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Monday, September 26, 2011

Spot-On

Here's a very accurate description of a friend of mine:
  • A minimum of five years in a leadership role. Is highly ethical, honest and respected in the ultrarunning community.
  • Embodies and understands the ideals and values of the WS Endurance Run.
  • Has an understanding that the primary mission is to give runners an outstanding experience that is both safe and memorable.
  • Able to work collaboratively with others
  • Has the ability to seek, cultivate and foster key relationships and partnerships
  • Understands that proper perspective, credit and acknowledgment is always given to history and missions.
  • Knows and understands the value of treating all runners and volunteers with respect.
  • Has a good grounding in finances, paying bills and living within the means of a specific budget.
  • Has some understanding of communication, both broadly strategic as well as internal, in areas of print and electronic media.
  • Has the ability to think clearly and deliberately in emergency situations.
  • Willingness to relocate to the Sacramento/Auburn, CA area.
  • Possesses excellent speaking/writing skills. 
That's Craiggers, aka "LB", to a tee.  It also happens to be a specific professional description!

Monday, September 12, 2011

McKenzie River Trail Run 50K Race Report

"This is probably one of those things that I don't feel like doing now, but once I do it, I'll be really glad."

- Me, to Britt, the night before the 24th running of the McKenzie River Trail Run

In my two+ years as a Eugene resident, if I had a buck for every time I've heard, "Are you gonna run McKenzie?", then I'd at least have enough for a pony keg of Ninkasi.  After a solid month of training - my first since March - I thought this would be a terrific training and racing opportunity, and a chance to take in a local classic. 

But no sooner that I got a number did a major forest fire threaten the event's 24th running.  I watched daily the fire grow closer and closer to the course, the winds carrying the smoke due west, over the course and into the Willamette Valley, creating orange sunsets and deteriorating air conditions.  Rat farts.

On top of that, I felt really worn down: high training volumes and allergy-related malaise wore me down all week -- the run up Hardesty on Wednesday was a death march.  As such, I began to doubt my ability and willingness to gut out a tough (now out-and-back, uphill-finishing due to Forest Service land closures) 31-miler in acrid smoke.

I advised Britt not to make the 5AM trip up, with the real possibility that the smoke would be so bad that I may turn around and come home.  And it almost looked that way: beyond McKenzie Bridge, the smoke was heavy enough to reduce visibility and create serious doubts in my mind.


The smoke coming over a ridge on OR126, just kilos from the race start, nearly made me turn the car around!
However, once over the ridge and down towards Carmen Reservoir, the smoke -- like a fickle morning fog - disappeared.  I was committed. 

The McKenzie was normally a fast, competitive race; however this year the field was a bit thinned, with DNS' by such McK regulars as Todd Braje and Dan-O[lmstead].  However, between perennial top finisher Jeremy Tolman and the hot-running Nick Triolo -- fresh off a top 3 at Waldo 100K -- there'd be plenty up front to keep it honest and interesting. 

The typical McKenzie Course goes upstream along waterfalls and lava flows for 6 miles, before turning back on itself for a progressive downhill 25 miles (and >1500' drop).  This year, due to the fire closures, we'd go up river only a mile-and-a-half, then run downriver 15 miles before turning back for a presumed 14-mile grind back to the start/finish. 

The race start was a half-mile dirt road which allowed for the field to thin and prepare for the single track ascent.  By the time we hit the trail, it was us three: Jeremy up front, then me and Nick.  Jeremy set an honest pace -- just hard enough to feel the effort, but easy enough for me to consider sticking on him.  We passed at least one impressive waterfall along the technical single track and lots of roaring whitewater before crossing a log bridge to our long descent. 

The MRTR would be an opportunity for me to try some new things:  1.) my new Nathan hydration pack - my first race without hand-helds, and 2.) some new form techniques.  In her race report from WS, The Queen had reminded me of something vitally important that I'd lost track of -- using the arms!  It's so damn hard to use the arms while lugging 2-lb weights in each hand, thus the switch to the hydration pack which, surprisingly, was amazingly comfortable despite it's gaudy appearance.  As LB put it, it "has enough room for sandwiches for the top ten runners".  Moreover, in addition to its sandwich-carrying capacity, it also carried 70 oz of water with less perceived effort than 2x20 oz of bottles.  It also allowed for liberal arm swing - AND - combined with a gel flask with nips at 20-minute intervals (like WS), it allowed me greater liberty at aid stations.

As we made our initial descent, I stuck close to Jeremy, trying to make my feet move quickly along the uneven lava and twisting descents.  I caught my foot on one and narrowly averted a dive. "Toes up!". 

Initial water-only aid was at 3.5 miles.  With 60+ oz of a light Nuun mixture, there wasn't a chance I'd stop.  Jeremy was really working his bottle in those initial miles, so it didn't surprise me that he'd stop for a refill.  I took that opportunity to blast in front and try to make him work to catch back up with us.  We never saw him again, and it was just me and Nick.

After a couple miles, now entering the ~2-mile stretch of technical lava, Nick and chatted a bit.  I'm really happy for him -- if not more than a bit jealous -- that he earned a coveted Montrail WS spot for 2012.  But because of that effort just three weeks prior, I knew he couldn't be fresh.  As such, I pushed the pace a bit when allowable - in the smooth wooded areas after the lava, before AS #2 at Trail Bridge.

The hydration pack was a total game-changer at the AS'.  Previously, I'd have to stop for bottle fills, then find myself staring at the food table like it was a Vegas buffet, and before I knew it, three minutes had passed.  Today?  I was in and out in ten seconds, no joke.  At Trail Bridge, I took three cups of various fluids.  FAST.  I laughed to myself, because I imagined myself looking like "Mac" in "Super Troopers" doing shots!  And that became the pattern: my own gels and water, and lightning fast fluids at the AS', to make Nick or anyone else work really hard to keep up. 

I had the first of a few blips just after Trail Bridge, as the trail climbed away from the river along a ridge.  I had packed along both E-caps and S-caps and figured I needed some salt; I popped an E-cap and felt better within a couple minutes.  Despite my fast AS, Nick was right on me on the ridge ascent, as we made our way through the early starters.  I almost let him pass me just so he was the one who had to keep saying, "On your left, two!".  In my mind of one of several thoughts I had of "The Gentle Giant", Dave Mackey, who said in his 2K11 Miwok race report"In an ultra, it is my goal to never be breathing hard ...until the last 5 miles or so if needed. So I try to maintain an effort level which feels like I could always run a bit faster at all times."

As such, my mindset was always, "I am NOT working hard!".  Instead I tried to use good mechanics to keep the pace honest.

After descending the ridge we crossed a dirt road and returned to nice swath of flat, smooth single track.  I cruised pretty good here, focusing on my new mechanical mantra: "TALL - ARMS - HIPS!".  "Tall" is for posture - it's so easy to get tired and arch the upper back and crane the neck, but you'd be shocked at how much power you lose - the weight of ones body being unable to "escape" through the legs (not to mention the significant neck ache!); "Arms" for elbow swing, to not only generate power but stride frequency; and "Hips" for the flick & pull mechanics that I feel is so crucial. 

Deer Creek AS was more of the same - very quick fluids, no solids, go - as we navigated through some more technical root- and stone-covered trail before emerging on a dirt road.  Normally, we'd run only a short segment on here, but the RD's took advantage of this strip to create a 3 mile lollypop at the turnaround, thus alleviating a great deal of the out-and-back traffic at the turn.

By this time, I'd put a bit of distance on Nick.  My weakness always seems to be technical downhill, so once we were on the flats, I opened up the stride.  I was flagging a bit on the road and the E-caps didn't seem to be cutting it, so I made the decision to try an S-Cap, and to dissolve it in my mouth before ingesting.  I sucked and bit down on it 'til the near-gram of sodium chloride burst, then sucked on the hose to gut it down.  However, rather than go down, it went up - into my nose!  My God did that burn!  A straight shot of salt-paste into nasopharyx!  I coughed and blew salt snot, but the burning was unabated.  I could only laugh.  Wow.  "Smelling salts".  That woke me up. 

We finally arrived at the turnaround, and although my nose got a good portion, the S-cap helped a ton.  I again blew through the AS with two quick gulps of Pepsi and a water, and began the "Long, Lonely Climb of Loneliness" - 14 miles uphill to go. 

I didn't look back but I felt like a I had a good minute on Nick.  And again, with his post-Waldo fatigue and my quickness through the AS', I believed it'd be too hard for him to work back up to me.  I made sure of it with the mantra: "Tall-Arms-Hips!", keeping the feet moving.  This was a tremendous weakness of mine this first year -- my slow turnover made a slow-down inevitable when fatigued.  But I'd been working on it hard for weeks, including some great uphill efforts at Hardesty, so when it came time to grind those middling uphill miles, I was ready.  I knew I wasn't slowing down.

I ran solo for a good 2K+, occasionally scanning behind me for Nick, before re-emerging onto the road and into the face of the rest of the field.  I worried a bit about this, but the cascade of "Good job!"s buoyed my efforts and more than offset any inconvenience of the traffic.  I worked the stride hard on this segment, and even had periods of feeling really good!  I tried to channel my inner-Meghan by smiling a lot ("She's smiling because she's insane!"). 

A couple significant climbs reminded me that, "I'm not working hard!", and refocused me on form.  I took another S-cap by dissolution -- and avoided the nose.  You know you need salt when a gram of it on your tongue tastes good. 

The climbs before the Trail Bridge were almost killer - I was working hard, no doubt.  I took an entire gel - one of two I packed in addition to my flask, then sucked hard on the hydration pack - to near-empty - knowing the last AS was near.  I had no clue how much from Trail Bridge to the finish (5? 7.5?), but I knew I needed a refill.  Before I was in sight, I was already unloading the pack for a fill.  While waiting for the AS workers to reload me, I took two potato nuggets dipped in salt and a few cups of soda.  They made quick work and I was off.  I was buoyed by hearing it was "only 8K" to the finish.  My watch read about 3:03 when I left, so I figured another 40 minutes of running, at worst 45 for this last <5 miles. 

Channeling "The Gentle Giant" once again, now it was time to work: I pushed the last five miles, especially those initial kilos after the AS that were non-volcanic.  But back on the lava, it was a game of obstacle negotiation and keeping the feet moving, neuromuscular demands trumping the aerobic.  It was now getting legitimately warm, and I sucked on the hose with reckless abandon, thankful for the liberal refill.  "Tall-Arms-Hips!, Tall-Arms-Hips!".  Finally through the lava, I pushed and pushed, up and over rolling moguls, alternately scanning to my right for any sign of Carmen Reservoir, and for Nick at my rear.  But neither arrived.  As the meters accumulated, and my watch approached 3:40, I began to doubt the accuracy of "8K" I'd been quoted.  "Could it be 7-and-a-half?" "How much farther around Carmen are we running to finish?" 

Finally the reservoir could be seen, as the course climbed for the last time to a ridge overlooking the water.  The legs felt great and the stride opened up on the final descent and river crossing to a flagging for the finish.  I crossed the line at 3:47:54 for my first real victory since last year's Autumn Leaves

The finish line was pretty sparse at 11:17, but Dan-O was there to congratulate, and within a few minutes there came Nick.  While re-hydrating on water and soda the three of us chatted about the race before Jeremy came in for 3rd place. 
Me and Nick, post-race.  Wish that was a beer in hand - it was only a Sierra Mist.
The rest of the late morning and early afternoon was spent hanging at the finish line, watching and cheering finishers.  Turning in solid efforts included the fabulous running duo of Ken Sinclair (4th - 4:17) and Denise Bourassa (14th, 2nd woman - in a 4:36 "tune-up jog"), and LB notching his 10th MRTR (6th, 4:19), all under 4:20.  Had a great time hanging out and chatting with these folks, and getting to know Nick and others.  It was also fun to see the incomparable Todd Bosworth cross the line, who made a faux-turnaround as if to do a 50K cool-down.   
Mr Bosworth, crossing the finish with the biggest applause, turning to "start his 2nd lap"
Overall, I was very pleased with the race: my effort, the competition and camaraderie, the conditions -- the smoke was hardly noticed -- and the courage and tenacity of the RDs to go through with the race!  


The Grades:

Pacing: A-.  My inner-Dave worked well; I felt I kept it sustainable, yet honest, then ran hard the last 5 miles.  Per Nick, "I thought I could reel you in, but it never happened".  This was primarily due to solid mechanics and fueling (see below).  However, to be critical, I do think I could've pushed it more on the flats and downhills.

Mechanics: A-.  Probably my best mechanics to date in an ultra, for sure on a true trail ultra.  The mantra worked great and I used my arms the best yet.  Negative points for striking too much on the lateral foot - my outer toes were sore post-race, evidence I wasn't getting on the 1st ray like I should be.

Hydration/Fuel/Electrolyes: A.  Nailed it.  Very fast through the AS', using them for fast, high-volumes of fluid.  I took maybe 5 gels all day and only two small potato nuggets.  I took in a ton of fluild, though, but I needed it all.  2.5 S-caps, maybe 4 E-caps.  Solid.  Fast.  The only blemish was, once again, not having chilled beer on hand for post-race! 

Mental Toughness: A-.  Can't complain, however, I don't think I was every truly challenged.  But based on my fitness and freshness, I was lucky to have not been.  In the end, I truly feel the uphill finish played in my favor, as I'm a much better uphill-grinder than a downhill/technical negotiator.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Stop the Bonk! - An Open Letter to the Road Guys

Dear Road Guys-

It's that wonderful time of year: fall...marathon season!  This is the time of year when the air cools, the leaves fall, and we get to see the fruits of our summer labor -- the scores of miles, tempo runs, intervals, and long Sundays -- by throwing down at our favorite fall 26.2.

The 26.2 can be a crap-shoot: or, as I used to call it, a spin of the rolette wheel: you put all your money on one number - a singular road marathon - and you spin the wheel, hoping that fitness, health and rest, and race-day conditions all come together to produce a PR.

So it's a bummer that, when all those things come together, that the wheels come flying off, almost predictably, 30K into the race:  cramping, dead-legs, slow-down.  The Bonk.

Fellow EC alum Chad Austin mentioned this "phenomenon" in his article on Ultra running in the July / August issue of Run Minnesota, where he said:
"...Once a bonk arrives, it can be a miserable shuffle the rest of the way.  The only thing we can do is watch the mile splits get slower and slower."
There's only one problem with statement: it's wrong!  "You're wrong, sir!"

It's common to hear the following exchange:

Friend: "How did your race go?"
Runner: "I was doing great until mile 20, then I totally fell apart - cramps, dead legs - so I really slowed in the last 10K"

Friend: "Oh, that's too bad.  Maybe next time."

My reaction?  It's like I'm hearing:

Runner: "I was doing great until mile 20, then my shorts fell down to my ankles - so I really slowed in the last 10K"

And to that, my reaction is the same: "Really?? Why didn't you do anything about it??"

Bonks are not random.  Cramps are not random.  Neither is a precipitous slow-down only minutes after "feeling fine".  This is your body telling you something is wrong!  And when they come, you're not powerless - you need to do something about it.

Marathoners can bonk and still survive.  You run fast...then the bonk comes, and you slow down and suffer for a few miles.  Ultra runners?  If you bonk, you're dead meat.  You don't finish, and/or you put yourself in physical danger. You might be stuck on the top of an 11,000' mountain in a snowstorm, staring at a 3000' descent on scree to the next point of aid.

Ultra runners have learned the lessons as a matter of survival.  But these same lessons can - and should! - be applied to the road guys to ensure a consistent performance.

The Bonk can come from four different issues:

Problem #1: Burning up Glyogen.  We train -- both easy and hard -- in a physiological sense to make our bodies more efficient at energy use -- to use fat as much as possible, and to build up glycogen stores (in both muscle and liver tissue).  The key is to budget said glycogen for the duration of a 26.2.  Going out too hard can blow through it prematurely.

Solution:  Supplement early and often with additional sugars.  For glycogen, you can't truly restore it: once it's gone, it's gone.  Supplemental energy sources can help  - especially starting early with a regiment of gels that the body can use concurrently with glycogen.

A true glycogen bonk is far more rare than people would have you believe: you train for fitness, you train for pace.  If you blow glycogen, you'll blow it big and stupid -- hard early, and unsustainable paces.   A true glyogen bonk is exceedingly rare for the smart, well-prepared road guy.

Problem #2: Dehydration.  You lose a ton of water in a marathon, no matter the temperature.  Moreover, for the fall marathon, you tend to lose even more and notice it less -- the lower humidity saps the moisture (from body and mouth) and, as you're no longer drenched in August humidity, you tend to notice it less.

The body requires water for muscle function and sugar breakdown.  No water, no fuel, no muscle contraction.  Game over.

Solution: Drink up!  Fast guys (the 2:20s and faster crowd) have the luxury of "bottle service"; for the sub 3-hr marathoners (or aspiring), you should "take a nip" at every aid station.  At hot ultras, runners take in a bottle an hour -- that's 16-24 oz of fluid, for a purely aerobic effort!  How much are you road guys getting in your 2:30 marathon? Three or four water stops, at 1-2 oz out of the little cup?  There's a reason the fast guys having several bottles available at the elite aid station.  They know they need 'em!

Problem #3: Electrolyte deficiency.  This is, in my opinion, the number one reason for the nasty bonk: cramping, nausea, and The Shuffle.  Your body requires sodium and potassium (primarly, with others) for muscle contraction.  Nerves and muscles fire via cascading movement of sodium in and and out.  These firings are recharged with potassium.

However, the body must also cool itself.  With perspiration goes the salt.

Unlike glyogen, the body does not have supplemental salt storage: no "magical salt lick" to turn to during hard efforts.  As such, you need to supplement, period!

Just how much remains to be seen, but we're learning more.  Research conducted in conjunction with the Western States Endurance Run is helping cement the widely-known anecdotal/experiential evidence that supplemental salt = survival = optimal performance. 

Cramping is not normal in endurance events.  Again: you train for duration, you train for pace.  Do you cramp in workouts?  Not normal! Precipitious drop-offs in pace (exceeding 10-15s/mile) at the end of a marathon is not normal! 

Solution: Supplemental salt.  This is anecdotal from ultra runners and from me, but I believe every marathoner would benefit from 500 - 1000mg of supplemental sodium during a 26.2 - above and beyond what is provided in conventional sports drink and fuels.

Again, it is widely-accepted that during ultra races that the ideal supplementation of electrolytes is in the 100 - 400 mg of sodium (or broad-spectrum electrolyes) per hour.   For the ultra runner, this can come from a variety of sources: fluid mixtures, salt capsules, or "real food" at aid stations laden with salt (chips, potatoes, broth, etc).

For marathoners, you could carry something as simple as a couple salt tablets in a baggie.  Pop one in your mouth (with or without water) and The Bonk - the slow-down, the cramps, the dead-legs - could be gone within seconds.

Really. 

So...there it is.  And now, The Questions:

1. I can't handle eating or drinking anything in a race!  /  How am I gonna take that stuff?

My answer: "Tough ___!"  You train for the distance, the pace, the flats, the short-shorts.  Train to fuel.  Train to carry the least amount of supplies necessary to maximize performance.

Train to take fuel - whether its gels or block or "real food" - and train how to carry it.  Most USATF-sanctioned races prohibit mid-race aid.  Bummer.  That means you're yarding gels with you.  Carry salt tabs in tiny ziplock bags.  Put 'em in your pocket, or staple them to your singlet.  Whatever it takes. 

During the 2010 Eugene Marathon (my 2:31:18 PR), I carried six gels -- two in my tiny back pocket and four stapled to the front/inside of my shorts.  Dathan Ritzenheim took eight gels during the 2008 Trials.  How many do you think you need?  Probably more than zero. Or 1 or 2.

Train to drink.  Sorry that you suck at it, but you probably sucked at running 7:30 or 6:30 or 5:30 pace, too, til you trained for it.  Learn how to gulp from a cup while moving -- or from a bottle.  Train!

Carry supplemental salt.  Period!  Do it!  The following are some terrific options for supplemental salt:

Succeed! S-caps.  These are the gold standard for ultra runners.  Packed with >300mg of sodium, they're the quick fix salt boost that every ultra runner carries, or obtains at aid stations.  Just one of these tabs has the potential to reverse the nastiest bonk within seconds.  Seriously.


Hammer Endurolytes ("E"-caps) capsules.  This capsule is a more conservative, broad spectrum supplement -- only 40mg of sodium, but also containing potassium, magnesium and calcium -- also essential (though admittedly less-impacting) electrolytes for performance.

I like these better, because my stomach can better tolerate this "lighter supplement", compared to the "S-Cap".

Clif-Blok Margarita gels.  These tend to be the best of both worlds -- a fuel+salt multi-tasker.  They're useful because you don't have to worry about carrying extra supplies.  However, if you want fuel or salt only, you're out of luck with these.  I like to carry one sleeve of these for a 26.2.


All of these contain salt above and beyond conventional gels.  They're to be used sparingly -- perhaps 2-3 times over the course of a race, OR when you get into trouble


2. How do I know what / how much to take?

Trial.  Practice.  Train.  Try everything in training before you race with it.  It's easy: go out on a long run, bring one of the above products (or, as I've used in the past, a salt packet from McDonalds!).  Bonk...or start to feel like s___.  Wait a few miles.  Then take one -- ideally with little or no stopping.  Keep running...

Your stomach may react in a variety of ways, but what about your legs?  For most, just the slightest bit of salt can have this sort of reaction (1:01 in), "like I got a B12 shot!"  And within seconds..."I'm back, baby!".  I am not exaggerating.

Ultimately, the only way to know how much is "enough" until you've done too much.  My body tells me, in the form of "gut rot".  Experiment.  Learn.  Train!
*****
As for me, I've had issues with heat and electrolytes dating back to college.  I dropped from a hot and humid Twin Cities Marathon in 2005 due to cramps; when I stopped, I had piles of salt in my collar bones.  That was the first clue I had an electrolyte issue.

I first learned about electrolytes while doing long-distance cycling -- in 125-mile  "Graduation Ride" from River Falls to La Crosse, WI in May of 2009, I went from "OK" to mega-bonk just before the little town of Trempeleau, WI.  We stopped for ten minutes, where I drank a half liter of Mountain Dew - sugar, salt and caffeine - and back on the bike, it was like a new day: blasting 25mph the last 20 miles into La Crosse.

I took two S-Caps along with me for Eugene Marathon in 2010; I lost one somehow and nearly spat out the other.  It's a good thing I got one down, because I still struggled with cramps the last 3-4 miles, costing me a minute or so.

By Twin Cities Marathon 2010, I had it down: I knew what I needed.  I ate a salt-laden meal pre-race, then packed a sleeve of Clif Blok Margaritas, as well as other supplemental salt.  S-caps disturb my stomach, so I literally packed a piece of bread buttered and salted with an S-cap and an E-cap.  I ate this (while running 5:45 pace) at mile 18.  I was a bit high on salt early (almost taking a "potty break" under a tree at Lake Nokomis), but that salted bread at 18 sustained me to the finish.  That was a rough day -- the stride was off, my legs felt like garbage -- but proper fueling and electrolytes allowed me to "gut out" a 2:32 and a top-50 finish at the US Championships.  If it weren't for all that salt, I might still be on the course, crumpled under a tree on Summit Avenue.

Now, as an ultra runner, I've learned even more, yet part of the challenge (and fun) of ultras is to continue to learn -- and to ultimately listen and respond to  your body's nutritional needs.

*****
You guys train extremely hard for many months - if not years - to get that big PR - whether it's a BQ, a sub-3, a sub 2:30, or even a Trial Q.  Don't blow all that work, when all it may take is a mere half-gram of salt.

We have a saying amongst our ultra group:  "Solve your problems!".  When the Bonk comes, be prepared to do something about it.  Or at least die trying.  Because you're going to die either way.

Sincerely,
- Joe (aka TRAN, aka OOJ)  :)