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:






Running and Your Heart, Part I


So...it's been an interesting couple of months.  I think I've mentioned this before, but since late last year I've been involved with the Heart Center, the preeminent cardiology group in the Hudson Valley, in establishing a new sports cardiology practice.  I'm not a cardiologist (which will become eminently obvious over the course of the next couple of posts) but I have more than a layman's understanding of the athlete's heart and many of the cardiac issues that endurance athletes deal with.  Plus, I've always had a major interest in exercise physiology, and have been looking for an opportunity to break into that field for some time.  Starting within the next couple of months, we'll be opening the doors on our new sports cardiology practice (spiffy title pending) and I'll be working part-time as the group's exercise physiologist.  So exercise science and the athlete's heart have been on my mind quite a bit recently.

This was obviously at the forefront of my thoughts during and after Rocky Raccoon.  As a brief recap, I was running very well at Rocky through 60 miles (9:12) and, despite a nosebleed and some other minor issues, was still on pace for a top-6, sub-16 hour finish through 80 miles (12:45).  In the last twenty miles, however, I developed some rather scary breathing issues, including some rattling breath sounds starting around mile 88 that had me concerned I might be developing pulmonary edema.  Pulmonary edema is basically fluid buildup in the lungs; it can occur for a variety of reasons in sick or elderly individuals, but is much less common in young, healthy folks.  (I'm referring to fluid within the lungs; this is different from a pleural effusion, or fluid around the lungs, which is an entirely different issue I'm not going to address here.)  Mountain climbers can experience high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), which is basically a failure of the pulmonary (lung) vasculature (blood vessels) in response to the physiologic demands of altitude--obviously not an issue in Huntsville, TX.

The most common reasons for a buildup of fluid in the lungs are basically an inability to remove fluid (kidney failure) or an inability to circulate fluid (heart failure).  Reports of kidney failure following extreme endurance events, due to a condition called rhabdomyolysis, are not uncommon.  Rhabdomyolysis occurs as a result of extreme muscle breakdown, when large amounts of a muscle-based proteins myoglobin and creatine phosphokinase (CPK) are released into the bloodstream.  Without proper fluid intake, these proteins can accumulate in the renal tubular system, causing kidney failure.  Kidney failure can lead to anuria (inability to urinate) and pulmonary edema, as the body cannot excrete excess fluid and hydrostatic pressure causes fluid to leak into the lungs and other tissues.  In a 100-mile race, this is certainly a possibility (though remote).  However, I wasn't terribly concerned; I had urinated several times during the race, without any blood (a telltale sign of muscle breakdown called myoglobinuria), I had been taking in adequate fluids, and it was not an overly warm day.  Also, rhabdo-induced renal failure is usually a later finding; it was hard to believe that my kidneys could have already failed to the point where I was going into pulmonary edema less that fourteen hours into the event.  My real fear was my heart.

The most common cause of pulmonary edema is heart failure.  Basically, if the heart muscle is weakened (by any of a variety of mechanisms; most commonly, a heart attack), its ability to pump blood adequately can be compromised.  This can lead to a backup of blood flow throughout the body. When the blood does not flow adequately through the venous system, that can cause an increase in the amount of pressure within the veins.  That increased pressure can cause fluid to leak out of the veins, where it doesn't belong--including into the lungs.

Fortunately, not my chest X-ray
photo: wikipedia.org
Now, I had no real reason to be concerned about my heart.  Other than some mild hypertension, I have no personal history of heart disease, and no other significant risk factors; I had even undergone a recent CT angiogram of the coronary vessels (more on this in subsequent postings), which was normal.  But as I mentioned, I've been rather immersed in sports cardiology and the athlete's heart recently, and as I'll talk about in the next few posts, there are a lot of unlikely but unpleasant possibilities that can befall those of us who take this running thing a bit too seriously.  At its essence, the heart is a rather simple pump, but the underlying components of the organ are a bit more complex, and therein lies a lot of potential problems.  The relationship between exercise, heart health, and heart pathology is actually quite fascinating, and I'll explore that a little more as promised in coming posts. But certainly in real time I was less fascinated and more, well, freaked out.

Anyway, I finished the race by walking the vast majority of the last 18 miles or so, and since then have recovered more or less normally.  I had the usual post-race leg swelling, which in this case brought on some additional anxiety but ultimately resolved as expected.  For a few days afterwards I felt as though I was getting short of breath just walking around or climbing stairs, but I think that may have all been in my head.  A week later I went for an echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound of the heart.  This test shows the activity of the heart muscle in real time; it can show if there are areas of the muscle which are not functioning normally (wall motion abnormalities), if there are problems with leaky heart valves, and how much blood the heart pumps with each beat (ejection fraction).  My cardiologist said my heart was very photogenic:



He also told me that, other than some normal findings associated with the athlete's heart, everything looked good, and that my ejection fraction was normal.  And after a two-week break, I started running slowly again.  It's been a longish recovery period, but now five weeks post-Rocky I'm running more or less normal mileage and feeling just about ready to get back to some harder training again.  (Though the estimated 24" of snow coming our way tomorrow may preclude that for a little while.)

So, apparently this has all been much ado about nothing, fortunately, though it's forced me to think a bit about the role of the sport in my life.  It's a silly pursuit, of course, for those of us who are not making a living at it; sure, it's better than plenty of other bad habits we could have, but there probably isn't anything in our lives that needs to be taken to the extremes that we ultrarunners face regularly.  I did have some fleeting thoughts about what life would look like without 110-mile training weeks.  Unfortunately I don't think I'm mature enough to make any difficult decisions about it at this point, though with a clean bill of health it doesn't seem I'll be forced to do so for awhile.  So for now I'll keep plugging away and trying to slay whatever dragons strike my fancy in the coming months.  (Plus there's always the Western States lottery to look forward to.)

However, there's an awful lot of information out there regarding distance running and long-term health, and a lot of it can be very confusing.  So in the next few weeks I thought I'd try to demystify some of that information, in case anyone else is struggling with some of these decisions regarding their future in the sport.  Next post we'll talk a little bit about the athlete's heart and some of the various changes related to distance running, and whether or not we need to worry about those things.  After that we'll go into the association between ultrarunning and coronary artery disease.  And I'd like to spend a post on the relationship between strenuous exercise and overall mortality, which has been in the news quite a bit recently.  So, check back soon for more possibly accurate, semi-scientific information.

Race Report: Rocky Raccoon 100


It's been almost two weeks since Rocky Raccoon, my first real 100 miler (not counting last year's 24-hour at North Coast, though maybe I should).  I've been struggling with various, conflicting emotions since I crossed the finish line in Texas.  Relief at being finished.  Disappointment at not having achieved most of my goals.  Frustration that, despite excellent preparation and race execution, I was left with a sub-par result, largely due to circumstances outside my control.  Pride at having actually accomplished the task of running 100 miles, still in a relatively respectable time.  Concern and fear over what I might be doing to my body.  Uncertainty as to where I go from here.

I came into Rocky about as prepared as I could've hoped.  I'd had four months of basically uninterrupted training since North Coast, averaging over 100 mi/week for the previous 13 weeks (including recovery weeks!) with a nice mix of track work, hills, tempo, and marathon-pace efforts.  Greg had almost fixed my chronic Achilles tendinosis.  Scott had basically tortured my muscles into balance.  My weight was perfect, right in the 137-lb. range.  Four weeks earlier, I had run a solo 50K in 3:39, feeling completely relaxed; my last 10 miles were easily the fastest of the run.  I had no excuses.  I flew to Houston on the Thursday before the Super Bowl with my great friends Phil and Laura (and Francis Ford Coppola, who was on our plane); Phil would be running his second 100 (after an epic battle with the Grindstone course last year) and Laura would be crewing me and pacing my last 25 miles.
All smiles at the start, with Phil.
photo: Laura Kline
The opening pace was about as fast as I expected.  My pre-race goal was 15 hours (I didn't know exactly how realistic that was, but I knew I could run 16 hours, and I wanted to be mentally prepared to try to run faster than that), and based on previous years I figured that a 15-16 hour performance would have me comfortably in the top 5.  I was anticipating a quick start, though, so I lined up several rows back and let folks go crazy in the early stages.  I stopped to pee around four miles in and was very pleased to find that Phil had been running right behind me (why he hadn't said anything for the first half hour is beyond me).  He was planning on running in the 17-18 hour range, so this pace was a bit faster than he needed to be, but he was happy to run comfortably with me and plan on slowing down later, so we settled in to 9:00 pace and wiled away the miles chatting and making sure not to go too fast.
With Phil at mile 23, cruising along.
photo: Laura Kline
We finished the first 20-mile circuit in 2:58, right on pace (if not place; we were easily outside the top-20, already over 30 minutes behind the leaders; but I knew there weren't about to be twenty sub-15:00 100s out there) and resolved to slow down just a tad over the next lap, so as not to overdo it.  Phil was the pacemaker for most of lap 2, and did a masterful job in guiding us through a 3:02 lap for a 6-flat split at 40 miles.  The course was fun--a mix of singletrack and doubletrack, with a few more rolling hills than I had anticipated, but mostly excellent footing and eminently runnable.  The aid stations were well-stocked and staffed with hilarious, enthusiastic volunteers.  All in all we were having a blast.  I stopped briefly at 40 miles to eat a little peanut butter and chat with Laura for a few seconds while Phil ran through the aid station and opened up a little gap on me, but I had been moving just a touch better over the last several miles and was not concerned about catching back up; by 42 miles were running together again.  I was a few seconds in front when we came to an intersection that had clearly had the markings tampered with; it took us a minute or two to sort out where the signs had been switched around and get back on the right path.  (Where does this compulsion come from, to fuck around with course markings?  How is this fun for whoever is doing this?  I could almost understand it if you were sitting there and laughing at stupid runners getting confused and running in different directions, but why are you switching markings and then just walking away?  What pleasure does that bring you?)

End of lap 2, 40 miles in.
photo: Laura Kline
I kept the pace steady throughout lap 3; I still felt very good, but did not want to go overboard yet, and focused on trying to run the same splits between aid stations as I had on the first two laps.  Phil fell back and I was on my own; I could track my progress to some of the leaders, though it became obvious that a lot of people had dropped out already and I didn't have a clear sense of where I stood.  My splits were not far off, especially accounting for the few minutes we'd lost at the tampered intersection.  The seven-mile Damnation loop between the second and third AS on each lap did become a bit of a slog.  This was the longest stretch between aid stations, and also the longest segment that didn't involve an out-and-back section, so it was rather isolating; it was a good hour of basically solo running, with few landmarks, and by the third time through it was starting to feel like a chore.  But I maintained through 50 miles in 7:34 and finished up lap 3 in 9:12, now in sixth place.  Fifth was a good 20-30 minutes ahead and looking strong; seventh was about 8-10 minutes back (Phil was about 10-15 back, in around 10th).  I knew by know that I wasn't going to break 15:00--negative splits are almost impossible in a race this long--but I told Laura that I'd be at the 75-mile mark in 11:45-12:00, and that 16 hours was easily doable.

I pressed on through lap 4.  After running through every aid station for the first 30 miles or so, I had developed a nice AS rhythm: two cups of Coke, half a banana, a few bites of PBJ, grilled cheese, or a quesadilla, and some pickles.  A minute or so, in and out.  I'd been running the whole way with my Orange Mud Hydraquiver Single Barrel, so I had 26-ounces of fluid with me, which I was generally drinking twice per lap starting with lap 2--one time with GU Brew, then refilling with water for the second half of each lap.  My fueling and energy systems felt pretty good.  I'd taken a few salt tablets, but not many.  I had peed probably four times in the first 70 miles or so; it was a little concentrated, but certainly not brown or anything concerning.  The Damnation loop on lap 4 was interminable; even though it was only about 4-5 minutes slower than I'd been running on the previous laps, it felt like it would never end.  Still, I maintained a nice pace through mile 72, on target to meet Laura at 75.5 in about 11:50.

In a race this long, things are going to go wrong at some point; how you deal with them is what separates a good race from a bad one.  At 73 miles, things that didn't need to go wrong started to go wrong.  I started feeling pretty tired and was struggling a little bit, when I started bleeding from my right nostril.  This isn't unheard of for me, especially when conditions are as dry as they were in Texas, but it certainly was an issue I didn't want to deal with at that point.  I slowed down a little and managed as best I could, and came in to the aid station to pick up Laura right around 11:53 or so.  (For comparison, my 12-hour split at North Coast was about 76 miles, so I was right there, if not a couple of minutes faster.)  Laura was ready to rock (and freezing cold, having been waiting for about 30 minutes as sunset approached) but I had to sit and manage my issues.  A volunteer pulled up a folding chair and brought me some tissues to pack my nose; Laura brought some Ramen and refilled my bottle.

"What else do you need?" asked the volunteer.  "I've got some whoppies.  You want some whoppies?"

Did I want whoppies?  I didn't know.

"I'm sorry, what?"

"Whoppies?  You need some whoppies?"

Shit, I didn't know what he was talking about.  I racked my brain, trying to think of what I was forgetting.  I'd been reminding myself for the past few miles that I wanted to tell Laura to give me a Zofran tablet (for nausea) when we got to mile 80...more as a precaution than anything else, though my stomach had felt mildly queasy...I knew I wanted to drop my vest pack and just use a handheld on the last lap...I couldn't remember what I had decided about whoppies.  Did I want whoppies?  Would they bother my stomach?  Wait, what the fuck was a whoppy?  Why couldn't I remember what a whoppy was?  Laura was back with my bottle, but she didn't seem to know about whoppies either.

"I'm sorry...what are you saying?"

"Whoppies."

"What...oh. Wipies."

Texas accents, man.

Once I had cleaned the blood off my hands and face with some wet wipes (aka wipies/whoppies), we started off at an easy jog.  I led most of the way back to the start/finish, not running the 9-10 minute pace I had been doing earlier, but holding a steady 11:00 pace for the next four miles or so, coming through 80 miles in 12:46.  I needed to run only 10:30 pace to break 16 hours.  Fifth place was over thirty minutes in front, but seventh place was about twenty minutes behind.  Sixth was mine, barring disaster.  I dropped my vest and grabbed my handheld, took the Zofran and, at Laura's suggestion, a caffeine tablet, as my energy levels were starting to sag a bit, and we started off, headlamps blazing, Laura in the lead, running ten-minute miles.

I struggled to keep up as we started off, though my legs felt alright, and tried to keep suffering through what seemed to be a bad patch.  But after a mile or so, I could tell it wasn't simply a bad patch.  My breathing didn't feel right.  I was fatigued, to be sure, but beyond that, I was struggling to keep my breathing under control.  I was hyperventilating on every uphill.  After about two miles, I told Laura I needed to slow down to try to catch my breath.  I wasn't sure what the problem was.  Maybe the caffeine, I thought; though I'm pretty habituated to caffeine, and had been drinking Coke and taking caffeinated gels for the past several hours, maybe the tablet had been too much, and it was causing my heart to race.  We stopped at AS 1 (83 miles) and I sat again to check my pulse.  120 beats/minute.  Nothing out of the ordinary; certainly nothing to cause unusual shortness of breath.  I rested a few minutes, drank some hot broth, and we walked on.

Over the next few miles, I tried to run on the flat and downhill sections whenever I could.  Uphills left me gasping for air and were not runnable.  We decided we'd have to try to just wait out whatever was happening.  I had no chest pain and was still urinating.  My legs actually felt fine; on the sections were I could run, I was holding sub-10:00 pace with any real soreness or achiness.  And maybe the breathing was getting a little better.  I'd just walk the uphills until it went away.

It was on the final Damnation loop where everything went to shit.  I started feeling a rattling in my chest when I was running; I tried to cough up phlegm but nothing would come up.  At first, it was only on uphills; by about 88 miles I could hear a rattling sound even on flat segments.  By now I was starting to freak out a little bit.  I doubted it was my kidneys, as I had peed only a few miles earlier.  Was my heart OK?  All the reading I'd been doing for work and school about ultrarunning and heart disease started playing with my mind.

"Laura, I think my lungs are filling up with fluid.  I think I just have to walk."

So, we walked.  Every so often I'd try running for a bit, but the rattling came back after fifteen seconds or so and I was too freaked out to keep going.  Walking seemed OK, and my legs felt fine, and I was still going to be able to finish, so we just walked.  I felt bad for Laura, who had given up an entire weekend and flown all this way and supported me all day to basically be reduced to walking for 18 of the 25 miles she was pacing, but I couldn't do anything about it.  I was still in sixth, somehow, through ninety miles, but by about 91 folks started straggling by.  Phil and his pacer Mike came past at about 93; he looked so strong I wanted to cry, but I put on a brave face and we just trudged through.  I was able to run for about fifteen of the final 25 minutes or so, and finished the last lap with Laura in 5:01, for a 17:48, 12th-place finish.

I went straight to the medical tent, although I felt generally OK, and had one of the docs listen to my lungs, which he pronounced as clear; my heart rate was about 140 when I first sat down, but came down to 90 within the first couple of minutes.  I was still having a hard time taking a full, deep breath without coughing, which would persist for the next couple of days, but otherwise things seemed to be fine.  I'm still not sure what the issue was/is.  My best supposition is that the dry, dusty air caused some bronchospasm and a bit of an asthma-like reaction; several folks, including Phil, commented on how dusty it had been, and I had my nosebleed as evidence.  But I'm scheduled for a chest X-ray and an echocardiogram tomorrow, so we'll make sure everything is ok.  (I'll try to post a bit on the echo, and some various ultrarunning/heart-related issues, next week.)

My favorite existential sign.
This is the next morning.  No, I don't look good.
So where do I go from here?  I won't make any long-term decisions until after the echo results are in. If everything is OK, I assume I'll get back to training in another week or so, and I'll put together a race schedule for the summer/fall in the coming weeks.  I'm glad to have finished, and to have my buckle, and my WS qualifier, and yes, a 17:48 is not anything to sneeze at.  But everything pointed to a sub-16, and my legs were certainly up for it, and my fueling and everything else seemed to be on point.  I'm equal parts frustrated and concerned, combined with the usual apathy/ennui after a major race is over.  It's not a great headspace to be in right now.

I learned that I can prepare for and execute a 100-mile race plan.  I confirmed, after Bandera and North Coast, that I can compete among the second tier of US ultrarunners at long national championship races--I'm not going to win, but after the true elites beat the shit out of each other, I'm certainly in the next wave of guys that are picking up the pieces.  And I learned that bad patches are just bad patches, and that I should recognize them for what they are, and not panic and try to force myself out of them by taking caffeine pills or whatnot; they just need to be endured until they end.  What all this means for me going forward, though, is still a bit of a mystery.

Gear
Patagonia Strider shorts and top, courtesy of Mountain Peak Fitness/Red Newt Racing
inov-8 Race Ultra 290s (discontinued, unfortunately, but really looking forward to the new Roclites)
Orange Med Single Barrel HydraQuiver, Handheld, and trucker cap
GU Roctane gels and GU Brew


Nerve Gliding


I'm currently in the Best Western Inn & Suites in Huntsville (home of Sam Houston, the patron saint of Texas), about 16 hours ahead of the start of Rocky Raccoon, my first official attempt at the 100-mile distance (notwithstanding last year's 24-hour effort at North Coast).  Right now I've literally got my feet up, propped on a pile of pillows, and I'm watching a Law & Order marathon, so I'm about as happy as I could possibly be.  In about an hour we'll head out for a little shakeout jog before dinner.  I feel pretty good.  The last few months of training have gone great.  I'm a man without an alibi.

I've talked before about how much I hate tapering, and this time around hasn't been all that different.  But I've added a new element to the pre-race routine that seems very promising that may give me a bit of an edge come tomorrow afternoon.  Prior to my last effort at Recover from the Holidays, I visited Greg at Momentum PT for a routine called nerve gliding.  Basically, the brain and the nervous system are in control of pretty much everything that happens to you during a long race...and if we can fool the nervous system into thinking we don't feel quite as bad as we think we do, we can actually run faster and longer than our brain would otherwise allow.  I'll let Greg explain it better:

Common issues and complaints related to physical/athletic performance are fatigue, cramps, decreased muscle activation/strength, diminished coordination and good ol' fashioned bonking just to name a few.  This is especially the case when talking about events that significantly test one's endurance or during long periods of exertion.  There is a complex interplay between many systems in the body to cause these issues but it is impossible not to implicate the nervous system with each one since it is still the CEO making final decisions based on the information it receives.

Most, if not all, runners have experienced these issues at some point during training or a race.  One of the main factors is when the nervous system has had enough,  the rest of the body will follow suit pretty quickly making it very difficult to reverse course.  Even if everything else like nutrition, training and rest went according to plan, nothing can defy the limits of your nervous system.  So those muscle cramps at mile 22 in a marathon are probably not a salt or nutrition issue anymore; it's more likely to be exertion-related fatigue of the neuromuscular system resulting in those muscle cramps.  The good news is that the nervous system is not static, but is actually quite adaptable and something that can be trained leading to an elevation in performance.  Who doesn't want that?

Before going any further, a quick (simplified) physiology lesson is in order.  The nervous system runs on a baseline level of sensitivity but this is something that can change.  It can become more sensitized which means it is more easily triggered causing it to fatigue and run out of fuel faster or less sensitized which means it is less trigger happy and runs more efficiently (read: less fatigue).  In essence, a less sensitized nervous system is able to provide a more accurate picture of any sensory information coming in to the brain since it's not being triggered over every little and insignificant type of stimuli.  An accurate picture going into the brain results in a better, more consistent output to your neuromuscular system.  You can probably see where this is going: good info in + good info out = improved performance.

The question, then, is how to accomplish this?  The short answer is through what are known as nerve mobilizations or nerve glides.  In the case of runners, the posterior nerve bundle of the leg, the sciatic nerve, is important to target because it innervates the hamstring and calf muscles which tend to be susceptible to cramps.  You can think of them as very specific and repetitive short duration stretches which  can be done in a variety of ways.  Just like many systems in the body, when exposed to some kind of stress, the nervous system will adapt and become "stronger" and more efficient.  Nerve mobilizations are a way to expose the nervous system to new stimuli and gently push its boundaries so that it becomes more comfortable with more stress.  This can be combined with other desensitization and calming/relaxation techniques to compound the effects of nerve mobilizations.  The end result is a robust and fatigue-resistant operating system that allows you to push yourself physically with fewer issues.  A nice bonus is that recovery tends to be quicker after your race or training session as well. 

Get it?  Just like the musculoskeletal system and the cardiovascular system, the nervous system is adaptable.  Placing it under some gentle stress shortly before the race teaches it that the stress it will experience a day or two later is manageable.  Our perception of the stress, and of fatigue, changes.

The routine takes about thirty minutes and is pretty painless.  Greg does some static stretching of the hamstrings, placing some strain on the sciatic nerve; it's mildly uncomfortable but not bad at all.  Then he places some gentle traction on the legs and moves them back and forth (abducting and adducting them, if you're anatomically inclined) while kind of shaking them around.  It's actually pretty relaxing.

Does it work?  I only have the one anecdotal experience to report from last month...which was awesome.  I ran a very relaxed 3:39 solo 50K, feeling much less leg strain and fatigue than I usually would for an effort like that.  And the next day, when I would normally be pretty sore from a long, hard road effort, I was able to cruise an easy sixteen miles, definitely fatigued but without any significant soreness or discomfort.  Maybe it's a placebo.  But if it's even a 1% advantage, that's at least ten minutes in 100 miles.  Tomorrow, I'll need every ten-minute advantage I can get.

Final 2016 Gunksrunner Ultra Rankings

Men's #1, and UROY, Jim Walmsley
photo: Geoff Baker
I'm still waiting on results from two races in mid-December to officially close out 2016, but I don't really expect either of them to substantively affect the standings, so here are the more-or-less final 2016 GUR.  As noted, I made some tweaks to the formula this year, placing a larger emphasis on level 4 and 5 races, which I think helped.  The question now is whether these races are a little over-valued.  I don't think they are.  Yes, performing well in only one or two level 5 races can really vault someone to a high ranking.  But, it should!  There were only ten level 5 events on the calendar this year; placing highly in one of them really should carry extra weight.  The biggest problem I think I have right now is accurately categorizing overseas races.  Several of them were level 5 this year: Comrades, obviously; UTMB; Laveredo; MDS.  Many others were also level 4, including Transvulcania, Transgrancanaria, Ultravasan, CCC, and several others.  But these races are taking on increased importance, particularly among the North American elites, and I need to be as methodical as possible about making sure these are accurately reflected.  I'm not willing to just accept that any race in Europe is automatically a level 5, as some folks would have you believe--every European field is not Western States, people!--but I need someone with a little more expertise to help out here.  Any volunteers? (Jason Schlarb, I'm looking in your direction.)  I may have to over-rank these races a little bit to account for the fact that the field strength multiplier will not be as robust as it should be (since the multiplier is dependent on the number of top-ranked runners in the race, and these rankings follow North American runners only, European and Asian fields will get some short shrift in this respect).

Otherwise, I'm happy with the balance that the rankings continue to strike between racing a lot and racing just a few big races.  There are certainly multiple runners on both the men's and women's side that obtained top rankings with varied racing schedules.  Some people are higher than I'd like to see them, some are lower.  That's OK, that's what UROY voting is for.

Twenty-seven of last year's top 50 women repeated in the top 50 this year, and twenty-two men did the same.  And allow me a brief moment of bragging to point out that yours truly managed to rank #94 for the year.  I don't know if that accurately reflects anything, really, but I'm kind of psyched about it.

Anyway, here's the final top 50 for 2016.  These runners will factor into the field strength multipliers for every race they run in 2017.  Nearly 4000 men and over 3500 women earned ranking points in 2016.  As always, you can view the entire list here, or anytime using the links on the Ultrarunning magazine site.  Use the CTRL-F function on the rankings sheets to find your own name.


Men
State
Points
Women
State
Points
1
Jim Walmsley
AZ
254.125
Kaci Lickteig
NE
230.9
2
Brian Rusiecki
MA
181.1
Magdalena Boulet
CA
141
3
Ian Sharman
CA
148.5
Kathleen Cusick
FL
121.4
4
Andrew Miller
OR
145
YiOu Wang
CA
119
5
Zach Miller
CO
137.4
Courtney Dauwalter
CO
104.5
6
Dylan Bowman
CA
129.875
Amy Sproston
OR
100.5
7
Paul Terranova
TX
113.5
Caroline Boller
CA
98.3
8
Mark Hammond
UT
106.95
Devon Yanko
CA
93.2
9
David Roche
CA
101
Neela D'Souza
Canada
80
10
Christopher Dennucci
CA
100.725
Bethany Patterson
VA
79.3
11
Jeff Browning
OR
99.4
Cassie Scallon
CO
76.05
12
Alex Nichols
CO
97.375
Julie Koepke
TX
75.875
13
Hayden Hawkes
UT
95
Clare Gallagher
CO
75.8
14
Cody Reed
AZ
87.3
Sarah Keyes
NY
74.5
15
Jesse Haynes
CA
81.7
Alissa St. Laurent
Canada
72
16
Tim Tollefson
CA
73.1
Hillary Allen
CO
71.825
17
Michael Daigeaun
PA
68
Maggie Guterl
PA
71
18
Paddy O'Leary
CA
66.05
Amanda Basham
OR
70
19
Mario Mendoza
OR
65.9
Heather Hoechst
PA
68.75
20
Jason Lantz
PA
64.95
Nicole Kalogeropoulos
TX
68.6
21
Matt Flaherty
IN
64.85
Jodee Adams-Moore
WA
68.25
22
Jason Schlarb
CO
64.8
Kelly Wolf
AZ/CO
66.7
23
Kyle Pietari
MA
64.5
Sarah Schubert
VA
65.8
24
Sage Canaday
CO
63.75
Camille Herron
OK/MI
62.7
25
Michael Owen
OH
62.75
Corinne Malcolm
WA
60.25
26
Tim Freriks
AZ
62.125
Megan Roche
CA
60
27
Jorge Maravilla
CA
61.85
Laura Kline
NY
59.75
28
David Laney
CA
60.8
Keely Henninger
OR
59.725
29
Chris Mocko
CA
60.375
Sarah Bard
WA
59.3
30
Jared Burdick
NY
58.5
Aliza Lapierre
VT
59.25
31
Aaron Saft
NC
58.075
Darcy Piceu
CO
57.375
32
Ed Ettinghausen
CA
57.6
Sabrina Little
TX
54.5
33
Dakota Jones
CO
55.5
Anna Mae Flynn
CA
54.3
34
Tyler Sigl
WI
54.9
Megan Kimmel
CO
54
35
Zach Bitter
CA
54.5
Annie Jean
Canada
52.5
36
Dominick Layfield
UT
52.55
Megan Alvarado
VA
52.25
37
Jorge Pacheco
CA
52.2
Liz Bauer
SC
52
38
Mike Wardian
VA
50.95
Kaytlyn Gerbin
WA
51.875
39
Stephen Wassather
CA
49
Angela Shartel
CA
51.5
40
Brett Hornig
OR
45.4
Amy Rusiecki
MA
50.625
41
Chikara Omine
CA
45.35
Abby Rideout
UT
49.7
42
Masazumi Fujioka
WA
45.3
Pam Smith
OR
49.1
43
Chase Nowak
MN
45
Justyna Wilson
PA
49
44
Patrick Regan
GA
44.5
Beverly Anderson-Abbs
CA
49
45
Anthony Kunkel
CO
44.1
Erika Lindland
CA
48.8
46
Patrick Caron
MA
44
Leah Frost
VT
48
47
Ryan Bak
OR
44
Denise Bourassa
OR
47.425
48
Morgan Elliot
NC
43.2
Katalin Nagy
FL
46.8
49
Olivier Leblond
VA
43
Darla Askew
OR
46.6
50
Clark Messman
CA
42.5
Megan Digregorio
PA
45.4








Race Reports: Viking Run and RFTH

As part of the buildup for Rocky Raccoon, I recently ran two local, low-key races within a seven-day span.  Not that I particularly needed to race, per se, but both are fun events that I've enjoyed running in the past, and would provide two different training stimuli that I wanted heading into the final training push.  The training has actually been going quite well--averaging over 100 mi/wk for the past couple of months, including recovery weeks, with some good hill sessions, some longish marathon-paced running, and a couple of good long runs (particularly a 40-miler with Phil and Laura that despite the arctic conditions went quite well).  I've had a few little aches and pains, but with help from Greg and Scott I've been staying (mostly) on top of things.

Pre-Viking Run selfie, with obligatory hat.

First up in this little racing mini-block was the Viking Run, a very low-key 10K in Rosendale, about 10 miles from my house.  This race has been going on for much longer than I know; when I moved to the area in 2004, it was already a staple of the local scene.  It's generally held on the weekend before Christmas and New Year's; the 2016 edition took place on New Year's Eve.  We're often out of town during this vacation week, but I like to run this race if I'm around; this was my fourth or fifth time running it, but the first since 2014.  Generally, I can run up front if no fast young guys show up, which was the case this year.  I showed up after an overnight shift at the tail end of a 100-mile week, hoping to break 40 minutes, which on this course, which features over 1000 feet of climbing, is actually a pretty good effort.


I started off at the front and immediately opened up a small gap of about 10-15 seconds during the first mostly flat mile.  Tim Kosteczko, a local runner who's been putting in some good training recently, was hanging tough in the early going, but I was pretty sure that once the climbing started I'd be able to pull away.  We hit the first hill just past the mile mark and proceeded to climb for the next 10+ minutes; by the time I reached the top I couldn't see Tim behind me.  The course then drops precipitously for about a mile, turns around, and retraces its way back to the start.  I had a two-minute lead at the turn and knew I was pretty safe in terms of the win, but continued trying to push myself for the sub-40.  The return climb is absolutely brutal, and I struggled near the top, but was able to recover quickly on the way back down and hold on for a 38:55 and a three-minute victory margin.  This year, for the first time, local running nut Chris Regan had awards made for the race, and I wound up taking home a pretty cool viking horn trophy, out of which I imbibed a few that evening.

Cool! Thanks, Chris.
One week later, finishing a 120-mile training week, I returned for the fourth time to the Recover From the Holidays 50K, another low-key local event that I love to use as a workout/tuneup if I'm running a big race in the middle of the winter (which I usually am).  RFTH is a fat-ass race comprised of ten laps of a paved 5K out-and-back circuit.  This was actually the 21st running of this event, which is mostly used as a training run for local distance runners; RDs Pete Colaizzo and Charlie Sprauer will let anyone show up and run as many or as few laps as they like.  Most folks will run their 10-15 mile long run for the day and sit around the bonfire eating pizza with Pete and Charlie afterwards, but each year about 10-20 folks will battle the cold (and wind, and usually snow flurries) for the full ultra.  There are no awards, but it's free, as is the pizza, so you can't beat that price.

I'm on an odd-year-only streak with RFTH.  It's a race I've tried to do every year, but in the even years, something seems to get in the way.  (Last year it was Bandera.)  Still, I had secured wins in 2011, 2013, and 2015, and while it's certainly a casual event, 2017 marked my chance to become the first four-time winner of the race.  Among a champions' lineup that includes US national team members (Byron Lane) and American record holders (Sabrina Little), that would be a pretty cool deal.

Despite the recent heavy training volume, my legs have been feeling pretty good, and my goal was to run a relaxed but steady tempo of about 22:30/lap--right around 7:30 pace--shooting for a 3:45.  I figured my current fitness level would allow me to run that pace without too much difficulty and without sacrificing the last few weeks of my Rocky Raccoon training.  My friend and training partner Brian Hickey, who has won this race twice himself, was joining me there, but was aiming for 8:00/mile pace, so unfortunately it looked as though I'd be on my own.

Rolling along at RFTH
photo: Charlotte Kopp
We started off on a frigid 19 degree morning and I immediately opened up a small lead on Brian and the rest of the pack.  I struggled through the first lap just trying to warm up; my toes were completely numb and my teeth were chattering through the early stages.  I ran the first lap in exactly 22:30 and was already over a minute in front.  About halfway through lap two I finally felt as though I had warmed up and was able to settle into a comfortable rhythm of right around 22:00/lap.  As I clicked off the miles, everything felt rather comfortable.  I didn't quite have my climbing legs, but I was able to power through the hills, as they are relatively short, and was really able to hold a nice, quick tempo on the flats.  I passed 15K in 66:30, halfway in 1:50:15, and 30K in 2:12:35.  Starting at about lap three, I checked the port-a-potty each time past the start/finish, but couldn't catch a window when it was open; finally, after reaching 35K in 2:34:50, I stopped and waiting until it opened up.  Finishing my business, I started lap eight at 2:36:55, cruised through 40K in 2:57 and the marathon in right around 3:06.  Finishing up lap nine in 3:18:30, and still feeling very relaxed, I decided to push the final lap slightly to see if I could break 3:40.  It did take a little more effort over the final circuit, but I was able to run my fastest lap at the end and finish up in 3:39:20, my second-fastest time on the course (after a 3:32 in 2013) and ninth-fastest all time.  My final 15K was my fastest three laps of the day, covering that stretch in 63:30 (6:50 pace).  All in all, a great confidence boost heading into the final buildup to Rocky.

I'll have a couple of brief posts coming in the next couple of weeks prior to RR100, and hopefully a good writeup following it.  After that the blog may have to go quiet for a few weeks.  I'm finishing up classwork this spring while simultaneously starting a new work project and writing a scientific paper that needs to be finishes by mid-March, so things are going to get pretty hairy in there for a little while.

Why Economy Matters


I'm currently working towards a post-graduate certification in exercise science from California University (go Vulcans!) and so I've been doing a fair bit of reading in recent weeks.  Not all of my studies have been terribly applicable to distance running, but I've been able to glean some pearls.  I've experienced a renewed appreciation of the importance of strength and core training, for example.  And while I'm becoming more comfortable with the concepts of VO2max and lactate threshold, which are the mainstays of scientific inquiry into endurance athletes and their training, I'm beginning to think that the less-discussed parameter of running economy may actually be the most important physiologic variable, particularly in the ultra world.

A quick primer, for those who may not be familiar with some of these terms.  Most athletes who have been tested in a lab will have a general sense of their VO2max and lactate threshold.  VO2max refers to the maximum uptake of oxygen by muscles that are exercising at peak intensity.  Running performance is dependent upon a wide variety of factors--the ability of the system to remove lactate, buffer excess acid, and dissipate heat, as well as various neuromuscular and biomechanical considerations--but at its most basic level, endurance performance is governed by the ability of the cardiopulmonary system to distribute oxygen to the skeletal muscles, and on the ability of the muscles to most effectively and efficiently utilize that oxygen.  These crucial components--oxygen delivery and oxygen utilization--are encompassed by the VO2max.  

The lactate threshold (LT) is the exercise intensity beyond which lactate production begins to outstrip lactate clearance.  This is an important determinant of running performance, as it represents the highest intensity that can be maintained over a long period of time.  The higher the LT, the faster an athlete can run without accumulating significant amounts of lactate, which will lead to fatigue.  (This is a fairly simplified explanation, but it will serve the purposes of this rather unscientific blog post.)

OK, then, what's running economy?  Running economy (RE) refers to the muscular uptake of oxygen while running at a sustained, non-maximal pace. It is a measure of how efficient an athlete is when running at "steady-state"; one could think of RE as the VO2sub-max.  Or, compare it to a car: if VO2max is the size of the car's engine, RE is the gas mileage. 

When you think of RE in this way, it becomes clear why it is such a crucial aspect of endurance performance.  While VO2max holds an important key to an athlete's potential, the runner who demonstrates better running economy will be able to perform at a higher relative percentage of her VO2max without fatiguing.  In a marathon or ultra, which takes place at intensities far below maximum effort (unless you're Zach Miller, apparently),


the ability to maintain a higher relative intensity with less effort and less fatigue is going to carry the day.  This is especially true at the upper echelons of the sport, where a relatively high VO2max is basically a requirement for entry.  Yes, there are outliers, and if you're lucky enough to be Killian (reportedly, a VO2max of 89.5 mg/kg/min, one of the highest ever recorded) or Pre (supposedly a VO2max of 85 mg/kg/min), maybe RE becomes less important.  But for the most part, an elite marathoner or ultrarunner will have a VO2max in the high 70s.  So if everyone starts in this relatively rarefied air, economy may become the determining factor in performance.

Put it this way: taken together, VO2max, LT, and RE account for 70% of inter-runner variance in performance.  If whatever contribution VO2max makes to that 70% is basically negated because all of your competitors have that same contribution, the other factors take on outsized importance.

You millennials out there on the interwebs may not know the guy in the picture to start this post.  That's Frank Shorter, winning the gold medal at the 1972 Olympic marathon in Munich.  (He was robbed of a repeat gold in 1976 by Waldemar Cierpinski, a product of the East German doping machine.)  Shorter is notable in this discussion for having a relatively pedestrian VO2max of about 70 mg/kg/min, but he compensated for this by being incredibly efficient--in fact, his RE values compared favorably with most elite East African runners, which helps explain his fantastic success despite having a "normal" VO2max.

So how do you improve your running economy?  Well...we're not 100% sure, although it certainly appears to be modifiable in some ways.  Part of the problem is that RE is determined not just by cardiovascular factors (VO2max) or metabolic factors (LT) or neuromuscular factors, but encompasses all of these and others.  So it can be hard to tease out the effects of various types of training on RE, independent of their effects on the various physiologic systems in play.  Another problem is that RE is, at least in part, dependent on anthropometric/body composition characteristics.  (Not just being lighter, but having long legs relative to torso length, with thinner ankles and calves relative to the quadriceps, which imparts a biomechanical advantage, and which you can't really do anything about.)

The good news is that there is some evidence that almost any kind of training has a positive effect on RE.  Indeed, there is some suggestion that simply cumulative mileage over many years leads to enhanced economy.  (Although on the flip side, RE decreases with age, likely due to a reduction in the ability to store and use elastic energy...it gets complicated pretty quickly.) And interval (VO2max) training, LT training, and resistance training have all been shown in various studies to improve RE, though the relative benefits of training at various intensities remain unclear.  Resistance training has demonstrated positive effects on RE, although again, we have yet to define the optimal method by which this takes place.

So, your take-home points:
  1. when you go to your friendly exercise physiologist for an assessment, ask about your RE, not just your VO2max and lactate threshold
  2. include various intensities in your training to improve RE via multiple pathways
  3. don't neglect strength training; not only has it been shown most definitively to improve RE, but it will help keep you injury-free
  4. Zach Miller is a fucking animal
If you're interested in this stuff, and want to read a much more coherent explanation of these variables than I can provide, try this post from the inimitable Ross Tucker.



Race Report: SOS4Kids


Sorry for the delay--this race took place over three months ago--but the munchkins take over the blog again to bring you their latest report:

This was the second triathlon I've done.  This was my first triathlon.  I ran / swam / biked a greater distance than she did. I swam eight laps, ran one mile, and biked four miles, and then ran another quarter of a mile.  I swam four laps, then ran half a mile, biked two miles, and then ran another quarter of a mile.  When I was at the first running part, a lot of stuff hurt, but only a little. However, when I got to the biking part, my legs started hurting a lot.  In the biking part of the race, I was kind of annoyed because I didn't have gears and I'm pretty sure that everyone else did.  During the bike, I felt like I had missed the turn around, because all of the uphills and downhills made the whole race seem a lot longer. I won a silver medal in my age group.  I was feeling great at the end of the race. I won a third place medal in my age group.

-Lexi and Dylan









Ultrarunner of the Year: My Ballot

This was the second time I was asked to vote for Ultrarunning magazine's Ultrarunner of the Year award, and I found this time around much harder than the first.  The men's and women's UROY were pretty obvious choices, but beyond that, narrowing down the rest of the top ten was exceedingly difficult.  Not to mention parsing the myriad fantastic races run this year to come up with the five best Performances of the Year.  And of course, just when I had settled on just about everything, last weekend happened and OH MY GOD.  It was pretty much back to the drawing board Monday morning.

One thing that made it a bit easier--or maybe harder?--was that for the first time, we were explicitly instructed by the powers-that-be that Fastest Known Time performances (FKTs) were not to be considered among the criteria for deciding UROY or POY.  This meant that several of the top contenders for POY, particularly on the men's side--Jim Walmsley's incredible R2R2R FKT, Pete Kostelnick's amazing transcontinental record, Karl Meltzer's FKT on the venerable Appalachian Trail, Jacob Puzey's 50 mile treadmill WR--were all out.  (For me, that effectively took Pete and Karl out of the running for UROY as well, though it didn't effect Jim's candidacy at all.)

There are about thirty voters, and the results are still being tabulated; the final results will be released on the Ultrarunning website starting in about a week.  For what it's worth, here are my picks.

Women's UROY
1. Kaci Lickteig
2. Magdalena Boulet
3. Caroline Boller
4. Courtney Dauwalter
5. Sarah Bard
6. Amy Sproston
7. Camille Herron
8. Maggie Guterl
9. Hillary Allen
10. Darcy Piceu

I found this category to be the toughest of all to compile my ballot.  This past weekend made it almost impossible; after Kaci, who was untouchable in 2016, I agonized over just about every spot on this list.  Toughest omissions for me: Katalin Nagy, Pam Smith, Gina Slaby, Devon Yanko, YiOu Wang, Jenny Hoffman, and Alissa St. Laurent.

Women's Performance of the Year
1. Gina Slaby, 100mi WR at Desert Solstice
2. Caroline Boller, 50mi trail world best at Brazos Bend
3. Katalin Nagy, dominant repeat win at Spartathlon
4. Sarah Bard, fourth place at Comrades
5. Hillary Allen, win at Cortina Trail ultramarathon

Felt like maybe I made up a bit here for leaving Gina and Katalin off the UROY ballot.  Tough to leave off Maggie's 100mi performance at Brazos Bend last weekend, Kaci's dominant win at Western States, and Cassie Scallon's course record at Bandera.

Women's Age Group Performance of the Year
1. Meghan Arbogast (55 years old), 100K age group WR at IAU World Championships
2. Meghan again, sixth place at Western States
3. Connie Gardner (52), win at Mohican 100
4. Beverly Anderson-Abbs (52), win (3:48) at Jed Smith 50K
5. Debra Horn (52), 170 miles in 48 hours (and the win) at Across the Years

Meghan's world age group record was an easy choice for me here, though I continue to have difficulty evaluating all of these performances across different age groups.

Men's UROY
1. Jim Walmsley
2. Jeff Browning
3. Zach Miller
4. Alex Nichols
5. Ian Sharman
6. Hayden Hawks
7. Dylan Bowman
8. Cody Reed
9. Brian Rusiecki
10. Andrew Miller

Just like for the women, Jim was an easy pick for the top spot; I'd honestly be a little surprised if he doesn't win unanimously.  And, just like the women, the next nine spots were a nightmare.  Almost too many difficult omissions to count; the toughest: Zach Bitter, Dave Laney, David Riddle, David Roche, Paddy O'Leary, Chase Nowak, Patrick Regan, Tim Tollefson, and Aaron Saft.

Men's Performance of the Year
1. Zach Bitter, 100mi American Record at 2015 Desert Solstice
2. Jim Walmsley, course record at JFK
3. Jim Walmsley at Western States
4. Tony Migliozzi, repeat winner at IAU 50K world championship
5. Tim Tollefson, third place at UTMB

Honestly, this was even harder than the women's POY for me.  Trying to choose between Walmsley course records was a thankless task; JFK got the nod given the history of the race, the number of legends who have taken on that course, and the fact that no one is within two fucking miles of that performance.  I couldn't leave off Jim's race at States either, which was the single most talked-about performance of the year, and the most dominant display that I've ever seen.  It may not be fair, but that's my vote.  I do hope Zach winds up winning this; it's unfair that people have kind of forgotten about DS last year, which was too late for 2015 voting.  Toughest omissions here were Zach Miller's crazy battle and win over Hayden Hawks at North Face, Jim at Bandera, Jim at Sonoma, Jason Schlarb at Hardrock, Geoff Burns' 6:30 100K at Mad City, and Patrick Regan's third place finish at IAU 100K worlds.

Men's Age Group Performance of the Year
1. David Jones (65 years old!), 17:34 100 mile at Tunnel Hill
2. Rich Hanna (51), age group national record (3:17) at Jed Smith 50K
3. Jean Pommier (52), 3:18 at Caumsett 50K
4. Ed Ettinghausen (57), 270 miles in 72 hours at Beyond Limits
5. Roger Jensen (66), 7:59 for 50 miles at JFK

You really could make an argument for any of these to be at the top of the list for me, and I wouldn't disagree with you.

So there you go.  Feel free to tell me what an idiot I am.  If you do, though, you must vote for me for Run Ultra's Blogger of the Year.  If you vote, you can go to the comments and call me whatever names you want.

The Importance of Being a Furnace*


"If the furnace was hot enough, anything would burn, even Big Macs."

"And too, there were the questions: What did he eat?  Did he believe in isometrics?  Isotonics?  Ice and heat?  How about aerobic, est, ESP, STP?  What did he have to say about yoga, yogurt, Yogi Berra?  What was his pulse rate, his blood pressure, his time for the 100-yard dash?  What was the secret, they wanted to know; in a thousand different ways they wanted to know The Secret."

--John L. Parker, Jr.

It seems like I can't escape diets.  Everywhere I look I'm reading about people's diets.  My Facebook feed is full of pictures of what all my ultra running friends are eating.  In interviews, the elite runners I listen to are constantly being asked about their diets.

Why?  Part of it is the American obsession with diet, sure, but it's more than that.  As the sport gets more competitive, we're all looking for an edge; that's part of it too, the hope that we can find an advantage, the secret.  But there's another factor at play, too: it seems like people want to tell other people what they are eating, and why everyone else should eat that way too.  This may be due to the economics of ultra running, still in its infancy as a professional sport for some; sponsorships in many cases are tied to an athlete's social media profile, and all those bloggers need something to write about.  (Guilty as charged.)  And social media by its very nature encourages this sort of food-based voyeurism.  (Though maybe you should stop.)  But there seems to be a proselytizing aspect to it as well, particularly in the ultra world; not only to people want you to know what they're eating, but they  want you to know that you should be eating that way, too!

I'm reminded a bit of the minimalism craze of the late aughts, after Born to Run came out, and everyone wanted to tell you (rather loudly) why you, too, should be running in Vibrams.  The two cases share some similarities.  In both, there is a lot of research out there that can be conflicting and confusing, and the scientific community can't seem to reach a consensus.  Acolytes on all sides of each issue spout one-size-fits-all solutions.  And interestingly, both problems seem like they should have a universal solution.  I mean, shouldn't there be an ideal diet to optimize performance?  Shouldn't there be an ideal way to run, to minimize injury?

But the fact that so many people are finding success with so many different approaches would imply that there is no universal answer.  There are world-class athletes on paleo/LCHF/OFM diets (Zach Bitter, Jeff Browning, Tim Olson, Nikki Kimball);  on vegetarian diets (Sage Canaday, Scott Jurek, Mike Wardian); on vegan diets (Sandi Nypaver, Yassine Diboun); on gluten-free diets (Devon Yanko); on gluten-free AND vegan diets (Laura Kline, probably some hamsters); on all-fruit diets (Denis Mikhaylove, Mike Arnstein), and everything in between.  I think the common denominator is not what these people are eating, it's that they've all found what works for them.  There are arguments to be made for almost any diet.  We have enough trouble identifying what a healthy diet is for regular people, let alone defining what ultra-endurance athletes should be eating to maximize performance.  The more I read and hear, the more I think that the specifics of what you eat don't matter.  What matters is that you're paying attention to it.  If you are cognizant of what you're putting in your body, of what is does to you, of how it makes you feel and how it affects your performance, you're going to figure out what works for you.  And that's the secret.  That's where the advantage is.

Having said all that, here's what I've been eating.

This is not to say what you should be eating.  I may be a hypocrite, but I'm not going to go on a rant about people telling other people what to eat and then contradict myself two paragraphs later.  (You'll have to wait at least two, three posts for that.)  This is because since I've started to pay attention to my diet, at the beginning of last year, and have found something that, for now, works for me, people have been asking me about it.

At the start of 2015, I started following a low-carb, ketogenic diet.  (I hesitate to say "high fat," because I'm not sure that I'm actually getting the 60-70% of calories from fat that most "experts" would recommend.)  There were several factors in play when making this decision.  Primarily, I wanted to be more mindful of what I was eating, to help control my weight and to aid in performance.  I wasn't overweight by any stretch, but at 5'6", I was having trouble staying under 145 pounds, and wasn't anywhere near the 135-lb race weight from my collegiate days that I thought was most beneficial for my running.  I had done some reading and talked to several people who had experienced success with the diet, and the scientific theory behind it seemed, at least, plausible to me.    And, crucially, (and in contrast to calorie-counting, vegetarianism, fruitarianism, etc.), it seemed like something I could adhere to for an extended period of time.

My experience with the diet mirrored a lot of what I had heard and read.  At first, I felt pretty crummy and my running went in the toilet for about three weeks.  After that I started running normally.  I lost weight and was able to keep it off without starving myself.  And I found in races that my energy levels stayed much more stable, and I was much less prone to "bonking," despite taking in fewer calories than I had previously.

I mentioned it on the blog, and a few people were curious, but then I started running well, and people started to get really curious. ("What was the secret, they wanted to know...")  Some of the more common questions:

Why do you eat that way?  What's the theory behind it?
I've mentioned above why I started with this diet; click the link for a longer discussion of my own personal reasons for the switch.  The science behind a low-carb diet for athletes, which certainly in dispute, makes sense (to me at least) in theory.  For strenuous exercise, the body depends primarily on carbohydrates, and is most efficient at using carbohydrates as fuel.  You can burn fat, but if you eat a standard diet, probably not efficiently enough to use it as a primary fuel source, particularly in races.  Why does this matter?  Well, your body can store about 2000-2500 kcal of carbohydrate (in the form of glycogen).  At about 100 kcal/mile (about what it takes to run a mile, regardless of pace, believe it or not), that means you can go about 20-25 miles before depleting your glycogen and needing to replenish it.  For most exercise, this doesn't matter; you can run a marathon, or close to it, without worrying about taking in too many exogenous calories.  But for an ultra, you'll need a lot of calories, and getting those calories in can be a problem.

The theory behind a low-carb diet is that, over time, if deprived of carbohydrates, the body will actually become more efficient at burning fat--almost as efficient as it is at burning carbohydrates.  And the body stores way, way more calories as fat than it does as carbohydrates, like twenty times more.  The thinking is, if we can tap into those fat stores efficiently, we give the body an alternative fuel sources as races reach beyond the 2-3 hour mark, and decrease our reliance on taking calories in as we run.

Now, whether or not that's true is a matter of great debate.  (As is whether or not eating a low-carb diet is even necessary to become "fat-adapted" in the first place.)  But many athletes have anecdotally reported that they are able to run longer despite taking in fewer calories after switching to the diet.

What do you eat?
This is an easy one because it never really changes.  For breakfast, scrambled eggs with cheese, or an omelette with cheese and tomato, and usually bacon or some meat.  For lunch, a salad with whatever fat or protein I can put on it (cottage cheese, turkey, pork, hard-boiled eggs, etc.).  Dinner is almost invariably some sort of meat dish: chicken with vegetables, steak, burger without a bun.  Lots of vegetables with creamy dressings or dips.  Snacks are nuts (peanuts aren't the best choice, but they're really the only nuts I like) or cheese, maybe some lunch meat.  Dessert is whipped cream.  I mean, like, straight whipped cream, right out of the can.  I can kind of go overboard with it sometimes, but even half a can is less than 20g of carbs, and usually 3-4 mouthfuls will satisfy the sweet cravings.  I drink water and Diet Coke.  Once in a while I'll drink a low-sugar hot chocolate (that's like 4g of carbs).  I know Diet Coke is terrible for me but what else can I do?  I've tried to like coffee and tea so many times and I just can't do it.

How many/few carbs do you eat?
I'm not really sure.  A big part of my success with the diet is not being overly scientific or strict about it.  Many people I know track their carbs obsessively, but I know myself, and if I tried to be anal about it, there's no way I could ever stay with it.  (I downloaded an app to track my different "macros" but had to give up after a day.)  The recommendations I read from Phinney and Volek (which is a very good starting point in my opinion) is less than 50g/day for the first 2-3 weeks, then under 100g/day for "maintenance."  I can say with some confidence that I'm well below those guidelines, but I'm not zero.  If I had to guess, I'm probably usually in the 30-40g/day range.

Were you/are you able to train on that?  Do you use carbs in training or racing?
As I said before, it took me a good 3-4 weeks before I could really train the way I wanted to.  I was able to run mileage without a problem, but any kind of intensity--even just running slowly uphill--was a giant struggle.  This passed after about a month and then I was back to normal in terms of my training.  But it was a frustrating time.

I don't use carbs in training.  Many low-carb athletes do, including Zach Bitter, who uses specific carbs for specific, targeted workouts.  I don't do that for a couple of reasons.  For one, I'm a bit leery of jumping on and off the carbs.  In general, when I've taken a "cheat day" or had a couple of beers, I won't notice any ill effects, but I'd rather not make a habit out of it.  (Plus, if I'm going to have carbs, I want to really glutton it up.  You know, pizza, ice cream, the whole deal.  I'm not wasting carbs on a baked potato.)  Second, I don't like assigning a ton of value to any specific workout, to the point where I feel like I need the carbs to get the workout done.  If the workout doesn't come off like I want it to, so be it.  But mostly I just need to keep this simple.  Complicating it by adding carbs "strategically" is just another barrier to me sticking with it.

I do use carbs in racing, though, as many (if not most) low-carb athletes do.  My general race strategy is, a carbo-load the night before (to top off the glycogen stores); no carbs for breakfast--eggs and meat, as usual--and no carbs for the first hour of the race (usually just water).  After that, anything goes.  Gels still work fine for me, and I'll do some real food at aid stations--banana, PBJ, pretzels, broth, whatever.

I've heard that after you stop eating carbs and sugar, your body doesn't even want it anymore.  Is that true?
Ha.  Hahahahahaha.
No.

Does it really work?
Dunno.  It works for me.

*My apologies to Oscar Wilde.  I wanted a pithy title.

Blogger of the Year!


Not to toot my own horn, but...well, yes, to toot my own horn.  I'm very excited (and confused) to announce that I've been shortlisted by RunUltra for their (prestigious?) Blogger of the Year award.

Honestly, this is a great honor, and I'm a bit humbled by my inclusion (though not too humbled; I'm still kind of an insufferable jerk about this sort of thing) on a list of many great blogs which I myself enjoy.  However, I'm certainly not so humbled that I don't want to win!  So if you enjoy my (and Lexi's; this whole blog was her idea) ramblings, please consider voting for me.  It's a little confusing; when you vote, highlight my name/blog, then you have to scroll down to the bottom of the page and enter your name and email address.

You can only vote once per email address, and once per computer (or computer user), but if you have multiple users on a computer with separate logins, and/or multiple email addresses, that seems kosher.  So, if you like the blog, please vote.  If you really like it, have your kid/spouse/significant other log on and vote too.  If you love it, vote from your home computer and your work computer.  If you really love it, vote from the computer of the guy who sits next to you at work, then go to your local library on the way home and vote there.

In case you didn't get the hint above, here's the link to vote.

Thanks for the support.  I know you always laugh at actors when they say about an Oscar, "Just being nominated is an honor," but that's actually true, and it's just nice to be recognized among the many other great ultrarunning blogs out there.  But winning is nice too.

Fall Racing Recap

Just a quick post to let you know what I've been up to...

Following the North Coast 24 hour, it took nearly a week for the swelling to subside enough to see my ankles again, and another week of sore, easy jogging until I started feeling somewhat back to normal.  Within a couple of weeks, though, I was back on the track, helping Laura prepare for her crack at TNF, and starting to feel pretty good.  With some low-key local events offering a nice opportunity to socialize with friends and training partners, I put together a small fall season to keep myself fresh and engaged in preparation for my next big outing.

Dr. Mike's Doggie Duathlon
photo: Michele Halstead
First up was the inaugural Dr. Mike Doggie Duathlon.  Dr. Mike is one of my great friends and training buddies, and a true legend of the local triathlon scene; he is a multiple-time USAT All-America and has been ranked #1 nationally in his age group.   For the past several years Mike has battled MS, though it hasn't been much of a fight; he basically did not let it slow him down at all, and if anything has actually gotten a bit faster, at least in the running discipline.  Mike put in a great winter of training and was in great shape heading into the spring, only to be blindsided with a diagnosis of metastatic melanoma.  He's battled on and appears to be making great headway, and is still in great shape; I run with him at least twice a week, and he hasn't lost a step despite surgery and chemotherapy.  So this duathlon was a great celebration of Mike and his incredible spirit and determination, as well as a fundraiser for the Melanoma Research Foundation.

My plan was to tune up the CX bike and cruise my way through an easy, fun day at the back of the back.   Unfortunately Phil had other ideas; he had just finished an epic day at Grindstone and wasn't up for running, so he badgered me into joining him on a relay team.  I ran the two 2-mile legs while Phil took care of the 12-mile bike segment.  This was theoretically a great idea, but it ensured that I'd have to run hard to put on a good show/not embarrass myself.  There was a challenge from a young post-collegian on the first leg, and I had to work pretty hard in cold, rainy conditions to split 11:11 for the opening two miles, giving Phil about a 20-second lead.  Phil managed one of the fastest bike splits of the day and gave me back the baton with enough cushion that I could run a relaxed, tempo-type effort on the second leg to secure an easy team victory.

Gump, at the start of the Monster Sprint
photo: Martin Weiner
Eight days later I abandoned Jodi and the girls in the midst of trick-or-treating for the New Paltz Monster Sprint.  Halloween is a big deal in our weird little town, with haunted houses, pumpkin-carving contests, and a huge parade that shuts down Main Street for much of the evening.  This was the second year that the Monster Sprint led off the parade; this is a one-mile out-and-back race from the finish of the parade, uphill to the start of the parade, and back down to the finish.  I figured I'd have a built-in advantage as Forrest Gump, but I didn't count on 4:05 miler Joe Gentsch showing up dressed as the Flash.  I was able to hang with Joe for the opening, uphill half-mile, actually leading for a few strides and making the turn only about three seconds behind, but he put me away quickly and easily on the way back down, running 4:50 to my 5:12.  Second place was enough to nab one of the very cool, real marble, headstone-shaped awards, though, so I was pretty happy with that.

Six days later Laura and I were the co-RDs for yet another ridiculous undertaking, the Apple Cider Donut Challenge.  Following on the heels of the New Paltz Pizza Challenge, we conceived a 50K loop that incorporated stops at six different orchards, each of which made their own apple cider donuts.  Each runner would have to eat two donuts at each stop for a dozen total donuts, or face time penalties for failure to finish them.  Time bonuses were awarded for drinking hard cider at those orchards that make their own.

Four donuts to go.
photo: Martin Weiner
We weren't really sure if anyone else would show up, but as it turned out, ten of us took off on a beautiful Saturday morning to eat our way around New Paltz and Gardiner.  Laura and I ran together and opened up a quick lead after the first donut stop, less than a mile into the race.  The course was mostly road and rail trail, and therefore didn't require any real marking except for one tricky section of trail, about half a mile long, that I had flagged with surveyor's tape the previous day.  Unfortunately, when we reached that section (just before donut stop #2, at the six-mile mark), the marks had all been taken down.  I let Laura run ahead and stopped to escort the rest of the field through that section, which was very difficult to follow due to thick leaf cover; by the time I reached the second orchard with the last of the stragglers, Laura had over twenty minutes on me, with Joe Gentsch (attempting his first-ever run of longer than 16 miles) following close behind her.  I settled into a nice, solid tempo, and eventually reeled in most of the field; by the fifth orchard (21 miles, donuts 9-10) I was only a few minutes behind Joe.  Those two donuts were pretty rough, though, compounded by the fact that I felt compelled to drink some cider, as I knew Joe had.  I started to struggle over the next few miles, wishing I could vomit but unable to make myself do it, and was doubting my ability to catch Joe--until I jogged into the final donut stop at mile 25 and found him sitting on a stone fence, caked in dried sweat, with a blank, glassy look in his eyes and half of a donut hanging out of his mouth.

Sometimes we forget that ultras are hard.

The fall stretch concluded, as always for me, with the Rockland Alumni XC Run, a 5K cross-country race at Bear Mountain with a team competition for alumni of Rockland-area high schools.  As always, this is one of my favorite days of the year, and the race is simultaneously one of the most fun and most painful experiences I have each season.  I have a separate website for that race, though, so I won't bore you here.

Generally it was a good fall, mixing these fun, slightly harder efforts in with a good solid training base.  None of these races required a taper or any extended recovery, so I've been able to build back up fairly consistently, and training is going pretty well heading into the winter; I'm pointing to Rocky Raccoon in February as my next big effort, so it will require a big push training-wise between now and then.  I'll have a few more posts coming before the end of the year, so keep checking back, and good luck to everyone in the lotteries this weekend.

Ultrarunner Xmas: A TNF Preview

image: Lake Run Club

After surviving Thanksgiving with the North Carolina branch of the family (we're really not sure how everyone voted), I can finally turn my attention to Christmas.  I know, I can hear you from here: But aren't you Jewish? Of course I am!  Where did you think that nose came from?  I'm not talking about December 25.  I'm talking about the the first Saturday in December, the most hotly anticipated day on the ultrarunning calendar (after the last weekend in June).  The two biggest lotteries in the sport both take place while the top runners in the world are battling it out at the season's unofficial finale, the North Face championships in the Marin Headlands outside San Francisco.

There's no real point in delving into the lotteries right now.  You can read about the lottery procedures for States and Hardrock.  The latter is a race that I'd love to pace one day--maybe this year if Brian or Phil gets in--but really have no interest in running myself.  States, though...I won't be able to retire until I get into that one.  Based on the odds, it's going to be a couple of years.


So let's ignore those depressing statistics and focus on the amazing battle that will take place on Saturday, as the deepest fields of the year on both the men's and women's side get ready to throw down, chasing the $10,000 winner's purse and a shot at UROY consideration (though I think Jim and Kaci might have those in the bag already).  iRunfar has their men's and women's previews up, and will be providing live coverage as usual on Saturday.  Here are one fan's picks:

Ladies
The last two women's winners, Magdalena Boulet and Megan Kimmel, return for the rubber match in 2016.  Nine of the current GUR top 50 are in the field, second in depth only to WS100 this year.

1. Megan Kimmel
Current GUR rank: 58
2015 TNF finish: 1
The defending champ and skyrunning specialist has displayed fine form all year long.  I hesitate to pick against Magda, but Megan's results this year, combined with what was honestly a dominant performance last year, make her a slight favorite in my mind.

2. Magdalena Boulet
Current GUR rank: 10
2015 TNF finish: DNF
This season has not quite lived up to the dominating standard she set in 2014-2015, and even with a win here, she won't be able to unseat Kaci Lickteig to retain her GUR #1 ranking from last season.  But she still has the strongest credentials in the field at any distance, and her most recent big race (fifth at UTMB) was her best of the year.

3. Ruth Croft
Current GUR rank: NA
2015 TNF finish: 4
The Taiwanese-based athlete doesn't qualify for the GUR (I guess I'll have to change that for 2017) and flies a bit below the radar being somewhat hidden in the Far East.  But she backed up an impressive win at CCC with a fourth-place finish in 2015, and this year was third at Transvulcania.

4. Cassie Scallon
Current GUR rank: 17
2015 TNF finish: DNF
A 50-mile specialist of sorts and a former Sonoma champ, she's had a bit of an up-and-down year, but her dominant CR performance at Bandera, a top-20 at Comrades, and a relatively light race schedule this fall (she's raced only one ultra since mid-August) have me thinking she'll be rested and ready to contend for the podium.

5. Ida Nilsson
Current GUR rank: NA
2015 TNF finish: NA
The Swedish dynamo has won both the Rut 50K and Transvulcania this year; she should be in the hunt for the podium in this very deep field.

6. Lindsay Tollefson
Current GUR rank: 113
2015 TNF finish: NA
The only woman in the field with the flat speed credentials to rival Magda, has relatively little experience at the distance, but certainly has the chops.

7. Keely Henninger
Current GUR rank: 47
2015 TNF finish: 7
A very consistent year, with a win at Black Canyon and top finishes against stout fields at Gorge Waterfalls and Chuckanut.

8. Laura Kline
Current GUR rank: 42
2015 TNF finish: NA
I speak from personal experience when I say that she is an absolute beast and is going to be very, very tough.

9. Sarah Keys
Current GUR rank: 20
2015 TNF finish: NA
Another Skyrunning specialist, she certainly has the strength to handle the 11,000 feet of climbing on this course.

10. Emily Peterson
Current GUR rank: 45
2015 TNF finish: 5
Another top returner from last year, has been remarkably consistent this season.

Hedging my bets
11. Kasie Enman
12. Stephanie Howe Violett
13. Sandi Nypaver
14. Anna Mae Flynn
15. Helene Michaux

Dudes
Eleven of the current GUR top 50, including (as with the women) the last two winners--Sage Canaday and Zach Miller--will line up on Saturday.  This will mark the first-ever meeting between Miller and Jim Walmsley, the odds-on favorite to be named the 2016 UROY.

1. Jim Walmsley
Current GUR rank: 1
2015 TNF finish: NA
How could you pick against him?  His only loss this year came when he ran off course at WS100 while on CR pace, with a one-hour lead, with less than 10 miles to go.  He has SEVEN course records this year, including a massive takedown of Max King's JFK CR two weeks ago.

2. Zach Miller
Current GUR rank: 32
2015 TNF finish: 1
The prospect of Zach and Jim--both speedsters with a penchant for running off the front--going head to head has most ultra fans salivating.  I wouldn't pick anyone over last year's champ/CR holder--except Walmsley.  Plus, Zach hasn't raced since UTMB in August, though I can't imagine he'd be here if he wasn't recovered and ready.

3. Sage Canaday
Current GUR rank: 34
2015 TNF finish: NA
The 2014 TNF champ, Sage has only three ultras to his credit this season, including a win at Black Canyon and a third at Transvulcania, before blowing up a bit following Jim's insane pace at WS en route to an 11th-place finish.  He's had some excellent results in short tuneups on the trails this fall.  It'll be interesting to see how he deals with what will likely be a very aggressive pace early on.

4. Hayden Hawks
Current GUR rank: 46
2015 TNF finish: NA
The surprise winner at Speedgoat this year, he was also fourth at the World Mountain Running Championships, and like Walmsley (and several others in the field) has blazing track speed.

5. Alex Nichols
Current GUR rank: 13
2015 TNF finish: DNF
He's not the most consistent runner in the field, but when he's right, he's very dangerous.  And this year, he's been awfully right, including a runner-up finish at Speedgoat and a win at Run Rabbit Run.

6. Cody Reed
Current GUR rank: 10
2015 TNF finish: NA
Three huge wins this year: Miwok, Tamalpa, and UROC.

7. Miguel Heras
Current GUR rank: NA
2015 TNF finish: NA
He's a two-time TNF winner, though not since 2012; at 41, he's not the every-race force he used to be.  But a win at Les Templiers this fall shows he's ready to go.

8. David Laney
Current GUR rank: 121
2015 TNF finish: NA
The 2015 UROY has had a quiet year, but showed his form with a fourth-place finish at UTMB in August.

9. Paddy O'Leary
Current GUR rank: 30
2015 TNF finish: 13
This northern California racer is tough and fearless, and he knows the course well.

10. Coree Woltering
Current GUR rank: 52
2015 TNF finish: NA
Was a top-20 contender even before three weeks ago, when he smoked a solo 5:30 at the Tunnel Hill 50-mile.

Hedging my bets
11. Jorge Maravilla
12. Tim Freriks
13. Dan Kraft
14. Brendan Trimboli
15. Eric Senseman