Thursday, April 30, 2009

Why "Explore Fatigue?"

The windows were wide open and the school bus bounced lightly, like a kids carnival ride. I was wedged between the high-backed seats, but inhaling the freedom in the air. The class I taught at Valley High School in Louisville was on a field trip. We were were headed down I-65 toward Murray State University. It was the Spring of 1997. I had already enrolled in a full-time doctoral program at U of L for the Fall. I was completing my second year of public school teaching. I enjoyed my students, especially on days like this. We were giving them a preview of the possible. The chatter and excitement was to be expected -- and encouraged. I found my own imagination wandering. I had made no plans for the summer. School would let out in June but my own classes wouldn't start until August. For us on the bus, the atmosphere was catalytic.

I thought I would run across Kentucky. That seemed like a big feat. Maybe I could push a small buggy that had my stuff in it. I would try to do it fast, of course, set some kind of mark. I knew Brad Swope, a Louisville cyclist. He had cycled non-stop across Kentucky to raise money, and awareness, for melanoma. In my first duathlon (called a biathlon at the time) I bolted to the front after the 10K run, and then jumped on my bike to pedal for all I was worth for the 30 mile ride. Although I likely had a solid 3-4 minute lead on him after the run, Brad -- who I didn't know at the time, promptly caught up with me and then encouraged me to ride with him. Of course I couldn't keep up his pace on the bike. Afterward he was exceptionally gracious, though, and helpful. He left a big impression on me.

I didn't make immediate specific plans for my state crossing, though. I didn't have time to. The night of the field trip another thought caused me to wake in the wee hours of the morning. I was in my first home, a bachelor pad in the Butchertown neighborhood. My eyes opened wide. Of course. I would run the length of the Appalachian Trail! I knew very little about the AT, and nothing about "speed attempts" along it. But for 3 nights I could barely sleep, and I knew that running the AT would be my big project. I enjoyed being on trails, and I knew the AT was about 2000 miles long. An easy running pace for me was 7 minutes per mile. So I did the math. Roughly I could do a run in the morning, a run in the afternoon, and cover the full distance in 60 days -- about the time that I had. I found out the trail was actually about 2200 miles, so that just meant I needed to run 37 miles per day. Two runs of 2-3 hours each. It would be a challenge, of course, but one that I fully embraced.

I prepared. I bought a pack, and on the advice of the outfitter, bought trekking poles. I took the thru-hikers guide. I took a water pump/filter. I did NOT pack a sleeping bag, stove, pillow, tent, etc. The term hadn't been applied yet, but I was certainly fast-packing. In June my then girlfriend gave me a ride to Amicalola State Park in Georgia, where the approach to the southern terminus of the AT starts. We agreed that I would just run the first 28 miles and meet her at Woody Gap, where I would continue on with my full pack. That would give me a good jump start! Twenty eight miles is just over a marathon, so providing for some climbing I told her to meet me in about 4 hours.

Lest you think that I actually am superhuman, I can tell you that my disillusionment was fairly rapid. I had run trails before, but in general those had been trails that developed over time as ways to get from one place to another on foot. The AT is special. I believe it was first drawn on a map to connect the dots of the highest peaks between Georgia and Maine. With the exception of a few sections, it is not particularly amenable to running. This has been steadily changing with re-routes that add switchbacks and contour around mountains rather than heading straight up, but I frequently cussed the gratuitousness of yellow blazing that seemed to go out of it's way to insure maximum climbing.

I did make it to Woody Gap, just a little worse for wear. I was still quite excited, but a realization had already crept in. I would not be able to "run" the AT with my pack and cover 7 or 8 miles per hour, as I had planned. A fast pace would be 4-6 miles per hour. I also had already gotten a whiff of a new brand of fatigue. Not the purple-lipped, burning-throat, numb-forehead fatigue of middle-distance sprints, but the full-body, mind-numbing, uncertain emptiness of all-day slogs. I got to Woody Gap almost desperate for water and food. Given those things, and a little time, though, I was right back on the trail.

The idea was developing in my mind already, and would become a staple of my brain's diet for those 12 hour work days. I can remember hiking a particularly long segment that ended at Fontana Dam, just before entering the Smokies. I was about 160 miles in and felt completely exhausted. My legs were shot, I had no energy, and my head was listless. And I kept walking. I was completely exhausted, and I kept walking. I didn't fight it, or avoid it. More interesting to me even than all the varieties of plant and animal, and people, that I encountered, was this: my own fatigue. Although I didn't believe that my bodily resources were unlimited, or even particularly mysterious, I was fascinated by the changing landscape of my experience as I tired, and then revived. More times than I could count I would approach a destination, such as a shelter where I intended to stay, and feel that I had spent all that I had for that day. Then I would discover something unpleasant, like a mosquito infestation, and decide to go 'another 8.' I would soon recover my rhythm and find myself well able to cover the additional mileage. That's interesting -- worth exploring.

By the time I reached "the friendliest town on the AT," Damascus, VA, I had settled on my mantra for my thru-hike. I bought a hat at the outfitter and decided to try and stitch the words onto it. I ambled into "Nell's Place," an arts and crafts shop (unfortunately no longer in business). Nell was sitting working on something. I asked how I might get my phrase stitched onto my hat. She said she could take care of that. Then she gave me a Coke. She gave me both those things, and wouldn't accept payment. I have to pause, even as I write this now.

So I wore my "Explore Fatigue" hat out of Damascus and on to Harper's Ferry, my new goal for that first summer. I would go on and hike the northern half of the AT during the summer of 1998. That fall I would run my first ultra -- the Mountain Masochist, directed, appropriately, by the guy I heard set the speed record for hiking the Appalachian Trail -- David Horton. It would take another 2 years before I was willing to run my 2nd ultra. My mantra, however, hasn't changed.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Body Knows... [Miwok in 3 days]

I have the sense of what it might be like to be a robot. There's this faint buzz barely agitating all my limbs -- like the transformer mounted in our garage. I woke up at 4:45 this morning and the same vibration was in my gut, like it was poised for something. Our cat, Tonks, has serious cognitive dissonance now that I put her food outside for the summer. She wants to be inside, and to have her food. So she gets caught on the threshold, completely torn. My gut is like that right now. It remotely knows to be wary. Food is good, but so is emptiness. We get it, somehow, that 3 days from now something big will go down.

So I got up and drank a protein shake. No run this morning. My running this week is sharply curtailed. I did run 3 x 400m on the track yesterday. Nippert said "don't time them." He probably thought that would temper any strong desire I might have to run fast. That's not the way it works for me though. A racehorse trapped in the gates doesn't care about the clock. It wants to be free, and in front. That's how I ran my 400s. Had I timed them I think I would have gone slower. I would have controlled the effort and matched it to my expected time.

That is the promise, and the pitfall, of our expectation. We calibrate it. I'm reminded of my first real distance race. I had never even witnessed a footrace beyond a schoolyard sprint. I joined the cross country team at my high school because the coach wrote me a letter, explaining that I'd be good at it. At the time I didn't realize that he sent all incoming freshman the same letter. He also told me that at my first race I'd run the junior varsity 3 km event. I didn't really know how far that was so it didn't worry me too much when he told me a few minutes before the start that I would actually be running the 5 km course. It was the St. Xavier Campus Run in Louisville, KY. It was called the campus run because the course started in a field along Trevilian road and then wound up and around the steep hill at the foot of the Bellarmine College Campus. None of that mattered to me because when the starter pistol fired I was a horse. I ran fast, free, and at the front. Until I died. Two St. X runners passed me and so did my teammate, Dave. I ran the remaining distance, as we liked to say, as if I had picked up a refrigerator.

I also placed 4th in my second cross country race. My pace, however, was relatively constant across the 3.1 miles. I got it. I knew what to expect. A track is ideally suited to the calibration of effort. You can literally see what has to be done in one glance. Get to the end of the straightaway for the 100, to the other side of the track for the 200, once around for the 400. I spent many a workout circling the track at various speeds for varying lengths of time, all the while noting my effort and checking my watch. I got to be like a metronome, clocking off laps at precisely even times. In the longer events I would tire, of course, but I knew that. I figured that into the equation (subconsciously, of course). In effect, I built a wall around my effort, containing it to what was sustainable. We all do that. We have to, because otherwise we couldn't sustain our effort.

Which brings me, finally, to my buddy Nick. Nick got in touch with me shortly after I moved to SW Virginia. We've run together at least occasionally ever since. Nick has dedicated a lot of resources to the improvement of his ultra running. He doesn't hesitate to drive the hour across the mountain to my house so that we can drive another 1/2 hour to a trailhead for a run. He has demonstrated many times a willingness to suffer through exhaustion, dehydration, and nausea in order to train. Nick placed 1st at the inaugural Iron Mountain 50 mile Trail Run. Although he is training better than ever, Nick has had a string of DNFs in the past many months, the latest at the Bull Run Run 50 mile. This despite his feeling that he is very fit and uninjured.

I'm attracted to sport, and in particular ultrarunning, because it cuts down on BS. There are real outcomes that are reasonably indisputable. There are limited cases where a person can legitimately say things could have gone differently. We all agree that what counts was how things did go. If you start out a 50 mile race running 7 minute per mile pace, and then drop out of the race at 30 miles, it doesn't make sense to assert that you could have run 50 miles in 5 hrs 50 min. How do you know you could have maintained that pace? Runners feel more tired after 30 miles than when they started. How much more tired? That depends on how much further they think they have to go. Perceived level of exertion depends upon the apprehension of the distance yet to be run. The greater the distance remaining, the lower our perceived level of exertion. The data emerging from research (google Tim Noakes of "Lore of running" fame) is compelling, but it corroborates personal experience. How many races have we finished and immediately collapsed in a heap, barely able to move? Up until the last step we were in full stride, trying to hold off competitors or finish under a certain time. What changed? Our apprehension of the remaining distance went to zero, so our perceived level of exertion went to infinity!

We should reserve the DNF for real crises. We want the outcomes of events to line up reasonably well with our expectations. We expect to run 50 miles, we should run 50 miles. Otherwise, we won't learn what it means to run 50 miles in those conditions. If dropping out becomes a viable option (as perceived by the athlete) we'd expect his perceived level of exertion to increase as he approaches the point in the run at which he can imagine dropping out. I do not say this as someone who will slog on "no matter what." I have dropped out of several races, both in college cross country and in ultras. There are times when dropping out is the right choice, and times when it is the only choice. Neither of these applies when the situation is that I am in the middle of a run and feel more tired than expected. For me, that has proved to be the best time to re-calibrate. The walls weren't built close enough in, and I have gone across a buffer. I know that I have to slow down.

Athletes are not revered for their ability to proscribe their own limits, however. They are icons of human possibility, constantly pushing the edge of performance. They find ways to go faster and longer. Our knack for building walls around our effort is a pitfall in this pursuit. We may be needlessly limiting ourselves. So it seems, at least, to those who believe that "the will to win" is all that stands between the athlete and greatness. For my part, I will continue my taper this week in preparation for Miwok. My performance depends on real, physical parameters such as stored glycogen. I will also start slow.

Friday, April 24, 2009

When It's Too Far To Finish

I need rest. So today I will only run 45 minutes.

We intuit that we have limited capacities. Our bodies are fuel burning machines, and just like cars, they can run out of gas. Muscles fibers tear and breakdown, we sense, and need time to heal. We train and race, always aware of the walls that enclose our ability to perform. If we are determined then we claw and scratch at the walls, always pushing at them and trying to climb beyond them.

I felt a bit sluggish during the first 20 minutes of yesterday's workout. Nothing troubling, just the hint of a limit ahead. I've been running a lot of miles for me, and fatigue is to be expected. I parked in Abingdon at the start of the Virginia Creeper Trail. An old black train engine marks the spot. Proceed 15.5 miles and you will be in Damascus, where the red caboose stands at the foot of the Town Park. These landmarks intentionally bracket this first section of the Creeper Trail. Additionally, each mile is chiseled into a small stone pillar. I run on the Creeper occasionally because it is wide, graded, and composed mostly of crushed gravel. It trends gently downhill from Abingdon to Damascus, and then climbs to it's highest elevation, White Top station, at its 34 mile terminus. Howard Nippert sent me workouts for this month, and yesterday's called for 5,10, 15, and 10 minute intervals at a "good" pace. I interpret this to mean what we called "threshold" pace in college. The pace is one that you can maintain for about 30 minutes without digging yourself into a hole.

I hit the lap button on my watch when I start the first 10 minute interval. I'm just short of a mile marker, so I pass it about 25 seconds in. When I pass the next mile marker, I glance at my watch. I'm a bit disappointed by the time, because I forget that I've run more than a mile. So naturally I run a bit harder, thinking that I've been subconsciously sandbagging. When I start my 15 minute interval, it takes about 1 minute to pass the next mile marker, and that's when I realize my previous mistake. I'm thinking to myself about the need to subtract the minute to get my mile split at the next marker. I've already stepped up the effort, though, and now I'm heading in the slightly uphill direction. Even so, I sustain my new effort. So was I not going fast enough to begin with? How do I know I still wasn't going fast enough?

As I wrote yesterday, the object of the workout was to get tired. But if tired is good, wouldn't more tired be better? Can't I just take a sledgehammer to the wall enclosing my performance and bust through it? It might not be pretty; my blue lips won't be able to hold the spit from spilling down my chin. I may collapse into a pool of my own puke after my interval is complete. Isn't that the drive we're aspiring to? If my guts were spilling out of my abdomen I should be able to carry them in front of me, still running. I get a kick out of coaches who ask their athletes to give 110%. What does that mean?

When I was younger I figured out the only sure evidence that an endurance athlete had given 100%. That evidence is death, of course, precisely after crossing the finish line. People have died while running, but I can't think of any high performing endurance athlete who died at the finish line. (This is excepting the apocryphal first marathoner, Pheidippides.) But don't great runners learn to expend the maximal effort, and won't that be 100% of what they can do?

It may be helpful to think about the problem from the perspective of those who try, but run into "the wall." My lifelong friend, and high school teammate, told me before one high school cross country race that he was literally on a mission from God. He blasted out to the front from the start. Like anyone who "goes out too fast" he faded and had to slog through the second half of the race just to finish. My running buddy here in Virginia has had a string of frustrating DNF's. Did he exceed his capacity?

To be continued... (I have to get my kids at the bus stop!)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Winding Down, Winding Up

My eyes itch and burn now that Spring is blowing in. I submitted to seasonality a long time ago. Never really left the school schedule. The early morning sunlight reminds me of waking up at Amos house in Providence, RI. The first hard glinting rays of sunlight raced across the Atlantic like a laser into my second floor room. During the semester I met up with several other runners in the pre-dawn darkness for our morning run. They sportingly ventured into slums of South Providence where I lived as a volunteer in the homeless shelter. The late Spring and Summer sunlight pierncing into my room, even when I didn't have to get up, was welcome, though. It was bracing, like a new razor blade. That was 20 years ago.

Today I "slept-in," waiting for the very first glimmer of light to glow from behind White Top Mountain. Just as the sky conceded a hint of grayness, I rubbed my puffy eyes and rose to once again lace up running shoes for a morning run. It's almost automatic. I don't do it every morning. This afternoon is a workout, though, and I generally run on the mornings of workouts. I reverted to an old route around campus. It starts down the gravel road I live on, spans the golf course, loops around the athletic fields, then returns. It doesn't feel too much like an out-and-back, since I never have to stop and turn around.

The workout this afternoon is a modified tempo run. Run 20 minutes, surge for 5. Run 4 minutes, surge for 10. Run 4 minutes, surge for 15. Run 4 minutes, surge for 10. Run 10 minutes. The object is to get tired, of course. My heart has to beat hard and fast. The air has to pass through my mouth fast enough to burn the back of my throat.

I don't dread this. It does remind me of my first indoor track race, though. A half-mile at the Mason Dixon Games in Louisville, KY at the age of 14. I thought my throat was bleeding -- I could taste the rawness. The discomfort was more penetrating at that age. It wasn't just my throat, or legs, or heart. It was me. Ah, but the reward was so sweet. I didn't win that one, but it reminds me of the same meet the next year. The mile run. The crowded track and spectators were still so new. I was careful, as ever. Stayed out of traffic in the back. Probably remembered the sensation from last year. The 200 meter wooden track was stoutly banked. Runners were bouyed by its springiness and the rhythmic thunking of all those adolescent feet. For several laps runners jostled and splayed across the track. At just past the half-mile something happened. From my vantage in the back it took on a mystical quality -- like the parting of the Red Sea. Just as I was getting restless, the pack began to flatten, beginning in the back. As I passed runners, my view to the very front opened wide. Every runner in front of me adhered to the inside line of the inside lane. The more runners I passed the stronger were the forces propelling me forward. I accelerated like a surfer at the foot of a monstrous wave. In one lap I went from last to first and rode the momentum to a heady victory. Thinking about it still makes my hands sweat. That was better than a quarter century ago.

My workout today is one of the last in preparation for the Miwok 100k. I recognize the phase in my training. My body is not as jumpy. Fast doesn't feel too fast, and even brutally long and treacherously mountainous runs fail to cause the kind of fatigue that indicates room for improvement. I am running more than I would, though, if I were just preparing for Miwok. I ran twice yesterday, and twice the day before that. Last Sunday I ran 35 miles of rugged single track. I have not made my peace with the Western States 100.

This will be the story of my preparation to run that particular 100 miles in 1 day. Not just to finish, as I did 2 years ago. But to run well. I want to do more than illustrate 8 weeks of endurance training. I will try to narrate a whole story that ends in Auburn California on June 27th, 2009.