Friday, September 16, 2011

The Uphill Experiment: Two-hour-loop reprise

A couple of weeks before this year’s Iron Mountain Trail Run (IMTR) I ran “the two-hour-loop.” This is a course I scouted back in 2005 and used as a benchmark while training for the 2006 Mountain Masochist Trail Run (MMTR). The route starts near Skulls Gap and contours along the Iron Mountain on “old 84” to Hurricane Gap. It crosses the ridge of the mountain at Barton Gap and then drops to the bottom of the mountain at the trailhead for Jerry’s Creek (near the trailhead for Rowland Creek Falls). It then climbs the mountain again, following Jerry’s Creek, to near Skull’s Gap. The terrain has equal parts single track, double track, and gravel forest service road. The course climbs 2700 feet in nearly 18 miles. It took about 2 hours 20 minutes to run it at first, so I decided to come back to the course at regular intervals and see how close I could come to running it in 2 hours. Treating the run like an extended tempo workout, I began to approach the 2 hour mark after a few weeks.

About that same time, David Horton came down for a training run in preparation for the first IMTR. The middle section of that course is very similar to the two-hour-loop except that IMTR follows Rowland Creek instead of Jerry’s Creek back up the mountain. During that run Horton asked me my goal for MMTR. I told him that I wanted to break 7 hours. He quickly retorted that I couldn’t do it. Only a couple of people had done it, and when the inestimable Eric Clifton had failed to he reportedly said that he didn’t think there was anyplace he could have made up the necessary time.

My response was that I’d let my result speak for itself. I also said that my training included the two-hour-loop, and that I thought when I could break 2 hours on it, I could break 7 hours on the MMTR course. Though we quickly moved on to other topics, it is interesting to note that Horton can recall this story with more clarity than I can. Part of the reason, no doubt, is that I did ultimately break 2 hours on the loop and 7 hours at MMTR. He greeted me at the finish, as he does for all runners, and was able to witness the most special moment of my athletic life.

Horton is one of the few people who could really appreciate what reaching the finish line in Montebello meant to me. That place represented much more to me than winning a race, or meeting a goal, or proving something. That race finally brought into relief the full scale geography that is me. I had first stumbled down that same campground road in 1997 in the middle of my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. I was empty – destitute and alone, and slept on the wooden porch of the pavilion. My second approach to the same road was in 1998 after suffering a beating through my first ultra at MMTR. My calves had shredded by mile 37, and I had to hobble on my heels for the next 16 (?) miles to the finish. I had been sunk as low as I have ever been twice – both times across from the small general store that defines that tiny town. The contrast in 2006 could not have been more apparent. I had started to build momentum on the climb up Buck Mountain, and I didn’t let up. I blasted the final mile along the road in under six minutes and charged into David’s embrace. I cried for the only time at a race.
I retired the two-hour-loop for some time after that. It wasn’t so much the weighty feelings surrounding it, but more that it’s a tough run and shouldn’t be overdone. I’ve had one other reason to avoid the two-hour-loop. It would be too good an indicator of my fitness. I was 38 in 2006, and I’ve been getting older ever since (!). I wouldn’t necessarily want to know how my performance had declined.

That is why I was so pleasantly surprised early this spring, when after a minimal flurry of speed workouts, I was able to again go under two hours for the loop. Soon after I ran a PR at the Promise Land 50K, a race I had already ran respectably. As quickly as I had begun to run fast, though, I slowed back down because my goal for this year had been to run 100s. I slowed my training and muddled through Old Dominion and the first 70 miles of Burning River. The misery induced by these races finally caused me to reconcile the space between my aspirations and my talents. So much for 100s.

I like to run fast. I decided to keep my races at or under 62 miles this fall, and to run MMTR in November once again. In preparation I’d confront whatever the two-hour-loop had to say about my fitness. Two weeks before IMTR it said 2:05. That translated into a 7:15 two weeks later – a respectable time on a tough course. Historically runners are able to run similar times at IMTR and MMTR. Of course I’d like to run faster than 7:15 come early November. So this past Wednesday I was back on the two-hour-loop, having carefully considered what I had to do to go under two hours.

Here's an experiment I would like to do: get a bunch of runners to do a hilly 8K time trial. Tell all of them to go for the fastest time they can without killing themselves. Then break them into two random groups. Tell one group to push the uphills, and explain that will help them keep the best overall pace. Tell the other group to slow down on the uphills and pick it up on the downhills, and explain how that will help them to even out their effort and yield the best overall pace. I’ve given contradictory advice – I can’t have been truthful to both groups.

I’d like to do the experiment because I know now how it works for me – and how I’ve been lied to.

There are two distinct models for understanding how fatigue limits performance, and they predict different outcomes for the experiment. A "peripheral fatigue" model says -- and this is oversimplified -- that pushing the uphills will fatigue the muscles and therefore (eventually) cause runners to slow down. It would predict that maintaining a constant threshold effort (by slowing down on uphills and speeding up on downhills) limits fatigue and therefore maximizes exertion across the whole exercise. According to this model the advice is simple – DON’T push the uphills.

In contrast, a "central governor" model says that runners (perhaps subconsciously) anticipate what is ahead and experience fatigue depending on how they interpret their current exertion relative to how much is left to run. This model at least leaves open the possibility that pushing the uphills could result in a better time, because performance depends on how the runner interprets what he or she is doing. So, while not the advice is not as clear, we can at least advise: PUSH the uphills if you can.

When I was in college heart rate monitors were just coming into use. Our team bought one and rotated it among team members during training. The idea was to make sure we were not over-exerting. The theory was built on a peripheral-fatigue model. One inescapable conclusion was that the best pacing strategies tend to even out effort across the run. In other words, all else being equal, slow down on uphills so that your heart rate remains relatively constant. We didn’t apply this to races, because in a race all else is not equal. Relative place matters much more than time, and maintaining place on climbs surely trumped maximizing overall pace.

My tempo runs are generally alone, though, and so I have tended to fall back on the theory that I should slow down on the uphills in order to get the best out of the total distance. That is the lie. And I think I know why.

On Wednesday I ran just under 1:58 for the two-hour-loop. I worked the uphills pretty hard. Part of the reason I have to do that now may be that I can’t run downhills as hard as I used to, but I think there is another reason. When we charge uphill we raise the threshold for perceived effort. We breathe hard and our hearts pound and we go for it knowing that the climb will top out and we’ll continue on an easier course. Because of the raised threshold, however, we tend to pick up the pace on the downs and flats compared to what we would have if we had backed off on the climb.

I don’t really know if this is a personal quirk – perhaps shaped by my own way of thinking about running or just my unique physiology – or a generalizable finding that would help corroborate a central governor model of fatigue. That’s a good reason to run the experiment. In the meantime, I’m going to push the uphills.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Iron Mountain

My soaked shirt is pasted, once again, across my torso. I have to flick the sweat off my eyebrows because when I use the shoulder of my shirt I just rub caked on salt into my eyes. Once again, my stomach protests as I try to pour enough fuel and fluid through it. Twice this summer I have been simmered into a soggy lump -- all will to carry on boiled out of me. This time, though, I know exactly what lies ahead. This is MY race. I'm not staring down fifty miles of uncharted territory in the middle of a hundred mile race. I'm on the climb past Rowland Falls, the scenic backdrop for the shirt I designed years ago for the race I started in Damascus, Virginia. This is the first time I have been able to compete on the course I laid out soon after moving here in 2005. I'm on the return trip, and I know I'll make it even if I have to stop eating.

Eventually I do stop eating. I don't take a bite of food after VA 600, 36 miles into the run. Jim Cobb is there and tells me I'm 8 minutes ahead of course record pace. I know it's a lot hotter than last year when the record was set, though, and the cushion feels small. When I reach FS 90, 43 miles into the run, Tammy Redman tells me I am 5 minutes ahead of course record pace. I fill up my handheld with Gatorade and get out of there.

The final 7 miles, like many other parts of the course, triggers multiple memories. I cross FS90 at the top of a hill climb that I used to run along with my buddy Nick. The climb portion alone took upwards of fifteen minutes, so that I equated my time up it with a quality finishing time for 5K. The looping descent took a longer path through Buzzard Den and so also took close to 15 minutes. We typically ran 3 loops, in addition to the warm-up and cool-down.

The next section of the course takes me past Buzzard Den on the Iron Mountain Trail. This marks my return route for a 90 minute loop I do from Widener Valley. I've seen many black bear on the spur the trail follows down the mountain. As I continue on the gradual descent toward the top of the Beech Grove trail, I'm reminded of the run I did with JJ Jessee in 12 inches of fresh snow. I tried out some new snow booties and wore blisters on my heels until I took off the booties and carried them along this same section.

The richest set of memories come at the top of Beech Grove, where I have been many times. The intersection helps to connect loops that the Iron Mountain Trail Runners use in training. One year when I was still directing IMTR I dashed from the finish along the course backwards re-marking the course all along the way because the markings had been removed clear to this intersection. I then turned around and ran back to the start, passing several runners, including Kevin Townsend.

This year Kevin waits at the finish line to greet me. Fortunately for all of us he stepped up to direct the event 3 years ago and together with his wife and volunteers has made the Iron Mountain Trail Run a truly special day for all involved. I finish in 7:16, about 10 minutes ahead of the course record set by Sean Pope last year. For the rest of the afternoon I enjoy just hanging around and watching as other runners create memories for themselves and those who help them. I am grateful to be able to reflect on my day, and on all the experiences that have coalesced for me around Iron Mountain.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

This is your brain... on heat training?

This is pretty embarassing, but too instructive to keep to myself.

I'm in Louisville for a few days. I spent most of my life here before moving to Virginia six years ago. I decided to stay on after bringing my kids to spend two weeks with their grandparents. Burning River 100 is a week from Saturday. Like any summer ultra, it will test participants' ability to manage heat stress. Louisville in summer is a heat sink. It lies low in the Ohio valley trapping all the radiating heat in thickly humid air. The city is currently under an extreme heat warning with a heat index around 110. I figured spending a few days here would help me prepare for Burning River.

Now I've been here since Saturday evening, and today's noontime excursion was my sixth run. On Monday I ran for 2 1/2 hours starting at noon. My run today couldn't have been simpler. I drove to Eva Bandman, a park along the river that I know well from the days when I launched rafts full of schoolkids from its mucky river access. I ran west toward downtown paralleling the river on the riverwalk, a paved recreational trail. The run was exposed, but flat. I went past downtown, checking out the new pedestrian access to the old railroad bridge, the new Yum! sports arena, and the approach to the locks. After 30 minutes I turned around to head back to the car.

I was carrying a water bottle that I had already finished. I refilled it at Waterfront Park downtown and continued running. Extra-hot air off the pavement washed over me in waves, making me want to avoid inhaling. My soaked shirt was pasted against my body and sweat flung from my fingertips with every swing of my arms. I wiped my finger across my brow every minute or so just to keep the burn-inducing liquid from pooling in my eyes. A few expletives started to leak from my mouth (as in, "this is f*ing hot.") And that's not the embarassing part.

Get this: I'm 61 minutes into the run and wondering why the h*ll I'm not back yet, and why I'm running along Beargrass Creek. (Note: Beargrass Creek is a tributary to the Ohio River, and so basically perpindicular to it. My route was supposed to be simple: out and back along the river) So I find a path back to the riverwalk and proceed with what should have been a couple hundred yards of running back to Eva Bandman (Second note: Eva Bandman, where I started, is at the confluence of Beargrass Creek and the Ohio river). I run for an endless couple of minutes and then notice the "future Louisville Botanical Gardens," a landmark I had ALREADY PASSED. I look up and see the downtown Louisville skyline back in front of me. Holy sh*t! I did a 180 by accident on an out-and-back with unmistakable linear geographic features for handrails in an area I'm intimately familiar with!

Let's just say when I turned around (again) I took the last couple minutes of running VERY easy. I immediately thought of "into thin air" when some of the descending climbers got lost only hundreds of yards from base camp. They had a lot better excuse than I had! I can only say, on my own behalf, that the pavement along Beargrass Creek was not there when I was using the park years ago (still no excuse for not noticing that I passed under River Road!!), and that I was starting to flirt with hyperthermia. Heat, apparently, is not good for brain function. If nothing else, at least I learned that. On the slim chance that northern Ohio achieves Louisville heat next Saturday, I'm going to go slow.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Old Dominion 100 -- Full

Me: You’re the man! Roll through here and you’ll make up ground over Sherman.

The Mountain:

Me: Just keep an eye out for the turn. Don’t miss the turn. That will really screw you up. Where is that turn? For that matter, why haven’t I seen any course markings?

The Mountain:

Me: Now I’m really pissed. I am going tear through this thing!

The Mountain:

Me: Where is this little climb over Sherman? I’m going to kill it!

The Mountain:

Me: The sweat is pouring off me. My legs are completely hammered. This mountain has no end.

The Mountain:


Most of us live completely suspended in self-delusional fabrications. We are the disembodied characters at the center of the stories that others know of us. That bugs me. My best reason for running a 100 mile race through the mountains is that the activity inherently resists the kinds of contortions most of us can insert into our narratives. 100s are bluff proof. At some point in every 100 that I’ve run I’ve had to let go of my preconceived notions of how it would go, and how I would handle it, and just accept the circumstance as presented to me. The 2011 Old Dominion 100 unfolded in just this way.

I was in reasonable, but not top, shape. I had gotten in some long days, and some good heat runs. I have a lot of ultra experience behind me. The OD 100 was the first of four 100s I scheduled for this year. My goal was to run in such a way as to win. I guessed it would take me 16 hours if the weather was cool and 17 hours if the weather was hot. I had never been on the course, but I had looked at the stats and asked others who were familiar. I was glad that other established ultra runners entered and that the race looked to be competitive. I exchanged messages with both Neal Gorman and Jon Allen before the race. Keith Knipling was running, as well as Jeremy Pade and Karsten Brown.

The first 50 miles went as well as I could have hoped. I spent many early miles with Jon, and then a bit later with Neal. Both runners make good company, and I look forward to running with them again. I was by myself in 2nd place when I passed the 50 mile mark in 7:29. I felt the time was appropriate considering the cool morning temperatures and the easy running terrain of the first half of the course.

Both those variables changed considerably in the afternoon. Temperatures rose steadily and the protracted technical trail sections took a big toll on me. I was losing time to Neal, who had been at or near the lead from early on. I wasn’t concerned, however, because I knew that the miles from 70-85 would likely determine the race. I was biding time, trying to keep up with my fueling and hydration, and trying to stay efficient.

After mud-hole aid station at mile 70 I began to pick it up again. I ran uphill on an open double track section and by the time it turned downhill I was really moving. This was just the momentum I was hoping to build, and at just the right time. I stayed very alert to course markings. It didn’t help. After mile 73 the course flagging stopped. I followed the double track until I came to a road at about mile 75. I knew I was close to Elizabeth furnace, and that I could access it from the road. I also knew that the course followed a trail into that aid station, not the road. If I wanted to find and follow the prescribed course I would have to backtrack. Fuming, I ran back up the long slope up the double track. I scanned both sides, looking for any sign or course marking. Nothing. Finally, I came to the last of the orange flagging. I felt relief and anger at the same time. I felt relieved that I hadn’t missed a marked turn. I felt angry that someone screwed up my race. I didn’t have time to worry over that much, though, because my biggest problem was still navigating to a place I had never been with no course markings.

I ran down the double track for the second time. I was 80% sure that the turn was an “abrupt left” that I recalled from the course directions. I came to the first left turn and scouted it out. It led to a small campsite and then narrowed into an unpromising track. I abandoned it. Continuing downhill, the only other reasonable possibility was a trail marked by a sign that said simply “hiking trail.” I went for it. It had no flagging, but it contoured around the mountain a bit and headed downhill. That fit with my recollection of the course map. Just before I came to the road on that trail, I ran into fresh flagging. It led to a crossing that in turn led to the Elizabeth Furnace Aid Station.

photo by Bobby Gill

I was seething mad. How did Neal get through that section? Why was no one out on the course replacing the flagging that so obviously was missing? I certainly wasn’t going to pass the aid station without ensuring that someone got out to the critical turn and marked it. I stormed in to the pavilion and hastily convened the pow wow. Once I felt I had been heard I tried to gather myself to get what I needed for the “charge” over Sherman’s. I knew I had lost my head, had lost at least 25 minutes, and had lost valuable energy at a critical time. I gathered my hydration pack, trekking poles, and stuffed a mouth full of noodle soup into my mouth, chomping as I stormed out of the aid station.

The energy carried me about a quarter of the way up that monumental climb. By the time I got to the jug of water at the bottom of the other side, I was little more than a deflated heap. I trotted painfully along the gravel road. When the next technical ascent started I had little to give to it. Karston passed me on that, and I didn’t have the energy to care. I didn’t see much reason to continue at all. I hadn’t come here to death march and just finish in 19 hours. The last half-mile of trail before the 87 mile aid station is slightly downhill and runnable. I started to trot again, and softened a bit on my conviction to quit.

I came into the aid station and announced what I had been considering. My family, who had been following and supporting me all along, was there. Robin gave me “the pep talk.” Gavin just said, “Don’t quit Daddy.”

I just said, “OK, I’m going.” I wasn’t happy about it, but the race was bigger than me. My family is bigger than me. The mountain is bigger than me. I picked up the pace to a survival shuffle that carried me the final 13 long miles into Woodstock.

photo by Bobby Gill

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Old Dominion -- short

Just a quick update while I have a minute...

3rd place, 17:40

7:30 thru 50 miles. Slowed as temperature rose. Started to roll at mile 70. No course markings into Elizabeth Furnace. Went off course for 25 minutes. Eventually guessed correctly about the trail. Suffered over Shermans. Felt like dropping at 85. Regrouped at 87 and ran into Woodstock.

More later!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Bring The Heat

When I run from home I can go left or right out of my drive onto a gravel road. After a half mile I am faced with the same choice again. Either way I’ll soon be running alongside cow pastures. I enjoy running occasionally on these country roads. Every few minutes a vehicle will come along, usually a pickup truck. Everyone I pass gives me a wave, whether I know them or not. During my runs the last two days, folks paused a moment when they saw me. Instead of all four fingers lifting from the steering wheel, for a moment just the index finger rose, pointing, before the other three fingers followed. One woman couldn’t help but stare as her car drifted straight toward me.

We finally had got some heat around here. After weeks of cold drizzly wet weather, the sun shone and the afternoon temperature reached (barely) into the eighties. So naturally I jumped on the chance to get out, in the late afternoon, when the temperature had peaked and the pavement had stored up maximum solar energy. My family watched as I donned long sleeves, nylon pants and vest, and a black cap. I took a water bottle in each hand and headed out, yelling “bring the heat!” I ran comfortably for about twenty minutes. Then I started the feel the sweat dripping down my back. I smiled, and my face started to glow with the kind of radiance that only comes this time of year.

This is the time when I am looking forward to races that last all day – on days that will be hot. I’ll be running the Old Dominion 100 on June 4th. It will be uncomfortable, and much of that discomfort will be due to the temperature. I’m not a glutton for punishment. I want to run as fast as possible, and that means staying comfortable as long as possible. And that means preparing for the heat. Heat management lies right at the core of our success as runners. Better than any other animal, we can cool ourselves by sweating. Still, our bodies can tolerate very little deviation from 98.6 degrees. Even the sense that we are heating up faster than we can cool off will cause us to feel more fatigued and slow down. And that happens before any change in core body temperature! The volume of water that has to be moved by osmosis through our skin during a summer 100 mile race is staggering. Creating the osmotic pressure to move that water requires sodium. Of course we have to drink water all along the way and consume ample sodium as well. Calibrating those variables with the effort and the heat and the need for fuel (!) is what makes running 100 miles possible. I’ve missed more than I’ve hit.

Fortunately, we get better with practice. That’s what the next few months are about – I’m going to do everything I can to get better at the 100 mile distance. My neighbors – even some members of my family – may look on, dumbfounded, at the bearded figure loping down the blazing highway dressed for winter. My mindset, if twisted, is simple: “bring the heat.”

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Casseday's First Day's Thru-Trekking the AT

Happily I found myself on the Appalachian Trail last Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday helping launch what I'm calling Adam's thru-trek. Our mileage was big compared to thru-hikers (34 miles/day), but our pace was reasonable (3 - 4 miles per hour). So let's call it a trek. Bradley Mongold accompanied us on days 1 and 2. I had to get a picture of his efforts to coordinate the photo shoot on Springer Mountain.

The weather cooperated perfectly and while we had minor misadventures along the way, we had no real impediments to putting in the miles required in a reasonable (at least by ultrarunner standards) fashion.

The AT feels like home to me, and my 3 days in the lush green vegetation of the southern Appalachians made me hanker for more. I'm already looking forwarding to getting out with Adam again when he gets closer to Damascus!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Race to Promise Land

The race course dripped with the full potency of spring in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Rain fell all night and into the 5:30 am start. The humble camp at the foot of Onion Mountain teemed with multi-colored tents, a couple campers, and many folks just sleeping in their cars. The runners, like the mountain creeks, were fully charged.

After hanging under TheAidStation tent with Jeremy Ramsey, Clark Zealand, and Jake Reed Friday afternoon, I took a run-out up the mountain a bit. If I could have convinced everyone else, I would have started the race right then. The cool temperature and steady drizzle were much better suited to racing than standing around. Jake had piqued my playful, if well honed, racing instinct by handily outpacing me up the substantial climbs of Terrapin Mountain four weeks before. I relished employing all of my hard-earned race savvy to test the value of experience over horsepower. It started with the pre-race banter under the tent. Jake brought up Clark’s course record. He was like a young Springer Spaniel, ready to jump at anything. “Oh I don’t know,” I said, “That’s a pretty high bar.”

And so it was. In 2002 Promise Land was new and part of the lucrative Montrail Cup. Zealand thumped a stacked field -- all of whom were on a mission. Scott Jurek finished six minutes back, Hal Koerner another minute behind him. As a side-note, all three ranged in age from twenty-six to twenty-eight years old. Jake is twenty-three.
When the run started the air was saturated with moisture and darkness. I was fiddling with my headlamp and cap for about a quarter mile. Considering it had worked flawlessly for years, I was mildly perturbed when my light simply turned off, and then flickered erratically as I tinkered with the switch. I had to take it off to manipulate it, and then, when it seemed to be working, get it back over my cap so that the beam wasn’t blocked by the bill. That occupied my attention while Jake sprung out in front with another Liberty runner.

Jonathan Basham said hello from beside me. This is a guy who knows how to race, especially here – on the Promise Land course. At age 24 he ran the 2002 race, finishing 21st. In 2006 he placed 2nd. In 2007, Basham was up against northern Virginian – and road racing speedster -- Pete Breckinridge. Pete was looking to go 3 for 3 in his first 3 ultras, having won the uber-popular JFK 50 miler. I was fortunate to have a ringside view from inside the race. I was sworn to jog all the down-hills so as not to aggravate a recent hamstring injury. Pete left us early, but I was with Basham at the highest point on the course, just before the descent to Sunset Fields. That’s where he started to roll, and he didn’t let up until he caught Breckinridge after the final ascent up Apple Orchard Falls. Basham won by about 30 seconds.

Ultra competitors spend most of these protracted events alone. When one finishes within minutes of another, it’s a close race. While ultra runners may seem more individualistic than other athletes, the ultra scene is as social as any sporting event. The Sunset Field aid station at Promise Land is a case in point. Volunteers and crews converge to help each other to help the runners manage food, fluids, and the motivation to complete a multi-hour event. My friend Adam Bolt had volunteered to meet me there, though he had never even seen an ultra. As he waited for my return trip through the aid station, Adam got sucked into the action. As he noted to me after the race, many of the runners in the middle of the pack cluster together, and so overwhelm the aid station when they pass through. He witnessed the twin tendencies of humans: to separate themselves, as with those who flew through the aid station toward the front, and to stick together, as with those who all came into the aid station at once. Both are social compulsions, though, as we all work to establish our place within a niche community.

Lucky for us, the desire to race and place well is a thrilling and welcome compulsion! When I finally got my light on straight, I looked up and started to move to the front. As the pitch steepened, so did my intensity. When I moved alongside Jake, he responded and quickly left his Liberty counterpart. The first few miles of Promise Land climb about 1400 feet. No sensible individual pacing strategy would involve blasting wide open up that climb. Of course I knew this. “We might as well go for the record,” Jake said to me. “What have we got to lose?” Ah, the joys of youth, I thought to myself. So blissfully unburdened by the full knowledge of the suffering we heap upon ourselves by proceeding like this. The only significant variable to me was when, and how badly, each of us would blow up. Jake had shown only four weeks before that he had a bigger engine. My best shot at him was to turn the race into a battle of attrition by making the initial intensity entirely unsustainable for both of us.

I hope someone kept the stats at the first and second aid stations. I’m going to be very surprised if anyone has ever been through those stations faster. I had suspected it would take longer, but by Sunset Field Jake had already dropped at least three minutes back. Now I just had to manage my own imminent implosion so that it was spread out across the middle third of the race. Basham was fit; Horton had assured me that on Friday night. He would no doubt be able to make up ground in the second half of the race. My work was to steadily take in fluids and a few calories, and keep a pace that would let me recover without giving up too much time. That’s the way I chalked up all those miles, particularly between the two visits to the Cornelius Creek aid station. Everything was carefully metered.

A two minute out-and-back is required to get to the aid station just before the final climb up Apple Orchard Falls. I was just leaving that section to start my climb as Basham turned to go into the aid station. In other races I have felt a familiar surge of energy when I first notice I am being chased down from behind – like you are in a nightmare trying to stay ahead of the bad guy. When I saw Basham, though, I just got excited, like I had felt in 2007 when he was chasing down Breckinridge. “It’s on!” I yelled to him, “You are ROLLIN’!” Instead of trying to drop the hammer (which more than likely would have only hurt me), I kept my effort steady, biding my time for what I figured would be a mad dash down the other side of the mountain. In 2007, when I couldn’t run the downhills hard, I made a point to work the climb up Apple Orchard Falls for all I was worth. From aid station to aid station I recall going under 40 minutes. My careful effort this time yielded a time of about 43 minutes for the same section. Still, no sign of Basham. He had to have lost his momentum somewhere early on that climb.

All that was left for me was to run down the mountain. The only dissension was in my lower extremities; my toes, feet, and lower calves took turns cramping – causing my feet to splay out oddly when airborne. I knew Basham would hold back nothing here. Likewise I just had to beat my feet into submission – jamming them into the ground with every stride. With a mile to go I was hammering at well under six min/mile pace. After I finished I only had about three minutes to try and keep my quad from cramping before Basham burst into camp. Jake had caught him at the top of the climb – so the race was on – it was a battle for second place. A minute and a half later Jake crossed the line for third. I told him I was impressed that he held it together and finished well. And I was. I know that is exactly the kind of effort required to emblaze into the neurons the deep knowledge of what is possible.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Eric Meets Bear

Here's a little something I'm working on with a musical friend. I don't pretend to be good, so if you choose to listen, be gentle. I imagine most of us have run with music in our heads. I remember clicking out many rhythms on my AT thru-hike. This tune, and some version of the lyrics, have accompanied me on many running adventures. Think particularly of times you are trying something new and get into some unexpected trouble!

Adam Bolt composed the music with me, and plays the guitar here. He is a student at E&H.

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Few Words about Promise Land

On the most recent episode of Justified, Boyd Crowder is being interrogated along with his former sister-in-law, Ava, when the ATF officer insinuates a certain, ahem, impropriety on her part. Boyd responds with this statement: “I know you have an investigation to run, sir, but if you disrespect Ava one more time I’m gonna come across this table.” Importantly for the character, we believe him.

True to the cliché, it wasn’t a threat, it was a promise. The distinction is important because threats can be idle, rattled off in haste, and left hanging. Promises, on the other hand, carry a personal guarantee. They speak to the integrity of the individual. When one makes a convincing promise, a potent obligation has been established. One is saying, in effect, this is more important to me than the many forces that might persuade me otherwise (like fighting with a federal agent and going to jail, as in Boyd’s case).

We are rooting for Boyd, even if he happens to be on the wrong side of the law. He is trying to do right. His capacity to make – and keep – a promise, is his best leverage against worldly temptation. And so it is for the rest of us. We inherit the proclivities of our parents; we experience the rewards and pitfalls of our environment; we are ultimately led by the nose to our pastures. Unless… We take stand. We say what we do, and we do what we say. What separates us from all our animal cohabitants on planet earth? We alone live in Promise Land!

Promise Land is where our best selves reside. And it happens, not coincidentally, to be where I plan to race this weekend. Promise Land is a 50+ kilometer course devised and directed by the inestimable David Horton. Most participants will gather on Friday night at a remote church camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains called, you guessed it, Promise Land. We’ll camp, splayed across the grassy field, within sight of the fading glow from a once crackling bonfire. In the wee hours of the morning car doors will start to open and close as runners begin anxious preparations – applying lubricant, adjusting clothes and shoes, and pinning on numbers. At 5:30, after a brief prayer, Horton will send us out to climb the mountain, cross it, and then come back again from the other side. Our final ascent is up Apple Orchard Falls. After scrabbling around loose rock and larger boulders, we’ll mount countless steps before crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway for the final time. From there the race is an oxygen-deprived, but mercifully downhill, blur. We’ll arrive back at camp, all guns blazing. To me, Promise Land is the perfect race.

Runners who set out to run any ultramarathon are stepping into Promise Land. We are setting an ambitious goal. We announce our intentions, we sign up for the race, and we do the training that will be required to achieve our goal. That speaks to character. As anyone who has dealt with a runner can likely attest, we are hard to dissuade from our efforts. How could it be any other way? Our promises lead us to Promise Land!

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Two-Hour Loop

I was wide awake at 9:30 last night. Generally that is the time my eyelids begin to close involuntarily. I was still buzzing from my evening workout: my third shot at "the two hour loop" this season. I drove out to Skulls Gap and parked at the trailhead for Old 84 and Jerry's Creek Trail. The loop follows some of the "backside" of the Iron Mountain 50-mile Trail Run course, except the route passes by the Rowland Falls trail and ascends Jerry's Creek Trail instead. My watch recorded the elevation change over time -- shown below.

The Iron Mountain 50-mile Trail Run (IMTR) crosses White Top Road at mile 16 and again at mile 36. The 20 intervening miles snake through Jefferson National Forest across some of the best racing and training terrain I have run. Forest service road 84, also called Hurricane Road, climbs precipitously heading east. After a mile "Old 84" splits off and rewards runners with prime double track -- carving playfully along a contour significantly lower than the Iron Mountain ridgeline. Roughly paralleling Hurricane Road is FS 643, running mostly along the northern base of the mountain. There are four good options for creating routes that connect these two dirt/gravel forest roads. Jerry's Creek trail is the western-most option, and that is how I closed the end of the two-hour loop. Rowland Falls is the next option, and the one used on the return trip for IMTR. The next is Barton Gap, which is the outbound crossover for both IMTR and The 2-hour loop. Finally, Hurricane road can be followed east down the mountain to Hurricane Campground, and SR 650.

This area is bound to catch on with the growing popularity of trail running. For the time being, however, I enjoyed running all-out on a picture perfect Spring evening with no one around. I managed to rouse a couple of grouses and at least one lumbering bear, but otherwise I focused completely on the task at hand: getting back under 2-hours for this mountainous trail loop. I don't have an accurate measure for the length of the course, but I estimate it at 17-18 miles with 2500 feet of climb. I began to run it as a tempo workout in 2006 when I was preparing for The Mountain Masochist 50+ mile Trail Run (MMTR). I struggled to lower my time below 2 hours, and decided that when I could, I'd be fit enough to break 7 hours on the MMTR course. Based on my performances that year, it was a good calculation.

This season began from scratch, following a long layoff with achilles issues and then hernia surgery. My buildup has been a bit unorthodox in that I haven't included a long base phase. Instead I started right away doing fartlek-style runs in which I'd insert 5 minute "pick-ups" into my otherwise very slow runs. I also started right in on long and low intensity hike/runs on technical terrain. From there I extended the pickups into tempo runs -- and those have culminated in my three efforts at the two-hour loop. The day before each of these efforts was a long (23 mile?) hike/run around the high country beginning and ending at Elk Garden. Though still remote, Grayson Highlands gets considerably more hikers than Iron Mountain and it has been fun to see thru-hikers en-route to Maine.

My running fortunes have turned for the better. I have so far avoided re-injury. I've kept my mind as clear of expectation and open to possibility as I can manage. I've remained centered on my Slam for the Summer and Fall, and meanwhile enjoyed my capacity to run fast again. I surprised myself with a 1:55 last night on the two-hour loop. After a 2:08 on my first attempt, followed by a tough 2:03 on my second, I figured it would be hard to manage anything much under 2:00. Not to say it was easy -- you know you're working hard when its no longer worth the effort to wipe the spit and snot off your blue-tinged face. Still, when I hit the watch and doubled-over at the top of Jerry's Creek Trail, the realization crept through my brain along with the oxygen: "I'm back!"

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

I'm just happy to be here

I don’t really follow basketball so you’ll have to help me understand how a tournament designed to pit the best teams against each other ends up with a final four with none of the top seeded teams. Don’t get me wrong, like a lot of people, I’m thrilled to see Kentucky back in it (I’m a native), and I couldn’t be happier that VCU displaced a top seed (I reside in Virginia). I can’t imagine anyone is actually happy about their bracket, but aren’t a lot of us merrily snickering about mid-major programs like Butler’s becoming a staple of the NCAA tournament? And beyond the mildly malevolent joy of watching a Goliath fall, don’t we also appreciate the humble shrug of athletes who respond to questions about their hopes going into the semi-finals with some version of “I’m just happy to be here.”

Just because a phrase is a cliché doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Athletes do well to cultivate states of mind conducive to top performance. The weight of high expectation can strain athletes’ abilities to stay positive and stay focused. Some dynasties may be so good that this fragility is never exposed. If talent is more evenly distributed, however, the mental side of the game may come into play. A couple of mistakes in a row can be shaken off by a player who wasn’t even expected to make it this far, for example, while the same two mistakes could cause another athlete to feel seriously frustrated. To the extent you can dwell in the present, savor any immediate successes, and avoid a frustrating comparison of what is happening to what you expected, don’t you have a mental advantage?

My races feel most free when I’ve recently come back from injury and sincerely feel that all I want is to run and to enjoy whatever the event may bring me. I cannot realistically expect to run fast, or to even feel good. I’m literally open to anything. The freedom of these races is a joy in itself, but as it happens, my performances suggest that this state of mind is also good for running fast.

Don’t take the fact that I was outpaced by young Jake Reed at last Saturday’s Terrapin 50K as contradicting my conclusion. I did run fast, he just ran faster! We both went under the course record. For the first many miles I kept Jake in sight. I would normally be more comfortable running in front, but I was quite content to hang back. I paid attention to things; tucked my Clif Bloks into my gloves so they would soften up; kept my strides as quick and quiet as possible. It made me smile that Jake seemed worried about me behind him – he kept turning his head to check my position. “Just run,” I said to him in my mind, “you are doing great!”

It didn’t bother me that Jake was able to pull away. I had no reason to expect otherwise. He is 23 years old, having recently graduated after successfully competing as a college varsity athlete. He won Promise Land 50K last year -- where we will meet again in a few short weeks. I will be tempted to presume that I am more fit than I thought before running at Terrapin. I will be tempted to expect another good performance. Paradoxically, I will only be able to run my best if I resist these temptations and keep as open a mind as possible. I should not presume anything except that I will show up and run as I am able. And if someone asks how I think I’ll do, I’ll reply: “I’m just happy to be here.”

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Running Tap

I recall my first long run: trotted out the front door and didn't turn around until I started to feel tired. From Crescent Hill in Louisville I had run to, then through, Cherokee Park. I came out above Big Rock onto Woodbourne Avenue and approached Bardstown Road. I had carried myself to the neighborhood of my aspirations. As nighttime approached I turned and ran back toward home.

My recollection of that midsummer's night run from my youth -- before I had competed in or even had a concept of a distance race -- still gives me pause. Running just bubbled up from somewhere. My brothers and I did typical kid stuff. We rode bikes, played ball in the street, mixed it up with the bullies. A foot race was won or lost within seconds, and status was achieved with bravado. That long run came from another place. I was expanding my boundaries.

We had just returned from a camping trip. Although our family had already started to disintegrate, we could all appreciate something about spending the weekend outside together. We all enjoyed outdoor activity, and though the details are lost to memory, I know we hiked, ran, and played to contented exhaustion. Back home I imagine my Dad quietly puttering around our station wagon, getting the tent and stove put back in the garage. I imagine my brothers plopping down in front of the TV.

The energy demands of the weekend had been high, so a restful evening would have been in order. For me, though, our strenuous activity had just opened the tap. The energy was flowing. I imagine that I got little more than a raised eyebrow when I said I was heading out.

That pattern -- high level exertion followed by exhilaration -- has marked many of my adventures since. The most exhausting work I ever did was leading groups of 11-year olds through the woods in Greenfield, New Hampshire, in 1991. They arrived Monday morning and stayed until Friday noon at which time most of the staff collapsed in their cabins. Every Friday afternoon I ran up Crotched Mountain. When I finished my thru hike of the AT in 1998, I decided to run the Mountain Masochist 50 mile race. It took a while, but that race ultimately launched my ultrarunning.

The energy I can put into running has waxed and waned with many variables – now revolving around my family and work. The story has many layers, but suffice to say that last December I put my running to rest. One reason I had for retiring is that I want my kids to shine without any distracting glare from my successes. They resist when I encourage them to run, and I thought maybe they were uncomfortable being compared with me.

Of course I’m running again. I couldn’t really help it. And the kids run too – when I’m not watching. My son, remarkably, let slip his feelings about my running recently. Once I decided to run Terrapin and Promise Land, I abruptly ramped up my training. With the strain of training again came the familiar risk of injury. Robin expressed her concern that I was taking too big a risk by increasing my mileage so quickly. I replied that by “going for it” at least I’d end up in one of two certain places – either fit or retired. She pleaded with me to be careful and preserve my running career. Gavin, ever alert to his mother’s fears, blurted out that he wanted me to run 100 mile races! I was stunned. “Well alright then,” was about all I could say. Glad we settled that.

Last Friday I ran 13 miles on the rolling country roads around Meadowview. On Saturday I parked at Elk Garden and ran a 5 hour circuit around the Mt. Rogers Recreation Area. On Sunday I ran an 18 mile loop on Iron Mountain, hard. In 2006 I established this loop as a benchmark of my fitness. I determined that when I was able to run under 2 hours for that loop I would be ready to run under 7 hours at Mountain Masochist. Turned out I was right. So in my condition Sunday (old, fat, and tired!) I was hoping to eke out a 2:15. I managed a 2:08. That felt good.

The significant exertions on Friday and Saturday could have tired me out. Thankfully, however, the pattern that emerged in my youth continues. Open up the tap pour yourself out – the water will replenish itself. I hope the well runs deep.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Eric's Slam

I stole a run this morning before another cold rain set in. Yesterday I went out at midday to the “Salt Trail,” a new rails-to-trail that starts in Glade Spring. It’s only a few miles from my house, so I head over there regularly. On a nice day I might see 2 or 3 other folks walking, jogging, or biking. With a steady rain and the temperature at 39 degrees I had the trail to myself. The trail runs to Saltville, which sits 400 feet lower than Glade Spring. So the course sets up as an out and back – gentle down on the way out and gentle up on the way back. I’d prefer to climb first while I’m fresh, but it’s not worth the extra driving. What I do instead is use the out section to get my legs moving. After the first 15 minutes I run 1 minute fast every 3 minutes. The gentle slope makes it feel easy. When I turn around at 30 minutes I’ve gotten 5 of these “striders” in and it’s time to go to work. On the way back I keep the tempo up continuously. The slight uphill makes me work, even though the turnover feels slow compared to my strides from the way out. I finish in 57 minutes, feeling little worse for wear.

So what? Here’s why yesterday’s run was remarkable:
• A couple of months ago I was laid up from hernia surgery and retired from running.
• The weather doesn’t get much worse for running – and I loved it.
• This past Saturday, Sunday, and Monday were the toughest running days I’ve had since I started back.
• During the run I set my goal for this year: to run, and win, four 100 mile races.

The 100 mile race has remained enigmatic to me – and I want to lay it open. Most years since I started running ultras I have entered one 100 mile race each summer. While psychologically manageable, this hasn’t worked as a strategy for optimal performance at that distance. This year I want to focus on 100s. Knowing that I have to manage training for 4 races instead of 1 will affect how I prepare. Each event is not only an end unto itself but also a trial and a stepping stone; a trial because I can still make adjustments; a stepping stone because I have to get through each one in order to reach my goal.

I’m not doing the “Grand Slam” of ultrarunning, or even the “Eastern Slam.” The growth of our sport has created an odd disparity between a few hyper-popular events and many under-utilized venues. So rather than rack my brain, adjust my schedule, and rob my wallet to get into the “biggies,” I’ll drive to events directed by good people and run through awesome countryside. I’ll just call it “Eric’s Slam.”

Eric’s Slam, 2011

June 4, Old Dominion
July 30, Burning River
October 8, Grindstone
November 5, Ozark Trail