track and that the Ragnar Relay may actually feel like a jog in the park. Next weekend will give us the truth.

Running Injuries and Running Performance: A Podcast and an Article

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Injury and performance exist on a sliding scale. At one end we are completely broken down, hurt, and unable run/bike/swim/lift/fight/hike/etc. At the other end we’re performing at our peak. Probably every active person has been injured and I’m willing to bet that every active person would like to perform their very best. This post is for runners in either or both camps.

Runners are often injured. According to a review of literature in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, rates of lower-leg injury ranged from 19.4% to 79.3% among study subjects. The magic questions are 1)Why do we get injured? and 2) How do we overcome injuries?

I think it stands to reason that if we hurt while running then very likely it’s the way we run that’s the problem. Running requires complex coordination among many parts and systems. It is mind boggling to try and dissect running form, find the problems and then either teach or learn new, helpful techniques.

Meanwhile, if we’re not injured and we’re able to run, then we probably want to know how to run faster and more efficiently. How do we we achieve these goals? These questions aren’t easily answered. With all that in mind, I found two resources that may offer some very valuable information on these issues.

The first is the Physio Edge Podcast 049, Running From Injury with Dr. Rich Willy. At about the 20:30 mark Dr. Willy gives some good external cues to help promote running form that may help with IT band pain. The cues involve the knees and the hips:

  1. If the knees cave in too much while running: He puts brightly colored tape on the outside He has the patient run on a treadmill facing a mirror. He tells the patient to push the tape out toward the walls.
  2. If the hips are adducting too much: The runner runs on a treadmill facing a mirror with the waistband of their shorts clearly visible. He instructs the runner to keep the pelvis level by keeping their waistband level.

Listen to the podcast to get all the details.

Next is an article from the always informative Alex Hutchinson at the Sweat Science column at Runner’s WorldWhat Makes a Running Stride Efficient? Hutchinson discusses a study from Loughborough University in England that looked at biomechanical factors

“For running economy, three variables stood out: vertical oscillation (measured by the up-and-down motion of the pelvis; less is better); how bent your knee is when your foot hits the ground (more bent is better); and braking (also measured by looking at the motion of your pelvis; less slowdown as your foot hits the ground is better).

“Overall, these three variables explained 39.4 percent of the individual differences in running economy—and the vast majority of that (27.7 percent) came from vertical oscillation.

“For running performance, four variables stood out: braking (as above); the angle of the shin when your foot hits the ground (closer to vertical is better); duty factor (basically a measure of how long your foot stays on the ground relative to your overall stride; quicker is better); and the forward lean of your trunk (more upright is better).

Overall, these four variables explained 30.5 percent of individual variation in race times, with shin angle (10 percent) and braking (9.9 percent) as the biggest contributors.”

Something I always appreciate about Hutchinson’s writing is that he lays out some of the errors in thinking that we might encounter when we assume that employing new running techniques will automatically equal better, faster, pain-free running. Are these characteristics of efficient runners chickens or eggs?

“For example, you could imagine a study that compared elite runners to ‘regular’ runners and found that the elite tend to have more highly defined calf muscles. It doesn’t necessarily follow that doing a whole bunch of hardcore calf exercises will make you faster. It’s more likely that a whole lot of training, combined with some genetics, has given elites more defined calves. Fixating on getting better calf muscles would be distraction that’s unlikely to help you, and takes away from things that really would make you faster, like running more.”

That said, (and he mentions this) it may well investigating new strategies based on these findings. From my experience in helping people with their running, aiming to achieve these biomechanical outcomes can help. (This post offers a few cues that I’ve found useful to use with runners.)

Ideally, you should be videoed while running.Trying to adjust your gait without knowing how you’re currently running might be near impossible. Video is a very powerful tool when it comes to making adjustments to sporting techniques and I highly recommend it.

Definitely read the article and listen to the podcast if you think you need help with your running or if you’re a coach who works with runners. And if doing it yourself isn’t getting you the results you want then I strongly suggest you employ some sort of running coach to help.