Thursday, February 28, 2008

Hill Training -- too much too soon?

Last week I started doing some intense hill training to try to get in shape for a few hilly races I have over the next couple months. I do most of this on a 1.7-mile trail up Mill Mountain. The trail rises about 800 feet over 1.5 miles. It is not too steep to run, but it is pretty constant.

I believe that fast hill walking is key to ultrarunning success, so one of my workouts is just that. Walk up the trail as fast as I can. Run down, and repeat. I can usually get to the top in about 22 minutes this way -- which is about a 14:40 pace.

I also do "intervals" on this trail. Yesterday's workout, for example, was to (after warmup) run for 1 minute, then walk for 1 minute, repeat until I get to the top. I can get to the top of the mountain in about 18 minutes this way, or about a 12:00 pace.

It is definitely more comfortable for me to walk up than run up. But I hope that gets better. One issue I have when running hills is low back pain. Searching for an explanation of why this is led me to this article by Bob McAtee NCTMB, CSCS.

A couple key points:

The biomechanics of running uphill are different than running on the flats. Running uphill, your stride length changes, your posture changes, and the physical demands on your muscles change. The steeper the hill, the more noticeable these changes become and the greater the likelihood that you'll experience low back pain.

First of all, as you go from flat ground to uphill terrain, your stride length shortens. This causes your leg muscles, especially hamstrings, to work in a much shorter range than they're used to, which may cause them to fatigue more easily. A shorter stride also means you're taking more steps than you normally need to cover the same distance, which in turn, requires your muscles to work harder over the same distance.

Running uphill causes you to use your muscles differently. As we all know, even if you're "in shape", when you do something new, you tend to be sore from it later. When covering uphill terrain, as the ground rises in front of you, you must raise your leg higher in front of you before placing your foot back on the ground. This works the hip flexors and stretches the gluteal (buttocks) muscles more. The push-off phase of your stride also requires more force since you are going up as well as forward. This especially works the gluteal muscles, the hamstrings, and the calves.

Uphill running also causes postural changes, the most noticeable being an increased forward lean of the upper body. The steeper the terrain, the more you naturally lean forward. Stuart Dole, an avid runner for the past 30 years and also a massage therapist from Tomales, CA explains it this way: "you need to lean over to keep your center of gravity over the center of thrust." This position puts added stress on your low back muscles, as they work harder to support you, "holding steady tension without any motion", according to Dole.

The solution? The article suggests that you ease into hill training, do some strengthening exercises such as squats and step-ups. Stretching and massage are also mentioned.

Easing into anything goes against my "all or nothing" personality, but I'll see what I can do. Maybe limit my hill sessions to 1 or 2 days per week for a while (I did 4 last week!) to allow my body to adjust. I also plan to integrate more stretching into my daily routine. Of course I've been saying this for years...

Change is hard. Almost as hard as running hills.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Excerpt: Running Through The Wall

In this excerpt from "Running Through The Wall: Personal Encounters with the Ultramarathon," Sophie Speidel discusses her first ultrarun. Sophie has gone on to become an excellent ultrarunner with some very tough races and top finishes under her belt. Read more about Sophie and her ultra adventures at her blog. I'll post a follow-up interview with her soon to see how her training strategy has changed over the years.

Confessions of a Happy Ultra Mommy

Name: Sophie Speidel

Age: 40

Residence: Charlottesville, VA

Years running: 20+

Years running ultras: 2

The journey to my first ultra, the 2002 Holiday Lake 50K++, probably began when I was a child. I have fond memories of playing for hours in woods near my childhood home in Princeton, NJ. When it was cold and my friends wanted to play inside, I could always be found outside, exploring. As a young teacher, I convinced the school where I was teaching Physical Education to help finance a nine-day Outward Bound course in Western North Carolina. The mental and physical challenge of long-distance hiking around Pisgah National Forest struck a chord within. Despite the pain, I really liked this stuff! I did my first triathlon in 1988, and my first marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon, in 1990. My time at Marine Corps was a respectable 3:40, after a long day of struggling with an IT band injury. I then took a few years away from triathlons and marathons to start my family. My husband, Rusty, and I have three children, ages ten, eight, and five.

When my youngest child turned four, I decided that I wanted to improve my fitness and return to racing the sprint triathlons I had given up ten years prior. My neighbor Susie Burgess, a mother of five, was training for her second Ironman, and she asked me to join her for Tuesday morning workouts at the pool, in addition to my running and biking workouts. Susie is such a great training partner because she is a mom and understands the demands that family and work can put on a woman. I believe it is important to be around other women who can relate to what I am doing, not women who come up to you at parties (as they have done to me) and ask “are you still running like a crazy woman?” I work full-time as a counselor at an independent school, so I needed to be creative and flexible in scheduling my workouts. I began to get up at 5:00 a.m. in order to be home by 7:00 a.m. to get everyone off to school. I learned to be more organized the night before…I would organize my clothes or pack my gear bag and make the kid’s lunches. As I found that I enjoyed the way I felt after early-morning workouts, it became part of my regular routine. I used to try to squeeze in a run in the afternoon, but the morning afforded me more guilt-free time, which of course made my training more enjoyable. I started to go to bed earlier (around 9:00 p.m.) and found that I was less interested in staying out late on the weekends. This was fine with the kids, since this led to more “family movie” nights. My husband, who is a former triathlete and runner and now enjoys biking, has been very supportive and understanding of my new lifestyle. We do make time to go out together, but I’d rather spend time with him that go to a huge party. On the weekends, he does breakfast duty while I get in a long run, but I don’t have the luxury of training for more than 3 hours at a time. When I read about other ultrarunners getting in 8-hour runs in the mountains, I am jealous but also grateful that I am able to do what I do. It works for me.

After a season of racing sprint triathlons, I started talking to a colleague and friend, Peter York, about his ultrarunning experiences. Pete is a veteran of the Holiday Lake race as well as the popular JFK 50 miler, and he told me that given my age, experience, and desire for a challenge, “the time was right for an ultra.” I laughed at his suggestion, and didn’t give it another thought until I read “To the Edge,” by Kirk Johnson. In his book, Johnson tells his story of running the Badwater 130-mile race in memory of his late brother. I was particularly taken by his reflections on the “mystery of endurance.” I have always been fascinated by adventure stories about ordinary people who have survived the elements and long distances, and “To the Edge” was a prime example. I also read a story about the Hardrock 100 Mile race in Outside Magazine, and I started entertaining the idea that running an ultra just might be a great new challenge for me. I signed up for the 2001 Richmond Marathon with the idea that it would be good training for the Holiday Lake 50K++ scheduled for February 2002. I told my husband of my plans. He didn’t believe me at first (“you want to run how many miles?”), but he has since become my biggest fan. I also told my running friends and mentors, all of whom embraced the idea, supported me unconditionally, ran with me, and helped me all along the way. I don’t think I could have trained properly for Holiday Lake without them. The friendships I developed with them is one of the main reasons I want to keep running ultras.

My training for Holiday Lake began in earnest in August as I started preparing for the Richmond Marathon. In addition to long runs in and around my hometown, I also included at least three days of swimming and water running, as well as a weekly spin class at the gym to give my legs a break and to maintain fitness. I also did one day of speed work on the track. As the Holiday Lake race approached, I tapered just like I would for a marathon. I felt rested and ready. I arrived at the race site the night before and stayed in a small cabin at the park, rooming with three other women. We were all first-time ultrarunners. I tried to get to bed early, but sleep was hard to come by. I was excited about the race, and a little nervous.

The alarm went off at 4:50 and I began to prepare for the 6:00 a.m. start. It was quite cold that morning. I ate pop-tarts and drank water and green tea (what I usually had in training), milled around the lodge with the other runners, and at the last minute changed from running tights to shorts. It was a good thing, too, because the temperatures climbed into the 60s later that day.

When I decided to run the Holiday Lake race, I committed to run the race slow and easy, just to finish and not worry about time or place. After all, it was my first ultra. Unfortunately, I have a very strong competitive streak and before I knew it I had run the first six miles in a too-quick 8:30 pace. But I was feeling good, so I didn't think too much of it. I was running with a group of guys who were also first-time ultra runners, and we got into a great rhythm that was hard to abandon for a slower, more conservative pace. I also neglected to walk the uphills as I had been advised to do. That would turn out to be a big mistake! At the first stream crossing, David Horton (the Race Director) informed me that I was the second woman, which of course just got me going even faster. All was well as I entered the turnaround at mile 16 in 2:25, and then I saw who was behind me: many more women! A couple miles later, as fate would have it, my IT band started to tighten (having never done so in training), and for the rest of the race I stressed about getting passed and about how to run with a tight IT band. I walked all the uphills the entire way back to the finish. Another woman passed me at mile 25 (going uphill!), and that really deflated me. As the pain in my leg increased, it was all I could do keep the run/walk pace going. I had to really dig deep to find the mental fortitude to keep moving. I had no intentions of quitting, but I did have a few intense conversations with myself on the subject. I think my experience in other sports definitely prepared me for the mental discomfort of the race, and having played and coached team sports helped wash away any notion of stopping. In a national-level lacrosse game, with your team depending on you, you can't stop just because it hurts!

A rush of adrenaline over the last 100 yards helped me cross the finish line in style. I finished in 5:17, the 3rd place woman. But I was hurting. All I wanted to do was lie down. Finishing that race was the hardest challenge I have ever faced, childbirth (three times!) included. But I did it, and overall, I enjoyed it. I definitely got what I signed up for! And just like childbirth, the memory of the pain faded quickly and I soon found myself planning my next ultra.

Training for and running my first ultra has allowed me to explore a beautiful world that I otherwise would have never discovered. I have given myself a real gift: the goal to finish an ultra, and the satisfaction of having reached that goal. Life is so much more interesting when we have something to look forward to outside the routine of work and family. Ultrarunning is a sport anyone, at any age can do and enjoy. You don’t have to be fast, just willing to set goals and challenge the voice inside that says “You can’t.” You can. Sure, training for an ultra is hard with a young family of five. It requires flexibility (if my husband has to go out of town, I either take the day off, or get a sitter), communication with my family, a sense of humor, and the realization that it is all for fun. Training and racing are tremendous gifts that I am giving myself and that my family is giving me. I try to never take it for granted. My family has been incredibly supportive because they know this makes me happy, and a happy Sophie is a happy Mommy!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Post-Race Evaluation – or, learning from experience

The race is over. Eat, drink, and rest merry. If you finished, then congratulations! If you didn’t, then better luck next time. Regardless of your finishing status, now is the time to think about what went right, what went wrong, and what you need to do differently next time. You might not believe it now (with your aching knees, sore quads and swollen feet), but chances are great there will be a next time.

Here is my post-race analysis from the Holiday Lake 50k++ that I just ran. I finished healthy, but not as quickly as I had hoped to do, despite near perfect weather/course conditions. Was there something lacking from my training, did something go wrong, or did I just have an off day? A little analysis will help tell the story.

Use this example to help you decide what you need to do differently to make your next ultra an even better experience. Make mental notes before, during, and after the run. Keep track of your strengths (what went right) and your pains, injuries, and soreness (what went wrong) and use it to your advantage for your next event.

What went wrong?

General Health
The transition from winter to spring often leaves me with some sinus troubles and congestion. As I reported last week, I came down with the flu and bronchitis just a week before this race. Obviously not ideal. I believe this was the #1 contributor to my slower-than-hoped-for run. But there were other problems too.

I did not do the long runs necessary to prepare me for this event. Period.

I did not know how my body was going to react to running after two weeks of illness. Just a few miles in, I felt no problems, so I sped up. Several times I looked down at my GPS and caught myself running faster than 8-minute mile pace. I averaged faster than 9-minute miles for the first 17 miles. That’s not any way for an under trained runner to finish a 50k. I paid for this in the second loop.

The fact that I did not get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom should have told me that I was dehydrated. But I ignored it, choosing coffee as my pre-race drink. I did snack early at the aid stations, but when I bonked at around 20 miles, it was due mostly to lack of carbohydrate intake. I realized that and started eating more at the aid stations (mostly fruit), and I did get some energy back. But by then it was too late. The damage was done.

What went right?

Mental attitude
Because I came into the event with a “whatever it takes” attitude, I did not get down when the going got tough. Instead I thanked God for the time buffer that I built up on the first loop, and relied on constant forward motion to get me to the finish. It’s very easy to throw in the towel at the halfway point of this race. I saw some others do it.

Due to the very early start, most runners stay in the 4-H camp cabins (or bunkhouse) or camp out at the start of this race. I chose to sleep in my car, and was a little uncomfortable. But I was able to sleep pretty well. I only woke up 2 or 3 times during the night.

In many of my warmer races, chafing is my biggest problem. It bothers me most on the upper thighs under my shorts. I used a wax-based lubricant on my feet and inner thighs. I also cut the worn-out inner lining from my favorite shorts (the source of some of the recent chafing), and wore a pair of spandex shorts under them instead. As a result, I had very little chafing/blistering.

I debated about wearing road shoes for this run. The single track on the course is very runnable. And the rest of the course is unpaved roads. At the last minute I decided to wear my trail shoes. They drained good at the creek crossings (6 in this race), and gave me confidence on the trails.

Yes, this was a problem, but I did recognize early into my bonk that it was a problem, and I fixed it. That’s a good sign – and hopefully next time I’ll make the move earlier and avoid a few slow, low-energy miles.

Conclusion – what to do better next time.
Other than a bit of a cough and needing to wipe my nose a lot, I didn’t really feel any lingering effects from the flu. With that in mind, my biggest problem was 1) lack of training and 2) not eating/drinking enough early into the run. I need to work on these two problems before my next race. Knowing that my next race will also be a hilly one, I need to concentrate on hill training and get those long runs up to 20+ miles.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Last Minute Preparations

I’m leaving work early tomorrow to head up to Appomattox, VA for the 2008 Holiday Lake 50k++ (34 miles). It’s my first ultra-distance run of the year. My last ultra was in early December (a good run at the Hellgate 100k). Unlike Hellgate, I have not prepared specifically for this race. I didn’t even decide to do this one until just a few weeks ago. I’ve been sick with the flu for the past week, and my training… well let’s just say I won’t be peaking anytime soon. I have not packed a thing, and up until now, have not even given much thought as to what I need to pack.

“Why are you at work?” asks a friend of mine who’s run a couple marathons over the years. “Why aren’t you at home? Packing, or sleeping?”

“It’s just another race,” I think to myself. I don’t say that out loud for fear of sounding snobbish. Or crazy. 50-kilometers. Plus plus a few miles. Probably a good 6 hours of running. It is no easy task. And although I might seem to be taking it lightly, I am not. Sure I haven’t run long for quite a while, and I just decided to do this race a few weeks ago, but that doesn’t mean I have not been training. I’ve been preparing for this race and others since I started distance running almost 20 years ago.

Since 2001 I’ve run somewhere between 10 and 15 organized races each year (not many compared to some of my ultra friends). But I do manage to run enough to stay in “ultra shape” pretty much year round. Even if I go through a period of weeks without running long, I can still get up on a Saturday morning and plod through 20-30 miles. This readiness comes from years of ultra distance training. The body and mind adapt. They get to the point where they are ready to go. Anytime.

My last ultra was two months ago. I trained hard for that one so I’m coming off a good level of fitness. My longest run between then and now was 17 miles. I’ve averaged less than 30 miles per week. Does that mean that I am not trained for the 50k++? Not really. It means I am not as prepared as I could be. I’m not trained to run a PR. But barring injury, I will handle the 50k (and the ++). It’s not the smartest way to do it. But most of the time, it works.

Okay, so now it is time to make a checklist and pack. I’m spending the night in my car after the pre-race dinner. The forecast is for temps near 30-degrees at night, upper 40s during the day. I like to make the list in the order that I will need the items. I also group things in categories. It makes more sense to me that way. Here we go.

Directions to start

Copies of Running Through the Wall for sale

Sleeping pad and bag
Long pants and long sleeve shirt for sleeping
Fleece cap
MP3 player (change battery)

2 20oz bottles and Ultimate Direction FastDraw
1 gallon jug of water
Sports drink mix
Fruit for pre-run breakfast
Clif Shot Bloks

Running shorts
Socks (extra pair)
Shirt (long and short sleeve)
Light jacket (I won’t use it)
Shoes (extra pair)


GPS watch

Ibuprofen (just in case)
Anti-diarrhea medicine (just in case – I learned this lesson the hard way once)
Toilet paper in plastic bag (Be prepared)
Body lube (don’t want too much chaffing down there)

Soap for post-run shower

Change of clothes for driving home

That's all...

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Ultra Training Plans -- uncovered and reviewed (pt 1)

This is the first part in a series devoted to uncovering and discussing some of the “ultrarunning training plans” that can be found on the internet. Google doesn’t turn up a whole lot. But as I come across good plans, I’ll present them here.

The first plan I want to discuss was written by a friend of mine, Eric Grossman. Eric is a very fast and talented ultrarunner who knows how to train and is willing to share some of his ideas. Eric is also the Race Director for the Iron Mountain 50-mileTrail Run. The race takes place in the fall (October 4, 2008 this year), thus the title of Eric’s training plan.

Training for a Fall Ultramarathon

This two-page plan is well written and seems to target relatively new ultrarunners (although it has great advice for all levels of runners). It begins by encouraging the runner to “publicly commit” to a goal race. This is one of the secrets to success in anything you do – tell people your goals publicly. It makes it a lot harder to fail. So with that, we’re off to a good start.

As with most distance running plans, this one starts off with a foundation of slow, comfortable running. Eric recommends ways to develop a training regimen that will motivate you and is “self-sustaining.” Again, a thinking person’s plan: If it’s not fun, it’s too easy to quit.

This plan calls for the gradually-lengthening, weekly long run to eventually cover at least 4 hours a month before the event (for a goal race of 50 miles). I’m not sure a long run of 4 hours is enough to prepare anyone for a 50-miler, so I would suggest longer (say 60-75% of goal time). Eric suggests that the long run be used to practice eating and drinking -- great advice overlooked by many new ultrarunners. Eric also suggests doing back-to-back long runs. This has been a key to any ultrarunning success I have ever had. Some other plans call this the long run sandwich. I like to call it the “lost weekend.”

Next Eric’s plan goes where too many ultrarunners fear to tread. The fast tempo run and speed intervals. It’s a simple matter of fact that you cannot race fast without training fast. It’s the principle of specificity. I hear too many ultrarunners lament about their declining speed. LSD (long slow distance) is necessary, of course. But all LSD will turn you into an LSD runner. Tempo runs and interval training build strength, train the cardio system like nothing else, and have played a key role in all my “fast” races. Eric is wise to recommend that we not attempt these faster runs until we have a good base, and even then, not to do them more than once per week.

The next facet of Eric’s plan is the uneven run. This is another application of specificity. To run good on rough trails, you need to train on rough trails. If your goal race is not on an uneven surface, you can skip this. Although, as Eric points out, uneven running targets your core postural muscles and will improve your overall fitness. It’s also fun and most of the time, more forgiving on your joints.

Lastly, this plan reminds us to rest. For new runners, he recommends one or two days per week of no running. For the more experienced, he points out that a slow comfortable recovery run can count as rest. Eric also recommends “cycling” weeks of training with rest weeks. The example he gives is to take an easy week after six solid weeks of training.

Eric finishes by offering to help individualize a training program for runners that are registered for Iron Mountain. Now that’s an RD going the extra mile.

Thanks Eric for a sound plan that does not overlook the benefits of fast running.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Running (racing) with the Flu

As fate would have it, I came down with the flu just 10 days before my first ultra of 2008 -- Holiday Lake 50k++. This concerns me, because the only true DNF in my short history of ultrarunning was at Holiday Lake, due to illness. I'm on the road to recovery now, but I decided to do some research into running (racing) with the flu. Here's one bit I found from Running Times that seems to answer my question:

Q: I know that you feed a cold and starve a fever, but what about training and racing when I'm sick?

A: There are a number of studies that show a decrease in immune function secondary to intensive training, increasing an athlete's susceptibility to infection. Overtraining certainly increases this risk.

If you feel too ill to work out, don't. If you are running a fever, you should also not work out; this could increase the risk of the infection affecting the heart.

Dr. Randy Eichner recommends the "neck check." If there is no fever and all of the symptoms are above the neck—congestion, sore throat, etc.—then an easy workout would be OK. If symptoms are below the neck—significant cough, muscle aches, etc.—then a day off is in order. Pushing too hard may prolong the course of the illness and increase the potential for complications.

If you pass the neck check and your temperature is normal, you might consider racing, but your performance may not be up to par. Pushing the pace may also cause protracted illness. This can sometimes cause symptoms similar to chronic fatigue syndrome, negatively impacting your training for a prolonged period of time.

To keep from getting sick, start with regular hand washing, eat a well balanced diet, and get plenty of sleep. During the winter, get a flu shot. Supplements may be helpful, but when considering taking any supplement, research it to make sure that significant side effects have not been reported.

--Dr. Cathy Fieseler

I'm getting lots of fluids and as much rest as I can this week. I've run once in 8 days, although I hope to get some short easy runs in early this week. I plan to approach the race with an open mind, and the goal of just finishing. Last time I went to Holiday Lake sick I did not respect the distance, resulting in a DNF after 17 miles. Oh, and my illness this time is not due to overtraining. Believe me. That has not been a problem so far this year. If all else fails, maybe courage and willpower will take over and get me through to the finish.

Comments? What do you do if/when you get sick just before a big race?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The role of good nutrition...

I came across this article in the Lincoln Courier today. Mike Siltman has been running ultras since 2004. In last weekend's Rocky Raccoon, he took about an hour off of his previous time. He credits some of it to good old nutrition:

"The reason Siltman, 39, cites is his online personal trainer, a woman based in Tuscon, Ariz., who has offered weekly nutritional and training regimens since December. Fruits, steamed vegetables and raw nuts are new diet staples, ...."

It makes me wonder... how much of a role does nutrition really play in our ultrarunning? I recently picked up a book called The Paleo Diet for Athletes. It prescribes eating like a caveman -- natural, minimally processed foods -- and tailors the diet toward different phases of endurance training and racing. Fascinating stuff. More on this later.

Congratulations too to VA ultrarunner and fellow Hellgate 100k veteran Aaron Schwartzbard for finishing second at the RR100 in 15:20. I'll have to ask him what he eats.

Post your thoughts, links, etc. to comments.

Yet another ultrarunning website...

Google "ultrarunning" and you'll find a decent selection of sites that offer information on races, gear, training, etc. So why would I want to create yet another website? What could I have to say that others have not already said? Probably nothing. But I'm doing it anyway.

In 2002 I wrote a book called "Running Through The Wall: Personal encounters with the ultramarathon." This book is a collection of 33 first-person encounters with the ultramarathon. From the veterans and champions of the sport to the first time ultrarunners, this collection describes in detail what it is like to run the ultramarathon. When I started working on the book, I was relatively new the sport or ultrarunning. I had completed a handful of 50-kilometer races, several ultra-distance adventure runs, and one painful 50 miler. I was pretty sure at that time that I would never run a 100-miler. I did not have the desire, nor did I think it was possible.

Working on the book, I met a bunch of talented and experienced ultrarunners. As we wrote those stories together, I learned from some of the best what it takes to prepare for and complete some of the toughest ultras out there. I began to take their experiences, their training tips, and their lessons learned, and apply them to my own running. My running started to improve...

I ran my second 50-miler in the fall of 2002, and found it was much better than my first. Then, ironically, the weekend that the book was published in April of 2003, I ran my first 100-miler, finishing 8th place overall in a time of 19 hours, 16 minutes.

In just over a year I went from ultrarunning newbie to someone with a pretty respectable 100-miler time. And I credit a lot of that transformation to the knowledge that I gained from working with other ultrarunners. That is the reason for this website. I want to collect the experiences, lessons learned, training tips, and more from ultrarunners everywhere so I can further improve my ultrarunning. If it happens to improve yours too, then great!