Friday, January 27, 2012

Nothing Goes As Planned

I'm on day two of my second cold this year. The first was a nasty, but thankfully short-lived stomach bug. The second is a typical head cold: it started with a sore throat, moved on to a stuffy nose, and if this one is like any other head cold I've gotten in the past few years, stage three will be a lingering cough. My three days of illness mean that I've been sick for over 10% of 2012. Awesome.

This early in the season it's relatively easy to absorb a few sick days without it having much impact on my training schedule. I'm only trying to run 25 miles/week this month, so training is relatively mellow. I just hate being sick. It makes me cranky and apathetic.

Last year it seemed like I was battling colds the entire spring. It put a significant dent in my miles. The worst was a head cold I got the week before the Sage Burner 50K. I had dreamed of setting a PR on the course, but it seemed like life had other plans. I remember my ears completely clogging up due to the pressure change of driving down to Gunnison from Leadville. (You can't leave Leadville without descending, and when your sinuses are clogged the increased air pressure of lower elevations is surprisingly painful.) I set up camp near the starting line and tossed and turned restlessly under the stars throughout the night. In the morning, I felt terrible. No improvement: a slight headache, clogged sinuses, a cough... ugh. I seriously questioned why I was there. It was so frustrating! The weather was absolutely beautiful. Everyone at the starting line was bursting with energy. And there I was: sick, lethargic, and feeling sorry for myself. This was not what I had planned.

Well, I had driven all the way down there, I might as well try to run and see how I feel. Perhaps I could downgrade to the 25K halfway through the race, if necessary? I positioned myself dead last in the pack and started plodding up the first gnarly uphill of the course. I told myself to imagine that this was the final 31 miles of a 100 miler. Slow and steady... Pay attention to hydration and nutrition... As I crested the hill I set off through the sage at a blistering 12:30 min/mi pace.

As it turned out, the Sage Burner 50K was probably the race I felt most proud of last year. No, I didn't set a PR, but I only ran it about 10 minutes slower than I did when I was completely healthy (and better trained) in '10. Taking it easy allowed me to focus on my fueling, which helped keep my energy level consistent throughout the race-- not great, just consistent. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other-- walking every uphill, and jogging the downhills and flats. I methodically consumed 300 calories and 20oz of water every hour. Soon I started reeling a few folks in. I began smiling at the aid station volunteers and jokingly shouted "Negative split, dude! Negative split!" I had started the race running so conservatively that a negative split was a distinct possibility. I don't think a single runner passed me during the entire race.

In my depleted state, there was no way I would've been able to finish that race in '10. In '10 it was the first time I had run farther than 25 miles. When I ran it again in '11 I had a year's worth of ultrarunning experience to draw from. A 50K was no longer intimidating. And my experience-- certainly not my speed!-- carried me to finish. Run smart, not fast. It was as if my cold had freed me from ambition. I gave up any desire to go out fast and set a PR. I was happy to simply be moving forward. Sometimes running slower means you ultimately run faster.

Enlightenment through illness.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Training in Leadville: Altitude

Like everyone, I do most of my running near where I live. For me, that means that almost all of my training is at or above 10,000ft. Of the 1,700 miles I ran in 2011 I bet only 100 miles were below 7,000ft. And probably only 300 miles were below 9,000ft. That's both good and bad. Training at altitude has its advantages, but Leadville is at the extreme. The effects of altitude are not linear-- atmospheric pressure decreases exponentially with altitude.

I remember when I first moved to Leadville in 2006 I was acutely aware of the elevation of my new hometown. I got winded simply unpacking our moving truck. The grocery store aisles were full of bags of chips that looked like balloons ready to burst. Baking anything was an adventure and water boiled at a mere 193F. (I'm a home brewer and I eventually discovered that the lower boiling point of water at 10,000ft was playing havoc with my hop utilization. Strangely, my first few batches of IPA were not as hoppy as they should have been. After some research-- and much trial-and-error-- I found that I had to significantly raise the amount of bittering hops I was adding to the wort to compensate.)

Becoming a father brought with it a new lesson in high altitude living. Most newborns in Leadville require supplemental oxygen for the first few months of life until their bodies adapt to the crazy elevation at which their parents decided to live. My daughter was no exception. I can attest to the fact that learning to change a diaper while there's 25ft of oxygen tubing attached to your daughter's face presents a challenge! (As it turns out, requiring oxygen is much rarer for newborns in Summit County-- which is just 1,000ft lower than Leadville-- evidence that the effects of altitude are not linear.)

Running at 10,000ft means that most of my runs-- especially the uphills-- are limited by my aerobic capacity rather than my leg strength. In other words, I'm generally gasping for breath. Since I've only been running for two years, running in Leadville is pretty much all I've known. It's normal. Whenever I travel to sea level I'm always curious to see if I can detect any differences in my performance. My resting heart rate drops about 10 bpm at sea level. And when I glance at my GPS while I'm running I'm often running about 1 min/mi faster than I'd expect. What I'd guess was a 9:00 min/mi effort turns out to be more like a 8:00 min/mi pace at sea level. Also, gentle uphills and rollers seem to have less effect on my pace than comparable terrain in Leadville. These changes aren't earth shattering-- it's not like I'm suddenly going to start winning races at sea level-- but they are noticeable. On the flip side, the other thing I notice at sea level is that I have no idea how to run faster than 7:00 min/mi! My legs have so little experience moving that fast since I can only sustain that pace for a mile or so on a few select routes in Leadville. The conditions need to be perfect: a smooth surface with good footing and, of course, a gentle downhill grade. If I trained at a lower elevation I could regularly train at a higher intensity-- and it's possible that the benefits of higher-intensity training could cancel out (and possibly surpass) any of the advantages I may have due to simply living at 10,000ft.

In my opinion, the elevation of Leadville 100 course cannot be ignored, but its effects are probably overstated-- especially for those racers who live anywhere in Colorado. Yes, ideally, if you're coming from sea level you probably want to arrive a few weeks before the race and climb some 14ers to acclimate. And, yes, you'll probably run a bit slower than you normally do. But for most runners the race is going to be a 25+ hour affair and there are so many potential reasons you could end up running slower-- poor hydration, poor nutrition, injury, sleep deprivation, exhaustion, etc.-- altitude is just one variable among many. When all is said and done, living in "Cloud City" is an advantage when it comes to running the local 100, but it does not guarantee success. And whatever advantage living in Leadville bestows, it may have as much to do with its supportive and knowledgeable community of runners, and its easy access to mountain trails for training, than it does with its altitude.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

2012 Mileage Goals

It's that time of year again: January. Spreadsheets beckon and plans for the upcoming year are hatched.

In 2010 and 2011 my mileage totals from January to August were almost exactly the same: 1,200 miles. Each year I basically started from scratch. In 2010 I hadn't run a step in years and could barely manage a 3-mile run without collapsing. I'd never even run a 5k, never mind a 100 miler. In 2011 I hadn't run step since August-- I had stopped cold turkey after my first successful Leadville finish, thinking that I was done with running for good. In 2010 I finished Leadville in 29:36 and in 2011 I finished my second Leadville 100 in 29:22. One would think that 1,200 miles of training predictably results in a 29 hour finish for me. Maybe so, but I'm convinced I can do better without drastically raising my mileage.

Though my total training miles were basically the same in '10 and '11, their distribution was very different.

  • I slowly built up to big monthly totals in the spring (Well, big for me. I ran 240 miles in May).
  • As I got more confident, I started to get lazy with my shorter, midweek runs and began skipping them. (What good is a piddly little 5 mile run?)
  • I ended up running slow, big miles on the weekends. (For example, I ran 50 miles each weekend in June while running basically nothing during the week.)
  • Not surprisingly in hindsight, I injured my left IT band in July and pretty much took the entire month off except for a few weekend runs. (Basically, I took a way too long, injury-enforced taper.)
  • I power-limped almost the entire 100 course with multiple, pre-existing leg injuries (left IT band, right hamstring, and a compensatory left shin splint). I couldn't move downhill without ibuprofen. I owe my first Leadville 100 finish to Advil!
  • I felt strongest while going up Hope, during which I probably passed 50+ runners.
  • I stopped running.
  • I slowly built up mileage until March, making use of my bike trainer in January and February whenever the temperatures were ridiculous.
  • Multiple nasty head colds and stomach bugs in April and May limited my training. (I blame my daughter's plague-infested day care!)
  • I consistently stuck to my shorter, midweek runs from June through August. I broke many PRs on my shorter local training routes. My average pace over the course of my training was way, way faster than in 2010.
  • However, I didn't go on as many 20+ mile training runs. Pretty much the only time I would run 20+ miles was when I was running a race.
  • In contrast with '10, July was my most disciplined, highest mileage month.
  • Despite taking it super easy to May Queen, I ran to Winfield a full hour faster than in '10. Absolutely no leg pain. I never took a painkiller the entire race. Instead I fought nausea. I couldn't get enough calories in me after mile 40, slowly faded and walked it in.
  •  I felt strongest from May Queen to Twin during which I passed ~200 people. I ran the ~90th fastest split from Half Pipe to Twin. I was ecstatic. Sadly, it would not last.
  • I continued running 20 miles a week for the rest of the year.
As I look back at my training logs from these two years I'm convinced that ideally what I need to do is to basically combine the best parts of both of them. I need to run strong during the week and run long on the weekends. The faster, shorter midweek runs open up my stride, keep my legs flexible, build aerobic capacity. The longer, slower weekend runs build endurance and provide opportunities for running on dead legs. It's easy to trick yourself and inflate your training mileage by simply running more shorter, faster runs. And it's easy to get caught up with trying to set PRs on the routes you run every week. And those PRs can lead to an over-estimation of your fitness at longer miles. I was probably in pretty good shape to run a half marathon in July last year! While valuable by itself, the midweek run is primarily there to support the long weekend run.

Don't get hung up on mileage totals-- whether they be weekly, monthly, or yearly. Look deeper. Look at the distribution of those miles. Think about time on your feet. Think about elevation gain. Think about altitude. Get in those longer runs and exhausting back-to-back runs. Forget the first 50 miles of Leadville, it's the second 50 miles that you're training for!

I work 40 hours a week making computer games. (A rough life, I know.) My wife works 60+ hours a week in the summer directing the High Mountain Institute's summer programs. We have a beautiful, precocious two and half year old daughter who demands our attention. (Rightly so!) Number two is on the way this July! It's tough to find the time to run. It certainly doesn't just happen organically. It takes a lot of communication, planning, and plenty of baby sitters! 3,000 miles a year is just not an option for me.

That's OK. I'd rather have a realistic training schedule with goals I can actually attain than disappoint myself trying to keep up with an over-ambitious training schedule that doesn't mesh with reality. I enjoy and appreciate the time I do have to run. And you can certainly run a 100 miler successfully on 50 miles a week. You just have to be smart about it.

While a pretty good predictor of success, total training mileage doesn't necessarily tell the whole story.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Does The Interweb Need Another Blog?

No, probably not. And it especially doesn't need another blog from a mid-pack runner from Colorado. So, what is it about running ultramarathons that compels one to create a blog? Certainly there is a strong social component to this life consuming hobby. Surprisingly so. Staring at an empty 8-month training schedule can be more than a little exhausting-- especially on a frigid January afternoon when the high barely reaches into double digits. Really? Do I really want to do this again? But as I contemplate the miles to come, I find that one of my main motivations is the camaraderie I'll experience out there on the trails with my fellow runners. Another year, another hundred mile race. Another summer in the mountains around my hometown. More worn out shoes. More salt-encrusted shirts. More Hammer Nutrition boxes arriving in the mail. More exhaustion. More nausea. More stories to share. What started out as a one-off goal to simply check off a list-- a substitute for a thru-hike-- has somehow become a lifestyle. Here goes LT100 #3!