Burnout & Harmonious Passion

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Modern living, competition, achievement, and seeking external validation all contribute to burnout. Burnout is more than just feeling tired at the end of the day. It’s a condition that comes with real, negative health effects. Two recent articles discuss the idea and how to counter it.

Burnout

Burnout is not a recognized medical condition in the US but it is recognized as such in France, Denmark, and Sweden. These countries recognize it as a legitimate reason to take time off from work. A Washington Post article discusses burnout with psychologist Sheryl Ziegler:

“Ziegler defines burnout as ‘chronic stress gone awry.’ The big three symptoms are emotional exhaustion, cynicism and feeling ineffective, according to the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), a survey designed to measure employee burnout in the workforce. Other symptoms can include frequent colds or sicknesses, insomnia and a tendency to alleviate stress in unhealthy ways, such as with too much alcohol or online shopping.”

The article discusses the difference between stress and stressors:

“Burnout is caused by chronic stress, not stressors… It’s important to differentiate the two. Stressors are external: to-do lists, financial problems or anxiety about the future. Stress, on the other hand, ‘is the neurological and physiological shift that happens in your body when you encounter [stressors],’ Emily and Amelia Nagoski write in their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle.”

Fixing burnout isn’t necessarily easy. It involves recognizing the condition and making some changes, not just checking more things off of your to-do list.

“To fix burnout, people need to address the stress itself. They must allow their body to complete its stress response cycle. Instead, people tend to focus on stressors. ‘They assume their stress will go away if they’re on top of things, if they’re accomplishing things, and constantly checking things off their to-do list,’ Emily Nagoski says.”

Read the full article for more information.

Harmonious Passion

I’m an enthusiastic fan of running coach Steve Magness and researcher/journalist Brad Stulberg. They are the authors of Peak Performance, an excellent book. Their second book is the Passion Paradox. I’m looking forward to reading it soon.

Burnout and what Stulberg and Magness call harmonious passion are the subjects of a recent blog post titled Burnout Runs Deeper Than Too-Much Work:

“Harmonious passion is when an individual becomes completely absorbed in an activity because they love how the activity itself makes them feel. Obsessive passion is when an individual gets hooked on something because of external rewards: fame, fortune, a promotion, or in this day and age, social media followers. Obsessive passion is firmly linked with burnout.”

and,

Harmonious passion requires three main things. This has been studied for over 45 years and the evidence is highly replicable across diverse fields of practice:

1) Autonomy: the ability to have significant control over one’s work.
2) Mastery: the ability to see improvement and progression in one’s craft.
3) Belonging or relatedness: a feeling of connection and community.

If you think about the fields where burnout is especially prevalent (e.g., medicine, teaching, corporate work, and sport) you see that at least one, if not more, of these critical attributes is missing.

Read the article to learn more.

 

 

Training Update: 10 Days Until Behind the Rocks

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I’m running the Behind the Rocks 30k in Moab, Utah on March 23rd. It’s my first race of the season and my first race since my calf injury last year. I’m happy to report that all my parts feel strong. I’m pleased and proud to have overcome the problems from last year. Strength training aimed directly at the calf has been the key.

Calf exercises

Calf and lower-leg strengthening is my religion. I do specific calf strength exercises twice a week. I rotate among the following exercises. I also jump rope and do other two- and one-leg jumping exercises at least once a week:

I use several different weight and rep schemes for the exercises:

  • Heavy loads for <6 reps. This builds strong muscles and strong, stiff tendons. Stiff tendons are like stiff springs. Stiff tendons absorb and transmit forces efficiently which makes for efficient running.
  • Moderate loads for 8-15 reps. This builds muscle bulk. More muscle mass helps make muscles strong and durable.
  • I may go as high as 20-30 reps for the mini-squat. That’s due to the soleus muscle (the main muscle in that’s worked in the exercise) being comprised mostly of endurance muscle fibers. I typically put a barbell on my back.
  • For the jump rope, I’ll mix two- and one-leg jumping and I’ll jump for about 1 minute x 5 sets.

Other key exercises

The hip hike and offset lunge are great exercises for lower legs, quads, glutes, hip adductors and hip abductors.

I like the single-leg tubing squat as well.

Coaching

Finally, Coach Andrew Simmons of Lifelong Endurance has been indispensable. He listens to me, pays attention to detail, and inspires confidence. I’m grateful to have his guidance. If you’re looking for a running coach, I recommend him highly.

Nutrition Myths and Eating for the Environment

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Nutrition Myths

Nutrition nonsense is everywhere. Fads and half-truths prey on our hopes and desperations. Poor news reporting misrepresents both valid and invalid research findings. Somewhere among all the noise is legitimate information on how to eat well. For that reason, I appreciate The top nutrition myths of 2019 from Examine.com.

Examine.com is a source I trust for valid, evidence-based nutrition and supplement information. In brief, here’s the list of the 19 nutrition myths for 2019:

Myth 1: Protein is bad for your bones and kidneys
Myth 2: Carbs are bad for you
Myth 3: Fats are bad for you
Myth 4: Egg yolks are bad for you
Myth 5: Red meat is bad for you
Myth 6: Salt is bad for you
Myth 7: Bread is bad for everyone
Myth 8: HFCS is far worse than sugar
Myth 9: Fresh is more nutritious than frozen
Myth 10: Food nutrients are always superior to supplemental nutrients
Myth 11: Dietary supplements are necessary
Myth 12: You should eat “clean”
Myth 13: You should “detox” regularly
Myth 14: Eat more often to boost your metabolism
Myth 15: You need to eat breakfast
Myth 16: To lose fat, don’t eat before bed
Myth 17: To lose fat, do your cardio on an empty stomach
Myth 18: You need protein right after your workout
Myth 19: Creatine will increase your testosterone but cause hair loss and kidney damage

Dig into the article for more information.

Meat and the Environment

I am an environmentalist. The threat of manmade global warming is a brutal reality. I do what I can to limit my contribution to the nightmare. If you share these concerns then I hope you’ll read How to Eat Meat if You Care About the Environment from U.S. News & World Report. Briefly, the article lists the following:

  • Limit your meat consumption.
  • Know how different meats stack up.
  • Shop local, if possible.
  • Learn your labels.
  • Be a prudent cook.

My wife and I are especially concerned about greenhouse gas emissions. Our food choices come with come with a greenhouse gas cost. Meat production produces an especially large amount of CO2 and methane. Accordingly, we now limit our meat consumption, especially of beef and lamb which produce the most greenhouse gas. We haven’t gone vegan but we have made the deliberate choice to reduce our animal product consumption.

(Further, by most measures, Americans eat too much meat. It’s not a coincidence that most Americans are also overweight. An additional benefit to limiting meat consumption in favor of plants is that it’ll help most people drop a few pounds and get fitter.)

Animal welfare is also a concern of ours. The article also links to the Environmental Working Group (EWG.) EWG provides this guide to animal welfare standards and labeling of meat and dairy products. We haven’t abandoned meat completely, but we don’t want to contribute to the suffering of animals. This guide has helped informed our food shopping. You might find it useful too.

When to Walk. When to Run

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I’m fortunate to be able to run in the Rocky Mountains. Every trail run features ascents and descents that are often long and/or steep which means significant changes in pace. I often run with a group and I’ve noticed that it’s not uncommon for runners to run too hard on the ascents. It’s easy to hit the redline on ascents, to burn out, and have the run reduced to a stagger. (Sometimes I’m the one running too hard.) This isn’t optimal for racing or training. Running harder isn’t always better.

Check the ego

“I’m a runner! Therefore I must run!”

I’m probably not the only runner who feels self-imposed pressure to by god keep running! Walking can feel like an embarrassing moral failure, especially when running with a group. I want to compete and keep up with my peers. In this case, my brain, wired to prefer short-term rewards over long-term goals, works against me. A simple question illuminates the right course of action:

What’s the goal?

Is my goal to “win” a training run of no consequence? Or is it to train effectively for a specific race? The answer is the latter. Put another way, the purpose of a training run is not to prove fitness, but to improve fitness.

In my case, I’m training for long trail races. That means low-intensity running and hiking for a long duration. Thus I need to train my aerobic energy system, not my phosphocreatine or glycolytic systems. The goal for long training runs is to build a bigger aerobic engine. If I run too hard, drive my heart rate too high, and generate too many hydrogen ions (Neither lactate nor lactic acid is responsible for burning muscle. It’s a buildup of H2 ions. The myth must die!) then aerobic conditioning is deemphasized. I’m training wrong and impeding my goal if I do that.

(There is a time and place for hard running. The training plan may call for harder efforts: hill intervals for instance. That’s a different topic.)

What I think I’ve learned

At some point walking up a slope is more economical than running. Running economy matters more as races go longer. For a short race, running up a steep hill may be fine because I’m not limited by energy reserves, but for long races, conserving energy matters a lot.

Research from CU Boulder has investigated running vs walking up a range of slopes. One of the researchers, Nicola Giovanelli, Ph.D., discussed the research on the Science of Ultra podcast. He suggests that walking makes sense on slopes starting at about 15-20 degrees.

Running coach David Roche offers further analysis in this article at TrailRunner.com:

“The study found that ‘on inclines steeper than 15.8°, athletes can reduce their energy expenditure by walking rather than running.'”

“While that study looked at relatively fresh athletes, it’s likely that the optimal grade for walking decreases as the length of the race increases and muscles fatigue. In long ultras, like 50- and 100-milers, most racers are hiking on anything over eight to 10 percent later in the race—grades they’d usually bound up. So if you are doing a short race with steeps or a long race with normal hills, knowing how to walk can save energy. Here are three form tips to unlock your hiking prowess.”

Walk early. Walk often.

For my purposes, I’ve translated the research into this: Walk early. Walk often. I start walking/power hiking well before I blow up. I stop running and start hiking before I truly need to start hiking. I start before the slope gets very steep. This is similar to efficient uphill cycling in that a rider should shift into a low gear early and before he or she struggles at a very low cadence.

I find that I can keep pace with and often pass other runners when I hike instead of run. They work harder yet we move at about the same rate. The ascent often resembles a slinky type of process where we pass each other a few times before we hit the peak. Often, the other harder working runners are completely gassed at the top while I can resume running.

Low-end speed

I’m not an elite-level runner, so there’s no question that I will spend significant time hiking and walking during my races, especially during the 40-mile Grand Traverse Run. Therefore my training should resemble the race. If I prioritize my low-end speed, get faster at going slower, then that should help my performance more than developing higher-end speed.

 

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.

 

Truth About Hard Work and Breakthroughs

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Advertising surrounds us and comes at us from every angle. We are inundated all day by interesting/annoying messages designed to tug at our emotions and coax us into purchasing something. Take holiday and fitness advertising. More often than not, both are concocted of contrived platitudes wrapped in a seductively sincere candy coating. I don’t mean to be a grinch or overly negative, but rather I’m trying to see through the haze of flimsey, manipulative nonsense.

Christmas ads for diamonds (aka shiny dirt) and gift-wrapped luxury cars suggest in serious tones that these trinkets are the ultimate expressions of love and devotion. The message: “If you really love her/him, you’ll spend lots of money on this thing that sits there.”

Materialism disguised as love.

Fitness-related messages are similarly emotional and ubiquitous. From running to weights to yoga, pilates, and obstacle races, social media feeds are chock-full with soaring inspirational messages to Just Do It, Find Your Bliss, Pain is Weakness Leaving the Body and all sorts of sappy garbage that I try to ignore—because unicorns, fairy tales, and magic happy miracles aren’t real!

Let me calm down… If you thrive on messages like this then fine.

These messages don’t run to my taste because I find them shallow and dishonest. They imply a quick-fix approach to fitness and health. We are a short-attention-span, soundbite culture that rejects the long-term, patient view of the steady hard work that’s crucial for excellence. My role as a trainer and writer is to dispel some of the misinformation that’s out there and speak honestly about health and fitness.

With all that in mind, two recent articles are worth a look.

Running Sucks Sometimes—And That’s OK comes from running coach David Roche. David and his wife Megan are both successful, experienced runners and coaches. They know of what they speak. David discusses the idealized social media version of running:

“Let’s start this article with an assignment: open Instagram and click on the ‘Search’ button. What do you see? To start, you probably see at least a few mostly naked people. It is the internet, after all.

In addition, if the almighty algorithms think you are a runner, you’ll probably get photos and videos of people running with glorious form, on glorious trails, with gloriously big smiles. The captions? You guessed it . . . glorious.

“The perfect day…”

“Running is amazing…”

“I owe it all to [insert brand here]…”

“If we programmed a computer to use machine learning to understand running via social media, it’d probably think running was a mostly perfect, amazing activity. #brand #brandmotto. I am guilty, too—it’s just how social media works. No one wants to hear about your heavy legs and sore feet. It’s a highlight reel by design.”

Roche observes the ugly truth of running, something that every runner both new and old has experienced: Running ain’t always a bag of fried rainbows.

“Even if you do everything right, training consistently and intelligently for years on end, running will still suck sometimes. I’d guess 10 percent of my runs feel rather unpleasant, down from 30 percent when I had been running for a few years (and 100 percent when I first started). Not only is that okay, it’s an essential part of the adaptation process.

“If you felt perfect all the time, you’d probably be selling yourself short in training, not pushing your limits at all. So embrace the suck. It’s something we all share, even if we don’t always share it on Instagram.”

The article normalizes the reality of running and points out that even the best runners don’t always love it. (BTW, you could sub the word “running” for cycling, swimming, weights, or any number of athletic and non-athletic activities.) Roche gives practical advice on adopting the right mindset when the going gets tough. I most appreciate his discussion on how to mentally process the discomfort of a hard run. We can change our perception of pain and exertion.

“Solution: aim to perceive discomfort as a neutral observer. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but no, you don’t have to stop. And when you let yourself document it, running-induced discomfort actually isn’t that bad at all.”

Alex Hutchinson makes similar observations in this Wall St. Journal article titled The Mental Tricks of Endurance Performance. This process of perception is a crucial component of endurance performance. I use this process in my own workouts and it makes a difference. Definitely, read both articles if you want to change your relationship with exertion.

The second article is titled What Lies Behind Every “Breakthrough” Performance. It’s from Brad Stulberg at Outsideonline.com. He examines the underpinnings of sudden breakthrough performances. The reality is that sudden breakthroughs are built on consistent hard work and gradual progress.

Stulberg quotes habit researcher and writer James Clear:

“Breakthrough moments are often the result of many previous actions, which build up the potential required to unleash a major change,” says Clear, who researches and runs workshops on habit development. The problem: “People make a few small changes, fail to see a tangible result, and decide to stop. Once this kind of thinking takes over, it’s easy to let good habits fall by the wayside.”

The message here isn’t just applicable to athletics. It applies to any type of work from writing, to music, to painting—probably to preparing taxes.

“A similar path to progress happens in other endeavors. A recent study published in the journal Nature found that while most people have a ‘hot streak’ in their career—‘a specific period during which an individual’s performance is substantially better than his or her typical performance,’ the timing is somewhat unpredictable. ‘The hot streak emerges randomly within an individual’s sequence of works, is temporally localized, and is not associated with any detectable change in productivity,’ the authors write. But one thing just about every hot streak has in common? They rest on a foundation of prior work, during which observable improvement was much less substantial.”

Essentially, the article extols the virtues and necessity of punch-the-clock work, work that isn’t transcendent or worthy of soaring language. The bread of performance is buttered with these types of workouts.

Problems with Nutrition Research

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Appearances to the mind are of four kinds.
Things either are what they appear to be;
Or they neither are, nor appear to be;
Or they are, and do not appear to be;
Or they are not, and yet appear to be.
Rightly to aim in all these cases
Is the wise man’s task.
Epictetus, 2nd century AD

If you pay attention to the news then you don’t go a day without hearing about nutrition research. Alcohol, chocolate, meat, fat, carbs, protein, fiber, sugar, this diet, that diet, and a galaxy of supplements are under constant scrutiny. You may also notice that studies seem to frequently contradict one another. (The health effects of alcohol are a notable example.) It’s easy to become confused and frustrated as you search for accurate information. (And that’s just with the valid research out there. Throw in the junk “research” behind bogus supplements and snake oil and you may simply want to give up being informed.)

I’m neither a researcher nor a statistician but I respect the need for solid research into health, fitness, nutrition, and the like. I understand that valid research requires a large number of study subjects. The best studies are designed as double-blind placebos. Finally, research results must be replicated several times over in order to be seen as valid and worth taking seriously. Beyond that, I don’t have a good grasp of statistical methods so I can’t always tell if the conclusions drawn from the research are accurate. Thus I’m often confused by what I see and hear around nutrition research.

If you consider yourself a well-informed, educated, healthy person who finds yourself confused by conflicting nutritional studies then an article in the New York Times, More Evidence That Nutrition Studies Don’t Add Up, may help you understand your frustration. The story discusses the shoddy research practices of Cornell University researcher Dr. Brian Wansink.

The article goes beyond Dr. Wansink’s malpractice to discuss general, widespread nutrition research problems:

“Dr. Wansink’s lab was known for data dredging, or p-hacking, the process of running exhaustive analyses on data sets to tease out subtle signals that might otherwise be unremarkable. Critics say it is tantamount to casting a wide net and then creating a hypothesis to support whatever cherry-picked findings seem interesting — the opposite of the scientific method. For example, emails obtained by BuzzFeed News showed that Dr. Wansink prodded researchers in his lab to mine their data sets for results that would “’go virally big time.’”

“’P-hacking is a really serious problem,’” said Dr. Ivan Oransky, a co-founder of Retraction Watch, who teaches medical journalism at New York University. “’Not to be overly dramatic, but in some ways it throws into question the very statistical basis of what we’re reading as science journalists and as the public.’”

“Data dredging is fairly common in health research, and especially in studies involving food. It is one reason contradictory nutrition headlines seem to be the norm: One week coffee, cheese and red wine are found to be protective against heart disease and cancer, and the next week a new crop of studies pronounce that they cause it. Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, said that many researchers are under enormous pressure to churn out papers. One recent analysis found that thousands of scientists publish a paper every five days.”

Further:

“In 2012, Dr. John Ioannidis, the chairman of disease prevention at Stanford, published a study titled “’Is Everything We Eat Associated With Cancer?’” He and a co-author randomly selected 50 recipes from a cookbook and discovered that 80 percent of the ingredients — mushrooms, peppers, olives, lobster, mustard, lemons — had been linked to either an increased or a decreased risk of cancer in numerous studies. In many cases a single ingredient was found to be the subject of questionable cancer claims in more than 10 studies, a vast majority of which “’were based on weak statistical evidence,’” the paper concluded.

Nutrition epidemiology is notorious for this. Scientists routinely scour data sets on large populations looking for links between specific foods or diets and health outcomes like chronic disease and life span. These studies can generate important findings and hypotheses. But they also have serious limitations. They cannot prove cause and effect, for example, and collecting dietary data from people is like trying to catch a moving target: Many people cannot recall precisely what they ate last month, last week or even in the past 48 hours. Plenty of other factors that influence health can also blur the impact of diet, such as exercise, socioeconomic status, sleep, genetics and environment. All of this makes the most popular food and health studies problematic and frequently contradictory.

In one recent example, an observational study of thousands of people published in The Lancet last year made headlines with its findings that high-carb diets were linked to increased mortality rates and that eating saturated fat and meat was protective. Then in August, a separate team of researchers published an observational study of thousands of people in a related journal, The Lancet Public Health, with contrasting findings: Low-carb diets that were high in meat increased mortality rates.

“’You can analyze observational studies in very different ways and, depending on what your belief is — and there are very strong nutrition beliefs out there — you can get some very dramatic patterns,’ Dr. Ioannidis said.”

Read the article to learn more.

If this topic interests you then you should also read Congratulations. Your Study Went Nowhere, also from the New York Times. Among other things, it discusses an interesting problem with research publication. That is research with positive findings gets published far more than research with negative findings.

For instance, let’s say my study finds evidence that eating peanut butter increases IQ. Meanwhile, six other studies find no relationship between peanut butter and IQ: “Nothing to see here folks!” My positive study is more likely to be published than the negative studies. This is a type of publication bias. Positive studies are thus more likely to be mentioned in the news even if they’re outnumbered by negative studies. The article describes two types of biases:

Publication bias refers to the decision on whether to publish results based on the outcomes found. With the 105 studies on antidepressants, half were considered “positive” by the F.D.A., and half were considered “negative.” Ninety-eight percent of the positive trials were published; only 48 percent of the negative ones were.

Outcome reporting bias refers to writing up only the results in a trial that appear positive while failing to report those that appear negative. In 10 of the 25 negative studies, studies that were considered negative by the F.D.A. were reported as positive by the researchers, by switching a secondary outcome with a primary one, and reporting it as if it were the original intent of the researchers, or just by not reporting negative results.

We never hear a TV news reporter say, “Nine studies found absolutely no relationship between food X and cancer.” In other words, we only hear the bell that’s rung, not all the other bells that aren’t rung. The obvious problem is that if shoddy research findings are reported (vaccines linked to autism is a prominent example) and we may hear reports from multiple credible sources, then we start to believe false information. There are serious consequences to this problem.

 

 

An Abrupt End to the Racing Season :-(

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It is with a snarling, frustrated, heavy relieved, accepting, grateful heart that I must call an abrupt end to my 2018 trail racing season. I’ll miss both the Pikes Peak Ascent and my main event, the Grand Traverse. It’s all due to a gimpy left calf and a bad decision on my part.

Good decisions

The calf strain came a few weeks ago while climbing during a race. I did the right thing. I quit the race and avoided further injury. I took two weeks off from running. I saw Dr. Nick Studholme who taped my foot and calf and helped me understand the injury. We decided on a collection of exercises to help the area heal and get stronger. I did calf and lower-leg strength work to my level of tolerance.

Last Monday I did an easy road run for the first time and I felt good. Great! Then I had a decision to make: Do I continue a slow, gradual return to running protocol? Or do I jump quickly back into hard training?

A bad decision

I chose option two, a seven-mile trail run with intervals. Everything felt fine until about mile three. I took a big step off a rock, landed on my left foot, and felt some pain low in the calf, the same area that was hurt in the race. I didn’t crumple in agony but there was noticeable discomfort. I kept running. I hoped the pain might fade out or simply be a minor annoyance. It hurt more as I ran and hurt less when I walked. That is a clear-cut indication of an acute injury that must be unloaded and allowed to rest. I made the wrong decision.

The Pikes Peak Ascent is two weeks away. Uphill running will put my calf under massive stress. I was running uphill when I hurt it the first time. Two weeks is probably enough time to start running again, but by god isn’t nearly enough time to prepare for an 8000 ft. ascent.

Madness

The 40+ mile Grand Traverse is four weeks away. Four weeks… That’s not much time… Is it enough time…? If you’re an endurance athlete then you may recognize the following line of “reasoning.” The conversation I had with myself went something like this:

“I’ve heard of athletic miracles, of players coming back from near-disastrous injuries and illness with incredible performances. Can that be me?”

“Can I replace running with mega-miles on the bike, rehab the calf, and get to the start line of the Grand Traverse?”

“Are there miracle drugs? Can steroids help? If so, should I attempt to use them?”

(I’ve never considered steroids but I did learn a few things about them. The good news is that several significant factors including ugly/weird other effects put me off this route.)

Panic

I screeched into a blistering panic for about 48 hours. I came up with all sorts of irrational, desperate thoughts. It was agonizing and depressing. The emotional part of my brain had a flailed and reeled as the rational part held up the facts about my injury and the reality of running a 40-mile race in four weeks.

Waaah! The poor privileged white man may not get to run recreationally through the woods! 

In the context of the wider world, of suffering, of true hardship, this was not an actual problem… but sometimes things bother me.

Sanity and calm

I spoke with my coach, Andrew Simmons of Lifelong Endurance. He helped me. He did what a good coach should do: Tell the truth. We both agreed that Pikes was out. As for the GT, he said there was a far outside possibility that I could jog/hike the race, stagger across the finish line in misery,  damage my calf severely, and destroy my ability to run for 60-90 days. These were the facts. My decision was crystal clear. No more racing. Heal up. Get ready for next year.

We agreed to reconnect again in several weeks. He recommended I be able to run 20-25 miles per week with 10-12 mile long runs before I commit to serious training.

To be very clear, I place no blame on Andrew or the running plan for my injury. I was making solid progress and I have been entirely satisfied with Andrew’s coaching. I fully intend to enlist his help again on future races.

The upside

Adverse events are guaranteed to happen. Any athletic endeavor comes with risk. Trail running is risky. Ultra-distance running even more so. There are innumerable variables that must align for a successful race and a successful season. It’s entirely likely that something or several somethings can go wrong. How does one react? To me, that’s a crucial issue. Does one wallow in self-pity and self-criticism or is there a better way? I choose to observe several positive details:

First and most importantly, my mind is right. I love the training: running in the mountains, preparing to race. My motivation is sky high—I love the process! — and I am deeply grateful for my time on the trail in the mountains. I have every intention of running the races I missed this year. I carry no negative emotions around trail running.

Second, I try to be resilient in these circumstances. I’m not Mr. Spock, I have emotions and I definitely experience the intense anguish familiar to any athlete who’s hobbled by an injury. Once the teeth gnashing and the freakout is over though I try to move forward in a positive way. Ruminating and stewing over past events is wasted energy, it won’t heal my calf faster, and unless you have a time machine I can borrow so I can go back and fix my mistake, I’ll never be able to change the past. Move forward.

Third, I recognize the significance of my weak link. My left lower-leg/ankle/foot/calf is a continual problem. I do just enough rehab/strength work to push the problem away, then I ignore the weak link and the problems return. I believe the recent hard running I’ve done has exposed the weak link again. Calf work is boring for me. I don’t like it so it’s easy to avoid it. The problem is that it’s critical for my running success. (I’ve discussed this in the past.) It stares me in the face. I have a choice: I can continue to follow the same process and thus I should expect the same problem to return. Or I can devote significant energy to build up my lower leg, armor it, make it strong and resilient, and expect to perform better. I have a chance to make a better choice going forward and address my calf strength the way I should.

Finally, I had a great experience working with my coach. We moved my running in the right direction. Specifically, we worked on tempo runs. I got faster over longer distances. The hard runs felt good and I made progress. My final long run of 20 miles felt superb. I fully believe that I’ll return to a high level of performance with Andrew’s guidance.

There is always an upside to a regrettable situation. Always. Now I get to spend a lot of time on the mountain bike!

The Left Calf Strikes Again. No Running for A While.

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Damnit.

Two weekends ago, I was looking forward with much enthusiasm to the 25k Under Armor race at Copper Mountain. I’d completed a strong 20-mile run the previous weekend to cap off several weeks of hard training. I felt good and everything seemed in proper working order. So it was a surprise to me that I had to quit the race at mile two due to calf/Achilles pain.

The race started immediately with a long climb. It wasn’t terribly difficult, nothing for which I didn’t feel prepared. I was warmed up, had done some running-specific joint mobility drills, and I felt 100% ready to go. Temperatures were in the 60s and the sky was clear. Everything seemed in place for a good performance.

Noticeable calf pain started about 30-minutes into the race. It got worse with every step. Nothing snapped or gave way but the pain came on within several minutes and it quickly slowed my pace.

It’s not uncommon to have some odd ache or pain that fades out after a few minutes of activity. Not this time. Every step was more painful than the last. I stopped a few times, wiggled my foot, stretched the calf a little, tried to do anything at all to fix the issue and no luck. I was limping. One of the rules of pain to which I adhere is that if the pain is enough to alter my mechanics then it’s time to stop the activity.

This felt like an acute injury with pain brought on due to tissue damage. This pain wasn’t behaving like chronic pain. A light-speed PowerPoint presentation of possible outcomes flashed through my mind as several race-related questions materialized:

  • Could I limp and hobble my way to the finish? I had about 13 miles and a lot of climbing left to do. At best it would take all day and I would limp painfully across the finish line. At worst I would have a seriously injured calf and wouldn’t be walking for weeks.
  • What about my other races??? I have two other races, including the main event, the Grand Traverse on Sept 1. That’s the goal and the primary focus for this season. Anything that derails that race is to be avoided. This was a strong argument to quit.
  • My ego sprang to life, the ego that identifies as a runner, a personal trainer, a very fit person, and someone who knows how to guard against injury. For good or ill, this ego needs others to know all these things, and see me as I want to see myself. To tell others that I quit a race could be a serious blow to Mr. Ego. This emotional, irrational dude pleaded to find a way to push on.
  • Some 43-year-old part of my being chimed in. This individual seemed educated, experienced, emotionally balanced, and most importantly, honest. This voice evaluated the evidence and stated clearly, “Stop now! You’re done. Don’t be stupid. Not only is it the right decision, it’s the only decision.”

I quit the race, earning myself my first DNF (Did Not Finish) and limped down the mountain to the base. Boo hoo. It was a drag. It was frustrating. I was angry. All normal emotions in this circumstance. That said, I didn’t flush myself too far down the toilet of despair.

I’m not the first runner to quit a race. In fact, my bet is everyone who races in any serious way quits a race due to injury. No one can guard against every potential obstacle. I did the best I could to prepare but I’m not perfect. Further, it’s not like I did anything stupid. I didn’t get drunk the night before. I didn’t forget my shoes at home. I didn’t sabotage myself. (Continuing the race would definitely have been an act of self-sabotage.) Beating myself up ad nauseam would’ve been wasted energy, it wouldn’t have helped me heal faster, and it wouldn’t help me on my next race.

The good news is I made the right decision. I quit when it should have and I avoided a bad injury. I got some crucial information too: I must strengthen the left calf. I must be more thorough than I’ve been in the past. (Here’s a rundown of what I’ve written about the subject.) Here’s what I know:

  • First and foremost I must let this injury heal. It would be a massive mistake to let it partially heal then go run and injure it again. This may take two weeks or more.
  • My left lower leg strength (as measured by single-leg heel raise ability) is significantly weaker than my right.
  • I’ve paid lip service in the past to my left lower leg. I must devote more time and effort to making it strong and keeping it strong.
  • Once my calf heals and once I’m able to load it, I must worship at the altar of calf raises and other lower-leg exercises.

In an effort to maintain my conditioning I will replace running with cycling. Is cycling a good replacement for running? Not really. Considering various kinematic differences in turning a crank with my legs vs running (lack of eccentric loading in cycling, connective tissue contribution in running, joint angles, body position) cycling is noticeably different from running. Is there a better alternative? No.

A 20-Mile Confidence Boost & a Race This Weekend

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I’m in the thick of training for several races, the big one being the 40-mile Grand Traverse on September 1. Yesterday, 7/8, I completed my first 20-mile run for this project. I started with two miles out and back along the Burning Bear Trail then ran out and back on the Abyss Lake Trail for about 16 miles. Both trails are located along Guanella Pass between Georgetown and Grant, CO.

It was a pristine morning, cool and quiet. Rain fell sometime in the night. There were no crowds, just a few people at the start and a few more when I finished.

At this point in my training, I’ve accumulated a lot of miles and fatigue. I’m often sore (not injured, sore). My mood and enthusiasm for running are low some days. This isn’t a surprise. I’ve gone through it before.

I was intimidated going into this run. Last week I ran 17 miles and it was a nasty slog. (Forest fire smoke was a significant factor last week, not this week.) Twenty miles is a genuinely long run, even if I’ve been hovering near that distance for a while.

I finished surprisingly strong on this run. I wasn’t beat up, beat down, or overly brutalized. Tired, yes but not dead. This was a breakthrough run for me. This was a huge confidence boost for me as I head into the Under Armor Copper Mt. 25k.

I believe one of the reasons I felt so good is that I took three acetaminophen tablets at Abyss Lake, a little further than halfway through the excursion. I’ve used acetaminophen on several long runs after I read about the performance-enhancing effects of the drug discussed in Endure by Alex Hutchinson and in this Runner’s World post by Amby Burfoot. (Yes, it’s a drug. Yes, I took it. Call the cops if you want.) I’ve taken two tablets in the past. I’m big, about 200 lbs., so I thought I’d take a little more and observe the effects. I don’t intend to take more. I will continue the acetaminophen consumption on my long runs.