Saturday, November 28, 2015

Hardrock Training Analysis

Wow. It's been a really long time since I've written anything here. I apologize for that. Blogging about running has definitely taken a backseat to actually running, and to life in general.

A quick summary of my life: everyone on my team was basically laid off in June. 18 years, 1 company: done. The severance package was actually pretty generous. I took the summer off to run in the mountains, tackle some long-overdue home repairs, and enjoy plenty of quality time with my family. I started looking for a new job in September, found one, and since then I've been madly scrambling to check everything off of my ever-growing todo list! Yes, we're moving.

Goodbye, Leadville! Hello, Seattle!

We'll keep our beloved, little Victorian house in Leadville. We hope to return once or twice a year, but now our life has shifted to the Pacific Northwest. I moved out here a few weeks ago. The rest of the family will follow in January. It's exciting, but also very sad-making. We'll dearly miss our Leadville friends and the small town life. It's hard to feel like we're not selling out. Exchanging the extraordinary for the typical. No more remote work for me. No more ridiculously flexible hours and zero commute time. No more altitude!

Training is about to get interesting! (I'm not sure it'll even be possible next year!)

Hey, at least I still live within sight of a 14er!

I still haven't found the time to write up a Hardrock or a Leadville race report, but I thought I'd write down a jumble of random thoughts about my training this year. I put a lot of effort into thinking about and adjusting my training for Hardrock. Did it pay off? Eh... probably not, if you solely look at my race performance. But, I'm pretty sure I was in the best shape of my life this year. For a variety of reasons, I just didn't quite execute to my highest potential on race day. I still had a lot of fun along the way, though! Hardrock is an awesome race. Leadville is an awesome race. I love both of them.

If you're one of the few people that get selected for Hardrock and have never run it before, don't be intimidated. It's totally doable. In fact, I'd argue that it's much easier to finish Hardrock in 48 hours than it is to finish Leadville in 30 hours. Hardrock is not 18 hours tougher than Leadville. (I'd say it's closer to 10 hours tougher for a typical mid-packer.)

Is it possible to over-hype Hardrock? Yup. It's a beautiful, beautiful course, and I've signed up for it again next year. I loved it. And I think everyone should probably run it at least once. Go ahead, throw your name in the hat, and you might be able to run it sometime in the next 8 years! But, is Hardrock the be-all, end-all race? Naw... It's an extremely well-organized, thoughtful, and unique event, that's for sure. It is epic. That's probably the best adjective for it. Truly epic. But there are many different races out there, many of which could be just as rewarding as Hardrock. Life is short.

Grant-Swamp Pass.
Why blog about my training? Well, honestly, this post simply started out as a series of personal notes for my future self. I'm certainly no expert, but hopefully writing about my experience training for Hardrock can help other aspiring Hardrockers in some small way. As the Hardrock lottery approaches, I found myself feeling very nostalgic about my training (which I've basically ignored for the past 3 months). I really invested a ton of time into my training this year-- not just my actual running, but also planning for it, analyzing it, and adjusting it on-the-fly. After my nagging injuries in '14, my confidence had taken a bit of a hit. I was beginning to doubt myself. Was running 100's every year even sustainable?

Overall, my training for Hardrock was very, very solid. It’d probably grade it an A-. I pretty much hit all of my training goals. I broke monthly mileage/time PR's for every month from December through June. I set some solid PR’s on many benchmark runs that I’ve run many times over the years. Even though my Hardrock performance was a little bit of a disappointment to me, and I failed to set another PR at Leadville this year (though I did big buckle), I can almost certainly say that I was in the best shape of my life. It was a truly awesome summer that I may never be able to replicate again in the future.

That said, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

Most of the changes I’d make would be with how I actually ran Hardrock/Leadville-- not with how I trained for them. (My race day execution adjustments will have to wait for a future post!)

I was coming off an injury-plagued ‘14 season. My training was very inconsistent from June '14 through November '14. I started training for Hardrock before I was even selected-- almost exactly a year ago on December 1st.

Simply stated, my goal for ‘15 was to just run more. Yes, cross-training has its place, but I needed to get off my bike trainer and run. (FWIW, I count biking and skiing as cross-training, and snowshoeing and hiking as running.)

Consistent, easy running. The 80/20 rule. Don't obsess about streaking. Track total training time, not mileage. Focus on vertical-- especially later in the season. Don’t just track numbers, also keep a journal of how each workout feels. Your spreadsheet is your quantitative and your journal is your qualitative. A journal is especially useful for retroactively figuring out when an injury actually started. It’s also great for tracking illness and accumulated fatigue. Basically, it’s great for tracking all the touchie-feelie stuff that’s hard to capture in a spreadsheet. Despite being hard to quantify, that kind of stuff is absolutely key to understanding how your training is going.

Above all: Don’t get injured!

Cunningham. Probably my favorite picture of the race. Pure joy.

For reference, I consider the 8 weeks prior to your 3-week taper to be the most important weeks of training. All the rest of your training is simply setting yourself up to be able to absorb these final weeks. As a baseline, I consider approximately 50 miles, 10 hours, and 10,000 feet of vertical to be a solid, sustainable training load during this final block. I've had my best races when I've been able to reach those numbers consistently during the final weeks of my training. Ideally, you want to push beyond that a few weeks to encourage even more adaptation. While training for Hardrock, I hit the 80 miles, 20 hours, and 20,000 feet of vertical marks about 3 times (not consecutively). Remember, this is all at 10,000 feet! You probably want to adjust those numbers for lower elevations...

Here's a link to a post which contains all the actual data for my Hardrock training this year.

In no particular order:

Yes, living in Leadville while training for Hardrock is pretty damn ideal. And not just living there for a few weeks, but living there day-in and day-out for 9 years. No one was training at a higher altitude than I was. No one. Think about it. That’s pretty awesome to be able to say. However, training at 10,000 feet is not without its downsides, it doesn't make you superhuman, and it’s certainly not required-- even for a race like Hardrock. It’s much harder to develop power/strength when you’re so aerobically limited. Recovery takes longer. And you’re running in frickin’ snow for more than half the year. What’s truly awesome about Leadville is the easy access to so many wonderful trails and inspiring peaks. Training in Leadville is not dull. It’s inspiring. And it’s supremely motivating in the summer when the trails finally melt out and the wildflowers start exploding. That’s its biggest advantage. I felt totally at home during Hardrock. The high altitude, the crazy weather, the alpine terrain: it’s what I had been training in for months (and living in for years!). Though the San Juans are different than the Sawatch in many subtle ways, they’re about as close as you can hope to get.

Kroger's Canteen. Hardrock summed up in a single aid station.

For the first time ever, I joined the local gym (from December to March). I think that worked out well for me. I called it "weather insurance". Yes, it's badass to run outside everyday regardless of the weather, but let's be realistic. As a father with two young kids and a full-time job, I would often have to train very early in the morning or late at night. In Leadville, it is damn cold at those hours. Like, single-digit cold. At some point, training outside is just silly. I actually respond very well to treadmill training. There are no distractions. It's just me and my numbers: HR, pace, vertical. I never ran longer than 60 minutes at a time. (I would never want to use a treadmill longer than that.) But, 60 minutes 2 or 3 times a week in the dead of winter? Yeah, that's fine with me! It got me off the bike trainer, which was my only bad weather option in previous years. I've also heard the Stairmaster referred to as "the secret Hardrock training weapon" on more than one occasion. I only tried it a few times myself, but I think I'll experiment with it more in the future.

We had a very late spring melt in ‘15. May’s weather was terrible. It took a ton of dedication to get out the door in May. Only having a race as burly as Hardrock on my calendar got me out the door on some weekends. Running down in New Mexico at Jemez also certainly helped.

If I were to train for Hardrock again, I’d probably cut back a bit on the 50-mile runs. I think one mountainous 50-miler is good for testing out nutrition, but the other 50-milers could be replaced by back-to-back 20 milers-- or even just a single 50K race-- run at a slightly higher intensity. 50 milers aren’t necessarily bad, but they lower your overall training intensity.

A hilly 50K run at high intensity is truly the best/hardest workout possible. Target 7 hours of focused, hilly running as your hardest workout. It could be 26 miles with 10,000 feet of vertical or 30 miles with 7,000 feet of vertical or whatever. Yes, everyone loves mountainous 50 milers (myself included), but 12 hours and 50 miles is not strictly-speaking a better workout. At best, when you take everything into account, it’s about the same except with 5 extra hours of time investment.

That said, running the R2R2R in April was awesome! Probably not worth it on a regular basis due to all the driving, but you absolutely must run this at least once in your life. Why not when you’re training for your first Hardrock? The timing is perfect.

All my highest time/mileage weeks were 50-miler weeks. I would’ve liked to have some high mileage weeks where the workouts were more consistently spread throughout the week. Like, a week where I ran/hiked 2+ hours/day for 6 days. That's a bit of an exaggeration perhaps, but hopefully you get my point. My highest mileage weeks were probably a bit too “spikey”, with more than half of the miles coming from a single run on the weekend.

Variety is key. The more different workouts you can do, the better. Mix things up.

Ideally, I should’ve kept doing mile interval workouts throughout my entire training-- even when the weather became pleasant and I moved off the treadmill. I'm more instinctively drawn to hill workouts, but speed workouts have their place.

I could probably make my training much more periodized than it was. I did take easy weeks in ‘15 (when I was sick or busy or injured or whatever), but my hard weeks could’ve been even harder and my easy weeks even easier. More than once it's struck me how the ideal training plan seems to involve periodization at almost every level: you want your training load to fluctuate on the monthly level, the weekly level, the daily level, and even within a single workout. It's almost like a fractal...

Unfortunately, I seem to require consistent stretching to survive training at 7+ hours/week. A quick dynamic stretching routine prior to the run, then some static stretching after the run. (And sometimes even some stretching during the run!) This is critically important during the first couple of days following a hard workout! I hate stretching.

I survived my training, but I felt like I was on the edge a lot of the time. A fair amount of illness. A back injury (unrelated to running). A sprained ankle. Nearly constant early-season AT soreness (leftover from '14) and knee aches (i.e., runner's knee) that never really went away for long. My injuries seemed to correlate more with my midweek training volume rather than any particular long run. Or, rather, I think I was most injury-prone 1-2 workouts after a long run (when I was still very tight)-- not during the long run itself.

Oscar's Pass. Racing yet another thunderstorm.

I don’t really need to train as much as I did pre-March. Yes, I need to get myself into a place where I can absorb my first hard training block in March, but I could easily do that with 5 workouts/week. More is generally better, but I could “ramp up” my training faster than I did, I think. Block-driven training requires more disciplined, quality workouts, however.

Assuming you’re still running quality workouts (i.e., speedwork, long runs, etc.), I don’t think you necessarily need to mix in tons of vertical until June. I love focusing on vertical-- I think it strongly encourages quality, and makes you think more about time rather than distance-- but it’s probably not strictly necessary so early in training. Certainly your final “block” of training (i.e., the final month before your taper for Hardrock) needs to be all about vertical, vertical, vertical. But, prior to that, your training can look like it normally does for any other 100 miler (e.g., Leadville).

There was definitely a benefit to bumping my typical 3-hour early season (February-April) long runs up to 4-5 hours. The extra time was solely due to increased vertical-- not miles. In fact, I ran fewer miles per long run even with the 2 extra hours! These harder long runs probably don’t need to happen every week, however.

Respect the 14er! There’s something very unique about climbing up and bombing down a mountain. It really works the glutes/quads in a way that’s hard to replicate. You need to get to a place where hiking a 14er doesn’t make you sore for the following day’s workout. For those of you that don’t live near a 14er, a 3-4 hour run/hike with the maximum amount of vertical you can find is a good substitute.

Ideally, I’d do much more hiking at a higher intensity. Beyond conversational pace. Early season snow, plus my ankle injury, impacted how much hard power-hiking I could do. Easy hiking: yes. Power-hiking? Not so much.

Consider using a weight vest for hikes-- especially for shorter, midweek hiking routes. I never did this, but I think it might be worth experimenting with.

Though I didn't try it that often, I think 2 runs per day has its place during peak training. Usually 1 hard and 1 easy. Or even 1 run and 1 hike. It’s a safer way to boost volume. Mile-for-mile, it might even be better than running 7 days/week.

I liked periodically tracking RHR and MAF pace during training. I don't usually do that. I should’ve kept it up during the summer, though... It was more of a winter activity when I was stuck on the treadmill.

The more I look at my HR data, the more I’m convinced that altitude compresses your HR ranges. Your lows are higher and your highs are lower. My RHR would be about 5 bpm lower at sea level (high 40’s), and my perceived “MAF” HR would be about 10 bpm lower at altitude (low-to-mid 130’s). It’s a little tough to correlate precisely because my training at sea level is typically on much flatter and easier terrain than my training in Leadville, but 140 bpm at Leadville feels way harder than 140 bpm at sea level (e.g., Florida or Boston). I think that’s the easiest way I can state it. 140 bpm does not feel the same at altitude as it does at sea level! It feels significantly harder. My HR barely ever spikes into the 150’s in Leadville. At sea level it spikes into the 150’s all the time-- even into the 160’s. In both cases, my perceived effort feels almost exactly the same. Alternatively, if I hold my HR constant, I seem to run about 30-45 seconds/mile faster at sea level on similar terrain (on, say, a 5 to 10-mile run). What does this mean for MAF training? Well, I don’t see how you can blindly stick to your textbook MAF HR at 10,000 feet! It’s going to be too high to be a truly easy effort. You’ve got to adjust it towards the lower end of the MAF spectrum. Alternatively, just run by feel. A MAF run should feel like a MAF run no matter the altitude. However, your HR is going to be significantly lower at that level of effort at 10,000 feet. YMMV. We’re all an experiment of one, etc., etc., etc.. But that’s what 6 years of training in Leadville has taught me.

Grant-Swamp Pass

I hesitate to say it, but I think bodyweight matters. The lighter you are, the faster you are-- especially going uphill. During peak training, I weighed less than I did than when I thru-hiked the AT 13 years ago! Crazy. I didn’t actively diet or reduce my caloric intake, but my increased training load (with more consistent early-season running) definitely had an impact. My power-to-weight ratio was probably the best it’s ever been.

I can’t necessarily point to one single reason, but I definitely recovered faster/better from both Hardrock and Leadville than I have from any of my 100’s in previous years. My legs were totally solid both during and after my goal races. I wasn’t afraid of attacking the downhills during Leadville, for example. I knew leg strength was not going to be my limiting factor. I think this is one of the main benefits of massive amounts of vertical during training and lots of 5+ hour runs.

Not that I’ve really run a lot of 5ks-- in fact, I’ve never even officially raced one-- but, I broke my 5k PR in August while running at 12,000 feet! That’s 3 back-to-back-to-back sub-7-minute miles. At 12,000 feet! Given my general lack of speedwork, I feel that this is pretty solid evidence that you can, in fact, get faster at shorter distances just by increasing your training volume and focusing on lots of vertical. As I’ve read somewhere before, hill workouts are like speed workouts in disguise. I’m sure actual, legitimate speed workouts become more critical as your goal pace drifts closer to 5-minute miles (i.e., you need to work on leg turnover and developing more fast-twitch muscle fibers, etc.), but if you’re happy in the 6’s (like me) then you can get there by simply hammering the vertical and increasing your overall training time-- even if most of your runs are fairly slow.

Spending 4 days scouting out the Hardrock course 2 weeks before the race was very helpful. It definitely helped me visualize the course, the climbs, the conditions, and the aid station locations better. It also gave me the opportunity to do a ton of hiking fairly close to the race. It was a little nerve-wracking to log 20+ hours of training 2 weeks before Hardrock, but I think that it's relatively safe as long as the training consists of hiking at a relatively relaxed pace.

During my taper, I tried to focus on simulating the conditions I would experience during the race itself. I actively planned my runs to coincide with afternoon thunderstorms. Many of my final shakedown runs were at night. I sought out snow fields and scoped out river crossings. These final runs helped me test out a variety of possible gear options, and definitely led to me making helpful, last-minute tweaks to my gear strategy for race day itself.

Cataract-Porcupine. The final thunderstorm approaching.
My stomach continues to be my limiting factor in 100-mile races. I can fairly reliably make it to the 10-12 hour mark without any trouble, but then I always start to battle nausea. I switched to Tailwind this year, and it’s good. It’s fine. But, it didn’t change my life. It basically seems to work as well as maltodextrin for me. I tried to lower my hourly caloric intake this year (from 300+ calories/hour to 250 calories/hour), but I didn’t really notice much of a difference. I tried ginger chews. I tried increasing my salt intake. I tried Zantac. All these adjustments seemed to help a little bit, but there was no huge nutrition breakthrough. Probably my best stretch of nausea-free running was when I paced my friend, Alex, for 61 miles at Wasatch! I felt great almost the entire time and I was just grabbing random “real” food at aid stations: hot dogs, burritos, hard-boiled eggs, potatoes, etc. I drank a fair amount of water and even ate gels in between aid stations. Why didn’t I get nauseated? Who knows! Probably because of my lower effort level, the lower altitude, and because I never got dehydrated because I started pacing so late in the afternoon. I’m still searching for that elusive 100-mile race where nausea isn’t a major factor!

The final climb. I crushed it. Fear is a powerful motivator!