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 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.

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.

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.

On Tapering

I'd be hard-pressed to identify any aspect of my life with which I have a more love-hate relationship than tapering.  (Chocolate?  The Mets?  My progeny?)  As I start approaching the end of a big training block, the cumulative effect of volume starts to take its toll, and there are days when I long for a reduction in mileage.  Last week, finishing up an eight-week, 850+ mile buildup for Cayuga Trails, I had at least two days where I barely had the motivation to put my shorts on.  On those days, the idea of a taper feels like a godsend.

Invariably, though, a few days into the taper, doubts start to creep in.  Sleeping seems to get harder.  Little aches and pains that otherwise would have been dismissed as the byproduct of hard, sustained training take on an outsized importance.  Every physical sensation is dissected and analyzed, usually with depressing conclusions.  Rather than feeling energized, I often start feeling more sluggish.  Even good days, where energy levels are high, leave me feeling twitchy and on edge.

This is certainly not new, and I'm certainly not unique in this way.  Almost everyone who's been through a taper for a big race has similar complaints and conflicted feelings about it.  Much of the problem is that there is no single formula for tapering.  Everyone reacts differently to a reduction in training, and every individual taper is a little different, based on the length and intensity of the preceding training block.  Some people like a three-week taper, some one or two.  Some even eschew it altogether.  Personally I prefer a 10-14 day taper; anything longer than that for me and self-doubt really starts to creep in.  Some other general rules I try to follow:

Drop the volume by about 30% each week.  In a two-week taper that means cutting mileage to about 2/3 of what I had been running previously, then about 1/3 in the week leading up to the race.  This has to be adjusted sometimes, particularly if the volume has been high.  The last three weeks of my training block this time around were 115, 130, and 115 miles; a reduction of 1/3 would take me from about 120 miles to 80 miles.  Eighty miles is still a fair amount, though, and I'll probably wind up with more like 65 or 70 this week, before dropping down to about 35 the week before the race.

Cut back on volume, not intensity.  In my younger days I would reduce not only the workload but the "quality" of my runs as well, sometimes eliminating hard workouts in the ten days leading up to the race.  I can unequivocally say this made me feel much, much worse.  Now I'll continue to do workouts during the taper of similar intensity to those previously, usually just with less mileage or fewer repeats on the track.  I like the concept of "race-specific" workouts as I get closer to an event, but this is difficult for an ultra, where goal pace is aerobic and not terribly taxing in short intervals.  Instead I'll run a low-volume, moderate intensity marathon-pace workout in the week leading up to the race.  Last night Laura and I ran 4 x 800m with 200m easy jog recovery:

(and if you think this whole post wasn't just an excuse to show that video, you're crazy.)

Hydrate.  I don't eliminate caffeine--I'm not sure how functional I'd be, particularly on overnight shifts at work--but I'm more cognizant of drinking water in the several days beforehand.

Don't do anything stupid.  This mostly applies to overdoing it from a running perspective.  Now isn't the time to chase KOMs on Strava because I want to take advantage of my fitness, even if they are short ones.  It also refers to the myriad other ways I can damage my race without thinking about it.  I remember injuring a toe playing barefoot volleyball in a neighbor's yard a week before the Vermont 50 in 2010.

Don't overreact when you feel bad.  This is the hardest one to follow, since invariably several times during the taper I'm going to have runs where I feel sluggish and out of sorts.  It's very easy to let the self-doubt creep in.  You have to keep reminding yourself of the training that preceded the taper, and that you're not all of a sudden out of shape.  It sounds easy but it isn't.

Right now, for example, I'm actually freaking out over how I felt this morning on my last "long" run (a relaxed 14-miler with Phil).  My legs are fine, but over the second half of the run I got very achy, in all my muscles, particularly my back and arms.  I'm trying not to overreact, but this is how I've felt in the past during my two episodes of Lyme disease, and the achiness has persisted throughout the day.  Hopefully it's just the taper blues.  I know my fitness level is very good; my confidence in my training is high.  But you can bet your ass I'm on doxycycline right now.  Fingers crossed.

I should have "get extra sleep" on this list, but I can't in good conscience include it.  Not because I think it isn't important--it's likely more important than anything else I have on here--but because though I'd like to make this a focus of my taper, the unpredictability of my work schedule means this is usually out of my control.  Working a mixture of 12-hour day shifts and night shifts with a 35-minute commute, with the kids' activities crammed in, means that 8-9 hours of sleep in between shifts is often an impossibility.  Instead I'll try to increase my nap frequency when leading into a race, which isn't ideal but at least makes me feel like I'm being mindful of my recovery.