Monday, June 25, 2012

Colorado was on fire; I was not

Disclaimer: The following entry has lots of boring details about my race. While I try to author enjoyable, readable entries whenever possible, the most important function of this blog is honest and unflinching self-analysis. Sometimes mind-numbing lists of race day minutia are unavoidable. I'm OCD like that. I apologise.

Expectations are a dangerous thing-- especially when it comes to 50+ mile races.

It was a tough day in the San Juan mountains. I did not have the race I'd hoped for, finishing in a disappointing 15:05 (about 30 minutes slower than last year). Not being able to break 14:30 and set a PR was tough to swallow. (Ha ha.) I thought that because I got lost last year and ran about an extra mile off course that I would have a nice cushion to help me set a PR. Plus I had heard that the alternate course was considered a bit tougher than the original by folks who had run both. (I would disagree with that assessment.) Finally, I'm certain that I'm in better shape now than I was last year. I figured that all that added up to a 13 hour finish. Maybe 12.5 if everything went perfectly. I honestly thought that a PR was all but guaranteed-- if only by a few minutes. But, yet again, my stomach was the limiting factor.

I've got to figure out how to get more calories in me in race situations!

Past a certain point, it's like it doesn't matter what my fitness is because I'll just be staggering along fighting my stomach. I don't have the energy to tap into my fitness, so it becomes moot.

Despite my struggles, a day spent running in the mountains is always time well spent. My race did have some good points. I powered up the first climb in good shape. I climbed mile 8 (with 1,000 ft of elevation gain) in 17:58. That's solid. (Note: My GPS was periodically losing satellite reception during the climb due to the rugged terrain, so I don't think I can really trust those numbers.) The views from the top of the first climb were beautiful, and I really enjoyed chatting with my friend Alex while we were climbing up to the Carson aid station. (Where he dropped me!) While I never felt great after mile 23 or so, I never became so utterly fatigued that I had to stop and sit to eat (excluding aid stations). I distinctly remember stopping and sitting down next to the trail several times during the race in '11. I was also able to run the last mile of the race whereas last year I had to walk it in.

After a disappointing race-- especially an epic race like a 50+ miler-- I'm constantly asking myself, "Why?" No matter how poorly run, each race is another data point-- another lesson to learn from and improve upon. First things first: we didn't run the same course as last year. That makes direct year-to-year comparisons more difficult. Who knows? Maybe I ran it just as well this year and it's simply a slightly slower course? I'm doubtful of that (it seems like too "easy" an explanation), but I guess it's possible-- or at least a contributing factor. The second major variable was the heat. Even if the two courses were exactly the same, all things being equal this year should be slower because it was ~15 degrees hotter! And the heat certainly made taking in enough calories tougher-- which directly attacks my main weakness. As the blood red sun was pouring down through the thick forest fire haze on the top of the divide, I found myself thinking back fondly of Quad Rock's foggy 45F weather. This year's Western States (also run on Saturday) certainly showed what a difference temperature can make. (Not to take anything away from Timothy Olson-- his performance was epic. Seeing him cross the finish line with the first two digits on the clock reading '14' was mind boggling.)

For posterity, here's what I ate:

  • 5 packets of Clip2 (750)
  • 7 oz of gel (630) 
  • 2 cups of noodles (600)
  • 4 servings of boiled potatoes (about half a potato each) (500)
  • 30 oz of coke (350)
  • 12 oz of chocolate milk (300)
  • half a Snickers bar (~50)
  • half a pack of Honey Stinger chews (~50)
  • half a Honey Stinger waffle (~50)
  • half a popsicle (~50)

Total: 3330 calories (222 calories/hour)
Goal: 300-350 calories/hour: 4500-5250 calories
Deficit: 1170 calories minimum (about 2.5 flasks of gel) (~100 calories/hour)
Summary: Not good. Inadequate. Insufficient. Performance-sucking. Bad.

When I look at the data the first thing that strikes me is, "Really? If I had just choked down 2.5 more flasks of gel over the course of the race I would've felt fine?" That seems hard to believe. I'm guessing my caloric requirements are closer to the 350 calories/hour rate.

I also think that the rate of my caloric intake wasn't consistent enough. Specifically, the soup I consumed at the Divide and Slum aid stations-- while certainly worth eating-- came too late. I should have been eating more gel while I was running. I simply made a series of mistakes, each of which dug me further into a hole that I could never recover from.

  1. Insufficient pre-race breakfast. (Woke up too late. Anxious.)
  2. Insufficient pre-race hydration. (Didn't drink my typical 16 oz of water in the hour before the start.)
  3. Didn't drink enough water. (Low-flow bite valve. Fist time using a bladder in a big race. Couldn't see how much water I was actually drinking. I thought I was doing okay, but probably not.)
  4. Though I consistently kept slowing down to try to eat to make sure I didn't get too far behind in calories I didn't quite push the calories hard enough. I was always eating on an empty stomach, which (I believe) makes digestion harder.
  5. Did I consume enough electrolytes? Not sure. I choked down two S!-Caps during the race and I was drinking Clip2 the entire time, but that might not have been quite enough. I never felt crampy, for whatever that's worth.

I mean, it's undeniable that I have a fast metabolism. I've always eaten whatever I want and my weight has never risen above 200 lbs (and that's with approximately zero exercise and sitting at a desk all day for four years). Giant steak subs for lunch, butter on everything, full fat milk, full fat yogurt, a beer every night, and I treat coffee as just a convenient medium for transporting half-and-half into my stomach.

Right now, after well over a year of continuous exercise I'm sitting at about 185 lbs. At the Leadville starting line last year I weighed in at 180 lbs. After hiking 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada on Pacific Crest Trail my weight was 175 lbs. The lowest I ever got was after hiking the Appalachian Trail when I weighed in at a skeletal 168 lbs. (And I must have bought and inhaled a pint of Ben and Jerry's at every single trail-side store from Georgia to Maine.)

So... I'm guessing that I represent the upper end of the caloric requirement spectrum when it comes to ultra runners. There are two general approaches to trying to solve my running nutrition problem: raise my intake and/or lower my requirements.

I guess a third possible approach is that my nausea is due to a form of motion sickness from the bouncing motion of running for hours on end. But, I'm skeptical. I don't get sea sick and I don't get car sick (and I've never had a problem reading while in a car). However, I also find eating on a bike much, much easier than running. I rode the 100-mile Buena Vista Bike Fest in 7.5 hours last year and never felt any nausea whatsoever. It was a very cold day, though, so maybe that was the more important factor. Who knows? Should I try motion sickness medication as an experiment? That seems kind of desperate. But... it might at least rule out one possible cause. (I've tried taking ginger to settle my stomach, but maybe not aggressively enough.)

Raising my caloric intake during races is the most obvious approach. Currently I'm continuously eating, but I'm not eating enough. Basically, after 6 hours I end up fighting nausea and I'm nibbling just enough to keep me moving forward. On Saturday, I was happy to be able to eat the boiled potatoes I was carrying-- even at mile 48-- but I think I was using them as an excuse to not eat as much gel-- which is more calorie dense. Even though I froze the bottles of chocolate milk I stashed in my drop bags, they had become too warm to drink by the time I had reached the Carson aid station. Saturday's race was also the first time I'd seriously experimented with Clip2 energy drink. I think it was a success. I never got sick of it-- even after 15 hours of running. (It has a very neutral taste.) Again, though, I've got to be careful that I'm not using it was an excuse to not eat other stuff. It was supposed to be supplemental and push me from the 300 calorie/hour range up to the 350 calorie range. I knew the heat would make swallowing solid food tough and that was one more reason for me to try to find some kind of liquid solution for calories. Another fact that probably made Saturday's race a bit tougher was that I had a much lighter breakfast than normal before the race. I generally try to consume ~600-800 calories the morning before a race, but on Saturday I probably only had ~200-300 calories for breakfast. (I was scrambling to get ready in time and also a bit anxious.)

Another possible solution might be to try to better adapt my body to running with fewer calories. I almost always head out on a training run after I've eaten breakfast and already have food in my stomach. On long training runs I'll stop and sit down and eat snacks to keep myself full (off-the-clock, so there's no time pressure). In short, I rarely ever train in a calorie depleted state. My body is trained to expect to be able to get calories from my stomach-- not from my fat reserves. Should I start experimenting with "bonk" runs? Should I at least try to run before breakfast? I think this may be worth experimenting with, but how much of an adaptation can I realistically expect? I don't think it'll ever be big enough that I won't also have to address the issue from the other direction by increasing my calorie intake during the race. (I'm no Tony Krupicka who can seemingly run for 7 hours on a single gel. WTF?)

So, I don't know... If anyone out there has any brilliant ideas, I'd love to hear 'em. Inspiring stories of runners who eventually solved and overcame their nutrition issues would also be very helpful. How many calories do you eat during a 50 mile run? In what form? I feel like I've been battling this issue for two and a half years to almost no avail. It seems so simple it's embarrassing... "Just eat, dammit!"

In three weeks I'll have another opportunity to experiment when I run the Silver Rush 50 in Leadville. If I can at least have one positive, uplifting 50-mile experience before the 100 I'll be happy. That's what makes these nutrition problems so hard to solve-- it's only a problem after 6+ hours of running. That means I only have two opportunities to experiment and re-evaluate before the 100 each year (my focus race).

A few notes about gear:

  • I wore my new Salomon XT Advanced Skin 5 S-Lab Set for the entire race. This was only the second time I've worn this backpack on a long run. And it's only the third or fourth time I've ever worn any sort of backpack on a run of more than 16 miles. In the past, their bouncing motion has hurt my shoulders and made them too uncomfortable to wear. So, up until now, I've been a hip belt guy (Ultimate Direction Katoa). I never loved wearing a hip belt, really, but it seemed the least worst option. (They inevitably ride up on the fast downhills and need constant adjusting.) However, the Salomon pack fits very snugly (since it's made almost entirely of stretchable fabric). Minimal bouncing means minimal soreness. It felt great during Saturday's race and enabled me to carry a ton of stuff. The only downside is that refilling the bladder is more time consuming than refilling two bottles, but I think its upsides far outweigh that. (And if a helpful aid station volunteer takes care of refilling the bladder, it's not much of an issue.) I think keeping a hip belt off my stomach helps minimize nausea. It might even help with ITBS (as you don't want anything interfering with your hips). It also makes hydration more accessible compared to having to reach around to grab a bottle from a waist pack. The same goes for food-- you can store plenty of calories in all the various front pockets. (The 12 oz Amphipod Hydraform bottle fits nicely in the two big front pockets.) One gripe: while I love their closure system, Hydrapak (who also makes the bladder for the popular Nathan backpack) makes nozzles that have a frustratingly low flow rate-- i.e, you have to suck way too hard to get water out of the bladder. I'm going to replace the original bite valve with a nice, simple (and familiar) Platypus one. You shouldn't have to work so hard to get a mouthful of water... especially when you're gasping for breath at 13,000 ft.
  • I also carried a hand held bottle for the last 30 miles. This made drinking even easier and gave me even more capacity. It didn't seem like a burden at all and actually gave my hands something to do.
  • I ran the hole race without hiking poles. I love hiking poles (and I used them during the entire race last year), but I felt I'd get a better workout without them. The plan is to use them for Hope Pass during the 100 and for them to be a pleasant boost-- rather than to become reliant on them on all my big climbs during training.
  • For whatever reason, I never listened to my iPod during the race. Not sure why. I guess I wanted to focus on my surroundings or on solving my stomach issues. Listening to music for the last few (downhill) miles would've been nice, but by then I couldn't be bothered to get it out and hook it up.
  • I had mixed feelings about my Hokas. I got frustrated with them because they're so frickin' huge that they kept hitting the sloped sides of the narrow single track trail and caused my feet to tilt inward.  The outside lip of the shoe would then rub against the underside of my ankle and chafe. It was annoying. It's not an issue when running on a wide trail (that isn't drastically cambered). I dunno... at least the 100 course doesn't have much narrow single track trail to worry about, so maybe it won't be an issue. I'm still toying with the idea of wearing Hokas to Winfield and then switching to the familiar New Balance MT110's for the second 50 miles. I think I'll certainly appreciate a lighter shoe (6 oz lighter per shoe!) going up the back side of Hope and I don't think I'll be bombing the downhills so hard that I'll need the extra cushioning as much. Both pairs of shoes have the same 4mm heel-to-toe drop... Who knows? I'm probably over analyzing things. (Hey, that might be a good alternative title for this entire blog!)

Monday, June 18, 2012

San Juan Solstice 50 Pre-Race Thoughts

Well, there's now nothing between me and the San Juan Solstice 50 next Saturday except two short, easy mid-week runs to keep my legs loose. I'm excited and I'm as ready as I'll ever be.

Tuesday: The view from the pass near Ball Mountain. (On the marathon and 50-miler course.)

This will be my seventh 50+ mile race. That's hard to believe. (I had to count them twice to convince myself of that number.) But though I have half a dozen under my belt, 50s (and 100s) are never easy-- there's always something to learn (often the hard way). And, honestly, I've yet to complete one without blowing up at some point during the race and staggering across the finish line in survival mode. The longer the distance, the more time there is for things to go wrong; the deeper the hole you can dig for yourself. If my experience counts for anything it's that it's allowed me to experience firsthand the amazing variety of ways you can implode after running for 6+ hours. Hopefully, with each race I have a better chance of recognizing the symptoms and correcting them before they become too serious. I heard a tongue-in-cheek comment once about what separates ultra marathons from mere marathons: in an ultra you have the opportunity to "hit the wall" multiple times!

In the week leading up to a race, I tend to become very analytical. Obsessively so. I try to gauge my fitness by comparing my current workouts to past ones. I start to question what gear I'll use, what I'll eat, what I'll drink, what I should wear. I peer at course descriptions, look at past results, memorize the elevation profile for the course, look at the weather forecast, estimate my splits, and (of course) settle on a goal time for the race. I try to be as prepared as possible. Is that bad? Eh... No, not really, I suppose... but I think I would also benefit from shutting off the computer, taking a step back, and relaxing.

It's just a long run through some beautiful mountains.

Wednesday: Climbing up to Mosquito Pass.

It struck me yesterday when I unfolded a topo map to take a look at the course. Not just any topo map, but the same National Geographic Trails Illustrated topo map (#141) that my wife and I used on our honeymoon thru-hike of the Colorado Trail in 2007. The Colorado Trail snakes its way across the mountains, a bright orange line stretching all the way from Denver to Durango. Scrawled on the top right hand corner of the map in permanent marker is the number "14". This was the 14th map we used on our hike. If I remember correctly, we mailed it to ourselves at Creede (along with other food and supplies). The 14th map! And next Saturday I'm going to be running around in just one little corner of it.

If I take care of myself during the race next Saturday everything else will fall into place. My training is my training. There's no changing that. My current fitness is what it is. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, what I need to focus on is (as always) hydration and nutrition. It looks like it's going to be pretty hot (by mountain standards) in Lake City on Saturday-- 81F. Keeping cool, drinking lots of fluids, and taking plenty of electrolytes will be critical to staving off implosion. I plan to take advantage of every mountain stream and snowdrift we cross! If I can beat the heat, and stay hydrated, I should be able to consume enough calories to keep me moving for ~13 hours. My legs are ready. Is my stomach ready? That's the question. There is no bonk worse than a bonk at the base of a 4,000 ft climb! Trust me.

Earlier this spring I was able to run races at an ~11:00 min/mile pace. As my race schedule continued, and the races got tougher, my pace started drifting into the ~12:00 min/mile range. Next weekend I would be absolutely ecstatic to be able to average ~15:00 min/mile. Yeah, it's that tough. But, really, what could be simpler?

Drink, eat, run.

One particular Buddhist parable has stuck in my head from all my undergraduate philosophy classes. Roughly paraphrased, it goes something like this: First, the naive peasant sees the mountain simply as a mountain. He doesn't give it much thought. Then the overly-analytical neophyte monk learns to "see" the mountain as a symbol for some complex, abstract concept. He wraps himself in scholarly jargon. Finally, the truly enlightened one, returns to simply seeing the mountain as a mountain. The progression of simple, to complex, back to simple rings true to me. We first encounter things (like, say, running) in a natural, honest way. As we grow older we start to deconstruct things, breaking them apart, analyzing them, getting wrapped up in minutia. Hopefully though, with a slight change in perspective, we can recapture the purity and innocence of our initial experience. Ideally, all my spreadsheets, all my scribbled notes, all my past experience will ultimately allow me to run more simply. To listen to my body. To be in the moment. To enjoy the race.

Saturday: One of my favorite local runs: Native Lake (with Mt. Massive in the background).

Monday, June 4, 2012


Last week was one of the best weeks of training I've had. Maybe ever. I've certainly logged more miles and more elevation gain in a week in the past, but such efforts have always left me feeling depleted, sore, and hobbling around the house in the morning. Last week was different. Sure, my legs are a bit tired, but it's a good tired. I wasn't exactly moving fast on my run/hike up Mt. Sheridan on Sunday, but neither was I completely spent. I managed to finish the route running 8:00-9:00 mi/miles.

The Turquoise Lake Half Marathon on Saturday was perhaps the most confidence-boosting race I've run this season. (And that's saying a lot since things have been going pretty well for me.) After running a 50K on Monday and then climbing three 14ers on Thursday, I was fully expecting to be running on dead legs. I felt like the PR I had set two years ago was well out of reach. As we climbed the first hill on the road around the lake I was completely surprised to be feeling strong. No aches. No dullness. My legs actually seemed like they wanted to run! I am not exactly a fast runner, and 1:56 is a pretty modest time for a half marathon, but I managed to shave 2 minutes off my PR! You would've thought I'd just won the Boston Marathon if you'd seen me at the finish. To feel so good after ~60 miles and ~10,000' of vertical for the week was fantastic.

Something is going right.

After looking at my training log, I feel like what really set this week apart is the variety of runs I ran. A long, long run on Monday. An easy bike ride the following day for recovery. A long, slow hike on Thursday that finished with some fast miles. A fast, flat run on Saturday. And then another slow hike on Sunday, which finished with a few fast miles.

  • Mon: 31 mi, 4600' vertical (PR)
  • Tue: 13 mi bike, 800' vertical
  • Wed: off
  • Thu: 15 mi, 4700' vertical
  • Fri: off
  • Sat: 13 mi, 1200' vertical (PR)
  • Sun: 12 mi, 3800' vertical

If I had to pick a single adjective to describe my training goals for this year it would be "indestructible"-- not "fast". When I'm feeling sluggish at the end of a long run, I try to visualize myself staggering into the Fish Hatchery in the cold darkness at mile 75.

That's what I'm training for.

The view from Mt. Sheridan.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Month in Review (May)

5/2010: 238.4
5/2011: 192.2
5/2012: 216.5

Does this guy look undertained?

That's me catching my breath on my way over Hope Pass in last year's Leadville 100. My "friends" at the local Life Time Fitness office thought it'd be funny to use that picture to inspire folks to sign up for their 3-day training camp this summer. Ha ha. I'll have you know I was probably ahead of half the field at the point that picture was taken! :)

Overall I'm very pleased with how my training's been going this year and last month was no exception. My string of consecutive monthly mileage records was broken, but that's just a fluke of the calendar. This year there were only four weekends in May whereas in '10 when I set my record there were five weekends in May. That makes a big difference in mileage totals.

A view from Kite Lake. Alex and I ran/hiked a 15.3 mile loop with 4,740 ft of elevation gain.

What's important to me is that I got in all my 20+ mile long runs this May, and I tallied a solid amount of vertical (37,089 ft). I even got in a little improvised speed work, pushing hard on some of the downhills during my shorter midweek runs. I actually recorded my first sub-7:00 minute mile ever-- and it was at 11,000 ft!

I'm probably in the best shape of my life.

And what's really exciting is that it's only June 1st! I still have two more months of peak training left before the race. There are two risks that I'd like to be careful to avoid: 1) getting too excited and overtraining and injuring or burning myself out, and 2) resting on my laurels and slacking off. So, it's all about balance. The 50-60 mile week seems like it works well for me. Maybe I'll jump up to the 60-70 mile range for a few weeks, but that's probably my upper limit. Beyond that and I think it's hard not to be logging "garbage miles" (at least for me).

I always try to ask myself before I set out on a run, "Why am I running? What's the goal?" Is it to work on my power hike and trash my quads on the downhills? Is it an easy, flat recovery run after a race? Is it an easy, flat run to loosen up the day before a race? Is the goal to push hard and try to set a PR (pushing my aerobic limit)? Is the goal simply time on my feet? My training runs also include goals like trying out new food, keeping well hydrated, gathering GPS data and/or timing sections of the course, practicing running in the rain, practicing running at night, trying out a new piece of gear, etc. However small, I try to give every run a purpose. It helps me stay focused.

One of the exercise dynamics that I find most helpful to keep in mind when planning my training is that of supercompensation. This article provides a great explanation. Basically, exercise makes you weaker; recovery makes you stronger. This season I've tried to put more effort into my recovery-- making sure to run short "active recovery" runs (or bike rides) after every long run, consuming plenty of protein, especially immediately after exercise, stretching and foam rolling my legs, and (of course) taking days off. I believe my attention to recovery-- coupled with my consistent long runs-- has played a significant role in my improvement this year.

Next week I'll be in Boston on a business trip. That means relatively short, flat running at sea level. I'll try to take the opportunity to raise my intensity a bit and see if I can manage some sub-8:00 min/mile runs. On my way back from Denver on Saturday I hope to meet my old college buddy, Alex, for a longer run in the Boulder area. I've never run there before and I'm excited to see some new trails.

Near the summit of Mt. Bross. My first "run" at 14,000 ft this year.