Monday, March 11, 2013

Salida Race Report

In the days leading up to the marathon, I spent more time than usual checking the race day weather forecast. Snow looked imminent, with temperatures somewhere in the mid-30's. Good running weather for Leadville perhaps, but a bit nastier than average for Salida at this time of year. My first taste of spring would have to wait.

My neighbor, Mike, and I drove down from Leadville together, catching up along the way. He's entered Leadman again for the third year in a row-- I believe it's fair to say that he's hooked. I worried about potentially gnarly driving conditions, but our drive down was actually quite nice. An inch or so of fluffy snow had fallen overnight, but I don't think we encountered a single flake as we descended 3,000 ft down the Arkansas valley to Salida. We drove past a large herd of elk grazing on the valley floor. The sage brush was laced with fresh snow, which the rising sun illuminated as it shone through gaps in the clouds that hung on the shoulders of the nearby mountains. Further south, however, the clouds loomed darker and promised more snow to come.

As we milled around the starting area, we bumped into a bunch of other Leadville folks who were also racing that day. We all clustered together at the starting line, smiling, chatting, trying to stay warm, and second-guessing how many layers of clothing we were wearing. There was no snow on the ground at the start, but the steady climb ahead of us seemed likely to change that.

The start of the Salida marathon is an understated event. I never hear any gun or countdown or announcement. We just suddenly take off as a pack. I'm often caught off guard and surprised to find myself running. It's a great laid back way to kick off another season of racing.

My goal for this race-- and what has become my default goal for all races-- is to start conservatively and try to negative split the race. Focus on a maintaining a steady, slow intake of calories. Finish strong. My race last year did not go so well. I really struggled in the second half of the race, slowing way, way down-- especially considering that the second 13 miles of the race are mostly downhill.

This year, I kept things very relaxed for the first 8 or so miles. It was so enjoyable to be able to run on nice, dry single track for a change-- especially after months of training almost exclusively on snowy dirt roads. The only hitch during these early miles was my awkward fumbling around with a ziploc bag full of energy drink powder at the first aid station. I ended up tearing it open and spilling about a quarter of it on the ground. Frustrating. It's funny how little things like that can have such a negative effect on your mental state. It knocks you out of any rhythm. Eventually I shook it off and regained my composure. It's healthy to laugh at yourself-- especially during the early miles of a race.

A few miles into the race...

The next section is the biggest sustained climb of the race, up a dirt road to the halfway point. Since I ran the first section relatively easy, I made up some places on this climb. I felt good, ran the entire way, and passed 20 or so folks on the way up. Slow and steady. The snow started falling as we climbed and it was beginning to accumulate. I didn't find the snow to be a problem, in fact I felt it added to the dramatic atmosphere of the race. Everything felt more... burly. I seemed to have chosen the perfect amount of clothing for the conditions, and I never had to make any major adjustments during the race-- just taking on and off my hat and rolling my sleeves up or down as the conditions warranted. You can't ask for more than that.

I was excited to see that I hit the halfway mark about two minutes faster than I did last year. That surprised me a bit, because I was perfectly willing to run the first half of the race slower, focusing on the second half of instead. I felt good, though, and I didn't think I had pushed too hard. However, I knew all that mattered was the second half and my two minutes meant nothing if I blew up.

One of my sub-goals for the race was to run the hill at mile 21. I succeeded-- just barely.

The second half of the race is mostly downhill, but there are some rollers and one short, but steep climb out of a "sand trap" around mile 21. The trail can definitely get a bit technical at times and it is certainly slower than you might expect, twisting tightly and dropping sharply in spots. I've come to recognize that technical downhills are not exactly my forte, but I do enjoy them.

In contrast to last year, I noticed that I was still passing runners in these later sections of the race. Often on the uphills. I was determined to run the entire course-- never dropping into hiking mode. I find the small uphills provide a good test of my energy level. I gain confidence that my nutrition is where it's supposed to be if I can still maintain a running cadence uphill late in a race. I didn't push too hard on the downhills, trying to save my quads a bit. At this point in the year, I've done very little downhill running. And what little I have done has been a bit restrained due to the potential of slipping on ice. I arrived at the aid station at mile 20 feeling good. Glancing at my watch, I knew I had run the previous section much faster than last year. A PR seemed likely now and the thought gave me a boost of energy. I headed out again and mentally prepared myself for the energy-sapping climb at mile 21. Gritting my teeth, I was able to run every step of it. That was definitely a first for me and worthy of a gasping, panting, quiet "F*ck, yeah!" to myself at the top.

The rest of the race unfolded very smoothly-- I pretty much settled into autopilot mode. I was tired, for sure, but still running everything and picking off runners at regular intervals. The trail weaves in and out of lots of drainages, so you can see a good bit of the course ahead as you look across. I found that I could very accurately predict where I'd eventually pass the runners in front of me: on the gentle rolling uphills as we hopped from one drainage to the next.

As I left the final aid station, I did some quick calculations in my head. It looked like I might be able to finish under 5 hours! I actually groaned to myself because beating a nice, round-numbered time meant that I had to push a bit harder during these final miles rather than just coasting to the finish. Curse you, arbitrary time goals!

I ended up running the last mile of the race almost as fast as I ran the same mile earlier in the race and finished in 4:57:31. Solid! A 37-minute PR for the course! I was psyched.

A comparison of my splits from last year to this year. Shaded rows are aid stations.

So... how in the hell did I run 37 minutes faster this year than last year? I doubt it was due to my training, which was almost exactly the same in terms of total mileage. In fact, it was even a bit less this year-- though I did run two longer runs than I had in '12. Still, that can't possibly account for a 37 minute improvement. After much contemplation, here's how I think my improvement roughly broke down:

  • (22 minutes) Improved in-race nutrition. 300 calories/hour. No excuses.
  • (10 minutes) Hoka Stinson Evos vs. New Balance MT110s.
  • (3 minutes) Starting the race well-rested.
  • (3 minutes) More evenly distributed training miles.
  • (3 minutes) Stronger hips. No knee pain during the race.
  • (2 minutes) Cooler temperatures on race day.
  • (-3 minutes) Fiddling with baggies of energy drink powder at every aid station.
  • (-3 minutes) Carrying/wearing more gear due to weather.

That's just a guess, but it's my best guess. Basically, in retrospect, I blew up last year, barely surviving the race. '12 was more an example of how not to run the race. I know I drone on and on about the importance of in-race nutrition, but I truly think that if it's your weak link, you can see huge performance improvements simply by fixing it-- even if your raw fitness level remains the same. Consuming a steady stream of carbohydrates during a race (50-60 grams per hour) is huge. Huge! This was the concoction I was drinking:

  • 2 scoops of pure maltodextrin (complex sugars) (200 calories)
  • 1 scoop of lemon-lime Gatorade (simple sugars, some electrolytes, flavor) (80 calories)
  • 1/4 scoop of soy protein (protein) (~30 calories)
  • ~20 oz of water

One bottle an hour gives you basically everything you need. Very simple. No chewing required. (And it's very easy to adjust the ingredients up or down to reach the ideal 2 calories per pound per hour rate of consumption.) After trying a variety of products over the years (including "real" food) this is the only fueling strategy that I've been able to maintain consistently for 28+ hours. The taste is fairly subtle-- like diluted Gatorade. Try it. If you've struggled with in-race nutrition in the past, it's like cheating.

I hesitate to give my shoes as much weight as I did in my calculations, but I think I wasn't nearly ready to run 26 miles in my MT110s last year. I had run exclusively in MT101s in '10 and '11 so I didn't give it much thought at the time, but the MT110 is a very different beast than its predecessor. It's much more minimal and I think I paid the price on the downhills. My running form is just not that good-- especially on the downhills. This year I went to the opposite end of the spectrum with my Hoka Stinson Evos. The last time I ran in them was during the 100 in August. My original plan was to run in my Bondi Bs, but the snow made me jump up to a model with a bit more tread. I think they really saved my quads on the downhills, even if the mud stuck to them in a few spots. I still have mixed feelings about Hokas, but I can't argue with the fact that I've had some good results while wearing them. Currently, I only use them for long runs; running all my shorter training runs in more minimalist footwear.

The Salida marathon will always be too early in the season for me to be truly prepared for it. But in contrast to last year, I think I'll emerge from it stronger. While my finishing time was certainly modest, it's more inline with my past race results. (Being in the top 30%-39% of finishers is really good for me, 40%-49% is solid, and 50%+ is mediocre. This year in Salida I came in around 56% vs. 72% last year...) I think I got a really good workout and thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience. It was a lot of fun and a nice confidence boost in the direction my training is heading this year.

Only 3.5 weeks until my next challenge: 42 miles and 11,000 ft of vertical in the Grand Canyon!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Month in Review (February)

2/2010: 100.9 miles
2/2011: 111.3 miles
2/2012: 151.9 miles
2/2013: 137.8 miles

Blizzards, Beaches, and Colds! (With a little bit of running.) Oh my!

February began with a business trip to Boston. The frequency of these trips has increased a bit, with me now traveling about once a month. Generally, I fly out on a Sunday afternoon and fly back on a Friday evening. This time, however, a gigantic nor'easter had other plans for me. I desperately tried to reschedule my flight back to Denver earlier in the day in hopes of getting out before the storm hit, but it was all for naught. Everything got canceled before a single flake had fallen. On Friday, I hunkered down in the office until the snow became heavy enough to force me to retreat back to my hotel by mid-afternoon. It snowed for 24 hours straight, winds howling, dumping about 24" of snow in total. The fifth largest storm in Boston's history. I was trapped in Boston until I finally managed to get a flight out on Monday morning. What made this ordeal all the more frustrating was that the original plan was for me to meet my wife and kids in Denver on Friday night. We'd then spend the night at an airport hotel and fly to Florida on Saturday morning. Yeah, not so much. My wife ended up having to juggle both kids by herself. She made it to Florida in one piece-- barely. I spent a good portion of my weekend on hold or talking to representatives from United and Frontier. Christina was helpful enough to text me pictures of herself lounging on the beach (while I negotiated shoulder-high snow drifts on my walk to work-- I didn't dare drive). In the end, I only missed about a day and a half of our family vacation, but... wow, it turned out to be an epic trip. At one point I seriously contemplated driving my rental car to Florida in a last-ditch effort to escape!

The office on Saturday. I was the only one at work.

Meanwhile, Ethan relaxes on the beach. (He looks very concerned that his papa is missing.)
Travel craziness aside, I feel like I more-or-less met my modest February training goals for this year. The only hiccup being a nasty head cold that I came down with on the last weekend of the month. It knocked me out of commission for a few days. My sinuses are still recovering... ugh. Due to my cold (and the fact that it's not a leap year) I came up a few miles short this month compared to last February. However, on the plus side, I did manage to run a 20-miler with my friend Jay in Boston, MA. And I also managed to escape for a 15-mile run during our family's annual vacation to Naples, FL. Both those runs were around an 8:30 min/mile pace, which felt pretty comfortable-- ah, the benefits of running at sea level.

I'm looking forward to the Salida marathon this week. I won't be in particularly good shape for it, but it should be fun nonetheless. First and foremost, Salida provides me with an incentive to train more than I otherwise would in January and February. I need a race as training motivation. If I waited until early May to run my first race, there'd be no way that I'd be running as much.

Salida is also simply a great excuse for me to log an early season long run. And if the weather cooperates (like it has the past two years), it's a refreshing taste of spring when Leadville is still buried under snow. That alone is reason enough to run it! (Unfortunately, the forecast for Saturday looks pretty grim.) Would I like to improve up my time? Certainly. Do I think that's possible? Maybe. Should I stress out about it? Probably not. So far, my training this year hasn't been radically different than last year. I shouldn't expect radically different results. I am training more consistently-- running/riding 5-7 days a week-- though my total year-to-date mileage isn't that different from last year. Will that have an effect? Hard to say. (Probably not.) I really beat myself up last year, jumping up to a 55 mile week in Florida and then running a lot of vertical on the treadmill in Boston the week before the race. It's possible that I might not have fully recovered by race day. The final weeks leading up the race this year have been more regular, without big fluctuations in effort.

When I look at the GPS data from last year's Salida marathon, it seems like I should be able to improve my time by 15 minutes or so. At least that's what I want to believe. While I ran the first half of the race fairly well (which is mostly uphill), I faded significantly in the second half. I was unable to take advantage of the downhills. The question is why did I slow down so much? In my blog entry from last year I complained about the snow and my lack of early season fitness-- mostly the fact that the race was my first 20+ mile run since October. I remember having some minor hamstring issues and feeling my IT band flare up a bit in the final miles. (I'm pretty sure I popped an Advil or two during the final miles of the race.) At the time I brushed it off, but in retrospect I should have taken my IT band pain much more seriously. I would end up being sidelined by it for several weeks after the race. I remember feeling hungry around mile 20. I ran most of the race eating gels and drinking Gatorade. Did I get enough calories? Doubtful, but how much can I blame poor nutrition for my performance? I didn't keep track of my exact calories/hour rate of consumption, so I don't have anything concrete to point my finger at.

Ah, whatever. I'm over analyzing things... It'll be great to get out for a long run on Saturday, no matter what my time ends up being. One thing is for sure: I'm certainly going to be out on the course long enough to get my money's worth!

Since my biggest, overarching training goal this year is simply to stay healthy and injury-free, the most successful running of the Salida marathon would be one that allows me to continue training well throughout the rest of March, putting me in a good position for a solid R2R2R attempt in early April.

Salida will be my last race in the 30-39 year old division. On March 25th, I'm moving up to 40-49! Yee haw!