Photo taken at the American River 50

Photo taken at the American River 50
Contact me at e.senseman@gmail.com

5/13/2014

What It's Like To Run The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon ("GC") has been described as many things by many people: magical, majestic, mystical, magnanimous (to get the "m's" out of the way first), scenic, breathtaking, beautiful, amazing, among others. Journeys through the canyon have also been painted poetic: as a pilgrimage, a spiritual journey, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and, in the words of Runner's World, "the single-most satisfying achievement in domestic trail running." 

It may be all of those things. I don't know because I don't think the experience is quantifiable and I don't think it can be captured in a word, a phrase, or a mantra. Running the GC is truly unlike any other experience. Descriptors and phrases are incapable of doing the experience justice, of properly describing its challenges, its rewards, or its hardships.

I emerged from the South Rim via the Bright Angel Trail after 45 miles and almost 12 hours of travel. Exhausted, entirely depleted, hungry, thirsty, ever-so-tired, I lay on the asphalt in the shade -- the first asphalt under me in over half a day besides the sundry sections of asphalt across the many bridges throughout the canyon. It was difficult to fully absorb what had just happened, the enormity of what I had just done, where I had just been, the challenges that I had just faced. Not long thereafter I began to think about how I could capture the experience, what I might write about the experience, how I might describe it to people. I could not figure that out then and, three days later, I still cannot figure it out now. A blogger, or journalist, or writer generally, should always be fearful of saying too much, of saying more than what is true. Feelings, emotions, and experiences are too often fabricated by a writer, or are misremembered and inaccurately described, or are not known truly but are posited as truth.

I think the problem with describing the experience of traveling across the GC -- from the South Rim to the North Rim and back to the South Rim -- in a single day by foot is that one cannot fully appreciate and comprehend all of the feelings, all of the emotions, and all the complexities of the experience. I have told people that it was the most challenging thing that I have ever done and I believe that is true. The feeling of running in the canyon -- at first the open expanse with its multitude of crevasses, then the towering walls with unending layers of colors; the cool breeze at the top and the sweltering heat at the floor; the dirt and the rocks and the views and the lizards and the sudden recognition that you are tiny and helpless and have only one way out -- and the emotions that it evokes -- the excitement, the fear, the worry, the sudden rush of so many feelings at once brought on by fatigue and joy and hunger and sleep depravation -- are very, very difficult to know truly. The feelings emerge and are felt for an instant before other feelings take their place but the internal compass cannot stay focused long for the views of the GC turn one's thoughts outwards and distract the inner happenings of the self; the emotions rush back but fatigue overwhelms them; the fatigue is transcended but thirst and hunger prevail among all the other present feelings; finally you are finished and you try to understand how it all happened and how you did it and how difficult it all was.

And then, with resistance and sadly, you must leave. You drive back to your home or you get on a plane and fly away and you are left with pictures and videos of the experience. And you try to remember how it felt, how it all happened, each turn in the trail, each scenic overlook, all the breathtaking scenery. But it is gone and it cannot be recreated and it cannot be properly explained because it was never fully understood: the emotions and feelings and experience as a whole could not possibly be absorbed when it happened and, at a distance now, none of it can ever be properly absorbed.

You must run the Grand Canyon yourself to understand what it is like to not understand how to explain what it felt like to run the Grand Canyon. No phrase, nor word, nor account of the experience can properly capture what it is like.

At daybreak soon after the start. 
The scenic S. Kaibab trail 
The Canyon, in all it's glory
Colors, colors, colors 
DeNucci and Paul soaking it in 
River runnin' 
The crew (Paul, Chris, Derek, Jason, Mario, and David) taking it in
The DeNuch 
Views from the N. Kaibab Trail 
Paul cruisin' along
Early on with Chris and Mario in tow
Nearly finished, taken from the Bright Angel Trail 
Derek...
...Mario...
...and Jason, crossin' bridges

4/30/2014

Learning to Feel (Leona Divide Race Report)

Result: 3rd, 7:17:23

Two weeks before the Leona Divide 50 I was in San Francisco running in the Headlands with a group from the San Francisco Running Company. And the next day it hurt to walk. That's because I was running up-and-down mountains for the first time in several months. That's also because I have been living in Florida and, although I had run staircases and had been on the treadmill, I hadn't done enough to prepare myself for real mountain terrain. So the experience in Marin had me concerned that I wasn't prepared for Leona. Then, the same day I was hobbling around, I learned that the Leona course was altered: instead of 7,800' of elevation gain, the altered course would boast around 9,000' feet of climbing. It's fair to say that I was even more worried about how I would hold up during the race.

So the week of the race I smartly reminded myself of an oft-forgotten sagacious phrase first uttered to me by my good friend Brown Dog: abandon expectations. And so I did. When I toed the start line this past Saturday, I was not wearing a watch and I had spent very little time looking at either the course profile or the entrant list. I was concerned neither with my finishing time nor my finishing place nor anything else besides enjoying the trails and the scenery for the morning: something I am unable to do in Central Florida.

Sunrise at the 8.6/26.6 mile aid station (all photos courtesy of Jacquelyn) 
Keeping warm at the start line
Almost underway at dawn

I ran the entire race based on feel and, though my time nor my place would suggest as much, it was the best 50-mile race I have ever run. Case-in-point: my split (I was told) to the 8.6 mile aid station was about 1:05, while my split (I was told) from the mile 39.6 aid station to the finish was 1:08. I ran in 4th place almost the entire race and moved into 3rd only in the last 10 miles. I hiked almost every significant climb, as I was entirely unable to run with any vigor on the inclines, but used the downhills and relatively flat sections to maintain a decent overall pace. And in the end I was reminded of something that I already knew: I need to run mountains to get better at running mountains -- go figure.

Still jacketed leaving the 8.6 mile aid 
Fueling up at 26.6 miles 
Descending into the 26.6 mile aid station
This race turned out to be the most enjoyable race I have ever run. During it I was filled with happiness and gratitude for all that the sport of ultra and trail running has brought me. I reflected on where running has taken me and the people that I have come to know through it. When the race was especially difficult, I recalled all the super early long runs I've had with Hank Southgate, all the indoor mile repeats I used to do with Fran Flanagan; when the scenery was breathtaking, I was reminded of long runs with Brian Condon in Flagstaff, fun runs all over Colorado with Cassie Scallon and Matt Flaherty, and scenic runs with Chris DeNucci in San Francisco.

But I also kept my mind on the race and coached myself through the course with brilliant advice from some of the many talented ultra folks I have had the pleasure of knowing: when I was tired and wanted to walk, I thought of Matt Flaherty's classic line: "the thing about running is, it's faster than walking...even if it's slow running"; I thought of Ian Sharman's sage words when I started picking up the pace to catch the runners within eyesight early in the race: don't start racing until the last third of the race; I recalled some of my conversations with Rob Krar while dealing with a particularly curvy and undulating part of the course late in the race (a section that was very, very similar in kind to a section of the Bootlegger 50k course): find a rhythm, get into it, and stay relaxed.

Final stretch to the finish 
Getting in-and-out quickly at mile 39.6
The support I received during and outside of the race was second-to-none and another reminder that the people in my life and the people in this sport are fantastic. RaceReady helped me get to the race and, as always, provided me with the most functional and comfortable gear made in the US. My crew, which was amazing, consisted of my girlfriend Jacky and her friend Peter Brennen. Peter was asked if he wanted to crew just 36 hours before the race, having never met me before. He drove north of LA the night before, slept in his car, and then crewed for me all day before running a 12-miler of his own. How awesome is that? Jacky came up with some hysterical costumes and the two of them dressed up to keep me (and themselves) entertained during the race. Again, pretty damn awesome.

Costuming it up!
Running in southern California during Leona reminded me of all the things that are good in my life and in the sport that I love. The race itself -- the competitiveness and the arbitrary distance -- meant very little, and the result even less so. It is the journey through the mountains and in the mind that give us all so much joy. It is a joy that cannot be experienced without the love and support of amazing people. I'm lucky enough to know such amazing people, and I hope to experience the joys of long distance running in the mountains again and again for as long as I can.

4/10/2014

Running Journalism

My blogging has been limited since the end of last year. The reason is that I stopped blogging about my weekly training (not that interesting), I haven't been racing as much (some needed down time), and, lastly, my writing focus has turned toward publications rather than merely blogging.

Here's an extended version of the story on how my recent articles at iRunFar.com came to fruition (if you want to read those articles, see the links below).

I was driving from Missouri to Colorado in December of last year and, as one must do to pass the time, I started thinking, specifically about things that I wanted to write about. The following thought occurred to me: some super fast times have been run recently by folks with a shorter distance running background and pedigree. That got me thinking further: I wonder what they are doing in training to maintain that shorter distance potential, and I wonder how having that tool-in-the-bag, so-to-speak, changes their intended race strategy and, further, how it influences their strategy and performance during the race.

On the basis of those thoughts, I called up Matt Flaherty, a good friend of mine and perennial front-runner at any distance (the guy has won a 5k, marathon, and 50k this year), to talk more about the ideas. He agreed that it would be interesting and also agreed to an interview for the article. Although Rob Krar had not yet been named Ultra Runner of the Year (UROY) and Zach Bitter had not yet been awarded with the Ultra Performance of the Year, I choose those two as well based on their impressive performances last year. On the women's side, there was a host of potential interviewees that had the qualifications I was looking for. Ultimately, I asked Meghan Arbogast, Caitlin Smith, and Emily Harrison to interview, as they had set impressive PRs and CRs at a variety of distances and on a variety of different terrain, and all had some crazy fast times at marathon and sub-marathon distances.

When I pitched the idea to Bryon Powell, and then Meghan Hicks, at iRunFar.com, they were intrigued and showed interest in seeing a draft of the article. In the end, this developed into a two-part series before becoming a three-part series (at the request of the editors, which excited me greatly) after Harrison nearly broke the North American record at the 50k distance last month.

In any case, since I haven't been blogging here, I thought I would post links to my recent articles, enjoy!

Part Ihttps://www.irunfar.com/2014/03/emily-harrison-usatf-50k-road-championshipscaumsett-50k-champion-interview.html

Part IIhttps://www.irunfar.com/2014/03/speed-can-matter-in-ultras-part-two.html

Part III: https://www.irunfar.com/2014/04/speed-can-matter-in-ultras-part-three.html

Bonus Trackhttps://www.irunfar.com/2014/03/katalin-nagy-new-200k-american-record-holder-interview.html


3/18/2014

March Marathoning (And Training)


I ran 2 marathons in the first fifteen days of March. My results were mixed, as I finished 9th in 2:52:33 at The Woodlands Marathon on the first of the month and 3rd in 2:39:52 at the Rock N Roll USA Marathon on the fifteenth. 

Hamming it up in DC 
The closing stretch to a sub-2:40 
Collecting awards
But the benefits were almost entirely positive: both marathons were, as far as road marathons are concerned, hilly and I ran around six-minute per mile pace for a little more than 40 miles total. My half marathon splits in the respective races were as follows:


1st Woodlands: 1:19:18
2nd Woodlands: 1:33:15
1st Rock N Roll: 1:19:14
2nd Rock N Roll: 1:20:38

The second half of The Woodlands resulted largely due to the conditions, which included around 70 degree temperatures and extremely high humidity. If I had been more thoughtful, I would have backed off during the first half and spared myself a painful, and slow, second half. Nevertheless, I proved to myself that, even if I don’t think I can run another step, I am able to maintain seven minute per mile pace. It's good to be reminded that steady running can be maintained, rather than walking or stopping, despite substantial suffering. Between the two marathons I ran about 120 miles: mostly easy miles (6:40 – 7:10 per mile pace) or recovery miles (7:40+ per mile pace) along with a single workout on March 11th, the Tuesday before the Rock N Roll Marathon. That workout consisted of 5 x 1,000m repeats on the track with an easy 200m jog between repeats. My splits were thus:

1st 1,000m: 3:18
2nd 1,000m: 3:16
3rd 1,000m: 3:17
4th 1,000m: 3:23
5th 1,000m: 3:20

So in the first half of March I totaled about 170 miles and ran three workouts (the marathons and the 1k repeats). It is no secret that road marathons can be used as training runs in preparation for ultra marathons: Ian Sharman has done it for years; Sage Canaday recently ran Carslbad ahead of his ultra schedule; Matt Flaherty is throwing in three this spring along with a busy ultra schedule. The distance requires a combination of speed and strength and, when run during a training block on not-so-fresh legs, can simulate the middle and later stages of an ultra marathon. But neither road marathons nor high mileage on the roads can adequately prepare a runner for ultra marathon distance on the trail. Strength training exercises are needed for any mountain-ultra-trail runner, especially those that do not have suitable trails and terrain nearby. So I’ve been adding functional strength exercises to my routine. Some of these exercises are best performed prior to a run since, in addition to strength building, they get the muscles warmed up for activity. Pre-run exercises have included:

2 x 12 reps back lunges
2 x 12 reps side lunges
2 x 10 reps side leg extension (with resistance bands)
2 x 10 reps forward leg extension (with resistance bands)
2 x 10 reps backward leg extension (with resistance bands)

Exercises outside of running have included: box jumps, runner touches (begin by standing on one leg with the other leg bent at 90 degrees, slowly extend the bent leg behind, lean forward to touch the ground, keeping the standing leg straight, and then raise up and return to the starting point), and a variety of exercises used to strengthen the lower back and stomach muscles (think here of leg raises, flutter kicks, crunches, hip lifts, etcetera).

With a bit less than six weeks until my spring goal race – the Leona Divide 50 – I will also need to include copious amounts of hill work, which is the biggest problem, as I haven’t a single hill of any consequence nearby. But the training to this end actually becomes quite simple: lots of time on the treadmill. Using varying grades, I’ll run interval workouts such as 5 x 5 minutes uphill with 2 minutes flat for rest; 4 x 10 minutes uphill with 2 minutes flat for rest; 3 x 20 minutes uphill with 2 minutes flat for rest; 2 x 30 minutes uphill with 2 minutes flat for rest. These workouts are designed with some specificity, since none of the climbs at Leona should take longer than 30 minutes.

If you’re preparing for terrain that you are unable to train on, I hope some of the above will help you out! I’ll find out April 26th if the above proved helpful for me. 

2/10/2014

Movin', Groovin', and Changes In The Wind

Manasota Track Club 50k Results: 3:35:55, 1st, CR

I had a particular goal in mind heading into my first ultra run of 2014 this past Saturday: run sub-seven minute miles for 31 miles on tired legs. So the first thing I had to do was get my legs tired. I did that successfully on Thursday before the race in running a marathon specific workout that I took directly from Matt Flaherty (who in turn took directly from Canova) (an aside: if you are looking for a running coach, Canova would be a great choice; but given that he is likely unavailable to coach just anyone, I'd recommend Flaherty as an excellent alternative -- check out his blog for coaching info). The workout was this:

6 mile warm up
6-8 miles of alternative "on" and "off" 800m segments
--> 800m "on" at ~15 seconds below marathon pace
--> 800m "off" at ~15 seconds above marathon pace
4 mile cool down
Total: 16-18 miles

However, due to some stomach distress in the middle of the workout, I amended the workout slightly as follows:

6 mile warm up (~7:00min/mile pace)
3.5 miles of alternating 800m (~5:35min/mile pace)
2 miles easy (~6:55min/mile pace)
3.5 miles of alternating 800m (~5:38min/mile pace)
1x 400m (~4:48min/mile pace)
4 miles cool down
Total: 19+ miles

My splits were as follows:

1st 3.5 miles (800m segments):         2:42, 3:00, 2:39, 2:57, 2:40, 2:58, 2:40
2nd 3.5 miles (800m segments):        2:58, 2:40, 3:00, 2:38, 3:00, 2:38, 3:02 
                                            400m:                                     1:12

The purpose of this run is to first get the muscle fibers somewhat worked with a longer warm up. The interval portion of the workout, which I did on the track, is run at paces that mirror marathon race pace. As I'm shooting for 5:45 - 5:50 per mile, the goal was to run the 800m "on" segments at about 5:30min/mile pace (2:45 800m) and the 800m "off" segments at about 6:00min/mile pace (3:00 800m). The goal here, as far as I understand the theory behind it, is to become more comfortable and efficient at marathon race pace, and to tax the aerobic and anaerobic systems. 

The short story here is that my legs were already worn down when I toed the start line on Saturday. Nevertheless, given the characteristics of the course -- flat (about 200 feet of ascent TOTAL), non-technical trails -- I thought I would be able to manage sub-seven minute miles, which I did successfully despite 1 pit stop (30 seconds), a missed turn and some time off course (2 minutes) and a few aid station stops for water refill (4 stops, about 1 minute total). This was all at the end of a 90 mile week as well. So I was very pleased with how the race went.

Gear/nutrition used during the race:

100oz water
10 oz coke
5x Hammer Gel

Finally, a change in my racing schedule, for sure this spring and likely this fall. It is now no surprise that the IAU 100k World Championships have been cancelled. I have been aware of this for over a week now and so have had time to consider how this impacts my racing. I am not so quixotic as to believe that I have, or had, a good chance of making the USA 100k Team, but I did hope to at least run a time that would qualify me for consideration (7hrs:20 for the 100k distance) at Mad City in April. Ten loops, on the road, on a 10km circuit that I have run too many times in my life already, seemed very unappealing to begin with. But now that Worlds are cancelled and, given the situation last year, are seemingly unlikely to be rescheduled, I have even less incentive to run Mad City.

So, although it is no longer a part of the Montrail Ultra Cup, and so won't be as competitive as previous years, I intend to run the Leona Divide 50 in late April. I have very fond affections for CA, the beautiful scenery therein, and the extant running/trail scene generally, and I hope to eventually run most all of the ultras that California has to offer. This year, Leona appears to fit my schedule best since (a) it's around the same time as my previous goal race, (b) it's not too technical of a course, so I won't be terribly handicapped by my lack of trail running in training, and (c) the course this year has just 7,000' of climbing and so is rather tame for a CA ultra, which is good given the training grounds that I have available. In the fall, I'm considering running the Fall 50, host of the USATF 50 Mile Road Championships, in conjunction with TNFEC-Georgia. On the other hand, I might forgo TNFEC in favor of the Fall 50. In any case, those are some thoughts as of now. 

Finally, after scheduling conflict resolution, the date for a R2R2R effort at the Grand Canyon is finally set on May 10th. Looking forward to navigating the Canyon with a swell group of fellas!

That's it for me, keep on keepin' on, snow, rain, or shine.