Iron Mountain 50 Miler Race Report

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Absolutely the best race that $25 can buy. 

Damascus, a small town in southwestern Virginia, has been the host of the Iron Mountain 50 Miler for several years now. As trail running has become more popular, the event grows, and the level of racing becomes progressively more competitive. The event’s popularity isn’t likely to stop anytime soon.

The 50 mile start is at 7:00 AM so you can actually sleep in compared to many ultramarathons that would start at 5:00 or 6:00. We stayed just 15 minutes away in Abingdon, VA and arrived just after 6:00. Damascus itself is filled with a ton of bed and breakfast establishments, which might be more appealing if you were staying more than one night. For me, the $89 Quality Inn was sufficient for 10 hours of use.

A Unique setup for the toilet paper dispenser

A Unique setup for the toilet paper dispenser

Parking was stress free right at the start/finish area for the 50 milers arriving early but I’m not sure if the 30 and 16 mile racers feel quite the same ease when that reaches max capacity. There is nearby overflow parking for entrants to use, regardless. Packet pickup goes off without a hitch. The shirts looked pretty cool though I didn’t buy one (because I’ve been informed via an unnamed source that I have about 30 too many).

With hurricane Harvey pushing moisture up the interior of the US, the chance of precipitation heading into Labor Day weekend was going to be high. So it wasn’t a surprise that it rained at the start of the race, then intermittently rained throughout the first half, and then progressed into a persistent heavy rain by the final two hours. Very reminiscent of the trail marathon I did a few weeks ago. I’m getting really good at ignoring rain. Historically, the race is more hot and humid.

Prepare for launch

Prepare for launch

We start the race exactly on time - a testament to the consistent management of the event for several years now. The cloud cover makes it darker than typical for this time. The start for all distances is a five-mile stretch of crushed gravel rail trail known as the Virginia Creeper Trail. Damascus is a unique intersection of the Iron Mountain Trail, Creeper Trail, and Appalachian Trail. The Iron Mountain Trail was a part of the AT until the AT was relocated in the 1970’s.

Pretty quickly I felt like I was running too fast, my heart rate already in zone 5. Ummm….just 49 miles to go people. Can we at least keep it over 8:00/mile? I’d seen the prior results of my fellow competitors and had no intentions of vying for a win on this day as I watched three guys gradually drift away.

A couple more runners passed me as I tried to slow slightly and get my heart rate into zone 4. I struck up a conversation with a runner from NC who told me she was moving fast while she could. Long climbs and technical sections apparently weren’t her strong suit. If I recall correctly, she said she had competed there a total of seven times among the various distances. The conversation helped those early miles pass more quickly, but that section will still occupy your mind with its rhododendron and numerous bridge crossings over Laurel Creek or Whitetop Laurel Creek.

Leaving the rail trail and entering the real trails, I started the first climb in 7th place overall. I couldn’t believe how dark it seemed. The trees and undergrowth were so thick that a headlamp would have been useful for a couple hundred yards. That climb is particularly steep, but often wide, and occasionally rocky singletrack in its first mile. The course continues to ascend on more packed and smooth singletrack trails until close to mile 7. Then there’s still plenty of climbing to be had all the way to mile 20.

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My left foot had been nagging me a little during the past week, so I broke down and dry needled it the day prior. I felt it kick in a couple times from mile 9-13, while traversing the ridgeline along the Iron Mountain Trail. The pain just intense enough and lengthy enough to scare me. Fortunately, it ended up stopping. I’m not sure it would have stopped had I not sucked it up and done the dry needling.

After the 16 mile aid station, the 50-mile course crosses Whitetop Road and becomes gravel road that eventually gives way to grassy forest service road. Good. I particularly love running gravel road. Despite another four miles of climbing, this six-mile section goes by fast, partly because it also contains a quick, mountainous descent surrounded by a bit of fog as it tops our second highest point. I caught one runner on the descent, almost too easily, which makes me think I need to slow down. I was actually having more fun following him because it made me feel like I was moving faster.

A long gravel descent on Hurricane Road follows the aid station at mile 22 but I am finally met again with true trails a couple miles later that force a little more climbing out of my legs. Around mile 25 you should return to gravel road but I mistakenly crossed that road and followed a trail that was not on the course for just a couple hundred yards. I suspected that it was incorrect whenever the trail narrowed and I acquired several spider webs on my face. I would not have been the first person to come through if this was the course.

After coming back up the hill to the intersection where I lost the course, I am greeted by a long descent with tons of switchbacks. There are a few rollers but it finally arrives to an aid station at mile 29 where they tell me the climbing begins. Three miles to the next aid station, the volunteers say as they are refilling my hydration pack. By this point I’m annoyed with both gravel roads and descending and say, “Good, I’m tired of going downhill” in between mouthfuls of pizza. They confirm that I’m in fourth place. Not bad. Maybe number three will crack a bit?

Well, after 2.5 miles of that climb to the next aid station, I was the one starting to crack, struggling on the upper half-mile because it’s stinking steep. Everything looks and feels steeper when you are tired at mile 31. Additionally, that section of trail is used by horses and has more mud, ruts, and poo than the rest of the course.

Eventually, painfully, stubbornly I reach that next aid station at Hurricane Gap. This is the same aid station as mile 22 and completes this lollipop loop of the course for mile 32. Beef jerky looks to be the most appealing item. The climb had left me pretty drained. Leaving there I thought that I’d completed the main climb. Boy, that was COMPLETELY wrong. I guess the previous volunteers said three miles to the aid, not to the top of the climb.

I pop out onto a gravel road that seemed to climb for the next half hour. I was beyond halfway up but couldn’t seem to regain the running legs. Unfortunately, I’m not sure of the exact time spent continuing the climb because my GPS data was all jacked up after the fact, but I do know there were a whole heck of a lot of switchback turns up the rest of that mountainside, each one resembling the one prior. My love of gravel roads left a few miles ago. It was the mental low point of the day. I had to count steps or pick targets in order to run even brief periods.

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Finally! I summit the highest point of the course around 4200 feet and drop back onto the Iron Mountain Trail from the gravel. At this point the rain is heavier and I’m becoming cold but at least I can run at a decent clip on the singletrack. I start to put on my jacket but just as I’m ready to slip into the sleeve, the jacket is mysteriously ripped from my hands and disappears behind me as it’s grabbed by the surrounding thorny brush. My coordination is apparently declining.

I’ve never been so happy to get back onto singletrack, which tends to be the emphasis until you get back to Damascus. The major climbing was over. Just 15 miles or so to go. Now, the wet weather was adding a whole extra element of challenge as parts of the trail gradually became a streambed. But it was awesome. The ridge was already surrounded by fog and most areas remained very runnable. It is at this point that I seem to become robotic and is the point of running that I find to be a little addictive. I’ve entered “the zone.” Sure, the legs are a little uncomfortable but the descending on a rhododendron covered, tunnel-like trail feels like that warp speed they use in Star Wars as the periphery becomes a blur.

The next aid station is mile 37, Skulls Gap. I never did get to ask anyone about that peculiar and creepy name. In my haze I asked the volunteers if this was mile 38. A volunteer says “No, 37.” I said, “It’s okay if you just lie to me at this point.” The volunteer says something like, “In that case, you have 7 miles to the next aid.” Hey.... wait a minute! That’s not fair. My brain doesn’t work.

My wife surprised me at the mile 43 aid station, which was also mile 9. The volunteers tell her after I leave that they were worried about me because I apparently looked a little disoriented. What is orientation, really? There’s up, down, left, right. Good enough. But really I just wanted to be running again. It’s not weather I like to stand around in and I just wanted to finish up. At that point you’ve already proven to yourself that the major task could be done so let’s just hammer it home.

Around mile 46 the course splits back apart, so it was “new to me” trail once more. Here, I am running on motivation more than calories. My ignorance led me to believe it’s pure descending to the finish but actually I’ve encountered a challenging climb of maybe two-thirds of a mile. I surprised myself and ran nearly all of it. This is not the time to lose a placing because it would be a huge ego killer. It’s not looking good for seeing third place but I am catching a lot more 30-miler folks who were always encouraging me onward.

The final descent begins. It’s rumored to be unliked and technical. It actually wasn’t as technical as I was picturing but I did manage to briefly roll my left ankle once on those loose rocks. That portion went on forever, became quite dark, and then suddenly spit me out onto a paved street in Damascus. Gotta be close now though I don’t know where I specifically have to go.

This last section is the only real paved road running in the entire circuit. Arriving at the next main road intersection I had to stop to wait on vehicle traffic. My legs were so weird and wobbly at that point that I began to lose my balance, having to take a big step to the right in order to not fall down. Whoopsie. Good thing I don’t need need to pass a sobriety test.

Back onto the Creeper Trail, over a final bridge, and there’s the finish line at Damascus Town Park. I actually had enough energy to kick hard and felt good. Though I had wanted to come in under eight hours, I’ll take the 8:05:58 without complaint. I know where I lost the time and perhaps I’ll get another jab at this race one day.

I literally became a mountain goat on the climb

I literally became a mountain goat on the climb

I’m positive there were burgers and hotdogs and other snacks awaiting my arrival but my memory was a smidge fuzzy right then. I do know I ate something. And my wife was kind enough to find my favorite recovery drink at the local grocery: chocolate milk. Every finisher received a nice package of freshly baked cookies.

Such a great, adventurous course and memorable day! Thanks to everyone volunteering many hours of their time to help us challenge ourselves!

Results: https://sites.google.com/site/ironmountaintrailrun/results-race/2017-results

Big ol’ nutrition list:

  • 4 Gu gels
  • 1 Carb-Boom gel
  • 3 bananas
  • 2 Oreo cookies
  • 3 vanilla wafer cookies
  • 1 mini Snickers bar
  • 6 Clif Shot Bloks chews
  • 8 oz. Coca-Cola
  • 16 oz. ginger ale
  • 2 small handfuls gummy bears
  • 2 small handfuls M & M’s
  • 2 small handfuls beef jerky
  • 2 oz. pickle juice
  • 4 dill pickle spears
  • 2 small cooked potatoes
  • ½ peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  • 1½ large handfuls of grapes
  • ½ slice of cheese pizza

New River Gorgeous Trail Half Marathon Race Report

If you wanted to run perfect trail conditions, the ACE Adventure Center outside Oak Hill, WV was the place to be this weekend. It was plenty sunny, hot, and humid, so there was no shortage of sweat dripping from the brim of my hat and a higher than average forecast for nipple chaffage, but that’s what you expect for August, isn't it?

When I had last attended this event two years ago, packet pickup took a very long time and as a result, the race start was delayed. Things were much improved this year. My packet pick up was completed in about 10% of the time it took me in 2015, which was a ton less stressful.

Despite driving nearly 3 hours, it was easy to make the trip to Oak Hill on race morning because the race didn’t start until 10:00. I know this bothers some runners, but I think it’s favorable if you like the additional challenge of running in the heat or maybe have an upcoming event approaching that will be in the heat. As we started, the temperature was around 70 degrees. Most of the course is tree shaded so the temperature in the woods likely stayed under 80 degrees for another hour or two.

How many people are touching their watches and why is everyone afraid of the timing mat? Photo by Appalachian Timing Group

How many people are touching their watches and why is everyone afraid of the timing mat? Photo by Appalachian Timing Group

Charleston runner Clay Evans started out hard from the gun. And then I realized I hadn’t started my music. Fortunately we started on a short stretch of gravel road before entering singletrack so there was a moment to get those favorite jams going. I train with music about 25% of the time but in short competitive events such as this, I thrive on incremental doses of upbeat and occasionally vulgar rap and alternative rock. Music is a legal ergogenic aid. Just use only one headphone so you can hear folks coming, okay?

Clay and I separated from the other runners quickly, switching the lead back and forth from time to time. Then he told me he was running the other simultaneous event - the 8.5-mile run. I briefly considered letting him drift away from me as we headed uphill but figured any amount of hanging at the quicker pace could help me get closer to my goal of breaking 1:30:00 in the half marathon. As we neared mile 2, still climbing, he began pulling away from me at a pace I wasn’t willing to attempt, regardless of event. I wasn’t expecting to be just a couple beats away from my maximum heart rate. Sure hope he wasn’t kidding about being in the other race. Seemed like a good time to take in a glimpse of this view:

photo by Anne Foreman

photo by Anne Foreman

After hitting the high point of that first and longest climb, I started recovering a bit and gradually came back up to Clay and coasted on by him. I could tell it was going to be a good day by the brief amount of time it took to recover from that hard effort and by the impressive number of birds cheering for me.

The best course description here would be “rolling.” It was actually really fun to hit some of the rollers out there, which reminded me of a rollercoaster on several occasions. Gain enough speed on the downhills and you can coast part of the way up the next climb before it feels too effortful.

Photo by Anne Foreman

Photo by Anne Foreman

Most of the course is double track the width of an ATV (or four-wheeler, if you prefer). Some of it is wider forest road double track. There’s probably just a couple total miles of singletrack. For the most part it is non-technical as there aren’t many roots or rocks. Some sections are wide mown grassy paths. Overall this makes it a road runner’s trail race. Many of the trails would be a good introduction to trail running.

Much of the time I was paranoid of rolling my left ankle to the point of spraining as I had done in 2015. With the trails typically maintaining a clockwise direction around the mountain, there is a frequent camber to the trail that keeps your left side on the lower side of the hill. I remembered the exact point where I rolled it previously so I did what any sane person would do at that section: I slowed down.

The footing on the trail was typically firm and predictable as it hadn’t rained recently. The course circumnavigates the mountain top, never descending or climbing for long periods, so I’m sure that helps keep them dry as well. Trail maintenance had cleared out a couple of recently fallen trees. But somehow they didn’t clear out the snakes. I’m not asking much, am I?

Much of the course is wider trail

Much of the course is wider trail

After topping the highest point on the course, and passing heavy equipment that you don't normally see on a trail run, there’s a fast grassy forest road descent. Nearly to the bottom, I caught a glimpse of a shiny black tubular creature in the grass and reflexively jumped away like an Appalachian kangaroo. I heard the snake jerk, probably because I scared it as much as it scared me but I didn’t bother stopping to ask it. I doubt it would have suddenly struck at a kangaroo because they can't eat kangaroos. I told the next aid station worker about it but I don’t think she was impressed.

The left hip flexors tightened a bit by mile 8, the climbs hurt more, and my general form deteriorated as the thigh muscles became heavier. I thought the course was a little short based on my old GPS data so I tried to remind myself that it was really only 20 more minutes of pushing. Rounding is always a useful tactic for time and distance mid-competition. It’s a great way to lie to yourself about the distance remaining because you’ll forget about it in 30 seconds anyway. And there is a ton of descending in the final 1/3 of the race so I just needed to quit whining. Although you don’t want to underestimate the final climb to the finish.

Bombing the final grassy section of double track descent I spied yet another shiny black tubular creature less than a squirrel’s length from my feet. Is there a reptile convention here this weekend? Where can I get my tickets? This one was stretched across the major width of Erskine Trail. There was no option to change direction at that very moment because: 1.) there was a giant drop off to the left, 2.) a steep embankment to the right, and 3.) my pace was roughly 6:30/mile. Good thing the kangaroo legs were warmed up by the earlier snake. Definitely the first time I knowingly jumped over a fully outstretched snake! It’s really okay if I make it another 23 years of running before that happens again.

I became a little panicked near the finish as I popped out onto the final road climb because I thought the next course marking I was to follow pointed toward some newly built trails on the opposite side of the road. I lost time wandering around in the woods there for over a minute while trying to find the next marking only to realize the course really did just climb up the road, just as it did in 2015. Wah wah wah. No race ever goes perfectly but I was bummed to not achieve my goal of breaking 1:30, coming in at 1:31:11.

Apologies to the young woman finishing her 8.5 miler that didn’t see me sprinting to the finish line and probably had her life flash before her eyes as I grabbed her to keep us both from going down in a burning heap of human shrapnel.

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Course summary: Minimal climbing (average 100 feet/mile, 1300 feet total), generally non-technical with occasional loose rocky sections but no rooty sections, slight but frequent off-camber, minimal singletrack at approximately 1.5 miles total, no more than a couple hundred yards of pavement, minimal muddy sections and no crazy swampy sections, primarily wide and maintained ATV width trail, about 0.5 mile of gravel road, no drop-offs, 100% runnable, generally well marked, fun course overall

Results: https://www.aptiming.com/race/results/543

 

Lost Turkey Trail Marathon Race Report: Lunging to Victory

Somehow I managed to enter an event before the largest rain soaking of Summer 2017. There’s crazy flooding all over this region and I thought it was a great idea to drive 140 miles in the pouring rain and sleep in my truck in the pouring rain and then do a long trail running race in the pouring rain. Needless to say, the drive that should have taken 2.5 hours was almost 3.5 hours. I slept in my truck bed but my camper top leaked so that was kinda damp and I woke up about every hour. Poor me. I’d do it all again.

It’s interesting that the entry price for the marathon and 50 miler were the same, but due to the timing of an upcoming 50 miler that I am training for, the marathon worked better in my training plan because it could replace a long run and push my effort. After being sick for the past several weeks with lyme disease, I wanted to race again now that I had begun the lovely antibiotics last week and was actually feeling a ton better. I hate ticks.

When I awoke for the fourth time at 3:00ish I considered that I could have just run the 50 miler because they were going to start at 4:00. The marathon went off at 8:00. The marathoners had to be shuttled from the Blue Knob State Park to the start of the Lost Turkey Trail whereas the 50 milers do an out-and-back on the same trails.

The bus was a little late picking us up, which I expect was from the insane fog on top of that mountain. And it was still raining. At first I could not even find the tent to pick up my packet at 5:30 even though I was only a hundred yards from it. The roads were barely visible and several us missed the turn into the parking area. It was the craziest, thickest fog I had ever seen.

I had raced from Blue Knob State Park before at an event called Rock n’ the Knob. The climbs were a little more epic than western PA and northern WV offer so I wanted to come back to have that extra challenge. The last time it was super foggy and a little drizzly but nothing like the drenching of the prior 24 hours.

6:00 AM, fog's actually thinning out

6:00 AM, fog's actually thinning out

1:00 PM, what a difference

1:00 PM, what a difference

Exiting the shuttle bus we had about 30 minutes until race start time. The rain slowed and seemingly stopped. I removed my Gore-Tex jacket, stuffed it in my pack, and put on a lighter shell. Normally I don’t carry two jackets but I don’t normally run in a hurricane either. But with just a moment to go before starting, the sky decided to begin another downpour. The race director fired a starting pistol. Only it didn’t fire, it… clicked. Fitting for the past few hours.

The first couple miles of the course were full of standing water. Being on a plateau, the water just sits and doesn’t drain anywhere. Plus it was still raining pretty heavily. My inner ankle began aching a little from the increased demand on my tibialis posterior tendon that comes with rock hopping and trying to run a little more gingerly on the slick or unpredictable deeper grass. I actually started to welcome the deep puddles as they would briefly override the ache.

I had three runners in front of me through this several miles of new squishy swampland. Even though the initial mile section is rocky and more technical, many of the early miles are wide, nontechnical grassy paths. There are a ton of intersections with other trails and roads throughout this course, so you really have to pay attention to avoid missing the turns. Finally, after much hoping, the trails started to feel a little more technical and that helped me pick off a runner.

I began passing the suffering runners from the 50 miler who were running the opposite direction. They were actually a really nice indicator from afar on whether I was still on the right trails. It looked like only about half of them even started and I know several people bailed from the marathon too.

At the first manned aid station, Buffalo Road, mile 9, the race director tells me the next runners are two and five minutes up. Being of the opinion that the first guy went out way too hard and the second guy probably did too, I figure there’s a good chance of closing that gap down. I was counting on the later steeper inclines I saw on the elevation profile to work in my favor.

Not my pic

Not my pic

Eventually we get to a really long section of old pea gravel covered access road. I suppose it is still part of the Lost Turkey Trail but it is not technical at all and lasted nearly two miles. It felt like a road race because it was ever so slightly downhill and I felt like I could really open up. Being so flattened, it reminded me of running across an old coal strip mine, only without the acid mine drainage.

As I approach the next aid station, I see the runner who was previously two minutes ahead of me. Fantastic. I felt decent and spent just a few seconds in the King’s Field aid station so I could monitor his position. I tried to use the descent to my advantage but I couldn’t seem to see or catch that runner. Strange. Well that’s because he took a brief wrong turn just past the aid and I just didn’t know it until the next aid station.

I told those aid station volunteers that was the longest descent I had ever run and they thought it was funny, apparently because the race is known for crushing people. Beef jerky in hand I started up the really steep section of trail from Burnt House around mile 17. Lunge. Lunge. Lunge. Work it. Work it. Feel the burn in that booty. Uh huh. Uh huh. These are all things I say to myself on these climbs and are clearly one of my biggest and best performance enhancing secrets. Actually, I was thinking “who the hell puts a trail straight up the side of these steep ass hills without switchbacks.”

I notice my low back aching a little more than usual. I blame my inability to strength train for the past several weeks because the stinking lyme disease did something to my muscles that made them really easy to strain and become sore for days, which I had to learn the hard way multiple times. I hate ticks.

Perhaps it is somewhere in here where I recall running a ¼ mile section of the softest moss covered trail ever. I felt like I was committing a crime but I’m guessing it must be pretty resilient or it wouldn’t have been there in the first place.

Then, if I remember correctly, after getting to the top, a section of trail begins that seemed a little like someone just hung some ribbons along the hillside and figured running a group of people over it would eventually make a trail. It was super narrow and sometimes not benched at all so the mud on the off camber would just make you slide sideways down the hill toward what would surely be instant death. On one of steepest sections I had to climb through the limbs of this downed tree. I fell down there a little thanks to those pesky 50 mile runners who had come through and torn up the wet trail and smeared the tree in mud.

You won’t believe what happened next! Through some miracle of the human spirit, I kept on running. Because this is a running race, dammit. There’s no time to lie on the ground and bemoan the existence of mud. I realized this course becomes increasingly technical as it progresses.

Around mile 21, I approached Bob’s Creek, which I had seen in photos because of it’s unique overhanging cable “bridge.” It looked serious in the picture. But in real life I looked at the water and thought “that doesn’t look very deep.” Yeah, the muddy liquid was moving a little quick but I just stepped down into it and walked across, the water never going any deeper than my mid-thigh. I suddenly felt a little cheated, because I was imagining on the bus ride that this thing would have to be deep and fast today. I would surely have to cling to the cables above raging rapids. And if I fell in I would have to swim while being swept downstream for at least 50 yards. Other runners on the bus were even talking it up. If only I could have texted some frowny faces to someone who cared.  

also not my pic and clearly from winter but there's disappointment creek

also not my pic and clearly from winter but there's disappointment creek

Just after I crossed “Disappointment Creek,” another serious climb begins. Real serious. Welcome to the final part of the event: the uphill lunging contest. About ¼ mile up the climb I spotted the runner in first place. Time for the arm warmers to come off (because I wasn’t wearing boxing gloves - this is a running race). And they were just going to slow me down anyway because of their poor aerodynamics. Past experience has taught me that uphill lunging contests are all about aerodynamics.

He caught a glimpse of me and I could tell he was probably more interested in just finishing at that point. Mostly because he said, “I’m just going to move at a snail’s pace” and immediately started screaming “Why me! Why me!” Well you can never really trust these trail runner folk because many of them are actors so I lit the afterburners and lunged my way up that climb at record lunge pace.

My lateral calves began cramping a smidge on the next descent and my left big toe was not happy but lucky for me there was soon an aid station known as “Lost Children” at mile 24 where I guzzled a bottle of miracle pickle juice. Here the race director provided her encouragement because she knew I had worked my way up to the front. Despite less than ideal conditions she was doing a really thoughtful thing by bouncing from one station to the next to encourage us. The volunteers were super encouraging too.

"stairs"

"stairs"

At this point the sun is coming out and it’s suddenly a beautiful day. Too little, too late Mother Nature. Don’t even try to talk to me right now, I have a race to finish. Here begins the final uphill lunging contest challenge of going from 1800 feet to 3100 feet of elevation just so that you end up back at the Blue Knob Ski Lodge to eat a hamburger. Nearer to the top, the trail has a long section of rock stairs placed for your enjoyment. No longer can you define your step length because the steps do it for you. One less thing to worry about. For some reason I began grunting and snarling more than usual during this final piece, perhaps to demonstrate my manly dominance over the puny and weak mountain.

The race director cheated and drove her car up the much shorter and smoothly paved road to the top of the climb but she did greet me at the finish line after 4:15 of running with a sweet custom turkey call so that I can find that darned lost turkey.

Loads of swag

Loads of swag

I'm getting out of here

I'm getting out of here

Results are here.

Nutrition:

  • 4 Gu gels
  • 4 bananas
  • 1 bottle pickle juice
  • 4 Gu chews
  • 2 pieces beef jerky
  • 1 Rice Krispies Treat
  • 2 electrolyte tablets

Highlands Sky 40 Mile Trail Race Report

A couple days have passed and my quads still haven’t let me forget about this race. My quads aren’t normally this sore, but then again I don’t normally have such unusual circumstances leading up to a race.

I started feeling a tad funky on June 11, and I developed a 101-degree fever by the end of the next day. An accumulation of infant-induced sleep loss, disease carrying children, general life stress, recently increased training load, and a lovable personality made me the perfect host for Virus 349XY.

The fever persisted, fluctuating in intensity throughout each day - my intracellular fluids apparently being too tasty and nutritious for Virus 349XY to throw up a white flag. Every time I thought I had won the battle, I’d start to become super fatigued and fevered again.

Did I mention I went to the ER? Because apparently I had also strained a deep abdominal muscle in the weeks prior and just in case there was an off chance I had actually formed a strangulated hernia, I wanted to know prior to an ultramarathon. But there was no hernia and they thought I was crazy. Not sad about that lack of findings.

But it wasn’t good enough to just be sick. That little punk, Virus 349XY, also sucked out my motivation, threw it on the floor, and stepped on it repeatedly with its tiny little virus boots. All 47 of them. Jerk. So I’d stress about all the stuff I should have been getting done while lying on the floor with my squashed motivation.

I certainly wasn’t eating or drinking like I normally would leading up to an event. The one good thing is I would have been tapering and resting anyway. With this increased rest, as each day passed, I could feel myself growing stronger, like the stench on a pair of sweaty socks in the laundry basket, but the week is only so long and the laundry is eventually all washed up.

sunrise at the race start

sunrise at the race start

After reluctantly making the trip south on Friday, we ended up getting to the pre-race dinner a little late. We joined the other racers to help ourselves to a good meal at the Canaan Valley Resort. I still didn’t have a huge appetite. Perhaps it was the (low) altitude. Probably not. I began to prophylactically guzzle Pedialyte and juice. Carbs and electrolytes, you mean everything to me. Please don’t let me bonk.

Off to bed before 9:00 PM under some decent fatigue. Mr. Virus gave his one last war cry by awakening me with a low grade fever again at midnight. We spoke briefly and I told him to get the hell out, I’d had enough of his misguided ways.

Race morning I awoke at 4:15 feeling pretty normal. But I knew there was no point in trying to hammer. Mostly because my wife coach told me so. My goal had to be modified from racing hard to simply completing the event. I’d come to terms with that possibility a couple days prior. Mostly because wife coach told me. Not ideal for something I had been building up to for 6 months but slow running is better than no running, right?

Wife coach wanted to see the start (and to ensure I wasn’t faking “normal”) so I skipped the shuttle bus and we drove down to the starting line at Red Creek. I was less excitable than usual but still just wanted to get moving. One of the race directors remained unwilling to allow me to race under a pseudonym in order to protect my fragile ego. I don’t want to mention any names but thanks Adam. My ultrasignup.com ranking has plummeted and my sponsors won’t return my calls. My lawyer will be in touch.

nobody seems to go slowly the first 2 miles of pavement

nobody seems to go slowly the first 2 miles of pavement

Anyway, I hiked so much more of the first half of the course this year than last. I went way too fast on that section last year. That definitely helped me to feel pretty decent at the mile 20 aid station. Wife coach met me there, I think mostly to grab the ripcord from my pack and provide a de-motivational speech if I would happen to look the least bit like a dying squirrel left by the side of the road. Boy was she surprised. And yet so proud. So proud.

It hadn’t rained much lately so the course was drier overall than last year. I was surprised to be in the top 10 at that point because I was really trying to hold back and many people were passing me.

switchback hidden amongst Stinging nettles

switchback hidden amongst Stinging nettles

more stinging nettles

more stinging nettles

traded nettles and slight climb for ferns and steeper climbing

traded nettles and slight climb for ferns and steeper climbing

trading up to pine trees

trading up to pine trees

topped out and we can see the sky again

topped out and we can see the sky again

Then as I began to run the “Road Across the Sky” there was no doubt that I just didn’t have any of my usual oomph to give. The legs were heavy, the strides were short, and the quads were already sore. Not good that early. But it didn’t come as a surprise, so I didn’t stress too much about it. I just tried to be consistent and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the birds, flowers, trees, and elusive wild pugs that have roamed this region for centuries. I stopped multiple times, which is atypical for me in a race, to take pictures and to listen for the faint snort of a wild pug.

wild pugs should be appreciated from a distance. The WV DNR denied their existence for decades but frequent sightings led to their ultimate acceptance into the local animal identification texts by 1974. The WV DNR suggests that you do not attempt to make contact with a wild pug as they are typically disease carrying scoundrels. 

wild pugs should be appreciated from a distance. The WV DNR denied their existence for decades but frequent sightings led to their ultimate acceptance into the local animal identification texts by 1974. The WV DNR suggests that you do not attempt to make contact with a wild pug as they are typically disease carrying scoundrels. 

pretty high up here

pretty high up here

Road across the sky is about to end

Road across the sky is about to end

Compared to last year, there were better conditions this year while coming across the wide open Bear Rocks segment of the course as the temperature was only in the 70’s and it was partly cloudy. I found Travis Simpson at the next aid station. He wasn’t having a great race either. Claimed he was mostly walking but for some reason I never saw him again after that aid station. A federal Strava investigation using judicious amounts of taxpayer dollars revealed that “walking” at that point must have meant a 8:00/mile pace.

There's a Lot of this

There's a Lot of this

overlooking the canaan valley from Rocky Ridge before descending 

overlooking the canaan valley from Rocky Ridge before descending 

more overlooking

more overlooking

I could not get down that mountain quickly enough. My quads had passed “GO” 10 miles earlier, taken the $100, and spent it on comic books and booze. Worthless. Get a job loser(s). After all I’ve done to/for you!

The final section of road where I was able to give a good push last year seemed to take forever. I reached the final aid station at mile 37.6 a full 10 minutes after my 2016 finish time. And I still had a few miles to go despite my begging and pleading to the aid volunteers. Still, no tears were shed. At least not by me, in public, at that moment. I knew others around me were not having stellar days. Wife coach would want me to continue onward knowing that another race is always on the horizon. I held my chest high and shuffled down Freeland Road as quickly as three fully functioning quadriceps muscle fibers could move a person.

somewhere in canaan

somewhere in canaan

and somewhere else

and somewhere else

An hour slower than last year, I finally arrived to the lovely sights of a finish line. I’m really happy with that, considering the circumstances. It certainly made for another level of challenge. One that I do not need to replicate again.

Thanks for a great event again this year Dan, Adam, and Highlands Sky volunteer army.

This article has been dedicated to the memory of Virus 349XY who passed in the early morning hours in Davis, WV while doing what he loved to do most. He is survived by his cousin, the mutated form 349XZ, currently residing in 127 different humans, mostly ultrarunners, across Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina.

Map: https://www.strava.com/activities/1041547950

Stuff I ate: ½ Gu Stroopwafel, 6 Gu gels, 6 Clif Bloks, couple handfuls Pringles chips, at least 16 oz. cola, 9 oz. ginger ale, 2.5 bananas, 8 dill pickle spears, handful of grapes, several mini Snickers bars, 3 handfuls of watermelon, 2 strawberries, my pride

Stuff I wanted to eat: freeze pops, more pickles, elk burger

Brain Training For Capturing Your Next PR

Do you ever wonder why some athletes are so consistent in their performance while others are all over the map? If factors like nutrition, training, and physiological capacity are similar between two people, especially at elite levels, there must be a hidden difference or two in why one person consistently outperforms another.

A huge piece of that difference is psychological. One athlete might catastrophize when things don’t go as planned. Prior experience may lead that athlete to experience negative emotions, increased stress, and increased self-doubt. Once a moment of negativity is allowed to creep in, it leads to a steady performance decline. But somehow, another athlete faced with the same issues might continue to excel despite encountering a hiccup. Just how can they do that? Are we born with these skills or is it the result of dedicated practice?

Brain-Body Connection

There is no denying a connection between your psychological state and physiological outcomes. All you need is to feel a little stressed and you can watch your heart rate and blood pressure rise. What if you could reverse engineer this brain-body connection and use it to work for you instead of against you?

Through dedicated practice, focusing consistently on a single task and being aware of that present moment, you encourage control of your emotions and enhance your self-awareness. Perhaps you can decrease the more intense physiological responses that accompany stress. Even though endurance sports, like running, are fatiguing and sometimes uncomfortable, the brain can be diverted to a single focus of operation: to get the primary task done.

I have a theory that the most successful athletes (e.g. happy, consistent) use their sport as a form of meditation. Some have suggested that we naturally seek out altered states of consciousness and exercise is just another gateway to this state. Perhaps this ability to refine and control thought is a key to enjoying exercise instead of dreading it. Sure, there are people that still look at meditation as being a 1970s hippie phenomenon, so they automatically won’t like the idea. But consider it just another skill within a toolbox of physical and mental skills. No psychedelic drugs necessary. By exercising in this semi-meditative state, the brain learns to function and focus in a precise way during that activity.

What is Mindfulness Meditation?

Practitioners of mindfulness meditation emphasize remaining observational and non-reactive to what you might sense during meditation (see footnote below). One result of remaining mindful is improved decision making simply because you have greater knowledge. You then respond to your findings without excess reaction, without judgment. It’s similar to someone telling you, “don’t overthink it.” Who doesn’t want or benefit from improved decision making?

A search of the NCBI database reveals that using mindfulness techniques during exercise is a relatively new research area. Mindfulness concepts are commonly utilized in research on yoga and martial arts. It is also more common to see meditative techniques used in addition to exercise for treatment purposes (e.g., chronic pain, depression, etc.). Mindfulness and meditation are becoming more popular topics, so you can expect more research will begin to pop up.

Using a Body Scan to Control Pain

Endurance sports involve cyclical movements (e.g., steps while running, pedal strokes while cycling, etc.)  that provide ongoing feedback from the body. That feedback is useful, if you are listening. You might refer to this listening as a “body scan.” It’s a technique used in mindfulness-based meditation and has been studied for treatment of depression, anxiety, stress, obsessive-compulsive disorder, insomnia, various cancers, chronic diseases, and chronic pain.

Athlete or not, one of the biggest goals of a body scan is to increase your awareness of your body’s signals, top to bottom. During constant activity, the best athletes are able to continuously monitor and adjust their status at any given moment, much as a person would in mindfulness meditation. The athlete is monitoring the important factors as they encounter them, responding with only the absolute necessary changes so that, over time, physical and mental energy are conserved.

While scanning, I frequently discover that I will shrug my shoulders when running harder or becoming fatigued, so I immediately know to drop my shoulders. Or I notice my breathing becomes too rapid and shallow, which reminds me to take a cleansing breath. No surprise, there’s always an immediate improvement in mood, performance, and comfort.

Within an event or training day, one key is to continuously perform the body scan to the point that any small problem is detected and corrected before it becomes a big problem. Maybe some people would consider this a waste of mental energy, and maybe it would be for the unacquainted. Instead, with practice, I would expect it to decrease mental fatigue because it’s far easier to address a small problem intermittently than to become stuck obsessing over a more catastrophic and constant state of stress that causes a flood of negativity.

Other Mindfulness Techniques

Bringing your attention to the present, with something like basic step counting, can push out negative thoughts. You might initially just count four steps before your focus diminishes but with practice it could be 50 steps or 100 steps. Count steps until the next maple tree comes along or the next aid station.

Some athletes are better able to apply meditative techniques if they have a mantra to rely on. Much like step counting, the job of the mantra is to hold your attention. It is a word or phrase that you return to when you find your attention has drifted. It can be something like “long and strong” or “I can, I will.” And still others are able to focus on their breathing count and pattern with great success.

The cyclical nature of an endurance sport also lends itself well to this internal or mindfulness approach because you can become completely lost in the total movement, the breathing pattern, or even the individual footsteps. I’m so stuck in this mode from running that I struggle with counting repetitions while strength training. I become so internally focused on the technique and how the movement feels with each rep (the way I would with running) that I don’t care about the number.

Regardless of your choice, focusing on any of these patterns requires attention to factors other than your fatigue-induced discomfort. They all provide a rhythmic pattern, a consistent place to focus after a distraction, a point of fixation.

Being Stubborn Isn’t Enough

This isn’t simply about being stubborn. Stubborn can get most people only so far. When you finally break at your point of maximal stubbornness, there must be some other tactic to fall back on to hold yourself together mentally.

An experienced ultramarathoner isn’t going to rely on being stubborn through an entire race, though it may appear that way on the surface. They are likely getting to the point that simply feeling their breathing or arm and leg movements can provide a point of focus as the distance gradually ticks away. It’s more about executing at that very moment while turning off emotional and judgmental tendencies.

Application to Training and Competition

In training, try to maintain a body scan or an intrinsic technique focus during short, hard intervals of 30-60 seconds. The goal can be to move quickly and feel discomfort while focusing only on one or two technique trouble areas. You can make the intervals increasingly longer (eg. 5-10 minutes) as you have more success sustaining a focus during the shorter lengths.

Use your miserable days as a primer. Gross weather? Feeling generally crappy? Don’t bail. I hate to spoil this for you but 99.9% of competition days are not going to go as planned. To truly be prepared, you need to experience less than ideal conditions in advance. The rough days are an opportunity to see if you can bring yourself together mentally and maybe even surprise yourself.

Started out a race too hard? Don’t panic. Accept the situation and move on, responding only to your requirements at that very moment. You can’t change the past so stop getting caught up in it. Feeling inefficient? Focus on a component of movement, like arm swing, that you can control. Continuously thinking “this hurts” or “I’m getting slower” is harmful to performance and enjoyment. Once those initial thoughts begin, you will almost certainly begin to slow down and have even more negative thoughts.

You aren’t going to wish an opponent into slowing down and you aren’t going to wish yourself into going faster. Focus on factors that you can control and you just might go faster. But that’s not going to happen without maintaining an internal locus of control - meaning you become solely responsible for and controlling of the outcome.

In longer events, like a marathon, it is wise to not only avoid deep analysis and judgment of your overall condition but to address the basics of what you can at that very moment and reassess after a mile or a few minutes later. Just because you are beginning to feel miserable one minute does not mean you are destined to feel that way 10 minutes later.

According to the book “Running With the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind” by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche: “Ignoring the pain takes enormous mental effort. The first step is to acknowledge the pain. The pain is one thing, and the mind reacting to the pain is another, so the second step is not to overreact. Becoming startled by the pain only exacerbates the pain, like throwing gasoline on a fire: our reaction to the pain makes it even worse. Therefore we acknowledge the pain, but we avoid having the immediate reactionary response.”

Your preferred method of mindfulness may also change with the intensity or duration of exercise. Through most of an endurance competition I’m doing a body scan. Late in a competition I might begin to use a mantra, often rhythmically with the movement. I also like to create a mental picture of how I am moving as a whole, as if I’m watching myself in a mirror.

Find What Works For You

If you have never tried any of these mindfulness techniques before, don’t expect it to be easy and automatic the first time. There is no wrong way to do it; try a few methods and see what sticks.

Some people have the perception that meditating while exercising would require you to completely shut off the outside world. But you have the choice to turn off and to turn on those inputs. If you have to be on high alert for a moment to make sure you don’t miss a turn of the trail in the woods, then stay on high alert. Go back to whatever technique you like once you make the turn. You don’t become a zombie while doing a body scan.

The bonus of these techniques is that you can transfer this behavioral control to other sports and aspects of life like school or work. After developing the mental skills necessary to get through a tough training or competition day, taking that college exam or giving that presentation to your boss might not seem so tough.

It’s worth looking at the various mental skills you can develop while exercising so it isn’t all just a frustrating slog. Certainly, exercise can provide a fantastic time to step away from our stress and problems. And not every moment of exercise needs to be a test of will or focus. Just don’t be afraid to consider the importance of mental skills training if you are seeking performance gains.

Main points:

  • A body scan, mantras, step counting, and breath counting can all be useful methods to improve performance.
  • A body scan can be used to continually monitor movement and discomfort levels. It allows you to attend to small running technique flaws or areas of excess muscle tension before they become large and painful problems that will undoubtedly be mentally fatiguing and detract from performance and enjoyment.
  • Practice the mental focus in training with hard and short efforts initially and then progress to longer and harder efforts.
  • Bringing your attention to the present, with step counting, breath counting, or a mantra can push out negative thoughts.
  • Realize no competition is going to proceed 100% as planned. Use your most unpleasant training days as an opportunity for preparing your mental state.

Please share this article with your running friends! To receive updates as each blog comes out, complete the form below. And if you have any questions, please email me at derek@mountainridgept.com.

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Sources:

1 According to a 2010 article from Birrer and Morgan: “Mindfulness techniques emphasize the non-judging awareness and acceptance of present cognitive, affective and sensory experiences, including external stimuli and internal processes. Stimuli that enter awareness are observed but not judged, and internal experiences (thoughts, feelings and sensations occurring through internal or external stimulation) are instead accepted as natural, transient facets of human existence.”

http://www.atrailrunnersblog.com/2017/06/stealing-fire-ultrarunning-and-pursuit.html

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26406766

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1600-0838.2010.01188.x/full

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/aphw.12063/full

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/22/meditation-in-action-running-mindfulness_n_3625110.html

http://www.runnersworld.com/meditation/why-you-should-try-meditating-while-running-and-how-to-do-it

 

8 Essentials For Recovering From A Running Injury

1. Don’t assume you should stop running entirely. There’s a good chance you will make the situation worse by fully stopping. One or two days off is reasonable. Your body’s tissues maintain themselves best when there is a baseline frequency of exercise. Take that particular baseline away for several days and those tissues have no reason to maintain their adaptations to exercise, so they will actually weaken and regress. Tendons, muscles, ligaments, it doesn’t matter. All of these tissues begin to degrade without regular use. It’s the same reason astronauts become weak and lose muscle mass when they travel to space. The frequent demands of gravity here on earth are suddenly gone so their body says “if you aren’t going to use this *fill in tissue name here* anymore, then I’m going to start to break it down - it’s a waste of energy to maintain it for nothing.” You don’t want to lose more of these hard-earned adaptations than you have to.

2. Don’t be afraid to deviate from your previous running pace and distances in order to stay active. If there is one thing that happens very commonly after an injury takes hold, it’s that folks assume resting fixed their problem entirely when the pain *appears* to go away. So what if you took two days off? Expecting to jump back in at the same level of pace and distance is often disastrous. Just as I mentioned above, the tissues maintain a certain level of adaptation. By jumping back in at the previous intensities and distances you may actually be stressing the tissue at a rate greater than it can adapt. Remember, this was injured tissue that caused pain just a couple days earlier, which probably means it wasn’t adapting quickly enough to begin with. It is unlikely that magically, with a short little rest, that the area suddenly became “normal” uninjured tissue again and you can start beating it down with your typical training. Temporarily decreasing the intensity and distance to decrease (but not eliminate) the overall demand on the tissue is often a better solution for overuse injuries. It typically takes weeks and months for an injured area to remodel and you can certainly progress again during this time if the running is dosed appropriately.

3. If you have a competition coming up and it’s something like one to two weeks away, there’s a good chance you can still compete and do so at the level you had hoped - if you play your cards right and don’t panic. How much measurable fitness do you really think you were going to gain from that one last long run? This is more of a psychological barrier than a physical one. If you had been training consistently for two or three months, or years for that matter, then you have the necessary fitness. Yes, it’s frustrating and a blow to the ego. Nothing ever goes as planned anyway, does it? It’s usually not worth testing things to their limits when you can easily increase or maintain fitness with things like cross training.

4. Cross train, but do it right. Yes, I understand that no other form of exercise seems to cause the same type of wonderful fatigue and satisfaction that running does. Which, again, is why people try to push the distances and paces prematurely. But if you need to cross train, doing hard interval or tempo work everyday on the bike or elliptical isn’t the right way to go. I would hope you wouldn’t do that running (although I know people who do). The same principles apply to cross training as they do to running:

  • super easy recovery to stay warmed up and loose after harder days
  • aerobic work for aerobic fitness
  • intervals and tempo work for improving anaerobic fitness
  • maximal efforts for improving that nerve/muscle connection and gaining more anaerobic fitness

I am absolutely convinced that a semi-experienced runner can cross train for several weeks, never run, and still achieve their goals if they do it correctly.

5. Don’t forget about this current injury when the next injury comes along. More often than not, these injuries will be connected to one another. Every week I see people who had a low back injury that eventually played into a hip problem that became a calf problem which morphed into a foot problem. Our body’s are so good at compensating for pain, loss of motion, and weakness that we can nearly always get the job done - for a little while. The trickle-down and displacement of forces doesn’t bode well in the long run. Fixing problems correctly the first time around will play out better.

6. Some medicines are actually inhibitory to normal healing processes if taken for prolonged periods. This is partly due to the fact that inflammation is a desirable and necessary part of healing. It is just that inflammation is accompanied by pain and we all want to get rid of that part of the equation. Taking drugs to modify the inflammatory response over a longer period of time (>2 weeks) may result in an incomplete cycle of healing. Here’s one recent review (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22744434). These drugs are also an important factor to consider in bone healing from issues like stress fractures, as reviewed here: http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/39/2/65.

7. Prevention is the best medicine. Remember, you can have too much of a good thing. Exercise and running are good only up to a certain point and that point is different for each of us. Maybe if you had just taken a full day off every week for the past month, then perhaps this injury wouldn’t have happened. You will do best by emphasizing proper recovery time, doing regular soft tissue maintenance, refining your running technique, attending to nutrition, and being consistent with slow progressions in training. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard “well, I felt good so I decided to go an extra four miles” from people that aren’t feeling so good right about the time I see them in the clinic. There is always a breaking point and you can find it by throwing caution to the wind. (Not saying I haven’t done these things myself!)

8. Don’t “test” an injured tissue repetitively and expect a different result. Here’s a common scenario: Monday I tried to run and my leg hurt within 200 yards, so I stopped, figured I would just rest a day. Tuesday I tried to run again (because Monday was a failure) and the pain started again at around 150 yards. Ugghh, I hate being hurt. Wednesday I’m really aggravated and surely the last two days of “rest” have fixed it so I run for 300 yards, even though pain started at around 200 yards again, before I reluctantly quit because of the pain. Thursday I’m really angry and try to run again. Friday again... Notice a theme here? Numerous days of testing the injury, pushing until and through pain, ultimately delays improvement. It’s clearly not going away. The right thing to do is seek help from an injury treating professional, not a personal trainer and not a coach unless they are going to refer you to a valid licensed professional. It is important to consider what pain intensity we are referring to. If it’s enough to make you consider quitting the run, that’s probably a good sign that you should indeed stop. Nor would it be good to push through pain that makes you change your technique for pain avoidance. If the pain is occurring early in the run and worsens rapidly, you aren’t going to win the fight. Every time you test an injury like this, it’s just inflaming the tissue all over again after it has tried to calm down.

Please share this article with your running friends! To receive updates as each blog comes out, complete the form below. And if you have any questions, please email me at derek@mountainridgept.com.

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Coopers Rock 50K Race Report

This turned out to be a very interesting event this year. After a taste of warmer spring weather for the past couple weeks, Mother  Nature changed her mind and dumped a few inches of snow in the area on Thursday into Friday. With Coopers Rock State Forest being at the higher elevations of around 2000 feet, the snow and colder temperatures stuck around for the race on Saturday.

At race start, the temp was about 29 degrees and the woods had a varying 2-5 inch blanket of snow. I can’t recall  competing in this much snow since the Snowflake Chase 5 Miler in McHenry, MD, some 20 years ago. Last year we had the perfect dry, cool conditions. I guess you never know what spring will bring around here from one year to the next.

The 50K course begins with a 1.5 mile road section and a simultaneous half-marathon start, which does cause a slight confusion for placement estimation. Fellow 50K runner Travis Simpson started off harder and faster than I typically ever do, even if it were a marathon. But that’s just his style.

As a result, I exited the pavement as the second 50K’er and wondered how big of a gap I would have to close for that first position. It certainly took a while. I finally saw Travis pop up just before the 6-mile point as we entered the Mont Chateau trail, where the half marathoners split off, but it took me until mile 7.6 to catch and pass him at the bottom of that trail. Here, next to Cheat Lake at 650-700 feet of elevation, there wasn’t a bit of snow.

Warmer

Warmer

The lake happens to be the turnaround point of a short out and back where we began a 1300 foot climb back to the top of the state forest. It didn’t take long while climbing back up this overlapping portion to pass the 3rd through 7th place 50K runners. There must have been good technical runners in that group. Travis finally didn’t seem too interested in pushing at this point so a gap formed between us, although it shrunk back down as we approached Rock City.

We ran Rock City together and then I separated from him again as we hit the Underlook Trail (a challenging world of boulders, this time covered in snow!) It is on this trail that you have to hike and climb quickly on large rocks that are surrounded by other, even larger rocks. All are gradually breaking away from the cliffside every couple hundred years. Rhododendron abound and provide a saving handle sometimes. The footing was so uncertain that you have to constantly watch where your feet are landing. At one point this focus caught up to me because my peripheral vision was also slightly inhibited by the brim of my cap and I managed to ram my left shoulder straight into one of the boulders at full fast hiking speed. Ouch. Five minutes later I cracked my right knee off of a boulder. More ouch.

Underlook Trail

Underlook Trail

I entered Aid Station 2 at mile 10 feeling pretty well despite playing geology tackle. Following this portion, we do another out and back to the Raven Rock overlook. That design quickly lets you know the gap to the next competitor - and it wasn’t far. Maybe 60-90 seconds. I tried my best to remain steady on that section and approaching the McCollum Campground as it was still too early to push the pace.

Raven Rock

Raven Rock

Please don't pass me

Please don't pass me

Then we hit Aid Station 3. I checked my watch and noted that my time was basically on par with my time from last year. This was a bit of a problem considering the course was perfectly dry last year and this year it was a muddy, slick, snowy mess. Somehow I was still climbing well.

I headed out to the Powerline trail off Clay Run. As I reached the top of that mile-long climb I could still see Travis trailing me by a similar time gap. Isn’t he getting tired yet? But I knew we had had similar performances in 50Ks in the last couple years.

Ever instruct a dizzy runner?

Ever instruct a dizzy runner?

Returning back to the same aid station again, I began the not so fun trip on the Roadside Trail toward the front entrance of the state forest. It reminded me of running on horse trails. The many giant footprint divots in the snow had melted partially yesterday and must have frozen again overnight, creating some nasty, unsure footing.

In some ways I was happy to arrive at the paved Henry Clay iron furnace roadway to get off of that trail. I tried to eat the banana I was carrying but it had frozen nearly solid so that didn’t quite work as planned. Unfortunately, midway down the road Travis came barreling by me. I might have tried to hang on if this was a 5K, but it wasn’t, so I watched him gradually drift to a quarter-mile lead.

It was at this point that I *slightly* regretted helping Travis with his hamstring strain injury earlier this week with dry needling in my clinic. Next time Travis, I may use more of a “sham” treatment technique if we are going to be in the same race that week. I’m kidding, of course.

When we hit the Advanced Ski Trail I started to reel him back in again. We chatted a little and then I separated from him again down the Intermediate Ski Trail. Making it to the next aid station at the frontmost parking area, Travis came in just 20-30 seconds behind me. I was starting to feel like crap and I don’t think he was feeling great either. We coasted along the new swampland known as Scott Run trail. My quads were clearly unsure of their function. Travis surged on me again, I fell back about 5 seconds but then caught him once again up the final technical climb.

Having seen his stellar road running abilities, I knew I was in trouble with the design of the final portion of this course. Travis threw another surge as we exited the final aid station and entered Roadside Trail again. He has too much raw power for me to counter on those flats! I tried to stay strong, but without any more climbs or technical sections, my ability to catch him again became substantially inhibited.

He would end up taking the first spot while I came in a short distance back. He executed that final part very well. Over the entire event we were never really more than two minutes apart from each other. Third place, Aaron Horrell, didn’t take too long afterward to come across the finish line either. Three of us coming in well under 5 hours in those slick conditions was quite surprising. And as much as I would like to have won, I was really happy to see an individual that I helped with a new injury overcome the odds and run to their fullest potential.

Would be a sweet view if these guys would move

Would be a sweet view if these guys would move

Looks like there were 40 total finishers in the 50K, although I’m pretty sure we started with closer to 50. It was definitely a day to test limits.

This is the second year for the event, and I thought the course markings were even better than last year’s, though I am a little biased for having known the course already. This year for entering we received “A Guide to Coopers Rock State Forest” along with the SweatVac brand synthetic shirts, which run a little on the large side. Last year we had the same shirts but received a durable map of the forest lands. Unique swag.

I definitely must thank the volunteers who braved the cold for hours to come out to help with this event. It’s not comfortable and not easy to stay warm when you can’t move around much. We all appreciate the ability to get food and drink in at the aid stations.

Here are the results on the Coopers Rock Foundation site. 

Favorite Statistics:

  • Average power: 228 watts
  • Average pace: 8:57/mile
  • Elevation gain: 4967 feet
  • Amount of time climbing: 2:15:05

Strava link

Strava Flyby Player 

Nutritional intake:

  • Breakfast - egg and bacon on english muffin and coffee, trail mix, frequently sipping water all morning
  • Thirty minutes prior to start - one banana
  • In race - 5 Gu gels, 1 Gu stroopwafel, ½ banana, ½ peanut butter and jelly sandwich, 2 pickle spears, 2 pieces boiled potato with salt, 1 cookie, about 40 oz. water, about 8 oz. Coke/Dr. Pepper sodas

Please share this article with your running friends! To receive updates as each blog comes out, complete the form below. And if you have any questions, please email me at derek@mountainridgept.com.

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20 Cold weather running tips and tricks

The warm weather of spring will be here before you know it...or not. I don’t love the cold, but I’ve learned to appreciate the unique challenges of snow, wind, rain, ice, and that abominable snowman from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (hot cocoa!). Here are some thoughts on surviving this less pleasant time of year.

First off, it’s about mindset. If you keep telling yourself it’s going to suck to be in the cold, no surprise, it will suck. Have the attitude that you are adaptable and that the conditions are fun or unique in order to shift your perspective. If you have the guts to commit to consistent exercise, you have the guts to tolerate the cold for a bit.

If you struggle with the initial shock of cold when heading outside, try getting your core temperature up indoors first with 2-10 minutes of indoor biking, treadmill running, push-ups, air squats, running in place, butt kicks, or high knees.

It’s never as cold as you think it’s going to be - as long as you are consistently moving. Pretend you are dressing for a temperature that is 10-15 degrees warmer than the actual thermometer reading.

However, if you would happen to become injured by the aforementioned abominable snowman and had to stop moving, how long do you think you would stay warm? Probably not as long as you think. This is where it is smart to carry an emergency item or two, especially if you plan to be far from civilization, home, and other people. We’ve all heard about dressing in layers, but I like to dress with the intention to pack away the outer layer. A tightly packable, waterproof jacket is a great addition, especially on those damp 40-degree days. It’s there if you need it but not a hindrance if you never use it. In a pinch, a simple kitchen trash bag with a hole ripped in the bottom for your head can be used as a rain, cold, and wind barrier. Cheap, simple, and effective, but don’t expect it to be breathable. Space blankets are a great compact option. On long, adventurous trail runs, my ultimate choice would be a bivy sack, especially for going out into a more risky environment that would be less accessible in an emergency. Of course, this is overkill for running roads in a city. Consider that even if you had to stop moving for 60 minutes while waiting for help, a bivy sack or space blanket would be a welcome and potentially lifesaving item that weighs very little. Though it’s a little larger and heavier, the bivy is more ideal than a space blanket because you can actually get inside of it.

It’s not just the temperature that you have to consider. Wind and water will make the temperature feel at least an extra 5-10 degrees cooler. But if the sun is out, it can easily feel an extra 5-10 degrees warmer. The hardest conditions to dress for are when it is raining at 35 to 48 degrees. That’s perfect hypothermia weather. There’s a definite need for a breathable, waterproof jacket in that instance if you plan to stay out for 30 minutes or more.

Wool is an awesome material to layer, especially for socks. Many people love wool for the heat retention it maintains while wet, which can easily happen if you sink a foot in a puddle of slush. The Smartwool socks I’ve had have been amazingly durable and are my favorites so far. Anything but cotton, please!

In full-on cold muck, around 34-48 degrees, consider a waterproof/windproof sock, like this one from Sugoi. I’ve used these intermittently over the past five years. They definitely weren’t manufactured as a hiking and running product as they do slip around in the shoes a little. And they have external seams that might annoy some people. But they are flexible and my feet would only get a bit damp from sweat. (Keep in mind the dampness from sweat can cause chilling though.) They are useless if you dunk your foot deeper than ankle depth.

Check out some running gaiters if the snow is getting deep or if it’s slushy and muddy. Even a thin gaiter can keep debris from accumulating in your shoe. And if the weather is really poor, you might have a hard time untying the shoe to get that debris out in the middle of a run. Prevent it in the first place.

A single, thin layer can go a long way toward improving comfort. You don’t always have to use heavy, thick layers to get the job done. And the nice thing about a single layer is that it is still very breathable. This is why I hang onto a 15 year-old, super worn pair of tights that my wife would like to throw away. They are perfect for the 30-40 degree days. I’ve found that some areas are more sensitive to cold than others. My shins don’t need much coverage so one layer there is often plenty. My hands are super sensitive though and I’ll need to layer up a liner gloves and possibly mittens.

Carry a Buff or other similar multi-purpose garment. Options are nice. This can cover and protect your neck, face, ears, and head in one fell swoop, in any combination.

Cover your hands in a thick moisturizing and protective barrier like Bag Balm, beeswax, Aquaphor, or petroleum jelly. I have pretty poor blood flow in my hands and this, at the very least, buys me some additional time before my hands start to ache and lose blood supply. And it seems like the act of massaging these products onto the skin is helpful to increase blood flow even before going outside. If it was super cold out, I would put this same protective barrier on my face as well. I’ll carry a little tube of this stuff on a long run for reapplication and chaffing problems.

Sheet metal screws tightened into the bottom of your shoes make for cheap, light, and effective studs on slick surfaces. Just three to five of them can go a long way towards enhancing your stability if they are thoughtfully placed.

Cross train on snowshoes, cross country skis, or just go for a hike. Nobody feels their most fit when exercising in the cold. The clothing is restrictive, breathing is difficult, everything feels stiff, and the footing is horrible. These other activities are more than acceptable to provide an aerobic workout. As a bonus, they break up monotony and train your body in ways you might not normally. Were you going to PR today anyway?

Keep in mind any food you take will become more firm, perhaps more… chewy as it gets colder. Which means you will probably have a desire to drink more while eating. If you tuck the food close to your body prior to eating, it won’t be so darn hard to chew.

Similarly, if you use a hydration pack, tuck the tubing into your jacket so that it doesn’t freeze up. Depending on the size of pack, you may be able to place it under an outer layer of clothing. Drink small amounts from the pack often to keep the water moving. The real hard-assess of winter running mix a little vodka or whiskey into their water to help prevent freezing. It doesn’t take much to lower the freezing point.

Warm liquids are amazing in the middle of a long, cold bout. My dad always brought a small thermos of hot cocoa for me when I was a little kid hunting in the cold. I promise you, in the middle of a cold long run there is nothing better than hot tea or chicken broth. I haven’t found a thermos that works better than a Zojirushi

Carry back up charcoal hand warmers. Just don’t expect them to heat up quickly. For that, there are more instant hand warmers. Or make your own out of these inexpensive flexible heating pads.

Make loops that include public buildings where you could warm up for a few minutes if necessary.

Don’t tie your car or house key to your shoe in wintery conditions. Your hands might be too cold to untie the knot or the knot might just be completely frozen. There is no worse feeling than standing outside a locked warm car or house when you are super cold.

That's disappointing

That's disappointing

Find someone to hold you accountable to getting your run done. A consistent training partner can be a great motivator who won’t let you slack off and make excuses. Training groups can provide that same motivation. Plus it’s safer for everybody involved.

Bonus: Make a game out of it. A Hash House Harrier run is the best example of this game atmosphere. You will be so busy wondering where you are on the random course and where you are supposed to be going that you just might forget about the cold.

Bonus: Cellphone batteries die very quickly when exposed to the cold. Keep your phone closer to your body to keep it warm. If it does die, getting it warm next to your body may breathe some life back into it again.

Let me know if you have questions: derek@mountainridgept.com

Tips for assessing last season and planning next season, part two

In the last article we reviewed suggestions to analyze past workout data. Now for an overview of preseason planning.  

Establish training and competition baselines for comparison.

  • Maybe very recent or older, like a couple years ago, as long as you have the old data for support.
  • Considerations include baseline times for a specific distance, maximum distance, highest average power values, best pacing execution, or just about any factor you would like to see improve.

Find the events you would like to attend.

  • Seek out something new. You never know when you might find an event that you like more than your usual races.

Analyze the specific demands of your planned events.

  • Course layout
  • Distance
  • Elevation gradients and totals
  • Average temperature and typical weather

Set primary performance goals. Don’t be afraid to set lofty goals as long as they are achievable. These can vary drastically, likely being the most specific for an experienced athlete. For example, it could range from:

  • “I would like to finish a marathon.”
  • “I would like to finish the San Francisco Rock ‘N Roll Half-Marathon with a time of 1:40:00.”
  • “I want to run the Boston Marathon in 3:15:00 with the pace never dropping below 7:30 minute/mile or going faster than 7:00 at any time.”

Set midpoint performance goals to determine if progress is being made. For example:

  • Perform a weekly total activity duration of 8 hours and a single longest effort of 2 hours after 8 weeks of training.
  • Perform 7:00 minute/mile pace for 8 miles in a threshold/tempo workout.
  • Achieve a single day of long distance of 17 miles after 8 weeks of training.

Set the component or technique goals that must be met to achieve the primary and midpoint performance goals. Without executing these component steps, you can’t expect to reach the performance goals. For example (these values are theoretical):

  • Consume and tolerate 12 ounces of fluid per hour while at race pace.
  • Consume and tolerate 200 calories per hour while at race pace.
  • Maintain an average of >170 foot strikes per minute for at least 2 hours.
  • Maintain a run power between 200-250 watts for at least 2 hours.  

Go slower to get faster.

  • I’m a fan of higher volumes of low intensity work with only occasional high intensity work. It’s probably not an accident that professional athletes in any sport lasting for long durations have adopted this strategy. You can’t train hard every day. This is especially the case with older athletes because they just don’t recover as fast as their younger counterparts.
  • As you get closer to an “A” event, emphasize increasing the higher intensity work while decreasing overall duration and distance.

If you are planning to do a lot of competing to “race into shape,” you must come to terms with the fact that not every event can be a PR event.

  • You will need to give up some hard workouts to do the competitions instead. Define which events are the real priority and just let the others go as hard training days.

Allowing a longer build period is generally a safer option because it allows for greater physiological and more gradual structural changes.

  • Our connective tissues adapt much slower than our fitness. That’s why we often end up with physical injuries instead of metabolic problems.
  • Shorter races require less progression time.
  • Longer races require greater progression time.

Plan for strength training.

  • This overlaps with performing those exercises that the evil PT gave you. I doubt every muscle in your body is at its optimal strength level.

Plan for other cross training.

  • Your cardiovascular system doesn’t know what activity you are doing. Your tendons, muscles, and nervous system need to adapt and learn the pattern and load of running to be efficient and prevent injury but performing other types of exercise, like swimming and rowing, will not detract from those abilities.

Involve your friends and family.

  • Where would your family like to go for a trip or vacation?
  • What events are your friends doing? This might get you a new training partner, which is great if you are occasionally struggling to leave the house in the winter. But it might backfire if you are the one always providing the real motivation.

Consider other equipment to more objectively measure performance.

  • I get the idea of simplification. Maybe you can and should get by with a basic watch if that has always worked for you. But if you get injured often or can’t seem to break through plateaus, then the extra data from a power meter, GPS watch, or phone app isn’t going to be harmful and may actually help you see where the mistakes are happening. You can always collect the data without looking at it immediately, and analyze it later.

If you have an injury that keeps recurring, get professional assistance to take care of it in the off-season, not a week before your “A” race.

  • Most injuries should be objectively improving within a month when properly treated. If they aren’t, there better be a darn good explanation or else I would find another professional to look things over.
  • Don’t expect miracles though. Sure, I can often provide somebody help (a.k.a. less pain) in just a couple visits but that doesn’t mean the problem is gone. You have to be reasonable with the rate of improvement and do your homework regularly.

Plan for rest and recovery. If you don’t plan it, you won’t take it.

  • Plan for periods of recovery from individual workouts within each week, from blocks of workouts over a series of weeks, and after the entire training cycle that brought you to a big competition.

Tips for assessing last season and planning next season, Part one

Whatcha’ gonna do with all that data? Use it to plan next season, of course.

We log workout data, and some of it never sees the light of day again. Whether you like the old school pencil and paper method or the website technology of Strava, Garmin Connect, Mapmyrun, or others, it’s worth reviewing from time to time. I favor the digital side. Mostly because it makes the math easier and I can make some pretty sweet maps and graphs afterward. There are few things I appreciate more than maps and graphs.

My 2016 running heat map

My 2016 running heat map

So why are you really tracking all of this information? Most would say to allow the ability to see when they are improving. Bingo. But there are a few more reasons to keep track of and analyze the information regularly.

  • Increase the chances of short term and long term success
  • Compare real objective measures to what you *think* is going on
  • Improve your time management
  • Determine where injury or overtraining may have occurred (a breaking point)
  • Determine whether you met your full true physiological potential (or if you were just slacking off)
  • Make it easier for a coach to analyze (currently or on down the road)
  • Remind yourself of events and workouts you never want to do again
  • Remind yourself of events and workouts you would love to do again
  • Determine overall strengths and weaknesses
  • Prevent burnout
  • Define reasonable future goals
  • Recognize any past goals met
  • Discover what aspects of training and competing are really important to you

I started keeping a training log when I was around 15 years old.. Too bad they didn’t have these new-fangled wrist-worn GPS devices back then. There was more guesswork at distances and paces, especially because I was just making courses up. And sometime in college I tried logging everything into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, but that felt too cumbersome. Somehow, there are people still doing this! I salute your ability to tolerate the pain delivered from the software equivalent of a Ford Model T.

A spreadsheet isn’t specialized in its design, but it has the potential to be more informative than a paper logbook. Now the GPS watch companies produce some pretty decent metrics and there is additional software like Golden Cheetah and websites like Training Peaks that gobble up and produce more information than anyone can ever want or use. I love it.

At the least, take a look back at these basic measures:

  • Total yearly time
  • Total yearly distance
  • Average daily, weekly, monthly, yearly mileage
  • Average daily, weekly, monthly, yearly pace/speed
  • Competitive performance times, distances, paces

If there is one thing I can emphasize, it is that you should pay attention to trends, not single workouts, weeks, or even single months. Success is not built upon these brief intervals of time, nor is failure. Most injuries are not the result of what happens in a short period of time either.

Monitor the trends of speed, mileage, and duration for each week, month, and year. Following these trends, you can determine if there is consistent improvement or recognize unexpected losses before it is obvious in your performance.

Average speed across 2016. Trend line peak coincides with June event where I wanted a best performance. 

Average speed across 2016. Trend line peak coincides with June event where I wanted a best performance. 

Solely considering mileage, sure, you can progress each week greater than the generally recommended 10%, but should you do it for several weeks in a row? Most people are not going to withstand those increases. If you don’t look at the long-term trends, then you may just very well forget that you progressed 30% in volume for two weeks in a row just a month ago.

The same would apply to the quantity of high intensity work. Progressing too rapidly in the volume of intense exercise can be a problem, even if total amount of time or distance stayed the same from one week to another. Progressing too rapidly will eventually cause a problem one way or another.

Were you injured this year? Compare the time frame where you were injured to the time frame just prior to injury. Was there a fluctuation in intensity or in mileage volume? Maybe it’s something you can’t quite put your finger on.

That’s when you realize that miles, pace, and distance do not tell a full story. This is where more advanced measures become helpful. These advanced measures are likely to be most beneficial to an athlete that is trying to make a large amount of progress or achieve their peak fitness:

Fatigue points

  • In terms of time, where did you begin to bonk or have a drop of pacing? Where did you think “this stinks” or begin to mentally struggle with the work being done?
  • These points are commonly where technique breaks down. It’s good to have a specific goal for when these moments arrive. For instance, if you know your cadence starts to slow, let’s say to 165, then focus entirely on keeping it higher, like 175.
  • Mimic these moments in training in order to determine the resolution that allows you to avoid injury and performance decline. You will probably never fully avoid these points but with training you can keep shifting them further away to prolong the time before trouble strikes. Of course, this is dependent on other factors that would need to be duplicated, like speed and distance. With that in mind, this clearly isn’t something you would try to work on everyday.

Acute:Chronic Workload Ratio

  • Calculated as the most recent weekly mileage or duration divided by weekly mileage or duration total during the last 4-8 weeks. This is a newer consideration, yet so simple. It was introduced in the 2015 research with a study on rugby players. They found that having a high ratio of 1.5 or greater was a associated with onset of injury. Interestingly enough, a ratio of 0.85 to 1.35 was found to be protective to injury acquisition. Even though the research was done on rugby players, it’s easy to calculate, so I would suggest applying it to your training if you can measure volume. The result is similar to a 10% weekly progression.
Pressing my luck with an acute:chronic workload ratio of 1.7 for a little while there. 

Pressing my luck with an acute:chronic workload ratio of 1.7 for a little while there. 

Average daily, weekly, monthly, yearly heart rate

  • Yes, I know heart rate isn’t the most fabulous measure. But if you are using only the basic metrics, this is a good place to start because devices are now measuring heart rate at the wrist and the chest straps are way more comfortable now than 5 years ago. Trends in heart rate can demonstrate overtraining habits or improvements in performance. For instance, if I am ramping up my base miles I can compare performance on a certain loop at the same pace/time and might see a lower average heart rate for the same speed.
Average heart rate was at its lowest while heading into June as well. 

Average heart rate was at its lowest while heading into June as well. 

Elevation gain/loss

  • Someone unfamiliar with the impact of elevation might mistakenly call an average pace of 10 minutes/mile “slow.” They aren’t accounting for the fact that the average mile climbed was 200 feet. This is the main reason I do not believe in online running pace calculators for training or competing on hilly terrain. This is why power will be a much better measure of effort and stress. So...

Power

  • A newcomer to the running world. Just give it a couple years and many of you will have power data on your fancy GPS watches.
  • Although the current power meters for running don’t directly measure the force produced by your body, it’s still more accurate than guessing based upon how you feel.

With software like Golden Cheetah or Training Peaks, you could dive even deeper with these calculated measures:

Critical velocity

  • Critical velocity is the pace that you could theoretically sustain for an indefinite amount of time. Training at or above critical velocity is one way to focus on becoming faster.

Training stress scores

  • Training stress is a measure calculated by considering heart rate (as a measure of intensity) and time.
  • Acute or short-term training stress (stress over the last 7 days) vs.
  • Chronic or long-term training stress (stress over the past 42 days)
  • Training stress balance is about managing the balance between the two in order to provoke higher competitive performances
Training stress graph for 2016

Training stress graph for 2016

Next post I'll go over more planning tips. Please let me know if you have any questions at derek@mountainridgept.com. 

Seeking improvement? Make friends with vulnerability.

Have you ever wanted to improve at something? Shooting a basketball, playing a guitar, public speaking - the task doesn’t necessarily matter. If you’ve ever thought “I could do this better than I am right now,” then you clearly wanted to improve. But did you actually take the steps necessary to create that improvement?

The problem is that there is a lot that goes into any improvement: seeking guidance, planning, good old-fashioned work, patience, practice, discomfort, commitment, nasty emotions, vulnerability. Improvement arrives only with overcoming these obstacles.

By trying to become better at anything, you open yourself up to the judgment of others and to self-ridicule. After all, we are often our own worst enemy.

I understand that for patients to seek treatment for an injury they are sticking themselves out there, making themselves vulnerable to some stranger’s judgment. But once that ball is rolling, it’s unusual to see someone regret the momentum.

Fear of failure is undoubtedly most of the reason we fear vulnerability. And there are also those who have a fear of success. Perhaps it’s just fear of change. Change leads to other obstacles, more demand, and the cycle never stops.

In any circumstance, it’s easier to maintain the status quo. You are less likely to attract attention or to be exposed to your peers. Maintain at all costs, we think, simply because it’s comfortable.

Improvements in performance (and often in life) are made when you venture outside the zone where you are comfortable. Without the discomfort of the unknown, there is no learning, nothing gained, probably no real experience you will recall at a later time when faced with challenge.

It can be oddly addictive to enter the unknown provided that some good experience comes of it. If you succeed, the psychological reward is substantial and probably reinforcing enough to have you sustain your behavior.

Of course, if you fail (whatever that means) then your attempt to go beyond your perceived limitation is punished. Maybe that has already happened with enough potency or frequency that you don’t seek the unknown any longer.

I suppose this risk versus reward balance is why some people jump out of airplanes. Now that’s definitely a place of vulnerability. A significant adrenaline rush counteracted by the potential for an ultimate failure.

But I’m not asking anyone to jump out of an airplane. I’m suggesting that if you want to truly improve at a task that you must venture into it without thinking too much about the concept of failing.

Because, really, what is the result if you “fail”? Nobody dies. The consequences are rarely as inflated as we make them out to be. You could take comfort in knowing that you can often return to the status quo. Or should you?

There is a difference between feeling vulnerable and truly being vulnerable. Failing makes people feel vulnerable but really it is just a step in a process to making gains. Left unchecked, emotion won’t lead to development, but that is what most of us use to make our decisions. It’s perfectly okay to feel vulnerable but letting it be a barrier to forward progress is where most people succumb, so they never realize improvements.

Success is a potent ingredient in the formula to overcoming any fear and vulnerability. Really you are the one providing your personal definition of success. Perfection does not exist, therefore success cannot be perfection. Success is a belief that you can achieve something greater. The reality is no one else is analyzing the daily minutiae of your life. If they are then they must be really bored, or perhaps jealous.

You don’t ever know exactly what is going to happen, even by taking the comfortable solutions and sticking to the norm. Why not try something different? Make yourself vulnerable.

A new method to predict marathon race times with wanderings and wonderings about base versus interval training

Prediction of running performance is nothing short of an intriguing concept. Everybody wants to know what they are capable of achieving, according to internet math, even if they don’t actually pull it off in real life. Predictive measures have been used to obtain expected race times for multiple decades, and I would like to think they are more accurate now than in the 1970s. There is nothing like a true performance at a specific distance to guide your training and racing. But for a beginner or someone that has done just a handful of events, a race predictor can be really helpful to determine appropriate pacing.

I recently came across an article on a new marathon time prediction method that can be found here. The calculator is found here. It is based on research by the same author, available at this page. The researchers used my favorite statistical method, regression analysis, to create a prediction model for amateur runners, based on amateur data. This differs from previous predictors which were largely created from the performances of elite runners.

Runner’s World recently updated their predictor to this same format because it tends to generate a slower time than other predictions would develop. Why is that important? To keep you from blowing up badly, particularly if you are mid-pack or slower runner.

The nice thing about this specific calculator is the fact that it considers your average weekly mileage in the equation. This lets you see where training can play a role. You can really ask yourself if that extra 10 miles per week is worth it when the gain is just one minute over the course of an entire marathon.

For some, of course, the answer is “yes.” But for others that extra 10 miles each week can result in frustrating injuries that could keep them from training and racing altogether. And maybe during that 10 miles you would rather be playing with one of your kids. There is also research to indicate a lessening health benefit of higher mileages (http://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(16)00068-9/fulltext). The predictor provides a nice method to weigh the diminishing levels of improved performance with the benefits of health and sanity.

This had me thinking, it would be interesting to see how training type plays a role in the goal performance for a given individual. In other words, do you gain more improvement from a focus on long, base runs, or on high-intensity interval work? The average marathon training program is going to include both, because they work different metabolic systems, but I would be curious to know which is more critical for a given person. Sometimes it is obvious, sometimes not.

Let’s say you want to run a 3:30 marathon on 25 miles per week but the predictor expects you to do a 3:35. Is there a certain type, frequency, or amount of anaerobic training that could make up the difference while keeping the mileage that low? Maybe that’s not reasonable and it really comes down to making sure you get in increased mileage to gain that five minutes.

It will undoubtedly vary depending on training history and genetics. The Crossfit nation would try to make us believe that it’s all about the interval training. I would argue that lack of familiarity with longer distances weighs more heavily in a new runner than any amount of anaerobic ability gained with high-intensity intervals. Once you have some base training and long racing experience, then feel free to focus on both or just on harder intervals. I venture a guess that intervals and tempo efforts gain fitness for many people simply because they haven’t stressed themselves in that specific manner. That fitness won’t help much if you mentally crack at mile 23 because it’s all new territory.

To think you can do a marathon well and only do long runs of six or eight miles seems like a recipe for disaster in the uninitiated, though. For a 5K or 10K race, I suspect that many amateurs could rely heavily on interval training two to three times each week for multiple weeks in a row and never once do continual easy or moderate paced runs. Yes, it would still be useful to at least occasionally cycle through weeks of longer, slower base training to stress the aerobic physiology. It is not common to fluctuate training this dramatically, though. Yeah, the mileages would be all over the place. I may have to use myself as a test subject. Maybe it’s a little different way to consider “polarized training.” If nothing else, it is a definite change of pace.

The variation of training stimulus could keep injury rates lower yet continue to change fitness. I recall reading a research article many years ago indicating performance gains in elite level endurance athletes because they essentially doubled their base aerobic training time. These are athletes that are already at the top of their game but they swung the training pendulum one direction and changed their program so dramatically that it helped get them through a plateau. This can clearly work both directions.

My only concern is to be cautious of injuries. Hyper-volume training is surely a recipe for overuse injuries. Too much interval work could be a problem too, especially if you were trying to keep overall weekly mileage high, if your interval running technique was drastically different than your normal slow technique, or if your muscles and tendons were just not up to either task because of strength deficits (a.k.a. start strength training in any case).

Send questions and comments to derek@mountainridgept.com. 

Foot and ankle pain from posterior tibial tendon and muscle injury

Anatomy:

The posterior tibialis muscle originates on the back of the tibia, turns to tendon, and runs behind the bump at the inner ankle (the medial malleolus), and inserts into several of the bones within the arch and underside of the foot.

image courtesy aafp.org

image courtesy aafp.org

Function:

In a standing position, when the posterior tibialis muscle contracts, the inner arch of the foot tends to rise away from the ground. In walking or running the tendon receives its biggest demand when we arrive at midstance and have all of our weight on that single foot. Some pronation during this moment is great for shock absorption but it should meet an end point. That end point is controlled partly by this muscle. This muscle plays a very important role in controlling the amount and rate of pronation occurring at the midfoot.

Causes:

Because the posterior tibial tendon takes a bend around the back of the tibia, the tendon is subjected to tensioning loads as well as compressive loads. To make matters worse, that area of tendon has a poor blood supply.

As usual, progressing intensity or volume of exercise too rapidly is a common finding in people with pain from the muscle or tendon.

There may be weakness of nearby muscles, like the gastrocnemius or soleus, resulting in greater demand on the posterior tibialis muscle.

Some people will aggravate the posterior tibialis tendon indirectly because they lack full ankle dorsiflexion range of motion. By losing motion at this one joint, the adjacent joints can be placed under additional demand. That stress is then controlled for by greater posterior tibialis muscle and tendon activity.

A change in footwear or foot orthotics could be related to onset as the demand on certain tissues could increase.

Poor balance, stability, and positional control of the hip, knee, and ankle may contribute overuse demands to the tissue.

Some people are predisposed to a more flexible and flat foot structure that will, in turn, place greater forces on the posterior tibialis tendon and muscle.

Other rare cases may have a tendon that wants to pop out of the groove that it is resting within, which is associated with a previous traumatic ankle injury.

Signs and Symptoms:

Pain typically comes on without trauma and is usually directly behind the medial malleoli if the tendon is involved but can be at the calf and bottom of the foot if the symptoms are coming more from the muscle. It is interesting to note that an aggravation of the posterior tibialis muscle can mimic an Achilles tendon pain. Take a look at the muscle referral pattern.

Decreased ankle dorsiflexion motion is common. We would measure the joint angle in the clinic, but consider it a bad sign if you can’t squat fully while keeping your heels on the ground or if you can’t lift your toes and forefoot off the ground a couple inches while keeping the shin perpendicular to the floor. Here I have used a ruler as a reference. The ruler maintains its position while I pull the foot toward my shin. Notice the size of the gap between foot and ruler in the second picture. While decreased motion could be from weakness of the anterior tibialis muscle, shortness of the calf muscles is often a contributing problem.

There may be localized tenderness and swelling just behind the medial malleolus. Especially as the condition progresses, you may notice a clicking sensation at the inner ankle region during ankle movement. This could be particularly bothersome if it is simultaneously painful.

When performing a single leg calf raise there can be pain and weakness, especially at the end point of the motion where the heel should be twisting inward a small amount, as in the picture below. You should be able to perform at least 10 repetitions of a single leg calf raise in a row, one set with the knee straight, one set with the knee bent.

Balance and stability should be sufficient enough to maintain a single leg stance with your eyes closed for 30 seconds.

If the destruction of an early tendon injury worsens, the inner arch will flatten as the tendon lengthens abnormally, causing a “flat foot deformity.” This is the reason you really want to catch an injury to the tendon early, before any long-term structural changes have occurred. If the normal structure has been modified then you will have a much longer road to recovery.

Other possible or related problems:

Pain at the inner ankle and lower leg can also be caused by a few other issues. This is where seeing a trained professional helps to rule out these other problems. If you are experiencing severe pain, numbness, tingling, pins and needles, general calf swelling and tightness then definitely don’t try to self-treat.

  • Ankle sprain
  • Blood clots in the lower leg
  • Sciatic nerve compression and irritation
  • Lumbar nerve compression and irritation
  • Tibial nerve compression and irritation
  • Sacroiliac joint alignment/stability problems
  • Hip region muscle trigger points/muscle tissue dysfunction
  • Flexor digitorum longus tendinopathy/trigger points/muscle tissue dysfunction
  • Flexor hallucis longus tendinopathy/trigger points/muscle tissue dysfunction
  • Abductor hallucis trigger points/muscle tissue dysfunction
  • Loss of hip mobility from decreased muscle flexibility or hip joint problems
  • Fracture or stress fracture
  • Tarsal tunnel syndrome

Treatment:

General treatment goals are going to consist of some combination of the following:

  • Decreasing pain
  • Increasing lost motion
  • Increasing stability and balance
  • Increasing muscle and tendon endurance
  • Increasing muscle and tendon strength
  • Resolving any abnormal movement patterns
  • Preventing recurrence

Short-term rest, ice, and NSAIDs are generally appropriate in healthy people for immediate care of a new injury to decrease pain. I am always going to emphasize that it is important to determine why the injury occurred in the first place as these methods do nothing to address the real causative factors.

Supporting the arch of the foot during the stance phase of foot strike can be helpful in decreasing load on the posterior tibialis temporarily. This can be achieved with taping, temporary or permanent foot orthotics, and footwear modifications. You should not become reliant upon these devices to keep your deficits at bay forever, though.

Strengthening the posterior tibialis muscle and tendon can be a beneficial method to increase tissue integrity. The most common strengthening method for a moderately calm tendon is a single leg calf raise performed with the knee straight and the knee bent. If that is too painful, the individual can perform these with double leg support or perform ankle inversion with a cuff weight or band until the calf raise can be performed with moderate or no pain. When strengthening tendon, the current research indicates that it is acceptable to cause mild discomfort in the area of tendon injury but you would not want to push the tendon so far that it remains painful for hours or worsens the following day.

There is no substitute for having full ankle range of motion. If ankle motion is lost, you may need to work on a combination of stretching, joint mobilization, and other soft tissue work to regain mobility. Soft tissue techniques are of benefit to improve any excess muscle tissue tone and gain length. This includes foam rolling, massage stick rolling, massage, myofascial release, and dry needling.

More aggressive treatment can include the use of a walking boot for immobilization and corticosteroid injections. These injections will coincide with a risk of tendon rupture, however, and should be avoided if possible. Another type of injection is PRP (platelet rich plasma). Some physicians will provide patients with nitroglycerin patches to improve local blood supply to the tendon. Surgical intervention is the last thing you want but may be particularly necessary if the tendon has remained inflamed for such a long period that it cannot glide smoothly in its sheath or has split longitudinally. A newer minimally invasive procedure to help chronic tendon injuries is called Tenex.

Please share this article with your running friends! To receive updates as each blog comes out, complete the form below. And if you have any questions, please email me at derek@mountainridgept.com.

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Canary in the Cave 25K Race Report

I’ve wanted to travel down to Fayetteville, WV for the Canary in the Cave 25k for the last couple years, but I just hadn’t made it a priority. Being a WV Mountain Trail Runners event, it automatically had potential to be a quality event. Little did I realize what I had been missing. It is now in my top three all-time races.

The weekend weather lately has been superb for running. This time around it was sunny with a cloudless sky and about 30*. Entry to this event was small at 108 pre-registrants and just 79 finishers. I imagine that would increase if people knew exactly what fun these trails are and the stellar views they could find along the way.

The majority of the trails are wooded singletrack. This time of year it can be hard to tell exactly where a path is under all of those leaves, so you have to be vigilant to stay on the course at times. That’s where it is nice to be near someone from the area and just let them lead. I did inadvertently go off course briefly twice, even though it was generally very well marked.

The terrain was rolling, up until mile 9. Early on, the Fayetteville Trail leads into the Boy Scout Camp Arrowhead trails. Those trails are actually designed for mountain biking but are really awesome to run. Off-camber surfaces are minimized because the trails have been cut into the sides of the hills. Even with all of the leaves, I realized that the trails were primarily packed dirt with minimal roots and rocks.

It’s very twisty, which I love. It brings the pace down a little but is so much more distracting than a straight line. Any short descent is quickly matched with a little rolling uphill. They have produced a rollercoaster-like feel with the quick ups and downs. Even more like a coaster would be the brief sense of weightlessness while launching off the small dirt mounds.

During the early Arrowhead trails, perhaps around mile 4, another runner started nipping at my heels. I would throw various surges to get a feel for where he might drop off. It seemed like the descents and more technical sections weren’t his forte. He wasn’t going anywhere on the climbs though.

Coming off the Camp Arrowhead trails we descended on a fantastic old dirt and gravel access road that has been carved into the steep pitch of the New River Gorge. I will not forget this part, from miles 10 to 13.  You could seriously fly on the upper part. The sun hadn’t hit in here yet so it was very chilly. I took in a couple glimpses of the gorge at this time but couldn’t stare too long as there were definitely loose, washed-out areas. It’s the kind of old forest road that most people would be really nervous to drive on. To your left is a very steep drop off, older growth trees, and otherwise nothing to stop you from rolling hundreds of yards down into the ravine. To your right are absolutely humongous gray sandstone boulders, bigger than semi-trucks.

I used the early steepest part of the gorge descent to put a gap between me and my chaser. But, despite my efforts, he caught back on when the decline below became more shallow.

Having never done the event, I didn’t realize the intensity of the final climb and just out of bad timing I started to eat a gel as we rounded the turn to the Kaymoor mine where I knew we would begin to ascend. Crap.

I was disappointed to see the end of the descent, not only because my mouth was full of gel, but because I wanted to get even closer to the railroad tracks and the New River that I had just viewed from 500 feet higher up the mountainside. The river is still another 500 feet lower than the turn. The race director informed me the original race course did descend further but mud slides haven’t been kind to the lower portion of the Kaymoor Trail.

One-third of the way up what is known as the Kaymoor Miners Trail, the person who had been pushing me for the last 9 miles began to absolutely crush the quick and steep upward scramble. I quickly realized this was a high schooler. Not again! A repeat of last weekend. We climbed multiple flights of wooden and rock stairs while trying to get up this 0.4 mile-long beast. It was hands on knees hiking for much of it and occasionally hands on rocks and trees for stability. Thank goodness it wasn’t any longer.

I had red-lined so hard that I struggled to recover and regain the previous pace at the top. The final portion was a revisit of the first three miles of the course, now in the opposite direction. It hurt much more now though. Boy was I happy to see the “1 mile to the finish” sign. I couldn’t even see the high schooler anymore as he maintained pace very well.

Despite being a youngin’ in the trail running world, Jacob Birurakis ran this course like a seasoned veteran. He was the runner-up at the WV XC State Championship for AAA this year, which might explain his ability to go pretty darn hard up a climb. Nathan Bonham led from the start and destroyed the previous course record, completing the course in under two hours.

I ended up with 15.6 miles on my Garmin with 2014 feet of climbing. Others had as much as 17 miles on their devices. The director reported the course is around 16.5 miles. It’s a strange sensation but I felt like I descended much more than I climbed. Nobody is going to complain about that. My only complaint is that this isn’t a 50K where we could have done two laps of that beautiful course!

Participants received a multifunctional headwear/neckwear/wristwear item and some unforgettable views. Proceeds benefitted the local 4-H group and the WVMTR.

 

Results: http://www.wvmtr.org/events/canary-in-the-cave-25k-2/canary-in-the-cave-2016-results/

 

Dirt Monster 5 Mile Trail Run Race Report

Another weekend, another race. Glad I registered for this one. As the year is coming to a close and the weather becomes frequently less enjoyable, I was lucky to have a race weekend where there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

My friend Kellyn and I arrived just a little later than I would prefer, about 35 minutes before the start. The Google maps application and I were not getting along.

The entire park was covered in heavy frost. It was a little cold out, around 39*, but using the add 20* rule resulted in a temperature of 59*, which means it’s still shorts weather. Plus the sunshine made it seem a little warmer.

After standing in the packet pickup line for 10 minutes shivering I knew I wouldn’t have much time for warming up. And I knew I would want a good warmup because the start of the course, according to the elevation profile, was an upward pitch for a couple hundred yards with a short descent immediately followed by a 0.5-mile climb.

Anyone who is doing a shorter event and planning to go hard should run at their race pace for at least a couple total minutes in their warm up. If exposed to a hard effort beforehand, your body will know better what to do with the byproducts of anaerobic effort during the race. Anyone who has ever pushed hard knows that feeling of shock accompanying the first hard effort, especially if you didn’t ease into it. You don’t want that feeling in the race if you can move it to the warm up.

I did manage to get in a mile of slow running but I never quite got to my typical fast and hard part of the warm up. Some warm up is better than none!

Before I knew it, we were off and into the woods. I suspected the trails would be more tame, and they were. The first five positions were largely decided in the first mile of the race thanks to all of the climbing. Question being, what order would we come in? First place, Matt Lipsey, had taken off fast to the point that I had lost sight of him before completing the first mile. Hey Matt, I just did a 50K two weeks ago. Can’t you have some pity? Yeah, right.

So I’m back battling it out with high schooler Dalton Kalbaugh and 20-something Mike Tait. I hadn’t gone this anaerobic since September but I felt like I was climbing better than they were. The youngin’ would drift away from me for short periods and then I would climb back to him. Old man climbing base I call it. Took the Strava Goat Path course record as a result. Perhaps my greatest victory of the day.

The course was awesome. Wish I had known it in advance. Sun shining, leaves falling, absolutely tons of volunteers, and plenty of course markings. It was not usually very technical  but the wet leaves would add an extra slippery element. Most of the course was 3-foot wide plain dirt trail and gravel service road. We hit a couple narrow, rooty, and rocky sections that I loved. I wanted more of that, especially uphill.

Little did I consider that the high schooler could descend like, well, a high schooler. I should have guessed. The final half mile of the course averages an elevation loss and I’m too old and scared to descend trails super fast anymore. Oh well. Save the knee menisci for another day of battling for a win. My ego took a gut punch 4 miles ago. It turned out to be a great training day.

The post-race gathering was well attended. Still chilly, the chili and fixins were a welcome find. Somebody brought a tiny keg of a homebrew and about five craft brews. Everybody received long-sleeved poly shirts with their registration. I don’t think any race can do better than this for $20. Proceeds went to the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation of Western Pennsylvania.

Results: http://smileymiles.com/2016/RES16%20DIRT%20MONSTER%205%20MILE%20TRAIL%20OA.htm

The latest research on compression garment effectiveness

The main reasons to wear compression garments, like compression socks, would be to: 1) improve athletic performance or 2) improve recovery. Is compression wear worth the hype in either of these cases?

Performance:

A 2016 review on the effects of multiple types of compression garments (Engel et al.) examined 32 studies performed between 1987 and 2015. In eight of the studies they found no significant improvement in race completion time with compression for any distance from 400 meters to marathon. In seven studies, they did find a small improvement in time to exhaustion while wearing compression. Four studies reported improved running economy values. Sixteen of the studies were associated with improvements in psychological variables.

Despite being financially supported by a garment manufacturer, a 2015 study by Areces et al. found no benefit of compression socks in post-marathon exercise performance or race times.

In a 2015 literature review of four studies by Stanek, compression socks were reported to have no effect on several physiological measures like heart rate, perceived exertion, and lactate levels. Although one of the four studies noted an improvement in maximal running speed.

Recovery:

Performance improvements are often based on perception of effectiveness. In a 2016 study by Brophy-Williams et al. the participants were asked about their perceptions on the usefulness of compression socks in enhancing exercise recovery. This article is ahead of print, but according to the abstract (yes, I know that’s bad science) the participants performed better if they believed the compression was going to be helpful in recovery. Thank you placebo effect.

The 2016 Engel review of 32 studies found nine articles reporting large positive changes in exercise or post-exercise muscle soreness.  

A 2013 meta-analysis by Hill et al. revealed some benefit in reducing the pain of delayed onset muscle soreness. They also found that muscle strength and muscle power measures recovered more quickly with compression usage.

A 2016 meta-analysis by Marqués-Jiménez et al. identified several studies indicating multiple biochemical markers were improved following exercise if compression garments were worn. In five studies, muscle swelling was also improved. Another eight studies indicated improvements in exercise recovery in muscle strength and five studies in muscle power.

Anecdotally, I don’t find compression to change anything about my personal running performance. Maybe I would notice a change if I used it more often. But I definitely do like the way compression feels for a day or so after a hard workout or race. I really love the way compression feels at super high levels with a compressive device - above 80 mm Hg, which isn’t what these studies and reviews analyzed. Even if compression garments aren’t changing recovery on a physiological level, they are all capable of decreasing the sensation of soreness.

It appears that the most recent research evidence supports the use of compression in decreasing the intensity of delayed onset muscle soreness. The helpfulness of these garments may be event greater in an individual that must spend more time on their legs during the post-exercise period of soreness. Let’s say in a multi-day event or going back to work on Monday.

Could you make arguments for using compression using the latest literature? Sure. Would I use it in every race or workout? Nope. The reality is that if you think it helps you, then keep using it.

Sources:

http://journals.humankinetics.com/doi/pdf/10.1123/jsr.2015-0048

http://journals.humankinetics.com/doi/abs/10.1123/ijspp.2016-0162

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/301581402_Is_There_Evidence_that_Runners_can_Benefit_from_Wearing_Compression_Clothing

http://www.jospt.org/doi/full/10.2519/jospt.2015.5863

http://starkandwatson.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Compression-and-Excercised-Induced-Muscle-Damage.pdf

https://www.clinicalkey.com/#!/content/playContent/1-s2.0-S0031938415301566?returnurl=http:%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS0031938415301566%3Fshowall%3Dtrue&referrer=http:%2F%2Fwww.sciencedirect.com%2Fscience%2Farticle%2Fpii%2FS0031938415301566

Patapsco Valley 50K Race Report

As the weather cools off each year, my desire for a longer trail event grows. It’s a remnant of running cross country every fall. The Patapsco Valley 50K provided a perfect opportunity to race on new trails and enjoy some nice fall scenery. Although I favor more technical trails and longer climbs, the timing and location was hard to beat.

We arrived to the venue at Patapsco Valley State Park near Baltimore, MD a little prematurely, at 5:30 a.m. Although the prime parking spot did make the walk from the finish line to the car afterward much shorter. Packets included a sweet long-sleeve Brooks shirt and a toboggan. For those of unfamiliar with that term, it’s a winter beanie hat.

The wind was picking up as daylight approached. Although it was around 50 degrees, the wind made it so much more chilly. The start was at 7:00, slightly before sunrise, so we all began with headlamps. It was a novel touch but perhaps a little silly because the lights were no longer necessary within 25 minutes of the start.

I could tell from the elevation profiles and old race reports that the course began with a climb. What I didn't expect is how steep it was, which skyrocketed my effort way too early. My plan was to stay near the front, but I couldn't believe how hard these guys were going in the first mile. Especially for this climb being loose rock that was also covered in leaves.

The trails at the top of the climb were smooth but so leaf covered that I lost the path a couple times since the daylight hadn’t shown up yet. The thick cloud cover wasn’t helping.

As the first three to four miles passed, I tried, half-heartedly, to back off a bit, but it still wasn't slow enough to recover and it wasn’t fast enough to stay higher in the rankings. That intensity might have been fine for a mile or two, but the guys showing up this year were clearly maintaining a pace faster than the average in the prior two years. It was around this time that I somehow stopped my GPS recording for a couple minutes. Data lost to the wind. 

After working my way into a small group with two others, we stayed within view of each other for at least 10 miles. At one point we crossed a small field as the rain spit and a huge gust of wind blew a large, 4-inch diameter, 8-foot long tree branch down to the ground just five yards to my left. Up until that point I had been distracted from the danger of the winds. Adrenaline spike.

Nonetheless, I pushed on, because at that point we are in the middle of the woods and there are no other options. It was strange how much the trail conditions would fluctuate. You could go one or two miles on twisty, super smooth singletrack and then be suddenly bombarded with nasty rock-strewn river edges and crossings for a half-mile. Despite a little recent rain, the trails were largely dry.

My favorite section of the course was along what I assume was the Patapsco River. Perhaps it was the Ilchester Trail, but I am not certain. It was bizarre. It was as if someone had taken a paved, single lane road along the river, flooded it, rolled in a bunch of boulders, threw in a couple mud slides, and cut several trees down across it. The edge dropped straight off into the river yet there was pavement here at one time. Kind of post-apocalyptic.

I felt like I was flying through the technical sections after mile 10 until I rolled my left ankle a bit. Not quite as bad as in my recent trail 10k but I definitely had to hold back for a couple minutes.

And to make things worse, I began to have occasional calf cramps around mile 13. The crazy speed up until this point was way too fast for me and started to cause negative effects even sooner than I would have hoped. I particularly use the balls of my feet on the technical areas so my calves were getting hammered. With two guys behind me, my first thought was “don't change your technique or they will know something is wrong.”

The cramps would improve for 20-30 minutes right after a little pickle juice that I had packed but I eventually ran out by mile 22. No surprise the two guys passed me around that time, the three-hour mark. That and I was prematurely getting a bit of bonky tunnel vision. Again, the result of starting too hard in the first 10 miles.

It also didn’t help that I inadvertently blew right past the mile 20 aid station, not realizing it was grouped together with the drop bags at the start/finish area.

After climbing the initial climb yet again, all I could think about was cola. I knew it could save me. I wanted nothing more than cola for about 5-6 miles. We had run this same section in the dark and early daylight so it seemed familiar, but I actually think that made it worse. The problem was that I was no longer running 7:45-8:30 pace, instead it was a 10:00-11:00 pace. This makes the miles go by much slower. Math can shove it.

At a lonely water cooler in the woods around mile 24, I tried to take a few swigs, only to squirt water up my nose and cause a cycle of coughing that ultimately cramped my pelvic floor muscles. Who cramps their pelvic floor muscles? Apparently I have not done enough kegels lately. I have never experienced this before, nor would I like to experience it again. So if you are going to drink fluid in a long run, don’t get it up your nose.

The aid station around mile 27 came about 45 minutes later than I had hoped, but three cups of cola and two ginger ales helped tremendously to resolve the bonk once I arrived. I don’t recommend running in a state of bonk for 5 miles. I had been trying to eat energy chews but the temperatures were so cold that they were like gnawing on cold taffy and I had run out of water. Also, that is not recommended, but on the bright side my stomach felt great because I was hydrated.

I ended up walking more than I would have ever planned. Of course my body had to throw out another weird cramp of my outer lower leg muscles before we could call it a day. This time it was my extensor hallucis longus and peroneus longus muscles. So my right foot wanted to twist outward and my big toe wouldn’t come down. Can I just take a nap or something? Much to my disappointment, the leg muscles were not trustworthy enough to bomb the final miles of the course despite the overall elevation loss.

All of this foolishness was obviously happening because of the early hard pushing. I was prepared to run in the 4:20 range but who would have ever guessed that the winning time (3:57) this year was going to be over 32 minutes faster than last year! There is no doubt that by chasing for so long I buried myself further than I have in a long time. Therein lies the problem of trying to keep up with these young guns that train an extra 30-40 miles more per week than I do!

On a good day (running smarter) this course has the potential to be a very fast 50K. The only silver-lining was that I did have a 50K PR by 5 minutes. I muffled my whimpering at the finish line with a nice bowl of warm chili and a Poor Righteous IPA from local brewery Jailbreak. Happy I didn’t knock out yet another tooth like I heard one of the other runners did.

Overall, I would definitely recommend the race to any mid-Atlantic region trail and ultra runner. Part of Blair Witch Project was filmed at the park, which makes it automatically creepy, yet perfect for your Halloween time. Perhaps I will check it out again in another year or two to go after a faster 50K PR.


 

How to keep muscle cramps from ruining your workouts and competitions

A CASE STUDY

The scene: It’s a hot, 75 degree Saturday in June, humidity 85%, birds singing. Maybe the most hot and humid day so far this month.

The athlete: Is 6 miles into what is expected to be a 15-mile long run. Last night they enjoyed a couple beers with dinner after completing a 4-mile easy run. Work was pretty hectic, so they drank coffee all day to keep focused. They didn’t consume much water or other fluids.

The cramp: Comes quickly into one calf during the long run, rendering the leg nearly useless and painful, despite the individual believing they weren’t putting out much effort. This has happened before. The runner stretches the muscle for 10 seconds, decreasing the pain and begins to run again. Four minutes later it happens again so they repeat the process until 8 miles, when they finally quit the run out of frustration.

Talk about a wasted training day. Did this runner do something wrong in their preparation for this run? Yes. No. Maybe. Perhaps I’m trying to trick you a little because the truth is we don’t have enough information about the entire situation. What is their maintenance routine like outside of running? Do they strength train? Have they eaten during the initial part of the run?

SO MUCH TO THINK ABOUT

You should see that there are a variety of factors to consider regarding the onset of muscle cramps. Here are some you’ve heard of and maybe some you haven’t:

  • Prior training experience regarding intensities and durations
  • History of muscle cramping
  • Current hydration status, particularly related to level of sweat loss
  • Electrolyte levels of magnesium, calcium, sodium, and potassium in the blood and muscles
  • Muscle tone, which is controlled by the nervous system and reinforced by day-to-day use patterns (and also changed with routine soft-tissue maintenance)
  • Central nervous system status, as in higher anxiety and stress levels
  • Peripheral nervous system status
  • Stimulant intake, such as caffeine, which impacts nervous system function
  • Recent physical activity and fatigue levels
  • Environmental conditions regarding temperature, humidity, and terrain
  • Muscular demands at that moment, as in the force of muscle contraction required
  • Direct muscle trauma

There is likely an interplay of these factors and you therefore need to consider them all in muscle cramp prevention. How are you going to do that? Partly with good regular maintenance and training habits. Partly with a little trial-and-error testing.

Muscle cramps have been a thorn in the side of many athletes for decades, and what fixes them in one athlete may not work for another. Some athletes just seem more prone to cramping while others have minimal issues. I would be surprised if the crowd that is prone to cramping didn’t have at least one or two of these areas to address though.

Available research indicates three main theories exist in the cause of exercise-induced muscle cramping:

  1. “Skeletal muscle overload and fatigue from overuse or insufficient conditioning can prompt muscle cramping locally in the overworked muscle fibers.” (Bergeron, 2008)
  2. “Extensive sweating and a consequent significant whole-body exchangeable sodium deficit can lead to more widespread muscle cramping, even when there is minimal or no muscle overload and fatigue.” (Bergeron, 2008)
  3. “Either neural activity in the spinal cord or in the peripheral could be the cause of the cramps.” (Nakagawa, 2013)

WHAT WE'VE GOT HERE IS A FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE

Lately, the neurological cause has been winning research arguments, so it would make sense to try the solutions that have the most bearing in that area. I frequently tell athletes that the muscles only know what they are told by the nervous system. Without a motor nerve supply, muscles are useless masses of floppy meat. Which means that if the communication between the motor nerves and the muscles goes wrong, you will have a failure of the muscle’s normal function.

This nerve-muscle communication is as much about sending signals to a muscle as much as it is about stopping those signals. It is possible that, with repetitive use and fatigue, the signal from the motor nerve to the muscle isn’t stopped as efficiently as it should be and then the muscle insists on maintaining a contracted state, otherwise known as a cramp.

If cramps occur intermittently for you during exercise, the most likely scenario is one or a combination of these factors:

  1. Poor self-maintenance habits of the muscles
  2. Poor nutritional choices
  3. Subpar preparation of the muscles and nervous system for the task at hand
  4. Neglecting to account for environmental demands

YOUR HOMEWORK

Prevent the cramp with proper preparation and regular maintenance:

  • First and foremost, if you always cramp in the same muscles, I would not be surprised to find that the resting tension in that muscle was elevated compared to muscles where you don’t ever cramp. Cramping muscles are likely to be more tender to firm pressure. Plus, you may be able to tell that those muscles are physically more taut than your other muscles. Your focus needs to be on getting that resting activity to decrease at all times. For that, you are going to routinely and specifically massage that muscle 1-2 minutes every other day with a massage stick, lacrosse ball, or your hands. It should be uncomfortable to work on the irritable tissue. And it’s going to take a month or two of consistent work to keep that muscle more relaxed. If you want it quicker, then my suggestion is to have dry needling to “reset” the nerve-muscle communication.
  • Strength train the muscles that routinely cramp to increase their fatigue resistance while simultaneously strengthening any other muscles that can assist with the same motion. For example, the calf muscles are effective pushing muscles so be sure to address any strength loss in the other rearward pushing muscles like the gluteus maximus and hamstrings.
  • Consider the psychological aspect. Cramping has a lot to do with nervous system function. You aren’t going to make the situation any better by increasing anxiety and stress levels. Athletes that struggle with this need to practice techniques that can lower their stress through deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or sports psychology. It’s no surprise that you could train for weeks without cramps but on race day the anxiety increases at your main event, contributing to the mystery cramps.
  • Expose yourself consistently to any triggering environmental stimuli, like higher heat and increased humidity.
  • If you are expecting to be in a competition that requires minimal or significant terrain changes then try to duplicate those changes or lack of changes in your training.
  • Progress gradually and consistently in durations and intensities of prolonged exercise.
  • It’s easy to suggest staying hydrated. Typical advice. Just keep your urine on the clearer side consistently. Not just the day of or day before longer exercise bouts. Don’t overhydrate because that can carry health consequences as well.
  • Consistently eat a well-rounded diet. If you start restricting specific foods that carry important nutrients, then you need to ensure you are obtaining a suitable replacement. For instance, by restricting meat you may cut out a large magnesium source. Do your research on what micronutrient requirements frequent exercisers have and adjust accordingly.

Prevent the cramp during activity:

  • Vary the range of motion and demand on the muscle as much as you can before you have any sense of cramping. For instance, to change the motion and demands of the calf while running switch from your usual forefoot strike to a heel strike for 20-30 seconds every 1-2 miles. Research indicates that the muscle fibers must achieve a shortened state in order to cramp (Bertolasi, 1993). For instance, if you are constantly running on your forefoot, the calf muscle fibers don’t get a chance to elongate, keeping them in a shorter, and riskier, position at all times.
  • Eat something containing carbohydrates during the exercise. It stands to reason that if muscle fatigue is delayed by eating to supplement energy stores, then you may not cramp as soon or maybe even at all if a few calories are always coming in (Jung, 2005). Nerves must have a supply of energy to function, too. They like glucose. It never ceases to amaze me how many people think they can go harder and faster in an event than they do in training with fewer or worse yet, no calories. Multiple systems change function without normal blood sugar levels.
  • Stick to a reasonable plan. Just because you feel good physically and mentally from resting a couple extra days prior to competition doesn’t mean you should suddenly decide to pursue higher intensities than you have trained for. Even if you don’t cramp, you will probably bonk in a long event, or blow up in a short event.

If the cramp happens:

  • Attempt to stretch the muscle. Do not stretch it rapidly and do not stretch it as hard as you can. A gentle but prolonged stretch is the best option at this point. Hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds. Now is not the time to bounce to the end point of the stretch because you have special structures in place to cause muscle contraction when that bounce hits its end point.
  • Massage the muscle with firm pressure. Even a single, prolonged pressure of 30-60 seconds to the muscle may break its cycle of cramping.   
  • Eat. Didn’t I just go over this?
  • Try my personal favorite solution, dill pickle juice, as the muscle threatens to cramp. It’s not the salt that is effective but the noxious stimuli from the vinegar. A new sports drink named Hot Shot relies on a similar mechanism but it has more of a spicy flavor. Either way, the potent oral stimulation effects nervous system input.
  • Try a couple electrolyte tablets or maybe a sports drink containing electrolytes. This isn’t supported by research, but a placebo effect is still a possible effect. But will you still have the placebo effect now that I’ve told you it shouldn’t work? Please let me know how that goes. I personally stopped using them.
  • Overall, you must adjust according to the variety of factors at hand. If you know you are under-hydrated, aren’t eating enough, haven’t maintained your frequently cramping muscles, undertrained, stressed out, and it’s really humid outside, then your best option is to slow down a little, learn a lesson, and work on the flaws before your next event.

There are instances where cramping with great frequency can be a sign of diseases and serious neurological issues so do not hesitate to contact a medical professional if muscle cramping is occurring outside the realm of exercise. Even a history of sciatic nerve problems can predispose a person to cramping during exercise.

Take care of the muscles and the nervous system with planning and preparation and they will take care of you.

Please let me know if you have any questions at derek@mountainridgept.com. And definitely let me know if you find some of these ideas helpful in muscle cramp management by liking the Mountain Ridge Physical Therapy Facebook page. Or buy me some dill pickles. 

For those who would like to geek out on some related material:

  1. http://journals.lww.com/acsm-csmr/Abstract/2008/07001/Muscle_Cramps_during_Exercise_Is_It_Fatigue_or.9.aspx
  2. http://link.springer.com/article/10.2165/00007256-199621060-00003#page-1
  3. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/299960193_Neural_Mechanisms_of_Muscle_Cramp
  4. http://home.trainingpeaks.com/blog/article/controlling-neuromuscular-performance-to-prevent-muscle-cramps?utm_source=tpr&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=07-16-anl

Tips for achieving a perfect shoe fit, Part 2

Here are a few more tips to consider when looking for your next pair of athletic or running shoes.

  1. Always take a potential new shoe for a several-minute test run. You wouldn’t marry someone without dating, would you? Walking mechanics are not running mechanics. Jogging in place doesn’t count. Use the shoe like you plan to use it.
  2. Try to fit your new shoes at the end of the day to account for swelling. It’s even better if you have already gone for a run. Just find some clean socks first.
  3. Feel around the inside of the shoe for areas of prominent stitching or materials that could become blister-producing sites.
  4. Check for manufacturing flaws. The shoes should be symmetric in construction of their uppers and soles.
  5. A wide and appropriately tall toe box can be a lifesaver. Everyone thinks of the foot as having a single arch but we actually have three arches. One of those arches runs through the forefoot at the ends of the metatarsal bones. Scrunch those metatarsals together in a narrow shoe and that arch doesn’t function appropriately for stability, shock absorption, or propulsion. You also run the risk of compressing the nerves that are between the metatarsals.
  6. There hasn’t been any convincing research to indicate that the various types of shoes (cushioning, stability, motion control) can decrease injury risk. Which is why you need to emphasize finding a shoe that feels good more than any other goal.
  7. Realize that shoes are not an appropriate fix for lost motion of the ankle and big toe. If you keep acquiring the same injuries regardless of shoe choice, the problem isn’t the shoes. You need to have a trained expert in movement analyze your strength and motion. Let’s say your lower leg muscle group has shortened over a series of years and you switched to a zero drop shoe because it was trendy. That might be a little dangerous if you don’t allow for a several-month-long adaptation period. It would be safer to transition from a shoe with a thicker heel height to less heel height and then to zero drop.
  8. The heel cup should not allow the heel to slide side to side or up and down once the shoe is laced snugly.
  9. Don’t forget about the footwear you use during the rest of the day. Your body will adapt to the positions it stays in the most. Which means using a thick heeled shoe during the day only to switch to a zero drop shoe for a 45-minute workout is a sudden and severe change.
  10. Use multiple types of shoes in training. This helps vary the demands placed on your body and may even help prevent overuse injuries that come from repeatedly working in the same range of motion.
  11. More cushioning is not always better. Shoe manufacturers love creating trends because trends equal money. Now that we have passed the minimalism trend, it’s onward to maximalism. Here’s the thing with those super cushiony shoes: more cushioning means you will hit the ground harder. Our bodies are always trying to seek a sense of stability and in order to obtain it, your foot will try to plow right through a thicker layer of foam. And the more foam, the lazier your gait can become. Muscles, tendons, and proper technique should provide most of the impact absorption.

Tips for achieving a perfect shoe fit, Part 1

Have you felt the stress that arises when a shoe company stops making your favorite shoe? Like car manufacturers, shoe companies have a tendency to constantly tweak things, even when they don’t need to be tweaked. In an effort to look a little cooler, or supposedly function better, shoe construction is altered from one year to the next, forcing you to chase an ever-changing ideal. Here are a few points to consider when looking for your next pair.

  1. First and foremost, the goal is to find a shoe that is comfortable. Nigg et al. suggested in a 2015 article that we would do best to select a shoe that does not interfere with the way that our foot prefers to move most naturally.

  2. Begin to break in a new pair when one pair is about halfway worn out. I like to use the newer shoe for longer runs and the older shoe for shorter runs or nasty weather. Most shoes are going to be very worn out by 400-500 miles. However, permanent changes in the cushioning material are evident within just 200 miles. Newer or injury-prone runners may not be able to use a shoe as long as an experienced runner or one that is less injury prone.

  3. Try a ton of different models and brands when deciding on new shoes. The concept of using inner arch height as the indicator of whether you need a cushioned, stability, or motion control shoe is very controversial in the research. Sure, if you traditionally run in a certain shoe type and have no problems, then keep on with the same pattern. If whatever shoe you use seems to never be comfortable, feels too stiff, not stiff enough, too flat, or too high, then check out the other options that are available.

  4. “Pronation” is not a bad thing. Everyone’s foot should pronate for the purpose of shock absorption. Individuals having lower inner arch heights pronate similar amounts to individuals with higher inner arch heights. Do not feel obligated to “stop” pronation with foot orthotics or stiffer shoes. That concept went out in the 1990s. Let your foot do the job that it was designed to do.

  5. Remove the footbed liner of the shoe and place your foot on the liner. Ensure that your foot is fully surrounded within the perimeter of the liner.

  6. Before you put the shoe on, try this “break test.” With two hands at each end of the shoe, compress the heel and toe of the shoe toward each other. The shoe should flex in the region of the forefoot. The forefoot will often have a cut in the sole that aligns closely to the joint at the base of your big toe and ball of the forefoot, which allows the joints to extend easily at that point. You want that big toe joint to align with the hinge point.

  7. Still with the shoe off, with two hands, one on each end of the shoe, twist the shoe like you are trying to wring water out of a rag. There should be some motion allowed here. A shoe that barely twists at the front is not going to move well with your forefoot. At the same time, you want some, but not a ton of motion at the midfoot.

  8. Sit the shoes side by side on a flat surface and compare how they rest on the surface. Check them from behind and from the front. They should be mirror images of each other. If one seems to be tilted differently than another, find a different pair. The heel cup should be centered over the sole.

  9. Check the fit with your usual foot orthotic devices in place. Do keep in mind that most foot orthotic devices have an additive effective to the stiffness of the shoe. In other words, a stiff orthotic within a motion control shoe is heading toward overkill. You could use the motion control shoe independently or you may develop a similar stiffness from pairing the foot orthotic with a stability or cushioning shoe.

  10. Over-the-counter orthotic inserts are not a necessity. I’m a big fan of letting the foot do the work it was designed to do, if at all possible. A lower arch height is not an absolute indicator that you need a foot orthotic. Imagine that foot structure is on a bell curve of normal where those on the tail ends of the curve have a foot shape that would benefit from the additional help of a foot orthotic. And inserts may raise the heel more than the forefoot, adding another layer of material that will contribute to changing calf muscle demand and altering ankle position. That shoe with an original 8 mm drop ends up becoming a 12 mm drop with that “arch support.”

  11. Fit your shoes to allow for space of the longest toe and longest foot. Some folks have such a difference of foot length that they should actually buy two different sized shoes. Aim for 1/2-inch between the end of the toe and the end of the toe box.

  12. Wear your typical socks during the fit session. (These better not be cotton or we really need to have a talk).

Please let me know if you have any questions at derek@mountainridgept.com. Thank you for reading!