The running blog is dead. At least the first-person, military-style report is. No one wants to read it. Oh, perhaps those who want a dry, course-specific play-by-play in hopes of aiding their preparation.
People want insights. They want perspective. They want honesty.
They want a story.
Well, here's a decent one.
I've held onto this one for a while, my procrastination borne from equal parts demand (the paid gigs come first), and the necessity of reflection. But it is necessity – to remember – that requires I write this “race report”, three months, post-haste.
It's been a long fucking road from the spring of 2013 – truly the last time I've raced well – to now. And here's how it all went down.
Burnt to the Ground: Failure, Burn-out, & the Aerobic Ground Zero
Even prior to the 2013 Western States, I became intrigued by the notion of true sustainability: a pathway where improvement is a continuous process, borne not from relentless stress and pushing (or forcing) the body farther and harder, but from a slow-but-steady flow of fitness, strength, and intelligence that collects in a vast reservoir.
This model is akin to building a multi-story, stone-and-brick building sitting atop a foundation of solid rock. In contrast, I feel a lot of runners in the sport – myself included – extract performance the opposite way: by undermining the precious (and finite) minerals of physiological strength and resilience, then – most haphazardly – throwing together a hastily-designed structure over the top of the very hole they continue to mine. It's a recipe for collapse that we see far too often – if we choose to pay attention.
For me, reading the annuls of some of the greatest endurance athletes in modern history, the answer seemed to lie in the notion of true aerobic fitness: the ability to enhance fat metabolism to the ultimate degree, the solid rock foundation for peak – and sustainable - performance.
Fat metabolism is the solid rock of performance for the following reasons:
- it is an utterly low-stress metabolic pathway, utilizing lots of fats, lots of oxygen, and with minimal stress (physical, or chemical)
- it is a process that creates maximum fitness gains with the bare minimum of systemic physiological stress: minimal stress hormones, cytokines and tissue stress
- it is a process predicated upon holistic health: to maximize fat-burning, one MUST maximize rest and recovery (including sleep), nutrition, and minimize stress outside running.
- it requires periodization, whereby high-intensity training – while critical to performance – must be limited – and complete rest utilized – in order for the “slow drip” of overall fitness gains to continue, unremitting.
It is a system of operation that requires a degree of personal responsibility to live one's entire life well – not simply be a runner committed to the numbers game of training and racing. That this process is so much more than numbers – and force – that gave the notion its power.
My spectacular flame-out at Western States a few months later only steeled my resolve to jump feet-first into the fat-vat, my own fountain of running youth that, just maybe, might save me from another flame-out.
Step one was determining where to start. Noakes' Lore of Running and Maffetone's Big Book were the starting points: Noakes analysis of Mark Allen's other-worldly performance at the 1989 Ironman Triathlon – only possible through enhanced fat metabolism – caught my attention, and Maffetone provided the 180-Formula as the concrete target.
As such, I got to work in July of 2013, dead-set at doing all of my training at the magical “Max Aerobic Function” (MAF) heart rate.
The only problem was, I got it wrong.
Even after Western States, apparently I wasn't done lying to myself. Maffetone's Formula for max fat-burning is, quite simply: 180 minus age.
With some caveats:
- minus five for: minor to moderate injuries, a recent illness, and/or allergies
- minus ten for: major illness or injury
- plus five for: two years or more of sustainable, continuous training without injury or any of the above issues.
Of course, I chose 180 – 35...plus five (150). But I neglected to accept that, “Oh yeah, I've had chronic back pain for two years...oh, and allergies...oh, and I've also had a recent burn-out and various life stresses!”
I am lucky to have access to my own metabolic testing equipment, so before Waldo 100K in 2013, I tested myself and found, well, yes, I do burn some fat at 150 heart rate. But only about ten percent. Lacking a full understanding of what “Max Aerobic” meant, I kept running with it.
From July through October, I did nothing but exercise at 150 heart rate, with occasional cheats into the mid 150s – but absolutely no true “workouts” - to tempo runs, track sessions, progression runs or – most notably – moderately hard hill climbs. I began to see some improvements: where run paces went from high-7s and low-8s early on, gradually creeping into the low-7s. But it never felt good. In a strange way, the runs felt like a grind, and it felt difficult to develop the volume I felt was necessary to get fit for the 2014 season.
In November, I commenced harder training, which included modest end-of-long-run hard finishes and increased vertical work. And while the race season crept closer, so did a range of issues: minor aches and pains (including a pesky left “hamstring” issue), and more minor colds that fall than I remember having in the several years preceding. But I ran a strong training race in mid-December that I thought would set me up well for a ticket-punch at Bandera and a return trip to Western.
Then I traveled back to the Midwest and promptly got the illest* I've ever been, a mere ten days before Bandera. And like that, any shot at an early ticket was, well, shot.
In retrospect, that I got so ill, and so physically drained just days before the race was a convenient explanation as to why – ultimately – I was completely unprepared to run at the level required to earn a Montrail Cup ticket.
In reality, my true aerobic fitness was terrible. A metabolic re-test in mid-February – and a lot more knowledge later – confirmed that, well goddamn, I'd hardly burned any fat at all at 150 beats per minute. Not only did I fail to improve, but my aerobic fitness worsened (down to 6-8% fat burning at 150).
What a cruel joke this had been. I'd sacrificed all specificity – hard mountain climbs, grinder-long runs, and standard “strength speed work” - in hopes of laying a foundation, and the “rock” was nothing but a shoddy, brittle Plaster-of-Paris...
It's six weeks out from Lake Sonoma 50, and I'm now in a bigger hole than I was eight months ago.
The Psychology of Desire: “What are you running from, and what are you running toward?”
In the hours prior to the thirteen running of the Waldo 100K, anxiety was at a low simmer. But instead of the usual, “Gosh, I hope I make it!” – hoping to run fast, to triumph, to be a Fast Dude – it was replaced with a deeper worry: “Do I still have it? Will my body be able to respond? Do I even like doing this?” Those aren't quite the thoughts of a champion on the eve of a 62-mile race, but after the year-plus of frustrating rebuilding, that's where I was at.
With great reluctance and guilt, I backed out of Gary Robbins' Squamish 50 – held in the Vancouver area, the same day as Waldo. I'd committed to running (and presenting) at his race, but as the race crept closer, so did reality: I needed a lottery qualfier for Western. Gone were the delusional thoughts that I could claim a Montrail spot, and it was time fo face reality. Western States is my favorite race, and, goddamnit, I want to race it again. Robbins – a veteran Top Tenner – got that, and graciously released me from my obligation.
The other motivating factor was my great friend Jacob Rydman was making the trip to Lane County – the lone visit of his busy year – to do the same. And quite frankly, I couldn't stomach the absurdity of him coming up here to relive his 2012 triumph, while I was out of the country.
Having Jacob in town helped calm the nerves; so did the large group of Eugene ultra runners, who were either racing, pacing, or volunteering. It's my home race, and it was comforting to have that support.
The night before, at the pre-race meeting, I chatted and joked lightheartedly with Ryan Ghelfi – the latest in a new generation of Ashland-area ultra speedsters – and Andrew Miller – the teenage mountain slayer from Corvallis that, despite been barely legal to light a cigarette, was already fast enough to smoke a whole field of adult contemporaries.
Standing there, I thought to myself, “Well...this is the podium, right here...”
In the fall of 2013, I came to the realization that part of the holistic preparation – perhaps the greatest – was my psyche.
What drove me to train the way I did for Western States? What caused me so much anxiety that I almost certainly got no sleep the night before? What drove me to ignore a heart-rate monitor that was flaming 170 for nearly five consecutive hours, in a screaming warning siren of demise?
At that point, I began to wonder why I run? And it drove me to ask the following question:
“What am I running from, and what am I running toward?”
Properly harnessed, those motivations and desires could be powerful fuels. Because if either motivations were too incendiary and uncontrolled, they can no doubt push the body over the edge. And that's where I went.
I needed help answering that question.
Mandatory Patience – Square Pegs go in Square Holes
At 4AM, I was fully awake, but strangely serene. I dressed, ate, drank, and geared up amongst dozens of other excited runners in the Willamette Pass Ski Shelter.
Unlike most pre-race moments, I felt both relaxed and positive. I wasn't sure I could trust that feeling, but I was happy to have both. Some great pre-race coffee really put me in good spirits, and the recognition of gratitude for the chance to run in the woods all day, in the company and assistance of friends – was ever-present.
My strategy for the race was, well...simple: to run relaxed and sustainably, to keep the heart rate absolutely under 170 through first two-thirds, and to otherwise keep the effort under 160 at all times. All of these things required great patience, and a disconnect between my own body and the other competitors.
Patience has always been my hardest lesson, but 2014 served up a mighty dose, early on.
Retesting at the end of February revealed that 150 bpm wasn't even close to Max Aerobic. Maffetone's max aerobic estimates correlated to roughly 25-40+% fat-burning of those I personally testing in the clinic.
For me? I had to drop nearly 130 to achieve a mere 25% fat-burning, and an abysmal 110 bpm for the bulky 40%. Running suddenly got much, much slower.
Yet this made sense to me: why the runs felt so sluggish the previous fall, the marked uptick in aches and pains, and minor head colds and, perhaps, why the influenza virus hit me so damn hard before Bandera.
So, it was truly back to ground zero. And despite being seven weeks out from Lake Sonoma, it was time for another lesson in patience.
Maffetone's classic five-mile fitness test – which consists of a warm-up, followed by five continuous miles at MAF heart rate on a set, outdoor course – seemed too unwieldy. My first test was in 90 degree conditions; the next in heavy wind.
This time around, I'd keep it indoors, and to make the assessment more feasible, I cut the test to three miles. The treadmill – without wind resistance, with a fast-spinning belt that forces forward progress – is invariably faster. But it also allowed a total precision: with a heart-rate monitor build into the unti, I could watch it like a hawk. At my first test, after a good warm-up, set out at a heart rate ceiling of 130. I allowed a leeway of up to 135, but anytime it stayed above 133-134 for more than 10-20 seconds, I dropped the speed a tenth of a mph. It was precise as I could do it, with minimal cheating.
My first tests – on the fast treadmill – were unimpressive: roughly 7:30 to 7:50 pace for three miles. Ugh.
But I was committed. Yes, Sonoma was coming up, and yes, I needed specific work, but I was committed to the long-term: I had to build a true base; without it, there will only be more fits-and-starts: temporary fast running, followed by problems.
So there I was: lighly hiking up the thousand-foot Mount Pisgah and (only moderately) jogging down, doing everything I could to keep that heart rate in the 130s.
That was the Lake Sonoma preparation.
The final bits of my ultramarathon delusion were unceremoniously blown away with a mediocre 13th place, 7:24 performance: nearly a minute-per-mile slower than the year before.
Clearly, I wasn't ready. Yet I hadn't completely surrendered...
Keeping Perspective: “Act like you don't need the shit, and they'll give you the shit for free.”
When the horn sounded for Waldo, we were off into the pre-dawn darkness, up the ski hill. I was dead-set on an easy pace, and, much to my surprise, so were the young guys from up and down I-5. Andrew ran beside me from the get-go, and while Ghelfi crept a few meters ahead, by the time we began the long, round-about shoulder summit, he fell back with us.
I chatted lightheartedly with Andrew, asking about his year, what else he was up to, and otherwise pretending that running up this hill wasn't all that hard. It was, but it wasn't nearly as hard as the year before. We shuffled a bit, hiked a lot, and, in no time, we'd made our way up to the backside of the ski hill.
On the way down the backside, which would take us west toward our first true mountain summit of the day, there was more easy chatter: Andrew and I continued our chatter, while Ryan chimed in as we talked about the goings on of the late-summer racing scene. The pace felt effortless but legitimate. I didn't fret about splits, or “getting out”. I was relaxed and enjoying myself. Heart rate: 140.
I'm not sure I can speak for every competitive ultrarunner out there, but this is how my mindset as evolved in the three-plus years of ultrarunning, culminating at Western States in 2013
Early 2010: Ultras? Holy shit, they do this?
Late 2010: Ultras! Holy shit, I did that...and did pretty well!
Early 2011: I wonder if I'm actually good at this?
Late 2011: I think I could be GOOD!
Early 2012: Can I be in the same room as the fastest in the sport?
Late 2012: Yes! Now I want to be the fastest!
Early 2013: I HAVE TO be the fastest!
Drive and desire can fuel just as much on delusion as ability. “If you give a mouse a cookie...”. I'd been feeding myself the cookie – and “drinking my own Kool-Aid” - that not only could I be the best, but that – in order to have a place, to be of value in this community – I had to be among the best.
That's what I was running toward. I was filling a void – a past void, filled with failure, shame and regret of my previous athletic ineptitude – and a present void – where I felt that the best way to be accepted and loved was the be The Man atop the podium, or at least among the very top.
There's nothing wrong with desire, or letting emotions – past and present – drive your running and training. But that's a dangerous fuel mixture that can lead to poor decisions, and throw an otherwise healthy, nurturing community pursuit into an imbalanced, destructive one.
Before and during the 2013 Western States, I lost perspective. I trained relentlessly and unsustainably, and my most vivid memory of race day – besides the outrageous cramping for 26 miles – was of me racing the entire first fifty miles! Pushing and pushing, forcing it, rather than going with the flow. It was an unsustainable path that ended with a thud at Michigan Bluff.
It was time for a change.
The irony is, the more you care – the more you need to run fast – the more problematic and wrought with problems that end becomes. However, sustainable, balanced running – when kept in perspective to the Big Picture – tends to wind up being the fastest!
To get back up, I had to let go, and be okay with falling down.
As we rolled into Gold Lake AS, I was utterly relaxed and present. I stopped to drop off my headlamp, now superfluous at daybreak, and got a bottle fill. Andrew and Ryan pushed on, and I fell back to third. I didn't care.
Up the trail a ways, the course crosses Waldo Lake Road, which bisects the course. Several spectators were there, and Monkey Boy Scott Wolfe acted as course marshall...and heckler.
“Did y'all get lost out there?”, he chided, in his faux-southern Virginia accent he reserves especially for talking shit.
“Did y'all get lost out there?”, he chided, in his faux-southern Virginia accent he reserves especially for talking shit.
We were a good five minutes-plus slower than a typical opening split, but I could care less. We were running smart.
I tailed behind Ghelfi and Miller as wel started the long grind up Fuji, the second of four major climbs of the day. I kept things well under 160 bpm, but quickly caught Andrew, who encouraged me to go around. I did. Before long, I locked into Ghelfi, and along we went.
Finding Joy: With or Without a Number On
An important lesson in perspective from 2013 was the notion that balanced running isn't always about actually running. To learn that, I had to travel south and spend a little more time with some real Original Gangtas of Ultrarunning.
In September of last year, I spent two quality outings with a couple legends of the sport. On a warm pre-Labor day evening in Davis, California, I shared a burger and a Pliny pint with Bruce LaBelle – ten-time Silver Buckler, who, at the young age of, well, “mid-50s”, is still out there, running long and fast. Two days later, it was a easy canyon run and coffee with Tim Twietmeyer. I think his driveway is paved in sterling silver.
Both men have been running competitively for over thirty years. And both impressed upon me the values of balance and perspective: that running, while perhaps central to their being, was only part of it. Logistically, neither man trained hard, year round. They picked their battles, but prepared well for each. Moreover, each invested in the running community in other ways: through race volunteering, trail stewardship, and mentorship of younger runners.
For every runner, this makes sense. But for most of us, the sticking point lies deep down: can we possibly fill ourselves – filling the void of “The Question” - by giving, rather than taking? Can giving back to a race, to the community, be as fulfilling as the reward of finishing medals, buckles, prizes, and accolades?
Indeed, for the up-and-coming ultra star, this is a tough sell.
But the ironic message – received loud-and-clear from Bruce and Tim – was that finding that balance – between taking and giving – was the only way to sustain the hard-running and its rewards.
But beyond that, the more one gives – the more helpful it becomes to hard racing. Giving develops relationships, good memories and connections on and off the trail, and in all dimensions of the sport. It is sowing seeds that reap even greater performance benefits come race day.
How much do you think Tim benefited from having good friends every five miles along the race course at Western States? Those were good vibes he earned by giving: working along those volunteers, all year 'round.
Give – sacrificing your own running for others – and you shall receive. Ironic, but simple.
Ghelfi and I floated along toward Fuji. I hung behind him, perfectly content to glide along behind him. I felt fantastic. The heart rate, even for this prolonged, high-altitude climb, hovered in the 140s to 150. I focused on form and nutrition and bided time.
To keep things light, I asked Ghelfi about Beer Miling. We chatted about some of his fast Southern Oregon teammates and their beer mile experience, before the trail pitched a bit steeper upward. Any conversation that distracted, early, was a good one. We were ten miles in, but still way too early to get competitive.
I was just happy to be running up front, and feeling so effortless.
...until there was a Patagonia Puffy Jacket up for grabs.
Since the race's inception, there has been a special preme for the first runner to “Find Waldo” - or summit Mt. Fuji, the first place for a view of the namesake lake. With Ghelfi and I solidly out front, I knew I'd have a chance. Then I realized he hadn't stopped for water, as I had, at Gold Lake, so when he pulled into Fuji AS outbound, I pushed again, putting on a legitimate surge to gain some space.
To my dismay, despite jacking the heart rate to nearly 180, Ghelfi quickly caught back up. I continue to pushed at a legitimately hard pace, weaving in and out of the early starters on this out-and-back summit, to maintain my lead and make him work really hard to get past. Indeed, he would've had to aggressively push past me – including likely asking permission to get by – if he wanted that preme. So I kept pushing. I felt good and strong, but with my heart rate hitting 180, it was a risky move.
I stayed in front and made it to the top first. I stayed just long enough to catch a few breaths, and Ghelfi to summit – before heading back down.
Little did I know – and I wouldn't til the awards - that this year, for the first time in many years, the preme would not be a puffy Waldo Patagonia jacket (which likely retails for $200-300), but a High Desert Drop Bag: a fine product, indeed, but...in retrospect, not nearly as enticing for such an aggressive effort. The race directorship had changed the premes the night before, and I hadn't taken notice. That the “Wet Waldo” runner – the first finisher to jump in six lakes along the course – would get a puffy jacket and not the first Fuji summit, would be a significant point of...er, irksomeness...for weeks to come.
But onward, and upward. Or, downward.
The out-and-back summit was a good opportunity to survey the field. Andrew wasn't far behind us, but after that, things thinned out. BGD was holding his own, running a conservative effort on minimal fitness this time around. Lots of cheers and fives from the outbound runners as we made our way down, and I tried to tamp down my heavy heart rate.
A quick stop-off at Fuji AS allowed Ghelfi to get out front, but I made no efforts to reel him in. I would gently descend back toward Waldo Lake Road.
Surrender Without Giving Up
The section between the top of Fuij (13 miles) and Charlton Lake (30) just may be the toughest part of the race. On paper, it's easy: downhill, then gradual uphill. But it is a mental grind: after two tough uphills, one is lulled into a relaxing-yet-taxing downhill, then forced into a gut-churning, relentless grind that saps one's will to continue. Many a DNF happens at Charlton for this reason.
I was wary of this, and as such, kept the effort to a bare minimum as we descended toward the road. This allowed Andrew – smart beyond his barely-legal years – to catch up with us. He ran the Fuji climb with utmost patients and now he was right back in it. Our trio hit the road and Mt. Ray AS (20 miles) in a pack.
I took a bit of time in the aid, snacking on a banana, and getting a fill. Both Ghelfi and Miller had crew, so neither stopped. And like that, I was a minute back.
My energy was good, but something was amiss. The calves – namely my right – were sore. Tight. Painful. Pre-cramping.
What the hell?
When you lose perspective, two painfully dangerous things happen: first, you tend to push too hard, too soon. Without balance, one invariably forces things. The “I have to's” take control of the wheel, often with bad consequences. Second, you tend to not see the big picture. Little issues that pop up early on are ignored. These inconvenient issues – often red flags of major problems – are swept aside and denied. But just as often, they blow up.
This is as true in life and relationships as it is in running.
Little cramps in the thighs and calves coming out of Duncan Canyon at Western States were ignored. “Everything else is great, so who cares?”. But twenty six miles later, on a table at Michigan Bluff, they made me care.
Balanced, sustainable running requires a present-centered awareness: being tuned into the reality, both good and bad. Ignoring truths because they're incompatible with your expectations or vision of ideal is a sure-fire way to get really lost: on and off the trail.
Running out of Mt Ray, just seconds out of the lead, my calves inexplicably panged.
Why? At the time, I wasn't sure. I slowed, but that didn't seem to help. I could no longer ignore them.
I stopped. I stretched and massaged them, namely the medial right calf, that felt a few strides away from explosion. It helped. I continued on, just as fourth place (Ryan Tockstein) approached.
I got a little negative: “Damn. I'm running great, but these damn calves!” I saw the day slipping away, as I was clearly now far behind. I ran on, alone, up the relentless grind to Bobby Lake Trail. The calf stabilized, but continue to be sore and painful. I did what I could: ran form-focused, drank, and ate.
Gradually, the calf improved and seemed runnable, as I turned north onto the PCT toward Twins 1.
Then a strange thing happened: I caught sight of Andrew and Ryan.
The minute I'd lost at the aid station, and the additional minutes spent slowing down and stopping to work my calf, were neutralized. I was back in it.
Yet, once I got to Twins 1, it was sore as hell again. So once I was topped off, I stopped yet again for another minute or so to stretch and massage. Damnit!
Extrapolation is a dangerous thing. It is how our brain ensures survival, and makes our lives easier: here we are now, so in theory, this is where we're going. In ultras as in life, it is a short-cut that is almost always wrong. And extrapolation is likely responsible for more DNFs than any other factor. Feel like shit now, well, how much worse will it be many miles from now?
My brain was in extrapolation mode from Twins 1 to Charleton: “I'm not even halfway through and my calf is about to blow up. I've stretched and massaged, and I'm barely hanging on”. I tried to put it out of mind. I stayed form-focused, and I kept fueling. One step at a time.
I problem-solved: “My form seems OK, could it be my back?” My low back was a bit sore, and I thought that maybe some nerve pain might've been short-circuiting the muscle. I would stop at Charlton to work out the back this time.
Then, just a mile out from Charlton, it happened again: there were Miller and Ghelfi! Another lost minute or two, yet, once again I caught 'em! “Wow, this is great!” Reeling them in, yet again, buoyed the spirits.
With minimal extra effort, I rolled past them, knowing I'd need some cushion to stretch out at the aid station. So with great fanfare, I rolled into Charlton in first place.
My first half split – 4:46 (and Miller's 4:47) – would be among the slower leading splits in the race's recent competitive history, but, as time would tell, put us in position for a hard, even second half.
It must've been strange for the onlookers to see the race leader roll into the aid station...then roll onto the ground! I first got on my knees and pushed hard, through my abdomen, onto my low lumbar vertebrae. They were stiff. Then, I rolled onto my back and hugged the knees to chest. While doing so, I asked for my drop bag, where I had a ten-ounce “OOJ recovery shake” – protein powder, Udo's Oil, heavy cream, and some Endurox. A good 200 calories of mostly fat and protein. I hammered it in-between back stretches. Pam Smith – there to volunteer and spectate – is no stranger to doing crazy shit at aid stations – and was nonplussed at my actions.
I waved off my hydration pack and chose to maintain my single bottle, which I'd kept in my waist band. I grabbed a new fuel belt and was out the aid station, at least two minutes behind Ghelfi and Miller, who again ran through without stopping.
My back – and my calf – felt better. But then I had an epiphany:
The ###ing water bottle!
I'd been carrying the waterbottle in the back of my waistband. On the right side. For years, I've been deficient in my right hip extension. Perhaps the damn waterbottle was blocking a full push-off, overloading the calf?
I immediately stitched the bottle to the left side, where it would stay for the rest of the race. And, for one reason or another, the calf was a non-issue for the rest of the race.
Lesson learned: It pays to take care of little issues, no matter how “pressing” the competition, or personal goals.
But once again, I found myself in a hole – well behind Ghelfi and Miller. But once again, with little additional effort, I reeled 'em in. I came across Ghelfi – with pacer – midway between Charlton and Road 4290 AS and made quick work around them.
As in years past, there was heavy emphasis on efficiency and heart rate control, knowing the brutal section ahead.
I rolled into 4290 ahead of Ghelfi by a minute-plus, but behind Miller an equal amount. It was getting warm, so I pounded water, soda, and another banana hunk, and pushed on.
Striking a Balance Between Physiology & Specificity
The balance between physiology – doing what's best for the body's basic exercise physiology – versus specificity – the need for the body and brain to experience the specific demands of competition – is a delicate one, and not for the weak of heart.
Current sport – across the board – over-emphasizes specificity. Wanna run hard? You have to run hard! A lot! Right? Wanna be good at football? Gotta scrimmage, full-pads, full-contact. A lot. Right? Wanna be a great mountain trail runner, you gotta run hard up mountains, a lot, right?
Specificity is vital. The brain needs to know how to do something, then believe it can do it. As such, we emulate in practice as close to the real thing as possible.
But specificity had a steep price tag.
The danger of the specificity approach is the stress. The extreme demands of maximal performance aren't sustainable to practice, routinely. High-intensity activity, too routinely, causes multi-system stress that can break down the system in multiple ways. Conventional runners know this: milers can't run mile pace on every run; marathoners can run a long run every day.
On the opposite end of the training spectrum is what I call, physiology: doing what's best (and minimally stressful) to all body systems. The entire concept of periodization – of a different focus per training cycle – is based on this premise: that the body works best through a foundation of low-intensity work, with finite moderate-intensity work, and lastly with a relatively sparse amount of high-intensity training. For runners, this means a huge chunk of slow, easy running at the beginning of each season, and liberally interspersed amongst the intense work.
If physiology didn't matter, what's to stop us from doing nothing but high-intensity training, all the time? Pure specificity would win out. But it doesn't.
On the other hand, the Maffetone Method – doing the vast majority of training at Max Aerobic Pace – is at the extreme of the physiological approach: It is pure physiology, giving the body exactly what it needs to maximize endurance performance – maximum aerobic conditioning (via fat-burning) and nothing else. No other specific training. Specificity, Maffetone implies, will come as a result of getting better at fat-burning...when your max aerobic pace eventually approaches race pace. Your only cheats in the system include occasionally racing hard (beyond MAF pace), as your lone specific work.
This may work well for triathletes – who can keep their HR in check in the water and on the bike, and who run mostly flat, road marathon courses – but is a wholly different beast for a trail runner.
The specific demands of trail ultras – including altitude and steep climbs – require a gear that goes well beyond a maximum aerobic zone. Thus, when trying to develop the aerobic system, you're left with a choice: prioritize aerobic work by shuffling – but usually walking – hills, or risk compromising the foundation by repeatedly pushing too hard, well beyond aerobic physiology.
I chose the former. I was committed to running easy, and as slow as it took, to adequately develop that system. So, after years spent developing a strong uphill running technique...I stopped running uphill. I walked, or it was a slow, slow shuffle. Or I avoided hill, entirely. This went on for months – from July of last year, clear until March, just before Lake Sonoma.
As a result, the years spent developing a strong uphill stride – one that was pivotal in my successes at ultras like Bandera, Lake Sonoma, and Western States – was gone. The '14 Lake Sonoma was proof of that: when tasked to run hard uphill, I simply didn't have it.
But here's where insults adds to injury.
My fundamental stride efficiency went to compete shit.
Running slow – then really slow – is easy. Too easy. It's easy to get into a shuffling, inefficient rhythm that goes unnoticed in the early days, weeks and months of MAF training. All the muscular strength, neuromuscular patterning, and – well, habit – of faster running evaporated. I'd lost my stride.
Lake Sonoma '14 was proof of that. Besides having no climbing strength, my flat stride was too long, and too inefficient: I was over-striding, over-rotating...even my footstrike was painfully inefficient.
In effect, by taking apart the machine, I'd lost a few pieces. And the pieces that remained, I'd forgotten how to put 'em together.
Lake Sonoma was painful, and the weeks between that and Ice Age were even worse. Finally, at the end of May, I hopped back on the treadmill and flipped on the cameras:
“Holy hell! My stride looks awful!” My stride was a slumpy, twisted, loping mess. It's no wonder I ran slow as shit, and hurt like hell. Dear, Lord.
It was time to go to work. Again.
My approach to regain stride was two-fold:
- One, to re-establish efficiency: hip hinging with a neutral trunk, cleaning up the arm swing, and – most importantly – getting my pawback on. These central concepts saved a ton of energy, turning pounding into propulsion.
- Two, to regain the strength to maintain good mechanics, namely through a ton of glute and hamstring work, along with liberal core and arm strength.
Between June and mid-August, I did at least a hundred bridges a day, totalling well over three thousand a month. Once again, Convict Conditioning was a central part of my work, and both short and straight leg bridges were clutch in shoring up those pushing and pulling muscles. Pull-ups and rows helped my arms, but admittedly: I had to get on the treadmill at least once a week and watch myself run, to make sure I wasn't over-rotating.
It was tough, at first: anytime you lose stride efficiency, getting it back is like rolling the boulder uphill. But once the strength kicked in, that boulder kept rolling.
Still, I didn't entirely trust my stride, especially on hard days. So for the two months preceding Waldo, every speed day was done on the treadmill, with the cameras on: watching my stride in real-time. I did 800 and mile repeats, and multi-mile tempos at five-minute pace or faster, all the while keeping a close eye on what I was doing. It was a bold strategy – especially preparing for a mountain ultra.
The stride, which I'd worked so hard on the past few months, was truly paying off: all day long, I'd had no trouble keeping up – then later catching up to – both Ghelfi and Miller. The early pace felt very easy, and then – even losing minutes at aid stations, and stopping to work the calf – I was easily able to regain contact by the time we would reach the next aid station.
This buoyed my confidence as I rolled along toward the penultimate – and pivotal – climb of the race. The section between 4290 (35 miles) and Twins 2 (44 miles) is a long, grueling section that breaks a lot of runners. It's the dreaded third lap of a painful mile race: far too soon to be “almost done”, with a lot of work left to do.
Ghelfi seemed to be safely in the rearview, but Miller was still somewhere up front. But I was running so well, it seemed, that it would only be a matter of time 'til I caught him. And then, as the course crawls up the shoulder of the Twins (~7000'), there he was, at twelve o'clock.
Neither pushing nor slowing, I gradually reeled him in. Talkative all day, he still had a pleasant greeting as I shuffled past him. We were about a mile from the top, and three from the aid station.
My strategy was thus: to put some distance on him in the climb, hammer down to the aid, and get out of sight before the last big climb up Maiden Peak. With no more calf-massage stops in my future, and a fantastic stride, nearly 45 miles in, I figured I'd put him behind me and finally build a lead into the final push.
But somehow Andrew didn't get the memo. Up and over the Twins, halfway down the to the aid station, he'd reeled me in. Damn. We ran into Twins 2 AS together.
And then, like he had all damn day, he rolled in and out of the aid station without stopping, his mom shoving a bottle in his hand without breaking stride.
I took my time, yet again, gulping soda and a banana hunk, clinging to the notion that a bit of time – less than a minute – to rest at the aid station is worth two minutes on the trail. I thought, “He can't keep this up”. But by the time I'd slammed a second glass of Coke and turned up trail, he was long out of sight.
The Periodization Short Course: Specificity is the House on the Rock
The two months between Memorial Day and Waldo was a crash-course in specific preparation for Waldo. The aerobic systems was adequately established; now, it was time to get ready.
When speaking with Bruce last summer in Davis, he talked about drawing a line between two points: “Where am I, now?” and, “Where do I need to be?”. From there, you fill in the spaces, and put the pieces in place.
Most mountain ultras – Waldo inclusive – require three things:
- Race-pace work – usually trail tempos at threshold effort
- Prolonged vertical work, to develop climbing strength and technical descending skills
- The long runs – on-feet time focused on brain and body preparation for the race distance
June and July featured heavy doses of tempo work: both on the treadmill, to work flat-out efficiency in the high-end gear, and at the end of long trail runs. A mid-week speed session was pared with an end-of week trail run with a fast finish. In between was a focused vertical day, and, of course, the long run.
Things were no doubt rushed, but in a six to eight week span, I put in some great work, cemented with very easy (MAF pace) recovery runs and days off. But admittedly, I shorted a few areas, namely prolonged mountain climbs, and the extra-long (>3 hour) runs. Between July and mid-August, I'd run only a single run over four hours, and no climbs over a thousand feet.
That said, given my experience in 2013, I was going into Waldo knowing that it's better to be rested and under-prepared, than over-worked. I'd done what I could. But would it be enough?
This notion creeped into my head as I rolled the gradual descent toward Maiden Peak Aid, at the base of the toughest – but last – climb of the race. The quads were pretty thrashed, and both the thighs and calves felt a little blippy – as if a cramp might be around the corner.
I rolled into Maiden Peak Aid: no Miller, but word was that he had just left. Still, I took my time again, pounding more sodas and taking one more snack. Ghelfi's dad and fiance were at the aid station...a sign that he was still in the hunt.
While restocking, I fiddled in my pocket for my iPod. I'd been saving some fire-up tunes for this final twelve-mile push. But the damn thing wouldn't turn on. Damn.
There was no time to lament. I grabbed my bottle and pushed on.
The final climb of the Waldo 100K, the Maiden Peak summit, is a brutally-tough climb. It ascends nearly two thousand feet over three miles and change, topping out at 7800 feet, the high-point of the course. It features relentless incline that gradually worsens – in grade and footing -as you near the top. I shuffled along, truly feeling the effort of the day. Though I continued to move well, thoughts of the win were fading. Andrew was a good climber and, as I found out, still had descending legs, to boot. Midway through the climb, it occurred to me that it hurt more to walk than run, so I shuffled along, until reaching the steep, straight-up pitches that made even hiking difficult.
The Maiden climb is the signature of the race, but what sets it apart from nearly every other ultra (save Lake Sonoma), is the summit out-and-back. After three brutal uphill miles, the course hits the top shoulder. From there, it's a mile or so out and back to the summit, before descending, the steep, rugged “Leap of Faith” toward the final aid station.
Like Sonoma, the out and back gives you a glimpse of the competition. Anyone with ten minutes of your position will be in view. I hoped for the best as I shuffle-hiked my way up the rugged, painful volcanic scree, hoping I'd see Andrew as close to the top as possible. But, scarcely up the climb, there he was, coming back down.
I kept on, trying my best to run the path paved with loose, baseball-sized lava rock. Finally, after some bittersweet views of Waldo yet again, I gave a fist-bump to the omnipresent Monkey Boy before turning to descend.
My focus now turned to getting off the mountain before Ghelfi saw me, but sure enough, just before I reached the junction, up he came.
And like that, you had three guys within ten minutes.
My descent was...mediocre. Footing was poor and, let's face it, my technical descending is mediocre when fresh. I did my best to pick my way through the steep rock before lowering to the runnable dirt, descending over switches to Maiden Lake aid.
When I got to the aid station, I was struggling. Dizzy and glazed-over, I pleaded for Coke. “Pour another”, I said, before I was even done with the first. The cola was warm, and it felt like I was on the last lap of a brutal beer run. I must've looked like shit, because I felt like it.
“Do you want to sit down?”
I didn't ask where Andrew was, but I knew he was at least five or six minutes up. My lack of specificity – big climbs and big descents – was exposed. But now, with seven miles of flat running in front of me, could I put it together for one last push?
After a quick sponge douse, with bottle topped and stomach sloshing with Coke, I took off.
I ran maybe a hundred meters before I was reduced to a stagger.
Sonofabitch. I was low.
Balance & Perspective Create Dispassionate Execution & Peak Performance
A year ago, after I flamed out at Western States, I realized I need to change, and I needed help. Besides Tim Noakes and Phil Maffetone, I needed insights about me. What makes me tick? What is it about me that drive me to run all day, to begin with? And what was it that drove me too far, so far out of balance?
“What am I running from, and what am I running toward?”
I needed more help.
At the end of last year, I contacted my psychologist. It was time for a check-up.
I sought to learn what it was that connected my anxiety level – before and during a race, and day-to-day – with my running. I did not want a repeat of 2013, where I put so much pressure on my running, and what a good day would mean to me.
I first learned of Scott Pengelly when I moved to Eugene in 2009. He's among the very best pain psychologists, and as such, has been instrumental in helping my toughest chronic pain patients get better. Indeed, the brain decides what hurts.
When I sought someone to work with a year later, he was the obvious choice. Besides being a great pain therapist, he has a storied background in sport psychology, with experience at the Olympic level going back over three-plus decades. Indeed, his guidance was pivotal in my ability to overcome injury and finish my first Western States in 2011.
We got to work in January of this year, spending an hour together each month. Interestingly, we didn't talk about running, at all. Like old friends, we caught up on the last year or so. I shared with him what my goals were, and what I was up to. I'd just entered into a serious relationship, so we talked about that.
As it turns out, my relationship history with romantic partners closely mirrors my relationship with running. So when that relationship ended in March, it was pretty clear to me the connection.
There is a part of me that believes that, “This [relationship, or race] is so special and great, that if I achieve it, then I'll really have it made!”. Somewhere along the line, I developed the belief that I needed something – or someone – to be 100% happy. That I was just that one thing away from something great, and the next level.
Besides the novelty of teaching a sectegenarian the term one-itis, it was a great epiphany to realize that I was putting so much pressure on running (and relationships) to somehow make my life that much better.
One-itis is, however, a deadly condition, for two reasons. First, the overzealous drive to achieve with that one thing creates a type of blinding effect, where you fail to see the big picture. Reality escapes you, and you're unable to perceive, believe or react to what's really going on. Second, the intense pressure one puts on himself (to “really nail it!”) is such that he inevitably blows it.
This was as true with relationships as it was with racing.
Scott talked about where that comes from: having an alcoholic father, enduring a divorce when I was only eight years old, and the measures – even as a six year old – to try to “fix things” in my family. What emerged from that – only multiplied when my father passed away when I was ten - was this relentless drive to fill a void.
Looking back at my experiences – in athletics and relationships – this pattern has been fairly consistent for decades, now: when I put too much meaning on any one thing (or person), bad things happen. I blow it. Time, and time again.
But...when kept in perspective - with full awareness of reality and minimal anxiety - dispassionate analysis and execution are possible.
Yes, running is important, and hell yes, running well again at Waldo was very important, but how I performed there would neither make my life great, or make it miserable. It was only an experience that would add value – and further perspective – to life.
As I stumbled along, only a few minutes past the final aid station, but a good seven miles from the finish, I was in need of some serious perspective.
For the first time all day, I felt fucking terrible...
...yet I'd run a nearly flawless race up to this point.
I felt like I could barely run...
...I was still in second place, with Ghelfi stalking somewhere in the shadows.
I might blow this race...
...but fuck that, I need to pull my shit together.
I'd just hammered nearly a can's worth of soda at the aid, yet something was low. I wasn't sure what, but I didn't think it was calories. I thought about it. I'd been on a single water bottle all day. And although I'm well fat-adapted, I still need water. Lots of it. And I think I was low.
Just a mile out of the aid, I was shuffling, but I still had nearly a full water bottle. I hammered it, tossing down another gel and an S!Cap, just in case. And I pushed on, going all in to prevent Ghelfi from sneaking past me.
I gradually felt better, as the trail leveled out along Maiden Lake. The bulk of the final miles are downhill, but punctuated early on by some gut-busting short climbs that, unless you've got the legs, will reduce you to a walk. I pounded the rest of my water and pressed on.
And...just like that, I felt better. A lot better. Crazy thoughts entered my mind, such as, “Holy shit, maybe I can still catch Andrew!”
I pushed hard. I ran every climb, every step from Maiden Lake, back to the PCT, where a sustained down and flat section would await.
I was running hard, and fast. In the back of my mind was concern. Pushing hard can cause the sugar stores to plummet. But I was buoyed by the notion that I was low on water, and, although by bottle was empty, I could fill it (at my own risk) in one of the three Rosary Lakes that dot the final four miles.
Hammering hard to lake level, I opened the stride as big as possible, throwing every bit of coal into the fire, breaking stride only once to dunk the bottle into the creek that emptied the Lower Rosary. Now filled with water, I hammered my final gel and S!Cap.
I was topped off, and it was time to go.
I honestly believe that – when my stride is on, and the body is intact – there's no one in the sport that can run faster than me at the end of an ultra. There's plenty of folks that can really hammer, but...for some reason...when push comes to shove, I have what it takes to run really hard when it counts. That's what got me a Golden Ticket in '12, and it's ultimately what got me into the Top Ten at Western States.
Just a couple miles from the highway and civilization, it's common to run into hikers and campers along that final section of the PCT. Just leaving the Lower Rosary, I came across a hiker, who told me, “He's just a quarter-mile up!” Such reports are always dubious, but I took it as good news and pushed as hard as I could.
I hammered: big, long, spinning-sawblade strides. The legs felt...well, fine: no cramps, no heaviness. I pushed as hard as I could. I really do think I was running six-minute miles. But that section is long, and - even with buttery, downhill single track – it drags on. And on. I spent the time focusing on different aspect of the stride - “left elbow”, “right foot push-off...” - and counted them to a hundred. Anything I could do to get closer to Andrew, and to the finish, I did.
And while I didn't see Andrew again, I did see the finish. I pushed hard off the PCT, to the clearing toward the ski lodge (the longest visible ultra trail finish in the sport!). I felt great, and – according to The Queen – looked great.
As I got closer, I saw that I was still under 9:30, so I really pushed it, and – as a nice icing on the cake of a great day – leaned at the line for 9:29:59, good for second place.
Andrew, beset on all sides with his family-slash-crew extraordinaries – were still at the line when I crossed. He ran a hell of a race, running 9:23:28. I closed on him...but not much.
Ghelfi came in several minutes later, in 9:38:45.
There's your top three, after all.
Pacing: A. We, as a top three, nailed it. Smart, early, then pushing hard at the end. More on the specifics, below.
Mechanics: A-. Fantastic stride all day, especially when it counted in the last seven miles. Slight deductions for whatever causes my calf malaise, and my general lack of preparation for skillful descending. But ultimately, I did what I could.
Hydration/Fuel/Electrolytes: B+. Really great all day...'til I got low. That low point might've cost me...but I don't think I would've won on nutrition perfection, alone. The low-point was obviously from water, as I rebounded rapidly when I pounded two whole bottles after Maiden Lake.
Calories: here's my approximate calorie count for the day:
Gels: ~6-8 → 600-800 kcal
Soda: ~4-5 cans → 600-700 kcal
Banana: 1 → 100 kcal
“OOJs Recovery Brew”: 10oz → 200 kcal
GU brew: ~100 kcal
----------------- Total: ~1800-2000 kcal (~200 per hour)
Average heart rate: 159 BPM.
Of note: a year ago I ran 10:35...also averaging 159 BPM.
Mental Toughness: A-. Huge points for keeping it together and problem-solving early on. Negative for losing the winning edge going up Maiden, and the self-doubt after Maiden Lake AS. But some good bonus points for using my “Power Pose” psychology. I wrote of this in the October Issue of Ultrarunning: that smiling, or adopting power poses, not only improves mood, but improves the brains perception of well-being. Even in the depths of the Maiden Peak climb, me doing my best “I'm the WIZ!” impression made me feel better.
Joy: A-. Had a LOT of fun out there. I wasn't doing ninja moves, or singing Bon Jovi, but I had fun.
Race Fun Facts:
- Looking back on the results, Andrew, myself, and Ryan ran the 4th, 6th, and 8th fastest times in the thirteen-year history of the race*. By far, this was the deepest and closest field, ever.
(*admittedly, Tim Olson and Jacob Rydman's 2012 results on the fire-lengthened 65-mile course bear mentioning here, as their times would like be in the 9:2x to 9:3x range).
- Andrew Miller ran the fastest second half (Charlton to the Finish, roughly 32 mile) in the history of the race. His 4:36 split ranks ahead of previous course-record holders David Laney (4:40 in 2013), Dave Mackey (4:41, 2011), and Erik Skaggs (4:42, 2009). I ran 4:44, good for 5th fastest finishing split.
- Despite my struggles early on, I ran the fastest closing split in the history of the race: roughly 57 minutes for the final seven-and-a-half miles. Andrew was right there, splitting roughly 57-and-a-half minutes to stay in front. Behind us include Mackey's hard finish in 2011 (58 minutes), Tim Olson in '12 (58), Ian Sharman in '11 (60), Skaggs (61), and Jacob Rydman (62, in 2012).*****
So, what's next? Well, back to the aerobic drawingboard. Based on the foundations of Maffetone and Allen's physiological model, this time of year – the fall and early winter – is the time to maximize aerobic. In short:
- with the exception of a few runs, I took nearly three weeks completely off, post-Waldo
- the entirely of September was easy running (again, save a couple early runs)
- October was entirely easy, except perhaps four long efforts approaching threshold
- November, in order to prepare for another Montrail Cup assault, featured the addition of speed work for the first time: mostly downhill repeats, and longer, harder weekend effforts
Again, periodization with focus on maximum aerobic development is the foundation and cornerstone. But implicit in ultra trail preparation is the specificity: I continue to do strength training, stride efficiency work, and put in the requisite climbing runs to not only maintain those, but continue to improve them.
What I Learned.
This thing is thousands of words. I hope I learned something. Here's what I think I've learned:
Specificy versus Physiology. In ultrarunning, as in all sports, the needs of basic physiology – what's best for all body systems, long-term – must be balanced with the specific demands of the task. These things aren't always mutually exclusive, but – like all things – there must be a balance between the two.
Physiology is the key to sustainability. ...but at the end of the day, after the year-plus of interviews, research, and personal experimentation, honoring physiology – doing what's best for our holistic health – is the key to sustainable running. Balanced, holistic training and preparation involves maximizing those things that do not stress physiology, including: mobility, strength, biomechanics, nutrition, and stress management. If mastered, these elements are “free speed”.
Periodization and its Phases. For me, what works best – and what I will continue to employ and recommend as a medical professional and coach – is the following progression: a disciplined (and meticulously executed) Aerobic Phase, where 99% of all work is at Max Aerobic Effort; a Strength Phase, where moderate-intensity work (long hill climbs, tempo runs) are introduced; then, what Mark Allen called a “Push Phase”, which includes much higher-intensity work, possibly including track sessions and or trail-specific sprints, longer/harder runs and races.
Avoid the Curse of One-Itis: Keep perspective, keep your eyes open, and act accordingly. The most crucial moments of Waldo were the six-plus minutes I spent...not running. I've heard from countless veteran runners who say, “solve problems early”. That's easier said than done...because you first have to admit there's a problem. Before this year, as it was at WS in 2013, it would've been difficult to accept that straining, cramping calves were a problem. A year ago, I simply would've denied it (“Cramping? That can't be right; it's too early for that”).
In a race, or in life – work, family, or a relationship – it can be very difficult to perceive, believe and act on a problem...especially when “everything else is going right, and exactly as planned”. I was in the lead of this race when this happened. Everything else – energy, stomach, brain, stride – was fantastic.
But life doesn't care about your Plan. I had to stop, those three different times, and fix it. And while those stops very likely cost me the win, the alternative – not stopping – might've prevented me from finishing, or caused a serious injury.
Perceive, believe and act. But to do those things, one ultimately must...
Know your answers to The Questions, and don't forget them. In order to keep perspective, and stay true to what's best for you, one needs to know: “What are you running from, and what are you running toward?”
For me, in 2013, it was:
- I am running from the disappointment, shame and rejection of past failures: as an athlete, and a person
- I am running toward acceptance and self-esteem through performance success
A year later, I can't say those beliefs no longer exist. But they've been over-ridden by more important ones:
- I am running from complacency, weakness, and selfishness
- I am running toward sense of belonging as a contributing member of a nurturing community, toward camaraderie through cooperation, mutual respect, friendship and love, and toward a feeling of joy and self-exploration that I get from the sport of ultramarathon running
And at the end of the day, I always have to realize that:
- No great race will ever make my life complete
- No terrible race will ruin the fantastic life I already have
Now, I feel that if I really am true to my New Answers, only good things will come from running; and truly negative experiences will only happen if allow my Old Answers to overcome me.
...and that was the beauty of this year's Waldo: that I was able to share it with so many great friends. Nearly the entire “Eug Crew” of ultra trail runners was in attendance: either running, pacing, crewing, or volunteering. Being able to share and celebrate that day with them was symbolic of the success of that day, and of the winning formula I think I've found for sustainable, joyful running.
Let's keep it going, everyone.