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

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

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

The Kenzan Running Club immediately post race.

The Kenzan Running Club immediately post race.

The night before

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

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

Don’t blow up

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

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

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

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

The most shade anyone would see on the trail.

The most shade anyone would see on the trail.

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

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

A well-run operation

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

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

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

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

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

The Kenzan Running Club

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

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

Between runs

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

The Red Loop & the Fajita Lesson

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

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

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

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

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

Almost time for moonset in Aspen, CO.

Almost time for moonset in Aspen, CO.

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

Running at night

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

My wife, ready to march into the night.

My wife, ready to march into the night.

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

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

The finale

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

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

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

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

Finished before the sunrise.

Finished before the sunrise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

||Hide

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

Tapering for the Ragnar Relay

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

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

HRV

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

The art of overreaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is how training is supposed to work.

This is how training is supposed to work.

The value of coaching

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

Hiking the Maroon Bells – A Training Plan

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My wife, our friend, and I recently completed a big hike, known as the Four-Pass Loop in Colorado’s Maroon Bells Wilderness. That part of Colorado is a truly world-class mountain wilderness. Mention “Colorado,” and most people will conjure images of this place in their minds. The scenery is as dramatically breathtaking as as anywhere on this planet. We were surrounded by massive 14,000 ft. peaks, high alpine forest, natural mountain lakes, and waterfalls. It’s difficult to describe how spectacular this trip was. I highly recommend it to anyone with a taste for outdoor adventure. Just be prepared. This trek was not a casual, easy jaunt.

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Crater Lake and the Maroon Bells looming behind.

The hike covered about 28 miles (Mileage varies depending on where you enter the loop.) and crossed four high-mountains passes each one above 12,000 feet. We took 2 nights and about 2.5 days of travel to get the job done.

Snowmass Peak and exquisite Snowmass Lake.  Trail Rider Pass is way up to the left.

Snowmass Peak and exquisite Snowmass Lake. Trail Rider Pass is way up to the left.

We carried about 30 lbs. of gear and food on our backs. The pack weight plus the elevation and the frequently very technical rocky, rooty terrain made this trip especially challenging. I’m happy to say that while it was by no means an easy task, I felt good, strong and entirely up to the event. I was pleased with my conditioning for the trip. Here are some notes our my preparation.

Specific hike training: Hike!

As I’ve said before in this blog, the best way to prepare for a specific event is to do the event. In this case, we planned to hike anywhere from 6-10 miles per day, over high mountain terrain, with heavy packs. Thus our training consisted of several long hikes with loaded packs. In addition to weekend hikes, we spent several weeks wearing our packs during daily walks with our dog. The idea being that we needed all the time we could get wearing loaded packs. We might’ve looked odd walking the streets in big backpacks, but oh well. Let that be someone else’s concern.

To be clear and emphatic: The best training for hiking, is hiking.

This is me doing my best impression of a hiker on Buckskin Pass.

This is me doing my best impression of a hiker on Buckskin Pass.

 

I’ve been running and cycling for most of the year. I believe both activities have helped provide me with the type of cardiovascular ability to sustain multi-hour hiking at high altitude.

Going back to the idea of specificity, trail running is a close relative of hiking and is a clear choice of exercise for hike preparation. Trail running seems especially effective at preparing not only my heart and lungs but also my feet and ankles for the demands of extending hiking. Walking and running over uneven ground requires the feet and ankles to move through a galaxy of angles and it’s a great way to fortify those lowly and under-appreciated appendages.

The muscles of hiking and weight training

Marching uphill is especially demanding of hip extension and the requisite muscles, particularly the glutes and hamstrings. In contrast, hiking downhill requires strength and endurance of the quads and control of the pelvis by way of the hip abductors. Lost balance and a nasty fall may be the price for poor pelvic control.

With these ideas in mind, I’ve spent much of the spring and summer doing exercises such as lunges, split-squats and step-ups. Those exercises seem very effective for addressing the demands of hiking.

I particularly like what I call offset lunges, split-squats and step-ups. These are done by holding a kettlebell or dumbbell on one side of the body, thus creating an asymetrical, offsetting effect which presents different demands than a typical squat or deadlift.

If we look at real life—particularly hiking—it’s rare that we’re balanced evenly on two legs while working against a load that’s distributed in a symmetrical way on us or against us. So I believe that exercises in which one leg is doing more/different work than the other while the forces of gravity are applied in asymmetric ways are very valuable. (Not that more conventional, symmetrical exercises aren’t of value.) Here are some of those exercises:

I also started deadlifting several weeks prior to the hike.  Even with a properly fitted pack, there is a lot of weight and work going through the back and hips. I knew I’d be putting on and taking off a heavy pack and I thought a deadlift would help prepare for that task.

Upon review, I believe a back squat or a good-morning might be superior to the deadlift in that each of those exercises put weight on the back, thus resembling a loaded pack on the back. (See, symmetrical exercises are good too!)

The future

I’m contemplating running the 4 Pass Loop. Others do it (Read some accounts herehere, here, among others.) and though it’ll be a fairly massive bite to take, I think it’s in the realm of possibility for me. I was very happy with the speed with which I was able to move during the hike. I’m thinking of what it would be like with a lot less gear, lighter shoes, etc. I think it’s feasible. So I ordered my first running vest and I’m contemplating what I’ll need to pack into it. The big run might happen next year…

 

Moab Trail Marathon Part I: Preparation & Running My A%$ Off.

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I’m running the Moab Trail Marathon on Saturday. This will be my first trail marathon and my second ever marathon. I will admit to being a bit nervous. It won’t be easy… or difficult. It’ll be tough as hell. I’ve put in the work though, I’ve had several very good runs lately and I figure I’m as well prepared as I can be. I’m estimating of about 4:48 to 5:14.

I’ve been using the Hansons Marathon Method and I adapted it a little for trail running. There are two Hanson plans and I used the beginner plan as this was my 2nd marathon. The Hansons plan features a whole lotta running. Mucho time on the feet. There are three main workouts as well as easy run days. Wednesday is the only day off though I took a few other days off as needed. Here are some thoughts and observations:

The week

Here’s the day-to-day rundown of a week on the Hansons beginner plan.

Monday: Easy Run, 4-7 miles
Tuesday: Speed/Intervals (@ 5K pace, Week 6-10, 3 miles total), Strength (@ 10K pace, Week 11-17, 6 miles total)
Wednesday: Off
Thursday: Tempo/Race Pace, 5-10 miles
Friday: Easy Run, 3-6 miles
Saturday: Easy Run, 5-10 miles
Sunday: Long Run, 8-16 miles, alternating weekly with Easy Run, mostly 10 miles
Total Miles Per Week: 40s-50s, mostly in the mid 50s for second half of the program

I ran trails twice per week. For the first several weeks my trail runs were Thursdays and Sundays. My thinking in replacing the Thursday tempo run with a trail run was that the highly variable pace of trail runs made the tempo run unnecessary (or maybe less necessary). One Thursday I couldn’t make it to the trail and I did a tempo run. I enjoyed it and I thought I noticed the following week’s runs felt better. So I switched to tempo runs on Thursdays and started back-to-back trail runs on Saturday and Sunday.

I don’t believe I could have run two long trail runs in a row at the start of the program. It seemed like a very daunting proposition! Many ultra-running plans feature this pattern though so I knew it was possible. I believe back-to-back trail runs are ideal in that part of the Hanson’s plan is to create “cumulative fatigue” in preparation for the week’s long run. Since I’m running a trail marathon, it makes sense to create a lot of this fatigue on the trail. I would love to find out from a trail running coach or coaches if this seems like a prudent strategy.

Tough Tuesdays

Tuesdays were often nasty. Tuesdays were track workouts for the first several weeks of the plan. They totaled three miles of work. Track workouts were interesting psychologically speaking. They were intimidating but exciting in their very Spartan way. They weren’t “fun” but I always felt like I accomplished something significant when I completed them.

Tuesday track workouts transitioned into “strength” workouts. These were six miles of work. I did the strength workouts on the road though because that much running on the track would’ve bored me stupid.

These workouts were tough by themselves both physically and mentally. That they came after five days of other runs made them titanic undertakings some days.

I felt rough by Tuesday. Tired, shot, worn-out and trashed. Some days I’d look at the Tuesday workout and think, “What sort of insane fool is going to do this?!  Oh… that would be me I guess…” And I’d give the Hansons book an obscene gesture. Oh well… Had to get that work done. Weekly mileage was 40-50 miles per week. This was by far the most I’ve run in my life.

The long run

The longest run in the Hansons’ plan is 16 miles and there are three of those in the beginner plan. That’s shorter than a lot of typical marathon plans which typically hit 20 miles. These long runs come every other week with shorter long runs (around 10 miles) on other weeks.

That “short” 16-miler comes after three days of running though including a somewhat long Saturday run.. So you go into the long run on some tired legs. The Hansons claim the plan trains you for the last 16 miles of the marathon. Sounds plausible to me.

All those long runs were trail runs and they were never easy. The roughest of the bunch was the Herman’s Gulch to Jones Pass trail. That started at about 10,000 ft. and topped out at over 13,000 ft. Took me 4.5 hrs. It was an overall brutal experience. The terrain was very challenging and it took me about a full week to recover from that excursion.

Did I mention being tired?

The result of all this is that at times I’ve been utterly wiped out. I had about one weight training workout per week. It’s all I could handle! I’ve learned that as I’m apparently a little older than I used to be (not sure how I allowed that to happen) I need rest and recovery more than I need more/harder work. I took a few Mondays completely off but not too many. I recognized that the plan is the plan for a purpose.

Early in the plan I sometimes substituted a mountain bike ride for the easy runs and/or for the Saturday run. Those mountain bike rides were often very challenging and I think they made the following day’s long run very difficult.

Many easy miles

Many of the miles on the Hanson plan are done at an easy pace. Some coaches insist that too many “junk miles” can be detrimental and that easy run days or recovery runs should largely be avoided.

In contrast, the Hanson Method suggests real and important benefits of easy run days. Here is part of their discussion on easy runs:

Easy Running: A lot of bang for your buck
Easy running is the foundation in which all other training can be built from. By itself, easy running will directly contribute to:

  • tendon development
  • specific muscle fiber adaptation
  • bone development
  • mitochondrial growth/distribution
  • glycogen storage/fat utilization
  • general endurance
  • improved running economy
  • improved VO2max
  • Capillary density

I would add to this that easy runs are a good time to work on running technique. It can be a time to think about foot placement, posture, cadence, addressing a possible crossover gait or other issues. The easy runs are low-stress and permit us to focus on needs such as these in a stress-free situation.

Final thoughts

It’s Tuesday and the race is on Saturday. I’m thrilled to report no real injuries. I’ve never run this much in my life so I’m very happy to have overcome the aches and pains that have plagued me for many years. I believe trail running may have some injury preventative qualities centered around movement variability. I also appreciate the psychological effects of running in nature. I’ve written about both those things here.

Bottom line is that I’ve loved the process. From the track workouts to the long runs in the mountains to the ho-hum punch-the-clock runs (of which there were many) I can say I have truly enjoyed the preparation for this race.

I’ll post more about the process later.

Two Big Reasons to Trail Run (or just hike.)

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I’ve been trail running consistently for several weeks now. I see this as a marker of success in both the continuing rehab of my reconstructed ACL (surgery was May of 2014) and in overcoming stubborn Achilles tendon pain. If all this nice

progress continues, I plan on running the Aspen Golden Leaf half-marathon in October (Damnit!  It’s sold out. I need to move on that earlier next year.) and then the Moab Trail Marathon in November. So all this trail running has me thinking…

Nature & depression

Good for me.   Good for you.

Good for me. Good for you.

An article in the Atlantic titled How Walking in Nature Prevents Depression discusses a study that demonstrates the real psychological benefits to tromping around in the outdoors. Specifically, the researchers found this:

“Through a controlled experiment, we investigated whether nature experience would influence rumination (repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self), a known risk factor for mental illness. Participants who went on a 90-min walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment. These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.”

When I’m on the trail, I’m very much “in the moment” as the saying goes. I am consumed with the ground and where I put my feet. I’m aware of the plants, the rocks, the temperature, and if I’m in the right spot, I might hear the rush of a stream. I Iam deeply engrossed in the experience. Rarely if ever do I think about the hassles and conflicts that await me in good ol’ “civilization.”

Searing physical exertion is often a part of my trail running experience as well. Despite the pain, I keep coming back. It would seem some part of my brain wants to be there.

Trail running & movement variability

I’ve mentioned the idea of movement variability (here and here). It (to me) is an exciting concept and a hot topic in sports skill training and injury pre-/rehab circles. The smart people at Cor-Kinetic discuss movement variability in this impeccable blog post. The writer states:

Viva movement variability!

“Movement variability is inherent within a biological system. Not only is it inherent it is also beneficial for reducing risk of overload and enabling the ability to adapt to events that occur within our ever-changing environment. Elite athletes cannot reproduce exact and invariant movement patterns repetitively even through hours of devoted practice. The best movers are those that can execute the same stable end point skill but in many variable ways dependant on the constraints and context of performance. It could be that part of being resilient and robust lies in variability. The ability to tolerate load may come in part in the way in which it is internally processed through our coordinative variability.”

If we think about trail running, then we see that it takes place in a highly variable, constantly changing environment. As we run (or walk) we can’t consciously think about how we place our foot every time we step. Rather we must react. This is a job for our subconscious and our reflexes. The movement variability researchers suggest that through this process we may protect ourselves from a lot of potential injuries. (Nothing in the world however can protect us from all injuries.)

On the trail, we have to stay upright, balanced and moving while our running parts deal with all sorts of odd angles and shapes. The great part about negotiating this rocky, rooty, up-and-down environment, is that our feet, ankles, knees, hips—and especially our nervous system—builds what I call a movement database. Our brain soaks up the subtle changes in movement that we experience so we increase our runnings kills. We have an opportunity to as the Cor-Kinetic post says, “execute the same stable end point skill but in many variable ways dependent on the constraints and context of performance.” Our tissues are stimulated in a remarkably well-rounded way so that we become more durable than if we run only on flat, monotonous surfaces.

I’m pleased that I’m not the only one thinking this way. (I’d love to come up with an original thought some day.) Similar observations on trail running are discussed in the Running-physio.com article titled Trail running – Natural rehab?

The writer describes his own experience in trail running:

“Despite running long distances over challenging terrain and including more hills than I’ve ever done before I have far less pain running on a trail than I do on the road.”

And he suggests the mechanism by which this process may work:

“I’m not the only one to find this, so how can trail running reduce pain and help injuries?

It’s all to do with repetitive load – running on a fairly uniform surface stresses the same areas of the body over and over again. Those areas become overloaded and you start to develop pain. Trail running involves a variety of different surfaces – I usually run over grass, mud, gravel and forest ground with treacherous tree roots. This variety means the load on the body is constantly changing rather than overloading certain areas. It may also act as its own rehab – your body adapts to the constant challenges to your control and stability. Running a trail becomes like an advanced balance work out.”

Wisely, he goes on to discuss when trail running may NOT be the right thing for you and how to gradually introduce trail running into your routine.

All of this is anecdotal evidence. I don’t know of any strong studies that show trail running will fix any given injury. That said, a trail run fits the bill very well for a variable movement experience and it’s my belief that many runners who aren’t trail running will benefit from adding some time on the trail into their schedule.

 

The Big Running Plan Begins

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There’s a big event that I’ve had on my mind for years.  It’s the Gore-Tex Transrockies Run. This year’s gig is six days, 120 miles with 20,000 feet of elevation gain. I’m looking at running the 2015 race so I figure the mileage and such should be about the same. Go here for maps and descriptions of this year’s stages.

Preparation for the Transrockies run means a whole lotta running this year.  I need to do more trail races and another marathon, most likely a trail marathon. I’m running a lot (for me) right now. I’m up to about 30 miles per week. I’ve got a 5k this weekend and more races planned (more on that in a moment.) The very good news is that everything is feeling solid and strong, including my stubborn, chronic Achilles/heel trouble.

I’ve also consulted with Denver-area running coach Jay Johnson. I saw him speak at the NSCA Endurance Clinic a few months ago and I became very interested in picking his brain a bit. I’ll be communicating with him every month or so to fine tune my workouts and run plan. Speaking of which…

My first and only marathon (two years ago) was based on the FIRST Run Less, Run Faster plan.  This plan has only three run days per week: a track workout, tempo run, and a distance run.  Two days a week were devoted to a cross-training workout on a bike or rower.  I also ran the Ft. Collins Half-Marathon and Park-to-Park 10-Miler based on this plan. It’s a minimalist running plan. It’s very useful if there’s limited training time available. This plan got me through several races but I want to know if a different type of plan will increase my performance. I’m curious if more running will make me a better runner.

The Transrockies run is a lot of running for several days in a row, thus with the SAID Principle in mind, it makes sense to me that I should train in as close a fashion to the race as possible. This time around, I’m going the maximalist route with the Hansons Marathon Method.  (I also need to get the Hansons Half-Marathon Method.)

Something to consider with this high-volume plan is the opportunity to practice running. That is, with all the miles and the recovery runs, I get the chance to refine my running skills. Running is a skill just like playing a horn or driving a golf ball. Running improvements don’t come just from the obvious increases in fitness that come from speed work, tempo runs and tough long runs. Matt Fitzgerald discusses this idea in a Running Times article called Rethinking Junk Miles:

You see, running is a bit like juggling. It is a motor skill that requires communication between your brain and your muscles. A great juggler has developed highly refined communication between his brain and muscles during the act of juggling, which enables him to juggle three plates with one hand while blindfolded. A well-trained runner has developed super-efficient communication between her brain and muscles during the act of running, allowing her to run at a high, sustained speed with a remarkably low rate of energy expenditure. Sure, the improvements that a runner makes in neuromuscular coordination are less visible than those made by a juggler, but they are no less real.

For both the juggler and the runner, it is time spent simply practicing the relevant action that improves communication between the brain and the muscles. It’s not a matter of testing physiological limits, but of developing a skill through repetition. Thus, the juggler who juggles an hour a day will improve faster than the juggler who juggles five minutes a day, even if the former practices in a dozen separate five-minute sessions and therefore never gets tired. And the same is true for the runner.

 (BTW, Russian kettlebell and strength expert Pavel Tsatsouline discusses the exact same principle but with regard to strength training.)

The Hansons Plan has me running often in a fatigued state. The longest run I do though is 16 miles. Most marathon plans feature a 20 mile run. So why only 16 as a longest run? This 16-miler will take place after several days of running. I’ll have a tempo run then an 8 or 6 mile run the day before the 16-miler. The idea as they say in the Hansons book is that I’ll be training to run the last 16 miles of the marathon. Sounds interesting and plausible to me. That goes along with something Coach Johnson suggested. He said that at some point, in preparation for the Transrockies Run, that every other week I should run back-to-back long trail runs. Again, this goes to the idea of training specificity. I imagine I’ll do that next year.

Here’s a list of races and potential races I plan to run this year:

  • 3/2/14 – That Dam 5k – Denver: I need to run a 5k so I can derive my training paces for the marathon plan.
  • 4/6/14 – XTERRA Cheyenne Mt. Trail Run 12km – CO Springs: Don’t know anything about this race but I’m looking fwd to it.
  • 5/4/14 – Ft. Collins Marathon 13.1: Ran this one last year and had a great time.  Went out a tiny bit too fast though.  Hope to better my time of 1:47.
  • 6/7/14(maybe) – Boulder Sunrise Duathlon 3.1 mile run / 17.3 mile bike / 3.1 mile run – Boulder: My wife is doing this triathlon. I don’t swim well enough to do a tri but I’ve done some duathlons and this might be fun and a change of pace.
  • Summer – 5k: Coach Jay Johnson suggested I train for and race a 5k. He said putting in that speed work would be useful for a Fall marathon.
  • 8/23/14 (maybe) – Continental Divide Trail Race 15.5 mi. – Steamboat: Ran this one a couple of years ago and it was brutal but beautiful and a very laid-back kinda thing.  Wouldn’t mind taking it on again in a better pair of shoes. Not sure if this one fits into the overall race plan.
  • 9/20/14 – Aspen Golden Leaf Trail Half-Marathon – Aspen: This race got a great write-up in some running magazine (Runner’s World?  Competitor?) recently. We’ve never been to Aspen. Sounds interesting. Should be good preparation for the marathon.
  • 11/8/14 – Moab Trail Marathon: This is my main race. We’ve never been to Moab and this is a great reason to go.

That’s my plan right now. I’m very excited about this! I’m feeling great right now. I really love the process of getting to these races. I love the anticipation and the training. We’ll see what happens.

Stuart McGill, Born to Run & Ketogenic Eating

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Here’s what I’m into right now:

Stuart McGill

I recently finished Stuart McGill’s Ultimate Back Fitness & Performance.  It has definitely contributed to how I view conditioning and care of the spine.  For instance:

  • I’m very careful to avoid much if any bending or twisting at the lumbar spine.
  • According to McGill, the core musculature responds best to endurance-type training, so I now go for time rather than out-and-out strength.
  • McGill makes the observation that excellent athletes tend to have a very rigid core–but very mobile hips and shoulders.
  • Here are two videos with McGill.  The first has McGill discussing several myths regarding low back pain and core strength.  In the second video we see demonstrations of three exercises often prescribed by McGill.  These are often called the Big 3: the curl up, side plank and bird dog.?

Born to Run

I’m a little late to the party but I recently finished Chris McDougal’s Born to Run. This book has done more than almost anything to push the popularity of minimalist running.

Born to Run is more than a book about running.  Much of the book concerns the history and culture of the Tarahumara people who live in the isolated Copper Canyon region of Mexico.  Non-runners with any interest in other cultures will find this book very interesting.

The book and author have generated some controversy. Any runner knows about the hot debate over minimalist/barefoot-type running.  I won’t go into all that.  (For just about the most thorough discussion on minimalist running, you can’t do better than the Sports Scientists dissection of the subject.)

Here are some thoughts on both the book and discussions that have followed:

  • The story is quite entertaining.  It’s possible that the entertainment value of the book and a subsequent New York Times article from McDougal have somewhat overshadowed some facts.
  • Alex Hutchinson who writes the Sweat Science blog for runner’s world describes an interview with McDougal that clashes with later statements from McDougal.
  • Hutchinson brings up several points in his response to McDougal’s article titled The Once and Future Way to Run.  One is this:

“4. The one part of the article that made me kind of angry was this passage, about McDougall’s visit to the Copper Canyon in Mexico that led to Born to Run:

I was a broken-down, middle-aged, ex-runner when I arrived. Nine months later, I was transformed. After getting rid of my cushioned shoes and adopting the Tarahumaras’ whisper-soft stride, I was able to join them for a 50-mile race through the canyons. I haven’t lost a day of running to injury since.

I actually interviewed McDougall back in 2009, shortly before Born to Run came out. And that’s not the story he told me. Here’s what I wrote then:

Long plagued by an endless series of running injuries, he set out to remake his running form under the guidance of expert mentors, doctors and gurus. He adjusted to flimsier and flimsier shoes, learning to avoid crashing down on his heel with each stride and landing more gently on his midfoot. It was initially successful, and after nine months of blissful training, he achieved the once-unthinkable goal of completing a 50-mile race with the Tarahumara. But soon afterwards, he was felled by a persistent case of plantar fasciitis that lingered for two years. “I thought my technique was Tarahumara pure,” he recalls ruefully, “but I had regressed to my old form.” Now, having re-corrected the “errors” in his running form, he is once again running pain-free.

I’m in New York right now, and won’t be back home until Monday night, otherwise I’d see if I can dig up my actual notes from the interview. But I remember McDougall telling how stressed out he’d been, because he’d spent all this time working on a book about the “right” way to run — but as the publication date loomed ever nearer, he’d been chronically injured for two years. It was only shortly before publication that he was able to get over the injuries and start running again.”

McDougal responds to Hutchinson’s post here and Hutchinson replies back.

Personally this doesn’t do much to bother me or take away from a) a great story that’s told in Born to Run or b) the value and importance of minimalist running. I think it does suggest that McDougal is not a scientist and that the need to create a compelling story may persuade a writer to drift towards a bit of exaggeration.

What’s your take on this back-and-forth?

Ketogenic Diet (high-fat/low-carb/moderate protein intake)

Here’s another party to which I’m a bit late: the high-fat ketogenic diet.  In fact, most people who’ve tried it probably abandoned it back in the early 2000s. (I think they should’ve have.) You’ve heard of the Atkins diet.  That’s largely what I’m doing now.

In reality, I’m becoming more focused and precise with this type of eating.  I switched to a higher-fat diet when I became familiar with the Perfect Health Diet.My current efforts are informed by the Art & Science of Low-Carbohydrate PerformanceJeff Volek, PhD, RD & Stephen Phinney, MD, PhD are the authors. I like their credentials and their experience. To me, it lends weight to their words. Here’s a rundown of the main points of the book:

  • Their book is well-referenced and fairly easy to understand.
  • They present convincing evidence (to me) in favor of a) greatly reducing carbohydrate and b) greatly increasing fat intake and c) why this strategy can be very effective for athletes.
  • How?
    • Burning fat for fuel (aka ketogenesis) is a cleaner process.
    • Inflammatory stress is lower compared to using carbs for fuel
    • You’ll be less damaged from exercise and you’ll recover faster
    • You have a nearly limitless supply of fat for fuel compared to a limited supply of glycogen.
    • By shifting your metabolism to prefer fat, you’ll avoid bonking.
    • Also, by shifting your metabolism to prefer fat you’ll improve your body composition.  Besides the aesthetic appeal of a lean physique, if you’re lighter then you’ll have a better ability to produce power.  If you’re lighter then you should be able to run and bike faster.
    • Endurance athletes who experience GI distress may do very well on the high-fat diet.

I was motivated to dig into this type of eating after I spoke with my former client and friend Mike Piet.  He’s moved in the low-carb direction after his friend and accomplished ultra-distance runner  Jon Rutherford.  Jon’s experience as an athlete who’s increased his performance is described in  the Art & Science of Low-Carbohydrate Performance. Thus far, I like the results. I’ll talk more about them as this experiment continues.

Look for Mike Piet’s guest blog post as he describes his very interesting low-carb/high-fat experience during the Savage Man Olympic and half-Iron distance triathlons–done on consecutive  days.