Race Report: Leadville Trail 100


I don't want to say that Leadville was the culmination of my years as an ultra runner, partly because I think I can run it faster and partly because that sounds kind of final and I'd like to think that I still have a few good races left in me.  But it certainly feels like an apex of sorts, and I think marked the beginning of a new phase of my running career.  Ultrarunning may have been an inevitable destination for me; at every stage of my life as a runner, I've always gravitated towards, and found the most success at, the longer distances.  But the move to the 100-mile distance was by no means a given.  I can still remember, having already completed multiple 50Ks, telling a friend that he was crazy for running the 40-mile Mount Mitchell Challenge (a race I've since run three times).  Mike Siudy still reminds me frequently that I swore I'd never run 100 miles.  And even once I had decided that a 100 was probably in my future, the idea of running Leadville--one of the original Grand Slam 100s, with nearly 16,000 feet of climbing at an elevation between 9,200 and 12,600 feet above sea level--seemed ludicrous.  (I can recall thinking that Leadville finisher Ken Posner was insane...though I still think that's true about anyone who voluntarily runs Badwater, let alone a double.)  Having completed, with some modicum of success, a race that previously scared the crap out of me does remove some sort of self-imposed limitation that may have constrained me in the past.  There are still going to be races I have no interest in doing, but the idea of a mountain 100 is no longer a daunting, impossible prospect.

I flew into Denver nine days before the race and caught a ride out to Leadville with Josh Sprague, the owner of Orange Mud, one of my wonderful sponsors, who was attempting to complete the Leadman (all of the Leadville Race Series MTB and running races in the same summer).  I was in for a bit of a shock.  While I knew I wouldn't have any hope of sticking with most of the high-country natives in a running race, I had been fairly diligent about my acclimatization, and I certainly did not expect to be short of breath climbing the single flight of stairs in the house I'd rented.  Alas, such is life at 10,150 feet.

I spent Friday, my first full day in town, helping Josh and a bunch of other OM athletes at the expo for the 100-mile MTB race that would take place the next day.  I headed out for a shakeout hourlong jog that evening before dinner to get my bearings and see how much the altitude was really going to affect me.  The answer: quite a bit!  I ran a 7-mile section of the Mineral Belt Trail, a paved bike loop around town that passes many of the abandoned silver mines from Leadville's 19th-century heyday.  I soon realized that it would be very tough to run under 9-10 minutes/mile on even gentle uphill grades.  Flat stretches seemed generally OK, though, once I got used to the sensation of breathing much more rapidly, and taking more frequent deep breaths, than at sea level.

Saturday was mountain bike race day; I took Josh's truck out to Twin Lakes, the main aid station and crew access at the 40- and 60-mile marks of the out-and-back course.  I'd never crewed a bike race before, so I took my cues from fellow OM athlete Kristen King, who was supporting her husband Jesse.  The crew station was a very cool scene, like an ultra aid station on steroids.  There were dozens of pop-up tents set up on either side of the dirt road spanning the Twin Lake dam that the riders would traverse.  With 1500 racers coming through at 20-30 mph, it was a madhouse trying to pick an individual rider out of the crowd.  Somehow it worked, though, and the racers managed to find their crews, fix mechanical issues, take care of their nutritional needs, and everything else familiar to a regular ultra race.  Watching the leaders blast through in either direction was impressive; they did not stop at all, and seemed to maintain an insane pace and effort level throughout the day.

After seeing Josh and Jesse successfully through, I drove a few miles into the town of Twin Lakes (such as it is), where the run course would pass through a week later (the bike and run courses share similar trails, but parallel each other for long stretches, and the major climbs are quite different).  As it turns out, I parked the car in basically the exact spot where my crew would set up their Hypoxico tent one week later and undertook a reconnaissance run/hike of Hope Pass, the biggest climb in the race.  This section starts at about mile 39 at Twin Lakes and traverses a flat field for about a mile, crossing the Roaring Fork River at the low point of the course (9200') and then embarking a a 4-mile climb to the top of Hope Pass (12,600').  The race drops down the far side of the climb and continues about five miles to the turnaround point at Winfield, but I scouted only the initial climb on the north slope.  With my collapsable trekking poles I actually found the climb to be fairly reasonable, and was able to maintain about an 18:00 pace despite not pushing very hard on the way up.  The descent started off a bit technical, but after I got back below the treeline I found it to be very runnable and enjoyed it thoroughly.  In all I round-tripped the 10+ miles in a bit under three hours and felt really good about it; a huge confidence boost for the following week.

That confidence mostly vanished the following day when, with Brian's encouragement, I decided to jump into the Leadville 10K, which would give me a taste of the first and last 5K of the full course.  The first three miles were a barely interrupted downhill on mostly wide dirt roads; I struggled to keep my breathing under control and hung on to the back of the top 10, hitting the turnaround in about 20 minutes flat.  The return was pure, lung-searing torture;  I staggered home with a second half of 24:30 for a 16th-place finish in 44:55--somehow under my goal of 45:00, but severely shaken at how hard the uphill had been.  I was cheered a bit by the realization that Brian's time in 2013 had been only a few seconds faster, when he had gone on to run 22 hours for the 100; if I could pull that off, I'd be pretty pleased.

The girls! (I like trains.)
I did very minimal running the rest of the week.  Jodi, the girls, and my parents arrived late Tuesday night, along with Brian's girlfriend Kali.  We spent Wednesday morning on a very low-key whitewater rafting trip on the Arkansas River, and the afternoon on a scenic ride on the historic Leadville, Colorado, and Southern Railroad (which I enjoyed immensely).  Brian and his sister Katie arrived Thursday afternoon, just in time for Brian to place second in the Leadville Beer Mile (while dressed as a squirrel) in a very impressive high-altitude 8:25.  Friday was very low-key; I spent most of the morning hanging out with Brian and Dylan at the Hypoxico tent, and spent the afternoon readying gear and putting the crew plan together with Brian, Kali, Katie, and Kevin, who joined us that evening after some business meetings in Denver.  At this point we had ten people crammed into our very cozy rental, trying to grab a few hours of sleep before the 4am start.
At race check-in, with LT100 founder Ken Chlouber

I actually slept fairly well and felt good as we walked the 3/4 mile from our house to the starting line; I was a little nervous but mostly excited and chomping at the bit to get started.  I had a stated goal of 20 hours, but in reality this was mostly a pipe dream, and I knew even with a great day and great weather this was unlikely.  I mostly wanted to just make sure not to do anything stupid and be able to run strong over the latter stages of the race.  I knew the opening miles would be fast and I'd have to keep myself under control.  I was hoping to reach Outward Bound (23.5 miles, the first time I'd see my crew) in about 4 hours, to reach Twin Lakes (39-ish miles) in under 7 hours, at to reach Winfield in under 10 hours.  A 20-hour day would actually take about a 9:30 split into Winfield, which I thought was possible given how well I had climbed Hope Pass the week before, but more than chasing a specific split, I was determined not to burn myself out too early.  The benefits of a controlled start are pretty obvious, and any successful ultra I've had has always come as a result of starting out slower than I think I should, but the best of intentions are often waylaid in the heat of a race, especially a long one where the opening miles feel much easier than expected.  Only a few days before, though, I'd read a nice article from David Roche about starting races slowly.  It wasn't anything earth-shattering (though it was well-written and spot-on, as all of Dave's articles are), but it had come along at exactly the right time for me to be reminded about the benefits of a nice, easy start, and as we headed down those fast pre-dawn miles, I kept my pace well in check.

It was dark, but there were so many runners around me that I didn't even need to turn on my headlamp.  We reached the bottom of the initial drop and traversed a nice flat 1.5 miles or so of pavement before we reached the rolling singletrack that circled the north and west shores of Turquoise Lake.  I tucked myself in the middle of a single-file line of seven or eight runners, running a very relaxed pace, but after awhile I got tired of hearing one of them talk loudly about himself to anyone who would listen  and took off, settling onto the back of a pack of much quieter runners as we reached May Queen, the first aid station at 12.5 miles, in about 2:05.  It was still nice and cool, and I was feeling very comfortable with a full bottle and several gels in my OM Single Barrel Hydraquiver, so I ran straight through the aid station and the thick, accompanying crowds and headed towards the first major climb of the day.

Arriving at Outward Bound, 24 miles in.
photo: Joe Azze
After a few gradually uphill miles through some tricky singletrack, we popped out on a dirt road and began a steady uphill grind to Sugarloaf Pass, a little over 11,000 feet.  I picked up a few spots, but not many.  I was determined not to race this early, and used my breathing as a proxy for effort; anytime I felt my breathing pattern increase, I eased off the pace.  After cresting the hill the course dropped precipitously over the next several miles down what would be known as the Powerline climb on the return trip; I focused on trying not to trash my legs and just get down with minimal effort.  At the bottom of the climb we turned onto a rolling rural highway for a two-mile stretch to the Outward Bound aid station.  I suffered my first mild down period on this section, moving steadily but slowly, and feeling as if a faster past was well beyond my capabilities.  But seeing my crew at the aid station, along with Elizabeth Azze (there to crew a client), and my parents, lifted my spirits, as did the fact that I had exactly met my target split of four hours (I mean exactly--like, to the minute).  Brian and Katie fueled me up with GU and Coke, and after about half a mile of easy jogging I started feeling good and found a nice rhythm over the next several flat/gently uphill miles.

Enjoying a bit of rain.
photo: Leadville Race Series
I fueled well and ran well over the next few hours, moving quickly through aid stations, listening to music, enjoying the scenery, and just letting the miles pass.  I had been dreading the climb on the lower slopes of Mount Elbert but I didn't even notice it.  I traded places with a few other runners but did not worry about it at all, just monitoring my effort level and cruising along.  A steady rain started, but as I was about to start getting too wet to stay comfortable, the rain stopped, the sun came out, and I dried off immediately.  Before I knew it I was descending from Mount Elbert towards Twin Lakes and my main crew station.  Again on the descent, I suffered a bit of a bad patch; this would become a theme most of the day, as my climbs were insanely strong all day long but I struggled to find a good rhythm on the downhills.  But once again I was re-energized by my amazing crew.  Katie swapped out my hat and pack (I wanted a little extra carrying capacity and fluids for the Hope Pass section); I pounded a full can of Coke and a couple of GU Roctane gels, grabbed my poles, and headed off toward the pass.

Heading towards Hope Pass
photo: Joe Azze
I crossed the river and started the climb, falling into a strong power hike, and I immediately started passing people.  And I mean, passing them like they were standing still.  I was trying not to get too fired up, but it was hard to keep the emotions and the pace under control, feeling this strong and having this much positive feedback.  The climb seemed to pass in an instant and I reached the aid station, located about half a mile from the summit.  The enthusiastic volunteers refilled my bottles as I kept hiking, then ran them back out to me; I never broke stride, just smiled at the llamas grazing on the mountainside slopes (so that's how they got supplies up here! Llama train!) and pressed on to the top.  Less than five minutes down the far side, I passed Rob Krar, the race leader, already nearing the top on the return trip, hiking purposefully, without a pacer and with about a 20-minute lead.
Crossing the Roaring Fork
photo: Leadville Race Series

The descent was much steeper than the northern side, and I picked my way down slowly, surrendering a spot or two, but I felt generally OK as I neared the halfway mark.  However, I hit a real down period on the three-mile rolling trail that stretched from the bottom of the descent to the turnaround at the Winfield aid station.  This section was much longer than I had anticipated, and my energy levels dipped precipitously.  I ate a gel, but it wasn't enough, and when I reached Brian at halfway I may have been at my lowest point all day.  Still, though, I was in good shape, exactly 10 hours in; I had moved up about 15 places since leaving Twin Lakes, and 21 hours was still a possibility.  I sat for the first time all day, eating some noodle soup, bananas, and Coke.  After a few minutes we made our way back out on the trail.  It took a few minutes of walking for me to get my legs back under me, but once the calories kicked in I started moving pretty well again, and we picked up a couple more folks as we approached the return climb.
Return climb on Hope Pass
photo: Brian Oestrike

Once we hit the climb I locked in my poles again and started hiking like a madman.  We caught three people in the first few minutes and I was not about to slow down.  Fortunately Brian recognized that the effort was not sustainable.  He gently took the lead and slowed the pace down enough for my breathing and heart rate to get back under control.  We were still making up ground, but at a much more manageable rate.  I flagged a bit as we neared the top and the climbing got very steep, but we had picked up another seven spots by the time we reached the top.  I jogged the first several minutes from the summit very cautiously before settling into a better rhythm just beyond the aid station.  The upper slopes were not particularly enjoyable, and I surrendered a few spots here.  But in the last two miles of the descent I hit my stride (despite one rather loud and unpleasant fall, which miraculously did not result in any injuries) and arrived back at Twin Lakes tired but happy that Hope Pass was behind me for the day.  Here I took the longest break of the day, sitting in a chair while Kevin dried my feet and changed my socks (thanks buddy, sorry to put you through that) and crushing a PBJ and more Coke.  By the time Brian and I headed back on the trail I was feeling pretty good again with just over 40 miles to go.

Kali has a frightening encounter with the Pacer Squirrel.
photo: Katie Oestrike
I was once again probably overly aggressive on the climb up to the Mount Elbert aid station, passing several folks and getting myself into a bit of an energy deficit that I paid for a few miles later.  Brian was able to do a nice job of steadying my effort level and getting the pace to be much more consistent over the next several miles.  I went through another down patch from miles 68 to about 74, but my spirits were revived by my crew at a brief stop at the Tree Line aid station, when Kevin burst out of the woods in full squirrel gear.  Brian and I covered the last few miles back to Outward Bound (mile 77) at a nice clip, recovering a couple of spots, and I was happy to have the whole crew, including my parents, Jodi, and the girls, meet me there.  After changing into a long sleeve shirt and powering on my headlamp, I started the next section with Kali along as pacer #2.

We ran very comfortably on the road section for a couple of miles but unfortunately missed the turn (along with a few other runners) off the road and added on about 3/4 of a mile with that mistake.  However once we found the trail and started the Powerline climb I was moving well again.  Having been warned by Brian, Kali kept me in check, and for once I didn't give back any spots on the way down, in fact picking up another place or two in the last mile before reaching May Queen, slightly more than 12 miles to go.

I had left Outward Bound with what I thought was an outside chance to break 22 hours, but our missed turn, which had cost us probably ten minutes, had wiped that out.  As I left May Queen with Kevin, my last pacer, I needed to run the last 12.5 miles in under 3 hours to break 23:00.  This was not a guarantee; I remembered all too well the final 3 miles of the 10K the week before, which climbed almost 500 feet--not an insurmountable grade, but one that I though likely would reduce me to a walk at this stage.  Twenty-minute miles were not out of the question.  I figured I needed to reach the base of the climb with an hour to spare in order for a sub-23 to be relatively safe.

I got quite cold leaving May Queen, and Kevin and I took a few minutes to get going while I put on my winter beanie and my Patagonia Houdini jacket.  A few minutes later it started to rain, and it rained fairly hard for the next ten minutes or so.  We covered the first few miles at 13-minute pace, walking in a few spots, but I started to find my rhythm on the north side of the lake and settled into the 12:00/mile range.  Kevin was very aggressive about pushing my calories and fluids, making sure I didn't neglect any needs, and as we hit the road section leading from the lake to the climb I actually felt very strong, pushing the pace down near 10:00/mile.  We hiked the first minute or so of the uphill, strewn with ruts and loose rock, but as we reached the graded dirt road, the slope eased off, and I found maintaining an 11:00/mile jog was pretty easy.  We walked for about 4-5 minutes with about two miles to go, partly to ensure we'd finish strong and I think partly to savor the moment.  Before I knew it we were back on 6th street in Leadville, with the finish line stretched out before us in the distance.

Jodi and my dad were at the finish, along with Katie, Brian, and Kali (the kids were mercifully asleep back at the house with my mom).  I was struck in that moment at how far they had all come and what they had sacrificed to get me to this point, and I broke down in the medical tent afterwards, overwhelmed by gratitude and so happy to have them all there with me.  Safe to say this experience will stay with me for quite some time.  The race was incredible: the organization, the trail, the scenery, the competition, and the time I was able to share with my family and friends out on this course.  Leadville truly is one of the greatest US trail races, and I hope to be back many times again.

Gear
Salomon Sense Ultra and Agile shirt
Injinji Ultra No-show socks
Patagonia Stride Pro shorts
Black Diamond Distance Z trekking poles
Orange Mud Single Barrel Hydraquiver, miles 0-40 and 60-100 (also used an old-school Ultimate Direction AK vest for Hope Pass)
GU Roctane and gels, mostly Birthday Cake, that's just delicious
Orange Mud trucker cap and beanie (also used my GU five panel crusher for Hope Pass)
Petzl Reactik + headlamp

Early summer recap: Western States pacing and altitude training

Coming from sea level, my primary concern as I prepped for Leadville this summer--other than, you know, getting in shape--was how I would survive a 100 mile race that takes place entirely above 9000 feet.  Fortunately I happen to live about three miles from the CEO of Hypoxico, the world leader in altitude training systems.  Brian came by the house in mid-June with a generator, tent, and a mask/reservoir system for the treadmill, which was exciting but also increased my apprehension quite a bit.  Before I started on my acclimatization, though, there was another matter to attend to: a little race I like to call WESTERN STATES.

This was my third time making the trip to Squaw Valley for States.  My first was in 2005, the first ultra I'd ever been to.  I had spent some time in 2004 working at the Yosemite Medical Clinic in Yosemite Valley, where my main supervisor was Gary Towle, a WS100 board member.  He convinced me to be a medical volunteer at States the following summer, where I got to witness Jurek's final, dominating win; the experience is basically what turned me into an ultrarunner.  I went back in 2014 to crew and pace for my good friend, Salomon athlete Glen Redpath.  This year, the circle was completed.  Glen is the one who had introduced me to Brian almost five years ago, before Brian moved to New Paltz; now I'd be pacing my training partner over the same twenty-mile stretch I had run with Glen four years earlier.

Brian ready to go at the start.
I made it to Squaw on Thursday afternoon and did a brief 30-minute jog before meeting Brian and his friend Kyle for dinner.  Friday was a busy day.  First, Kyle and I jumped into the Altra Uphill Challenge, a 6K climb on the opening miles of the WS100 course.  I had not yet started any acclimatization, so I knew I'd be suffering from the altitude, which started at about 6500' and climbed to nearly 9000' at the finish.  And suffer I did.  I started off a bit too aggressively over the first half mile, and started to leak places past the mile mark.  But overall I felt much better than I had four years ago; despite temps in the upper 80s, the lack of humidity had me feeling pretty good, and I held on for a top-20 finish in 36:45, nearly three full minutes faster than I'd run in 2014--a nice confidence boost heading into my altitude training.  After a shower and lunch, we headed over to the mandatory pre-race meeting.  Then I was able to grab the great Eric Schranz of Ultrarunnerpodcast.com for an interview for the Pain Cave.  Then we had a race-strategy chat with DBo, our third crew member/pacer, before Kyle and I drove into Tahoe to pick up some last minute supplies for race day.

Hydrating at Michigan Bluff
Race morning was clear and cool, but the heat promised us later in the day ultimately did not disappoint.  Kyle and I saw Brian off at 4:00am and immediately headed out to Duncan Canyon, the 24-mile mark.  Brian came through in slightly over four hours, looking pretty strong; after a brief stop during which we loaded him up with fluids and ice, he took off to meet DBo at Robinson Flat (30 miles) while Kyle and I drove ahead to Dusty Corners (mile 38).  By this point the day had really started to heat up; despite the low humidity, temperatures in the high 90s/low 100s are not conducive to distance running, and Brian looked a bit worse for the wear when he passed through a few hours later.  He headed into the infamous canyons section of the course and the heat of the day, and we headed off to rendezvous with DBo at Michigan Bluff (mile 55).

We had a nervous couple of hours where Brian stopped showing up on the race tracking, wondering if he had dropped, but eventually he got back on track and came through looking reasonably well.  The heat had become challenging, and his stomach was not cooperating, but Dylan got him on track drinking more GU Roctane and he picked up the pace heading into Foresthill (mile 62) where DBo picked him up to pace the next 18 miles.  The two of them moved well down Cal Street and had moved up over ten spots by the time I met them climbing up from the American River on the way to Green Gate at mile 80.

Late night, Placer High School track.
By this time the had started to drop into the mid-80s, and I thought we might really start to hammer.  But Brian's stomach was still causing issues, keeping him from taking in anything but liquid calories and necessitating a brief puking spell at around 83 miles.  We kept pounding Coke and Roctane and struggled through to the 90-mile aid station.  Brian was able to move fairly well on the flats, but we had to hike every climb, and he wasn't up to his usual prowess on the downhills; we made slow and steady progress, picking up a few spots here and there, but couldn't find a strong, consistent rhythm.  We saw Dylan and Kyle at the 94-mile aid station which seemed to rejuvenate Brian a bit, and he charged downhill with renewed vigor, passing the Speedgoat, Karl Meltzer, about a mile before we reached No Hands Bridge at mile 97.  At this point we were trying to hold off Brian's friend Alex Ho, with whom he had tied for the win at Bighorn in 2017 and had been trading spots throughout the day; as we crossed No Hands we could see his and his pacer's headlamps less than a minute behind.  We started the half-mile climb to Robie Point with maybe a 30 second gap, but Brian pushed hard up the hill, suffering silently but running much of the way.  By the time we crested the hill past Robie with a mile to go, we had stretched the lead to about 90 seconds, and we were cruising to the finish until we stupidly missed a turn, ran an extra half mile, and lost two spots in the process.  Still, Brian ran an excellent 20:28 for 38th place, on a day when he did not have his best stuff.  The guy really has an extraordinary ability to make himself hurt, and it was pretty amazing to witness firsthand.

Altitude training, courtesy of Hypoxico
I tried to use this brief period of altitude exposure to jumpstart my acclimatization, and when I returned home I began training in earnest.  I started by sleeping in the tent at a simulated altitude of about 6000' and increased gradually until I was sleeping at 10-11K about 5 nights a week.  I also increased my hill training, combining some short-duration hill repeats (2-4 minutes each) with long climbs on Lenape Lane (3 miles of steady climbing between 3-10% uphill grade).  About four weeks out I started incorporating the altitude mask into my training.  I did a little bit of easy jogging at 10,000 feet, but mostly I would just crank the treadmill up to a 15% gradient, set the mask to 12,500', and hike uphill at about an 18-minute pace for half an hour or so at a time.  This was much worse than it sounds; within about 45 seconds I'd be gasping for breath and my heart rate would be up around 150.  But I could feel myself getting stronger, and while my breathing never got "easy," it definitely improved after a few weeks of this kind of torture.  Two weeks out I put together a couple of medium-long days with Phil in the Catskills--not my cup of tea, but it gave us an opportunity to do some extended 2-3 mile climbs at 15-20%, and to practice using trekking poles.  I've grown up as a cross-country skier, and so this came fairly naturally to me; by the time we finished the first big uphill hike with the poles I was convinced that I'd be using them on Hope Pass in Colorado.  I also volunteered to sweep the legendary Escarpment Trail Run with Phil and our friend Rick, which provided a long, if slow, day of climbing.  All in all, I boarded my flight to Colorado feeling more excited than nervous about the adventure to come, and fairly confident that I'd be able to handle myself on the Rocky Mountain trails.

Guest Post: Stewart Dutfield's Q2 Somewhat Running-related Diary

Seeing as how I'm basically a seasonal blogger myself at this point, I'm thrilled to have Stewart Dutfield continue to update his yearly diary on a quarterly basis.  ICYMI, you can read his 2017 year in review and his 2018 Q1 musings.  This current iteration may be my favorite so far.  It isn't all running-related, but then again, neither is life.

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6 April. To have spent four hours at the National African American Museum with a 13-year-old boy is to look forward to returning for a whole day, to take things in more slowly. In single file down a narrow ramp, we walked several storeys beneath ground, and then slowly up through the historical exhibit—from before slavery (and, it was suggested, even before racism) to Obama and Oprah—to emerge at the foot of a heavy spiral staircase. Bounded by tall black walls, it continues the journey upward, but we have arrived here understanding that historical progress is neither unambiguous nor even consistently forward. 



Clayton led us to the sports exhibits: Owens, Robinson, Gibson, Ali, Jordan. Most moving to me was the bronze statue of Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Peter Norman (who afterwards was just as shabbily treated as the others) on the medal podium at the 1968 Olympics. Harry Edwards, very much part of events leading up to Smith and Carlos's protest, appears in short videos on aspects of black sports: reminding us, for example, that racial integration of major league baseball destroyed black-owned businesses in the negro leagues. While taking a photograph of the monumental staircase from above, I was tapped on the shoulder and quietly told that photographs should only be taken from below. With mild shame and indignation I struggled to grasp what seemed an arbitrary and unstated rule, but left feeling that perhaps this was exactly the point. 

Descending Castle Point on a run through Mohonk and Minnewaska
28 April. In Carmel NY is a statue of Sybil Ludington; the story goes that in 1777 she rode 40 miles overnight from here to rouse militia in defense of Danbury against the British. Two centuries later, a 50K road race roughly followed Ludington's presumed route and has taken place every year since. This year the event was no longer based in the basement of the VFW—where the business portion of the men's urinal still bears an image of Jane Fonda—and followed a new loop course never approaching within a mile or so of the statue. As usual, new leaves gave little shade on the pretty, undulating country roads. Some well-established metropolitan area road runners showed up, a few still going in their 50s, 60s and 70s. With luck, though having departed from its roots in the dubious history of Sybil Ludington's ride, the 50K will continue as a no-frills footrace for old-school athletes.

6 May. Live audacity at the Egg in Albany where Brandi Carlile sang "Babe I'm Going to Leave You", a tour de force for a young, fresh-faced Led Zeppelin who had transformed the song from a Joan Baez recording of the early 1960s.

Refreshment at Kaaterskill Falls on a run from Olana to North Lake
2 June. The Piccadilly Line from Heathrow brought me to Boston Manor, where I embarked on a gentle walk through West London history; first along the Grand Union canal to the mouth of the River Brent, where Julius Caesar may or may not have crossed the Thames in 54BC. Tom took me to a plaque to commemorate where Pocahontas had lived; then through the fields of Syon Park—little changed for 200 years—to lunch at the London Apprentice, which was here when J.M.W. Turner lived in Isleworth and might have been his local. Then over the lovely Victorian painted iron of Richmond lock and back to Kew, where an afternoon cricket match was in progress. We had spent our afternoon amidst Turner's picture of Syon House and Kew Palace, swans and all.


The Thames at Isleworth
Loch Lomond, the low road.
Photo credit: Joe Brown
9 June. It was dark as the bus descended the steep valley past Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater to deposit us beside the falls at Ohiopyle, PA. From here we would run the Laurel Highlands trail northeast to Johnstown, which in past months has crawled with journalists trying to understand the 2016 presidential election results. For my part, in nearby Ebensburg the previous evening I had visited a new microbrewery with the slogan "Our beer is always coaled" (fortunately, it wasn't). The trail is marked by 71 mileposts, and follows a ridge where we were a couple of weeks too late for the peak of the mountain laurel. "Highway Patrolman" playing in my head, I started comfortably but, as the humidity undermined my appetite for eating and drinking, gradually slowed over the later more runnable part of the trail and finished, once more in the dark, less than an hour before the clock ran out.
Joe on the Highland Boundary fault, descending Conic Hill.
Photo credit: Fiona Rennie

23 June. Just behind Tesco's in Milngavie, a footpath sign indicates that Glasgow is 6¼ miles away. The nearby terminus for the commuter railway is also the start of the West Highland Way: 95 miles in the opposite direction, along the shores of Loch Lomond and through the West Highlands. After a moment of silence for the great Don Ritchie, runners set off at 1am through the town centre toward Fort William. Daylight roused me at 3am from sleeping in the van, in time to support Joe at 19 miles with coffee and a bacon roll. Stella later joined me as Joe's crew. Approaching Glencoe over the Black Mount, Joe began to struggle with the increasingly rough, granite underfoot conditions. He and I covered the last 25 miles together overnight, and ran not a step. As the race director had predicted, there was no weather this year by Scottish standards: conditions proved largely dry and fresh, keeping the midges at bay except where Stella slept in the van at Kinlochleven. After a grim night on the granite paths, Joe finished at 5am and took his turn to sleep in the van as we drove to our B&B.

Crews provide all food and drink to West Highland Way runners.
Photo credit: Stella Potter
26 June. I took Joe to the Scottish National Gallery to see the large painting of Niagara Falls, which was my introduction to Frederic Church long before I first visited the Hudson Valley. Among the Titians and Poussins hangs a large, jarring new work by Jenny Saville; in El Greco colors of grey, red and blue, it depicts and bewails child casualties in Aleppo in our own time—on our watch, so to speak. See it if you can.

Wait, is this still a thing?

Salomon OutdoorFest start/finish
Forgot I had a blog, didn't you?  I don't blame you, I almost forgot myself.  There were a few times in May and June where I had the fleeting thought "I should probably post something," which was almost immediately forgotten.  By July I had basically decided to mothball the thing.  The podcast consumes most of my blog-centric time and energy these days; I wasn't sure I needed to keep doing both.  Plus, there just wasn't much to blog about.  As I intimated in April, I spend the late spring/early summer period trying to build up fitness, dial in the podcast, and working on my proposal for a sports medicine/research facility.  It didn't seem there was much news to report on any of those fronts, so I kind of just let things slide.

In reality my training was actually progressing, though rather slowly and in fits and starts.  Once I committed to the idea of running Leadville I had to get over my paralyzing fear of the idea of a high-altitude 100-miler and start figuring out how to do it; this took a bit of time but once I put a plan in place I started to see some progress.  I secured the promise of a tent from Hypoxico Altitude Training and targeted 6-8 weeks of "sleep-high, train-low".  I built my weekly mileage up to the mid-90s by late April and started mixing some quality stuff back in.  Crucially, I found a new training partner willing to crush some harder stuff, having lost Dr. Mike to injury and Laura to Syracuse (Phil and Brian, with their commutes to NYC, aren't available consistently enough during the week to rely on for regular high-intensity work).  Kevin Borden started to join me for track, tempo, and hill work; his energy and enthusiasm were really the key to forcing me back into fitness.  Without that element I'm not sure I could've done the necessary work to find my rhythm again.

I served on the race committee for the Rock the Ridge 50-mile this year, which takes place in May, and was planning on running that with Ben Nephew and James McCowan as my main buildup race for Leadville.  (Cayuga Trails, which would've been my natural choice in early May, was moved this year to July to accommodate Ian Golden's congressional campaign, so was too close to LT100 to allow for adequate recovery.)  However, two weeks before race day, finally feeling fit, I came down with an upper respiratory infection--sore throat, fever, chills, the works--and had to pull the plug on RTR.  This was yet another frustrating setback in a spring season full of them, and an unexpected one; I rarely get sick.  Casting about for a plan B, I settled on the Salomon OutdoorFest Ultra, a new timed event on Staten Island the first weekend in June.

The logistics were less than ideal.  I worked the overnight shift on Friday, leaving work at 7am and driving home for a 30-minute nap before getting back into the car for the trip down to "the City," arriving about an hour before the 1pm start time.  The weather wasn't about to cooperate either; it was the first really hot day of the season, temperatures reaching 88 degrees within the first couple of hours, with the infamous #beastcoast humidity in full effect (thunderstorms threatened all day, but we were denied the relief of any real rain throughout). The course was blessedly shaded for the most part, but managing the heat was the primary task on the day.

The race was enthusiastically if haphazardly run.  The course was well-marked, a challenging but runnable mix of single- and doubletrack with some nice, varied terrain; however, nobody, including the RDs, seemed to know how long the loop was.  We were initially told 7K, which was corrected at the start to 3.5 miles.  In reality it was probably shorter; I think the results assume a 5k loop, but this remained unclear throughout the duration of the race.  There was one well-stocked aid station at the start/finish, where I mostly focused on putting ice in my cap, my bandanna, my shorts, and anywhere else I could get it.  Both the solo and relay divisions started together, so it was unclear immediately where we all stood place-wise, and I focused mostly on getting a good "time-on-feet" day in despite the heat and my fatigue.  I had initially hoped to run around 40 miles, but after seeing the weather and experiencing the first couple of laps revised that to 10-11 laps, which I figured was around 35 miles given what we'd been told regarding the course length.

Despite repeating to myself that this was a training run, and assiduously not caring about place, I eventually got caught up in the racing aspect of it, finding myself in the top 3-4 after about 4 hours.  Somewhere on lap 8 or so I moved into what I was pretty sure was second place, feeling pretty solid. I had settled into about 35-37 minutes per lap with about a minute in the aid station.  I finished lap 8 in around 4:22 and was listening as I replenished my ice and water to a conversation between one of the RDs and another racer who was trying to figure out how the race would end.  This had been made pretty clear at the start--only full laps would be counted (which made sense; there was no reliable way to count part laps on a 3+ mile trail loop).  The RD reiterated this to the runner--after the 5-hour mark, no one would be allowed to start another lap they were unlikely to finish.  I knew I would finish lap nine right around 5 hours, and made sure to inform the RD that I planned on starting a 10th lap probably just past the 5-hour mark, and that I'd have no problem finishing it within the six-hour time frame.  She thanked me and sent me on my way.

Cool finisher's patch.
I didn't get one of these either.
Lap nine proceeded without any issues and I set off for lap 10 at 5:02, comfortably settled into second place and feeling happy with the day's effort; I stuck to about the same splits I'd been running and finished lap 10 in second place in 5:38.  Only now, a different RD was encouraging folks to head back out for another lap.  Any lap started before the 6-hour time limit would be counted, he said, no matter how long it took to complete.  Clearly this made no sense--it's a six-hour race, not a six-plus-whatever-hour race--and I certainly didn't care enough to head back out for another loop after I had been mentally committed to the idea of 10 laps for, I don't know, the past four hours or so.  So I surrendered a couple of spots in the standings to folks who I beat.  Which, of course, in the grand scheme of things, doesn't mean much.  But RDs really need to make rules and stick to them.  Changing the rules of the game mid-race is really unfair, even when there's not all that much on the line.  (And you know what? This stupid little thing cost me second overall AND the masters' win; I think I was actually entitled to a free pair of shoes.  So it wasn't nothing on the line after all.  I didn't make a stink about it, but this type of thing bugs the shit out of me.)

Regardless, it was a good, long, hot effort in my sleep-deprived state, and it did help me transition into some more serious Leadville prep for the summer.  Little else to report on that front, as a couple of other possible prep races fell through.  Three week later I went to Squaw to pace the great Brian Oestrike, and undertook altitude training, so you'll have to sit through a post on that too before I get around to writing a Leadville recap.

Guest Post: Stewart Dutfield's Q1 Somewhat Running-related Diary

I'm happy to welcome back the musings of Stewart Dutfield to the blog.  Stewart was kind enough to share his diary of 2017 at the end of last year.  I really enjoy his deep thoughts, both running- and non-running-related.  This year hopefully he'll continue to update us on a seasonal basis with his distinctively British observations of the world around him.

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1 January. The rituals of this time of year reassure us that life continues in a familiar pattern, but perhaps they also show us what has changed. A longtime Christmastime staple for its scene of Kolkata's Howra Station set to "Silent Night" is 36 Chowringhee Lane, produced by the late Shashi Kapoor: a melancholy Indian movie about people out of place & time. Its earlier cousin, Shakespeare Wallah, also evokes the sadness of holdovers from the Raj and the dubious attractions of modernity. Watching it now, I feel out of step with a contemporary world that every day echoes Rimbaud's Démocratie: "ours will be a ferocious philosophy, ignorant as to science, rabid for comfort, and let the rest of the world croak."

SUNY Plaza Tower
4 January. East of the Greyhound terminal in downtown Albany, a tall Gothic structure glowers over a row of businesses that look like Ireland 50 years ago. What is now SUNY Plaza was newly-built just when its model, the Cloth Hall at Ypres, was destroyed in 1914. With snow falling hard, this was a good day to walk a few times up and down the 12-story tower. One climb more than I had done previously amounted to the height of the Empire State Building observation deck. Having over a few years gradually increased the number of repetitions, perhaps I am fit at last for this to be a weekly training workout.

9 January. The tunnels at UAlbany form a kilometer-long rectangle of concrete and ductwork. During winter break, largely empty of students moving between academic buildings, they see an occasional subterranean interval session. Some runners—me for one—turned up as much from curiosity as to be out of the winter weather. I discovered that it's easy to lose count of right-angle corners in a tunnel, unless running hard and gasping for a brief rest.

11 February. The Pine Hollow Arboretum was farmland returned to pine forest in the 1960s, when its pediatrician founder started to build ponds and plant trees. It grew from backyard landscaping to a lifelong calling, with several thousand specimens—some rare, and many beyond their native range—and a tangled couple of miles of trails. So far I have visited this local treasure mostly in winter, and am yet to see the magnolias and azaleas in bloom. On this day, running in wet snow, I visited my favourites so far: the Japanese specimens, the knees surrounding a bald cypress, and the "Glacier Ridge" trail along what to this untutored eye appears to be a short esker (Eiscir in Robert MacFarlane's word-hoard).

Cypress Knees
18 February. Since 1973, the low-key and by now old-style Winter Marathon has started at UAlbany and followed a succession of inner and outer loops round the New York State office campus. More than once, I have called it a training run and quit several miles short of finishing. Today it was breezy, and too warm for ice to form on cups of water at the rudimentary aid stations. Qualifying for Boston was never a concern 30 years ago, but I haven't been close now for a long while. On a pace at half way within that limbo between a qualifier and a time fast enough to actually enter, I didn't fade much and ran faster than in several years: so no Boston qualifier, but the task of recovering and continuing to train.

4 March. Two months after its appearance in the London Review of Books, I read Alan Bennett's diary for 2017. Humbled by the pale imitation that this journal is of the great man's work, I also feel gratified to learn that he and I were reading the same Borges story at around the same time last November.  

8 March. A snowmobile passed by on the rail trail this morning while I was walking the dog. I took the opportunity to trace its tracks—similar to those I saw a year ago when snowshoeing home from work—over local  streets and neighbors' yards to their source. A while later, our town's competent police department called to inform me that Plod and the enthusiast in question had had a quiet chat.

10 March. Scotland has its Munros and Corbetts, summits above 3,000 and 2,500 feet respectively, and the Catskills have the 3500s. Joe had set out to climb all 35 in the winter months, and West Kill Mountain would be the last. His retinue—a few more and we'd have needed a permit—strapped on snowshoes for the 1,800-foot ascent by way of Diamond Notch Falls and an excellent ridgetop viewpoint. We celebrated at the top, more demurely than Scott Jurek's notorious debauch after narrowly breaking the Appalachian Trail record, and Mike recalled that he is now exactly half way through a second Catskill Grid: each 3500 foot summit climbed in each month of the year. It takes focus to bag 420 summits, and yet more to keep an exact tally in mind at all times. The vicar who genially characterized me as obsessive at my father's funeral had no idea what people are capable of.

The view south from West Kill
11 March. I have been watching the BBC documentary on Eddie Izzard's run around Britain of a few years ago: extraordinary because shortly before those weeks of back-to-back marathon distances he claimed no history of running. There's something very un-Church of England about such audacity.



24 March. Where the Susquehanna River flows into Chesapeake Bay, Steppingstone Farm Museum preserves a glimpse of rural life in its stone house, carriage barn, and old cannery. The 50K HAT Run starts and finishes here, also passing through after four and 17 miles. The course through "The Land of Promise" and Susquehanna State Park was partly covered with snow. I splashed through the knee-deep Rock Run creek and passed the late 18th century grist mill for the second time, still feeling strong with four miles left to run; as the day warmed and several hundred pairs of feet passed by, the trail had by now turned to a treacherous mud. For some reason I love these conditions, and in a dozen races here have finished faster only once.

Spring Update: Searching for Consistency

My ambivalence toward writing this post--or really toward blogging in general recently--is clearly a reflection or manifestation of my recent ambivalence towards basically everything.  As with many of us who are all too consumed with our running, whose general outlook fluctuates in rhythm with our training cycles, when my running isn't going well, I generally don't have much of an interest in anything else.  It must be nice to be someone who derives pleasure or satisfaction from their job.  What's that like?

I took three weeks off after Bandera.  I tried to pretend that I wanted an offseason and felt great about my plan going forward, but to be honest I was floundering.  I had no real desire to run and nothing really to train for, unsure if I'd be able to run Leadville and undecided as to whether I really wanted to.  I gained enough weight that when I started running slowly again I felt bloated and awkward.  I had nagging aches and pains in various areas and couldn't find any sort of consistent rhythm.  Hearing about some of the great performances people were posting around the country and the world didn't help, either.  I've been struggling with the usual crisis of confidence that follows any bad performance, and superimposing others' successes on that sense of failure was having less than positive effects.

Oh, and I didn't win Blogger of the Year.  (Though I was a finalist for the second year in a row).   Thanks to those who voted.

It took until March before some semblance of motivation returned.  I decided to commit to Leadville and started to get at least a little excited about it.  I had some very sub-par "quality" workouts, but at least I was getting out there again, and it was only a matter of time before things started clicking again.

And then I blew out my calf.

Well, that's a bit dramatic.  I strained something that niggled on and off for a couple of weeks, causing me to cut short a couple of runs and gimp my way through a few others, until it finally seized up midway through a pretty decent tempo workout with Brian and I had to hobble a few miles back to the car.  That laid me up for almost a week, but with some help from the brilliant Dave Ness and Scott Field at Performance Sports and Wellness, I've been back on my feet for almost two weeks, and I'm finally--finally--starting to find a little bit of fitness.  Fortunately my ennui seems to have cleared a bit, and I'm actually starting to look forward to a spring and summer of training and racing.

I've had two other projects occupying the time that I'd usually devote towards the blog in recent months.  One is the launch of a silly little podcast called The Pain Cave, which I conceived as a show that examines some of the scientific issues and bases behind endurance sports in general and ultrarunning in particular.  It's been a challenge, and I've been having fun figuring it out and talking with some cool people--many of the characters you'll recognize from this blog, but also some other pretty interesting folks.  I'd like to continue to keep talking about and de-mystifying the scientific stuff, but I'm also going to expand to just ultrarunning in general, especially in the next couple of weeks, so check that out.  The other time suck I can't talk too much about right now; as you may know I've been doing some exercise physiology stuff recently and I'm working on a proposal to expand that into a much larger, more comprehensive running/sports medicine facility, which has been an exciting though uncertain prospect.  Hopefully I'll have more to say about that in upcoming posts.

I do have some low-key races and other running-related fun coming up, so I anticipate some more regular posting soon.  Plus next week Stuart Dutfield returns with a guest post on his 2018 to date.  His diary from 2017 was one of the more bizarrely entertaining things I've read in awhile, so you've got that to look forward to at least.

Bandera Post-Mortem: Finish at All Costs?

So, Bandera went very, very badly.

Usually I like to do a pretty detailed race report, but I don't have a lot of details to report from this one other than that it was bad.  I felt bad at the start, I felt bad on the first climb, I pretty much felt bad throughout.  I was hoping to run the first half of the race at about 8:30 pace--similar to what I had run two years ago through the first lap--but struggled to run 9:00/mile pace over the first 16 miles through AS3.  Rather than slow down, I tried speeding up to see if I could run my way out of feeling badly, and hammered the next six miles at just under 8:00 pace, coming through 22 miles at 3:12, within striking distance of the sub-4:30 I wanted to run through the first 50K, but it wasn't working; I started to feel worse and worse.  I finished the first lap in 4:46, about twenty minutes slower than two years go, and spent a few minutes convincing myself to head back out for lap two.  I'd like to report that I found my legs in the second half and had a strong finish, but I didn't.  I ran-walked for the first two hours of the loop before getting a sort-of second wind and running consistent 10-11 minute miles for the next couple of hours, ultimately finishing up in 11:19, nearly two hours slower than my breakthrough run in 2016.

The spoils of mediocrity.
This was my sixth national championship race since turning 40, and despite five top-3 age group finishes (Bandera, Caumsett, and North Coast in 2016, Rocky Raccoon and Cayuga in 2017), I was still searching for my first age group title.  Somehow, in what was easily my worst performance as a masters runner, I was able to secure my first age group national championship. All it took was running a terrible race, having Paul Terranova not show up, and having Chad Lasater age up to the 45-49 group.  What a silver lining.

One sentiment I hear all the time is that you learn more from races that go poorly than races that go well.  This sounds like a very wise thing to say, but I don't think it's true.  I take many lessons out of strong performances: I know what workouts were beneficial in my training, what worked in terms of race strategy and nutrition, and where I can expect to race relative to my competition.  I suppose there are lessons to be learned from failure, if you can attribute a poor race to a mistake you made in strategy, preparation, or fueling.  In this case, though, it's hard to feel like I learned anything that will help me the next time out.  My training for the race had been nearly ideal, and I certainly didn't feel as if there were any aspects of my preparation that were missing; my times in the short prep races were comparable to those I'd run in the previous two years.  I wasn't out too fast, either, actually running a slower pace than planned for the first 16 miles (which was hard to do with a huge field of fast guys hammering at the front).  Maybe I was overtrained; maybe I had pushed some workouts too hard; maybe I was too focused on hitting splits over the first 50K that I got out of my comfort zone too early.  Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Sometimes when people invoke that maxim--that we learn more from defeat than from victory--they are speaking less of concrete lessons that can help us apply changes to future performances, and more about the nebulous idea that we learn about ourselves and our limits when "the going gets tough."  That we have more strength than we think, that we didn't give up, that we can push through the next time we hit a bad patch.  In a way I suppose this is true--you do need to suffer at some point in a race to learn how to deal with that suffering.  Without learning that suffering can be endured, that it passes and gets better, we'd never make it through the rough stretches that define ultra running, and we'd never finish a race when we hit a bad patch.  I'm not someone, though, who believes this is a lesson we need to learn over and over.  I've been running races since I was twelve years old; I don't need to be reminded how to deal with suffering.  I've never subscribed to the finish-at-all-costs mentality.  I know I can finish; I'm not entering races to prove it to myself over and over again.  I run races to challenge myself to perform and to compete against other runners at a high level.  Everyone enters a race with a baseline goal of "just finish," but should we?  What did I get out of walk-running through a 6:30 50K over the second half of that race?  I accomplished none of my goals (other than the aforementioned age group win, which had nothing to do with me).  I didn't learn anything new about myself or my "limits".  I finished a race that I had no doubt I could finish very slowly if I needed to.  I got the same belt buckle I got two years ago.  (It's a very cool buckle, but still.)  Am I any more satisfied with this experience than I would've been if I'd stopped after a single very disappointing lap?  And if I am, should I be?  By any objective measure--my time, my place, my position in the field relative to other runners I know--this was a terrible performance.  Why should the fact that I was able to walk for several hours to avoid a DNF mitigate that in any way?

If you've got a brilliant answer, I'm all for it.  All I can come up with is that I now have four tickets in the lottery for Western States in 2019.  Here's to another opportunity to humiliate myself.

Ultrarunner of the Year: My Ballot

photo: marathontrainingacademy.com
I was honored to be included once again on the voting panel for Ultrarunning magazine's prestigious Ultrarunner of the Year award.  This was my third time voting, and it isn't getting any easier.  I know I complained last year, but at least in 2016 the top spots for both the men and women were pretty obvious.  This year we had no such luck.  I think pretty much everyone will agree on the top two women, although in which order they ultimately wind up is anyone's guess; I spent nearly as much time deciding between the two of them as I did on the rest of the entire ballot.  The remainder of the ballot was pure torture as usual.  I'm thrilled that I get to keep voting, but it really is an excruciating process and by the time I'm done my stomach usually hurts pretty badly.

Posting my ballot has inspired a lot of good-natured (and not-so-good-natured) criticism in the past, and this year with the launch of my new podcast, The Pain Cave, I decided to be a bit proactive in addressing this.  I invited New York ultra stud Jason Mintz, one of my staunchest (if friendliest) critics, on the pod to debate our picks.  Unfortunately Mintz had to cancel at the last minute, but our mutual friend Laura Kline was kind enough to step in and provide the counterpoint to my ballot.  Listen to the episode here; I'll list my ballot below, but Laura and I get into the nitty-gritty a little bit more and really go through our reasoning and justification for some of the decisions we had to make.

I don't yet have the final results tabulated for the Gunksrunner Ultra Rankings for this year, which is unfortunate since I like comparing them to my ballot.  I hope to have the results finished by the time Ultrarunning publishes the UROY results, and we can do a little comparison then.

Just a reminder: FKTs are not to be considered in this voting, not for UROY or Performance of the Year.  A separate committee votes on the top FKTs of the year.  So, feel free to tear apart my ballot, but dear god, don't criticize me for not including FKTs.

Women's UROY
1. Camille Herron
2. Courtney Dauwalter
3. Clare Gallagher
4. Katylyn Gerbin
5. Magdalena Boulet
6. Jacqueline Merritt
7. Kelly Wolf
8. Katalin Nagy
9. Cat Bradley
10. Devon Yanko

I'm not going to delve deep my reasoning for any of these categories; listen to the podcast as we spent nearly an hour doing that and I don't feel like rehashing that here.  The Camille vs. Courtney debate for the top spot was incredibly difficult, but Clare Gallagher was a pretty easy choice, for me at least, at #3.  Spots 4-6 were basically identical and I would've been happy with any order.  Toughest omissions: Keely Henninger, Anna Mae Flynn, Kathleen Cusick, Hillary Allen, Megan Kimmel, Sarah Bard, and Sabrina Little.

Women's Performance of the Year
1. Camille Herron's 100 mile WR at Tunnel Hill
2. Camille's win at Comrades
3. Courtney Dauwalter's 24-hour AR at Soochow
4. Camille (again!) 12-hour WR at Desert Solstice
5. Rory Bosio's overall win and women's CR at Tahoe Rim Trail 50-mile

Tough omissions were Cat Bradley's unexpected come-from-behind win at Western States, Clare Gallagher's win at CCC, Courtney's dominating win at Run Rabbit Run (despite temporary blindness), Katalin Nagy's (transient) 24-hour AR, and Michelle Leduc's Canadian Record at 100 miles (made easier to leave off the list by the fact that Camille ran over two hours faster this year).

Women's Age Group Performance of the Year
1. Liz Bauer (58 years old), first at Across the Years 6-day (418 miles)
2. Meghan (Arbogast) Laws (56), 9th at Western States
3. Sally Brooking (61), 4th at Mountain Mist 50K (5:46--and that's not an easy course)
4. Roxanne Woodhouse (54), first at Tahoe Rim Trail 100-mile
5. Jean Herbert (61), 9:21 at JFK 50

Men's UROY
1. Tim Tollefson
2. Jim Walmsley
3. Alex Nichols
4. Tim Freriks
5. Avery Collins
6. Sage Canaday
7. Mark Hammond
8. Hayden Hawks
9. Max King
10. Patrick Reagan

God, was this an unpleasant task.  Again, listen to the podcast for most of my reasoning; Laura and I discussed if it's fair to grade Jim on a curve, how much a DNF should count against you, why I'm such a Cornell XC homer, and the importance of big international races like CCC, Comrades, and UTMB.  My toughest cuts in this category: Dylan Bowman, Bob Shebest, Olivier Leblond, Jeff Browning, Jason Schlarb, Cody Reed, Brian Rusiecki, Kris Brown, Anthony Kunkel, and Eric Senseman.

Men's Performance of the Year
1. Olivier Leblond's 48-hour AR (262 miles)
2. Geoff Burns' 5:14 at Chicago Lakefront 50-mile
3. Tyler Jermann's 2:48 50K at Caumsett
4. Hayden Hawks' win at CCC
5. Guillame Calmettes' win at Big's Backyard Ultra

I found this category much easier this year than last, for some reason.  Jim had some amazing performances again this year, but nothing that captured the imagination of the ultra world like many of his 2016 exploits.  For some reason Tim Tollefson's third place finish at UTMB was fifth on my ballot last year but not this year.  So much for internal logic.  But I was much happier with this list than with my UROY top 10.  Toughest snubs: Jim's CR runs at Tarawera and Gorge Waterfalls, Tim's aforementioned UTMB race (and Jim, DBo, and Zach at UTMB, for that matter), and Tim Freriks' two huge wins at Transvulcania and North Face.

Men's Age Group Performance of the Year
1. Thomas Devers (60 years old), 3:38 50K (and first place) at the Tallahassee Distance Classic
2. Bob Hearn (51), 151 miles in 24 hours at Run4water
3. Rich Hanna (52), 6:18 at American River 50-mile
4. Jean Pommier (52), 3:19 at Jed Smith 50K
5. Gene Dykes (69), finishing the Triple Crown of 200s

So there you go.  Same rules from last year apply: feel free to rip me apart in the comments, but you have to vote for me for Run Ultra's Blogger of the Year first.  Cast your vote and flame away!

Guest Post: Stewart Dutfield's 2017 Journal

And now for something a bit different...

Local ultrarunner Stewart Dutfield was kind enough to share the diary he's been keeping for 2017 and I thought it would be fun to include it here. His journal is based on the diary of fellow Brit Alan Bennett and is a cool glimpse into the thoughts of a dedicated runner who enjoys experiencing the world around him. Hopefully Stewart will keep us updated with some semi-regular posts in 2018.

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Trail markers at the terminus of the Long Path imply that it continues northward...
13 January. Old Stage Road, above Altamont in Albany County, is currently the northern terminus of New York's Long Path; Ken Posner's recent book describes his 350-mile journey that ended here with a wry twist. On a clear, cold Friday evening 18 of us arrived at the trailhead for a the first full moon adventure of the year. People had traveled for hours, from Connecticut and Westchester, to walk five miles in the dark and watch moonrise over the Hudson Valley. After Dick had fallen hard on ice fifty yards in, we encountered good footing except on the dirt roads (back country ice skating, anyone?). The trail climbed hardly at all, but the view from High Point took in all of Albany and beyond. The informal trail along the cliff edge led, at one point with the rising moon directly ahead, to another high overlook at Hang Glider Point. As we took snapshots of people doing headstands, a bright light emerged from the woods: a fat-tire cyclist, no doubt as surprised to see us as we were to see her. 
16 January. I ski conservatively, focused on avoiding injury with limited technique and simple equipment ill-suited to "packed powder" and "corn snow"—euphemisms for concrete with ice balls on top. Trying to keep up with Clayton, I was knocked down hard by a youngster skiing fast who "didn't expect me to turn". I was angry, and my shoulder hurt; little wonder I don't ski often. 
28 January. From miles all around Albany you can see the Corning Tower, the most priapic feature of Nelson Rockefeller's Empire State Plaza. On the 44th floor, Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy held its 25th anniversary celebration. To the south west, the view encompassed several of its 15 preserves. Beyond, the sun set behind the Northern Catskills: Thomas Cole, Black Dome, and all the summits of the Escarpment Trail between Windham and North Lake. 

Empire State Plaza from the Keleher Preserve
29 January. Ron Hill ended his running streak, which started when I was nine years old. In the following few years he held three world records, ran the second-ever sub-2:10 marathon, and in 1970 broke the Boston marathon record by more than three minutes—he had been expecting the five miles after the top of Heartbreak Hill to be all descent, but "it looked undulating to me". Ron's example and his two-volume autobiography "The Long Hard Road", an unremitting catalog of many years' training, races and breakdowns, have inspired countless runners to get out of the door. Many do so every day without a break, as Ron did for more than 52 years. 
17 February. To work by snowshoe down the rail trail, carrying the snowshoes for the final two miles on city streets. On the gradual but strenuous climb homeward under the Thruway and past Normanskill Falls, the snow glowed slightly orange from the scattered city lights. The moon was not yet up, but Venus shone brightly ahead. I have never needed a light here except to be seen by, and on this night there was no-one to see me except a furtive snowmobiler, who had less furtively left tracks all around the houses on a nearby street. I wonder how the neighbors felt about that. 

19 February. Snowshoe races take place at the whim of the weather. Smaller now than in its heyday in the Albany Pine Bush (where Vladimir Nabokov would collect butterflies among the sand dunes), Brave the Blizzard takes place at Tawasentha Park, in what some locals believe to be Hiawatha country. Today's snow was deep and soft, with a thaw in progress that would extinguish our tracks within a couple of days. We slapped and slithered around the woods in the warm sunshine, a world away from Gitche Gumee. 
24 February. Two books arrived in today's mail: Geoff Nicholson's "Walking In Ruins" and a biography of Edward Payson Weston, who in 1910 walked across the US in 77 days, fifty years after having walked from Boston to Washington in ten days in settlement of a bet on Abraham Lincoln's election. Weston's longevity in multi-day pedestrianism may never be matched, though I hope to be completing ultramarathons over as long a timespan. Having started a few years younger than Weston, perhaps I have a chance. Anyone who has ascended the trail from KTD monastery above Woodstock knows the ruin of the Overlook Mountain House, and among the many delights of the North Lake area are the remains of roads, railways, and huge hotels. Thus goes the glory of luxury resorts and golf courses.
The only remnant of the Catskill Mountain House

4 March. Not long after dawn, I set off from Woodstock village wrapped against the cold wind. There was just enough time to complete nine road miles and join Doug's training run for two more loops plus a bonus climb back to KTD monastery. Doug and I walked the uphills and put the world to rights. I completed more than 30 miles, and perhaps 10,000 feet of elevation change, with no more sustenance that morning than two granola bars and a few pints of Darjeeling tea. A depletion run might precede carbohydrate loading, but I immediately resumed a normal diet. It surely can't hurt to become accustomed in training to low glycogen, which inevitably occurs in an ultramarathon with many miles still to run. 


29 March. Two years from today, the UK will leave the European Union. 
Friday's football, punted, arched high over the weekend. 
The radio played Vera Lynn as Nissan Oxfords paraded in the High Street. 
Supermarkets ran Saturday specials on small bananas, shut on Sunday. 
Lawns were clipped, all fences and gates made good. Everyone was nice to everyone nice. 
The Lord's servants, dismissed, filled the pubs to right a world once more pint-sized. 
And on April 1st the ball fell back to earth. 


The Helderberg Escarpment
9 April. Thacher Park offers many miles of trails, all on top of the limestone Helderberg Escarpment. I've found only one major uphill, south from the main overlook (where parking is limited to one hour but doesn't cost $6), crossing Beaver Dam Road to an out-and-back trail that once continued as the Long Path. The land is now closed at the top of the hill, and the landowner seems unresponsive to written requests for occasional access. On the way back, I stumbled and tweaked an upper hamstring, impairing my running for a couple of weeks. A physical therapist had told me not long before that aging leaves muscles more liable to injury, but I continue to avoid preventative stretching. Perhaps when truly unable to run I will stretch in earnest, but meanwhile I live with the guilt. 

7 May. The Double Up training run climbs both sides of Kaaterskill Clove. First, it follows the Harding Road to the site of the once-huge Hotel Kaaterskill and continues to Boulder Rock, where splendidly-clad visitors once posed and aspired, perhaps, to a romantic ideal. Cole, Church and Gifford all painted the sublime from hereabouts, despite the nearby tanning and clearcutting. Earlier in the spring, Joe brought me to the ruined water tower for the Catskill Mountain House; a pile of curved planks and steel bands that once formed a huge wooden barrel, this is all that's left above ground from these grand mountain hotels. On my way up the second climb, to the more remote but still romantically named Poet's Ledge, I began to reflect that ruins are less interesting than traces: the old paths, roads and rail beds that we follow while somehow aware of the ghosts of those who were here before, when it all looked so different. 

Puddingstone Hall was once an attraction of the Catskill Mountain House

28 May. Lake Ontario and the upper St. Lawrence River are several feet above their usual level, and the Long Sault Dam is holding back water from further flooding parts of Quebec already under water. Owners of waterfront property worry about their docks and boathouses, and the river rats of the Thousand Islands wonder when the excess will drain from the system and the season's recreational boating and Seaway shipping return to normal. The river has inundated sections of trail in the Minna Anthony Common nature center, and a dock that protrudes into the narrows between Wellesley and Murray is barely visible to approaching boats. Feathers, beads and pottery shards decorate the tree beneath which Vivekananda sat, on his visit to Thousand Island Park in 1893, and seem to echo a feeling that not all is as usual. 
Drowned docks in the 1000 Islands
3 June. The Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy manages preserves on and below the Helderberg escarpment, and on National Trails Day I set out to run between several of them. I followed markings for the Long Path (several miles beyond its official terminus) around Wolf Creek Falls and, with a detour to the Winn preserve, on roads and trails until a couple of miles beyond Thacher Park. Munching trail mix & sipping water from a backpack, I ran the roads between each preserve and trail loops in Keleher and Bennett Hill. At Holt preserve a recent entry in the sign-in book described the trails as very soggy, so 2 after 11 hours on my feet I elected to simply follow the old Copeland Hill Road to meet the car that would drive me the 45 minutes back to the start.

25 June. Overlook Mountain in Woodstock offers a classic training ground for mountain ultramarathons: 2,500 feet of ascent in five miles, repeated several times in one day. I park at the KTD monastery, half way up, and start on the dirt road to the summit where the view from the top of the fire tower includes most of the Catskill high peaks, as well as Mohonk, the Hudson Highlands, and Mt Greylock. The Devil's Path seemed close enough to touch, but morning haze obscured the southern Green Mountains in Vermont. Side trips through mountain laurel on forest trails offered some variety, as did the very steep climb to California Quarry where I was able to imagine myself on the forest roads below Auburn just as the morning's last Western States finishers would be making their way up from No Hands Bridge. 


1 July. Having completed Nicholas Crane's epic "The Making of the British Landscape" I revisited its 1955 forebear, W. G. Hoskins' "The Making of the English Landscape". He imagines a supposed primeval landscape "...seated beside a wide, flooding estuary as the light thickens on a winter evening, dissolving all the irrelevant human details of the scene, leaving nothing but the shining water, the sky, and the darkening hills, and the immemorial sound of curlews whistling over the mud and fading river-beaches... We are seeing the natural world through the eyes of men who died three or four thousand years ago, and for a moment or two we succeed in entering the minds of the dead." In a beautiful end to the book, he describes how the view from his window came to be; imagining of people from the past also happens in places affected by humans, whose ghosts one can sense in the evidence of what they lived amidst, whether pristine or man-made. 


An exposed island campsite overlooking 40 Acre Patch
5 July. Early in the afternoon I set off by kayak to Canada for Indian takeout. Two hours later, while reporting to Canadian customs, it occurred that I could paddle the contraband jalfrezi to the obligatory US border checkin across a broad expanse of water known as Forty Acre Patch. To the west, a sloop sailed in the distance with the Wolfe Island wind farm as background. People, it seems, are seldom persuaded by arguments for and against wind turbines, but simply rationalize what they already prefer. One argument against is that turbines are ugly; perhaps I enjoyed too many Dutch seascapes in my youth, but this view seemed beautiful to me. 

19 July. The Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike trail runs from Quay Street in downtown Albany to the erstwhile manufacturing town of Cohoes, where it joins an old rail bed towards Schenectady and turns westward towards Buffalo. From the volunteer organization that advocates for the trail, Jean had obtained a trail map gratis; she and I rode down from our local rail trail and then 35 miles or so to the town of Rotterdam. On our right we passed Erie Canal lock 8 on the Mohawk River, with the old ditch of the Erie canal inland to our left. Then we climbed away toward home. On a small road between a lower portion on one map and an upper portion on another, we confronted an array of signs as the road turned to gravel: Private, Posted, Road Closed. On close reading, the road appeared unmaintained and closed to automotive traffic, but the signs on private property strained to suggest that they applied to the road as well. We carried on: what looks like a right of way deserves to be followed just in case, and we needed to be home by mid-afternoon. At the top of the steep climb a sign for Rotterdam appeared amidst nothing but farms and fields, and we cruised down for the last couple of hours' cycling on familiar roads. 

4 August. Friends brought me to the Watts Cemetery Chapel, built beneath the old Hog's Back in Surrey by villagers of Compton under the guidance of Mary Fraser Tytler. Married in 1886 to a much older and established artist, she seems to have made her own way in social reform and in engaging people who were not established artists in creative work. I wonder whether, when they married, the august George Frederic Watts was prepared for such subversion.

Watts Cemetery Chapel
photo: Alison Acred
Watts Cemetery Chapel interior
photo: Alison Acred

5 August. Having left Farnham early in the morning, I trotted along the dry and sandy path past the Watts Gallery with another 28 hours before I would reach Ashford in Kent. Afternoon rainstorms made the going slick enough to make staying upright a challenge, let alone moving forward. The North Downs Way 3 repeatedly—and exhaustingly—climbs to the top of the chalk ridge, and then drops back to the Pilgrims Way below. I later read Burton Raffel's modern English translation of The Canterbury Tales in a fruitless search for any reference to mud or sore feet along my route, but Chaucer's party appear to have travelled considerably to the north of the old pilgrims' track from Winchester to Canterbury.
7 August. After lunch at the marvellous (if quirky) India Club, an afternoon with dear and long-established friends continued with a visits to the Temple Church—where barons confronted King John prior to Magna Carta—and the Tate Modern's Giacometti exhibit. I know little about sculpture but have always liked the look of those etiolated figures; the show made a persuasive case that this was less consciously-adopted style than emotional response to the human damage of the first half of the 20th century. Beneath the Hungerford Bridge, Feliks Topolski's Memoir of that century is now a bar, with the proceeds to maintain some of the paintings a few arches away. Whenever friends planned to visit London I've told them to see Topolski's Century, but they seldom found it open; I hope that the new arrangement will both preserve this marvellous and quirky work and make it easier to visit. 9 August. Back from a visit to my godfather, I set off from the India Club for a long walk in the rain around the City of London: ghosts of the Roman city at St. Bride's church and Watling Street, covered arcades at Liverpool Street and Leadenhall Market, and the site of my godfather's office furnishing business in Lime St. He moved out in 1973, since when the site has been redeveloped twice. Last stop was the Cockpit (pub, not theatre) behind Ludgate Hill, where I narrowly avoided drinking too much fine Guinness while chatting with an Irish bus driver. 1 September. I ran along the Thames towpath from Oxford to Nuneham Courtenay—appearing much as in the young Turner's view of 1787—and returned by way of the Iffley Road track, which I could not trot around because the university football and rugby teams were running miles. I had crossed, without noticing its design, the Mathematical Bridge at Iffley Lock; I hope to return and see it as more than simply a means to cross a small body of water.
2 September. Feeling greater urgency now than when I had the opportunity every day as a teenager, I visited the Ashmolean for the first time. I was pleased to recognize a few paintings from having recently read the catalogue of a ten-years-ago Belgian exhibit of British art: Holman Hunt's London Bridge..., Sickert's Ennui, and a lovely Constable cloud study (are they not all lovely, their supposedly analytical origin notwithstanding?). I didn't see the El Greco on long-term loan from New College, where it once lived in the antechapel with the memorial to four Germans that has always felt profoundly moving— perhaps as a counter to the despair that I imagine among those who had been part of World War I: 


3 September. I had arranged for dinner at the India Club with yet more well-established friends (we're at an age when "old" is the wrong word). Entertaining a Master of Wine, I was unsure whether the bar would be up to pre-dinner drinks, but need not have worried. With an hour to spare, I nipped into the National Gallery for the first time in decades. Big Constables and Turners (Flatford Mill, The Hay Wain, The Fighting Temeraire), once staples from old British biscuit tins, now live on a single wall. Visible all at once, with the benefit of age and one's back to the Gainsborough, is a collection of images that transcend nationalism and cliché. No doubt there remain some who celebrate in Temeraire the glorious days of Nelson rather than meditate upon the perpetual passing of the old, but my preference has always been the apprehension of the new in Rain, Steam and Speed. Though the location is the Thames at Maidenhead, I have always imagined it further north amidst the muck and brass of the Industrial Revolution: perhaps at Ribblehead, instead.

17 September. En route for Montreal, the Adirondacks or Great Escape Fun Park, the Northway passes a sign for Moreau Lake State Park. The hills come as a surprise, since no hint of them appears until one is 4 beside the lake. As the Hudson River makes its way southward, these hills turn it north again toward Glens Falls. The visitor feels disoriented; it took a close look at the map to work out that the 15K trail race climbs from the south and takes a broadly clockwise loop, with no sign of either the highway or the river. Early in the ascent we encountered bees, and then pain of a different kind on the "Staircase of Death" which sharply climbs several hundred feet with no hint of a helpful stair. Once on top, the course calls for constant transitions between short uphills and downhills, rocks, roots, and sharp winds in the trail; unlike mountain bikes, trail runners can use an infinite number of gears—continuously variable transmission. Avoiding last year's navigational errors, I basked briefly in the glow of having run considerably faster until the results showed an improvement of only one minute.

2 October. Who thinks and prays for the dead yet to come? As we agonize over victims and their families from one incident in Las Vegas, we evade what might be done to prevent carnage elsewhere and in the future. Policy and legislation that attain positive social outcomes are just so 1990s. When people say "Thoughts and Prayers", what are they thinking? 
  • 1. There, now I feel better. Wonder what's on twitter. 
  • 2. We stand for these soldiers who fell in defense of American freedom, and honor their contribution to USA being #1. 
  • 3. Had it been a rap festival the guy would be alive and out on bail by now. 
  • 4. If all the attendees had been armed they would have been quite safe. 
  • 5. How do I avoid doing something that will affect my 2018 election campaign? 
  • 6. We hope all this goes quiet before our next SEC 10-K filing. 
  • 7. Buy! Buy! 
  • 8. I'm not sure this really happened, anyway. 



28 October. Twice a year, the Albany Running Exchange encourages both runners and volunteers to adopt fancy dress for a race in the woods. Almost everyone dressed up for the Hairy Gorilla half marathon in Thacher Park, I somewhat modestly in mismatched socks, ancient but still dazzling Eric Clifton tights, and duck-themed T shirt. Perhaps one day I shall obtain two pairs of otherwise identical running shoes in contrasting colors and then run in mismatched footwear. Approaching the finish after only six miles, I asked directions of a zombie brandishing a (running) chainsaw before retracing my steps to where I had ignored people yelling "turn left". I was pleased to be the first old male to finish, though a woman my age was eight minutes faster. 
4 November. The many trails in Willowdale State Forest, on Cape Ann in Massachusetts, have numbered intersections but are otherwise scarcely blazed or signposted. The Stone Cat race takes four 12.5 mile loops, brightly marked for the occasion with ribbon. What had seemed largely flat at first felt increasingly hilly as I unsuccessfully tried to balance an even pace with conserving energy—and while eating ever messier handfuls of pumpkin pie on the run. Over the course of the day, features of the trail became familiar, and on passing the "This trail courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Moose" sign for the last time I was piling on whatever was left in reserve. Courses that cover the same ground more than once miss the sense of journey and adventure that I prefer, but despite poor pacing I was pleased not to have struggled, at the start of each new loop, with the senselessness of it all.

Fall view from the Escarpment Trail
1 December. The habit of an occasional winter hike under the full moon erupted once more, with eight of us numbering off at the Long Path trailhead in Windham. The moon rose behind clouds on a calm night with very little snow or ice. The trail off Blackhead looked a little like the entrance to Narnia, and when the sky cleared it was almost bright enough to hike without a light. We danced on North Point, with a view over North/South Lake and miles of the Hudson valley. In 1993, two of our party completed the 20 miles in five hours; older now, if not wiser, we took more than twice as long. 

Blogger of the Year, Take Two!


I'm very happy to announce that for the second straight year I've been shortlisted by the fine folks at RunUltra for the Ultra Blogger of the Year award.  RunUltra is a UK-based website that is an amazing repository of all things ultrarunning.  Their content runs the gamut: training advice, gear reviews, reporting on elite results from all over the globe, articles on physiology, motivation, race preparation, and basically anything else you might want to know in the ultra world.  Those guys (and gals!) know their stuff...so to be named once again to their shortlist of candidates is truly an honor.
Last year's vote came down to the wire, though a closer examination of the balloting apparently revealed some...irregularities.  I can neither confirm nor deny reports of Russian hacking.  Anyway, the great Sarah Lavendar Smith, author of the superb blog "The Runner's Trip" (as well as The Trail Runner's Companion, an excellent book) was ultimately named a most deserving winner.  Sarah's up for the award again this year, so let's see if we can give her a (legitimate) run for her money.

This was kind of a big year for us here at "A Muddy Par of Heels."  I tried to branch out a little with the Running and Your Heart series of posts, adding a bit of an informative/academic bent that I hope people found useful, in addition to the usual race reports and other nonsense you've come to know and love.  Also this year I launched my podcast, "The Pain Cave," a series of conversations about running in general and ultrarunning in particular that takes a closer look at some of the science behind the sport, and other relevant issues of the day.  I view the blog and the podcast as kind of a companion set; hopefully each has helped enhance your enjoyment of the other.  (You can find The Pain Cave on my new website, Gunksrunner.com, which is still a work in progress but ultimately should bring all my various running-related interests under the same tent.)  Unfortunately Lexi didn't quite hold up her end of the bargain this year--she's busy co-writing a novel about dragons with a friend of hers--so if I don't win I suppose I can blame it on her.

If you enjoy the blog, please take a moment to vote for me on the RunUltra website.  (You can use that link there, but I also figured out how to link the voting page with the image at the top of this post--if you just click on the badge at the top of the page, it takes you right to the voting!  If that's not enough of a reason to vote for me, I don't know what is.)  Scroll down to my name--I'm the eighth name on the left side, just above some punter named Jeff Browning--and click "Vote" under my name.  Wait, you're not done!  Now scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page, fill in your name and email address, and press "Enter."  You should get a new screen that confirms you've voted.  Thanks!  One vote per email address please; we don't want any monkey business this year.  Voting runs until January 14.  Just do it now before you forget.  As a cool bonus, everyone who votes is automatically entered in a drawing for a super cool Suunto Trainer watch.

In all seriousness, thank you for all your support of this blog.  It's a silly pursuit, I know, but it really means a lot when I get positive feedback from people who read the posts and let me know they've gotten something positive out of it.  I'll keep bugging y'all to vote, and I hope I win, but just having that kind of support is what keeps me plugging away at this thing.  But, seriously, go vote now.

Running and Your Heart, Part V: Coronary Calcifications


So I thought I was done with the Running and Your Heart series, but some questions came up that made me realize I needed to clarify a couple of points.  And I don't know, maybe we're not done with the series; I could see doing some more in-depth posts in the future about some specific issues.  A detailed post on atrial fibrillation might be in order.  For now, though, we're going to delve a bit deeper into coronary calcifications, their significance, and what the research means for us as distance runners.
image: the Heart Research Institute

As such, think of this post less as the fifth installment in the series and more as part IIIb, as we'll be addressing basically what we talked about in part III (and touched on briefly in part IV).  Let's recap some of the main points from that post.  The coronary arteries are blood vessels that carry blood to the heart muscle, supplying that muscle with the oxygen needed to carry out its function--namely, pumping blood throughout the body.  Blood flow through these blood vessels can be compromised by a disease process called arteriosclerosis--literally, a hardening of the arteries.  Generally, arteriosclerosis is caused by the accumulation of plaques within the walls of the arteries, resulting in a narrowing/hardening of the arteries (stenosis) that can impede the flow of blood to the heart muscle.  In times of increased stress on the heart (i.e., exercise), the demands of the heart muscle for oxygen are increased; if not enough blood is able to flow through these narrow, stenotic arteries to meet this demand, the heart muscle suffers from ischemia (lack of oxygen).  Prolonged ischemia, or complete occlusion of the artery, can lead to infarction, or death of a part of the heart muscle--which, if significant enough, can be debilitating or fatal.

Remember that in part III, we discussed the use of CT scans in detecting underlying coronary artery disease--namely, looking for calcium deposition in the coronary arteries.  Calcium is a component of many arterial plaques and is easily visible on high-resolution CT scans.  This test is especially useful in folks who don't have any symptoms of coronary disease but may have risk factors.  A growing body of research indicates that long-term endurance athletes--those who have been training at high levels or volumes for a decade or more--paradoxically have higher rates of coronary calcification than those of their age-matched peers in the general population, despite having much lower rates of many risk factors, like diabetes, hypertension, or obesity.  Remember that these studies have demonstrated correlation, not causation--we can't say that sustained exercise is the cause of this finding, only note that the relationship exists.  And recall also that we've yet to demonstrate what the real-world implications of these findings are--which is the point of this more involved discussion. To wit, the question: does having more coronary calcification lead to a higher risk of having a cardiac event?  The short answer is, yes--but for marathon runners, maybe not.

Numerous studies of the general population (that is to say, not specifically among marathon/ultramarathon runners) have correlated coronary artery calcification (CAC) scores to a higher risk of suffering a cardiac event, such as heart attack, death, or the need for revascularization (a re-opening of a blocked artery).  The exact degree of risk varies by study, but ranges from a four-fold risk increase to a twenty-fold increase have been reported in studies of varying size and quality.  Higher CAC scores are associated with a higher degree of risk, with significant risk increases generally seen with scores above 100 or 300 (zero is "normal").

OK, so that's bad.  Higher scores are associated with higher risk, and we've demonstrated that "obsessive" runners have higher scores, on average, than the general population.  That means our risk of suffering a significant cardiac event must be much higher, right?  Well, not necessarily.  First off, as I mentioned in the earlier post, there is research suggesting that long-term aerobic exercise leads to coronary arteries that have larger diameter, and have a greater ability to dilate.  (The autopsy of seven-time Boston Marathon champion Clarence DeMar famously revealed that his coronary arteries were two to three times wider than average.)  Secondly, to better understand our level of risk, we need to understand the nature of arterial plaque and the reasons one might suffer from a cardiac event.

Generally, narrowing of the coronary arteries, in and of itself, is unlikely to cause a cardiac event.  The precipitating factor in a cardiac event is often the rupture of an arterial plaque.  A piece of the plaque can break off and get carried "downstream" to a narrower part of the artery.  If it gets lodged there, it can cause a complete occlusion of blood flow to an area of the heart muscle, resulting in a heart attack.  So if we can identify which plaques are more susceptible to rupture, this will allow for a better stratification of risk.

Simply put, not all plaque is created equal.  Arterial plaque is generally composed of various substances: fat, cholesterol, calcium, and fibrin, to name a few.  One way of thinking of plaques is to classify them as either "hard" or "soft".  Hard plaque, made up of predominantly calcium, is generally considered more stable and less prone to rupture than softer (mostly cholesterol) or "mixed" plaque.  The good news is that while high-volume exercisers have higher CAC scores, they are much more likely to have hard, calcific plaques (read: stable) and much less likely to have mixed plaques than subjects who exercised the least.

So while we know that elevated CAC scores in the general population put people at risk for cardiac events, the risk for runners who have elevated CAC scores may not be the same, because of the composition of their plaques, and possibly the dilation of their coronary arteries.  Perhaps this is why, despite the fact that runners appear to have paradoxically higher-than-expected rates of calcification, cardiac events among habitual marathoners seem to remain relatively infrequent occurrences.

Race Report: WC 50--There's No Cure for Stupid


This fall has been less about racing per se and more about setting myself up for 2018, when I have three big (for me) races on the calendar, plus hopefully an attempt at the Bob Graham Round (fingers crossed that trip comes together).  But racing can be part of training as well.  Races are good opportunities to experience stimuli that you might not be getting in your weekly training, either in terms of distance or intensity, and they can be a nice gauge of fitness as you shape your plans and goals moving forward.  My experience in September at Mountain Madness fell into the former category.  I travelled to North Carolina two weeks ago for the latter.

My sister and her family have lived in Charlotte for about 12 years now, only about 20 miles from the US National Whitewater Center, which is a really cool facility for aspiring elite kayakers and rafters.  Since opening in 2006, the center has grown to include rock climbing, zip lines, high ropes courses, and many miles of mountain biking trails, and they now host all sorts of events and races.  The WC 50, now in its fifth year, is the ultramarathon entry into the Whitewater Race Series, and a race I've wanted to run for some time due to its proximity to family.  The dates worked this year for a quick trip down for my nephew's birthday party and an early-morning jaunt in the trails.  I expected a low-key day out; I had no idea of the competition, but looking at previous results, I planned on running a relaxed effort near the front and seeing where my fitness level would get me.

We started in the dark, at 6am, on a fairly warm morning--temps were already nearing 70 degrees.  The race started out with a short "parade loop" around the whitewater course before heading into the trails for the first of three 10.2-mile loops.  I set off at a relaxed but quick tempo and was immediately at the front of a field of about 100.  By the time we hopped onto the singletrack about five minutes in, I was out in front with one other runner and it looked like we'd be on our own most of the day.  We ran together at a nice pace; the miles were marked with signs tacked to the trees, and we were clicking off splits in the 7:40/mile range on some fairly technical but runnable mountain bike trails.  It was a bit tough monitoring our footing with just headlamps, but it was fun running at speed through the darkness, and the early miles passed by quickly.  We ran together throughout the first lap.  The second half of the loop had a few significant climbs, though we kept up a solid tempo.  The mile splits suddenly had jumped up to over 10-12 minutes per mile, but I think this was due to incorrect markings as opposed to any change in our effort or actual pace.  (This sense was supported by subsequent laps, when we would again run 7:30-7:40 pace on the early "miles", followed by 10-12 minute "miles" later on.)  Regardless, we rolled through the first 11+ mile lap in about 1:39; I grabbed my Orange Mud handheld and ran on through the start/finish aid station, while my companion--a strong local runner named Chase Eckard--took a quick break with his crew before catching back up within the first mile of lap 2.

We kept the effort steady and chatted through the early part of the lap.  Chase said, "When do you think Karl will catch us?"  I knew that Karl Meltzer, the winningest 100-mile runner of all time, had been in town for the pre-race dinner, promoting Made to Be Broken, a film about his record-breaking run on the Appalachian Trail.  I hadn't realized he was racing, although I had considered the possibility.  For some reason I had assumed that if he was racing, it would be in the 50-mile, which had started at 5am on a course that incorporated our entire 10-mile loop plus an additional 7 miles on each of three 17-mile loops.  

"Oh, is Karl racing?" I asked.  

"Yeah," said Chase, "he started off at the back."

I have no idea why--partly because of my pre-race assumption, I guess, and partly because we were leading the race and why would I be leading a race against Karl Meltzer?--Chase's comment simply reinforced my notion that he was in the 50-mile.  I wasn't sure if he would run the opening 17 miles of his race in under 2:40 on this course, so by my twisted logic I wasn't clear if we were actually ahead of him or not at this point.  "Well," I said, "if we finished our first lap before he did, we might be ok; he might catch us later in this lap.  But either way, we'll pass him when he does the extra seven miles on lap two."  Chase didn't really have much to say about that, which given that Karl was actually in our race makes perfect sense; in retrospect I must have sounded like a freaking moron.

ANYWAY, we ran together until about the 16-mile mark, when Chase blasted away on a long downhill stretch and I eased off a bit, resisting the urge to really open up this early in the race.  Instead I took in some calories, slamming down two GUs in rapid succession (my first calories to that point, I realized, even with the fat adaptation I've got to be a little smarter about that) and settling into a nice solo rhythm.  I caught a few glimpses of Chase on some longer stretches, about a minute ahead at a couple of spots, before we started in on the climbing again.  I didn't expect to start racing for a few miles yet, but suddenly he appeared in front of me near the 20-mile mark, walking at the top of a long but runnable uphill.  We exchanged a few words of encouragement as I made an easy pass.  By the time we reached the end of lap 2, a little over a mile later, I already had about two minutes on him, and I was feeling good.  Barring disaster, I felt like I had it in the bag.

Disaster is exactly what happened about 25 minutes later.  I rolled through the opening miles of the final lap feeling a little tired but generally relaxed and strong.  My splits were within shouting distance of my first two laps.  I passed the 4-mile mark of lap 3, about 25 miles overall, in 3:52; doing some quick calculations (and taking into account the longer "miles" in the second half of the lap), I was looking at about a 4:55, maybe right around 5 hours if I slowed down a little.  I briefly stepped off the trail to fertilize the soil, not realizing I was near one of the myriad switchbacks on the course.  Somehow I got turned around and ended up on the wrong end of the switchback.  After a couple of minutes of running, I started getting a sinking feeling in my stomach.  The trails all looked the same, but some of those turns were looking too familiar...as if I had just run them...and then I came around a corner and arrived back at the one-mile mark.

Well, that was just too much.  I sat down on a log by the side of the trail and had myself a little pity party; after a couple of minutes I started walking backwards towards the start, ready to throw in the towel rather than run another nine miles.  After a few minutes of that, though, I felt pretty stupid, having travelled all the way down and then not even bothering to finish; I thought about Jim at States last year, sighed, turned around, and trudged back over the same three miles I had just run.  I finally cruised into the mid-loop aid station about 40 minutes behind schedule.  The volunteers were all very confused--none of the leaders had actually gone past me--but after I explained what happened they were sympathetic, as they had seen Chase and I up front all day.  The told me Chase was now running second to Karl, which is how I came to finally realize that Karl had been in the 50K all along; they poured me a shot of bourbon, which at this point I figured what the hell, and sent me on my way.

Speedgoat Karl on his way to the win.
photo: US National Whitewater Center
I actually felt pretty good the rest of the way, and managed to pick off one or two other folks en route to finishing in 5:41, officially 6th but in actuality 5th (looking at the splits, the 5th place runner is credited with a second lap of 1:21--fifteen minutes faster than anyone in the race ran any other lap on the day, and almost 30 minutes faster than either his first or last lap, so there's no way that's legit, but whatever).  I felt fine afterwards, and actually wasn't even all that sore the next day, so it confirmed at least a decent level of fitness.  And for the first hour or two I didn't even care about what had happened; I basically shrugged afterwards talking to Karl and said "That's trail racing, shit happens."  But after a little while the disappointment really set in.  I had put over seven minutes on Karl after one lap; on lap two I had given back barely 30 seconds.  I had basically tossed away probably my only chance to beat a legend like Karl--and not some outside chance; the race was basically over--by being a fucking idiot.  

Name
Lap 1
Lap 2
Lap 3
Finish
Karl Meltzer
1:46:24
1:36:51
1:45:31
5:08:47
Bill Shires
1:49:18
1:38:57
1:51:36
5:19:51
Chase Eckard
1:38:55
1:39:11
2:04:08
5:22:15
Paul Halaburda
1:48:07
1:48:39
1:55:29
5:32:16
Stephen Spada
1:49:17
1:21:36
2:27:01
5:37:55
Jason Friedman
1:38:57
1:37:24
2:25:31
5:41:52

In retrospect it was the perfect commentary on my ultra season for 2017.  I did fine, winning a couple of small races that I fully expected to win; I came into every big race (Rocky Raccoon, Cayuga Trails) in great shape and then had great performances sidetracked by weird shit happening.  Only difference was this time I brought the weird shit on myself.  A fitting ending to a frustrating year.  Fuck.

Twelve weeks to Bandera.

Running and Your Heart, Part IV: Running and Mortality

photo: mpora.com

At long last, here is the final post in the "Running and Your Heart" series.  When we started I thought I'd finish this series in about 4-6 weeks.  Now it looks like we're pushing past 6 months.  Hopefully it will have been worth the wait.

So over the past several months we've (rather infrequently) investigated the relationship between long-term endurance exercise and the heart.  We've discussed normal heart function, cardiac adaptations to exercise, abnormalities that can arise from these adaptations, and the impact of marathon and ultramarathon running on coronary artery disease.  (As a brief aside, one of the theories that I discussed in the last post--that the increased coronary calcification seen in marathon runners is quite possibly hard, stable plaque that is less likely to rupture and cause actual problems--has since been supported by some recent studies.  Alex Hutchinson, whose work is generally spot-on, has a good summary of these articles in Runners' World.)  What I've tried to stress is that we should not be alarmist about these issues, but that we should not be naive either in thinking that our running makes us immune from heart disease.  Rather, we need to be aware of the potential problems that can arise from long-term training and be able to address these possibilities with our physicians in a responsible way.

OK, that's all well and good.  But when we start seeing articles with titles like "Fast Running is as Deadly as Sitting on the Couch, Scientists Find" and "Excessive Running Could Kill You", it's natural to feel a bit concerned.  We know running, on the whole, is good for us.  Since Jim Fixx gave us his seminal work The Complete Book of Running in 1977, detailing how running saved him from what seemed to be his genetically destined early cardiac death, we've taken it on faith that diligent training leads to longer lifespans.  But with all the studies in the past decade that have been hinting at correlations between long-term marathon running and paradoxical heart disease, is it possible that we're taking things too far?  Have we reached the point where all this running is actually shortening our lifespans?  (And wait a second, didn't Jim Fixx die pretty young after all?)

Much of the recent concern over the possibility that too much running might actually be bad for you centers on a couple of ideas.  One is the relationship between long-term marathon running and coronary artery disease, which we discussed in detail last time.  Just to sum up where I stand on this: I think it's pretty unambiguous that people who train vigorously for marathon-and-longer distance events for many years do have a higher incidence of coronary artery calcification than those who do not, and that the cardio-protective benefits of regular aerobic exercise require much less mileage and less intensity than many of us (including myself) are actually doing.  However, as I pointed out in the links above, not all coronary calcification is created equal; while you'd certainly prefer less calcification than more, and no calcification to any, the calcific plaques demonstrated in asymptomatic long-term runners are not the same in terms of composition (and possibly long-term risk) as those we'd associate with smoking, uncontrolled hypertension, diabetes, or other native disease states.  Even if we assumed that we may be at higher risk of suffering a serious cardiac-related event as a result of strenuous running (by no means a reliable assumption), I don't think the data support the conclusion that this risk outweighs the mortality benefit of the decreased incidence of high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer that runners consistently demonstrate over their more sedentary peers.

The other idea that has received a lot of publicity in recent years is the so-called "U-shaped mortality distribution."  This concept is based largely on the work of James O'Keefe and other researchers involved in the Copenhagen City Heart Study, as well as Duck-chul Lee, who in 2012 presented a rather controversial abstract at the American College of Sports Medicine conference.  According to their research, when plotting mortality (the dependent variable) on the y-axis against mileage (the independent variable) on the x-axis, the data shows the highest mortality values at the lowest and highest ends of the exercise spectrum (i.e., a "U-shaped" distribution):

The "U-shaped" mortality curve.
figure: American College of Cardiology 

In other words, those runners logging much less mileage--as little as a mile a day in some cases, and certainly less than 20 miles a week--saw the greatest benefit in mortality, while those running more mileage saw little to no mortality benefit at all!

These are the studies that have prompted most of the terrifying headlines you've read in recent years, and these are the studies I want to talk about today.  Not to argue with their data, but to try to help us understand why some of the authors'--and the media's--conclusions are not necessarily as dire as we've been led to believe.

Lee et. al. demonstrated a 20% reduced risk of mortality for runners vs. non-runners over a 15-year follow-up period--great news!  However, the study appeared to show that runners averaging more than 20 miles per week had not only higher rates of mortality than those running less, but that their mortality rates approached those of sedentary, non-running peers.  However, these findings were based on the researchers' adjustments for various conditions, including body mass index (BMI), smoking, diabetes, and hypertension.  What does this mean?  When comparing different groups of people, researchers can run into a problem with what are called confounding variables.  These are differences between groups that might affect what you're trying to measure.  In this case, the researchers were trying to determine the relationship between running mileage and mortality.  Of course, there are many different variables that contribute to one's mortality risk, and without accounting for these variables, it's difficult to ascertain whether differences between groups of data is due to what you're actually trying to measure (running mileage) or to something else that you're not measuring.  So the researchers performed what's called statistical correction to take these variables into account.  Simply put, they eliminated the effect of as many of these confounding variables as possible, trying to answer the question: "If all other things are equal--if all of these groups are made to be the same in terms of their rates of obesity, diabetes, blood pressure, etc.--then what effect does mileage run have on their mortality risk?"

Let's be clear: there's nothing underhanded about this.  Statistical correction is a perfectly legitimate (and in most cases necessary) part of scientific research; it's how we attempt to discern cause and effect in situations with many different variables in play.  In this particular case, however, we run into a problem.  The reason that running might have a benefit on mortality is that it makes you healthier overall.  That is to say, vigorous runners are less likely to be obese, to have high blood pressure, or to suffer from diabetes.  If you eliminate these benefits as "confounding variables," it only stands to reason that the mortality benefits of running disappear from the data as well.  The problem with this study wasn't that the authors tried to correct for confounders; it was their classification of the benefits of exercise as confounding variables in the first place.  Alex Hutchinson was all over this pretty much right away, and in 2013, cardiologist Thomas Weber pointed out the problem in the journal Heart:

"One possible explanation for the U-shaped curve...is that the authors adjust for body mass index, hypertension and hypercholesterolaemia. Running has been shown to lower those risk factors in a dose-dependent fashion with no sign of negative returns until at least 50 miles/week. Arguably, adjusting for all these factors is akin to adjusting for low-density lipoprotein (LDL) values in a study analysing the survival benefit of taking statins to treat hypercholesterolaemia. Put simply, this editorial represents a selective interpretation of the available data, at the best."

What Weber is saying is, if you were studying the impact of a drug for cholesterol on mortality, and you had two groups (one which took the drug and one which didn't), it wouldn't make any sense not to look at the differences in the cholesterol levels between these two groups--how else would you expect the drug to improve mortality if not by impacting cholesterol levels?  Similarly, if we grant that running makes us healthier because it protects against hypertension, diabetes, and obesity, then those are very likely the reasons it would have a mortality benefit; removing those effects from the analysis doesn't make sense.

Indeed, when the final paper of this study was published in 2014, the researchers eliminated the statistical correction--and the U-shaped mortality curve seemed to vanish!  Instead, the authors, now concluded,

"[R]unners across all 5 quintiles of weekly running time, even the lowest quintile of <51 minutes per week had lower risks of all-cause and CVD (ed: cardiovascular disease) mortality compared with non-runners. However, these mortality benefits were similar between lower and higher doses of weekly running time. In fact, among runners (after excluding non-runners in the analyses), there were no significant differences in hazard ratios of all-cause and CVD mortality across quintiles of weekly running time (all p-values >0.10)."

That is to say, running even a little bit lowered mortality risk, and this lower risk appeared constant regardless of the time or distance run per week. Perhaps not surprisingly, this received significantly less media attention than the earlier version of the results.

Similarly, the researchers in the Copenhagen City Heart Study reported findings that seemed to support the U-shaped mortality curve, concluding:

"We found a U-shaped association between jogging and mortality. The lowest mortality was among light joggers in relation to pace, quantity, and frequency of jogging. Moderate joggers had a significantly higher mortality rate compared with light joggers, but it was still lower than that of sedentary nonjoggers, whereas strenuous joggers had a mortality rate that was not statistically different from that of sedentary non joggers." 

and cited Lee's paper in their discussion of the results.  Again, however, these conclusions don't tell the whole story.  While this study followed nearly 1100 runners over a 12-year period, only 40 of these runners qualified as "strenuous joggers" according to the rubric of the study (running at a pace of 9:00/mile or less for at least 2.5 hours/week), and there were only two deaths among this group during the course of the follow-up period--not nearly enough of a rate to draw any meaningful conclusions.  As researcher Steve Farrell pointed out,

"Say that 2 blindfolded men ran across a busy highway and were not struck by a car. Would anyone conclude based on those two events, that it is perfectly safe for everyone to run blindfolded across a busy highway?"

So what to make of all this?  It seems pretty clear that the substantial mortality benefits of aerobic exercise are conferred even after relatively small amounts of running--which is great news for the sedentary population and light exercisers in general--and I'd agree that at some point we reach a rate of diminishing returns, where further increases in mileage or intensity don't offer any additional mortality benefit.  But where that point lies has not been clearly defined, and I think that based on what we currently know, fears of increased mortality as a result of exceeding that threshold appear unfounded.  And generally, most of us who are interested in exploring our physical limits are doing so for reasons that go beyond "living longer."  As Amby Burfoot points out,

"Many aspects of exercise and running also follow a U-curve. This is why many people believe the moderate approach is the smartest path to follow. Of course, you’ll never qualify for the Boston Marathon that way. We all have to make our choices."

Certainly we don't need to run ultramarathons experience all the health benefits of regular exercise.  But it doesn't seem like we need to fear them either.

Race Report: Mountain Madness 50K


It's been a bit of a slog this summer.  After a decent spring and a solid (if slightly unsatisfying) finish at Cayuga I took a much-needed break from training and from my usual LCHF habits.  The resulting gluttony was fun for about a week; after that it started feeling almost obligatory rather than enjoyable.   I started training again about two weeks and twelve pounds later (not joking), and unsurprisingly it took some time to get the ol' rhythm back.  I set my sights on the Vermont 50 mile for my return to fall racing, then downgraded to the 50K when I realized my fitness wasn't quite up to snuff.  My Achilles really started to flare up in early August; by mid-August I was hobbling on most of my runs and wasn't planning on racing at all for quite some time.  Getting off the pavement and back on the trails, as well as back to regular visits with the great Greg Cecere at Momentum Physical Therapy got me back on track, however, and I logged on to register for VT50 two days before the deadline only to be closed out.  (Of course.)  Casting about for an emergency plan, I found the Mountain Madness 50K in Ringwood, NJ on the same weekend as Vermont.  I hadn't run Mountain Madness (or any of the NJ Trail Series races, for that matter) since a rather infamous day in 2009 (which I won't go into here).  I knew it was a more technical course than I'd usually prefer, but I didn't remember it being all that bad, and figured I'd give it a shot.  My fitness wasn't great, but it was time to get back on the horse and kick-start the training buildup for 2018.

Training this summer hadn't been helped by the weather.  July had been pretty brutal, and while August was relatively mild (although quite humid), September turned almost unbearable, particularly in the two weeks leading up to the race.  Given my fitness level, the difficulty of the course, and the forecast, I wasn't expecting much; I was hoping to run around five hours but figured a 5:30 was more realistic.  The weather did not disappoint; at the 9am start the temperature was already 70, and by the time I finished (many) hours later it would climb to 89 degrees with a good deal of humidity.  I ran the opening few miles with two other runners at the front, a young local named Michael and another runner from Costa Rica who spoke absolutely no English and yet tried to ask us questions about the course as we were running.  (We were not terribly helpful.)  We took turns leading over rolling, minimally technical terrain.  My Achilles was not excruciating, but was tight, and my suspicions that it was limiting my push-off were confirmed when I tripped over a pretty innocuous root and sprawled across the trail, my first real fall in quite some time.  I popped up quickly, though, with just a few minor scrapes, and we continued together until about five miles in, when we came to a five-way intersection where the trail markings had clearly been tampered with.  We ran around a bit, looking for the next markings without finding any, then continued in the direction we'd been heading for about a quarter mile.  At this point we encountered markings that I recognized--we had come back to a hairpin turn at about the two-mile point on the loop; clearly not the right way.  Our Costa Rican friend charged off down the trail again, restarting the loop we'd just run; Michael and I yelled after him to not avail, then gave up and returned to the intersection.  By this time two other runners had reached the same point and were equally as confused.  We spent a couple of minutes looking at the map, trying to figure out where to go.  With no other markings, we headed back the way we had come, the only way we knew to get back to the start/finish, which was also the end of the opening 6.5-mile loop and would serve as AS1.  The four of us came into the AS right at the hour mark, as Rick, the RD, was sending off the 25K runners for their 10am start.  We grabbed some drinks and tried to explain to Rick where the issue was on the course, then started off in a group again to tackle the middle 25K loop.

Our pack of four quickly became Michael and I as we started the first major climb.  The trail was much rockier and steeper than the opening loop, and we power-hiked frequently, passing 25K runners along the way.  We were pretty even running on flat ground; I had a bit of an advantage climbing, but Michael bombed the descents, forcing me to work my way back slowly on the subsequent climbs.  I was being patient, but really wasn't feeling great.  Not terrible, but not feeling a lot of pep in the legs, and certainly more tired than I'd like to be less than two hours into a 5+ hour day.  I pulled into AS2 just before the two-hour mark, only a few seconds after Michael, and left a few seconds before.  I knew the next section would be mostly uphill and thought I might be able to open up a bit of an advantage.  Over the next few miles I felt a bit better, finding a bit of a rhythm and seeming to open up a little gap, but when I checked over my shoulder about a mile outside of AS3, Michael was only about a hundred yards back.  He caught up easily on the tricky descent into the aid station, as we hit the halfway point in just over 2:30.

At this point, I basically felt terrible.  I crammed in some off-brand Coke and a couple of bananas, but really had no motivation to get back out on the trail; the fight had suddenly left me, and when Michael took off I waited an extra thirty seconds or so before leaving the aid station, thinking maybe the impetus of having to give chase would spur me on a little bit.  Long story short: it didn't.  I stumbled badly multiple times over the rocky terrain, overheating the whole way back down and struggling on every uphill.  By the time I got back to AS4 (same location as AS2) almost an hour later I was in full death march mode, and still had nearly eleven miles to go.  I knew third place was not within striking distance, but I had no idea on the gap up to the lead, and didn't really care all that much; I just wanted it to be over.

I felt a little better coming down a major descent about forty minutes later, and started running a bit better again, but a couple of wrong turns sapped my momentum, not to mention my will to live.  I staggered into AS5 at the start/finish at right about the five-hour mark, hamstrings cramping badly, still needing to head back out on the opening 6.5-mile loop again to complete the nightmare.  I'd say I considered dropping out, but that's not really true.  I was basically resigned to my fate: I knew I was going to finish, I just didn't particularly want to.  I took my time in the aid station, knowing that my finishing place was assured and that there was no more aid over this final hour-plus.  After tossing back a bunch of Coke and cramming in some more calories, I grabbed the podcast machine and made my way back into the heat.  The final lap passed uneventfully, if not quickly (almost eighty minutes for 6.5 miles!) and I finally jogged home in 6:18, ultimately only about five minutes behind Michael, who I hadn't seen for nearly four hours.

Not much more to say about this one.  I went in with minimal expectations, and they were met in spectacular fashion.  As the Stranger famously said, sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you.  For this race, I think I'll just be happy to be finished with a long, painful day on the trails, take my lumps, and move on to the next one.

Guest Blogger: A Cayuga Trails Recap from Phil Vondra

all photos: Joe Azze
It's been a little over three months since my last race at the Cayuga Trails 50 mile, and I'm just about ready to get back on the horse.  My training partner Phil, with whom I've shared many, many miles, finished just a few minutes behind me there, and returned to racing last weekend with his second straight runner-up finish at the famed SOS triathlon.  This week he sent me his CT50 race report for some reason, and as he doesn't waste anyone's time with a blog, I offered to waste some more of my readers' time by posting it here.  So, here's Phil's slightly delayed CT50 recap.  I think you'll like it.  It's kind of like a race report on acid.  Picture a drunk British guy telling you about his last race and you've got the general idea.

*********

Race : Cayuga trails USA 50 mile trail champs.  3 June 2017 Ithaca NY

Goals:
  • Improve on 2016 place and time.
  • Eat, drink beer and hangout with a bunch of cool ultra runner type people.
  • Hangout with Laura Kline
Loop 1

We arrived at the park with about 40 minutes until the start time and organized a drop bag for Buttermilk Falls with some spare bottles and nutrition in it. The weather was perfect and glowing red/pink cotton ball clouds drifted over our heads, today would be a good day to die. I lined up 4 or 5 rows back and found Jay my New Paltz running buddy. Ian said a few words and then blew the rams horn, we were off. We set off at that quick pace that almost every race starts at and we hit the first small hill, I backed off and started to think about the miles that lay ahead. Jay and I ran close to each other and chatted a bit. The trails where nice rooty, rocky and rolling, the miles passed easily. We hit the new loop which added some vert but also some fun trails. I was jumping over a few logs which was fun but I knew in 5 hours each one would be a cunning trap just waiting to send me face first into the dirt. We ran past the Old Mill aid station, no need to stop. We headed to the first river crossing, it didn't have as much water as i expected and it was actually nice to get my feet wet. Let the squelching begin! 

The miles passed quickly and the trails were really nice rolling forest rooty and soft. Jay was in front of me and was running the steady smooth pace he always runs. We headed down to Underpass aid station and onto the easy single track and river crossing, I thought the crossing would be deep and was expecting it to be waist deep. Jay was ahead of me and I figured he would go in head first but it was kinda shallow so sadly no fun. We popped out the other side and cruised to the base of Lick Brook climb, I felt great on this climb, but kept a lid on it, knowing that these trails wouldn't give up a finish without a fight. We got to the top and started to roll through the forest and fields. I knew some of this course would be muddy but so far it was in great shape. Rolling along and chatting to Jay we missed a turn and ended up next to a farm and a pig pen, when I heard the banjo playing I knew we had over shot our turn. We did a 180 and ran back to find the turn we had missed. Running with Jay is like being with an able-bodied House MD, so i was probably riveted by some intense medical chat and didn't see the big red arrow telling us to enter into Mirkwood. 

Into the wood we went, it was wonderful mudfest everything an East coast runner wants. Jumping rooty and muddy ground I prayed my shoes would stay on my feet. We emerged onto some grassland with the odd mud patch. At this point I felt hungry and wasn't sure why, I had been good with nutrition and fluid, it was odd but I figured my body was giving me fake news and I would go all in at Buttermilk Falls AS. We headed to Buttermilk Falls, all was good. When we hit the aid station, I took on about 450 calories and some fluids, we got in and out very quickly. The climb up Buttermilk Falls was harder than I thought it would be but I kept my legs moving, spurred on by the fact my T-shirt had turned into a weapon of mass destruction. It single-handedly contravened several international weapon and pollution treaties, but I was racing I had no time to hand it over to the appropriate authorities. The waterfall is beautiful and the trails are perfect. I saw my buddy Tim at a merge point and he was looking good, that gave me a nice boost.  We headed back through the muddy forests and fields along the rolling descent, over the way too shallow river and back to Underpass AS.  It was time to go the dark side.

“Coke please.” 
“More Coke.” 
“Just one more Coke.  What's the worst that could happen?” (I have Youtube, I know the worst that can happen, especially if you're a tooth, a coin or a Mento!)

Fully loaded on sugar and chemicals, I set off again hanging just behind Jay. I took a fall but the ground was soft and I was fine. I felt it was a bit early to be falling.  The trails are good, the Coke is working, I felt great. We hit that big flight of stairs and I felt a bit weak but not too bad. The descent felt good and we headed along the trails to the river crossing and back to Old Mill AS. I got some Coke and ginger ale, the more sugar the merrier! We set off for the turnaround, some easy trails, some rocks some roots but it was fun, until I had another fall, this was a type 3 trail running fall, you don't see it coming, all you know is you're on the ground and you're cut and you hurt but nothing was broken or twisted (well, no physical part of me), I got up and felt ok but not great, I felt a bit sick. We ran into the turn around and I grabbed a few things, forgot a few things and lingered deciding if I should run back to my drop bag. I felt quite sick and weak at this point, so I figured I would just get back to running.

Loop 2

Jay was gone. I wasn't feeling great, I was sure I would be sick. It wasn't an exciting prospect. I also felt weak/dizzy running through the new loop near Old Mill. I knew that if I kept going it would pass. I got to the Old Mill AS and had some more Coke and ginger ale. Shuffling on the easier trails felt ok but I wanted to walk now. The internal battle was raging, "Just walk you'll feel better"; "Why walk on the flat or downhill that's silly;” “ A 15 min mile is better than a 20min mile;” “I'll run flat and downhill and walk ANY hills- that's the deal otherwise all the beer will be gone when you finish- lets go”...so on I went feeling kinda sick but pushing as best as I could and sticking to the deal my mind had made with my body. 


I crossed the river and wanted to sit in the water for a bit. I didn't, I pushed on. Up and down a few hills, I got a bit lost, I turned back and went down a hill I had just walked up, I saw a runner coming towards me and they confirmed I was on the right trail. All good, back to the struggle. The miles passed more quickly than I thought they would. I got to the Underpass AS and gorged on that sweet dark nectar! Off I went over the tracks and through the river. I got to the Lick Brook climb and I was slow but just as slow as the other runners already on it. I was starting to feel better, I was going to finish strong. I found extra strength knowing that I had passed that epic low and what lay ahead would be better. I was starting to overtake people and getting stronger. I felt strong running through the muddy field and forest, jumping roots and dancing around shoe stealing mud pits. Stairs, rocks, roots it was all passing by me now, I had sub 15 miles to go. The T-shirt was excited too, it often reminded me, it had gone from awful to suggesting that it was a close relation to a long lost ancestor who was responsible for the London plague and the rats where purely minions in a grand scheme. I thought about ditching the T-shirt but it wouldn't have been fair to leave it at at aid station that didn't have a hazmat team on standby. I would have to finish with it. 

Phil with Laura and Tim at a happy finish line.
I got to Buttermilk Falls AS. Coke, Ginger ale and watermelon. I was homeward bound, I was strong, climbing the falls felt good but I wanted to get into the cool waters. On I pressed running flats, downhills and small hills, i was overtaking people. I was going to enjoy the last 10 miles. It was nice to get encouragement from other runners and people out for a hike, it really helped. Coke and Ginger ale at every aid station, I got to Old Mill and was told 5k to the finish, time to give it my all. I got just passed the AS to the stone bridge and the volunteer said 2.6 miles to the finish, heck yeah I eat 2.6 miles for breakfast. The miles passed quickly. I overtook the lead woman and she said “you go girl” and then said “Oh sorry you're not a girl!” I wanted to say something witty/encouraging as a response but I had nothing. I got on the downhill back to the finish and felt great, took the left and ran to the finish. I had so much energy I sprinted to the line to finish a shade over 9hrs. I was happy and Jay told me I was 16th! That was better than 2016 and I knew that lots of beer was left! I got to eat and drink beer with some awesome trail people.

Summary
16th place, 9hrs 13 seconds (my time was slower than 2016 but the course was longer and had more gain)
1st AG 45-49
The new course was amazing, it had everything.

What did I learn  the advice i got from an ultra runner a while back was so true on this day. “You're going to get lows, everyone gets lows, you have to believe they will pass because they will.”

Thanks Ian and your volunteers you put on an amazing race!

Gear used
Salomon shorts
Hoka One One Challenger 3ATR
Patagonia T-shirt and its 20million microbe friends
Injinji compression socks
Salomon 2L vest
Huma gels
Tailwind
Coke
Ginger Ale

Running and Your Heart, Part III: Coronary Artery Disease

Coronary arteries, as seen via cardiac catheterization.
photo: pinterest.com
Before we get into it, let's just reiterate that this post (or anything else you read on the blog) is NOT to be construed as medical advice.  This is for informational and general-knowledge purposes only.  Furthermore, while I have a pretty good grasp on this stuff, I'm NOT a cardiologist, and anything you might read here is subject to my own interpretations (or mis-interpretations).  As such, this blog should not be taken as a substitute for medical care by a qualified professional.  I'm happy to provide information and try to answer people's questions.  But I AM NOT YOUR DOCTOR.

That being said...this blog is getting awful science-y.

In my continuing effort to either confuse the shit out of you, or freak you out (no, no, JK), I thought we'd delve a bit more into the relationship between distance running and heart health/disease by focusing on the coronary arteries.  Last time I talked about the normal adaptations the heart makes to endurance exercise ("the athlete's heart") and how these adaptations can be both beneficial and, in some cases, harmful.  In that post we quickly glossed over the coronary arteries, but today we're going to examine that aspect of the cardiovascular system in greater detail, because it's extremely important and because a lot of recent research has examined this relationship closely.


photo: pinterest.com
Recall from last time that the arteries carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the various muscles, tissues, and organs of the body, supplying them with the oxygen necessary to perform their particular functions.  The coronary arteries run directly over the heart muscle itself, bringing oxygen to the heart tissue and allowing the heart muscle to fulfill its ceaseless task of pumping blood throughout the body.  Given the heart's position of primacy in the body, you can see how the entire system relies to large extent on the uninterrupted flow of blood to its muscle.

As discussed previously, the term "heart disease" can encompass a wide variety of problems with the various physiologic systems at play in the heart: anatomic, structural, electrical, etc.  But most commonly, when someone refers to "heart disease," they mean an abnormality within the coronary arteries that compromises the flow of blood and the delivery of oxygen to the heart muscle.  This can take the form of stenosis, a hardening and narrowing of the artery that can disrupt blood flow.  Such narrowing occurs when various junk, usually cholesterol, builds up within the lumen of the artery.  (Picture a pipe or a hose that gets clogged with dirt and how that affects the flow of water through it.)  Over time, these plaques can harden and calcify, causing the artery to narrow and stiffen.  These stiff, narrow arteries thus lose their ability to dilate (expand) in response to an increased demand for oxygen--for example, during exercise.  So when a heart with narrow, inelastic coronary arteries is placed under the stress of exertion, the arteries cannot expand to meet that increased demand, and the heart muscle suffers from a lack of the necessary oxygen, called ischemia.  (This is the most common reason someone would have chest pain with exertion, also termed angina.)  Sometimes, a piece of these plaques can break off and become dislodged from the inner wall of the artery, travel downstream, and get stuck in a narrower part of the artery, causing a near-complete or complete cessation of blood flow to a particular part of the heart.  If prolonged, this can lead to infarction, or death of this part of the heart muscle: what is commonly known as a "heart attack."

So why do people get coronary artery disease?  Well, part of it is genetic; if your parents or siblings have coronary artery disease, you're more likely to suffer from it as well, and obviously you can't do anything about that.  But there are many modifiable risk factors for coronary stenosis, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and smoking, that you can do something about.  And running helps with these factors: regular aerobic exercisers have lower rates of high blood pressure and diabetes, and are less likely to smoke.  But here's the kicker: despite the fact that distance running unquestionably reduces your risk factors for coronary disease, it may not actually reduce the chances of developing coronary disease.


CT scan reveals calcification of the coronary arteries.
photo: umm.edu
One of the problems with standard screening tests for coronary artery disease--namely, EKGs and stress tests--is that they are not particularly sensitive in detecting underlying coronary disease among fit individuals.  A routine exercise stress test aims to induce strain on the heart by gradually increasing the heart rate via exertion in a laboratory setting; patients are then assessed for symptoms of heart disease, or changes in blood pressure or heart monitor patterns.  For regular endurance exercisers, the limitations of this test are obvious.  If an athlete is increasing their heart rate via exercise on a daily basis without adverse symptoms, why would any abnormalities appear when she does it on a treadmill, in front of a physician?  However, in the past decade advances in technology have made high-resolution CT scanning widely available for the detection of underlying coronary artery disease.  A CT scan is not without downside--it does involve exposure to ionizing radiation, which is carcinogenic in high doses--but this modality can help identify at-risk individuals who might otherwise be missed by more traditional assessments of cardiovascular health.

Applying this test to an athletic population, researchers have discovered some surprising findings.  Despite having a lower incidence of hypertension, diabetes, and obesity, long-term marathon and ultramarathon runners actually have a higher incidence of coronary artery calcification than non-exercisers in the general population.  (Interestingly, runners who regularly train and compete at shorter distances do not demonstrate this finding.)  This paradoxical relationship has been reported as early as 2008, and has been validated several times since (including by yours truly and colleagues earlier this year).

Why does this happen?  We're not really sure, though several theories have been advanced that might account for this process.  One idea is that repeated high-intensity aerobic efforts subject the coronary vessels to more turbulent blood flow, which over time can lead to chronic inflammation and calcification.  Free radical formation, causing chronic oxidative stress, may also play a role. 

So, does this mean we should all stop running ultras?  Not necessarily.  No one has demonstrated as yet that this increase in coronary calcification leads to an increase in clinical signs of heart disease, or to an increase in mortality (we'll address this further in a subsequent post).  There is some thinking that the calcifications commonly seen in long-term distance runners are firmer and more stable than the softer plaque often seen in the general population, and therefore less likely to break apart and cause the downstream problems I talked about earlier.  Also, research demonstrates that long-term training leads to larger coronary arteries, with more ability to dilate (open up) than those in untrained subjects.  This might serve to counteract the narrowing effect of coronary calcification.  (If your hose is getting clogged, make the hose bigger, and water will be able to flow through more easily.)


OK, this isn't the most reassuring post of all time.  But let's sum up with what we actually know:

  • long-term endurance exercise reduces your risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, and obesity.  Since heart disease is only one of the issues that can arise in people who suffer from these ailments, this fact alone is probably reason enough to keep training.
  • despite this, people who regularly train for and participate in marathons and ultramarathons appear to have a higher rate of coronary calcification than those who don't.  
  • this higher incidence of calcification may or may not be clinically relevant.  But all things being equal, you'd rather it wasn't there.
  • even runners with higher levels of coronary calcifications may not show signs or symptoms of disease, and standard screening tests may not pick up underlying disease in these people.
Therefore, my take-home point is not that we should all freak out and stop running.  But we should realize that we're not immune to coronary artery disease, even though we are invariably "healthier," on average, than non-runners.  For those of us entering our masters running careers, and who have been at this for several years or more, we should be cognizant of this risk.  Talk to your physician about the pluses and minuses of a CT scan of the coronary arteries, particularly if you have a family history of coronary artery disease in a close relative.  And check back next week when I'll tackle the "running versus mortality" question and try to debunk some of the negative press coverage you may have seen recently.

Merry Statesmas! My WS100 Picks and a Pre-Squaw GUR Top 50 Update


I'm recycling the title of this post from last year.  Let's get into it!

I've been way behind on the Gunksrunner Ultra Rankings this year, mostly due to finishing my exercise physiology coursework, but I finally got caught up in the past two weeks, and have a pre-States GUR Top 50 at the end of this post.  As such, though, I haven't been quite as immersed in results as in previous years, so my picks for this weekend's Big Dance are likely to be even less reliable than usual.  But you get what you pay for.  Which is nothing.  So here goes.

Ladies
Six of last year's top ten return, joined by a very deep field that includes ten of the current GUR top 50 (including six of the top 10), and twelve of the 2016 top 50 (including 10 of the top 20).  The depth of this group is frightening; while both the men's and women's fields have at least twenty solid contenders for those magical top-10 places, the talent and experience on the women's side might outflank the men, especially at the 100-mile distance.

1. Kaci Lickteig
Final 2016 GUR: 1
Current 2017 GUR: 5
2016 WS: 1
Western States does tend to look kindly on defending champions--think Krar, Olsen, Trason, and Jurek, to name just a few.  Whether the Pixie Ninja belongs among the all-time greats is still debatable, but the returning champ has three straight top-5 finishes here, and her buildup to this year's event looks awfully similar to last year.

2. Magdalena Boulet
Final 2016 GUR: 2
Current 2017 GUR: 3
2016 WS: DNF
The 2015 champ and UROY dropped early in last year's race, then gutted out a difficult fifth-place finish at Speedgoat later that summer.  She bounced back, however, with a strong second at North Face in December, and this year has looked very strong, placing second to Camille Herron at Tarawera and earning her ticket to WS with a T2 at Lake Sonoma.  She's got the speed, the experience, and the 100-mile chops to ascend the podium again.

3. Andrea Huser
Final 2016 GUR: NA
Current 2017 GUR: NA
2016 WS: NA
She's got wins or runner-up finishes at a dizzying array of Europe's most competitive trail ultras, including Diagonale des Fous, Lavaredo, Madeira Island, and UTMB.  We don't often see rookies or Euros atop the States podium--usually it takes a couple of tries to get it right--but she's not your average rookie.  Is she too much of a mountain specialist for this course, or does she have the wheels to hang with Magda, Kaci, and Camille when things start heating up on Cal Street?

4. Amanda Basham
Final 2016 GUR: 18
Current 2017 GUR: 9
2016 WS: 4
Speaking of wheels, I like the recent UROC champ to reprise last year's finish.  Undefeated in three ultra starts this year, though has yet to face a field of this caliber in 2017.

5. Camille Herron
Final 2016 GUR: 24
Current 2017 GUR: 2
2016 WS: NA
I gave a lot of serious consideration to picking Camille for the overall win.  Already this year she's beaten Magda at Tarawera, and may have already locked up Performance of the Year with her dominant win at Comrades two weeks ago.  (An honor she won in 2015, her first year in ultrarunning.)  However, she hasn't yet proven to be quite as dominant on the trails as she is on the roads, and this will be her 100-mile debut; besting a field of this caliber under those circumstances may be too much to ask, especially if there's any residuals fatigue from Comrades.  If anyone can pull at Walmsley on the women's side, though, it's definitely her.

6. Maggie Guterl
Final 2016 GUR: 17
Current 2017 GUR: 128
2016 WS: 8
She's lightly raced so far this year, having picked up wins at some smaller, short East Coast trail races, but she smoked a 14:47 at Brazos Bend in December.

7. Jacqueline Merritt
Final 2016 GUR: 69
Current 2017 GUR: 6
2016 WS: NA
Another East Coast stud, she already has four wins this year and a second-place finish at the Georgia Death Race to lock up her Golden Ticket.

8. Amy Sproston
Final 2016 GUR: 6
Current 2017 GUR: 109
2016 WS: 2
I picked Amy seventh last year and commented, "I feel like I actually might be selling her short here."  She went out and crushed a second place finish.  Naturally I've dropped her to eighth this year, so I fully expect her to win and make me look like an idiot.

9. Stephanie Howe Violett
Final 2016 GUR: 133
Current 2017 GUR: 16
2016 WS: NA
The 2014 WS champ missed most of 2016 due to injury but rebounded for ninth at North Face and then bested a solid field, including Camille Herron, to win at Bandera in January.  Definitely selling her short here.

10. Clare Gallagher
Final 2016 GUR: 13
Current 2017 GUR: 65
2016 WS: NA
Talk about selling short...she won Leadville last year in her 100-mile debut, but has flat speed honed during a stellar collegiate career, backed up with a fifth place finish at TNF in December.  I could easily see her in the top 3.

Hedging my bets
11. Meghan Laws (nee Arbogast)
12. YiOu Wang
13. Kaytlyn Gerbin
14. Nicole Kalogeropolous
15. Alissa St. Laurent

Lads
Eight of last year's top ten return, though unfortunately not defending champ Andrew Miller, recovering from injury.  Eight of the current GUR top 50 are in the field (including three of the top 5), and thirteen of last year's top 50, including eight of the top 20.  Add in several top-flight Europeans and you've got a very solid field of contenders...but absolutely nobody is picking an upset.

1. Jim Walmsley
Final 2016 GUR: 1
Current 2017 GUR: 3
2016 WS: 19
Allow me to become the 457th commentator to observe that the only person who can beat Jim right now is Jim.  His stunning 100 mile debut was one of the most electric performances of the year, notwithstanding the wrong turn at 91 miles that cost him the win and likely the course record.  Did you know that other than that wrong turn, Jim hasn't lost a race in over two years?  I could see him maybe blowing up if he is serious about chasing his stated goal--a sub-14:00 finish, which would better the course record by nearly an hour--but it's not likely.  And short of that, or injury, I don't see anyone in this field who can beat him.

2. Kyle Pietari
Final 2016 GUR: 23
Current 2017 GUR: 1247
2016 WS: 8
OK, I'm going straight chalk with my picks for the winners, but here's a little bit of a dark horse for you.  He backed up last year's top-10 with a second place finish at Leadville.  He's been quiet this year, with only one ultra finish back in March.  Is he ready for a huge breakout?

3. Alex Nichols
Final 2016 GUR: 12
Current 2017 GUR: 46
2016 WS: NA
Alex has a long history of stellar performances at huge ultras and other mountain races, including multiple wins at Pikes Peak, and has represented the US in the World Mountain Running Championships.  He made his long-awaited 100-mile debut last year with a win at Run Rabbit Run, and backed that up with top-five finishes at Speedgoat and North Face.  The WS course sets up well for people with Alex's particular skill set--climbers who have flat speed to burn.

4. Jeff Browning
Final 2016 GUR: 11
Current 2017 GUR: 25
2016 WS: 3
When you've been running ultras for fifteen years, it's hard to have a career year at 45--but that exactly what Jeff did last year, with a win at HURT, third at WS, and fourths at Hardrock and Run Rabbit.  He's undefeated in three low-key 50Ks so far this year.  It may be too much to expect a repeat of 2016, but I feel weird picking against him.

5. Chris Mocko
Final 2016 GUR: 29
Current 2017 GUR: 4
2016 WS: 7
He may have had the best 2017 so far of anyone in the field not named Walmsley: second at Way Too Cool, third at Sonoma, wins at Marin and UROC.  As long as he hasn't cooked himself too early in the season, he'll be heard from this weekend.

6. Jonas Budd
Final 2016 GUR: NA
Current 2017 GUR: NA
2016 WS: NA
I always have trouble picking the Euros (though I did hit Lorblanchet exactly last year, and wasn't too far off on Giblin) so who the hell knows.  But Jonas has the speedster pedigree of the Euros who usually perform well at States, and he was second to Walmsley at Tarawera earlier this season, though not really without shouting distance.

7. Ian Sharman
Final 2016 GUR: 3
Current 2017 GUR: 1528
2016 WS: 6
I'll pick him to finish in the top ten every year.  More dependable than taxes.

8. Thomas Lorblanchet
Final 2016 GUR: NA
Current 2017 GUR: NA
2016 WS: 4
Fourth in 2016, fifth in 2015.  Pretty safe bet he'll be up there again.

9. Brian Rusiecki
Final 2016 GUR: 2
Current 2017 GUR: 5
2016 WS: NA
The perennial UROY contender and 2015 GUR #1 makes his long-awaited WS debut.  Brian usually excels on more technical tracks, and so the WS trail might not quite be in his wheelhouse.  But he's incredibly smart and tough, and he comes in off one of the best stretches of his career, including his recent runner-up finish at Cayuga Trails.

10. Mark Hammond
Final 2016 GUR: 8
Current 2017 GUR: 57
2016 WS: NA
Maybe a little bit of a dark horse here, but I like his form recently, particularly a runner-up finish to Nichols at Run Rabbit (ahead of Browning), and a smoking 14:49 at the Salt Flats 100 in April.

Hedging my bets
11. Tofol Castanyer
12. Paul Giblin
13. Jared Burdick
14. Dominick Layfield
15. Zach Szablewski

Pre-Western States GUR Top 50 (as of 6/16)


Men
State
Points
Women
State
Points
1
Sage Canaday
CO
126.4
YiOu Wang
CA
191.5
2
Max King
OR
125.5
Camille Herron
OK
178.1
3
Jim Walmsley
AZ
118.5
Magdalena Boulet
CA
95.3
4
Chris Mocko
CA
107.1
Ladia Albertson-Junkans
WA
74.5
5
Brian Rusiecki
MA
96.3
Kaci Lickteig
KS
71.8
6
Tim Freriks
AZ
71.75
Jacqueline Merritt
GA
61.7
7
Hayden Hawks
UT
68.5
Sabrina Little
TX
59.25
8
Cody Reed
AZ
63.6
Courtney Dauwalter
CO
58
9
Chris Raulli
NY
55
Amanda Basham
UT
48.5
10
Tim Tollefson
CA
52.5
Marianne Hogan
CO
48
11
Dakota Jones
CO
45
Kaytlyn Gerbin
WA
46.8
12
Chikara Omine
CA
43.9
Hillary Allen
CO
46.7
13
Michael Owen
OH
43.5
Kathleen Cusick
FL
46.5
14
Matt Flaherty
IN
40.75
Camille Shiflett
WI
45
15
Justin Ricks
UT
40
Cassie Scallon
CA
43.7
16
Zachary Szablewski
WA
38.5
Stephanie Howe Violett
OR
40
17
Franz van der Goen
CA
38.2
Nicole Kalogeropoulos
TX
38.5
18
Masazumi Fujioka
WA
38.2
Megan Roche
CA
35
19
Ed Ettinghausen
CA
38.05
Rachel Drake
OR
34.5
20
Ryan Kaiser
OR
35.8
Ashley Nordell
OR
33.75
21
Dylan Bowman
CA
35
Devon Yanko
CA
33.6
22
Scott Trummer
CA
35
Dani Filipek
MI
32.5
23
Ronnie Delzer
TX
33.9
Janessa Taylor
OE
31
24
Matthew Thompson
VA
33.5
Gina Slaby
WA
30.6
25
Paul Terranova
TX
32.3
Shandra Moore
TX
30.2
26
Jean Pommier
CA
31.65
Julie Koepke
TX
29.9
27
Dominick Layfield
CA
31.2
Rachel Jaten
WA
28.9
28
Anthony Jacobs
TX
31
Sheila Vibert
VA
28.9
29
Travis Morrison
UT
29.9
Penny McPhail
CA
28.3
30
Ben Koss
CA
29.75
Caroline Boller
CAN
28
31
Cole Watson
OR
29.5
Meghan Arbogast
CA
28
32
Bob Shebest
CA
29.4
Molly Schmelzle
OR
26.9
33
Olivier Leblond
VA
28.6
Kirsten Hite
FL
26.3
34
Avery Collins
CO
28
Amy Macintire
TN
25
35
Ryan Bak
OR
27.25
Julia Stamps
CA
25
36
Jesse Haynes
CA
26.9
Rachel Entrekin
AL
25
37
Mario Martinez
CA
26.1
Bree Lambert
CA
24.9
38
Joe McConaughy
MA
25.025
Katalin Nagy
FL
24.9
39
Tyler Jermann
AZ
25
Jenny Hoffman
MA
24
40
Michael Daigeaun
PA
23.4
Alicia Hudelson
GA
23.9
41
Jason Schlarb
CO
23.05
Shawn McTaggert
AK
23.5
42
Ryan Ghelfi
OR
23.05
Meg Landymore
MD
23
43
Jean-Bernard Flanagan
IL
23
Chavet Breslin
CO
22.5
44
Matt Smith
TX
23
Karen Holland
CAN
22.5
45
Alex Nichols
CO
22.5
Amy Rusiecki
MA
22
46
Rob Krar
AZ
22.5
Camelia Mayfield
OR
21.9
47
Tyler Green
OR
22.5
Michelle McLellan
TN
21.5
48
Drew Macomber
CA
21.7
Addie Bracy
CO
21
49
Noah Brautigam
UT
21.7
Katrin Silva
NM
21
50
Patrick Caron
MA
21.5
Keely Henninger
OR
21










Race Report: Cayuga Trails 50

All smiles.
all photos: Joe and Elizabeth Azze
I’ve been having a difficult time starting this recap, both because I'm a little ambivalent about my performance--I'll get to that in a minute--and because I feel like I don’t have anything new to say about this race.  This was my fourth time running the CayugaTrails 50 mile in the race's five-year existence, and I’ve written extensively in thepast about my previous experiences.  It’s a race I keep coming back to year after year, despite the fact that I struggle with the course and I never seem to run it particularly well.  I keep returning because the race is in Ithaca, one of my favorite places; because the course is as beautiful as it is challenging; because as the 50-mile national championships, it’s a great opportunity to run against some really top-flight competition not far from home; because Ian continues to put on amazing events that put the athletes first; and because my MPF/RNR teammates annually put on a show of force that I always want to be a part of.  But my experience with this race has always been a mixture of positives and negatives, and this year was certainly no exception.


Last year I had an ideal buildup for this race ultimately foiled by another bout with Lyme disease, and this time around unfolded much the same.  After Rocky Raccoon it took a bit longer than I anticipated to start feeling back to normal; I didn’t really get into a good flow until early April.  But several strong hill workouts and two solid wins in low-key tuneup races (the XTERRA Northeast 50K at Wawayanda State Park in early May, and the New Paltz Pizza Challenge six days later) had me feeling pretty confident as taper time drew near.  Sixteen days out, I was forced to cut short a low-key track workout (three sets of 800m/400m repeats) with extreme fatigue, upper-body achiness, and dizziness.  I was immediately reminded of last year but tried to convince myself it was heat-related; temps were in the mid-90s, and I thought I might be dehydrated.  But when I had similar symptoms six days later, barely able to gut out 4 x 800m at 2:55 pace (which should have felt barely harder than a jog, given my fitness level) despite reasonably mild temps, I knew the Lyme was back.

At that point, eleven days from race day, my instinct was to pull the plug.  After dropping halfway through last year's race while on antibiotics I had no desire to repeat the experience. That night, however, I spoke with a buddy from med school who specializes in infectious disease, who thought my symptoms and previous lab results pointed more towards anaplasmosis (a Lyme-related, tick-born infection) rather than Lyme. If that was the case, I might be able to get away with ten days of antibiotics--which would finish up the day before Cayuga--and maybe feel well enough to compete.  I decided to wait until Tuesday before the race--my usual day for a final "hard" workout--before I made any decision.  I planned on 2x1mi at a relaxed but hard tempo; after I was able to run a 5:50 mile without feeling like it was the end of the world, I skipped the second rep and decided to go for it.  Cayuga would be my last race anyway before some planned down time; after I couldn't get the weekend off of work to run the Whiteface Skyraces in July, I was already anticipating my first real offseason since last summer.  So either way I figured I'd give Cayuga a shot.

Two old men trying to stay warm.
You know it's cold because Ben's wearing a shirt.
My jog with Phil and Tim the day before the race felt pretty solid, and as we lined up Saturday morning I felt reasonably confident (despite a restless night of sleep) that I could approach my perpetual goals at Cayuga of 8:00-8:15, top 10-15, top-3 masters.  I knew from prior years that even splits on the course were a near impossibility, even for the top elites, and that it would take a 3:50 opening lap to have any chance of running 8:10 or better for the race.  Given my recent illness, I had decided to run completely on feel, and let the time and place take care of themselves.  The goals were the goals, but just getting through this one without feeling like complete garbage was going to be a win.

As planned, Phil and I ran together in the early going; as usual in these circumstances, I set the pace with Phil tucked just behind.  We settled into position in about 30th place, running just over eight minutes for the first mile before easing off as the climbing started in earnest.  At the top of the first climb, about three miles in, Ian had added a mile-long loop of rolling singletrack that, while pretty, was obviously going to be a real slog on the second lap.  This threw off our splits as compared to previous years, but the effort level seemed to be in check as we rolled through AS1 and headed back down the gorge towards the river.

We crossed the river feeling strong and made a relaxed climb out of Lick Brook gorge nearing the top 20, but missed a turn at around mile 10 that cost us about three minutes and four or five places.  We still had a long way to go, though, so tried not to panic as we made our way back onto the course and into rhythm.  The trail was in great shape, for the most part, though there were some very soft sections that were going to get very muddy later on.  We came through Buttermilk Falls (AS3) just over two hours in, grabbed a few supplies out of our shared drop bag, and began the climb back up.  Coming back down Lick Brook we caught the second place female, and we maintained a nice rhythm back up towards Lucifer's Staircase.  Before reaching the stairs, we crossed paths with the marathoners on their way out; seeing many friends and training partners hammering by early in their race gave our spirits a boost as we faced the daunting climb.  We caught the women's leader at the base of the staircase and pulled away at the top.  Coming back down past AS5 to finish the first lap I was feeling very strong and was holding back so as not to put any undue pressure on Phil.  About a mile from the start/finish he caught a root and almost pitched off the side of the trail into the gorge; he was able to pop right up but seemed a bit shaken and had a little trouble maintaining contact the rest of the way down.  (He told me after the race that he felt like he was "in shock," and that it ultimately took him several miles to fully recover.)

We reached the turnaround in 4:04 on a course that was ultimately about two miles longer than previous years--maybe equivalent to a 3:55 previously.  I was feeling great.  Legs felt strong, the weather was cooperating.  After running the first 14 miles without carrying any fluid, and then using a handheld for the subsequent twelve, I switched to my Orange Med Single Barrel HydraQuiver for lap 2.  We were in 17th and 18th place, less than two minutes behind 15th, about 6-10 minutes behind 10th-14th.  I was ready to start hunting.  Phil was dawdling a little bit in the aid station, trying to get himself back on track, and we had planned on splitting up at that point anyway, so I grabbed a banana and took off.  Within fifteen minutes I had caught the two runners ahead of me and pulled away; by AS7 at the top of the gorge I was running solo in 15th place, with a little more than twenty miles to go.
Working my way through lap 2.

The Cayuga course is an unrelenting beast.  While the trails are almost universally runnable, the constant short ups and downs and sharp turns make it difficult to find a rhythm.  Small logs and stream crossings that pass unremarked on in the first lap become major hindrances in lap two.  Avoiding lapped runners, front runners, and marathoners in both directions begins to take its toll, adding in countless small lateral movements that sap momentum.  The staircases that were run up cautiously in the early stages become nearly insurmountable objects; the downhills pound the quads into submission.  Four hundred runners traversing a double out-and-back turns numerous soft patches into ankle-deep, shoe-sucking mud pits.  For me, the second lap of Cayuga is always a mental battle trying to avoid negative self-talk.  The difficulty of the course wears me down; there is a constant sense that the finish line is so far away.  I was running pretty well, making it easier to keep a positive outlook, but there's no getting around the fact that year after year, lap two of this course is a slog.  Ultimately, after my two early passes I was completely solo the rest of the way; I wound up about five minutes behind 14th and about five minutes ahead of Phil in 16th.  Despite a 4:50 second lap--about what I've done in previous years--I wasn't close to getting caught by anyone, which is a first for me at this race and speaks to the length and difficulty of this year's course.  (Times were generally 30-40 minutes slower than previous years among repeat runners in the top 20, with the exception of Scotie and Cole, who had amazing performances; I'd suspect my effort was worth about an 8:20 or so on the old course.  I'll take it.)  I would up fourth master, third in the 40-44 group behind Ben and Scotie--my fifth AG top-3 at a national championship since becoming an old man, but still looking for that first AG win. 
Mostly just relieved.

Much like Sabrina wrote in her fabulous recap of the race, I was somewhat ambivalent about the race in retrospect.  It wasn't my best day, but it wasn't my worst.  I finished about where I should've in the field, but certainly didn't make any great strides or achieve anything beyond my potential.  My time was the slowest of my three previous finishes, but I was closer to the winner and to most of the elite returnees like Ben and Matt than I've been previously.  Ultimately I decided I'm satisfied with the result, if not completely happy with it.  Which, considering the illness coming in, I guess is about all I can ask for.



Gear
Patagonia Strider shorts and top, courtesy of Mountain Peak Fitness/Red Newt Racing
inov-8 Race Ultra 290s
Orange Med Single Barrel HydraQuiver and Handheld
GU Roctane gels and GU Brew

Lab Rat

As I've previously mentioned, I've recently started working with the Heart Center in their new sports cardiology practice, performing exercise physiology testing on athletes and assisting on a research project examining the relationship between distance running and heart disease.  However, though I've become quite familiar with performance testing over the past several months, I'd never undergone any physiologic tests myself.  That changed recently when my friend Beth Glace, a sports nutritionist and exercise scientist at NISMAT, recruited me to take part in a study on the mechanisms of fatigue in endurance athletes.

Ultrasound looking at muscle glycogen stores.
All photos: Charlotte Freer
I took the train into Manhattan and walked uptown to NISMAT, which is an extension of Lenox Hill Hospital that specializes in sports medicine and athletic performance.  I met Beth and her co-investigator, Ian, who showed me around and took me through the various elements of the research protocol.  First, I had my height and weight taken, and I underwent an ultrasound of my quadriceps, as a means of measuring my baseline glycogen stores in the muscle.  (Though I'm still on a low-carb/ketogenic diet, my levels were pretty normal.)  Then, I hopped onto the treadmill for a VO2max test, the first arm of the protocol.  In this case, it didn't really matter what my max was, as this was just being used to determine the intensity at which I'd need to run during the latter stages of the project.  But surprisingly enough, we ultrarunners can get a bit competitive about some fairly mundane things, so I was pretty fired up to see what kind of numbers I could hit.

The dreadmill, with all kinds of fancy equipment.
The test followed a standard protocol, which includes a very brief warmup followed by progressive increases in intensity, until the subject/athlete can't go any further.  I was placed on a heart rate monitor and affixed a plastic headset that held in place the tube into which I'd have to breathe.  This tube ran into an analyzer that measured the relative volumes, rates, and percentages of the various gases I inhaled and exhaled.  From this, Beth and Ian could see not only my VO2max, but also my lactate threshold (technically my ventilatory threshold, I'll probably bore you with some details about the difference in a future post), and, via a measurement called the respiratory exchange ratio (RER, or sometimes just R) could also determine whether I was burning carbohydrates, fats, or a mixture of the two, at various intensities.

I began by walking on the treadmill at 3mph (20:00/mile), which increased by 1 mph each minute, until reaching 6mph (10:00/mile) at the four-minute mark.  From that point on, with each passing minute, the incline increased by 2%.  Beth informed me that the treadmill had a max gradient of 20%, after which (if I was still running) the speed would then increase to 7mph (8:30 pace) for a minute.  If I could somehow keep going for that minute, the test would automatically stop.  And so I arrived at my arbitrary goal.

If you've never had a VO2max test before, it is a very brief, very exquisite sort of torture.  The goal is to push the athlete to run to their maximum effort; thus, the test needs to be difficult enough to induce exhaustion, but short enough that the athlete doesn't end the test prior to reaching their max due to accumulated fatigue.  For the first eight minutes or so, then, the test is rather benign, but as the grade pushes past 12%, it begins to get unpleasant quite rapidly.  After eleven minutes, I reached 16% and was really starting to feel it.  At twelve minutes and 18%, I knew I could at least get to the 20% maximum grade, but I wasn't sure how long I could hold it there.  I fought my way through the entire minute at 20% and briefly entertained the possibility that I could finish an entire minute at 20% and 7mph, but after about 15 seconds I gave a desperate signal to stop.

The numbers were pretty cool; it's amazing how much data is generated from these tests and what it can be used for.  I was able to reach a VO2max of 4.59 L/min, or 70.1 ml/kg/min, which is a pretty solid value for an old man.  My ventilatory/lactate threshold occurred at 88% of my VO2max, which is near the upper end of normal.  (Higher is better: beyond the LT, lactate accumulation occurs faster than lactate clearance, and the steady accumulation of lactate will lead to fatigue; thus, being able to exercise as close to max effort as possible before reaching that point is obviously beneficial.)  Most interesting to me were the RER values.  I didn't start burning carbs at all until I was nearly halfway through the test, and I didn't hit an RER of 0.85 (metabolizing 50% carbs and 50% fat) until the ten-minute mark, running at at 14% grade with a heart rate of 171.  (My max HR came in at 184, slightly above predicted.)  Beth described this as very unusual, but consistent with the theory behind the ketogenic diet.  Nice to see that it's working.

Torture device.  I mean, the Biodex.
So that took care of the baseline testing.  I returned to the lab a week later for the main part of the protocol.  I began on a virtually empty stomach, having been instructed by Beth only to drink 13 oz. of Ensure about an hour prior to arrival.  After re-weighing and rechecking my ultrasound, I was seated on the Biodex, which was used to measure muscle contraction strength in my right quadricep.  Ian explained that first, they would measure a voluntary contraction, as I tried to extend my leg as forcefully as possible against resistance.  Then, they would provide stimulation with a magnetic field over my femoral nerve, which would induce an involuntary contraction.  Measuring the difference in the amount of force between these two, before and after exercise, would suggest whether fatigue was mediated by central (nervous) or peripheral (muscle) mechanisms.

Probably before I knew what was coming.
After strapping in to the seat, I pushed as hard as I could for about five seconds, and the force was measured.  Ian then positioned the magnet over the femoral nerve in my right thigh and induced a few isolated contractions.  It was forceful enough to make my body jump, but not painful.  Then came the payoff: I again gave a maximal voluntary contraction; after about three seconds, Ian introduced a continuous magnetic field, stimulating a sustained involuntary contraction as I continued to apply voluntary force.  As soon as he hit the button, I screamed; it wasn't painful exactly, but was one of the weirdest and most uncomfortable feelings I've ever experienced.  We did that twice more.  Then the real testing could start.

Waiting with dread...
The meat of the test was a two-hour continuous run on the treadmill, at 70% of my VO2max.  Beth attached the breathing apparatus every fifteen minutes to ensure that I was maintaining the appropriate work rate.  My blood sugar and blood lactate levels were checked every hour.  When the two hours were up, the ultrasound measurements were repeated, and I was once again subjected to the Biodex, which remained just as unpleasant.  Then, back on the treadmill for a 2km time trial, as hard as I could push myself.  Then weighed again, ultrasounded again, and--you guessed it--the Biodex again.

Either really tired, or just anticipating getting back on the Biodex.
I'm not gonna lie, it was a pretty exhausting day.  But it was really interesting to see some of these processes in action, and I got a great feel for the different types of data that a treadmill test can generate.  I'll talk a little more about some of this stuff as the sports cardiology program starts to launch and I start seeing patients in the real world.

Running and Your Heart, Part II: The Athlete's Heart

Last week, inspired by some recent schoolwork and research, and mildly prompted by my collapse at Rocky Raccoon,  I started a series of posts on distance running and cardiac health.  The first post used my last twenty miles at Rocky as a jumping-off point to talk a little bit about pulmonary edema, and rather obliquely about cardiac illness.  I'd like to delve a little bit more into the relationship between endurance exercise, heart health, and heart disease.  In light of some of the recent media coverage of these issues, we're going to discuss some facts and address some common misconceptions and/or misinterpretations of some of the data out there, with the goal of all of us becoming better informed regarding this topic and better able to make rational decisions about our athletic future.

Before we can get into dysfunction, though, we have to talk about normal function, and about the physiologic adaptations that the heart makes to long-term endurance exercise.  Many of these adaptations are beneficial, but they're not without problems, either.

The normal heart
Chambers (and valves) of the heart

I don't think there's any need to get into a bunch of esoteric facts about the heart (It pumps six liters of blood per minute! It weighs 300 grams!) but we should first go through a few basics.  I'm sure you can remember from ninth grade biology that the heart is a muscle that pumps blood through the body.  You might also remember that the heart is split into two sides (left and right), each of which has two chambers (an atrium and a ventricle).  The right side of the heart pumps de-oxygenated blood to the lungs, where the red blood cells bind to oxygen.  Blood from the lungs then returns to the left side of the heart, from where (whence?) it is pumped out to the rest of the body so that the various tissues and organs can use that oxygen.  Having delivered oxygen to the tissues, the blood then returns to the right side of the heart to begin the cycle again.  Blood flows throughout the circulatory system in what is essentially a series of tubes; veins carry blood to the heart, while arteries carry blood from the heart.

OK, simple enough.  From a basic standpoint, that's all we need the heart to do: pump oxygen-poor blood to the lungs, deliver oxygen-rich blood to the rest of the body.  So when we talk about cardiac disease, we're most generally talking about a failure of the heart to fulfill that function.  But there are a bunch of different ways in which this basic function can be compromised.  For our purposes, there are three systems inherent to normal heart function that we want to be familiar with in order to understand possible dysfunction: the coronary arteries, the conduction system, and the heart muscle itself.
Coronary arteries

We spoke briefly about the heart muscle last week; simply put, the muscle squeezes, increasing the pressure within the chambers of the heart, and forces blood out into the circulation.  The muscle is the heart's engine.  The coronary arteries are responsible for delivering oxygen to the heart muscle.  Wait a minute, you're saying, didn't you just say that arteries carry blood AWAY from the heart?  Yes, I did!  Thanks for paying attention!  Arteries do indeed carry blood away from the ventricles, but in this case they don't have to go very far.  The coronary arteries arise from the aorta immediately after the blood leaves the left ventricle, and they surround the heart, supplying oxygen-rich blood to the muscle.  When you hear the term "heart attack," this is usually used to mean an interruption of blood flow to the heart muscle, usually due to a narrowing of, or blockage within, the coronary arteries. We're going to do an entire post about the coronary arteries next week, so for now, just think of them as the heart's plumbing system.

The conduction system, then, is the wiring.  This system is comprised of electrical fibers that coordinate the heartbeat.  The depolarization of these electrical cells causes the atria, and then the ventricles, to contract synchronously.  The contraction of the atria forces blood into the ventricles, and the contraction of the ventricles forces blood out into the circulation.  When you see that familiar tracing that we all know represents a beating heart:


what you're looking at is a graphic representation of the heart's electrical activity.  (I'm not going to go into what each of those little squiggles means, but if you're interested, read this.)  Without the orderly input of the electrical/conduction system, these contractions may lose their synchronicity, robbing the heart muscle of its ability to pump blood effectively--or contractions can cease altogether.

The athlete's heart
Note the enlarged (dilated) cardiac chambers
in the athlete's vs. non-athlete's heart.
Photo: cyclingtips.com
Like any other muscle, the heart responds to exercise by adapting to stress.  Weight lifting, for example, places the skeletal muscles under stress, ultimately causing the muscles to adapt by increasing muscle mass and size (hypertrophy).  Similarly, aerobic exercise means that the muscles requires more oxygen, necessitating increased cardiac output (the amount of blood the heart pumps).  Over time, the heart muscle adapts by increasing the mass and thickness of the muscular wall of the left ventricle.  Other adaptations include dilation (or enlargement) of the various heart chambers, and dilation of the coronary arteries (which I'll discuss more in next week's post).   In the absence of a history of vigorous exercise, many of these structural changes--hypertrophic ventricular walls, atrial dilation--would be considered pathologic.  That is to say, when we see these sorts of things in the population at large, they are usually the result of chronic high blood pressure or underlying cardiac disease, are usually associated with a loss of the heart's pump function, and can lead to congestive heart failure, pulmonary edema, and other general badness.  But in endurance athletes, who demonstrate these changes in the setting of preserved pump function, they are usually considered normal adaptations to long-term vigorous exercise that we term the athlete's heart.

What's the big deal? Aren't adaptations good?

So, in general, we think of the chronic adaptations associated with the athlete's heart to be beneficial, or at the very least neutral.  They allow for us to increase our cardiac output to meet the demands of intense aerobic activity, and do not appear to be associated with the sort of pathology we would otherwise expect from these kinds of changes in heart morphology.  However, there is some evidence that suggests that there may be some downside to some of the adaptations of the athlete's heart.

For example, take the dilation seen in the heart's chambers, particularly the left atrium and right ventricle.  There is a hereditary disease called arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy, a rare condition that causes dilation of the right ventricle and fibrous deposition or "scarring" within the myocardium (the muscular layer of the heart wall).  This fibrous tissue can interrupt the electrical pathways of the heart (remember that conduction system stuff?), serving as an origination point for life-threatening ventricular arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms).  The dilated RV seen in long term athletes can be accompanied by similar fibrous deposition, leading to some speculation that there may be an "exercise-induced arrhythmogenic right ventricle" that may mimic the inherited condition.  (Some have posited this as the theoretical framework for the death of Ryan Shay at the US Olympic Trials marathon in 2007, though that--in fact, all of this--remains unproven.)  Dilation of the left atrium also seems to place athletes at increased risk of atrial fibrillation or atrial flutter, two abnormal heart rhythms that, while not as dangerous as ventricular arrhythmias, can still cause significant cardiovascular complications.

No bueno.

Another interesting cardiac finding associated with ultra-endurance exercise relates to cardiac enzymes.  Many of you are probably familiar with rhabdomyolysis, a fun little problem in which repeated skeletal muscle trauma (as seen in, say, a 100-mile run) causes breakdown of muscle tissue and the release of enzymes called myoglobin and creating phosphokinase into the bloodstream.  Just like skeletal muscles, heart muscle contains these enzymes; but there are also enzymes that are specific to cardiac muscle, notably troponin.  Troponin is generally only minimally detectable in the bloodstream; elevated troponin levels generally imply damage to the heart muscle, usually from ischemia (lack of blood flow)-- a "heart attack."  Now, several studies have detected significant elevations in troponin levels following prolonged exercise.  Does this mean that we're giving ourselves small heart attacks during every ultra we run?  Probably not; while troponin elevations following heart attacks tend to peak many hours after the event, and persist for several days to weeks, post-exercise troponin elevations typically appear, and resolve, very rapidly.  Furthermore, while there have been studies showing reduction in LV and RV function following ultra endurance events, in almost every case function has been demonstrated to return to normal within one week, unlike what we would see in a "heart attack."  It appears possible that the transient elevation in troponin following extreme exercise is related to increased permeability (leakiness) of the cardiac cell membranes rather than ischemia, cell death, or permanent heart damage.

What does all this mean?

I know, I hit you with a lot of information, and right now you might be freaking out a little bit.  Freaking you out is not the objective of this post.  We're going to talk big picture in a couple of weeks, and hopefully when we're done you'll feel pretty comfortable with the whole deal.  For now, here's the take-home points:

  • there are several adaptations that the heart makes to accommodate long-term, vigorous aerobic exercise
  • most of these adaptations are generally beneficial
  • there are some morphologic changes (that is, the the size/shape of the heart) that may increase the risk of arrhythmias in athletes
  • most of the evidence we have at this time shows correlation, not causation, and much of the framework surrounding this remains theoretical/speculative
Again, we'll go big picture in a couple of weeks, and I'll be able to draw things together a little bit more.  The point of all this is just to make you a little more aware and informed about some of the interesting stuff that's out there, and maybe to generate some fodder for a discussion with your doctor if you have questions or concerns.  

If you want some really detailed reading on this stuff, check our these highly scientific articles: