Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A Cold Day at the Office: the 2013 ICY-8 Trail Run

One of the reasons some of us have taken our running permanently offroad is the spirit of shared athletic adventure to be found in trail races, ultras in particular.  Competition can be had, of course, if you want that sort of thing, but there are times competition with others, or even with oneself, feels almost beside the point.  You are just out there, alone and with others, part of a shared festival of running, a figure moving through a landscape.

This at least is what I'm seeking, and nowhere have I felt the sense of shared endeavor and adventure more strongly than in the 12- and 8-hour trail races--held in September and February, respectively--that are part of an annual cycle of well-organized DC-area events put on by Alex Papadopolous and the folks at Athletic Equation.  (There is a 24-hour version, as well, which I have not run.)

Billed as a "paradigm shift," these races allow you to run as much or as little as you like for a set period of time.   The caveat is that only complete loops of the course are counted, so there's a fun sort of mental puzzle involved that tends to get a little more puzzling as the hours roll on and the mind gets fuzzier and the flesh a little less willing.

Last Saturday's "Icy-8" trail adventure run, held on the pine and hardwood forest trails of Lake Anna, Virginia, gave this mental and physical game an additional interesting twist.  We could choose to run either short loops of 4.7 miles, or long loops of 8.0 miles, in any order, and in any direction.   Having nothing resembling a strategy, and running in something of a stupor (more on that below), I quickly lost any sense of where I stood in the pecking order.  I found myself alone for most of the race, passing people from behind and crossing paths with runners going in the opposite direction.  As the hours went by, I would see the same individual runners or groups of runners, smiling faces and grim, all of them "old friends" by the end of the day.  

It was cold, though not so very icy.  The temperature hovered in the upper teens at the start, at least according to the Suburu.  A pale orange sun warmed us, a little, as we made our way around the first loop together.  Even though it inched up to the low 30s by the end of the day, the air felt colder, somehow, as the morning sun gave way to a dim gray overcast afternoon.  The moment you stopped moving, or even walked a bit, the cold would begin to seep through the cracks.  Race volunteers (who were wonderful) surely suffered more than runners.  It can't have been easy to stand outside all day.

My personal source of misery came not so much from outside conditions though as from the mean-spirited head cold that ambushed me a few days earlier.  I almost bailed on the race.  When I awoke Saturday morning, my head was in a vice, my throat raw, my stomach sour.  The non-traditional race format is a forgiving one, however, and I figured if things went badly, well, the car would be there at the start of each loop.  I could run, say, 8 miles then retire for the day to a warm car.

The first loop or two were not the most comfortable.  My breathing, however, was clear and my legs felt fine.   From the neck down, all was well.  Perhaps the biggest challenge was a sort of persistent mental fog.  Whether from cold medication or the flashing of the sunlight through bare tree branches, I felt disoriented.  Forest paths looked surreal, oddly humped and twisted, blurred about the edges.  On this easy, relatively flat, mostly non-technical trail, I fell hard.  Several times.  I have other weaknesses as a trail runner (getting lost, most notably), but falling has not generally been one of them.

Around 16 miles, a funny thing happened.  I began to feel a good deal stronger, and for the next few loops, began picking up the pace.  Inadvisedly so.  Somewhere in the low 20s, I got a little carried away, barrelling down hills as if I were running a 10k.  One of those hard falls sobered me up quickly, and reminded me that there were still several hours to go.

With around 3 hours left, I calculated I had an outside shot at going over 50 miles--but only if I could maintain my earlier, unrealistic pace, which by then I could not.  I scaled the ambitions back a little, and settled in for 3 more short loops.    Over the final 2 of these, I was joined by my brother-in-law, Mike, which gave me a terrific boost over what might have been a somewhat grim slog.  My sister, Anna, and nephew, Daniel, were there as well to cheer us both on.  We covered the ground at a modest, but for me respectable, pace.   In the end, I finished at 47 miles--3 long, followed by 5 short loops--with 20 minutes or so (I scarcely noticed) left on the clock.

Oddly enough, the day after the race, my legs were a bit sore, but my nasty cold was mostly gone.   (I've been recommending this "cure" at work--I suspect it will not catch on.)

What Worked:

  • Altra Lone Peak trail shoes.  Most comfortable trail shoe I've worn.  Zero drop, but not minimalist.  The rock-plate, hidden between layers of midsole cushioning, does its work without announcing its presence.  The big roomy toebox looks a bit clownish, and may have contributed to my falls, but keeps the feet very happy.  The outsole grips very well on mud and icy ground (I have yet to test out on rocks, but have high hopes).
  • Dry-max socks.  Flawless, as always.
  • Low-carbohydrate or no-carbohydrate training.   Since November, I've been running medium length (2 hour) AM runs on no calories, and longer (5 or 6 hour) runs on fat and protein calories.  For this raace, I ate mostly low carb foods before and during the first part of the race, then gradually introduced more carbs--finishing the last loop on a handful of candy.  It seemed to work.  No nausea, no GI issues (and I am painfully prone to both).  No "bonking," no wild ups and downs, just a steady level of energy.  
What did not work:

  • Stuffing everything I might need into a random "drop bag" and figuring I could just rummage about when I came by the start line after each loop.  I don't want to think about how much time this likely wasted.  Also, I never did find my sodium tabs, relying instead on a few handfuls of salty peanuts.