Monday, December 31, 2012

Running the C & O

With March's Graveyard 100 casting a lengthy backwards shadow over my winter training, I've been seeking out extended flat runs to ready myself for this test along the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  Dead-level running hour after repetitive hour poses special challenges, mental and physical.  I am fortunate to live close to the perfect venue for this sort of exercise: the C & O Canal Towpath, 184 magnificent miles along the Potomac, from Georgetown to Cumberland, MD.

Last Saturday's plan was to sample 36 of those miles, starting at the Dickerson Conservation Park, a little north of my usual starting point at Riley's Lock or Carderock.  My hope was to keep above the snow/sleet line that tends to snake unpredictably across the middle of our state, and so avoid any hypothermia-inducing cold rain.   There was also the excitement of a running a portion of the path I haven't seen before.

Pulling out of Dickerson, I am slapped first by a hissing sleet.  It's 34 degrees now, so things could go either way.  I'm not dressed for a heavy wet cold downpour that lasts for 6 hours.  Thankfully, the precipitation quickly downshifts to slow-drifting, fat snowflakes.   My mind begins to relax, gradually slipping into that long-run, I-have-six-hours-to-go-so-take-it-easy mode.

Ultra time.  It seems to come more naturally here.  Landscape dictates consciousness, shaping our experience of time as well as space.  The endless flat miles of the towpath require--and make possible--a different kind of mental discipline than the rocky trails that are my preferred terrain.  The kind of hyper-alert attention to moment-by-moment changes we need to avoid planting our faces on the trail or poking out an eye will not do here.   Here, our attention turns inward--and then outward, as the path expands and stretches, melting into the gray and black of winter trees, the swirl of snow over the silvery Potomac.  

For years, I have avoided the C&O as monotonous, even soul-killing.  It truly is not.  Any dullness is in us, not the path.  Change simply unfolds on a different, longer timescale.  To run the C & O is to run into the past.  A few miles on from Dickerson, I come to that remarkable piece of engineering, the Monacacy Aqueduct.  Nineteenth-century critical infrastructure, once carefully guarded by Union troops, now a monument to outdated technology.

Another 6 miles roll by.  The snow is at it heaviest as I pull into Point of Rocks, a dramatic cross-section of the Catoctin Mountains.  Layers of metamorphosed limestone almost 600 million years old have been pushed up slant-wise, the rock face jutting out toward the river like the prow of an immense ship.   In the first half of the 19th century, this narrow pass between river and cliff was the focus of a bitter court battle between the canal company and the upstart railroad.

At the 11 or 12 mile mark, I fall in with another runner, just starting his 16-miler at the Cactoctin Aqueduct.  In training for his first Boston Marathon at age 60, Don Frisbee kept me company for the next 6 or 7 miles.  About 10 minutes into our run, we were slowed by the sight of a fox, acting curiously unconcerned by our presence, weaving slowly and suspiciously about in the middle of the path.  Most unfoxlike--and therefore possibly rabid.  We slow to a stop.  Suddenly aware of us, the fox takes off in a flash down the path.  That is more like it.

At Weverton Cliffs, Don and I part ways.  He has a few miles further north to go, and for me, at the 3 hour mark, it is time to turn back for home.  As I make my way back past the town of Brunswick, which seems to have been slowly dying for a century, the air begins to warm, snow shifting to a light rain.  The path sprouts patches of fresh mud and slush.  My feet are soon soaked, chilled, heavy.

With 10 miles to go, I eat the last of my low-carb almond-flour pancakes.  Don regarded me rather dubiously when I tried to explain why I had deliberately avoided significant carbohydrates for the past 24 hours before the run.  For the past 6 weeks, I have been experimenting with carb-depleted running.  The goal is to turn on the body's innate but reluctant ability to burn fat rather than glucose.  My version of this metabolic retraining is a hybrid, inspired variously by Phil Maffetone, Stu Mittleman, Meb Keflezighi, and Tim Olsen.   

Twice a week, I've been doing an early morning run of 2 to 3 hours on an empty stomach, preceded by a day or so of a reduced carb, higher fat diet (not an easy feat for a vegan); and on the weekends, a long run of 5 to 6 hours, fueled mostly by nuts and a low-carb breakfast.  The first week of this regimen was frankly unpleasant.  Then, something clicked.  What seemed inconceivable becomes natural.  No more bonking.  Even, steady energy on every run.   Nonetheless, today's 36 miler would constitute a bit of a test: the longest I've gone without gels, bars, and other carbo-crutches.

I'm still feeling good, if a bit damp and cool, over the last few miles.  Anticipating a warm car and food, I start looking at my watch, tallying the mile markers that divide the towpath.  I am not fatigued, but mental equanimity and patience are now rather shattered as ordinary time reasserts itself, and I begin to fret about tasks and obligations for the afternoon.  Right on cue, the sun comes out, drying the trail and sparkling across the Potomac as I ease into the Dickerson Conservation Area.  I walk the last few yards over the little bridge over the canal to parking area.

Next week, it's up to Elkton, MD, for the PHUNT 50 K--my first-ever FatAss event.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Consolations of Sugarloaf

A week away from the winter solstice, I set out on a 5-hour run, up and down the white-, yellow-, blue-, and purple-blazed trails of Sugarloaf Mountain.  Sugarloaf is a monadnock, a compact oasis of rock and tree surrounded by farmland.  Scarcely a mountain at 1282 feet, some of Sugarloaf's quartzite-littered climbs are as steep and rocky as you'll find anywhere--high enough to create a distinct microclimate with its own peculiar mix of flora and fauna (chestnut oaks among the former, rattlesnakes and copperheads among the latter).

From where I live in Maryland, the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia are just a little too far to drive for an ordinary weekend long run.  So, at just 50 minutes from DC, and less than that from my home in Silver Spring, Sugarloaf has become my default mountain, the place where, for better or worse, I prepared for the rocks and the verticals of Grindstone.

I love watching the mountain change through the seasons. My last time up here had been on a light-dappled warm morning in September (left photo).  On this December day, however, the pale sun faintly reveals itself through the gray clouds.  Even by noon the dim light barely illuminates colorless, leaf-strewn trails.  I am mostly alone.  Familiar trails look strange.  Indeed, some of them have been reconfigured, rerouted by twisted, fallen trees left over from "Superstorm Sandy" (right photo shows part of the purple trail).

For its modest size, Sugarloaf has had its brushes with both fame and fortune.  FDR had a mind to buy the area up for a nearby Presidential retreat.  Thankfully, Gordon Strong, the patent lawyer from Chicago who over a period of years and multiple purchases came to own most of the mountain, cannily managed to steer the President northward, to what is now Camp David.   I am thankful, too, that Strong put the kabosh on Frank Lloyd Wright's grotesque plan for an automobile-centric spiral at the top of the mountain (the plan became the prototype for the Guggenheim Museum in New York).
I'm thinking about Strong today.   The news from Connecticut has been weighing heavily--an unspeakably sad event, the shooting of more than 20 young children, their teachers, their principal.  On some of the hills, I choke up, struggle to redirect my thoughts.  Sadness and aerobic exercise really do not mix.  So I think about Strong, whose vision it was for this mountain to serve as a refuge for schoolchildren from his native Chicago.  Who believed a connection to nature is essential, and that an appreciation of natural beauty will make us better people, redeem us.  Is it enough, this slender hope?  Gordon and Louise Strong thought so, and the period in which their vision for the park came together, the 1930s and 1940s, were as bloody, dark, and violent as any in history.

Increasing effort puts an end to my thinking, hopeful or despairing.  I haven't run on hills of any sort since early October, and by the end of the five hours my quads are burning.  With a quickening step and quieter mind, I descend the rocky white trail one last time to the parking lot below.


Sugarloaf Mountain, Stronghold, Inc

Hiking Upward, maps and trail information

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

2012 Grindstone 100, Aftermath

First night and first mistakes  

Our preparations and planning finally complete, the tents pitched and the pre-race briefing over, we set out about an hour before sunset.  Most of us felt, I suppose, as I did: relieved to be moving at last, well-rested, maybe even a little giddy.

Darkness came on swiftly.  For all its immense distances and elevation changes, the first twelve hours of this race are weirdly intimate.  Just you, the rocks underfoot, the dark trees, and your little bubble of light, bobbing after other little bubbles of light.  The first mountain, Eliot's Knob, brings a welcome if challenging break in routine: a steep open gravel road with wide views of stars blazing overhead and the far lights of Staunton twinkling down below.

The miles passed.  Crawford Mountain, Dowell's Draft, and on towards Hankey Mountain, Lookout Mountain, Grindstone Mountain, and finally the endless climb from Chestnut Ridge to Little Bald Knob.  Somewhere in there I began to feel confident.  Pleased with myself.  And rather hungry: I ate my fill at a couple of aid stations.  Mistake number one.

Feeling a little sleepy (it was about midnight by then), I looked about for coffee, and finding none, drank some coke.  Mistake two.  I had forgotten my delicate middle-aged-man stomach.  With the judgement already a tad compromised, I repressed entirely my experience at Rocky Raccoon earlier this year, and failed to drink enough water to digest the food I had taken in.  The next 6 hours of night were a misery of nausea.  The sensation somehow grew worse every time the trail turned up.  Which it tended to do rather a lot.

Crack of dawn

Just before winding my way up to Reddish Knob in the last part of the night, I was startled to see what looked to be a sort of vehicle flying silently down the trail towards me.  It was of course Karl Meltzer, barreling over steep rocky terrain in the pitch darkness as smoothly as a man sprinting lightly over level ground.   His headlamp blazed, lights were in his hands, and he looked for all the world like a human train.  In the split second of his passing me, I saw the intense, possessed look on his face, a technician of rocks, an Ahab in pursuit of his mountain.

Nearing Reddish Knob, the sun exploded over the mountain, and the reviving effect on my spirits--and stomach--was almost instant.   I have rarely experienced so viscerally that sense of dawn cracking.  I feel I understand just a little why ancient people worshiped the sun.  For the rest of the morning, I continued to gather strength.  Making my way back I caught many of the people who had passed me in the second half of night.   I flew into Dowell's Draft.  If only this could continue!

Alas, no.  Fortune turned against me once again in the afternoon.  At noon, the gathering clouds threatened rain, and though it didn't come, the nausea did, and unable to eat much, I began to slow again. Crawford Mountain brought another endless climb, and I brooded darkly on my inability to keep pace with others hiking uphill.  I should have trained better for the long uphill hikes.  At one point I was grabbing at old sticks, trying to fashion some poles for walking.

"Temporary loss of sanity..."

So promises the Grindstone website.  But I took this as merely the sort of metaphorical color to which directors of ultra marathons seem particularly prone.  No.  It is a clinically accurate description of what happens to a sleep-deprived person, out among the mountains and dark woods for over 24 hours and trying to find his way home.   I had a few hallucinations, as I had heard I might, but these were all odd, benign, amusing: a log that resembled a dog looking at me, various kitchen appliances in the forest that turned out to be ferns, a small party of gnomes (charming, and also ferns).

At some point just past the penultimate big climb up Crawford, however, turning onto the paving-stone rubble of a trail on the north slope of Eliot's Knob--somewhere during that second evening of the race, I really lost it, couldn't remember what I was doing, why on earth I was stumbling about on rocks in dark woods with the sound of coyotes around me.   I felt I was supposed to be doing something with all these great slabs of rock.  Maybe assemble them like gigantic pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.  As my mind struggled to make sense of this, I took just my second fall of the race.  Not hard or painful, just bewildering to be lying down like an idiot among the paving-stone-sized rocks.  One tiny corner of the brain was speaking very clearly.   Get up, fool.  Follow the markers.  Follow the trail.  Finish the race.

Inspirations and Lessons

Heading into the last, blessed aid station--which heralded us with what sounded like the winding of old-fashioned hunting horns--my mind snapped back into focus, into something almost resembling alertness.  There was the final stumbling run around camp, a looping, rocky, uneven 5 miles that leads at last to Hope pond and the wide finishing chute.  Then I was shaking Clark's hand, hugging the totem pole, eating some soup and grilled cheese sandwich (which tasted like the best food ever made), taking a shivery shower in the open-air stall with a large spider watching me from its web in the corner, and at last rolling into my tent and falling instantly to a sweet and dreamless sleep.

In the end, I remember most the helpfulness of other runners when I was feeling low, the care and attention of volunteers.  I remember the bigness of a day and a night, the blazing stars, the sun coming up.  The coyotes and the big orange last-quarter moon. Weird little forest scenes, some of them real, some not.  The aid station with a pot-bellied pig, its nose snuffling in the dirt.  Most of all, I remember the astonishing people, from Meltzer flying through the night, to the "ordinary" runners who came in at 35, 36, 37, 38 hours, somehow threading their way through the maze as I had, battling the same demons of sleeplessness or nausea or very possibly something worse.

I ran rather slower than I hoped--just over 30 hours--but the goal for my first Grindstone had always been simply to finish, so for that I was grateful.  It's a humbling experience.   It's an ultra that is orders of magnitude more difficult than my only previous 100, the flat and fast Rocky Raccoon in Texas.

Some takeaways, of likely interest only to other ultrarunners:
  • The aid stations were in practice much further apart than I anticipated based on mileage.  The mountains matter.  These are long separations, demanding a higher level of self-sufficiency than I was prepared for.  Eating only at aid stations meant I was too hungry, ate too much at once...and you know the story.
  • Practice hiking up mountains that take hours to climb.  I thought I would be ok with my runs over hilly terrain.  No, I wasn't. I hadn't realized until this race how unprepared I was for the very long climbs, how much better others seem to be.  (Conversely, though, my downhill skills seemed to be pretty good. Go figure.)
  • Nutrition and hydration are personal, and this particular 47-year-old person needs to drink a lot in order digest his food.  Then take electrolytes in order to sustain this level of water intake.  Never eat too much at any single feeding.  And don't mix foods, for goodness sake.  Treat the stomach like a scientific experiment: one item, one variable at a time, observe what happens before eating something else. 
  • What worked flawlessly: Saucony Peregrine 2s, DryMax socks, and the UltraSpire "Revolution" pack.  No need to change shoes or socks.  The Revolution pack is excellent if, like me, you dislike bladders but need more than a dinky handheld to get you through from station to station.
You may also like

2013 Grindstone, Interrupted

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Grindstone 100--5 days to go

What do you do the week before a 100 miler in the mountains?  Not much.  Short runs.  More sleep.  Avoid stress. Try not to look too often at the extended weather forecast (looks good right now, but with a bizarre discrepancy between weather-underground and!)  Find something to do with all that "extra" energy you would have used up in early morning runs or weekend long runs.  I was almost giddy with it this morning.

Also important, if hard: don't second guess your training.  What has worked for me for the past 4 (injury free) years has been a 3-day/week schedule (the runs tend to be long).  I've done marathons, 50 milers, and 100s on that schedule.  And faster than than I was running the previous 5 years.  I recommend this to over-45 runners in particular.  But there's always that little voice, getting a bit louder before a major event like this, suggesting maybe a 4th or a 5th day would have helped.  Maybe a weekly tempo run, or intervals, or another 15 miler in the morning.  It's not true though.

So, I'm ready.  I had a nice month of training since the work weekend/training run in August.  A week after that, put in (for me) a solid half marathon effort at Patrick Henry in VA.  Then several weekends of long runs alternating between the gentle trails of Seneca Creek and the more challenging terrain around Sugarloaf Mountain.  The soul as well as the body is well nourished by both.

(NOTE: Live webcast of the race will be posted here starting at 6PM Friday:
But you might be waiting a long time to see anyone or anything in particular!)

The following are photos from my last run on Seneca, starting at sunrise at Riley's Lock (right), passing by the old Black Rock Mill (center), running around Clopper Lake (left), then back again.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Grindstone 100 Training & Trail Work Weekend

For all the meticulous planning that goes into an event like this, you would think I might carefully read the directions posted very clearly, very explicitly, on the race site.  Mandatory 8 hours trail work.  Do it before September 1 or your entry is forfeit.  This rather crucial detail escaped my notice until sometime during the past week, so early last Friday morning, I set off from Maryland to Camp Shenandoah for a day of trail work and a 29-mile training run the following Saturday.  Both were more than worth the pre-dawn, three-and-a-half hour trip.

The weather cooperated and work was a blast, despite or maybe because of the challenging tangle of branches and downed trees that had been dumped on the trail, courtesy of this past summer's "derecho" winds.  Our team performed brilliantly.  We worked under the watchful eye of our fearless leader, Daren Marceau of North Carolina--and I say fearless more than metaphorically.  As the rest of us backed away, climbed on tree trunks, etc., Daren made sure an "unhappy" copperhead was corralled off the trail until the team could finish clearing away the fallen tree and branches that had provided its home.  

Nothing could be more different than than my usual Friday workday round of meetings, email, and beltway commuting.  I fell asleep early, fast, and deeply (all unusual for me) and awoke refreshed and ready for Saturday's training run.  It was a chilly start, especially for most of the runners, who hitched a ride in the back of one of the trucks (tow of us were lucky enough to snag VIP service in the back of Daren's SUV).  We had a beautiful day for running.  Dry, mostly sunny, not too warm, even by end of the day.  As I hadn't done my homework on the course, I stuck closely during the first half to Stephen Cooper, who had.  After the one and only aid station of the day, I felt confident enough to finish up on my own, following the sparse but adequate trail markings home.

I only wish I had the time to stay for Sunday's run as well.  For anyone planning to run the Grindstone 100, I can't recommend the importance of this training and trailwork weekend enough.  The experience of the trail--in particular, this most challenging portion that we covered on Saturday--is invaluable mental and physical preparation.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sucking it up at the Cat 50K (2012)

(My 2014 race report is available here)

The Hype

Heading into my first Catoctin 50k, I read all the reports. The rocks, the heat, the lack of tolerance for sniveling, whining, whinging.  True, all true.  So how to do a race report without falling into the covert complaining trap?  Here goes.  And I'm really more than half serious, too.

Festival of Rocks

Yes, they are with you the whole way. Big dry boulders to hop across. Wet slippery boulders in the stream crossings.  Little pebbly rocks that move around underfoot, usually in unexpected directions. Football-sized immovable rocks that do not not move, that crowd together and keep you constantly off-balance, that seek out and bruise any unprotected area of the foot.  An infinite variety of rock types.

But the technical demands of the Cactoctin trail are not unrelenting.  There are sections of a good 30 to 40 yards where the terrain levels out and you can really open things up and get into a groove.

Heat and humidity

Just an average hot humid day in 2012, peaking out around the low 90s (I think). Normal hot, not one of the must-be-global-warming crazy hot days we've been having this summer. I tried to think of it as a nice warm bath on a cold day. That went pretty well until the hour, when the sun came out full force and I overheated.  Icewater, a popsicle, and a little walking did wonders.


All that stuff Kevin says about no sympathy, no frills, "I don't care," etc?   Well, someone didn't tell the volunteers, who go above and beyond to take care of runners on the trail. They are informed and knowledgable as well as solicitous (eg, "are you keeping up with your electrolytes?").


I saw one race report complaining about the lack of scenery. Well, it's true, you don't see anything but trees (and rocks). The race is basically a hot, humid, green tube with terrible footing. This just means you don't have the distraction of beautiful vistas, which only lead to rubbernecking and possible dangerous falls.

Getting lost

The blue trail blazes are pretty good, actually.  The overwhelming challenge of the Cat 50K is keeping mental focus. Lose it, and you may go down, or go astray. Inevitably, the mind strays...and too bad for you if that happens at a trail intersection. I did fairly well, given the statistics of lost souls. I lost maybe two minutes on a short side trip, then maybe another 10 when I missed a sharp left turn in the latter part of the race.

Post-race festivities

Fantastic post-race party. Good conversation and good company.  War stories, past and present.  I'm glad my stomach was "on" today, because after the race I enjoyed the best veggie burger I've every had. I'll never go back to frozen supermarket veggie burgers after experiencing this grilled masterpiece of burger, avocado, and shitake mushrooms.

My race

Dropping from 13th place near the final aid station, I ended up 18th place, in something like 6 hours 34 min, a slew of people passing me during the last climb.*  Ugh.  Considering the goal was--well, I didn't have a goal, except not to do anything stupid.  Felt great until the final set of climbs, when I overheated and had to walk for a few stretches and douse myself with water to cool down. The big triumph for me was finally mastering that Rubics cube of fluid, electrolyte, and nutrition--for this particular gut, anyway. Nausea and GI issues have been the bane of my ultra existence thus far, so getting it dead-on right under these conditions gives me a lot confidence for cooler fall races.

*After the race, I was not showing up on the results, so I wrote to Kevin, who replied right away that he was on a cross-country motorcycle trip for 2 weeks--then he somehow fixed the issue from the road.  Another example of how you get way more than your $25 worth in this race.

Cat 50 vs. Promise Land 50k smackdown

During the race, in one of those mental "wandering" periods, I found myself thinking about whether Catoctin or Promise Land was the more difficult race.  All things considered, I'd have to say that PL is the more physically demanding race, but Catoctin is the more mentally demanding.

Some respect, please

I'd take issue with one blogger who wrote that the Cat 50 was not good training for a longer ultra, presumably because the rocks kept things slower.  That's nonsense.  The Cat 50 above all teaches mental focus.  Focusing on the moment, on your surroundings; paying attention, for hours on end.

Everything about this race also teaches you the virtue of positive thinking and collective effort.  In other words, of turning off ego and self-regard and self-pity, and turning outwards towards the world and others.  Enduring not just the big physical tests, but all the little physical insults of the trail and the weather. These are pretty key attributes for ultra runners.  Or for anyone at all.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Blue Crab Bolt 10K Race Report--Fast, wet, and slippery

The 10.8 K course, which they seem to change up every other year, is just plain fun.  First in the Blue Crab Bolt series, it takes place on trails in the Clopper Lake area of Seneca Creek State Park in Maryland.  I know these woods well, but normally experience them at the 4 or 5 hour mark of a long weekend trail run.  

For those of us used to covering trails at an ultra-runner's snail pace, flying along these short twisty single-track races at 10k pace is like playing a fast-paced video game.  Rock, root, branch, slippery bridge, TREE.   This soggy, blessedly cool oasis of a July day provided an extra hazard in the rain-slicked bridges, some of which you had to literally stop running and walk on tip toes. (And by you I mean cautious middle-aged guys, worried about twisted knees.)

Start out in a field, strung out in a line reminiscent of those high-school cross-country mass starts of yore.   Funnel quickly onto a road that bends downhill for a good mile or so before swiveling left onto single track through the woods.  All trails to the end of the race.   First, Great Seneca Trail to 2.5; hit some big slippery rocks and do a little almost-falling dance; then Long Draught Trail for a bit; Mink Hollow Trail for several more; then in the last 1.7 miles onto Lake Shore Trail, past the Boat Center, round a corner, then all of a sudden (so it seems) head  up the finishing chute.  

My strategy: semi-blast the downhill to get a good start, cruise through the first several trail miles, pick it up and push home.  For once, it pretty much played out that way for me. That's me in #13, a very satisfactory performance for this unspeedy runner & a great tune-up for the Great Rocks of Cactoctin adventure this Saturday.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

One hundred miles for Fundación Prótesis Para la Vida

Looming ahead in the personal annals of ill-advised adventures is something called the "Grindstone 100," which will take place on October 5-6 (potentially to Oct 7) later this year.  More on this monstrous undertaking below.

First, a word about the whys and wherefores, and an appeal for your help.  (A link to the online pledge form appears at the bottom of this blog.)

The Cause for which I'm running: Fundación Prótesis Para la Vida

What has kept me going more than three decades as a runner is at bottom a simple love of movement.  What has fueled the last two years as an ultra-runner is a childlike compulsion I never quite got past to explore the world on my own two feet & see what lies over the next hill.   So it is disquieting to me in the extreme to think how easily mobility can be taken away from any of us at any time.

I think of mobility as a fundamental human need as well as a right.  Yet poverty prevents many people from obtaining the prosthetics they need.  One of the organizations founded to help those who could not otherwise afford mobility is Fundación Prótesis Para la Vida (Prosthetics for Life), based in Ecuador.  Some of their patients (not the very young ones pictured here, obviously) have waited decades for a prosthetic limb.

Prótesis para la Vida is a very small organization, with bare-bones administration and facilities.  Your pledge of support will therefore go an astonishingly long way.  It will go directly to those who need the help.   As they explain on their website, for the same budget as a single below-knee prosthesis in the United States, their clinic is able to provide something like thirty equivalent prostheses to patients in Ecuador.   Prótesis para la Vida also provides low-cost adaptive designs:  aids such as standing desks and other equipment, ingeniously constructed out of cardboard and other affordable materials, to improve everyday life for patients.

In honor of Jennifer Lee Knowles (1965-2012)

To be honest, when I run now, I am often running with those who are gone.  My good friend since college, JenLee was a remarkable person in so many ways.  Smart, compassionate, and tireless, she served as the U.S. Coordinator for Prótesis para la Vida.   There's a moving tribute to JenLee and her work in Ecuador provided on the website.

There's also an inspiring report on the first JenLee 5K, held last March in the shadow of the Imbabura Volcano.  The photos of participants, including prosthetic patients among the runners, gives you a good sense of what the work of  Prótesis para la Vida means to the community.  I think this race is an appropriate legacy for JenLee.  An avid climber and mountain biker for many years, she could be scarily tough and resilient.  Those qualities certainly shone brightly throughout her struggle with the serous carcinoma that ultimately took her life.

The Grindstone 100 Mile Race

This excursion through the Virginia mountains adds up to a little bit over 100 miles (101 point something, as if that matters) and includes some nice little "hills" amounting to an elevation gain of 23000 feet.  The unusual feature is that you start out at 6PM, just as the sun is setting, with a good 12 hours of running through the night on single-track trail.  Then there's another day of running--and for most runners, another sunset and another night on the trail.

I am duly humble about my chances.  While I've done the 100-mile distance a couple of times, and I've done the mountainous 50 km to 50 mile races, combining the massive climbs with the century distance is terra incognita for me.  Plus, you can't trust mountains.  They call the shots.  They make their own weather.  What is passable terrain one day, is a slough of mud and rocks the next.

Please pledge your support

Here's the deal.  You fill out the online pledge form now, promising X amount per mile actually completed.  After the race, once I recover consciousness and stop eating pizza, I will send you documented proof of my finish (or portion thereof) plus the link to Prótesis para la Vida.  A PayPal link (with alternatives) will be set up so you will be able to make a donation in the appropriate amount directly to them.

Online pledge form here.  It's fast, it's easy, you can pledge what  you like (a penny a mile, ten bucks a mile) and I won't sell your info to marketers!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Highland Sky 40 Miler, An Appreciation

I'm calling this an appreciation rather than a race report.  If you want a blow-by-blow, I-did-this-I-ate-that-I-got-this-split-at-AS4 kind of report, there are several good ones out there.

Let's start with what was for me the emotional--and I think literal--high point of the race, Aid Station 7.  Pictured is AS7's brilliant crew of volunteers, who obviously love their job, and made mine so much easier.  When you get to this stage of the course, around 30-something miles, you know in your bones why HS40 has been called "mile for mile, the hardest on the East Coast."  So says David Horton, and that's high praise indeed.  The man knows from hard. 

At AS7, you still have the aptly named vertiginous "butt slide" ahead, but you've survived the worst: the 2000 foot climb in the first 8 miles, the subsequent battering descent through rocks where you lose most of that altitude, and the re-climb back up to Aid Station 4.  Starting at AS4, you point your toes due north and follow the long and wearying "road to the sky" (aka Forest Road 75). I actually enjoyed this section.  It gave me a mental and physical break before stepping back on the Bear Rocks Trail at AS6. 


<----Road to the Sky 

Entrance to Bear Rocks Rocks (AS6)---> 

Race director Dan Lehmann has said his aim was never to design the hardest course in the East.  I believe it. The course exudes his depth of feeling for this extraordinary area of the country.  Tough is a side effect, not the point. There must be some rule of nature that says that the most beautiful experiences will also be the most extreme.  Or, perhaps we're wired to perceive the beautiful and the sublime just when we need it most.  As an AS6 volunteer put it, "you don't need to feel good to appreciate pretty."     

Pain, loss, survival, and indestructible beauty--all appropriate descriptors for Dolly Sods.  The odd name comes from the German family name Dahle, and "sods" just mean an area of bare boulders and grassy heath barrens.  At over 4000 feet, the strangely un-mid-Atlantic terrain of Dolly Sods is like nothing else in this region of the country.  That idiosyncratic spirit extends to the climate. Dolly Sods has a tendency to make its own weather (plan for rain--the mild weather of 2012 was surely a fluke!). It is a place of acidic bogs, blooming mountain laurel, club moss, ground pine, unexploded ordinance from WWII, and (rather unexpectedly) giant ant hills. Whole meadows not of grass but of ferns wave you into patchy forests of red spruce.

All this beauty hides a sad secret. The mostly treeless barrens are reminders that the Scottish highlands sort of feel to this place is the result--like the Highlands--of environmental devastation. Logging, mining, and deliberate burns changed the face of the landscape so profoundly that the fertile topsoil was sometimes lifted away entirely. The forests are slowly returning. This is a place of regeneration.

I'll be back, for sure. I was thrilled with my performance, running one place (46) better than my age (47). If I can keep up that pattern, by 75 or 80 I'll be phenomenal.

If you go, be sure to unwind in the twin towns of Davis and Thomas. Davis has the excellent Hellbender's Burritos (pictured above is the X-files diorama in the men's room), and Thomas has the classy Tip Top Cafe (formerly Hypnocoffee in the old Davis location).-->>


Sunday, June 24, 2012

Running will kill you!!

Most of us who run ultras or road marathons have experienced this. An apparently fit runner drops dead in a major city marathon and friends, relatives, and colleagues send you the link with various well-meant, hand-wringing cautions. The latest argument that perhaps gardening or dog-walking would be a saner pursuit than running is a study coming out of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings (not a competitive peer-reviewed journal), and making the virtual rounds in various formats. The upshot of this article is that "extreme" and "chronic" exercise--which for this researcher includes the marathon on up, and any pace faster than 10 minutes a mile--can damage the heart and perhaps shorten, not lengthen, one's life.

The instinct for ultra runners is to be dismissive, or say something about the inherent risk of any activity (or for that matter, inactivity). This time was different for me. It prompted some hard thinking. After 30+ years of relatively "normal" running around neighborhood streets and the occasional 10k or marathon, why over the past two years had I veered off the path into ultra trail runs? I'm doing 3 or 4 or more of these a year now, 50k to 100 mile, the more gnarly and unforgiving the trail the better. What am I thinking?  Why continue?

There's a lot that long-time runners can learn from this study. Swallow your bravado and listen up:

Dangers of chronic stress & the importance of recovery: The focus of the study is on the dangers of chronic stress over a long period. I strongly agree that many, perhaps even most, athletes seriously training for a marathon or ultra don't recover properly day to day.   Training for 5 or more days a week (even with your 10 mile "easy recovery" days) is chronic stress. Fine to do this for a decade or two in your youth to train for serious competition. But carried on to middle age and beyond? Some rethinking is surely in order.

Several years ago, I began to run no more than 3 times a week. The initial rewards were in terms of speed--in 2010 I reversed a fairly steady decline in my 40s and at 45 did my first sub-3hr marathon in 28 years. That was cool and reason enough to continue. Since then, however, something very strange has been happening. My ability to recover after marathons--for that matter, after any kind of hard effort at all (a 5k, speedwork, 50 miles, anything)--has not simply gotten a little better. It's better than when I was 20 years old. I did see a study once (sorry, no idea of the reference) that compared athletes who doing a 6-days a week training program with others doing 3. They not only found that the latter group were more rested, had fewer illnesses and injuries, etc--they found that following an identical hard effort, the 3-day/week atheletes recovered significantly faster than their 6-day/week bretheren. So, not just are you less stressed in the day-to-day training, but your ability to recover can improve rather profoundly. 

(And yes, I've completed a 100 miler on 3 days/week training. They are all long runs though & on the 2 work days I set have to set the alarm for the appallingly early time of 3AM.)

Duration and intensity: It was suggested to me that perhaps I should cap my efforts at the marathon, certainly at 50 miles. (Never mind that the marathon used to be seen as the ultimate distance, the "man-killer" that nearly finished off poor Pietro Dorando in the 1908 Olympics.) But the study discourages longer efforts involving chronic stress--too much intensity with too little recovery over too many years. The recommendation is that we run no faster than 10 min/mile. Well. This would disqualify many weekend warriors who never venture beyond the local 5k or 10k. Yet 10 min/mile is about my 100 mile race pace--and the 50s are not much faster. 

I would challenge the notion that the 100-mile is harder on the body than the marathon. A competitive road marathon is a uniquely punishing event. You are red-lining the whole way, hitting 85% or more of VO2 max for hours. Add the heat and running on asphalt: it is brutal. And training for it can be brutal too. For a 50 or 100, particularly on trails, it would be suicidal to go that hard. The fuel source is different: you run on fat, not gylcogen. You hoard your glycogen. You are running at about 65% of VO2 max. With walk breaks. Training for this kind of effort is entirely different, and for me involves many miles at 9-11 minutes/mile--a pace I would have sniffed at when I was training for the marathon. 

Diet: I know the method of a study like this is to isolate variables, but still--there's a big gaping hole in terms of what it doesn't mention. Diet is critical. I ran a 7-mile road race a few weeks ago, mainly as a workout for last weekend's Highland Sky 40 mile. Not having run any road race for almost a year, I had forgotten how awful most runners' diets can be. At the finish line, the most popular food table was sponsored by Dunkin Donuts. I can't help noticing that many runners--and even some running hard, respectably fast times--are carrying too much weight. Training for a marathon gives too many people a false sense of their own invulnerabilty. The diets of serious marathoners don't always look much better than those of Americans in general. 

Surely, long-term endurance training and the American diet are a dangerous combination over many years.

I'd like to see a study like this compare these Western athletes to the great running cultures of the world. The ulta-running monks of Mount Hiei in Japan, the Tarahumara in Mexico, the Kenyans all have one thing in common: a traditional diet that the average American would consider wholly inadequate even for the effort of evenings spent on the sofa. The monks seem to fuel their daily 50ks mostly on miso and rice; the Tahumara run for days on end eating corn meal spiced up with chia seeds and the odd roasted mouse. 

I can’t imagine anything more different than the spectacle of runners I saw at the Dunkin Donuts table--chowing down on several donuts because they “earned” them running 7 miles on flat city streets. Oh come on.

Intangibles: The running monks and the Taruhumara are famous, too, for their disposition. They are absurdly happy. I see something like this at the start of an ultra.  Everyone seems to be smiling and laughing at the starting line.  This is before running, mind you, before the endorphins kick in, before the (mythical) runners' high.  Maybe it's the sheer unfathomable ludicrousness of the task before us.  Maybe laughter is a survival mechanism.

In any case, I can’t help contrasting these cheerful faces to the grim intensity I see during my daily DC-area commute.  You can’t sustain that kind of behavior in the ultra.  You have to step away from 21st century American culture.  You must change your life (to paraphrase Rilke).

There’s more. Running through nature, into places you would never otherwise see, for a whole day and night--this changes you. Living under electric lighted comfort, we forget how amazingly big one day and night can be. It's like reverting to childhood.  Sometimes, the beauty brings you close to tears. Other times, again, you are grinning and laughing like an idiot. As the hours wear on, the thin veneer of rationality--the place we live and work in our everyday lives--seems to fall away, replaced by a deep river of emotion and memory. The past becomes present.  It's a cliche, but in a 100 miler, you truly live a whole life in a day.

You have to pay attention to your body, to your surroundings, to the trail and the sky and to the bodies around you.  In the words of Laurence Gonzales, you need to  "be here now": be aware of your real surroundings, not your idea of what things ought to be or ought to look like (Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why). You feel what Rachel Carson, in her posthumous book by the same name, called “the sense of wonder.” She meant the ability to see things as if 1) you had never seen them before; and 2) you will never see them again.  That sense of a bigger, larger, more keenly beautiful but also more fragile and transient life--the sense, too, of depending on others and the impetus to help others--this has a way of spilling over into the rest of your life.  

I am no monk on Mt. Hiei, but I feel calmer and more myself than at any other time in my life.   Ultra runners know this: the intangibles trump all.