Mad City 100k 4-7-18

“How do you drink from a water bottle when the damn thing’s frozen?”

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16 degrees… are you freaking kidding me???

With over three months of recovery and a sunny 75 degree day here at home, I’m just about thawed out enough to recap the Mad City 100k.

Taking place in early April each year, Madison is home to the Mad City 100k/50k/relay. Doubling as the USATF 100k road championships, each even years (i.e. 2016/2018) winner is provided an automatic entry onto the US 100k team. This usually leads to a significant amount of talent at the front of each field, and the 2018 Mad City 100k was no different.

Heading into 2018, Thomas was planning to race Mad City, as he was turning 50 and wanted to take a swing at the US Men’s 50-54, 100k road record of 7:38 (7:22/mile). The timing of the race worked well for his calendar, as it would align with training for Western States, if he received a lottery spot.

Coming off a healthy training block and race at CIM, I was excited to tackle the 2018 season. Without receiving a lottery spot for either Western States or Hardrock however, I was uncertain about the racing calendar. When Thomas first inquired about my interest to race Mad City, I thought he was utterly insane, as another several months of asphalt running was the absolute last thing I wanted to do. A few weeks later when Thomas asked if I would crew for him, it triggered several questions that I was forced to tackle:

  • What was my 2018 calendar going to look like?
  • What areas of my training do I really need to work on?
  • Wouldn’t it be cool to set a 50 mile and 100k PR… well hopefully anyway?
  • Thomas and I are nearly equal in fitness and it’s very difficult to find a friend and training partner that you can do nearly every workout with. Wouldn’t it be fun to train together for these few months?
  • Am I really going to fly all the way out to Madison, and not fucking race?

Training with Thomas was a close second, but my stubbornness was the ultimate driver in deciding to ditch the crew duties and race with him at Mad City.

Since we’re both coached by Joe Uhan and our fitness levels are relatively similar, he was able to develop a training plan that allowed for Thomas and I to do nearly all of our quality workouts together. Since motivation was going to be a factor heading into Mad City because of all of the asphalt, having someone to hold me accountable was going to be imperative.

The lead up to Mad City kicked off with the Jed Smith 50k in Sacramento, in early February. Being recovered but not too fit due to some much needed time off after CIM, I was satisfied with a 4th place finish and 50k PR of 3:33. Thomas was also starting his training block equally as unfit, and was able to pull away as I started to cramp with several miles left, rounding out the podium in 3rd, 30 seconds ahead.

We wasted zero time after Jed Smith, filling the next two months with an assortment of workouts from tempo’s and track time, to multiple long runs and back-to-backs. Although the volume was relatively low for this block, peaking at 85 miles, the amount of quality work increased. Nearly every long run or back-to-back had a significant number of miles at or faster than race pace (7:15/mile). Getting comfortably uncomfortable at 7:15/mile wasn’t something either of us were used to, so we spent many, many workout miles at or under this pace.

My training wasn’t spectacular leading into Mad City, although this seems to be the norm. In my five years of training and racing ultras, I can count on one hand the number of workouts that I’ve genuinely been ecstatic about. Considering my lack of raw speed, it unfortunately makes sense that I would lack in the number of workouts that jump off the page. I needed to trust that this cumulative amount of consistent work would provide the opportunity to hold onto 7:22/mile (7:38, 100k pace) on race day.

Incredibly incremental should be my motto…

Being my first swing at a road race past 50k, I was nervous about juggling all the variables:

  • Thomas and I were crewless and would need to provide our own support
  • Liquid calories would be the most efficient option being crewless, but I normally only race with gels
  • I’ve never ran at 7:15-7:20/mile pace for anything past 50k
  • Unlike a 100 miler, one mistake could derail the entire race
  • What type of weather should we prepare for?
  • How the hell was I going to pee?

We prepared accordingly, training with handhelds and liquid calories, running countless miles at race pace and running in mostly “cold” weather. Thankfully pee training wasn’t part of this training block, but the race day weather would force me to make some difficult decisions.

Checking the weather forecast leading up to Mad City, the original predictions called for rain. Thankfully this cleared up as we entered April, however just as the expectations for rain dropped, so did the expected temperature. Dropping a few degrees each day leading up to race weekend, I could only laugh as we touched down in Chicago and the forecast registered 16 degrees on Saturday morning. Let alone never racing in this type of cold, I can’t even recall ever running in it.

We tried our best to control what we could control, and headed out to Madison Friday morning to pick up our race packets and shake out on the course. Our worst fears were immediately confirmed as we exited the car in Warner Park, just a couple miles away from the University of Wisconsin.

Biblically cold and windy!

Arriving at the beginning of packet pickup, we were greeted by the Race Director Timo and his amazing group of volunteers. They led us into the shelter which acted both as packet pickup and a literal shelter from the elements. Being weatherly naïve, I didn’t know this was an actual shelter used by Madison in the winter months to keep its homeless residents from literally dying. Timo unfortunately didn’t take my advice for changing the race venue to 4,000 laps inside the building, but I damn well tried.

Race morning came and found Thomas and I putting on literally every piece of clothing we brought. We arrived early to set up our makeshift aid station right outside the shelter, and saw several groups of crews doing the same.

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What other clothes did we bring?

May God rest their poor souls!

A 5k loop set around and through Warner Park with one out-and-back section about halfway through each loop. The course is relatively flat with the only “hills” at the start of each loop and on the short out-and-back sections. Starting at 6:30am, the 25ish 100k racers would have the course to ourselves for the first couple hours until the 50k and relay runners started.

For only having 25 registered runners (17 males), Thomas and I were ranked somewhere between 7-9th based on previous results. There were a handful of top notch road runners toeing the line and attempting to ink their ticket onto the US 100k team. Geoff Burns entered the race with the 2nd fastest American 100k time (6:30). Eric LiPuma was toeing the line, recently winning the US 50k championships. There was also Anthony Kunkel, fresh off a US 50 mile championship win, and also looking to make the US 100k team. Though equally short on numbers, the women’s race had some serious talent at the front of the field between Liza Howard, Traci Falbo and Denise Bourassa.

At 6:30am sharp, and piercingly sharp it was, registering exactly 16 degrees with wind chill dropping to six (6), we were off. Just as expected, Thomas and I settled somewhere into 7-9th within 800 meters after the start. Our plan was to run by feel, and settle in quickly to a pace that felt manageable for the remainder of the day. Settling in was a smidge more difficult than originally planned as I couldn’t feel my toes or fingers, and it literally hurt to breathe.

The first turn of the 5k loop exits Warner Park and brings runners up and around the perimeter. Eclipsing the first slight incline, runners head back down the outside of the park, and encounter a fully exposed headwind. I literally had to laugh out loud, as I couldn’t believe I paid to spend an entire Saturday running around this damn park in Wisconsin, on a day so cold that not even the locals would go outside. After feeling sorry for myself for the first few minutes, it was time to start juggling the variables as this would be the only shot I’d have to stick to the race plan, let alone finish.

Thomas set the early pace, as he’s like a damn metronome. All those years of racing on the track and likely a bit due to being German, have helped him develop an uncanny ability to lock into a pace. Not trying to check my watch or worry about our speed until we settled in, I felt early like we were moving a tad too quickly for my level of fitness. Chalking it up to the cold, I decided to settle in at this pace and focus on form, fluid and calorie intake. The form was difficult enough as the feeling in my toes never returned until post race, but the fluid intake was downright laughable. I’ve raced in subfreezing temps before, but only for short periods of time, and never to this degree. The first variable I wasn’t ready for was grabbing my water bottle after the first loop, and the nipple being entirely frozen.

How the hell was I going to finish this race if I couldn’t drink, especially considering all my calories were liquid?

Chewing, sucking, blowing and even sticking the bottle under my armpit wasn’t helping. After nearly an entire loop of trying to access an ounce of liquid, the nipple finally let loose and I was able to finish off my first bottle and calories of the race. There was no way we could continue to race with these jacked up bottles, especially as the longer they stayed out in the cold, the worse they would likely get. On our third loop, Thomas yelled towards one of the crew members standing in the area near our bottles, and asked if they could find a way to keep them warm. I was thankful for the Hail Mary, but wasn’t hoping for much.

At least as pacing was concerned, we were sticking to plan clocking off 5k loops all under 22:00. Our goal was to keep each loop to sub 22:30 (7:14/mile), which would hopefully provide enough of a buffer as the later miles would undoubtedly slow us down.

As much as I disliked the idea of doing a 180 degree turn on a looped road course, the out-and-back section allowed us the ability to gauge our distance from the leaders, or at least the guys that weren’t light years ahead of us. There were also an incredible group of women volunteers bunkered down at this turnaround for the entire day. These were by far the toughest SOB’s on the course!

Aside from the 7:20ish pace that we had to hold for the day, the other factor in the way of Thomas’ Age Group US record was Chad Rickfels. Chad is another recently turned 50 year old with significant experience racing long road events. Even if Thomas were able to stick his goal time, if Chad came to Mad City fit, he would be difficult to beat and would likely break the record himself.

The race was unfortunately playing out as expected, as Thomas and I were still in 7-9th place, with Chad a few minutes ahead, and gaining on most loops. Having a few years of experience with these longer events, it was guaranteed that challenges would arise for everyone, and races rarely play out like they do on paper. I reminded Thomas to control what we could control, and was way more focused on issues that mattered like our damn water bottles being frozen.

As we rounded another loop and headed past the shelter, the crew member that Thomas begged for help earlier had magically came through and found some lukewarm water to put our bottles in. I would’ve kissed this angel, but my lips were nearly frozen shut.

With fluid now trickling in, the other variable I was worried about was the amount of intake. Since it was arcticly cold, I wouldn’t need as much water but would still need calories. Thankfully I packed some gels, and began to supplement early, placing them close to my body so they wouldn’t freeze like the bottles.

With a revamped intake plan in place, I was feeling much more confident with tackling the day… until I needed to pee.

Thomas had stopped earlier in the trees for a few seconds and then caught back up. He mentioned that it was a bit difficult to pick up the pace after a dead stop, and I couldn’t imagine doing the same. Having to pee in an ultra is an excellent sign, as it normally displays an adequate hydration level. Usually held in the mountains, it’s easy to hike off the trail to relieve yourself, or even doing it while hiking up a hill. Whipping it out in the middle of a public park however isn’t the smartest move unless you want to get chased by the cops, and I don’t have Thomas’ speed to be able to catch up or get away.

I decided on option three…

Thankfully I stumbled onto an anti chafing product after racing HURT that has worked in nearly every race setting. Sub freezing temperatures would put 2Toms to the test, as I wasn’t stopping until crossing this damn finish line. Being terrified that peeing myself would lead to cataclysmic chafing, I crossed the fingers and let it rip.

It was warm… it was wet…it also dried without any issues.

Thomas and I continued through 50 miles relatively uneventfully. As with most ultras, many of the front packers will come back if you keep them within striking distance. Thankfully this day was similar to most, in that we both moved up a few spots without any additional effort, with several of the top runners dropping off the pace, or out entirely. Crossing the 50 mile mark in 6:00, I had definitely hit my first goal of a 50 mile PR by over 2 hours, and we had moved up to around 5-6th place. Thomas started to have some stomach issues right around this time and was forced to slow down a hair. Knowing that we were too close to our goal time to slow down, I stayed with our original plan and hoped for him to catch back up.

Things got really weird over the next couple laps, as I was sticking to our race plan and moving efficiently but not fast over each loop. Within what felt like 15 minutes, I went from somewhere around 5th to passing Thomas on the out-and-back and having him yell at me, “You’re in 2nd place!” I literally had no idea where I was in relation to the other runners, as I was more worried about juggling variables and trying not to freeze to death.

Trying to take some bearings with only a few laps to go, I learned that Anthony Kunkel was 30-45 minutes ahead and Thomas was 15ish minutes behind. I couldn’t believe that this many people had fallen off or out of the race. We didn’t do anything special, but we were able to juggle variables and not let the day make the best of us. In the end, we were able to sneak into 2nd (7:34) and 3rd place (7:58), with Thomas taking the Masters win.

What the hell just happened… 2nd place at the US 100k championships!!!

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Guess I’m buying the beers tonight…

What I Learned:

  • A chafing product that works, is worth its weight in gold… or saffron!
  • Cold weather racing does have benefits, but also an entirely different set of variables to manage
  • Loop courses can be just as draining mentally as physically
  • You don’t have to nail every workout to produce a successful race, but you sure as hell better trust the process
  • Looks like I gave up my college eligibility with my biggest and first win of my “professional” career… $750 big ones!
  • Timo’s team puts on a topnotch event, and if this race report doesn’t scare you off from running a road 100k, I’d highly recommend you make the trip to Madison
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California International Marathon (CIM) Round 2… Redemption 12-3-17

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There I am, about two thousand runners back…

My first attempt at racing a marathon was atrocious! Two years ago at CIM, I imploded somewhere around mile 12ish, and then it got real ugly. If you want to read through all the details on how a race goes from bad to not sure if I should watch, please refer to the CIM post from December 2015. With splits of 1:24 and 1:33, for a finish time of 2:57+, I had some serious unfinished business at the marathon distance.

Coach Joe and I talked about training for a late year marathon, as it would be an excellent way to spring into the 2018 ultra season. Although my race was a disaster in 2015, the training was definitely helpful in preparing for not only the Grand Slam, but specifically for flatter spring races like the Austin Rattler 66k. With raw speed being my glaring weakness in just about any race less than 100 miles, even slight increases in turnover should translate to significant improvements at the longer distances. Also with all the focus on form throughout the early months of 2017, we were both interested to see how it would translate to a race that rewards both speed and efficiency.

After the Angeles Crest 100, a storybook wedding and an amazingly relaxing honeymoon in Costa Rica, we kicked off marathon training in perfect trail running fashion… a 50 miler with nearly 11k of climbing!

With a descent amount of fitness and small exit wound post AC, 10 full weeks of marathon-specific training, plus an additional two weeks of “sharpening” (Joe doesn’t like the term “tapering”), we felt this should be enough time and stimulus to drive a better result than 2015. One of the interesting parts to this training plan was not attaching a goal time or marathon pace (MP) to workouts, as we had no idea what it could or should be.

Heading into marathon weekend, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. With no specific time goal, other than to run at a comfortable pace that I could settle into for 20ish miles before pushing the last 10k, there were very few expectations. In reviewing my CIM training block, it seemed relatively uneventful. Yes I felt good throughout these 10 weeks, minus some soreness after a really fun Lululemon weekend retreat and several weekends full of yard work after moving into a new home, but I didn’t feel like I had any breakout workouts that really displayed my fitness. Looking over my training log from late 2016 and into early 17, there were a significant amount of days that felt either “ok” or “bad.” Even though it’s a very subjective measurement of improvement, I literally didn’t have a “bad” day throughout this training block.

In thinking about my improvement in running over the past several years, it’s not surprising that it would be a boring story. Since I don’t have an inkling of raw speed and very little natural talent, of course my improvement would have to come from consistent and SLOW increases in quality and volume.

In looking back over these past five years of running, I’ve realized that thankfully my favorite part is “the grind.” Waking up at the butt crack of dawn to execute on a workout or log easy miles is something I truly look forward to. Sure it’s not always easy to get up, lace up and put the miles in, but it’s now just as much a part of my day as breakfast, or the glass of wine or two after work.

Having a training partner in Thomas has made this process all the more bearable, as there’s someone to share the suffering with. With his extensive background on the roads and trails, along with his ridiculous speed for a guy nearly 50, hopefully he’s not getting too tired of having to lead every workout.

Race Weekend

If you ask me, Alejandra and I traveled up north on Friday after work to spend Saturday testing my 3% chance at the Western States lottery. If you’d ask her, she’d tell you it was to watch the Foo Fighters with her friend Liz on Saturday night. After unsurprisingly not being picked for the big dance in Auburn, we at least left with 10 free Red Bulls (thanks for the new WS sponsorship). After the lottery, we drove back to Sacramento for the race pickup and some lunch.

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3% odds… So, you’re saying I have a chance???

Forgetting that most races have more than a few hundred people, CIM’s packet pickup is held in the Sacramento Convention Center. With dozens of vendors, hundreds of volunteers and countless people swarming around trying the newest Cliff Bar flavor (disclaimer, they all taste bad after 80 miles), needless to say it was a packed house. Trying to find Alejandra after losing her right after check-in, I stumbled across a familiar face. Sean Garbutt, the first dirtbag runner I ever met at Luis’ Rancho San Juan race, had apparently moved up to the Sac area to work with Fleet Feet. We caught up for a few and then I spotted Alejandra eyeballing the expensive sweatpants, so I had to move quickly.

Later that afternoon, we met up with Liz for an early dinner and drop off of the ladies for the Foo Fighters show. With the wait at sushi being nearly an hour, we walked around mid-town until finding a small Mexican restaurant. Being Yelp approved, we decided to give it a try.

Drinking water all day and having the bladder of a six year old, being near a toilet or bush was high on the priority list. After being seated in this small restaurant with an interesting layout, it was difficult to spot the bathroom. Walking around the kitchen and bar, I spotted an employee and asked in my best Spanish accent, “Donde esta el bano?” Being a bit loud, I didn’t hear his response as he walked away. After finally finding the bano and cleaning up, I was ready to hammer some dinner.

Knowing only enough Spanish to normally find a bathroom and order a beer, I stared blankly when the same waiter and rattled off about 10 sentences in Spanish to me. Alejandra, Liz and the waiter started laughing, and I just sat there with a chip in my mouth. Apparently the waiter heard my question and in Spanish said to “follow me,” as he walked toward the bathroom. When he turned around, I was gone.

I need to learn some damn Spanish!

Race day started earlier than usual, as Alejandra and Liz stumbled into the hotel room sometime after midnight. Thankfully they didn’t get too crazy, as Alejandra hit the sack right away. Waking up again around 5ish knowing Alejandra needs a lot of sleep, I knew she wouldn’t be too perky when I had to wake her up for a ride. Thankfully the hotel coffee was strong, as she dropped me off right before the start. Again not remembering that more than three hundred people race these events, I found myself starting literally several thousand places back when the gun went off.

Thankfully CIM uses chip timing, as it took nearly a minute to waddle up the several hundred feet to the starting line. Looking at the 8:45/mile pace group sign over my shoulder, I was worried these first several miles were going to be spent bobbing and weaving through the crowds. Although not surprised by everyone starting faster than they should, I still had to double-check my watch as we passed the mile mark in 6:24. Although a few seconds slower than I would have liked to start, I hadn’t passed anyone in this first mile. What the hell were these thousand runners thinking, racing over two minutes faster than their goal pace during the first mile??? Maybe this is why no one runs even splits these days.

The next few miles were spent trying to find my “comfortable” pace, as hundreds of runners were still passing me like I was walking. Trying to keep the blinders on and focusing on feel versus pace, especially as these first several CIM miles are where the significant hills are, I didn’t stress clicking off 6:21, 6:10 and a couple 6:20’s. Thankfully after five miles into the race, some separation started to occur, with most runners finally settling into their pace. Feeling like I had no one to run with and this being somewhat true as I started a minute back, I was forced to get comfortable running my own race.

An interesting trend started to arise as we clicked off these early miles. As we hit an uphill in an effort to keep my heartrate stable, I would decelerate and get passed by a ton of runners. As we peaked and descended, I would then open up and pass the group, settling back into position. While my effort would remain relatively constant, I could hear the labored breathing from fellow runners as they worked to settle back into the flats. What type of impact this type of racing has on performance I have no idea, but the relative stability in output gave me confidence in being able to hold this pace throughout the day.

The moment of truth came earlier in this race than it likely does for most, as the wheels fell off around mile 12 during my first CIM experience. Feeling comfortable passing the half-marathon mark in 1:23:06 (6:21/mile), and nearly a minute faster than 2015, more than anything I was just happy not to be falling apart so early.

The next several miles were relatively uneventful, as we crept into the middle stages of the race. One interesting point was that no one was passing me like the flocks of runners in the earlier miles. The opposite was beginning to happen, as the packs that I had previously chased were slowly working themselves back. Checking the watch, my pace had remained constant, so it seemed as though the majority of runners were starting to slow down.

With my quads surprisingly more sore after 20 miles than they are in most 100’s, ratcheting up the pace wasn’t as easy as expected. The last 10k was much more enjoyable than 2015, as although it hurt, it thankfully went by faster than the first effort.

With this race being the 2017 USATF marathon championships and a great event for nailing an Olympic Trials Qualifier, I found myself catching up to the tail end of elite women in the final miles. Not certain where I was in regards to time, I assumed it was close to 2:45 pace (OTQ for women is sub 2:45), as these last several miles were full of really, really fast women leaving it all on the course. Had I known how the race would have turned out, it would’ve been a blast to run in this pack of awesome ladies for the day.

Finishing in 2:45:22 (1:22:16 second half) and good enough for 296th place, I was really happy with the day. With little expectation other than running by feel and being comfortable enough to pick up the pace over the last several miles, it felt great to execute on a plan. An incredible day for US marathoning, as 87 runners qualified for the Olympic Marathon Trials in 2020. Not sure when I’ll tackle this distance again, but I’ll be shooting for an OTQ next time, even if it’s the B qualifier for women…

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What I Learned:

  • Don’t speak Spanish unless you can understand it, especially if you’re in need of el Bano
  • Going out too hard happens to too many people, in too many races
  • If you have the fitness and get lucky with the weather, CIM is a perfect spot for that OTQ
  • Marathon training and racing is tough!!!
  • Why are my quads still sore four days later???

 

 

To Heart Rate, or Not to Heart Rate: That is the Question… 9-17-17

Suunto HR Strap
Sixty percent of the time, it works every time…

How beneficial can training by heart rate (HR) really be?

Shouldn’t you be training and/or racing by feel?

With all the ascents and descents in ultras, is it even worth it to train or race by HR?

Aren’t there a ton of other factors that impact HR, other than fitness?

Is it uncomfortable to wear that strap all day?

How bad is your tan line?

 

Angeles Crest 100 was my 25th ultra, and first race ever completed wearing a HR monitor. Granted, I’ve been training via HR for the past 18ish months, but have never strapped one on (nothing like a ridiculously dirty reference to start a post) for a race. Utilized as a tool to keep my effort level low in the first 30 miles of AC, I’ll likely be rocking a HR for most races moving forward. The data is glaringly objective, and yes there are a myriad variables that impact HR, but it provides an honest assessment of effort at any single point in time. Had I not used a HR monitor at AC, I would have undoubtedly pushed harder than necessary in the high country miles of the race. This tool provided the gut check I needed to dial it WAAAAY down, when I felt like my pace was relatively dialed.

This post is not meant, by any means, to sway your opinion on if you should or should not use a HR monitor in training, as it’s already a fact that you should (insert sarcasm emoji). Rather, I wanted to provide some details on how I’ve used this tool to help in training, racing and recovery.

HR data helps to better dial in my training plan

Tracking daily HR data, rather it be average HR for a recovery run, average HR for specific hill repeats, tempo run info, or a max threshold to use as a cap, this data provides useful info for properly gauging training effort and stimuli. Instead of “high effort,” we can get fairly granular with training (Stagecoach repeats between 160-165HR and low 12:00’s). Training by HR and time allows for more precise tuning within the workout. If my recovery has been shit, my HR is going to jump into the 170’s at a 12:00 repeat pace up Stagecoach. The increased HR during the workout can help to dial down effort to 12:10’s or even 12:20’s, while still providing enough stimuli to induce change. By only training off time, I’d be forced to push on some days higher or lower than needed, possibly lessening the impact of a workout.

HR data objectively measures gains in fitness

How do you measure fitness gains while training and racing ultras? This can be a difficult question to answer, as there are so many variables to account for in this crazy sport. In preparation for a road or track race, being able to run mile repeats significantly faster at the relatively same effort a month apart, can be a good indicator of an increase in fitness. Racing the exact same ultra from year-to-year with similar results could actually equate to a significant increase or decrease in fitness due to the myriad variables at play (changes in temperature, windy and/or wet conditions, a change in shoe choice with more or less grip, slight shifts in pacing, nutrition changes, lack or over hydration, etc.). When used to track gains in fitness, considering the variables between workouts/races are similar (sleep, weight, stress, etc.), a lower HR at the same pace is a fairly objective indicator of gaining fitness.

HR data supports adequate recovery

How do you know if you are adequately recovered in order to nail the next hard workout or upcoming race?

This is a very difficult question to answer, again because of the variables at play when training and/or racing ultras. To best guestimate my recovery from day-to-day, I ask myself these questions constantly:

  1. Are my recovery runs at or around a similar HR, based on terrain and pace from the previous several weeks, and do they feel very easy?
  2. Do I have any “niggles” or body issues that are not getting worse?
  3. Is my HR and effort during workouts at or below levels from previously similar workouts?
  4. Subjectively do I feel rested, not irritable and somewhat normal?

Without HR data to objectively define the difficulty of a workout or the “recovery” in a recovery run, this entire process is measured by feel. Without years of running experience and the understanding of the body that comes from this tenure, I need every tool in the kit to aid performance. Leaving my training up to subjectivity has helped me survive a few years of running, but it’s much more effective when partnered with objective data.

HR data can be an effective “yellow light”

From the very little field experience I have of using HR in a race, it has definitely served as a warning from lead footing it. Outside of AC, I did piggyback off Thomas’ HR data at the Sean Obrien 100k. We had been training together for over 5 months at the time, and knew undoubtedly that my HR was 10-15 bpm higher at nearly any pace, over any terrain. When Thomas’ HR crept up towards 150 on the first significant climb of the day, he let me know and I decided to downshift right alongside him. Feeling light and strong with a recent taper and the adrenaline surge of early race miles, having this warning of 160-165HR was important as I wouldn’t of let off the gas otherwise. From a previous blog, SOB turned out to be a good day based on our levels of fitness at the time.

HR Monitors
HR monitors… there’s are a ton of options to choose from

What HR monitor should I use?

Garmin, Suunto, Polar… oh my! There are both a variety of brands creating high quality HR monitors, and two main types of devices pulling the data (chest strap or wrist strap). As funky as it can feel to wear a HR chest strap at first, I’ve found the data to be more accurate in a variety of temperatures and throughout different effort levels.

Garmin was my “Go To” brand for nearly my first four years of ultrarunning, but when the battery in my Fenix 2 finally went kaput and wouldn’t hold a charge for more than 10hrs of use, I decided to try a Suunto Ambit Peak 3. After figuring out the basic differences in configuration, I couldn’t be happier with this pick. Yes it’s a bit heavy, the satellite receiver is bulky and there are very few bells or whistles, but it’s everything I need in a GPS watch/HR monitor. This pulls GPS faster than a hummingbird on meth, and the HR data seems very accurate based on a side-by-side comparison of the Fenix 2. With an IPhone app that provides all relevant workout data needed, nearly 20hrs of battery life and a price point well below the Fenix 5 or Suunto Spartan, I’ve found my running tool for the foreseeable future.

 

What I’ve learned using a HR monitor

  • HR data is uncomfortably honest and difficult to stomach sometimes, when it says I’m working too hard
  • Training and racing by HR helps me to be more patient throughout a run
  • HR data confirms my fitness gains
  • HR is not a perfect training tool, but its a tool nonetheless to help improve

Learning How to Run 8-29-17

Run tall… lean forward… lift your knees… let form drive speed…

 

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None of the above is happening here…

It’s (I can hear my high school English teacher, Mr. Pierotti, reaming me for starting this post with a contraction) taken awhile to write this post, as I’ve wanted to provide enough time for an ample assessment of progress.

I’ve been learning how to run for the past seven months…

In February, I started working with Joe Uhan, a physical therapist and high performing ultra runner in his own right (top ten Western States finisher), to try and fix my ridiculously broken stride. Not coming from a structured running background, I didn’t have much to work with, but Joe reinforced my assumption of terrible form with an early assessment. If anyone reading this is interested in a formal gait analysis by Joe, along with recommendations to increase efficiency and form, take a look at this link (sorry, no ambassador discount or sales pitch, as my story is hopefully more than enough proof that this can work for anyone). http://uhanperformance.com/

To understand what we’re working with here, and it’s not pretty, take a look at these “before” pictures below:

Jadd Form 4
Looks like I’m about to fall over!

 

The long-term goal of working with Joe, is to slowly… ever so F’ing slowly, increase the efficiency of my stride through strength work, drills and form reminders. For the past seven months, I’ve had this mantra drilled into my daily routine… “Let form drive speed.” This is a tough pill to swallow, as I’m slow as molasses before this stride fix, so slowing down even more to focus on form, is a gut punch when the girls JV team passes me during a track workout (granted, SLO high has an awesome caliber of women athletes, so I’m not too embarrassed here).

The first step in fixing my form has been admitting that I have a problem. Damn, this feels like the start of a 12-Step Program!

Creating several short videos to capture all angles of my lack of awesomeness, allowed Joe to analyze my stride and make recommendations on the good, the bad and the ugly (emphasis on the ugly). At least I saved Joe some time, as there wasn’t much good to report on. After analyzing the results, Joe provided a detailed breakdown of my inefficiencies and a plan to remedy my imbalances.

We started with a daily routine of exercises to strengthen muscle groups that would help drive proper form. Of all Joe’s recommendations, I thought this would be the easiest to tackle, as I’ve spent a significant amount of time in the gym (compared to most ultrarunners) doing a relative assortment of full body workouts.

Well, I learned pretty quickly that whatever the hell I was doing wasn’t obviously working. I was sore as shit for the first couple weeks of this routine! My lower abs and hip flexors were constantly on fire.

A proper warmup was also added to my repertoire, as I’ve habitually recycled a random assortment of drills into my morning pre-run ritual. Unfortunately, these drills focused on all the same damn muscle groups that were sore as hell from Joe’s strength training regiment. Needless to say, my first several weeks caused some serious doubt on if this new training plan was worth the effort.

Thankfully, Joe made it apparent early in the process that this would definitely suck for awhile… possibly a long while, before it got better. Well, “thankfully” probably isn’t the correct use of the word, as it would’ve been much easier to throw in the towel and go back to my normal stride/routine anytime during these past seven months.

Run tall… lean forward… lift your knees… let form drive speed…

Joe promised that over time, the standard niggles and pains that plague nearly all ultrarunners would subside, my heart rate would return to normal once it was used to the new stride, and I would eventually increase my efficiency and speed without an increase in effort.

Damn, this took awhile!

After Leona Divide I was a bit weary about the efficacy of this program, as I hadn’t put together a race to justify that this new focus was actually working. Thankfully, AC put all these fears to rest. Aside from a calf issue that we’ll figure out, my recovery post AC has been incredible. Granted, a honeymoon in Costa Rica definitely helps, but running with better form undoubtedly led to this lack of post race soreness and increased recovery.

So what the hell does this all mean, and why should I care???

Joe calls it the “fountain of youth” for running, as increasing the efficiency of one’s stride leads to less pain, better recovery and improved results. There are obviously a myriad issues that can plague ultrarunners, and improper form over hundreds of miles can create mountains out of mole hills.

“Train to be a better runner, not a better ultrarunner…”

Joe is likely going to charge me extra for posting all his secrets, but this one quote definitely hits home. The majority of the best ultrarunners on the planet were and are excellent runners on the track and/or roads (Magdalena Boulet, Max King, Xiao Wang, Jim Walmsley, Sage Canaday, Tim Tollefson, David Laney…).

Becoming a better runner will undoubtedly increase performance at the ultra distance. There’s a reason why Tim Twietmeyer and Ann Trason habitually raced marathons in the “off season,” as they knew that working on speed and efficiency would pay dividends at AR50 and Western States.

So, what does my training plan look like now versus before?

One of the many issues plaguing my previous training was that nearly all of my runs were medium-to-medium hard. Like most ultrarunners, I love running in the mountains, so that’s what I did. With effort levels in the moderate-to-hard range, I was unable to adequately recover for very hard efforts, or work at an intensity high enough to induce change. This led to moderate results, with relative lack of improvement.

The most significant change to my training plan now is that easy days are VERY EASY, and hard days are VERY F’ing HARD! I’ve been asked several times “how do you know if you’re easy days are easy enough?” The answer is actually quite simple… Am I able to adequately recover so that I can perform during hard workouts? If the answer is “no,” then my easy days are too hard. If the answer is “yes,” well then I’m probably doing something right. This is assuming that all other recovery variables are constant (sleep, nutrition, stress, etc.).

On our prep call for AC this year, I told Joe that I’ve never hiked this much in training before. On nearly every recovery run and most long runs, I would hike nearly all uphills with a significant grade. In past “training,” I’d run nearly everything in nearly every workout. Yes, my HR would spike on uphills, but it would return to normal on flats and descents. Unfortunately I didn’t realize that this approach was taxing my system too much on recovery days, to allow for an honest effort during workouts (hard days).

Keep your easy days EASY!

Aside from slowing the F down during easy days, workouts, or “hard days” are HARD. Whether it’s a hill repeat session up Stagecoach Road, a track workout at Cal Poly, a long run on West Cuesta with progressions or a “grind” run at a steady effort under tempo pace, each week has a variety of workouts that tax various systems. The effort level of these workouts is also something I wasn’t familiar with, as I’m fairly taxed after a heavy session. Joe’s ability to mix-and-match these workouts to induce change without working me into a hole is where his coaching ability really shines.

Hell, I can write a workout plan for just about anyone, but not implementing the right amount of variance, recovery and progression would likely lead to overtraining, or a lack of stimulus to create change.

So, is this new training plan working?

Based on my increased fitness, my ability to recovery, and lack of niggles and minor issues, I’m happier now as a runner than I’ve ever been. My plan is to continue with running until I croak, so I sure as hell hope that Joe’s theory of “fountain of youth” rings true.

What have I learned?

  • Running is a wee bit more complicated than just throwing on shoes or huaraches and heading out the door
  • To solicit change, easy days should be easy, and hard days should be hard
  • Recovery is as important as the workout
  • Form drives speed
  • Trust the process
  • I’m still slow as molasses…

 

 

 

 

Angeles Crest 100 8-5-17

90 miles of heaven, and 10-11ish miles of hell

 

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Just a quick pic from the week prior to AC… 

 

The Angeles Crest 100 is one of the oldest and most iconic 100 milers in ultrarunning. A beautifully challenging course traversing the Angeles National Forest from Wrightwood to Altadena, AC provides a variety of challenges to test even the seasoned veteran.

Started and still ran by Ken Hamada, AC has received some recent scrutiny because of the way in which its registration process occurs. Signups for the following years race occur on the Monday after the event. Until this past year, it was also “first come first served,” so the likelihood of getting in was based on your internet connection speed, and ability to peel away from work at the exact time registration opened.

With no waitlist established, no refund policy, a very soft 50 miler qualifier and an incredibly long window of 363 days before the start of the following years race, there is an undoubtable impact to the DNS/DNF rate. Race directors are usually not in this sport to make money (except UTMB), and if you don’t want to support a race you don’t have to run, so I tried to put all the arguments aside and focus on enjoying a fun day in the mountains.

My dad and Erik traveled down with me to Wrightwood on the Friday before the race. They would help crew, and Erik would pace the last 25 from Chantry to Altadena. After a brief pre-race pickup, we made our way out to the Table Mountain campsite to set up our lavish accommodations. Forgetting the poles to my tent, we’d be spending the evening under the stars.

The race briefing was uneventful, but the pizza we had for dinner was excellent. Ran into Ian at the pizza place, as he’s two races into the Grand Slam coming off an excellent Vermont. He would be pacing a friend for 30 miles the next day, and I was baffled that he’s been able to hold up so well throughout these first two events. After talking through some logistics and providing a very rough estimate of aid station arrival times, I hit the sack early.

After a surprisingly good night of sleep, the 3:30am alarm went off and the pre-race routine went into full effect.

Water…check!

Coffee… check!

Breakfast…check!

Poop… check!

Write aid station mileage on arm… check!

Lube everywhere…check!

Poop… check!

Gun… boom…go…

The morning started out relatively calm, as we made our way through the darkness towards the first climb of the day. A serious flash flood had ravaged Wrightwood on Thursday evening, so the first mile through town already felt like we were on the Acorn trail, with tons of rocks and branches strewn throughout the streets.

Deciding to start without a headlamp, my plan was to relax further back in the pack, and tag along to someone carrying a torch. Unfortunately, the one guy I decide to follow blows through the first turn off the single track and heads up the wrong hill. Hoping this wasn’t a foreshadowing of the day to come, we thankfully didn’t lose too much time, and hustled our way back into the pack.

Racing with a HR monitor for the first time in an ultra, I was very interested to check the early morning data as we headed into our initial 2,500ft. climb out of Wrightwood. To my surprise, my HR was nearly 20 beats per minute (bpm) higher than it should be on a climb of this gradient. Setting a cap of 160bpm to stay in “all day mode,” I cruised into and straight past this threshold in the first few minutes of our climb… while hiking! Since my breathing was entirely controlled and it didn’t feel strenuous, I instantly thought back to all the ultras that I undoubtedly started too quickly without feeling the slightest strain.

The first 1-2 hours were spent trying to feel out my body as it related to HR. I’d slow down until 150bps, and then speed up to feel the difference of 155 – 160. Once my HR and pacing felt in control, I settled into my nutrition and hydration plan. With a couple cases of hyponatremia at Leadville and Wasatch, I wanted to be very cognizant of how my body handled fluid intake. I also decided not to take supplemental salt, no matter the temperature, as this always increases my sense of thirst regardless of fluid balance.

On the second large climb of the day, I ran into Rachel Ragona, the eventual women’s winner. We had ran together for some early miles at the Santa Barbara 100 before I made a wrong turn and got our lead pack lost. Really hope I didn’t repeat the mistake this morning. We chatted about recent races, and how she had some unfinished business at AC, DNF’ing the year before. Glad to see she was able to pull through for the win on a difficult course.

Climbing with Rachel at a controlled but steady pace and based on where we were within the pack (15-20ish), I didn’t expect to see any runners move up on us as we headed towards the top of Mt. Baden-Powell. To both our surprise, two younger guys started moving up very aggressively. Not expecting anyone to start as conservative as I did over these first 15ish miles, I had to tip my hat to these two for staying within themselves for so long. After letting them both pass, thankfully they shouted, “Don’t worry, we’re not in the race. Just doing an 11 mile run.” As they climbed out of sight, I responded with “If we pass you later, you owe us a beer.” They both nodded in agreement, and disappeared up the mountain. Rachel and I took our time heading up the climb making small talk.

Maybe it was the hours of acclimation, the deeper controlled breathing, or likely the guarantee of a free beer, but as we climbed closer to the peak at 9,000ish ft,, I began to feel stronger at a much more stable HR.

Uh oh, looks like the young guns are coming back…

After blowing past the boys sucking wind, I told them they could drop off our pints at the next aid station. Shortly after, Rachel had a bit of a low point, and I wished her well heading off to the first main AS of the day at Islap Saddle (mile 26).

Hitting the peak and right before our decent into the IS aid station, Larry Gassan had hauled his ass up to quite possibly the most beautiful location I’d ever seen a photographer make his/her way to. Trying not to trip off the mountain, I stopped to take a quick pick at what he was shooting behind us.

When I find this pic, it’s going here!

Descending into IS, I ran into runner that had stopped to take a leak. We spent the next 1-2hrs running together chatting about the trails, our goals for the day and all the other crazy topics that come up when running 100 miles. With three Pine-to-Palm finishes, I knew he’s be a strong competitor as we continued throughout the day.

 

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Right outside the Islap Saddle AS

 

Pulling into IS was the first time I saw Erik or my dad since the start. They were absolutely dialed in, as we did a quick switch of bottles, V-Fuels, ice bandana, chug of Physiophyx and face wipe. Erik said we were at approximately 5hrs, and I responded with, “this is the most conservative I’ve ever started a 100.” He said to keep patient (good advice) and to not worry about racing until much later (15ish place)

The next 6-7 miles would be on roads and we would begin descending below 8,000ft, so I expected my HR to fall substantially and be able to make some good time on these sections. Thankfully, my heart responded by dropping to the floor (thanks Joe Uhan for the race plan), and I was able to make great time without even remotely pushing the pace. The gallons of water I’d been drinking definitely helped as well, as this is the most I’d pissed during any ultra to this point (5-8 times in the first 26 miles).

Hearing from some veterans of the race, AC is supposedly 50 miles of “easy” running sandwiched between 25 miles of the high country, and 25 miles of ridiculous climbing and technical descents. Using the term “easy” when explaining a 100 mile race is a relative term, but the middle stretch of this race played right into our game plan.

With nutrition, hydration and a crew absolutely dialed, we made excellent time between miles 26-75. Outside of a missed turn that cost around one mile, a section of 3-4 miles without a single trail mark that I had literally thrown the towel in as the end of my race, and a three mile climb outside Redbox AS with thousands of vicious gnats (swallowed about 30 and my shoulder is still sore from nearly an hour of arm swings), this was likely the most uneventful of any of my most recent 100 milers.

Pulling into Chantry Flats at 15:10ish (mile 75), I decided to dump my pack and singlet, as the straps had led to some serious collarbone chafing. Switching out for a waist pack and handhelds, the first big mistake I made was forgetting to lube up as the night crept in. With the temperature dropping and not having to sweat as profusely as the 15hrs prior, rookie mistake to not lube up properly. The second mistake I made was popping a couple ibuprofen, as I thought it would be good pain relief for the last quarter of the race. Cooling quickly, I also put on a top as I began to shiver. Thanks Erik for literally carrying my damn shirt for 24.99 miles, as I took it off immediately after leaving the aid station.

Priding myself on not being passed the entire day, outside of the numbnuts that were literally running up Baden-Powell before blowing up… hey, they still owe me a beer, Rene Dorantes and his pacer literally flew past Erik and I like we were walking up Mt. Wilson. We weren’t slacking, mixing in a significant amount of running with power hiking, for this late in the race. We even passed Jorge Pacheco a few minutes later, so we knew we weren’t dogging it. Rene was just dropping the hammer. Running with him earlier in the day, I was so excited to see Rene crush his first 100 miler in under 21 hours and 4th place overall.

Climbing up Mt. Wilson, Erik and I started chatting about a variety of subjects. As much as I get into my own head late in 100 milers, it was great to have someone to talk with to help pass the time over the most difficult section of the race. I was surprised to hear him say, “Hey man, don’t flip out if you look back here. I just smacked my head on a branch.” Of course I immediately turned around, and saw a decent size chunk of Erik’s melon bleeding from the tree attack. No blood was squirting, so I told him to wrap it up with my shirt and let’s go. There’s not much room for sympathy in the late miles of a 100.

We made excellent time up Mt. Wilson, and then saw the legendary Larry Gassan again in the middle of BFE, waiting for lost souls to make their way up to Dead Man’s Bench. Erik and I talked briefly about taking a quick seat for a picture, but not having sat the entire day and not wanting any negative Karma, we decided to keep moving and finish as quickly as possible. With an updated goal of 21-22 hours, we felt this was an absolute lock if I didn’t do anything else stupid.

We descended and climbed up to Sam Merrill, the AS at mile 89 and the top of the last big climb, and I was ready to make a serious push on the last 11 mile descent to Altadena. As we began pressing downhill, my right calf began to seize up and started to have significant pain. Thankfully the pain was somewhat dull to really F’ing ouch, but there wasn’t a pop and I could still put some pressure on it. Unfortunately, it got worse the more pressure I exerted, so we made an executive call to take it easy on this last descent. Making so many right decisions throughout the day, I was pissed that I couldn’t open up over the last 2ish hours of the race.

Coupled with a bum wheel and losing the trail for several minutes, I wasn’t too stoked to realize the ibuprofen had definitely worn off. What we chalked up to bitching and complaining, and I’d do a hell of a lot of this over the last 3+ hours, I can at least blame the ibuprofen for the slight onset of hyponatremia that crept up again somewhere near mile 93-95. Pissing five (5) times over the last 11 miles without a sip helped, but compounded with a shitty stride, mushy head and technical decent, I was sure ready to get off the damn mountain.

How we made it back to civilization without being passed by 47 runners still blows my mind, but we were able to get our shit together enough… sorry, I was able to get my shit together enough to finish in a respectable 22:31 for 6th place overall.

Erik and my dad we absolute studs, as they woke up at the crack of dawn to follow me around and care to my every whim throughout this long, hot day. They were the stars of this race, as I was so happy to have them share this awesome day with me, albeit it a wee bit longer than we all expected at mile 75.

 

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Well, that was a bit harder than expected!

 

What I learned:

  • AC is a challenging course that rewards patience and penalizes early mistakes
  • The high country (first 25 miles) is majestic, with some seriously breathtaking view… just don’t trip while looking
  • The aid stations were well run and stocked, but bring your own gels
  • Altra King MT’s can survive a 100 miler, but be prepared for some late mile soreness and swelling
  • Patience is not always easy at the start of a race, even an ultramarathon, but its rewarding to see a race plan payoff in the later miles
  • Outside of the calf issue, focusing on form throughout the day kept my quads intact and stride relatively efficient

Cramposaurus Rex (Leona Divide 50) 4-24-17

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After a relatively successful race at the Sean Obrien 100k in early February, and with the least post race soreness I’ve ever had after an ultra, I was fired up to start the 8 week training block for the Leona Divide 50 mile. Essentially mirroring Thomas’ training plan since November, I was so impressed with his fitness gains in the few months we’ve been training together. In less than a year, Thomas went from barely being able to walk a step post surgery in January, to finishing a competitive 100K in 10:19. Yes he’s a ridiculously talented athlete and he works his ass off, but this trajectory didn’t seem even close to normal.
Learning that Thomas had been working with Joe Uhan, a PT, coach and successful ultrarunner in his own right, since before his surgery, I learned he was able to change his biomechanics to become an even more efficient runner. We had talked about getting my gait analyzed post Grand Slam, as we were both fairly certain my biomechanics needed a hell of a lot more than a slight tweak. For as much work as I need to fix my gait, I’ll be dedicating the next blog post to learning how to run.
In February, I started working with Joe for both biomechanics and coaching. Feeling like I had been receiving a free training plan since November, since I piggybacked off of Thomas’ workouts for four months, it was an easy transition to partnering with Joe because he knew exactly what I’d been doing post Grand Slam.
With a heavy focus on form, the first several weeks were difficult to adjust, as everything felt a bit weird while running. Once that initial phase passed, running with a more forward lean and higher knee drive began to feel a bit more natural. As I’ll post in the next blog, there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done, but I feel like we’re moving in the right direction.
The lead up to LD50 was great. Workouts were either really easy, or really freaking hard. I’m starting to learn that this approach is definitely right for me, as I’m able to adequately recover from hard workouts, by not being an idiot on my recovery days. I’ll provide some more detail as to the type of workouts I’ve been doing, but a lot of track workouts, tempo runs and gruesome Stagecoach hill repeats. If any runners living in SLO are reading this blog, I’ve got a humbling hill repeat workout for you.
After a short taper, a few sauna sessions to prepare for the expected heat on race day and a strategy discussion with Joe, I felt prepared to nail the LD50.
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Saw a few of these markers throughout the day.
Another amazing race in the Keira Hennniger lineup of So Cal events, the Leona Divide 50 mile takes place in the Angeles National Forest, 15ish miles northeast of Santa Clarita. With 40+ miles on the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT), the LD50 is essentially two out-and-backs starting at the Spunky Edison aid station, approximately 2.6ish miles from the start at the Green Valley Community Club. Apparently, the LD50 is now the only ultramarathon allowed on the PCT. Due to it’s longstanding tradition starting in 1992, no other races can be held on this sacred stretch of trail.
Arriving to Green Valley just a few minutes before the 7:00pm cutoff for early check-in, I said hi to Keira and also chatted briefly with Jakob Herman, the former Co RD for the Santa Barbara 100. Jakob is in the final prep stages for his inaugural 50 mile trail race in Switzerland in July (100 mile being added in 2018), and based on events he’s previously been involved with, I’m expecting this race to be a home run.
As I’m sure Keira’s team wanted to get some rest before an early Saturday rise, I snuck out quickly and made a very short drive up Spunky Canyon Road to find a spot to car camp for the evening. Not certain if it was the unexpected heat or time of the year, but the second I got out of the car to set up my sleeping arrangements, I became the Friday night buffet for about a trillion hungry mosquitos. Sure hope we don’t run into these guys in the morning.
After a decent night of sleep, the 4:30am wakeup call started my normal race day routine of leaded coffee, a medium sized breakfast with low fiber, and an early trip to el bano. Not certain on the parking arrangements, as Keira’s pre race email said we could be parked over a half mile from the start, I made the long .8 mile drive back to the starting area before 5 to hopefully land something closer. Seeing the long row of cars parked on Spunky Canyon, thought I was a bit too late, but just as I was planning to set up on the road, a volunteer gave me the greenlight to pull into the parking lot.
This must be an omen… I’m going to have a great race!
With nearly an hour before the start, I had plenty of time for a second bathroom break, a quality warmup and proper lubing. Decided to wear the Ultimate Direction (UD) Tim Olson vest, as it’s extremely light, well vented, and can hold plenty of gear in the front or back pockets. Normally racing in the Altra Superior’s, most of my training leading up to LD50 had been in the Altra One road shoes. After talking to Melissa about her experience at LD the previous year, I decided to pull the trigger on the Altra One’s, as they are extremely light but still have enough cushion to soften the blow of 50 trail miles. Knowing it would be hot, just not how damn hot, I also wore my trusty, Joannie built ice bandana.
After holding up the group for a few minutes due to the bathroom line taking a bit longer than expected (Keira had a ton of porta potties, so I’m blaming late arrivals), Keira made a last minute announcement that all runners would need at least 40 ounces of water when leaving the Agua Dulce aid station at mile 18ish. Thankfully I decided to wear the vest, as I normally race 50 milers or shorter with a single handheld. For non runners reading this post, soft flasks that fit into a race vest are normally .5 liters (17ish ounces), and handhelds range in size from 12-20+ ounces. Yes I would be a few ounces short, but I’m a seasoned ultra runner that knows how to handle my nutrition and hydration.
Should have taken Keira’s advice…
The start of the race had 50k and 50 mile runners starting together. There was a pack that darted out from the start (hopefully 50k guys), and a group of 10-20 making our way up the windy road to the trailhead/My Friday Hotel. I started with Dom Layfield, an excellent ultrarunner now living in So Cal. He was only two weeks out from the Georgia Death Race, where he placed a solid 4th. Based on Dom’s performance at Sean O’Brien only a couple weeks out from the Spine 100, I knew he’d be prepared to race. Also ran into Jesse Haynes, as he has the “hook up” on Keira Henniger races. He would be using the LD50 as a training race, since he’s preparing for WS in a couple months. Repeat winner Jorge Pacheco was also in the mix, along with previous women’s winner Rachel Ragona.
Thankfully, the first 2.8ish miles to the Spunky Edison aid station was either asphalt or jeep road, so we had plenty of time to separate before hitting the PCT. Climbing into the single track, we were moving at a comfortable pace, as my plan was to be more conservative on the climbs, and more aggressive on the descents. Not wearing a HR strap, I monitored my breathing as a barometer of effort.
Hitting the first down hill section of the race, it did feel a bit odd to push a more aggressive pace, as I’m usually relatively conservative on descents. Focusing on form instead of speed (knee lift and forward lean), the descents still felt comfortable and not taxing.
We crossed the 10 mile aid station after a solid descent, and began to climb again before the largest downhill/uphill of the day. Sometime around 8:30ish in the morning, we began to pass by thru hikers making their way up the PCT. Most were in good spirits, albeit a bit dirty, and it was a great way to start the day saying “Good Morning” to people with several hundred miles already on the feet.
Totaling 6 miles, the descent to the Agua Dulce aid station is a beautiful stretch of mostly single track. The views of the Angeles National Forest were majestic, but I was worried about keeping my damn eyes on the trail, as there were some sketchy, overgrown patches that could’ve resulted in a big spill without being careful.
Pulling into Agua Dulce right behind Dom with empty bottles, I decided to take my time at the aid station to fill up and drink an additional bottle, since we had a 9 mile stretch back. The time was approximately 9:30am, and it was already starting to heat up. Not filling up my bandana with ice was my first major mistake of the day, and an additional bottle would’ve been smart to sip while hiking back out.
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On paper, the LD50 is a relatively “easy” course, with four major ascents (1,200ft, 1,200ft, 1,800ft and 1,000ft,) before hitting the last runnable 20 miles. We were starting the third and largest ascent of the day early enough to beat extreme temps, and I’ve fared relatively well in warm races, so I felt confident in making quick time up this climb. Being the turnaround of the first of two out-and-backs, it was also fun to see the other runners making their way into Agua Dulce.
Meeting back up with Dom, we climbed together for awhile and chatted. He eventually moved ahead, as I had a slight bit of cramping in my quads and hamstrings. Since we had started to hike and it wasn’t unbearably hot yet, I wasn’t sure what was causing the cramps. I thought I’d been keeping up with nutrition/hydration, and was also taking a salt tab every hour. I decided to drink the remainder of my first water bottle, only a few miles outside Agua Dulce, to see if dehydration was causing the cramps.
With the cramps at bay and with 6 miles to go before the next aid station, I’d have to ration my water for the next hour. Not a good idea, as the cramps came back shortly and hit with a vengeance. The only cramping I’ve had in previous races has been while running, and usually at a brisk pace. At this point in the day, somewhere around mile 21, I was having cramps that locked me up while hiking. I slowed down dramatically on this climb, finally reaching the top with only a few sips of water left.
The 3 mile descent to the Bouquet AS was much better, as my legs seemed to come back to life. Making decent time down the singletrack, I passed Bear Spring, where some PCT hikers were filling up their bottles. Thinking how much fun it would be to hike the PCT one day, I started to daydream about what it would be like. All the beautiful views… the wildlife… the interesting people…
SMACK, SMACK, SMACK!
Thousands of gnats decided to wake up and say, “Welcome to the PCT”! Right at face level, these little fuckers started splattering all over my face, under my sunglasses and into my nose and mouth. Thankfully I started with the bandana, so I quickly moved to untie it and cover my face, but whenever I thought I was in the clear and would tie it back around my neck, the little bastards would shoot out again. For what felt like an eternity but was probably only 10 minutes, I learned quickly that the PCT isn’t all rainbows and sunshine.
Pulling into Bouquet with only one major climb of the day left, I felt confident that getting two bottles of water into me, and filling up the ice bandana would stave off any future cramping and allow me to settle into race mode.
Well, that didn’t work out too well.
No more than a mile outside of the aid station, the killer cramps returned, and I was slowed to hike/slog on a climb that was entirely runnable. Getting passed by Jorge and Rachel at this point, I was trying everything to get rid of this damn issue.
Ate another gel… CRAMPED!
Finished another bottle of water… CRAMPED!
Took another salt tab… CRAMPED!
Slowed down to a snails pace… CRAMPED!
The hike/slog back into Spunky Canyon was long… really freaking long… and it started to get hot… really freaking hot!
Based on my past performances in hot weather, I thought basic heat management would suit me sufficiently for tackling this course. Not thinking about it until after the race, all of my training has been in the early morning hours, and I hadn’t ran in warm, let alone hot weather since Wasatch in September. The four sauna sessions likely had little impact on my acclimatization, as once the temps climbed into the 90s, along with my dehydration, Cramp Fest 2017 was on!
My last chance at salvaging a quality race would be to rehydrate like a camel at Spunky Edison (mile 32ish), load up on whatever watery foods I could hold down, and hope that this would kick the cramps for good. I did exactly this, taking more time than I ever do at aid stations to relax and hydrate. Since my stomach hadn’t turned sour, I drank as much as I possibly could without puking. Feeling better, I decided to head out for the final out-and-back of the day. With still 20ish miles to go and being entirely runnable, I was crossing my fingers that my lethargic pace over the past 10 miles would’ve rejuvenated my legs to push these last few hours.
WRONG!!!
No more than a mile out of Spunky Edison, and on an ascent I should’ve easily been able to run, the cramps came back worse than ever. These cramps were sneaky, as I’d feel ok, but then everything would lock up mid stride and I’d fall onto the trail. With a drop off to “game over” on one side of the trail, I had to lean in towards the mountain because I wasn’t sure when the cramps would come back on.
This 7 mile stretch was pretty atrocious, coupled with the fact that I even passed a guy during this time that looked worse than me. Now sharing the trail again with 50k runners, there were countless racers making their way back towards the finish, while a few were still working towards the turnaround. This old timer was moving shirtless without anything! No water bottle, no nutrition, no salt… what the hell was he thinking?
I asked him if he was ok, because I shouldn’t have been passing anyone at my pace. He asked for some water which I gave to him, and he downed my entire bottle. Well, this is going to get interesting.
CRAMP… CRAMP… CRAMP…
I’m nearly out of water again with 3-4 miles to go, and I’m moving at a pace that needs a lot more than one water bottle. The lead 50 milers began to make their way back, and I tried my best to cheer them on. Normally, I always try to say “good job, looking good, keep it up”, or some other line that’s likely not true, but hopefully makes the runner feel a bit better. Wasn’t able to be so cheery on this stretch, as I’d be in the middle of a “good job”, when I’d lock up and fall down on the damn trail. Not quite sure how I made it into the aid station at mile 40, but I was definitely not certain if I’d be able to make it back in.
Seriously contemplating my first DNF as nothing I was doing was fixing this problem, I finally decided to suck it up, drink till I was on the verge of puking again, and hope for the best. Leaving this AS will less than 10 miles to go at under 7hrs, I was confident, well sort of, that I could make the cutoff.
Can you guess what happened after less than a mile outside the AS???
The worst cramps of the day hit, and I was unable to even shuffle or hike at most times. Running out of water again, because I was likely averaging 20-25min/mile, I seriously wasn’t sure if I’d make it back to Spunky Edison. This was by far the longest stretch of my race (7 miles), as I was utterly battered and my legs were fried from the continuous cramping.
Leona6a
Awesome picture from LD (not taken by me) to break up the bitchfest.
Pulling into Spunky Edison nearly 2 hours later, I was done. Drank another 1-2 liters of water and filled up my bottles for the 2.8 miles back to the finish. As a perfect fitting for my final couple miles, multiple trucks tore ass down the jeep road kicking up a seemingly never ending blanket of dust in my face. I couldn’t run or even shuffle, so I tried to power walk as quickly as possible. The final few miles are all downhill, and since my quads had been cramping for over 6 hours, they were not too happy with the descent.
To put the cherry on top of my nearly perfect race, my power walking pace of 20+ min/mile was obviously too fast, and I locked up again no more than a couple hundred yards from the finish. Definitely had some odd looks from the crowd as I made my way across the finish line in 9:20 (somewhere between 10-12th place), completely covered in dirt from the countless debilitating cramps that knocked my ass down for the past 30 miles.
Keira was there to congratulate all finishers, and even she gave me the look of, “What the fuck happened to you out there”? I thanked her for quarterbacking an amazing race with awesome volunteers, and hobbled back to my car to clean up.
Jesse drove past me while making my way back to clean up, and we briefly chatted about how brutal it was out there. He had a similar issue with cramping and decided to drop down to the 50k distance… smart man!
After a quick rinse off and another 100 ounces of water, I said thanks again to Keira, and started my 4hr journey back home. Fittingly, I couldn’t leave the venue for approximately 10 minutes, because my feet cramped up as I got into the car, and I was forced to lay with my legs hanging out the vehicle with half my ass off the seat.
At least the Mexican food on the way home was tasty!

 

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What I Learned:
  • There are a variety or reasons why people cramp during races, but no matter what the driver, they are not fun to deal with for extended periods of time
  • Dehydration is no joke, and I definitely put myself into an early deficit and should’ve brought another bottle
  • Acclimatizing to weather is important, and a few sauna treatments don’t make up for zero training in the heat
  • Heat management should happen early in a race, even before you think you need it
  • It’s imperative to lean into the mountain when cramping for 30 miles, or you will fall off the trail and die
  • Not sure if it’s grit or just plain stubbornness, but I was really proud of myself for not quitting

Sean O’Brien 100k 2-4-17

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Dude, where’s my shoe?

When asked about destinations for high quality trail running, I’ll be the first to admit that Southern California didn’t crack my top 10. What I love about this crazy sport though, is that a single race can impact perception so greatly. Keira Henniger and her team organize an incredible set of races at Malibu Creek State Park. Only a skip-and-jump away from my college Alma Mater Pepperdine, the Sean O’Brien (SOB) marathon, 50k, 50 mile and 100k events lead runners through the beautiful yet challenging Santa Monica mountain range. Large, long climbs with a backdrop of the Pacific is such a terrible way to spend a Saturday…

Thomas and I decided on an early season 100k to check off our 2018 Western States qualifier, but also as a measure of training effectiveness over the past few months. Since I wasn’t too prepared and La Cuesta Ranch 50k was more of a battle with the elements and terrain than gauge of fitness, I had absolutely no goal time for this race. Thomas was planning to run by heartrate, and I decided to tag along for the adventure, as it would be fun to run with someone and we’re at similar fitness levels.

We left SLO around noonish, and made a stop at the Oxnard REI to check out some hiking pants for Thomas, but more so to putz around for an hour checking out awesome outdoor gear. Living in San Luis Obispo and primarily shopping online, I forgot how cool it is to meander through a huge store actually seeing products in person.

We made our way into Woodland Hills and the race check-in location around 3:30. The SLO Trail Runners internal clocks must’ve been dialed in, because we hopped out of Thomas’ VW Vanagon at the exact same time Ethan, Brent and Tim (Brent’s cousin) were arriving. After catching up about the weather, as it was supposedly ridiculously wet and muddy throughout the course, we made our way inside to pick up our race gear.

Keira runs a tight ship. She set up three different check-in lines depending on the race distance. Altra and Cambelback had also set up booths in our small room, and I was able to play with the new King MT’s, which is Altra’s version of a trail cleat. Sure wish these were on the market before La Cuesta Ranch, as I could’ve used some deeper lugs and at least a centimeter of padding.

Chris Pavolochik, a local up-and-coming trail runner from Santa Maria, seemingly arose from a nap while stumbling into me waiting for the bathroom. We caught up for a few minutes on training and his race plan. He looked fit, and I expected him to do well on the 100k course. After a few minutes of BS’ing with some fellow runners, Thomas and I headed out to Malibu Creek State Park to find our camping spot, have an early dinner and to try and catch some early z’s for our 3:45am wakeup call.

The VW Vanagon is the perfect size vehicle for traveling and dirtbagging in comfort. The main cabin folds out to fit a Full mattress, and the popup section on top of the vehicle does the same. With a propane powered stove and refrigerator, along with an outdoor shower, van living never looked so good. After a short hike and quick dinner, we tried to hit the sack.

1989 VW Vanagon Westfalia Camper Auction in Huntington Beach, CA
Not the Reiss Wagen, but same idea…

Between Pablo and Alejandra, I’m granted about 1 foot of space on our California King, so sleeping in the Reiss Wagen was absolute heaven. Thomas better watch out, or he’ll find me catching a nap in that van from time-to-time…

With a start time of 5:00am and a short drive from the campground to the race start, we got moving at 3:45. The pre-race ritual of leaded coffee, two poop sessions and a quick lube job worked smoothly and I was ready for a playdate with the mountains.

On the starting line, I met Heeva Asefvaziri, a former SLO ultrarunner and current resident of Ojai. Only seeing pictures and hearing stories, I was excited to spend some miles with him. Next to Thomas and I was Coree Woltering, a speedster from the Midwest rocking a speedo, who would be contending for the WS Golden Ticket. Bob Shebest and Jesse Haynes also made their way to the front, and after a few last minute race instructions by Keira, we were off.

The first couple miles were choppy, as we hit some single track and it was pitch black. Not wanting to cart around my headlamp for the entire day, my plan was to bring a cheap one and ditch it at an aid station once the sun came out. The golden rule in ultras is to not try anything new on race day, and using a new headlamp definitely falls into this category. This chincy ass “light” was a train wreck! It bounced up-and-down on nearly every step, emitted less lumens than an iPhone, and the adjustment component was apparently broken so after a few strides, the light would snap straight down. I ended up holding the lamp in my hand and then storing it in my pack anyway, so not making this mistake again. After a chilly early morning nuts deep creek crossing, we started our first large ascent of the day.

With all the recent rain in California, Keira was forced to make some last minute modifications to the course. Essentially, the race would be two separate out-and-backs starting at the Corral Canyon aid station 6.5 miles into the race, and then a return trip back to the start/finish. This change would shorten the course by 1.5 miles and also lower the climbing by approximately 1,000ft. If only she could’ve dried the course out too.

The first 1,800ft climb was steep but fortunately on jeep road, so we had the opportunity to separate after the earlier singletrack miles. Not wearing a HR monitor but feeling like my effort level was higher than it should be 3 miles into a 62 mile race, I slowed down and met up with Thomas. Heeva decided to take off, and we wouldn’t see him again until he surprised us by dropping down to the 50k and running past us an hour-ish later.

We ran into Dominck Layfield, another recent So Cal transplant and excellent runner originally from UT via England. Dom had set the course record on the Spine Race in his home country only a couple weeks prior to SOB, and he add already inked his WS ticket, so this would only be a training run for him. He still beat both of us…

After running with Dom for awhile, Chris caught up to Thomas and I. He was excited and seemed to be pacing himself well. He asked if it was ok to run with us, and not having any inkling of his abilities outside of recent race results, we told him to tag along unless we were holding him back. Chris proceeded to run the next 25-30 miles with us, and ended up finishing around 11 hours for a solid 27th place.

As the minutes and miles clicked by, Thomas and I stuck to his HR as a barometer of effort, while I kept track of the mileage. Since a HR strap burns through a watch battery quicker than a hooker in stilettos, the only way to simultaneously use the HR and GPS options on a longer ultra is to tweak the settings to pull coordinates by the minute instead of the second. This greatly impacts the accuracy of the watch, but having two guys share duties made it work.

Not having any idea of where we were within the race, we set a goal of not being passed by any runners after mile 10. Assuming we paced ourselves properly, and considering the ridiculous amount of runners that passed us on that first climb, I felt confident we’d hit this goal.

Heading out on the first out-and-back, we made our way down a long descent to the Pacific Coast Highway, running right near Pepperdine. Watching the front runners make their way back up the climb, we tried to keep track of the total to better estimate where we stood. Chris Wehan and Ryan Kaiser were the early front runners, and they would hold on to ink their WS tickets several hours later. Bob Shebest was in an early fifth, but he’s known to pace himself well in the early miles. I stopped counting as we hit the last couple miles before the aid station, as the terrain became absolutely battered. The recent storms had destroyed this area of “trail,” and we were forced to power hike on a section that should’ve been runnable.

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There’s Malibu in the background.

Making our way into the aid station at the bottom of PCH somewhere around mile 23-24 and after a quick fill up, we flipped around and started the 2,300ft. climb back up and through the trough. The first mile of climbing out of this aid station was our slowest of the day, as we were forced to hike/wade/slip through thick, blanketing slop. After literally stopping a couple times to clean off our shoes with rocks or whatever was in scraping distance, we continued onward back to the Corral Canyon aid station for our second out-and-back.

During the section of trail, we ran past runners competing in both the 50k and 50 mile races. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue even on singletrack, as the slower runners tend to move off to the side. Unfortunately on this 1-2 mile portion of trail, there would be no way to step off the course as it was the muddiest portion of god awful I’ve ever run on. After being trampled on by hundred of runners, I couldn’t keep my shoes from sucking off on nearly every stride. Thomas had already pulled away, and I hit a section of downhill where I flipped the “Fuck it” switch and just opened up. VERY unfortunately for the runners dragging their asses up this hill, as I was tired of losing my shoes/sanity, but there weren’t many places to go.

KABOOM!

I ran right into a group of runners, as they were literally motionless standing in the middle of the trail. Possibly their first 50k and not comfortable in these types of conditions, either way it was a shit show. After some quick apologies and a confirmation that no one was injured, I finally made it out of the mud pits and back into runnable terrain.

Catching back up to Thomas a few minutes later, we ran together for awhile and then split apart again shortly thereafter. Moving ahead slightly, I decided to run with a So Cal runner named Vishal. Of all the runners we passed from mile 10 to the finish, this is the one guy we couldn’t shake. We may have exchanged leads 6-8 times throughout the race, as he would seemingly pass on a climb and we would overtake him on the downhill. Since he was keeping a solid pace, we continued to run together for several miles leading back up to Corral Canyon, and on the climb up to Bulldog. Thomas pulled back up as we started the long descent from Bulldog. We made our way into the mile 45 aid station, and after a quick shirt change by Thomas, we started the last long climb of the race.

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Somewhere around the “Bulldog” section of the course.

Somewhere around mile 49, we finally decided to separate and run our own pace for the remainder of the race. I tried to make a push and catch a few runners over the last 10ish miles, as we had run a conservative race and had some left in the tank. As we were still on an out-and-back, I ran into several racers that were making their way down to the 45 aid station. Walt, Jimmy Dean Freeman, Ethan, Brent and Edder all passed by as I tried to make some headway on the runners ahead. The second place woman was the first person I passed, as she was hiking up back towards Bulldog. We chatted briefly, letting her know that she had a gap on F3, and she should be ok hiking this hill and them moving on the flats and descents.

With a quick fill up on Fluid at the last aid station (mile 53), I headed out for the final 6-7 miles. Passing another runner before heading out, Louis Secreto would eventually catch up and pass me heading down towards the final creek crossing. Since I felt strong on the climbs and there were a few hills before the finish, I was able to catch back up with only a mile or so to go. Instead of killing each other, we decided to finish together and enjoy each others company for the last few minutes. We crossed the line simultaneously, but with chip timing he beat me by three seconds.

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One of the climbs heading into the first aid station, or leaving the last aid station.

Finishing in 16th place in 10:14 and running even splits (the same pace for the back half as the first half of the race), I was satisfied with the day. Thomas came in only a few minutes behind, as he spent the last couple miles pushing Sabrina, the 2nd place female, into a spot at Western States.

After catching up briefly with some racers and having a quick shower, Thomas and I made our way back to SLO… but not before crushing some In-N-Out.

Here’s a garmin link for those interested in the numbers (the watch died with around a mile or so to go)

https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1558692339

What I Learned

  • Early pacing in an ultra nearly always pays dividends in the later miles
  • An early season race done at a fitness level under 100% is completely ok, as long as you modify expectations
  • Racing with someone at a similar fitness level is an excellent way to spend miles
  • Albeit a bit sticky, the So Cal trails are big and beautiful
  • In-N-Out still tastes amazing, even after 4 years of not eating meat