Sunday, August 17, 2014

Roots, Rock, just needed the Reggae

I have completed my first ultramarathon. Just 50K, pretty much the shortest race you can do and have it qualify as an ultra, but I did it. Just 50K. On trails, mostly single-track. What an event.

First, those who regularly go longer...wow. I had huge respect before. You hundred milers...awe.

The race was the TARC (Trail Animals Running Club) Summer Classic 50k. It was held in the woods only about and hour and 20min from my house. First impression...very low key. I didn't even know I was in the right place until I got there. Just the basics, just people there to run and run and run. I saw signs for a wedding, and thought "Oh there's a wedding in the park as well." Well actually the wedding was for two of the runners; the bride in white running gear, the groom in black. They got to go first and lead us into the woods. Then there was the race meeting: Follow the markers, don't be littering pigs, we're guests here. Pretty much summed up what you need to know at any race. And then the fun began...

3x10mile laps plus a 1ish miler extra tacked on to the beginning. The first lap I played the role of naive rookie runner.  I had started pretty far back and had to work a bit to move up, or so I thought. In retrospect there was ample time to do that and it was stupid to do what I did. This isn't road running. People stop, people let you by. I did settle in with 3 other guys and had a nice comfortable pace. And then all hell broke loose as a swarm of the worlds largest hornets (think Hunger Games!) attacked. They were huge. As one victim said, "I went to swat the one stinging my head away and it felt like I was hitting a bird." He wound up in an ambulance but was later returned to the finish to cheer. The hornets or wasps (or Tracker Jackers maybe!) were in a section of the course we had to go through 4 more times. As confusing and disorienting as the course was, EVERYONE took a mental snapshot of that area. It was weird hearing the screams in the woods every now and then as other victims were claimed (hell I was waiting for a canon to go off at times!) but to the best of my knowledge only one other runner didn't finish.

The biggest impression made on me was just how "unnimble" I am as a runner. I stumbled...a lot. I hit the deck 3 times, once on the first lap and twice on the last lap. I had MANY other near misses where only a desperation tree grab kept my on my feet. And then there were the cramps...good lord I got cramps in places, like my left hip, that I have never gotten in my life.

But let me tell you something I learned about the ultra community firsthand yesterday: they all help each other out. More so than in any other sport in which I've participated. When I hit the deck the first time I was on a downhill and my thigh slammed onto a ball of tree roots, my knees and hands on to rocks. It hurt..REALLY hurt. Well all 3 guys stopped and came back. They helped me get to my feet and made sure I could move myself forwards before they set off again. We were in a race, but they all stopped. When I got to the start/finish area after the first lap, bruised and bloody, everyone, be they spectators volunteers, what have you, was ready and willing to help. I had had momentary thoughts of not being able to finish, but with this kind of support out there, I knew I could/would.

Lap 2 was largely uneventful and the first lap where I think tactically I started to do things correctly. Clearly slower than lap one, but I had stayed upright and hadn't burned too many matches so to speak. The last lap saw me eat pine needles two more times, because muscle control was failing, once within 10yds of the tracker jackers. I had visions of writhing on the ground getting stung into submission, but by that point someone had come out with wasp spray and eliminated the nest. No the hardest part was getting back off the ground. Each time I fell my calves or hip or something cramped so severely I was uncertain how I'd proceed, but I did. I developed a technique where I rolled over into push-up position, walked my hands and feet into downward dog, and then was able to stand. Once standing I could walk and then "run." Two people past me on the final loop, but I finished while still maintaining some semblance of form. The cramps had subsided largely due to the help of the volunteers at the aid station. Watermelon dipped in salt...lots of salt. Pretty much a gagger, but chase it with some bubbly soda to keep you from throwing it up and 10min later all was good in my world. Salt. Fabulous. I thought I had been getting enough, but clearly I needed more. Fabulous find.

It was an important day for me as an athlete. I had not finished an endurance event since the Quassy 1/2 in June of 2012. After the first wipeout I had a momentary concern that another DNF was in the mix, but then it clicked and I was once again that person who would continue to move forwards regardless of physical discomfort. Time and place didn't matter, the goal had been to learn what an ultra feels like. I had no mental image to use to help me wrap my brain around 50miles in Vermont at the end of September. I do now. I can imagine a 50miler. And tactically I know what I need to do. Take the approach of lap 3, when I was on vapors, cramping, light-headed at times, and use that right out of the gate. Once you feel you're in a good rhythm and going slow enough, slow down.

There's always debate over which is harder: an ultra or an ironman. It's a very type A triathlete debate, as I did not get the sense that the ultrarunners are driven by that kind of ego. I'm going to say, it's a stupid debate. It really depends on the course and how you as an athlete are wired. I've only hurt like I hurt this morning a few times in my life. Each time was after the first time at a new distance/event. I've never been bloodied in an Ironman.

Ultra running can seem a very individualistic venture. Hey, I had been concerned I was going to Vermont by myself, that I'd be alone. But I learned you are anything but alone out there.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

You do the Hoka Pokey...

I thought I'd share a couple thoughts on my recent purchase of the Hoka One One Stinson Trail.
My Hoka Stinson Trails, from REI, on closeout.

First, I'm running in last year's model. Why? I'm cheap that's why. Seriously, I was definitely on the fence about these and with a retail price of $160+ I was having a hard time justifying the experiment. My track record with running shoes priced over $110 is perfect. I have NEVER had a successful experience with them.  (*Note:I've never tried Newtons (see skeptical/hard time justifying cost), the only other super high-end shoe I've considered.)

Why even experiment? I mean I've run in fairly minimal shoes for the last 2 years. It's a valid question, and while I might say "because the cool kids are doing it" there is very clearly nothing too cool about the Hokas, either from an appearance standpoint or quite literally the temperature of your feet (more on this later). What has been clear, though, is as much as I like the "swift" feeling of minimal shoes, they do have their mileage limits, at least on my feet. I would race a marathon in my Pure Connects, but the operative word is race. You can put up with a lot of discomfort in the name of speed on race day. Training? That's another matter. I do take them on 18-20mile training runs on pavement, and do okay, but there is some wear and tear. Were the Pure Connects competent on trails, I might be tempted to try them up to 50K, but alas they are not. Wet grass=Ice rink. Enter the Pure Grits. A reasonable trail shoe with okay forefoot padding and good traction, but the weight distribution in the shoe is a little funny (too much forefoot making them feel heavier than they are). I have run long in the Pure Grits and my feet were at their limit. In fact that run in fact got the ball rolling on this Hoka experiment. The run in the Pure Grits went well but at the end, my feet, hamstrings, and butt were all objecting. And when I projected the discomfort out another 25miles, well, I needed a plan 'B'. I want to complete a 50miler, but I don't wish to redefining suffering in the process. Maybe I'm going soft in my older age, but comfort, cushy, squishy foot love even at the cost of some weight and maybe speed, it's worth it. I'm not running to beat anyone. I'm running to prove to myself I can.

So how was the run? Well, first I was tall. Like 6'2". Made me feel stronger in a weird way. I also was a bit clumsy...well maybe we'll say less agile. I only had one instance of a stumble where I almost face planted, but I recovered and kept going. Much of the experience was similar to what others have experienced: toe box a little narrow, uppers a little warm, stability a little iffy at times, but... those are all fixable. More miles. Lacing the shoes a bit differently, and the warmth didn't actually bother me while I was running. I noticed it but put it out of my head.

As for the positives: I've found I can carry speed much better in these than other trail shoes, especially when the terrain changes. It allowed me to keep my lower body more relaxed. And maybe it was in my head, but it seemed much easier to run through the grassy pasture/fields. I know people think running on grass is easy, and it is if you're talking nice manicured lawns. Pasture is tough, deceptively tough. Holes, pushing your feet through stiff, dense, tall grass, and it always seems wet. At the end of the run, 22.4 miles in 80 degree heat, I had a few small blisters but nothing major. And the money question, how do I feel? Definitely less stress, less damage. I know this because, 1) my third lap splits were almost the same as my first two (a week ago this was not the case), and ... well ... I can walk around the house right now! That's not to say I was a wreck on previous runs, I wasn't, but the lack of pain in my hammies and butt tell me the cushy, squishy, foot love did it's thing and that was the idea in the first place.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Rising from ashes

I last raced an event of any distance two years ago. It was my only DNF of my long distance triathlon career. 13.1 miles to go, torn calf muscle, end of story.

Strings of injuries, long bouts with depression, numerous attempts to drive forwards again either professionally or athletically have made for some challenging times. And somewhere along the line I stopped forcing it. I became resigned to being on a very difficult consulting engagement for ever. I became resigned to never again being a competitive athlete. Instead I tried to just find a little bit of solace out on the roads or trails from time to time, and an attentive Dad to my kids and mentor to my employees. And I resolved to find enjoyment again in something simple like running, my first athletic love.

That was late March 2014, almost a year to the day from when I tore up my right foot running in slush and mud. But this year I was whole, albeit slower. I noticed online that the Ragnar Cape Cod entries were closing in a day or so. And on an impulse I put up a post asking if anyone needed a runner. Any distance. Any kind of team. I just wanted to be a part of something again. There were a number of responses, and for no reason other than she replied to my message first, I went with the group organized by Jenn McLaughlin. What a perfect fit, at least for me (my van-mates may have other thoughts!) Totally random, but in retrospect seemingly by design. And in that weekend I rediscovered joy on the roads. I did some fast-ish running at times, but far and away my favorite run was the leg I ran with van captain Roselle Flannagan. It was so peaceful.

Since that weekend I've been running more and more, farther and farther. I still have moments where I'm disappointed that I'm no longer as fast as I once was. But yesterday that disappointment was replaced by a different realization, and really that realization is the inspiration for this post.

I'm 48yrs old, and for the first time in my life I covered ~70miles in a week of running. I ran high teens mileage on consecutive days (18 and 20 actually). I logged my longest training run ever yesterday, 26miles. Yes I've run farther, but always in competition, never in training, and really no more than 1/2 mile farther. And I've done all this while remaining healthy. The secret? I've slowed way down! I just run for time, not pace. It allows bad days to be not so bad. And all this as I prepare for some new firsts. In two weeks I'll run my first ultra, the TARC Summer Classic 50k. My time may suck but I expect to finish and you know what? If I finish it'll be a PR! 48yrs old and still setting PRs! And then at the end of September, 50miles on Vermont trails at the Vermont 50. I'm still having trouble even wrapping my head around the distance. But if I finish, another PR! Pretty exciting!

The machine may have broken 2 years ago, but I'm okay with what's emerged. More than okay, actually. I'm having fun and have some wonderful new friends.