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.

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.

 

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!

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.

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.)

Pain Science for Runners

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This post is mostly the same as my recent article in CompetitorRunning.com. I discuss several exercises in the article designed to help runners overcome common painful issues related to running. For this post, I include pics and videos of the exercises. Here it is.

Pain Science for Runners

Acute vs Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is frustrating. Painful feet, ankles, knees, hips, and low-backs are common in runners. Chronic pain may bring fear that you’re broken, weak, and fragile. Thus you avoid many meaningful activities. You may obsess over your pain. This is the fear-avoidance cycle and it fuels itself.

Chronic pain is different from the pain of an acute injury such as a bone fracture; dislocation; or a cut, scrape, burn, or puncture. Chronic pain lasts long after an acute injury has healed.

Pain serves a valuable purpose but with chronic pain, the pain remains after it has served its purpose. Chronic pain comes from a “broken pain system,” akin to a car alarm that goes off for no reason. Fortunately, you can overcome chronic pain and start running again.

Pain science reveals several important points regarding chronic pain. Most important is that pain rarely equals harm or damage. You can be hurt and strong at the same time. (You can also have damage with no pain. Ever find a bruise but have no memory of how it got there?) Chronic pain is the result of a sensitized nervous system aka central sensitization (http://www.instituteforchronicpain.org/understanding-chronic-pain/what-is-chronic-pain/central-sensitization). Contributors to sensitization include:

  • Beliefs such as you’re broken and further activity (running) will break you more.
  • Lifestyle factors: job stress, relationship stress, lack of sleep, poor diet, lack of exercise
  • Coping strategies: Avoiding running out of fear which drives you deeper into despair and further sensitization.
  • Emotions: catastrophizing, fear, anxiety, anger, rumination
  • Tissue stress: Tissue stress can definitely contribute to pain. Remember though, tissue damage is typically a minor contributor to sensitization.

All of the above factors may be kindling for a pain fire. One too many stressors may spark the fire. You feel pain when the accumulation of stress exceeds your brain’s perceived ability to cope. There are two ways to tackle pain. One way is to decrease the stress that contributes to pain. Another way is to increase your resilience and get strong.

Confront your pain

You can lower nervous system sensitization in several ways:

    • General physical activity
    • Talk with a counselor
    • Various therapeutic techniques: massage, foam rolling, manual therapy, hot, cold
    • Consistent sleep schedule
    • Improve your diet
    • Load and strengthen the place that hurts.
    • Resume running

Your bones, connective tissue, joints, and muscles are very strong and they respond well to loading. If you’ve been guarding and resting part of your body then it gets weaker. Structures like the Achilles and patellar tendons need strength, not more rest. Physiotherapist, chiropractor and pain expert Greg Lehman favors gradual strengthening as one of the best ways to reduce pain.

Get strong – Load it!

Loading strengthens muscles and connective tissue while and provides an analgesic effect. Physical activity boosts your mood, builds self-efficacy, and shows that you’re not broken. By engaging in exercise you break the fear-avoidance cycle. Here are several exercises to help with several conditions. A comprehensive guide is beyond the scope of this article.

Isometrics:

Isometrics work well to calm pain. Contract and hold with no motion for 30-60 seconds. Perform isometrics frequently throughout the day.

  • Right: Heel raise loaded with a kettlebell for Achilles and plantar

    Heel raise

    fascia pain. Use a bent or straight knee.

  • Below: Wall sit for patellar pain. Progress from two to one leg.

    Wall sit

     

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Below: Straight-leg bridge for glute/hamstring pain. Progress from two to one leg.

Straight-leg bridge

HSR (Heavy Slow Resistance) training:

Exercises should be exhausting in 5-10 slow, deliberate reps. (Most of these can also be done as isometrics too.) Start with bodyweight then add weight via barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, weight vests, machines, or rubber tubing/bands. Persist into pain no higher than a 4 on a 1-10 scale.

Heel raises for Achilles tendonitis can be done with a straight or bent knee.

Loading the knee and hip reduces knee pain.

Band knee & hip extension

Band walks

Side bridges target abs and hip

Band leg press (A squat can be done in a similar way.)

IT Band syndrome

1-leg squat

1-leg bridge

Band leg press (A squat can be done in a similar way.)

Resume activity

Exercise is medicine. If you’ve avoided running for a while then it’s time to run! A little bit of running will help you understand that you’re not broken and the physical activity will help calm your nervous system. You’ll use the process of graded exposure. Add work gradually, keep pain at a minimum, and you’ll increase your capacity for activity.

Try a run/walk protocol like this:

  • Week 1: 1 min. run/3 min. walk, repeat 10x
  • Week 2: 2 min. run/2 min. walk, repeat 10x
  • Week 3: 3 min. run/1 min. walk, repeat 10x
  • Week 4: 40 min. run

Perform each workout twice per week on non-consecutive days. Pain should be no higher than a 4 on a 10-scale (1 = no pain, 10 =  very painful) and pain should not alter your running form. Don’t push through severe pain.

Flare-ups

It’s not uncommon for pain to flare up after activity. Don’t be alarmed. You haven’t done more damage. You’ve pushed a boundary and your nervous system has overreacted. Reduce your activity level a little bit next time you exercise.

Finally

You may need more information beyond this article. A physical therapist or other medical professionals can help guide you through recovery. Injuries such as stress fractures definitely need to be unloaded and rested. If your pain gets worse with activity then seek medical care.

 

Biomechanics and Pain Science Seminar with Greg Lehman

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Poke the bear. (But don’t hump the s%it out of the bear.

I’ll get to the above statement in a moment. (Mom, I apologize but blame Greg for it. I’m just quoting what he said.)

I recently attended Reconciling Biomechanics with Pain Science, a two-day seminar with chiropractor and physiotherapist. Greg Lehman. (There aren’t too many people schooled in both disciplines.) The course was superb! I recommend the course to anyone involved in helping people move and get out of pain, whether you’re a trainer, coach, massage therapist, chiropractor, physical therapist, etc.

This is the cutting edge of pain science. The information may challenge what you hold near and dear as pain gospel, most importantly, pain doesn’t always equal damage. Nor should painful movements always be avoided. In fact, engaging in painful movement is part of getting past the pain and back to living.

This was another big dose of information with which I was familiar. Much like reading a book for the second, third, or 19th time, it’s always useful to revisit and re-examine important information. I came away with a deeper understanding of how pain works and how to work with it.

I’ll discuss what I learned and how I’ll apply this information to over the next several blog posts. Here’s my first takeaway:

You’re free to poke into pain

One of the best ways to overcome pain, regain function, and have fun doing what you love is to load the affected area. Does something hurt when you move it? If so, do the movement slowly and safely to the edge of your ability. Add a little more work over time. Work to the level of pain that you can tolerate. Load the movement to your tolerance. The idea and the expectation is that your tolerance will increase, your pain will decrease, and your life will improve. It may take time, but it’ll happen. This is called graded exposure. Pain is the bear that was mentioned at the top of the post. The concept is that you are free to gradually work to a tolerable level of pain but don’t grind and bash your way into severe pain. You shouldn’t limp, flinch, or recoil from the pain. No white knuckles, please.

If it’s a sore knee, then we’re going to use those parts and make them work. We may do squats, lunges, one-leg squats, hopping—whatever is tolerable. By poking into pain you can habituate to it and decrease the severity. Same with a sore ankle, shoulder, back, etc. Some other examples of pain that diminishes upon exposure:

  • You sprain your ankle and you “walk it off.” It hurts but you move it, load it, and resume activity to a tolerable level and you’re fine. The ankle might be sore so take it easy but don’t just rest it for days or weeks without using it.
  • You step into a hot shower and—Wow! It’s hot!—but it feels fine in a few moments. You accomodate. Similarly…
  • You get into a swimming pool and—Whoooo! It’s chilly!—and you’re fine in a few minutes. You adapt. (Strangely, the same process happens when you step out…)
  • You start a bike ride or a run and you knee bugs you a little. The pain vanishes in a few minutes. Did you suffer an injury that suddenly healed? No, but you had pain and your nervous system changed and then there was no pain. You’re fine.

Movement is a great way to desensitize the nervous system! Anyone who’s gone through post-surgical rehab for something like an ACL tear (me) has gone through this process. We’ve had to work through a certain amount of pain and discomfort as we progressed out of the injury and back into normal living. The crucial point is this: PAIN DOESN’T EQUAL DAMAGE. You’re not broken.

*****IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER***** I’m not talking about loading an acute, severe injury. If a bone is fractured, if you have a dislocation, if you suspect organ damage or if you’re bleeding then please don’t load it. In this case, you ARE damaged and you need medical help, not a trip to the gym. These conditions should be obvious.

I have vanquished the foe!

In my case, I’ve had some foot and heel pain which has been severe at times. I’ve curtailed my running and I’ve had to face the prospect of missing several big races this year. I’ve spiraled down a drain of negative thoughts and dread.  Most runners have faced this overflowing toilet of fear, self-hate, and psychological nastiness. All that stress has only contributed to my pain. What will I do with this crisis? Can life go on???

On the first day of the lecture, I started loading those hurt areas. I sought out the sore spots and made them work. I did both isometric contractions and heel raises with bent and straight knees. I worked various angles and speeds. I worked to the point of local fatigue. My pain started to recede before the lecture was over. My nervous system was changing and my pain was retreating. My hurt spots hurt less.

The next day before the second lecture I went for an easy run. I continued with heel raises and toe work and I added weight to the exercises. My symptoms have only improved. Two days later I did a hard hill workout, a workout that would’ve been seriously painful and nearly unthinkable prior to my new hopeful mindset.  I’m not broken! In fact, wouldn’t be surprised if I was made of vibranium… Maybe adamantium. You probably are too!

 

 

 

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.

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.

 

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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