Calf Strength Progress

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A calf injury derailed this previous racing season. I’m taking steps to avoid a repeat. Primarily I’m making my calves and feet stronger, not just the muscles but the connective tissue as well. My process is detailed in an article for Competitor Running. Every week, twice a week I spend time working on the lower legs. I treat it like religion. The work isn’t especially exciting but if I don’t do it then I can expect more problems. Thus, I don’t give myself the option to avoid the work. Here are the main features of my lower-leg workouts:

  • I choose two of the following:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=darNO5nfl48&feature=youtu.be

  • Bent-knee or straight-knee depending on the part of the calf I want to target
  • High-weight/low-reps (< 6) to strengthen and stiffen tendons to improve running efficiency, and increase force production of the muscles
  • Lower-weight/higher reps (>8) for muscle hypertrophy which should also help with strength and durability.
  • I jump rope 6 x 1 min or I do various two- and one-legged hops once or twice per week.

I expect this program to enable me to train for and run several big races in 2019, including the Grand Traverse Run from Crested Butte to Aspen on 8/31. Sim sala bim.

 

Competitor Running Article: Benefits of the Single-leg Tube Squat

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One version of the 1-leg tube squat.

The Benefits of the Single-leg Tubing Squat is for runners who want to build leg and hip strength that will transfer to running. This exercise may help you overcome knee and hip pain as well whether you’re a runner or not. There are three variations on this exercise and all are discussed in the article. This is my second article for Competitor Running. (Those pretty pictures were taken by my wife with her fancy new camera.)

My Race Schedule & I’m a Professional Writer!

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Time to trail run

Springtime is hurtling our way and that means it’s time to trail run! I’m working up to what is for me a pretty giant bite of a trail race this fall. I have several races on the schedule as I work up to the final big event in September. They are these:

  1. Dirty 30, June 3, Golden Gate Canyon, CO – I’m running the 12-miler
  2. Under Armor Mt. Running Series, July 14, Copper Mountain, CO – I’m running the 25k (about 16 miles).
  3. Pikes Peak Ascent, August 18, Colorado Springs – 13.32 miles. I’m not running the full marathon, I’m only “running” up to the top.
  4. The Grand Traverse Run, September 1, Crested Butte to Aspen – 40.7 miles!? My god, is that right?! Amazingly, 40-ish miles is sort of small potatoes in the world of ultra-running.

The best part of this is that I love trail running and I love the process! I love the training I did last year for the Imogene Pass Run. Being in the mountains is… exquisite. Language doesn’t suffice… It’s more than fun. Trail running is a deeply spiritual thing for me. I have enormous enthusiasm toward the preparation for the Grand Traverse, and I’m grateful to get to do it.

Time to suffer

I’m reading Endure by Alex Hutchinson. It’s an excellent book. An ever-present concept, maybe the foundation of the whole book, is the experience of suffering. Suffering defines endurance. We don’t have to endure that which doesn’t induce suffering.

As it pertains to my races: There will be suffering…. especially in the Grand Traverse. I’ve suffered in two marathons and the Imogene Pass Run. I suffered through a bad half-marathon. I’ve biked up Mt. Evans twice. There’s some suffering. Two-a-day football practice in the Texas summer = suffering. The Grand Traverse is almost 41 miles, about 6200 ft. of climbing and 7000 ft. of descending. That equates to more suffering than I’ve ever experienced. I will suffer for many hours. Every bodily fiber from my toes to my eyebrows will be in agony. I will despair, get angry, and maybe feel hopeless. I’ll want to quit, maybe multiple times. How do I get through that?

Hutchinson discusses the idea of preparing to suffer. How will I react? Will I succumb to negative thoughts? Or will I employ a strategy like positive self-talk, a touchy/feely sort of thing that actually has quantifiable positive effects on performance? Maybe I’ll deliberately smile to myself which has been demonstrated to reduce perceptions of effort.

One thing I won’t do is try to ignore the pain. It can’t be done. Research has shown a more effective way to manage pain and suffering is to inspect your pain in a clinical way and have a calm conversation about your suffering. There’s a difference between pain and the emotions we feel about pain. Awareness and examination of this divide can help lower the perception of pain and suffering. I am in control of my thoughts on pain. This will help.

Much of Endure compares “mental” vs. “physical” endurance. (In truth, there is no difference between mental and physical. It’s all atoms and molecules. It’s all connected. There should be no delineation. Try having a mind without a body or vice versa. Rene Descartes was wrong. Maybe it’s useful to say “psychological” vs. “mechanical” endurance to indicate the perception of pain by the brain vs. the muscles’ inability to generate high force.) I’m learning about the multitude of ways and the degree to which the brain generates feelings of effort, pain, and suffering during exertion. The best athletes don’t suffer less than everyone else. They are able to suffer more and manage their suffering better than the rest of us. Hutchinson gives evidence that we are probably capable of far more effort than we believe possible. Based on my learning, I plan to make my difficult runs very difficult. I plan to push myself harder than I have in the past when the time is appropriate. The idea is to get intimately acquainted with a high level of suffering That’s not to say most of my running should be grueling. That’s not the right way to train. But when it’s time to push hard, I’m going to push hard. I’ll be testing this strategy in the races leading up to the Grand Traverse. I need to find out how hard I can push, how hard I can suffer.

Oohhhhhh this is good… Ultra-Marathons: The 15 Stages of Suffering tells it like it most certainly is. It conjures up explicit memories of prior suffering. I’m nervous, and I can’t wait to do it.

I’m being published

Also, in 2-3 weeks I’ll have an article appearing on Tnation.com — and they’re paying me for it! I’m not sure I’ll win the Pulitzer but I’m very excited that I can technically call myself a professional writer. I’ll post a link to the article here when it comes out.

Posterior Tibialis Tendinitis: The Resolution

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I wrote recently about my experience with posterior tibialis tendinitis. This post continues the analysis of the problem and solutions that helped resolve the problem.

Posterior tibialis actions

The posterior tibialis (PT), and the gastrocnemius, soleus, and plantaris, (all muscles that attach to the Achilles tendon) overlap to some degree in how they function in gait. What do those muscles do you ask?

  • Concentric function (when the muscle contracts and shortens): plantar flexion (points the foot), inversion (sole of the foot turns in)
  • Eccentric function (when the muscle lengthens): decelerates dorsiflexion (bending of the ankle), decelerates eversion (sole of the foot turns out)

Gastrocnemius/soleus/plantaris actions at the ankle

  • Concentric: plantar flexion
  • Eccentric: decelerates dorsiflexion
  • The gastroc and soleus attach to the heel via the Achilles tendon.

In the case of my Achilles pain, I found relief from strengthening those calf muscles through doing a lot of slow, controlled heel lifts. I thought the same approach would resolve my PTT. I was wrong. I believe that my efforts at strengthening the PT and the PT tendon aggravated the problem and caused more foot pain. I believe my PTT was rooted in a rigid left arch and rigid plantar fascia.

Plantar fascia flexibility, pronation, and force distribution

For years I’ve noticed that my left arch doesn’t pronate (collapse) as much as the right. I believe this lack of movement is part of my problem. In my prior post, I asked the question, “Do you have the mobility to get into the position required by your activity?” As it regards my left arch and running, my answer was, “No.”

Among many runners, the word “pronation” equates to “bad.” That’s wrong. (Uncontrolled or excessive pronation is bad.) Pronation is a necessary movement that contributes to deceleration of the foot, lower leg, and the rest of the body during foot strike. As the arch collapses, the plantar fascia acts as a leaf spring, storing then returning valuable energy that helps propel the runner forward. This energy return occurs as the foot supinates with the arch lifting as the runner pushes away from the ground.

The plantar fascia isn’t the only participant in this process of energy absorption and return. All the muscles and connective tissue throughout the body contributes to the process. The tendons of the lower leg, such as the Achilles tendon and the posterior tibialis tendons, are highly active during this process. If everything is moving correctly, in control, and in a coordinated fashion then the impact forces of running are distributed efficiently among all of the muscles and tendons.

Now imagine if some link in this kinetic chain isn’t moving the correct way. If that happens then other regions and other structures of the body will be forced to handle more than their fair share of the load. Some sort of overload, injury, and pain is likely in this scenario. Specific to my case, I believe the lack of mobility of my left plantar fascia has contributed directly to my past Achilles tendon problems, plantar fasciitis, and to my recent bout with PTT. Plantar Fasciitis and the Windlass Mechanism: A Biomechanical Link to Clinical Practice is a literature review from the Journal of Athletic Training. This review provides the following pertinent comments:

“Researchers have also reported faulty biomechanics and plantar fasciitis in subjects with a higher-arched foot.1618 A higher-arched foot lacks the mobility needed to assist in absorbing ground reaction forces. Consequently, its inability to dissipate the forces from heel strike to midstance increases the load applied to the plantar fascia, much like a stretch on a bowstring.4

“A review of the literature reveals that a person displaying either a lower- or higher-arched foot can experience plantar fasciitis. Patients with lower arches have conditions resulting from too much motion, whereas patients with higher arches have conditions resulting from too little motion.4,16,19 Therefore, people with different foot types experience plantar fascia pain resulting from different biomechanical stresses.” 

(The article is thorough and informative about foot mechanics. If you’re a runner suffering from foot problems, a running coach, or a clinician who treats these issues then I think it could be valuable to you.)

Exercises that helped

  • I foam rolled the calf. You probably know how to do that. If not, look on Youtube.
  • Band eversion/dorsiflexion: It’s one of the exercises discussed here. I did and continue to do the exercise with very high reps. It looks like this:

    Plantarflexion/Inversion

    Plantarflexion/Inversion

Dorsiflexion/Eversion. Think of pulling the pinky toe to the outside of the knee.

Dorsiflexion/Eversion. Think of pulling the pinky toe up and to the outside of the knee.

  • Bent-knee heel raises: I used high reps but there is probably benefit to using heavier weight with fewer reps. There are machines for this exercise at many gyms. I don’t have access to such a machine so I did it by stacking up some sandbags under the front of my foot and putting a dumbbell on my knee. I worked to high exertion for several sets:
    IMG_5143 IMG_9065
  • Arch mobilizer: It takes time to make changes to tissues so I do this frequently throughout the day.

  • Gait check: This is HUGE! In my first meeting with running coach Andrew Simmons of Lifelong Endurance, he noticed several problems with my gait. These were problems seen in the past with my gait.
    (This illustrates the immense power of working with a coach. I don’t know what I don’t know and I can’t see what I can’t see—and neither can you! My technique had slipped and I didn’t know it.)

    • My ground contact time (or how long my foot was on the ground) was too long. Thus, my feet and lower legs spent a lot of time transmitting stress through my lower leg. That may have been a part of overloading the PT tendon. This long contact time was probably a result of…
    • A low-energy gait. My legs weren’t rebounding off of the ground sufficiently and the whole gait cycle was sluggish. Now, as I run, I think of a strong, quick, powerful push into the ground. I drive the leg behind me, and I push the ground behind me.When I run correctly, my foot spends less time on the ground and the tissues spend less time under stress and I’m more efficient. Read How to Run: Running With Proper Biomechanics by Steve Magness for details on running technique including the need for hip extension.

Finally

Solving the riddle of the sore left foot has been a prolonged, tricky struggle. Every time I find relief I think I’ve solved the problem only to have some other problem pop up later. That said, I now think I’ve figured it out. I could be wrong. Maybe some of this information will help other runners overcome their foot and ankle troubles too.

Two Good Articles: Endurance Athletes & Income, Olympic Lifts Are Overrated

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Two recent articles are of interest to me. Maybe they’re of interest to you too. Here they are.

Wealth & endurance sports

It’s easy to detect a difference between the strength sport world and the endurance world. You’ll find a lot more tattoos and speed metal among the lifters. I’ve yet to hear a Slayer song at the finish line of a trail race or bike century. I’m not sure why that is! I love both ends of the exercise spectrum. Why doesn’t everyone?I’m not sure it has any direct correlation to this article from Outside Magazine titled Why Do Rich People Love Endurance Sports? but I’m guessing there might be some tie-in. The article is from Brad Stulberg is one of the authors of the great book, Peak Performance.

Stulberg delves into data about endurance athletes. Not surprisingly, the cost of endurance sports prohibits a lot of people from participating. Bikes, race fees, travel costs, all sorts of equipment costs all factor in to whom can pursue endurance activity. What I found most interesting is the discussion around the question, “What is it about the voluntary suffering of endurance sports that attracts them?”

“This is a question sociologists are just beginning to unpack. One hypothesis is that endurance sports offer something that most modern-day knowledge economy jobs do not: the chance to pursue a clear and measurable goal with a direct line back to the work they have put in. In his book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, philosopher Matthew Crawford writes that ‘despite the proliferation of contrived metrics,’ most knowledge economy jobs suffer from ‘a lack of objective standards.’”

“Ask a white-collar professional what it means to do a good job at the office, and odds are they’ll need at least a few minutes to explain their answer, accounting for politics, the opinion of their boss, the mood of their client, the role of their team, and a variety of other external factors. Ask someone what it means to do a good job at their next race, however, and the answer becomes much simpler.

“’The satisfaction of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence has been known to make a man quiet and easy,’ writes Crawford, who in 2001 quit his job in academia to become a mechanic. ‘It seems to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He simply points: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on.’”

I would like to know about strength athletes such as powerlifters, Olympic lifters, bodybuilders, and strongmen. What do we see there as it pertains to education, income, and vocation? Certainly lifting very heavy things, seeing the weight go up (or not), observing the muscles grow provides similar objective feedback that endurance sports offer. Do rich people also lift heavy?

My feeling informed by my casual observation is that the strength sports have more blue-collar participants. If so, wouldn’t the cost of participation be the main difference? A gym membership is a lot more affordable than bikes, multiple pairs of expensive running shoes, race fees, travel fees, wheels, tires, high-tech gear, etc. I’d like to know more.

Olympic lifts are overrated

I think many coaches and trainers put certain tools or methods ahead of the needs of their clients. We become wedded to the idea that one tool or strategy is the be-all-end-all best way to make someone stronger, faster, etc. We become convinced (often due to very effective marketing by gurus) that something like the stability ball, the BOSU, the barbell, the kettlebell, or the Olympic lifts are the ultimate thing for everyone, when in fact they should simply be considered tools that may be right for some jobs and wrong for others. (I plead guilty to having sacrificed my objectivity to certain tools and methodologies. I’m trying to get better.)

Olympic lifting has gained in popularity in recent years. They can be a lot of fun. I feel they can help develop coordination and general athleticism. That said, Olympic lifts probably aren’t ideal for most athletes, so it’s good to see an experienced, well-regarded coach and Olympic lifter like Charles Staley give an objective analysis of Olympic lifting.

The Olympic Lifts are Overrated discusses three reasons they’re not the best way for all people to improve their bodies and their abilities. Briefly:

  1. The Olympic lifts are too technically demanding.
  2. The Olympic lifts are overrated for developing strength or size.
  3. The Olympic lifts are highly overrated for developing athletic power.

Read the article to learn more.

 

Getting Serious About the 5k

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A 5k? You can do that in your sleep can’t you?”

A client said that to me when I recently told her I’m training up for a March 5k, the Cherry Creek Sneak in Denver. She knew I’d run several big, difficult trail races and two marathons. She figured a 5k would be easy for me, and in terms of distance, yes, running 3.1 miles isn’t a big deal. But to run it fast…? That’s the challenge.

(In case you didn’t know, the 5k is an Olympic event. Look at an Olympic 5k runner at the finish line and and ask him or her if the race was easy.)

aerobic-system-29-728

It seems like most grown-ups think about running longer and farther. Many of us look at the marathon, or in trail running circles, ultra-marathons, as the ultimate running thing to do. Similarly many of us look at 5ks and 10ks as fairly easy runs done just for fun. Most runners progress from the shorter runs to longer runs, leaving behind those short runs doing them mainly for training purposes around their long-race goals.

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In contrast, grown-ups rarely look to run faster. (In comparison, ever watch kids run? They only sprint!) I want to run faster. As I’ve said before, I love the training process. I want to experience the process of speed development. I’ll be doing track workouts and tempo runs, which are very different from trail running. I like the idea of doing work all along the energy system continuum, with short, powerful efforts at one end, and much longer efforts at the other. It seems to me a well-conditioned, athlete should make stops all along the way.

 

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.

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

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