Sunday, January 31, 2010

What are the odds?

Thursday was the last chance for a good workout. The forecast indicated the potential for heavy snow, once again, on Friday. A low pressure system from the west was set to perfectly intercept moisture from the south. I usually snicker at the meteorologists who seem to perfectly hedge their bets by confining their predictions to chances between 30 and 70 percent. We could all benefit by responding in this way to requests for information.

“Will you take out the garbage?”
“I’d give it a 70% chance.”

“You won’t forget to call, will you?”
“Oh, there’s a 30% chance.”

It was quite reassuring that in this instance, by contrast, the chance of snow was reported at 100%. That’s heavy odds. Nothing “potential” about that – it was a done deal. I was not nearly so sure about the status of my heels, both of which have been grieving me. Unless I lie there and stretch them first, my first steps out of bed are stiff and painful. I slap the ground awkwardly for the first 20 minutes of every run while my Achilles tendons warm up. I’ve been icing both heels obsessively for a couple weeks now. They have given me problems, off and on, since I started back running in late October. For several months, due to my ankle injury, I turned to the bike. And when I say turned to it…

Cycling is a great outlet for endurance training, and, well, braggadocio. Get a group of reasonably fit guys together on bikes and you’ve got the perfect combination of cohesion and status. You cruise in a well coordinated pace line along the flats, and then try to explode the lungs of every other guy on the climbs. The climbs. Man, I love the climbs. The image of myself as an oxygen burning machine is enhanced by the rhythmic stroking of the pedal cranks, and the radial flashing of the spokes. I hesitate to shake the bead of sweat off the end of my nose because it seems like part of the lubrication. The strain on the bike is apparent in the creaking of the bottom bracket. Less apparent is the strain on my Achilles. The range of motion required of the ankle is greatly reduced on a bike, and I’m guessing that mine adjusted by thickening and shortening.

With the cold weather and my return to running, I’ve once again asked my Achilles to adjust, so I’ve tried to accommodate that by varying the terrain of my runs to include more road and more flats. I have been able to continue training, for the most part, though I have backed off for a few days at a time to curb a downward trend and encourage healing.

Despite that, my last two long runs have finished with significantly sore Achilles. I ran for 3 hours and 3 ½ hours on the last two weekends, respectively. The pain bothered me for 20-30 minutes, subsided for the next 2 hours, and then returned to haunt me for the remainder of the run. So I backed off for a couple days afterward, generally shooting for one tempo-style workout mid-week. Last Tuesday I ran easy in the morning and then again in the afternoon over to the nearby high school track. I did 4 times 400m at a comfortable fast pace. I think of these as long striders – a chance to increase range of motion and turnover without incurring significant debt. I jog an easy 400 between each.

My heels were predictably tender Wednesday morning. Ideally I would have worked out on Wednesday afternoon, run something hilly Friday, and then something long(ish) on Saturday. Instead, Wednesday had to be easy. I might have waited for any kind of workout until Friday, except for the certainty expressed by the 100% chance of snow. In comparison, I was just mildly dubious that my tendons could handle a workout on Thursday.

For the past several weeks my training has been predicated on a series of ultras for the winter and spring. The next in the series is Louisville’s Love’n the Hills 50K on February 6th. I know the course well (I made it up) and it is a good test of an Achilles tendon: short, steep, and constant hills. I have to allow my body some rest beforehand. I’m not going to run a long run or a workout in snow or on a treadmill this close to the 50K. So it was decided: my last workout, both in length and speed, would be Thursday.

I’ve got a new favorite course for just this sort of run. It’s a horseshoe configuration – so I get the feel of a point-to-point with nearly the convenience of a loop (I have to get a ride across the gap). It has 3 clearly definable and balanced portions: a 30 minute warm-up to a turn, a ridge run with a climb at the start and descent at the end that takes 30 minutes of hard driving effort, and a 30 minute warm-down on "the salt trail" to finish it.

I almost bailed out after 15 minutes of running. My heels hurt. I blithely stuck it out. I’m glad I spent 30 minutes warming up. The ridge run was pain free. I went slower than I wanted – it took 32 minutes. But I completed the workout without, I think, setting myself back. And sure enough, the snow hit Friday – if a few hours late. If I can hold out, today will be my third day off. My heels are much less tender now. I can pinch them without wincing, and I don’t have to hobble to the restroom when I get up in the night.

Contrary to the message of my prior post – I’m adjusting to the circumstance. I’ve avoided running in this snow and I’ve backed off to let my Achilles heal. It doesn’t feel like the stuff of human freedom. I would like to be able to take a principled stand and run, no matter what. Problem is, I’m not that certain.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Is it cold enough?

This has been some winter. I’ve had to field the question: “what do you do in this weather?” many times. We’ve had several snows, ample cold, and frigid wind. We’ve had many days of just-shy-of-freezing rain. My students find walking to class uncomfortable, and they know that I run regularly, so they ask me thequestion. My coworkers, many of whom exercise for health reasons, have moved their fitness regimes indoors. So they ask me the question. There may even be ultrarunners who enjoy a break from running during the harsh winter, who would ask me the question.

Here’s the thing. I laid off last fall because of injury. I’m my own doctor, and I had not prescribed a time to start back running. I was ambivalent about starting back. Then the bad weather hit. I remember the afternoon well. The temperature dropped steadily into the middle thirties while the rain was driven nearly horizontal by the wind. My first thought? Time to go for a run.

Finishing the aptly named Frozen Sasquatch 50K on January 2. Next up: Love'n the Hills on February 6.

I’m not a mutant amphibian. I dislike running in cold wet weather as much as anyone. My hands get cold easily – and they are impossible to keep warm in those conditions. So why would I choose to start running when the weather is at its worst? Well - supposing instead that I started back on a sunny “Indian summer” afternoon. What caused me to run? Was it the best time to resume training? Or did I start back because the weather was good? The problem should be clear: if the weather determines my running schedule, then good reasons (like actually being ready to start back) don’t. So I needed truly unappealing weather to prove to myself that I really was ready to start back.

I lived and trained in Louisville, Kentucky for many years. The Olmstead Parks there are truly a blessing for outdoor activity, and many runners take advantage of them. I always relished the onset of cold weather, though. The number of runners and cyclists would drop precipitously around mid-November. And on the nastiest days only a very few -- the hardcore -- remained. I enjoyed having the roads and trails to myself. You might jump to the conclusion that I enjoyed proving myself tougher than those who stayed home. I think something else was at work. My family will say that I’m stubborn. I say that I place a high value on my autonomy. When I am alone (or nearly alone), doing something difficult or uncomfortable, I have reason to feel that I’m not being swayed by outside forces. Outside forces are, by definition, outside of my control. Many of these are contingent and variable – especially the weather! I do not want to make myself subject to those forces. When the forces of the world seem to have conspired to prevent my run – pull back your window shade and I’ll be hunkered over on the horizon.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Training Routes

Here’s a dumb thing you hear pretty often: “he’s got so much talent – if only he used it!” That same idea has many, equally misconceived, manifestations. Like the idea that some people lack talent but make up for it with hard work. I guess we have Descartes to thank for the dualistic thinking that continues to generate faulty notions about what happens with endurance athletes.

In case you missed my attempts last year to comb through the phenomenology of long distance running, don’t worry, I intend to keep beating that horse at least through August 2010. That’s when I’ll once again throw myself to the wolves that gather in eager anticipation of my imminent breakdown in the last 30 miles of a 100 mile race. This time my target is set on the Burning River 100, the site of this year’s national championship. Unlike the athletes of other sporting contests, ultrarunners cannot pretend to be uplifted by their events. We are routinely humbled and in fact (and ironically), have to embrace our own powerlessness to ever perform very well.

OK, let’s take this one sacred cow at a time. Untapped talent. Huh? So where is the talent stored? You want to say “the legs,” don’t you? But that’s just a metaphor for the body, right? And you want to say that the talent is tapped by the mind, don’t you? And where is the mind? Oh, it’s just sort of floating between the synapses, I guess, of the body. Yes, I’m making fun of the position that says mind and body are separate. And really, is it tenable? We line up and run a race to see what we can do. If someone does more poorly than expected, we are tempted to attribute that to poor mental performance. Conversely, if someone does better than expected, we might talk a strong mental performance – as in, how much they seemed to want it. Is this a good way to look at things? Is it true?

Have you heard that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve greatness? Based on a study of violinists at Berlin’s academy of music, those who practiced more were better. And those who practiced 10,000 hours were great! Before you start plugging away at your yet unmet dream of joining the orchestra, though, let’s break down the experimental design. This is a classic case of correlation not proving causation. Yes, the study established that hours practiced correlate to virtuosity. It did NOT prove that practicing causes virtuosity. It might just as well be the case that a third (unmeasured) variable causes violinists to practice more and become virtuosos.

One of my favorite hobbies is to explore new areas for training routes. Part of it is that I like to learn new terrain, and then to share that knowledge with others. Several times this tendency has culminated in a running event (“race”) on a course that I have mapped out. Case in point: I’m set to return to my hometown in Kentucky next month for “Louisville’s Love’n the Hills 50K.” Thankfully others have picked up directing duties and this year’s event is led by Cynthia Heady. I “discovered” Jefferson Memorial Forest, the venue for the event, just south of town when I was beginning my ultrarunning career. (Several ultrarunners in the area had been there for some time before me: Javier Cendejas and Brenda Gutman come to mind.) When I moved to SW Virginia my hobby found plenty of space to expand. The nearby high country has yielded many training loops (see picture) and combined with the trail mecca of Damascus was the inspiration for the Iron Mountain Trail Run.

Runners of these events will, of course, follow well marked (!) tracks. The early stages of exploration, however, can be a messy business. I’ve written previously about some of my forays into the woods. Many ultrarunners can relate to the training run that starts with modest ambitions in a new area and ends, many hours later than expected, having learned much more than we thought we wanted to know! I’m still alive though, and still compelled to try out new routes.

My compulsion to explore is part of what makes me a good ultrarunner. It also makes me put in a lot of hours on the trail. It may seem like I cause myself (?) to go run new routes, thereby put in more hours, and thereby become faster at running trails. I doubt that is a good way to look at it, though. Why can’t my need to explore, and my running proficiency, just be me? If I didn’t have that particular attribute I wouldn’t be as good. Period. The ability to tap your talent, in other words, is your talent. Talent is not somehow separate from your mind – it is your mind. The person who grinds out mile after mile, even if they seem lead-footed compared to their peers, has a good talent – namely the motivation to run! The person who seems quick-footed, but doesn’t put in the miles, lacks an important talent. The violinist who is motivated to play 10,000 hours has a very important talent for becoming a virtuoso. And let’s face it; we are only going to put that kind of work into something that is paying off. Those who don’t see the payoff will stop practicing sooner, and end up with fewer hours practiced.

Maybe another kind of dualism would be helpful here. There are two of “me.” One is the subject writing to you. He thinks, plans, sets goals, and starts races. He decides stuff. He is the one who evaporates like the fog on my sunglasses about 2/3 the way through an ultra. The other of me is the only one left to finish.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Continental Drift

You likely have heard that continents move. Two related facts strike me as important. First, almost nobody believed this was possible until the late 1960s. This is the GROUND we walk on, and we were WRONG about it – even as we’re landing on the moon. Wow. Second fact, continents move about the same speed as toenails grow. OK, you heard it was fingernails. Same speed though, and this is a post about ultrarunning. We frequently talk about toenails. As it happens, I lost my left big toenail last June during the Western States 100. It hurt. Nothing earth-shattering, nor was it particularly significant to my run. I also sprained my right ankle, though. It hurt too. And kept hurting – for the last 90 miles of the run – and then for the next several months. I was forced to layoff of running. I tried to rush my return and was repeatedly repulsed. I finally relented and took up cycling for the fall. Riding hard up a mountain is almost as fun as running up it.

As you can tell from the picture, my toenail is back. Six months – 1.25 centimeters. And while a transatlantic flight hasn’t gotten appreciably longer, enough of my bodily tissue has regenerated that I can run again. I trained through November and December, in fact, and marked my official return to ultramarathons last Saturday. This inaugural event was aptly named Frozen Sasquatch. The hearty West Virginians were unfazed by the blustery conditions. Volunteers cheerily handed out Heed slushies at the aid stations. First time RD Mike Dolin contrived a 25K loop through the Kanawha State Forest in Charleston. The ultra option was 2 loops, of course. For front runners, this provided more variety than you might guess. On the first loop we got to break trail in the fresh snow, and on the second loop we did our best to stay upright on the compacted – and icy – steep slopes.

In the midst of my hiatus from running I realized that I want to do more local and regional events in 2010. The lure of big national events and great competition has gotten me to cross the continent several times in the last couple years. I’ve enjoyed many runs in California – Quad Dipsea, Miwok, Way Too Cool, American River, and of course Western States. I’ve missed the runs that got me into ultras to begin with, though. Homespun events in the Appalachian States are still my favorite. I felt right at home with Sasquatch. About 100 runners. Narrow single track winding crazily through the woods. Plenty of climbing. Nervous bantering with friends beforehand and relaxed bantering with friends afterward.

Here’s what I like about ultras. We leave our warm cozy homes before dawn on a bleak winter day. We gather together in the woods until someone says “go” and then proceed to chase down two-foot strips of blue flagging hanging from bare tree branches. We climb brutish slopes until every panted breath blows spit that freezes to our chins. After several hours of extreme exertion we wind up right where we started with nothing gained but a voracious need to replenish ourselves. And it feels natural.

The continents drift. That’s how we get volcanoes and mountains and mid-ocean ridges. People run. We use it to show our specially developed talents, yes, but we can do that because running is the birthright of any healthy person.

I enjoyed standing around the finish, trying to stay warm by a small fire, and watching runners finish. They may have been cussing all the way down the remarkably treacherous last descent, but now, to a person, they celebrated. We call it “accomplishment.” I think it represents the collective and emphatic demonstration of what suitably determined people can do. Just give it time (2-3 cm per year).