Thursday, December 6, 2012

Joy: Beyond the Runner's High

Nestled in the middle of one of the larger suburbs of the Twin Cities is a true gem for trail runners, nature lovers, horseback riders, or anyone in search of some solitude, beauty, or fresh air. At times it is a compact, cozy place, and yet it spans a rather vast territory, crossing over two major roads each a mile or more apart, and when thinking of the neighborhoods at the farthest ends, you wouldn't be wrong in assuming that you're in a completely different city. It does, in fact, stretch into the neighboring suburb of Rosemount. I'm speaking of Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Eagan, MN, one of my favorite places to run.

I've had the opportunity to train here for many years, and I've still never been on all the trails. That is to say that I'm often a creature of habit and have my favorite trails that get me as deep into the park as possible, away from all other humans, which is often a goal when I run. Lately, however, I've been running with teenagers everyday as a coach for a Nordic ski team.

In the last two weeks or so, something in the universe must have changed, because almost every run there has presented some unique factor to it that has brought me Joy, capital J intended. Runners often talk about the runner's high, the endorphins, and epic runs, but these runs seemed to have gone beyond that simple pleasure, and each run was joyful for a different reason. Thanksgiving week started with near-60 degree weather, allowing the guys on the team to run shirtless during progression intervals, but by the end of the week, Friday greeted us with only 24 degrees and snow on the ground - the first true cold run of the season. For me, the intervals on Monday were almost magical. I felt swift and relaxed, as if my feet weren't actually touching the ground but only mimicking a runner's stride so as not to disparage the kids. The grassy, rolling hills propelled me forward, awakening my senses and invigorating me. It is difficult to fully describe, but at the end of the workout I felt connected to the trail, the woods, the earth itself, and was ready for more. The kids, on the other hand, were spent.

Tuesday was a long, easy distance day. I took my usual group of the top cross-country guys and headed out. Along our 7.5-mile route on the innermost trail in the park, we meandered past lakes and ponds as the sun hung low in the November sky. Rounding a bend and coming upon one of the nameless lakes to my left, a warm, blanketing light draped the woods and water in a content stillness with a hues of gold and burnt umber, flooding my heart with equal warmth and stillness. Even in the forest on a calm day, such stillness is fleeting, and almost as quickly as it arrived, the calm was broken by the greeting of a Great Horned Owl's call from the opposite side of the trail, where the woods had already darkened and become almost brooding. Such somber sound and sight I considered more of a greeting, however, offering up my salutations as we passed.

After a Thanksgiving filled with binging on rich and succulent foods and doing absolutely nothing, I was ready for a run on Friday morning. Despite the cold weather and snow underfoot, everyone seemed chipper and ready to share their stories of how they ate too much. With the holiday warmth still fresh and the air crisp in our lungs, the run was effortless and the surroundings quiet once again. Although I usually dread the first cold run of the season, once I'm out there it's instantly therapeutic. All in all, it was a brilliant "recovery" from Thanksgiving, and also prepped me for Thanksgiving #2 with my wife's family later that day.

Fast forward to last Thursday. The weather was warmer again, and over-under intervals were on the docket. I was in charge of the varsity boys, and this would prove to be a difficult challenge for me, keeping up with them during two sets of 18 minutes of sustained hard running. Although they toasted me on the uphills (they had poles and I did not), the flats and the downs actually provided them with a challenge to keep up with me! It's not often that I can outrun the varsity boys, but this day proved that I'm clearly the fittest I've been in years. This accomplishment was not what brought me the most joy, however, but rather it was as we returned to the parking lot at the end of practice, where the trees faded away and the sky opened up to brilliant shades of imperial violet that caressed the sky as dusk fell, hushing the worries and chaos of the day. For those who don't get outside much in the colder season, this alone is the reason to venture outdoors at dusk. The sunsets are phenomenal, and completely different from anything in the summer. Combine that sight with a successful workout, and you have the perfect recipe for true Joy with a capital J.

After all of these stark moments, I have since felt more open and susceptible to Joy, aware of my surroundings and the privilege I have to run in such a place. Used as a form of meditation, of emptying one's mind of worry or obligation, a run in the woods provides a transparency of soul, allowing for better introspection and the intake of all things positive and inspirational. It is this opening up that, after spending too much time closed off in our own personal worlds of work and daily routine, makes running such a vital component in maintaining health and happiness in life, in a way that may not be as easily attained through other pursuits.

Do runner's experience more Joy than other people? It's hard to say, but I do believe that we are more susceptible to it, and I also believe that there is much more Joy to be found outside in a natural surrounding. Since runners spend a great deal of time outside, our chances are better, even more so for trail runners. This is also the reason why I love to camp, ski, rock climb, kayak, and do just about anything else in nature, and winter is no time to avoid it. When natural beauty and adventure intertwine, framed with an open mind and heart, happiness and contentment are unavoidable, but if you're seeking true Joy, get out and run on a trail somewhere. You might find that which has eluded you, but as LeVar Burton from Reading Rainbow says, "Don't take my word for it."

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Challenge of Being Upright: Improving Balance

Over the last year or so in my quest to become a better runner, I’ve done a lot of reading on various topics, ranging from running form to training regimens. One of the buzzwords I’ve come across a few times that is even more rampant in the Parkour community is proprioception; that is, the awareness of one’s own body, how it moves, and its position in space as determined by the stimuli within the body (ie sensory receptors activated by muscle activity or movement). I suppose one could say that it’s like using the Force to stretch out with your feelings and know exactly where each part of your body is in relation to the other and in relation to the ground, or sky, or objects around you. Barefoot running touts better proprioception as a huge benefit, as you become more aware of how you connect with the ground, and because the muscles, nerves, and tendons in your feet are awakened as if from a deep sleep - a deep sleep caused from having 20mm of EVA foam underneath them to numb your awareness and put your feet into a sensory deprivation tank that are known as shoes…or “foot coffins” to some hardcore barefooters.

In applying this concept to running in general, it didn’t seem too important to me initially, compared with something like gymnastics or Parkour, where if you hurdle yourself through the air without being aware of your exact trajectory, you’re gonna seriously wreck yourself. After more contemplation, however, it made perfect sense, especially when thinking about trail running, ultrarunning, and biomechanics. Having an awareness of where your body is and how it moves will give you a tool to make you more efficient, help you to overcome deficiencies in form, and when used as a focus in training, can make you stronger. One way to achieve this is through specific balance training.

There are plenty of products out there to help improve your balance, like the Bongo or Indo Board, bosu balls, and the like, but you don’t need to buy anything to improve your balance and proprioception. You just need…well, you. Throughout my ten years as a Nordic skiing coach, I’ve realized that the top culprit of bad technique comes primarily from poor balance and a lack of trust in one’s ability to bear their entire bodyweight on one leg, while also careening down the trail. Luckily for runners, this isn’t quite as challenging, but careening down mountain trails will require just as much agility and surefootedness. In any case, spending more time on one ski when paired with direct technique instruction helped my skiers improve, but it wasn’t enough. I wanted them to have better balance before even getting on skis, so I developed this simple balance drill. 

It may not seem like much, but try it and you’ll see that it’s harder than it looks, especially if you’re focusing on doing it right. If you spend at least 10 seconds in each position, you’re standing on one leg for more than two minutes. The beauty of this drill is that it can be modified in many ways and can be done virtually anywhere. I even do the simpler positions while brushing my teeth. Additionally, if you’re paying attention, you can start to feel where your body and center of gravity are. By shifting your weight forward onto the ball of the foot, or backward onto the heel, for example, you’ll feel what works better for balance, or what may challenge various muscle groups more. The same goes for leaning from side to side. By engaging the hips and pelvis and attempting to “lift” your body upwards as much as possible and keeping your legs straight without locking your knees, you’re working on balance and good posture, all the while taxing and strengthening the little muscles in your feet and calves. This can also be a good way to figure out where you might have imbalances in various muscle groups.

As you can see, I also included some extra drills for adding strength into the mix. These are more advanced, and I would recommend doing them on flat ground and/or wider surfaces first before moving on to rounded rails and such. Having good squat and pistol form on stable ground, in my opinion, trumps doing them poorly on a railing (like I did in the video). Other ways you can switch up your balance training include:
- try doing as much of the original drill with your heel raised. It’s friggin' hard!
- roll your center of balance around the edges of your foot, almost as if doing ankle rolls while standing on that foot
- Add a slosh tube for additional instability. If you can do the flying camel with a slosh tube, you’ll officially be my hero (vid or it didn’t happen).
- Find a way to measure how high you can raise your leg and strive to raise it higher
- try hopping in place in any of the various positions
- find some wobbly surfaces – or “wiggle rocks” as my niece refers to them -  to use as your platform

Above all, when doing these drills, RELAX THE FOOT! Ultimately you should be doing these barefoot or in minimal shoes, so that your foot can relax and expand, thereby activating and strengthening the various muscles and tendons. Your feet will get stronger and will thank you for it. Good luck, and add a comment below with any questions or additional ideas. I’m always looking for ways to improve this drill.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

IOC Approves Ultrarunning as Demonstration Sport for 2016

NOTE: This blog is intended to provoke thought and dialogue, and not to mock my readers nor alienate myself from them. I have, therefore, edited my initial post to be more forthright.

It's a grabbing title, isn't it? Indulge me in a bit of dreaming on a curious little journey through the looking glass, if you will. A timely article, combining two great interests of mine to consider one possibility. Check it out.

"Now that the 2012 London Olympics are at the half-way point and the track and field events are underway, the IOC officially announced early this morning that since deliberations beginning last November they have approved several demonstration sports for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. Whereas demonstration sports have officially existed since 1912, including the likes of baseball, volleyball, and stranger varieties such as kaatsen - a form of handball, they were suspended after the Barcelona Games in 1992, because the IOC felt that it could not maintain the growing program size and still give the demonstration sports their due attention. Due to a spike in revenue generated through broadcasting and advertising bids from the Winter Olympics in Vancouver and for these London Games, along with a growing number of nations participating for the first time, demonstration sports will be allowed once again in 2016.

Included in the debate as to which sports would receive demonstration status were both the NOC for these London Olympics as well as the NOC for the Rio Games. Representatives of SportAccord and various IFs, along with the NOC committee members, were able to agree on three new sports to showcase: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, ultimate frisbee, and trail ultrarunning.

[...cut out the first two and get to the point...]

Most notable in this trio is trail ultrarunning, the newest of the three and perhaps the most difficult to organize and conduct consistently around the world. Ultrarunning races constitute any distance beyond a marathon, usually in the distances of 50km, 50 miles, 100km, and 100 miles, and are often separated into road ultras and trail ultras. Because the traditional Olympic marathon is a road race, the decision was made to focus on the trail ultra, as it offers an additional degree of technical difficulty, as well as a unique setting for the spectator. The main concern of the IOC, however, is how to choose an appropriate course that will meet the criteria of an Olympic venue for the athlete, as well as the accessibility needs for monitoring and spectating.

Interestingly enough is how this sport came to the attention of the IOC. In fact, there were three key individuals involved, starting with Welsh-born Steve Jones, former world record holder in the marathon and winner of the London, Chicago, and New York marathons in the 1980's. Settling in Boulder, Colorado just a few years ago, Jones began training at altitude, ramping up his distance on trails in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in order to prepare for a comeback to the Chicago marathon. In a chance meeting on the trail, Jones came across the second important figure in this story, ultrarunner legend Scott Jurek. The two instantly hit it off. Jurek, seven-time winner of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run in California and victor at a slew of other ultras in the US including the Badwater Ultramarathon - a 135-mile test through Death Valley, also resides in Boulder and continues to train and share his knowledge with others through his new book Eat & Run. After only a few runs together on the trails near Boulder, Jones was convinced that ultrarunning is the next frontier in distance running. Although Jones had no plans to personally commit to distances of 50 miles or more at the age of 56, he was, however, enamored with the idea of ultrarunning and the grit and determination of ultrarunners, a trait at the core of his own being. With the London Games approaching and an inspiring new sport in mind, Jones decided to utilize his connections to see what might happen.

Enter the third individual in this story, American marathon icon Frank Shorter. Winning the gold medal in the marathon in 1972 and the silver in 1976, Shorter was inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame in 1984 and was instrumental in helping to establish the United States Anti-Doping Agency in 1999. Also residing in Boulder, Shorter has had close ties with Jones even before Jones moved to Boulder, and it could be argued that Shorter was part of the reason that Jones moved to Boulder in the first place. For the last 4 years, Shorter has been a representative of the IOC through the IAAF which represents all track and field and cross country events in the Olympic Games. Having both experience and influence, it was Shorter who brought ultrarunning to the Olympic stage, only after Jones badgered him about it for months. Indeed, it seems that Boulder, Colorado is not only a multinational town with strong running tendencies, but it also carries some clout around the world.

The challenge now is to determine a venue for the event in Rio. Representatives have already agreed that 100km will be the distance for the event and they are currently seeking out an appropriate trail system in the Serra do Mar mountains of the Brazilian Highlands as a venue. The IOC is also working now with the IAAF which sanctions the IAU - the International Association of Ultrarunners - to determine appropriate qualifying races for the event in Rio. The decision will be made sometime by the end of 2013."

Sound convincing? This could be huge news, with even greater implications for the ultrarunning community, if it were true, of course.

"What dude?" 

Whereas many of the details of history, people, and places are true, the connections were of my own making. I have no idea if Steve Jones, Frank Shorter, and Scott Jurek know each other personally, although they all do live in Boulder, and according to one article, Jones has at least loose connections  to the Bolder Boulder, a race that Shorter created in 1979. To my knowledge, there is no talk of reviving demonstration sports in the Olympics, nor is Shorter an IOC representative. Unfortunately for me it's not April Fool's Day, so consider this my "Douche Move of the Day" by leading you on, but I did it to elicit an honest visceral response, and to pose the following questions: what was your initial gut response to this, and what would this mean for the ultrarunning community if ultrarunning were to become an Olympic sport? There has already been a great deal of talk in the ultra community ie. on the Interwebs about the growth of ultrarunning and the potential ruination of the sport once prize money and advertising creep in to crush the simple, for-the-love-of-it attitude that many of the older veterans speak of. I'm certainly no veteran ultrarunner, and in fact I'm not even an ultrarunner, at least not yet, but I am interested in the debate nonetheless as a trail runner and aspiring ultrarunner who has great interest in both the sport and the people involved in it. I have thus kept up with the debate on this subject, and with the Olympics going on, wondered how this might play in to the sport.

In any case, I'd be very curious to know what the ultrarunning community thinks of this idea, if it's in the same category as the impending degradation of the sport that some speak of, or if it would be a positive growth factor. The Olympics, after all, are a place for non-professional athletes to come together and compete on the world stage, at least in most cases (basketball not included). Could this be similar to the race atmosphere in Europe, and would the Europeans be more open to ultrarunning in the Olympics? As we all know, athlete sponsorship is huge in regard to access to training facilities, coaching, and other financially-dependent aspects of competition, and in some cases it can make or break an athlete's chances. We certainly haven't seen that yet in the sport of ultrarunning, but where there is NBC and Coke and Nike, it could mean a drastic change in the atmosphere and even the fundamental nature of the sport, and this is but one issue to be considered. But could it ever happen?

Enjoy the contemplation, and all comments and debate are welcome; that is, if I haven't alienated you all with my misleading fiction. Cheers!

Friday, July 6, 2012

You Know You're Having Fun, Right?

Greetings from ''ze Vaterland!'' I'm here in Rottweil, Germany (indeed the home of the Rottweiler dog) leading a school exchange group for four weeks, which always makes for a great adventure, and also leads to a sometimes unpredictable schedule and compromised exercise routine. The running has been spotty at best, but I've been on the move since I got here and can honestly say that when it comes to walking and hiking, I'm super fit. I've had great ''feet time'' so far, especially with a week-long excursion to Munich last week that was packed full of on-the-go adventure. I am, however, becoming concerned about my running fitness, seeing as I've gained 5 pounds, mostly in the middle from all the bread, cheese, and ice cream I've consumed, and haven't been able to run due to another foot injury, this time while playing soccer in my Merrell barefoot shoes with a group of competitive German ''ballers'' in cleats and full soccer garb. It was a ton of fun, but I do regret playing as long as I did after getting stepped on with cleats, which brings me to the point of this entry.

That afternoon of soccer and the following consequences reminded me of my climbing trip in the Black Hills at the end of May, and a concept that was explained to us by friends and fellow climbing couple Kate and Jason. At first it was simply a phrase that they used with each other after completing a climb or an activity, said quickly and almost under their breath; ''Type 2.'' After inquiring, they outlined their typology of fun, which became one of the main inside jokes of the trip. Without further ado, here are the two types of fun:

Type I Fun - This is the typical definition we use for fun, when you can say either during the activity or shortly after that it was a blast, and that you'd do it again in a heartbeat. It might be a cool party, a waterslide, or simply catching up with old friends. The possibilities are endless, but you know that it's fun from the start and it continues to be fun while you're doing it.

Type II Fun - Whereby Type I Fun is obvious, Type II can be more elusive, and the perception of it may change over time. This is an activity that might be scary, stressful, or harrowing at the time, but once completed and after some contemplation, the person realizes how cool it was and therefore labels the adventure as fun. A great example of this would be the drive back to our campsite at Sylvan Lake from Blue Bell Lodge on an extremely foggy night during our aforementioned climbing trip. Having missed the turn to get back on the highway, we ended up driving the wildlife loop through Custer State Park, which is an incredibly winding, hilly, narrow road through the park, where no light from any town or city invades, nor are there any street lights. Visibility was no more than 15 feet in front of the car, which made the drive incredibly slow and extremely eery. Even at 20mph, coming up over a hill felt as if we were launching up into nothingness, and combined with the sudden unseen curves in the road, it felt much like this. Although it was scary at the time (especially for me since I was driving), it made for a fun adventure once we arrived safely at camp, thus Type II.

After contemplating the kicken as my German colleague refers to it, the soccer itself was a ton of fun, but the injury was not, and it continues to cause me trouble. It was certainly Type I, but the consequences require a subcategory, Type Ib - immediate fun with negative consequences. This is common for me, and I would imagine for many competitive people, who go all out during an activity and pay for it the next day or for an extended period thereafter with soreness or injury. This might also include people who love to party hard, and wake up to a hangover the next morning feeling like death warmed over (which is something I've never understood). It's the fun that causes you to contemplate if it was worth it or not. For me, I'm on the fence with that soccer game. It was definitely fun to play again, especially in Germany with people who love, understand, and play the game well, but now that I don't trust my foot on long runs, my training - and subsequent fun - has been compromised, and I'm not sure if it was worth it.

In closing, it should also be mentioned that the best adventures in life are often Type II Fun. Referring back to end of this post from last April in which I defined what an adventure is in my mind, most of what makes an adventure are things that are scary or unknown, and only after conquering fears and the unknown do we recognize how much fun it is. To me, this is the ultimate in fun, as it has more personal meaning and a lasting impact on both psyche and memory. As final food-for-thought, I propose that adventure athletes have the most fun in life, combining positive risk-taking with the huge benefits of physical activity, thus combining the joy of accomplishment, a healthy lifestyle, and the outcome of Type II Fun.

Tip O' The Day 
Should you find yourself in a potential Type II Fun setting with friends, you might consider breaking the immediate tension with some humor from the animal kingdom as we did. Having two veterinarians on the trip, we weren't without our share of animal facts, and this one always provided a laugh when well-timed, on the crux of a hard climb, for example. Apparently, when alpaca get nervous, they hum. If there are many about, it becomes a sort of call-and-response to alert each other. Here's an example to help you out. Use wisely and enjoy!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Superior Trail Races 25km

Photo Eve Stein
Well, it's been more than a month since the race and more than that since my last post. So much for the one-post-a-week goal I set for myself. The adventure season has truly begun, and there is less time to sit and collect my thoughts as I would like, but I shall take the time now to pin down this incredible experience in a bit of detail, so here goes...

I am a changed man. I knew this race would be fun, but it's now clear that I am built for trail running. Not only did I enjoy it a helluva lot more than any road running I've ever done, but it's also much easier on my body. Let me back up for a moment to give more insight into the latter statement.

Leading up to this race, my expectations were relatively low. After the half marathon at the end of April, I had a mysterious pain in my right foot which gave the threat of stress fracture. My doc told me to take at least 3 weeks off to let it heal, just in case it was, and guess how many weeks it was until the trail race? You guessed it, three exactly. It sucked that I injured myself in the warm-up for the important race, but one must adjust and adapt in such situations. After seeing the doc, however, the little bit of manipulation he did while checking my foot acted as massage, and the next morning I felt great! I waited a bit still until I started running again, just to be sure, so in the week before the race, I managed to get out twice to run on trails. It was at least nice to know things were back to normal, even if I didn't get the chance to train properly. I consider it an ''extended taper.''

The wife and I headed out on what was a lovely Friday afternoon, excited for a mini-vacation. We picked up friend and talented ultrarunner Samuel Jurek in Hinckley, not without a pause at Tobie's bakery to get doughnuts and coffee of course. It was great to catch up with Sam, especially on such a beautiful drive to the North Shore, pulling in to the Caribou Highlands Lodge parking lot around 8pm. We were lucky enough that Anna's family had come up to watch the race and cheer us on, and her brother Jerod managed to pick up our race packets for us, since we arrived after packet pick-up had ended. One less thing to worry about on race morning. We unloaded everything in our room, had a short walk outside to see the start/finish, and chilled out in the room until bedtime. I had a good long foam rolling session, which will undoubtedly be pre-race tradition from here on out.

I woke up suddenly around 5am to the 120db alarm on Sam's cell phone. Since he was running the 50K, his start was at 7am, and ours not until 9:00, so it was a bit unsettling, but I managed to fall back asleep for a while longer. I did, however, get up in enough time to see the lad off on his own adventure. From what he had relayed to me, his strategy was to stick with the leaders as long as possible, particularly Chris Lundstrom, the former champion and course record holder. If nothing else, Sam would impose his grand stature and balls-out running strategy on the other racers enough to shake up the crowd in front.

 The Man in Black, Sam Jurek

After listening to the RD give his spiel and watching the 50k-ers take off, it was time for breakfast! We brought with us a sizeable container of homemade granola, expertly crafted by my awesome wife in the first week of her newfound freedom as a recent graduate from vet school. Complete with yogurt and banana, this has proven to be the perfect pre-race fuel for me, although it must be eaten at least 1.5 hours before the race, as it's a bit heavy. A quick shower and some relaxing, and it was time to suit up. When I got up to see Sam off, it was already quite pleasant outside, proving that it would definitely be a shorts and t-shirt day, with little worry about clothing choice. Additionally, I would take with me my Fuel Belt with two gels and some Aquaphor - should I run into any foot problems, and Anna's old Camelbak Water Pro with about 3/4 liter water, which has proven to be an awesome long run companion: it fits well, doesn't bounce much, and gives me the comfort in knowing I have plenty of water. On my feet I wore my Merrel Trail Gloves and a new pair of Injinji No-Show toe socks, which have proven to protect my feet from blisters on the trails.Of course, suncscreen was liberally applied as well, despite the assumption that we would be in the cover of the forest for most of the race. The sun and hot weather affect me greatly, particularly when sunburned, so I was taking no chances.

To the start! Anna's family was there waiting for us, and it was nice to know that we had some ''fans'' to cheer us on. I suppose it helps to know that in a way I was performing for someone, and not just for myself. I spent some time obsessing over the tying of my shoes, wanting to be sure it was perfect, although the timing chip that I had tied in was a little awkward with such minimal shoes, and I knew then that I hadn't done a thorough enough job of attaching it and would probably lose it along the trail somewhere, yet I didn't take the time to fix it. The time was tight, so I decided not to worry about it. We also applied some bug spray, mostly to ward off ticks, but the DEET was so strong that it melted the plastic on my shoes! After retying them (for the third time?), my hands were coated in black plastic! Gross. 

Once again, the RD gave us the rundown of the race, and as I was listening, I wondered how many others might be racing in minimal footwear, a question I always ask myself, because I'm curious to know how popular it's becoming. As I looked down, the guy next to me had Trail Gloves on, and a few feet away there was a guy in Five Fingers and another in huarache sandals! It seems that minimalism is indeed popular. I wondered how we would all fare on this trail that I had never seen before.

The start was relatively relaxed. We headed out on the service road past the skilifts, where it turned to gravel road, in total perhaps 3/4 of a mile, before it turned onto an access trail that led up to the Superior Hiking Trail proper. Because I hadn't truly warmed up, my heart was racing a little bit from nerves and the energy of the crowd around me. It was interesting to see a few people carrying no water whatsoever, as if they were out for a leisurely 5k road run, when in fact we'd be running 7.5 miles of gnarly, isolated trail until the only aid station at the turnaround, and then the same thing on the way back. I can't imagine they were feeling too good after the first 4 miles or so. Anyway, once on the actual SHT (be careful how you read that), I realized quickly that I was going faster than I'd like, but couldn't quite get myself to slow down. I was running with the crowd and didn't want to be an obstacle for people to pass, so I figured that I just needed some time to warm up and calm down, which usually can take 20-30 minutes for me nowadays. Most people around me were still feeling chipper and were chatting along the way. I focused on running well at the beginning and staying as relaxed as possible, but the trail was both rolling and technical from the start, so I was constantly dodging rocks and roots, which became much easier after I was warmed up.

It wasn't until after the first 2 miles or so when I was finally in rhythm enough to start passing people with confidence. I got stuck behind a long line of guys on a rocky uphill, the last of whom was wearing NB Minimus Trails, so I figured I was in good company for the time being. Once at the top, I started making my way forward and eventually passed them. At this point, we had reached the top of Mystery Mountain, which then stretched out into about a mile of smooth downhill switchback. Most people were taking it slow down the hill, and I couldn't quite understand why, as it was easy trail and not so steep that one must focus too much, so I decided to make a big move and open 'er up. It was a little crazy passing people off trail in the tall grass, hoping that there was nothing hiding there to destroy my feet, but I must have passed 20 people or so in that section alone, cruising comfortably downhill, really using my hips to open up a comfortable yet extended gait, and it worked brilliantly. Along the way I passed the guy I saw at the start wearing huarache sandals. He was now totally barefoot! I gave him major props and continued cruising downhill. My experiment was successful and I felt great when I hit the bottom. I also managed to put myself into a gap between runners, so I could run comfortably at my own pace and not have to focus on the feet of the runner directly in front of me, which quite literally can be nauseating.

Photo Eve Stein
Still feeling good

After a while I caught up with the next group, which consisted mostly of women, one of whom I recognized. It was Jan Guenther, owner of Gear West Bike and Ski, and former women's Birkebeiner champion! If I'm not mistaken, she has also won the 25km once or twice for the women, so I knew that I was in decent standing at the moment. Several other women were wearing ski fanny packs, and it occurred to me that there must be a fair number of Nordic skiers who run trails in the off-season. In any case, it was at this point that we hit the climb up Moose Mountain, the steepest section of the whole race. There was at least one part where it was necessary to grab on to the trees to help get up the hill. I felt that although it was steep, the runners ahead weren't going fast enough, so I hopped up around a few of them and continued on, only to regret it a bit further up when I realized that it was a long climb and the bit of passing had cost me some energy. By the time we got to the top, they all took off and I was sucking wind in a slow jog for a few meters. Live and learn.

It's difficult for me to remember which sections of trail are where and in what order, but somewhere in here I took my first gel, at about 45 minutes. After a smoother section of trail at the top of Moose, the roots and rocks became more prominent, and I felt like I was dancing my way through the forest rather than running. It felt smooth and quick, however, and I don't feel like it slowed me down, at least not on the way out. At some point in this next section my right shoe felt loose, and I looked down to see that my timing chip was gone, just as I had predicted. It wasn't worth going back to look for it, so I continued on, not worrying if I would have an official time or not. By this time the 50k-ers began blowing by in the opposite direction on their way to the finish. Immediately I began looking for Sam, hoping that he was at least top five, and sure enough, as I stopped to retie my shoe, he ran by in 4th place looking decent, but with some tension in his face. More on that later.

Further on down the trail, there's a flatter section with plank walkways stretching across wet sections, making it a little awkward to deal with the opposing traffic. At one point on a slight downhill curve, a 50k-er came right through the middle and I nearly ran off the steep edge of the trail, plummeting to my doom.Thankfully I recovered with some flailing of arms and tiptoeing in the soft dirt along the edge, making sure from then on to find sure footing when others came by. (this section may have been later on after Rollins Creek, but I can't remember)

The descent down Moose Mountain was crazy, and I felt like I was stuck in a speeding car in San Francisco, heading down toward the ocean with no brakes. The trail was littered with big sharp rocks and gnarled roots, ready to devour the inattentive racer, and combined with the steepness it's enough to make one woozy. It was less stressing on the body to go fast, although keeping the eyes focused on the features of the trail at that speed was difficult, and a little scary. I wondered how long it could go on, hoping that my body would hold up and that I wouldn't catch a toe on a root or rock, throwing me down the mountain into what would probably be a bloody faceplant. Thankfully, I'm good at pushing those thoughts out of my head quickly and I remained focused until I finally reached the bottom, crossing the bridge at Rollins Creek, then heading into the last climb until the aid station. This is where I started feeling a little sluggish, especially now with a steady stream of both 50k-ers and 25k-ers heading back toward the finish. At one bend in the trail, I recognized a runner coming toward me. It was Grant Nelson, current Duluth resident with whom I skied at the U of MN quite a few years ago. Just as I remembered him, he was incredibly friendly as we passed each other, all while he was kicking ass (he came in 16th place overall).

Surely I must be close to the aid station, I thought. Down some wide steps and onto a wider gravel path, and sure enough, I hit the road into the Oberg Mountain AS. Anna's family were the first people I saw at the edge of the AS, taking photos and rooting me on. As I stopped at the food table, I checked my watch - 1:13:00! I was two minutes ahead of my highest goal! That was good, but I knew at that moment that I had run way too fast in the first half, and that the second half would be some serious work. A salted potato, some Heed, a Twizzler, and a refill of water and gels and I was off again in just three minutes, thanking the volunteer who helped me get that dang Camelbak open, as my hands were too sweaty to untwist the cap. Waving to Anna's family once again, I headed out, realizing only once I hit the trail that I had forgotten to suck the air out of the Camelbak as it sloshed around and bounced something fierce. I fixed the problem and took off.

It's not polite to blog with your mouth full.

Enter the long lonely climb of loneliness! Heading back up the steps was murderous. Not having digested my food yet, my body was not ready for such a steep and brutal climb. I checked my pulse, and even walking it was at 190! Uff. A 50k-er came up from behind me and passed me, only to stop a little way up the path to puke. I asked him if he needed anything, but he politely declined as he jumped in behind me for a while. Soon enough, however, he found his 2nd (3rd, 5th, 8th?) wind and took off.

The whole second half of the race is mostly a blur. I was by myself for the majority of the time, aside from meeting people in the opposite direction. Heading back down toward Rollins Creek I heard my name and looked up to see my lovely wife with a big smile on her face and moving swiftly. A quick high-five and some words exchanged and that was that. I was happy to have run in to her so soon after the AS, which meant that she was doing much better than she had originally planned. It also appeared that she had found a trail buddy who she was chatting up as I passed them. From then on it was a grind, and only vague memories of the trail. Surprisingly, it went rather quickly. Along one of the more rolling stretches, a woman caught up to me and we played the I-pass-you-you-pass-me game for a while, keeping each other in check. A guy friend of hers was running with her, but having some trouble and was further back. At one point when she was behind me, she started singing this song, which immediately started playing on the Brain iPod. I told her that I now had it in my head, and we agreed that it was a good song for pacing. Soon after that we reached the last major climb of the race, the climb up Mystery mountain and the switchbacks that treated me so well on the way out, but now decided to cash out on my karma points and grind me into pulp. I took another gel and tried to run as much as possible, but I must have walked 90% of it, even on the slight uphills. My heart was racing again, and the legs just wouldn't go. Whereas the previous four or five miles seemed to pass without notice, this stretch lasted for an eternity. Several runners passed me, most of whom I had passed well before the AS. What will I add to the training regime before the next race? Hills! 

Once down Mystery, the access trail seemed to jump out at me, and I couldn't believe I was almost out the woods (literally). I passed a few families goofing around on the access trail who cheered me on, and then it was out into the open. Pavement. Blip! My right hamstring shot out a quick threat of cramping, and then again, blip...the left calf. 

''Crap! I can't cramp now, I'm too close!'' 

With all of the focus I could muster, I concentrated on my form. Hips, abs, relaxed feet. Although the climbs on the way back were brutal, this was definitely the most painful part of the race. The road stretched on and on, and I felt slower with every step, until the glory that is the path to the finish appeared. I dipped down and around the pool and crossed the line. I quickly informed the timer that I had lost my chip, and he recorded my number and time. Done!

Anna's family met me at the finish and fetched me a beverage while I sat down in the shade and tried to avoid cramping. Final time - 2:42:51 in 64th place out of 291 runners. Despite the relative blow-up in the second half, I was pleased with my time.

Wandering through the crowd, I found Sam, shirtless and barefoot in fine Sam fashion. In discussing his race, he had led until mile 24, but due to an error with drop bags, his hydration pack did not show up at any of the aid stations, and he was forced to run the last 7 miles with only a water bottle, which he emptied quickly and spent the last 4 or 5 miles in less than stellar condition, thus the tense face when I saw him run by. Chalk it up to the unpredictable measures at races, and I'd say he still did awesome.  

After some post-race chili, I ran into Anna's friend from vet school and her boyfriend, and we chatted in the shade for a while, only to find out that Anna had just crossed the line! I ran over to meet her and we celebrated a successful race for both of us.

Post-race Celebrations included: several dips in the hot tub, beer, a delectable meal at the lodge restaurant, and more time in the hot tub. The next day provided more of the same, and it was then when I realized that I am a trail racer. I had no major soreness at all! All in all, it was a thoroughly successful weekend with great weather and immense fun. 

Overall this was an amazing experience. The weather was awesome, perhaps even too warm (70's and sunny), it was great to see Sam and race in the company of both him and my wife, and for a first experience on the SHT, I can say that I'm now hooked, on this trail and with this race series. I'm stoked for the fall and my first marathon!

To give you an idea of the course, here's the elevation chart. Not bad for a trail race in the Midwest.

If you're interested in the race series and want more info, check out the website -

And now for the evaluation...

Fitness - B-
Despite the lack of running in the 3 weeks before the race, I was quite happy with what I accomplished, although I realized that I had trained way too much for the road race in April and not nearly enough hills and trails. Glute work and hills will definitely be part of the training regiment from here on out.

Mental Toughness - A-
Although I certainly hit some rough spots, I remained positive and determined throughout. I need to experiment more with my limits, however, to see if I could have run more of the parts I walked.

Pacing - C
The first half was definitely better than the second. I did, however, realize from the start that I was going too fast and would pay for it later. One can expect times to get slower as the race progresses, so perhaps it wasn't all bad that I had a quicker first half, but the splits show a drastic difference between first and second half. 

Hydration/Nutrition - B+
I was relatively disciplined with hydration and nutrition, keeping an eye on my watch to take gels, and remembering often to sip on the Camelbak. The only thing I missed toward the end would have been an S Cap, as I was retaining water and had a mild bit of ''sloshgut''. Had I just one S Cap, the threat of cramping also would not have occurred, so I shall invest in some for the next race. The fine-tuning will simply improve through more experience. I had never run this distance or terrain before, thus I'm happy with how I managed these issues with little experience.

Mechanics - A
I had no soreness the next day, and I managed to ward off the cramps at the finish through good form. There is always room for improvement, but on this day, I nailed it.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Earth Day Half Marathon, St. Cloud, MN

My first race report! Don't get your hopes up, folks, there are no car chases, nude scenes, or excessive drug use, but there may be occasional signs of rock n' roll.

Anyway, it's taken me two weeks now to get this done, as life has been moving as steadily as the race, and just now do I have time to sit down and contemplate my longest race yet, so here goes...

The wife and I drove up to St. Cloud on Friday afternoon so that we would have time to relax, get a good night's sleep, and be close to the race start in the morning. We went straight to the St. Cloud State campus to get our race packets and check out the expo in the main gym of the field house/rec center. It was nothing to write home about, but I finally got the chance to see what zumba was. Not impressed frankly, and more importantly, it was the dinner hour, and there's no better excuse to eat ginormous burgers than to fuel for a race the next day, so we made our way to Granite City Food and Brewery, a small chain restaurant that started in St. Cloud aka Granite City (there's a huge quarry there). Although the beer brewed in-house looked incredibly tempting, we decided to abstain for prudent reasons, but concluded that we would return after the race for more delicious meat comas that would include beer.

Our hotel was surprisingly nice. We had a quaint little apartment-style room at the Grand Residence Inn, complete with kitchenette! Initially, two of Anna's friends were going to crash with us to help us all save on costs, but one of them DNS'ed due to an injury, and the other decided to drive up the morning of. I won't complain, because it was awesome having a quiet room to ourselves to just chill out and relax. A little Animal Planet on the boob tube (a rare occurrence for me), and an extended session of foam rolling put me right with the world, and provided for an awesome night's sleep.

In the week leading up to the race, I had felt really anxious and nervous, mostly due to one factor - the weather! Although I had been training consistently, it still didn't prepare me well enough for race day attire. The forecast was predicting high 30's/low 40's at race start and a high of only around 50, but also a 70% chance of rain. Never having run 13 miles before, it was hard to gauge how I might feel in 40-degree rain. Come race morning, it was cloudy and cold as predicted, but no rain yet. I decided on my Under Armour short sleeve with a lightweight synthetic long-sleeve and my windpants. As soon as I got out of the car on campus, however, I decided that I needed shorts. Nylon windpants get really annoying when sweaty and/or wet against the skin. That turned out to be a good decision. I was on the fence about ditching the short sleeve shirt, but kept it on in my pre-race indecision. In all of my obsessing about clothing, however, I still failed, as you'll find out later.

We hung out a bit before the start inside the rec center entrance, where we ran into the wonderful Andrew E., one of Anna's college friends. I had run in to him at the race last year when I was cheering for Anna and he was cheering for his sister. We were all back again this year, only that my role changed from cheer squad to racer. It was nice to know that we'd have at least one person out there rooting for us.

With about ten minutes to start, we made our way outside to toe the line. The start was on the road, just before the bridge that crosses the Mississippi. There are huge concrete walls on either side as it carves through the campus, with a footbridge above it connecting one side of the chasm with the other. The bridge and fenceline along the walls were packed with spectators, and there was an almost gladiator-like feeling being on the road below, walled in by concrete and spectators who were all waiting for carnage (ok, so I'm overly dramatic here, but it sounds cool). I found my place at the start, in between the pacer signs for 7:45 and 8:00 minute mile times. I wanted to start conservatively and run consistently, gaining speed if possible. My goal was simply to finish at an 8min mile pace or under. As I did a few skips to get loosened up, I noticed a few people staring at me and pointing me out to their friends. Yup, I'm the weird guy in "those toe shoes." Since I had done all my training in Five Fingers, it just made sense to do the race in them. Frankly, I was excited for the adventure and the challenge. After the stress of the week, I was calm and relaxed, and ready to enjoy the morning exploring new territory.

We were off! It wasn't terribly crowded, but people weren't too fast to get out. One guy next to me was having some serious phlegm issues, which he turned into an over-exaggerated joke that goaded his three buddies to chime in with perfect loogie-hawking harmony. Another guy next to me said, "Ok, only 13 more miles to go!" I smiled, knowing that I was feeling good, the weather was solid for racing, and I was totally ready for the adventure. I ran an easy pace, focusing on settling in with good form, and I noticed that I was passing a fair number of runners. It appeared that I started a little too far back. I kept myself in check, to make sure that I wasn't going out too fast. Heart rate? Good. Breathing? Relaxed. Cool.

The course, albeit mostly flat, was decently diverse. The first 3 miles were along the road in an open area, with the river on one side and residential neighborhood on the other, before dropping down a short steep grassy hill through a park to cross back under the river bridge. On the hill, I rolled up next to a guy whose stride I can only describe as peppy and bopping. He noticed my shoes and said in a Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure voice; "Hey, you're wearing those toe shoes! Cool!" We had a decent chat, and he seemed to be having a total blast. We then hit the first water station, where I suddenly realized that I suck at drinking and running at the same time! How do you drink from a paper cup and keep running? I slowed a little to get a few gulps in, as I wanted to maintain good hydration at the start so that I could hit it harder in the second half. Bill and Ted Guy was gone, chatting up the next nearest runner, although just a few steps later I saw Andrew. In fine dork fashion, I gave him my best exaggerated wave, and he managed to snap this picture (and no, my gait doesn't normally look like this).
Hi everybody!

The next part of the course was beautiful, heading along the river in the other direction. Lined with lush green trees and various gardens, the crisp smell of spring was invigorating, although by this point (mile 4) I was totally roasting and needed to remove a layer. Since my number was attached to my long sleeve, I decided to remove the t-shirt underneath. It was still cold enough to want long sleeves at times anyway. As we were filtered up into the neighborhood, I began my undertaking. I managed to get the t-shirt off without totally removing the long sleeve, but draping the tee over my fuel belt in the back proved to be more of a chore. I wanted to make sure it wouldn't fall out, and with partially numb hands (it always happens when I run in cooler weather, even with gloves), it took me way too much effort to attach it so that it would stay and so that I was comfortable. We were coming upon the bridge once again to cross back over the river, and I was hoping that Andrew would have made it up top to meet us, but alas, he was still underneath waiting for his sister. No deposit of the problem shirt!

 Fantastic hair - Bozo the Clown or guy from Prodigy?

Crossing the bridge, the course winds up and through campus proper - a complete change of scenery from the first five miles. After looping out and around, passing a few groups of guys on their front porches watching the race and enjoying an early morning bit of "liquid bread," and finally heading back under the bridge on the campus side, I caught up to - and passed - the 7:38 mile pacer! I was a little surprised, but I was feeling good, and didn't feel that I was overdoing it, so off I went. Down the hill and past the stadium and it was into the woods for me! The next stretch was the longest, along a paved trail in the woods skirting the river. It was lovely and secluded, but the pavement was rather rough, and it was starting to take a toll on my feet. There wasn't much in the way of a soft shoulder as with many trails, so I simply had to tough it out. The rain also kicked in here, although not so heavy that it was noticeable. It was around mile seven when I noticed a pack of people starting to pass me. I was definitely slowing down. I felt no specific pain, but the legs weren't turning over as quickly, and it became clear that I needed some fuel. By the time I had decided that I needed gel soon, I passed an AS where people were handing them out. The only flavor I heard mentioned from the volunteers, however, was peanut butter. Yech! I love peanut butter, but not during a race, and certainly not in gel form. I decided to forego this round and just took water. I had two gels with me in my fuel belt, one of which I planned to consume in between this previous AS and the next, just in time to get water to wash it down. With aid stations every two miles, it wasn't long to wait, and yet once the thought of gel entered my mind, waiting seemed impossible and my body starting screaming for it. I downed one, and only after that did I notice that I still had at least a mile to go until water. Thankfully, it didn't give me the "Papa John's arid factor" that I had expected, but actually tasted quite nice.

Ye ol' legs started to relax a bit and feel strong again, just as we headed out of the woods and back onto the road into the neighborhood. I was initially under the impression that this was going to be an out-and-back along the river, but the stretch into the neighborhood took forever! It was here that the 7:38 pacer guy and his small entourage passed me up, and quite quickly at that. Apparently I wasn't feeling as good as I thought. I ran mostly by myself for the first part, focusing on getting myself back in form and rolling smoothly to prepare for the last three miles. Somewhere in the middle of the neighborhood, a racer passed me who I had remembered passing right at the start: white running tank with a t-shirt underneath, beanie, and gloves. I decided to try and hang on with the guy and see if I could "draft" for a bit. As we hit spectators again, everyone started cheering for him. "Go Lisa, you're doing great!" Oh, he is a she. Oops. Because she had short hair and a rather masculine physique, I had mistaken her for a guy. In any case, she became my short-term goal, rival, and new best friend. I passed her up and zoomed on ahead for a bit, then she passed me again, and we continued this pattern a few more times. I could tell that she had used me as a goal as well.  So that's how it's gonna be, huh? Let's do this!

We FINALLY got out of that damn neighborhood, climbing one of maybe three hills in the whole race and then hooked right onto the road. I caught up with Lisa again, and decided to roll with her for a while. "You're quite popular," I said, hoping to start a conversation and enjoy our little running reparté, as it were. "It's from the River Runner's Club," she retorted in a somewhat annoyed tone. Clearly she had no interest in chit chat, and seemed annoyed that her competition would be so friendly to her. Ultimately she just seemed rather shy, so I decided to just run alongside her without speaking, just to see what she would do.

Shortly after turning onto the road, we hit the ten mile sign. Something inside of me snapped and I took off - not at a sprint, mind you, but at a "brisk" pace. I had decided early on that once I hit ten miles, regardless of how I felt, I would hit the last three with reckless abandon. "BFF Lisa" held pace with me, which inspired me even more. Intimate competition! We hit the last AS where she took water and I decided to just bomb through. Why take water with one mile left? Shortly after this I broke away from her, not to see her again until after the finish, and really started hammering. The course diverted from the main road and dipped down toward campus once again, and all I could see was that 7:38 pacer guy taunting me with his little blue sign and bounce in his step. I had to pass him! Reeling him in ever so slowly, I slid by him with about a quarter mile to go. Woohoo! At this point, I just wanted to finish strong and knew that whatever my time, it was well above my expectations. There was a girl up ahead who had passed me a while back after I had passed her at the start, and I made her my last goal of the race. She was kickin it to the finish with a decent pace and solid form. Her hot pink shorts also acted like a bright beacon in my delirium. Hammering as hard as I could, we rounded the corner and hooked sharply left into the stadium. At a dead sprint I passed her with about 5 yards to go, crossing the finish line on the artificial turf with a finish time of 1:39:00 even. Perhaps it was a dick thing to do to her right at the finish, but hey, it's a race.

I picked up my finishers medal and a couple bottles of water and did some mild stretching outside, watching the finishers come in. About 20 seconds behind me, Lisa crossed the line. I made a point to shake her hand and congratulate her, thanking her for the pacing challenge. She smiled a half-smile and had no other words besides thanks. Maybe she was sour because the weird toe-shoe guy beat her. C'est la vie.

Making my way into the field house, the pain set in. My right foot was quite sore, and the calves were a bit tight as well, so I sat down for just a few minutes and people-watched. An older female racer approached me and asked me about the shoes, and actually seemed both interested and appreciative of the online resources I recommended. Sitting felt really good, even on a hard plastic surface. Eventually I found a nice open spot in the corner of the gym to stretch. Keeping a close eye on my watch and guesstimating Anna's finish, I made my way back outside, hoping that I hadn't missed her. Holy crap was it cold out there! I had completely cooled down inside, and had gotten used to the nice indoor temperature. Waiting in the wings of the entry tunnel, shivering, I heard Anna's name called. I dashed out to meet her and see how it went. Both she and her running partner had done a flying superman across the finish, beating their goal time as well. We had our pic taken, and then I had to get back inside, because I was freezing!

We grabbed some post-race snackies, cleaned up, and headed for lunch. Back to Granite City for burgers and brew! My right foot was hurting more now, especially since I had crammed it into a narrow-toed tennis shoe, but the beer more than made up for it. With enough juicy meat magic and starchy fries goodness to counteract the beer, we headed home pleased. Because I sometimes geek out with interesting statistics, I'll show you the rundown of my first major race...

The Aftermath

I woke up the next morning with severe pain in my right foot. After a bit of prodding, I noticed that it was a small localized area in the middle of my 4th metatarsal - not a good thing. It hurt to walk on, and the pain continued throughout the day. In fact, it continued for a few days, causing me to worry that I had a stress fracture. It was certainly possible after 13 miles with only 3mm of rubber underfoot, but it would mean that I couldn't run the 25km on the Superior Hiking Trail in May, which is my main running goal for the season and the race I'm most excited for. With the day off, I saw the doc that Friday, and his orders were what I had feared. No running for at least three weeks, which was the exact amount of time before the 25km. There was no use in doing any scan, because nothing would prove a stress fracture except for an MRI, and that's too expensive, seeing as it wouldn't change the diagnosis.

Strangely, however, the next morning it felt great. The little bit of "massaging" the doc did as he checked things over seemed to help. That evening I took to my foot with a tennis ball, and it improved even more. Perhaps it's just a really messed-up muscle? I've given it a full two weeks now, with only one light bouldering session and a bike ride on Tuesday, and it's feeling good. It's not normal by any means, but I'm planning on some light trail running (no more pavement!) over the weekend to test it out. I haven't given up hope of actually racing the 25km, so keep your fingers crossed!

All things considered, my official evaluation is as follows: I still need to focus on my form more, especially when tired, I need to fuel up sooner (around 5-6 miles), but my mental toughness was solid and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole race, and my fitness was right where I wanted it to be. Overall I'm nothing but pleased, but have a few goals to work on, which will keep me motivated. That's everything one could hope for, isn't it?


Friday, April 6, 2012

Motivation, Creativity, and Adventure

How many of you work out to stay in shape, or for any other purpose other than for the love of that activity? Have you ever told yourself that you should go work out, because your body will like you for it, and you’ll feel better about yourself? Perhaps it’s even something that you enjoy doing, but you just can’t seem to get yourself off the couch to do it? Well have I got the product for you! It’s the all new…ok ok, I won’t scare you with the threat of another cheesy infomercial. I assure you that I’m not selling anything here. In fact, I’m right there with ya, folks. Motivation can be elusive, even for the things you know you’ll enjoy once you’re doing it.

Running was like this for me ever since I started in late high school. It doesn’t help that I hated it when I initially joined the cross-country team senior year, joining mostly because I injured myself during soccer tryouts and couldn’t play. My initial experience with distance running was not fun – in fact it was quite painful – and it definitely put a blemish on the years to come, even when I came to enjoy running more. In college and beyond, there were certainly the days when I longed to get out in the sunshine and run a few solid miles along the river. It was invigorating, and a great way to crosstrain. I never saw it as a means in itself, however. I ran mainly to stay in shape in the off-season, to supplement the soccer season and compliment the climbing season, adding cardio endurance to brute strength. I threw in a few 5k and 5-mile races here and there as well to keep it fun and enjoy some competition, a trait of my personality that I’ll never shed.

As I’ve mentioned more than a few times, my experience at “The Big Juan” last summer changed everything for me. I saw running from a completely new perspective after that. Running became an adventure, not just something that people do to stay in shape or because they just love running. I had never learned the love of running for the sake of it, so this new love was enlightening for me, and the key to keeping me interested and motivated.

Since then, I’ve altered my approach to training. I try not to pick a route that’s easy or close by and run it just for speed (although I still do that sometimes), but rather I use the running as a means to go new places, see new things, and explore the unknown. I’ve explored new sections of my neighborhood and beyond, finding all kinds of cool little points of interest, including the Little Free Library and the tiny locales that I didn’t know existed. The grandest adventure I’ve had thus far was last weekend, when I finally put into fruition a plan that I hatched a while back.

I’ve been more interested in point-to-point runs lately, because it doesn’t require repeating parts already traveled, and as comedian Lewis Black points out when lamenting about the pointlessness of treadmills; “It seems to me if you’re gonna be running, when you’re done, you should be somewhere else!” Now, I have no problems with loops, but for some odd reason, doing a 12-mile point-to-point seems much cooler than a 12-mile loop, so I set out to find some feasible p2p’s that fit into my training program. Just for the hell of it, I checked to see what the distance would be to run from my house to my parents’ house in the suburbs, and it turned out to be 12.6 miles on foot. Not only was it a great distance to throw into my training, but as I checked routes, I discovered that I could do the majority of it on trails, separated from traffic, neighborhoods, and general civilization.

My plan was set. I called my folks to see if they wanted to hang out and have dinner on Saturday, and informed them that we would arrive early afternoon. Anna did her long run with her running buddies early that morning, so we timed it so that she would be showered and driving my direction to meet me shortly after I arrived in White Bear Lake. With a great feeling of adventure and challenge, I set out with my Camelbak and pouch belt stuffed with Gu, foot care items, my phone, ID, and credit card, just in case. The run was almost magical. Crossing through previously unseen areas of St. Paul and across the freeway, I hit the Gateway trail and took a moment to consider my task, feeling a new twinge of focused excitement. It’s hard to believe that in the middle of the city, one can feel as if totally secluded in the woods. Although I was still amid civilization, this was the closest to an “unsupported run” that I’ve ever had. Cruising along, I hooked up with the Bruce Vento Trail – a trail I didn’t know existed until I started searching routes – and chomped on my gel to keep me moving. The trail was practically desolate, and being alone with just the scenery and my thoughts drove me onward in an almost aloof state, and yet I felt focused the whole time. Of course, the “brain iPod” was in full effect with this song, strangely enough. Hey, it’s got a great bpm for setting a pace. When I hit the backside of the Maplewood Mall shopping district, I knew I was home free. Back on the roads again I picked up the pace, finishing it all off with a sprint to and up my parents’ driveway. Although in the eyes of ultrarunning I had just completed a “normal run,” this was the longest distance I’ve ever covered, and I did it all with just 3mm of rubber underfoot, so I relished my accomplishment.

The best part, however, was walking into the house, my parents looking at me rather quizzically in my running clothes and sweaty, red-faced state, asking me with an almost sarcastic tone, “What, did you run here?” Yep. Then the cognitive dissonance began; “Wait, you REALLY ran here? Where did you start? You ran here from your house?” I like surprising people, and this was just the icing on the cake. That, and the fact that I did my run at a 7m36s/mile pace, quite a bit under my initial 8min/mile goal for the half marathon at the end of April. Altogether, it was a great redemption to the failed 11-miler the weekend before, and proof that making the run an adventure helps more than one might realize. The final fruit of my point-to-point labor, however, was the delicious steak dinner that my folks prepared for us. A grand adventure run, followed by a great (free) meal and beer. That’s what makes it all worthwhile. Thanks Mom and Dad. 

Does every run need to be a grand adventure? Certainly not, but by adding new elements and challenges to the run, you can get your mind off of the dull routine of “the workout.” Adding personal challenges and unique twists of various sorts create a distraction from the regular, and they might be as simple as exploring new territory to see how far you can go, organizing a fun point-to-point run (and possibly surprising friends or family), or doing sprint pickups along your route based on landmarks or people in front of you (“I’m gonna pass that guy before he passes the big tree 15 yards ahead of him”). Part of what made the run to my parents’ house so fun was the element of the unknown, running farther than I ever have before in unknown territory and completely alone. “Do one thing everyday that scares you,” proposed Eleanor Roosevelt, and she was absolutely right. Organized or intentional scariness, as it were, can make for a great adventure that yields equally great benefits, as long as you are willing to take on the challenge and be flexible with the potential outcome.

On a smaller scale, if you’re training for an ultra or a trail race, experiment with your gear and see what works best: hydration pack vs. handhelds, various foods and gut response, etc. For some people, that might be serious business, but because I geek out on stuff like that, it’s fun for me to try new things and see what works best. You’ll need to use your creativity to find what works best for you, and as long as creativity is the goal, you’ll find something interesting and fun, which in turn will keep you motivated. It can actually be quite addicting too, so beware!

As I wrap up, let’s boil it down to a few quick points, shall we? Here are the facets of a true adventure in my mind:

  • facing the unknown - unknown places, distances, limits, etc.
  • taking on a challenge – test your strength and endurance, your ingenuity, your mental toughness, etc.
  • facing your fears – What’s holding you back from doing what you really want to do?
  • breaking routine – approach something with a fresh, flexible, creative perspective
One final note of importance is that structured training plans and creative adventures are not mutually exclusive. Structure and consistency are extremely important for successful training, in my opinion, but there is always room within that structure to switch things up and vary the workout. I’ve managed to use my training schedule as the base around which I utilize my creativity, because it provides a starting point that can make finding new adventures a bit easier. Now I look forward to whatever new and interesting challenge I get to dream up, while knowing that I’m still following a plan to make myself stronger, faster, and more competitive. Make a plan, think outside the box, and get off the couch!

In closing, I will amend the words of mothers everywhere and say to you, “It’s a beautiful day outside. Go out and find yourself an adventure!”

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A First

For the first time ever, I had a complete disaster of a run today. Now, I've had bad runs in the past: tweaks and strains, forced walking, and the feeling of my heart ready to burst out of my chest on an easy 3-miler, but today was a lesson.

I set out for my 11-miler this morning along with my wife and her running buddies, starting from my in-laws' house in St. Louis Park, which is right along the Cedar Lake Trail. The goal was to head into Uptown and around Lake Calhoun and back, with a quick jaunt up towards Lake Harriet to get in a full 11 miles. Today was the first chilly morning in weeks, starting at a brisk 38 degrees, and I chose wind pants and a long sleeve with a t-shirt underneath. Of course, it warmed up a bit by the end and I was regretting the wind pants, but it wasn't altogether a complete over-calculation. Something was off this morning though, and my head just wasn't in it. I forgot a few things at home that I meant to bring with, and I was feeling somewhat numb mentally. It was, nonetheless, gorgeous and sunny, and it was nice to have a cool morning once again. I do better in cooler weather.

From the start, I didn't feel awesome, just ok. My legs didn't want to go, and my cadence was definitely slower than usual, yet my legs didn't feel tired or heavy. I realized quickly, however, that after a few sweet trail runs this week, I was generally not looking forward to this pancake flat piece of paved straightness, and I mean FLAT! I've always hated long flat courses; my body just doesn't do well with the exact repetition of stride for so long. I need even just a few small rollers to change it up, even if ever so slightly. Anyway, by the time I had reached Lake Calhoun, my right hip flexor and knee were already flaring up. Thankfully, the taping of my blisters worked like a charm, so that wasn't causing a gait change.

Once I reached the lake, things perked up a bit. The people out and about in combination with the lake as improved scenery helped me pick it up somewhat and move more smoothly. Perhaps my subconscious didn't want me to look like a stumbling moron in front of all the beautiful city folk, so I took it and ran with it (no pun intended, if that's even possible). Hey, whatever works, right? It was going well until I reached William Berry Parkway and headed up the only incline toward Lake Harriet. I had pinpointed the exact halfway point earlier on the map where I would turn around on Lake Harriet Blvd, but once I hit the western entrance to the bird sanctuary, I couldn't resist. I've run through there several times in the past while racing in the Uptown Chase, a fun run started by my friend Mel in her quest to create new and fun themes for a party. Anyway, it was great running through there again, and I had remembered that there was an exit on the south side, which I thought was just about exactly where I wanted to turn around. Once I hit that spot, however, I realized I had gone double the distance! This is where I started to get a bad feeling.

By the time I got back down to Calhoun, my knee was killing me, so I had to stop and stretch. From there, things went way downhill. I was shuffling at best, interspersed with walking, and a fair bit of cursing. I wasn't completely pissed, mainly because I had seen it coming, and with the way my morning had started out, it seemed to be the general order of the day. I ran into the girls who were stopped for some GU imbibing, and I wasn't surprised that they were ahead of me. I was doing one more mile than them, and I was moving much more slowly. I stole a quick sip of water from my generous wife, and asked if I could get back on the Cedar Lake Trail on the northwestern end of the lake, as to bypass the whole northern end. I was told that I had to go all the way back to the northeastern end to get on the trail, which is not at all what I wanted to hear, but set out quickly as not to prolong my suffering. Once I actually hit the trail, after two wrong turns, I saw the long, flat, lonely road of loneliness ahead of me, and my heart sank.

The last three miles were excruciating, both physically and mentally. I tried my darndest to keep positive and use this as a means to work on my mental toughness, but it's a fine line between pushing ahead at all costs and seriously injuring oneself, and it wasn't worth killing my training. Walking, shuffling, grimmacing...rinse and repeat. With about a mile left, I saw four people way up ahead, wearing the same colors as my wife and her friends. How the hell could they have gotten so far ahead of me? There was only one path and they didn't pass me! This was my last push of the run, to catch up with them without walking or stopping. Once I reached them, they were walking, so I joined them for the rest of the way. Apparently there was a shortcut to get back on the trail from the lake. Eff.

Since then, both of my knees and my right hip have been annoying, to say the least. We did hit up Pizza Luce for lunch, though, which was a truly redeeming post-run treat, complete with beer AND soda. What can I say, it's how I roll.

All of this has brought about a few observations, concerns, and questions. First, the observations:
  • I HATE flat pavement runs. It's not fun, interesting, or good for my body.
  • After talking with several distance runners, it seems that there is something magical about the 10-mile mark. It's decently easy to run up to that point, but as soon as you cross that distance, all bets are off. I wonder if it's mostly psychological, but there does seem to be a trend.
  • Although I worked diligently with my mechanics and form, my hip and knee still blew up. This either means that I need to address my body structurally through PT/chiropracting, and/or find a mechanics coach to work with here in the Cities, as my first choice is currently living in Oregon. 
  • I definitely need to bring water and GU if I'm running 10 miles or more. I figured that it wouldn't be a big deal because of the cool weather and my quality nutrition and hydration this morning, but I'm sure it was a factor.
  • Perhaps I should get back to doing more short runs on pavement, instead of doing all of them on trail, and then doing the long run on pavement. My trail race isn't until May, so I should probably stick to more road running - one race at a time. I just love the trails too much.
  • Although I consider my run a failure in regard to the goal of the workout, it gave me a ton of perspective and I learned a good deal for the future. That's one of the goals of training after all, isn't it? Now I take that learning and make use of it, keeping Rule #1 in mind - Never Give Up.
Now, the concerns:
  • As much as I love and am dedicated to minimalist running, it seems that I *might* need to use more than the Five Fingers for longer distances. I'm not opposed to getting minimalist road shoes with a little more EVA as cushion, but I really don't want to drop $100 or more at the moment. This is a dilemma for me. Anyone know how I can get a free pair of NB Minimus OO Roads? :P
  • If I had this much trouble with 11 miles today, how can I run 50 miles in the fall? What if I blow up like this at my half marathon at the end of April? I REALLY don't want to walk during a race. I'm not as concerned with this one, however, because everyone has bad days. Because this was my first truly bad day, I'll be patient and see how it plays out.
  • Due to finances, I may be able to choose only one or the other when it comes to structural rehab or mechanics coaching. Which one should I go for? If I go for the former, should I see a PT or chiropractor?
  • Could it be that my body in particular is simply not meant for distance running, no matter how hard I train, perfect my mechanics, and toughen myself mentally? (See Rule #1 above)
So there it is. I'll wait and see what my body does in the next few days. Perhaps I just need a few days off. I have plenty of time until the half in April, so I can rest a little, focus on the things I enjoy, namely trail running, and maybe (finally) do some more climbing.  I might switch it up a little and do some more strength training and short intervals, just to give my neural pathways something new to chew on.

Until next time. Wish me luck!