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Lessons learned (Bootlegger 50k race report)

...or "Why ultrarunners need adequate rest," or "Confessions of an over trainer," or "When serial racing and training goes bad," or "Why it's important to listen to your body," or...

Result: DNF

the sun rising before the 7am start in boulder city, nv
scenic views along the bootlegger 50k course
To begin, many thanks to Ian Torrence and Josh Brimhall for doing an outstanding job putting on a first-class race. Ian and Josh are both perennial ultrarunning badasses and incredibly nice guys as well. It'd be worth running in any events that they put on in the future. Hats off, fellas. 

My race was over after the first climb of the course, just 5km into the race. Justin Ricks forged ahead to chase down the group of eight about a minute ahead of us. I couldn’t move any faster, my legs felt heavy, my body felt depleted. I had no race in me. I mostly jogged the remainder of the first loop (~15.5 miles) and called it a day after two hours of running.

The outcome at the Bootlegger 50k was a tough pill to swallow and tough pills are difficult to digest; in my case, it's taken nearly three weeks. The longer period of reflection allowed me to come away with some valuable lessons that I will try to properly articulate here. Of course, every ultrarunner is different, and so has differing physiological builds, psychological makeups, etc. As a result, it is hard to draw any universal lessons about how to approach training and racing. Still, I think I've drawn some lessons following Bootlegger that many people could benefit from, if they haven't figured these things out themselves already. 

Before reading here, it would be worth reading the three part series written by Joe Uhan for iRunFar on overtraining syndrome. The first part distinguishes between different types of overtraining syndromes and gives an overview of overtraining symptoms; the second part gives tips on treatment and prevention; and in part three overtraining is discussed with respect to trail ultrarunning in particular.

Here are five lessons learned:

1. Ultrarunners require adequate recovery time
I learned this lesson about six months too late. I had the pleasure of running with ever-talented Flagstaff local Rob Krar in the days leading up to Bootlegger when he asked me (something like), “you've been racing a lot, have you had much recovery this year?” It dawned on me then that I had had very little, save for a little over a week in the spring when I was injured, and that got me reflecting on my lackluster performances this fall: I was run down. I had been racing and training extensively this year without any proper recovery. This proved an ominous premonition: my race day performance should have been unsurprising, given my long, continuous season.

The point here is that several periods of rest should be incorporated into most ultrarunners seasons, provided that an ultrarunner wants to race at a high level numerous times in a year (on the other hand, if the goal is simply to finish races, regardless of finishing time, then significant recovery periods are less important). A full year of racing and training is generally too much on the body when recovery time is absent. Time off from running is extremely beneficial following long, hard efforts (like an ultra) as well as at the end of a season (as an anecdote: Krar said that he took about a month off following Western States in June; he then went on to win the UROC 100km in September. That rest sure seems like it was beneficial!) Full weeks and even months off of running help to restore the body by giving it time to replenish depleted muscles, over used joints, and strained tendons and ligaments. My last two seasons have lacked these weeks off and my body seems to be paying the price now.

2. Serial racing is not for everyone
I was toeing the start line of a race at the marathon distance or longer for the 11th time of the year at Bootlegger. While one race a month is not exactly serial racing, it’s a hell of a lot of long races. Again, given that I try to race hard and achieve a particular time at each race, this takes a rather serious toll on the body. I began to see some decline in race performance at TNF-DC in June (though I think my shortcomings in this race were due to other factors like extreme heat), though the decline was much more noticeable and prevalent come September at TNF-Wisconsin.

This means that, for me, something like 5 – 8 races a year at the marathon distance or longer is best for now. This number could very well increase as my aerobic base continues to grow over the years and as I grow more accustom to racing ultras.

3. Serial training is not for everyone
You might think that if you aren’t racing much, you don’t need to take time off, since training is not as strenuous as a race and so the body can hold up throughout training periods.

Such a thought seems generally mistaken. While singular hard efforts, like races, will have a greater immediate impact on a runner than a single training effort, challenging training efforts agglomerate and so too do their effects. As such, long training periods, if done without proper recovery, can leave an ultrarunner over extended and fatigued. This means that, even in the midst of a training block, time off from running can be beneficial. During a training block, a few days off can be very beneficial; after a serious training cycle, longer breaks may also be needed. This is all dependent on how long the training block is and how strenuous it proves.

4. A possible answer when a race goes bad
If your performances begin to flatten out or plateau, you might be either over trained or over raced. This possibility should be considered if you fail to see improvements in your race performance, especially if this failure occurs after a strong training cycle.

In my case, after an excellent second half of the summer that included lots of miles, altitude, and elevation change, I raced poorly. I initially theorized that my poor performance was due to other factors such as a lack of specificity in training, being away from racing for several months, etc. Looking back, it seems clear that I was over trained and under rested. Unfortunately we are not invincible and, unlike duralast batteries, we are not built to last (or built to withstand anything). The result is that we can be over trained or over raced. This should be kept in mind when analyzing a race performance.

5. Don’t travel too much
That is, if you want to race to your full potential, don’t travel too much. What did I do for seven consecutive weekends leading up to the Bootlegger 50k? I traveled, by car or by plane, to races or for leisure. From the last weekend in September until the second weekend in November, at which time I ran Bootlegger, I was on the go. The continuous travel was tiresome and it sucked some energy out of me. (Subsequently, it left me very, very sick. I’m presently overcoming an eight-day cold.)

There are few things I enjoy more than traveling to see wonderful people and beautiful places, but when high level racing is on the horizon, it’s probably best to keep the travel to a minimum. 

enjoying las vegas with cousin drew after the race (thanks to him and his girlfriend, laura, for helping me out during the week and weekend.)
Here's to implementing these lessons in 2014!


Setting, Achieving Goals (Race Report: Surf the Murph 50km)

Result: 1st, 4:04:51, course record

The variables that can impact race performance are vast; they are external, i.e. the weather, the trail conditions, etc., and they are internal, i.e. fitness level, nutrition and hydration before and during the race, etc. The conscientious runner, cognizant of this, should thus be conservative in setting goals. This typically means that, prior to the race, several goals are set: one almost certainly achievable, i.e. don't start the race too fast; one fairly reasonable, i.e. finish the race in xx:xx time; one a reach, i.e. win the race or set a course record.

My goals on Saturday were all of the latter sort, that is, they were all a reach, and they had to be, since I'm trying to prepare myself to hang with, errrr, stick close to, some of the best ultrarunners in the country at the Bootlegger 50km and JFK 50 mile. My goals were these: (1) go out faster than course record pace; (2) finish first; (3) break the course record, set last year by Chris DeNucci in a fairly stout, given the long course (see below), 4:08. I was able to achieve each of these goals, in large part, because the variables were working in my favor on Saturday: temperatures were cool, the course wound largely through the woods and so was protected from the wind and sun, the trails were firm and not too sloppy, my fitness is good, recent workouts have been favorable, my nutrition and hydration were optimal (about 200cal/hour and 20oz/hour).

So I took the lead in the first mile and never looked back, grinding out the steep, short ascents (amounting to 4,000' of climbing on the day), hammering down the descents, and cruising on the flatland. The only snag in my racing plan resulted when two runners inadvertently went off course and found themselves ahead of me after the first lap (each lap being 16.96 miles -- the 50km course, then, is actually just shy of 34 miles). During the second of the two laps, I took time to talk with workers at each aid station to ensure that I had an irrefutable case: I had taken the lead early, as they could verify, and had not been passed, as I could verify, so the other runners must have cut the course. As a consequence I spent several extra minutes at the aid stations during the second loop, and I temporarily lost focus, and hence time, on a portion of the second loop. Nevertheless, things went as well as I had hoped, and my splits came in like this (roughly):

10 miles:         1:10
        (lap 1, 16.96):         1:58 (high)
20 miles:         2:22
26.2 miles:      3:09
30 miles:         3:37
31 miles:         3:44
33.92 miles:    4:04
        (lap 2, 16.96):         2:05 (high)

I was especially happy with my splits, even though the second loop was about seven minutes slower, because I entered the race on tired legs, having run 8 x mile repeats on Tuesday and never fully recovering. Pushing during the second half, especially during the second half of the second loop, was a great challenge but I seemed able to stay on the throttle despite the incessant discomfort.

It was a great pleasure to catch up with some of the Minnesota ultra folks, like John Storkamp, John Horns, Eric Tadt, and Eric Nordgren before and after the race. And much credit to Michael Borst in breaking my course record at the 50 mile distance by ten minutes. I was much pleased to see that since after the race last year, I commented that the course could very well be run at least ten minutes faster. I'd be interested to hear what Michael thinks, but seeing as I went through two laps in 4:04, and with the inclusion of a few competitive guys up front to push the pace, I would think that the course record could well be 6:30:00 in the future.

Thanks, in closing, to all the wonderful volunteers, to the race directors, especially Cindy Martisko, and to the good folks at RaceReady.

The 50km start
Photo: Bryan Cochran Photography
Post-race with RD Cindy Martisko


Porcupine Mtn Trail Marathon Race Report (and September Revisited)

Result: 2nd, 3:27:43

If you want to run a race in the upper midwest, look no further than those put on by Great Lakes Endurance. Great Lakes Endurance puts on races, from the 5km to the marathon, throughout the calendar year in both Wisconsin and Michigan.  Backed by Patagonia, Petzel, Atlas, Hammer Nutrition, the US Forest Service, and RaceReady, Race Director (RD) Jeff Crumbaugh showcases some of the finest trail running that the upper midwest has to offer. (alternatively, the Upper Midwest Trail Runners host a plethora of first-rate events in the region.)

The Porcupine Mtn Trail Marathon, one of the many races offered by Great Lakes Endurance, fit my schedule best, and so I ventured up to the Michigan upper peninsula for some camping and trail running. And was it ever a swell time. Despite a downpour Friday night, I arrived at the start of the race Saturday morning to cheerful participants and a hearty field of marathoners ready to tackle the 3,100' feet of ascent up and around (twice) the Porcupine Mountains. With mile markers throughout the course, seven aid stations flush with Hammer Nutrition Products, and formidable competition, the inaugural race proved to be a great success. Though the course seemed to be a touch short (as per my Garmin), and the trails proved a sloppy, muddy, wet mess from the overnight rain, the pace of the front finishers remained stout. I ran the earliest miles with Craig Hertz, a resident of Duluth whom I met at the Voyaguer 50 back in 2011, and then slopped through extremely muddied cross country ski trails and technical single track with eventual winner, Andy Warren, during the majority of the first loop (about 14 miles), before darting into the woods to relieve myself around mile 13. My stomach problems never did subside and, rather than being able to push during the second half, I could only manage to maintain a decent pace in holding off eventual third and fourth place finishers to the finish (+:40 on 3rd, +2:30 on 4th, the 4th place finisher being Craig Hertz).

Finishing the race was a quiet relief, as I know that I shouldn't have to endure any trails of this technicality and muddiness in any of my remaining races this fall. On the other hand, I was happy to have trekked through these splendid northern Michigan trails for the first time: the views, despite the overcast skies, were very scenic, and the difficult nature of the course was an excellent strength builder.  I was also happy that, upon finishing, my legs were in fine shape (given the effort), and this allowed me to run another 20+ in Lapham Peak State Park on Sunday with good friends Brian Condon and Cassie Scallon. As a result, my weekend totaled 46+ miles of beautiful trails (and 86+ miles for the first six days of October)!

September, contrary to the formidable training I managed during the first week of October, was a lackluster month: I ran very few miles (~200 miles) and I had an unimpressive 50 mile race. The only perceived upshot from this is that I was able to rest after an enduring July and August. During October I'll be back to higher mileage and some racing (the first race of the month having been completed), and plenty of workouts, in preparation for an important month of November, where I'll run two national class races in just two weeks. Next blogpost, I plan to discuss the art of tapering (link HERE when available).

Photos from the past week(end):

Beautiful foliage near the Wisconsin/Michigan border.
Atop the biggest climb on the course, the evening before the marathon.
Post-race muddiness.
Scenic Michigan shoreline along Lake Superior.
Pre-20 miles with Brian Condon and Cassie Scallon.
Refilling at the spring.
Enjoying the Ice Age Trail.
Taking in the views on Lapham Peak. 
Catching some miles with Cassie and Matt Flaherty earlier in the week. 
Gettin' our Sense Mantra on. 
Doing cider things with a good friend.


Race Report: TNFEC-Wisconsin 50 Mile

Result: 4th, 6:25:26

It took five years before I ran a marathon well. My 2:36:18 back in March was a good marathon, not necessarily because of the time, but because (a) I paced well, starting slower and ending faster, negative splitting along the way, and (b) my finish time was, I think, indicative of my fitness at the time and I achieved a time close to my potential (perhaps a finish time closer to or below 2:35:00 would have been most optimal in terms of my fitness).

So perhaps I should not be surprised that I have not yet run a 50 mile race well, given that I have only been running them for two years.

On Saturday in Kettle Moraine State Park at the TNFEC-Wisconsin 50 mile, I was not able to do many things well. My primary goal going into the race was to stay relaxed and keep the pace easy during the opening ten or so miles: that I accomplished. As for the rest, I was hapless: I was unable to slowly bring down the pace in the flat prairie sections from miles 12 - 20; I was unable to maintain low- to mid-seven minute per mile pace on the seven mile out-and-back of undulating terrain from miles 21 - 28; I was unable to maintain that moderate pace on the same seven mile stretch of rolling miles from 28 - 35; I was unable to race the last fifteen miles of the race, since I was almost entirely out of contact with the top three runners.

When I finished late Saturday morning and began reflecting on the day, a single question remained steadfast as other thoughts floated in and out: why so impotent?

The answer was easily discerned. True, I had run a vast number of miles over the summer, especially in the months of July and August. True, many of those miles were at high elevations, up steep and lengthy mountainsides, down technical and rocky terrain. True, I actually had a proper taper for this race, something I oppose categorically! Upon further reflection, these facts explain why I wasn't able to perform as I had hoped on Saturday.

The bottom line is that I lacked any semblance of specificity in training for this race. I was, of course, aware of that fact, but I thought that the benefits that I was acquiring otherwise would make up for the fact that I didn't train on terrain comparable to the rolling hills of Kettle Moraine over the summer. Running out West from mid-July to late August, I missed out on of the following:

(1) Fast miles. Being at altitude, the average pace per mile was rarely under eight minutes for a run of any length.
(2) Rolling terrain. I ran mountains, and I ran lots of them. But this meant that I would go up climbs of 1,000', 2,000', 3,000', 4,000', and even close to 5,000', which would cover anywhere from one to seven miles. Then, I would descent those same miles and lose the same number of feet in elevation. The ascents and descents were almost always lengthy and constant and never undulating.

The lack of specificity was obvious early, on the first hilly loop of the course. By mile four, I was already feeling the effects of the rolling terrain in my legs, and my perceived effort was much greater than my actual effort: low- to mid- seven minute miles on rolling terrain felt physically taxing, precisely because I had run very few miles of that kind during the summer. My impotence on such terrain should have come as no surprise [An aside: these issues didn't slow down Brian Condon, who was out West for some time this summer, and who cruised to a second place, 5:55:xx finish. Dude can flat out run! Serious props.]

But I have to remember what I did gain over the last three or so months: an improved aerobic base, serious strength, and an increased number of red blood cells coursing through me. Those benefits were palpable on Saturday: I felt very strong on the uphills; I essentially ran the whole course, with the exception of a few steep pitches and some short segments in and out of aid stations; my breathing was never taxed; though I felt tired later in the race, I still felt strong and I was mentally much more focused than I have been in past races. The problem was that I was used to running uphills very slowly, and so any attempt I made to increase the pace up the short ascents was futile: my perception was that I was working much harder than I was, the pace seemed much faster than it was, my body having grown too accustomed to moving more slowly in the thin air. The good news, no doubt, is that I am in an excellent position to train hard for the remainder of my fall races. With a good month-plus of moderate mileage and lots of speed/strength work, faster miles won't seem so fast, and my endurance will improve further. That should be a recipe for success in some more high profile races in November.

It's comforting to remember, too, that I'm still quite young for this sport, which is probably not advantageous, as I've pointed out elsewhere. More miles and maturation over the coming years will alone prove beneficial.

As always, The North Face put on a splendid event: well stocked aid stations, organized on course instruction, cheerful spectators, helpful volunteers. Many thanks to all! Thanks especially to a good friend of mine for dropping his obligations to assist me during the race. A good crew always goes a long way in making a race more enjoyable, and that was certainly the case this weekend.

Here are some of my splits from the race, as I remember them [splits given at the time I exited the aid stations]:

6.9 Aid:       :48
11.5 Aid:    1:20
16.8 Aid:    1:59
21.3 Aid:    2:34
28.4 Aid:    3:29
35.5 Aid:    4:29
40.3 Aid:    5:09
Finish:        6:25

Also, some good pictures from the race, especially of my finish line shenanigans, here.

Finally, gear & nutrition used during the race:
--Salomon Sense Mantras
--RaceReady Active Men's V-Notch Running Shorts (2311 LD)
--RaceReady Men's Cool T - Tech Running shirt
--RaceReady Compression Socks
--RaceReady Runner Cap
--5 x Honey Stinger Waffles
--3 x Cliff Shots
--2 x Starbucks Doubleshot
--Lots of water, some pepsi


Colorado Cruisin'

After a splendid three weeks in Flagstaff and several hundred miles of running (many of those with Brian Condon), Condon and I traveled northeast into Colorado for some more fun. I grabbed Matt Flaherty from the airport the night I arrived, and the next day, August 6th, Cassie Scallon, Matt, Brian, and I got started on what was to be a fun-filled two weeks (most of the runs below were run with these three). After the first two weeks in Colorado, I spent a week running solo miles before heading back to the Midwest.

Most every run that I did in Colorado would be worthy of a single write-up and blog post but, due to time constraints and the fact that I don't remember all the fine details (it's now almost mid-September as I'm writing this), I've only given brief details of the runs. The biggest highlights in August, unequivocally, were running the Grand Canyon, and circumnavigating the Maroon Bells on the Aspen Four Pass Loop. But, as I did in my last lengthy post on training, I'll simply post some breathtaking pictures instead of attempting to recreate each journey in words. Enjoy:

First four days of August: 52 miles, at least 6,400' ascent:

09/01 (Thurs): AM 14 miles, 1,800' ascent, Canyon Vista Trailhead to Elden Lookout Rd.
09/02 (Fri): PM 6 miles, :45, Flagstaff Urban Trail System.
09/03 (Sat): AM 20 miles, 4,600' ascent, Grand Canyon, AZ. All the pictures of this run can be found in my post about running the grand canyon.
09/04 (Sun): AM 12 miles, 1hr:24, track, roads, and bike paths, Flagstaff, AZ

1st full week of August: 101 miles, ~21,300' ascent:

09/05 (Mon): off
09/06 (Tues): AM 18 miles, 4,000' ascent, 4hrs, Mt. Audubon, CO
Struttin' their stuff.

Condo moving along.
A little backwards running.
Ominous clouds approaching as we near the top.
Cassie enjoying the ascent.

The four of us at the top.
A quick shot along the creek.
Relaxin' just before the finish.
 09/07 (Wed): AM 10 miles, 800' ascent, 1hr:11, Boulder Reservoir; PM 6+, 600' ascent, foothills, Boulder, CO.
 09/08 (Thurs): AM 11+ miles, 4,000', Green Mountain, Bear Peak; PM 9 miles, 2,200' ascent, Mag.

Summit of Green.

About halfway up.

And that's a snake...

...a good looking one too.

More fun at the top of Green.

Running towards Bear Peak.

More fun in the woods.

Atop Bear Peak.

A second, better shot.
09/09 (Fri): AM 7 miles, 1,900' ascent, Mt. Sanitas, Trent Briney showed us around.
09/10 (Sat): AM 12 miles, out-and-back with easy miles along the Creek Path and into Breckenridge.
09/11 (Sun): AM/PM 27 miles, ~7,800' ascent, 7hrs:08, Maroon Bells, Aspen Four Pass Loop. The views here were exceptional!
The Maroon Bells.

A view from the start.

Ready to go.

A final shot before starting.

Some view.

At the top of the 1st pass.

At the top of the 2nd pass.

The descents were always welcoming.

Beautiful single track.

Possibly the best photo of the trip.

The lake looked tempting.

At the top of the 3rd pass?

A quick three pictures of Kerrie and Matt.

Hangin' by the lake.

Ready for another descent.

River crossing!


As Flaherty put it: "No words."

Charging up the 4th pass.

This taken near the top of the 3rd pass. It was steep.

A view off the back of the 3rd pass.

And more.

Taking in the sights...
...and getting some shut eye.

Probably joking around; definitely tired.

Myself, wading across.

Brian capturing the group as I was capturing Matt's "blue steel" face.

Pre-27 miles.

2nd full week of August: 84.5 miles, at least 6,000' ascent:

09/12 (Mon): PM 9 miles, Turquoise Lake, Leadville, CO, with a sizable crew including Matt, Brian, Cassie, Jackie Palmer, Mike Ambrose.
09/13 (Tues): PM 11+ miles, 1hr:37, Ski Hill Rd. to Peaks Trail to Frisco with Matt and Brian.
Along the Peaks Trail with Brian and Matt.

A nice view of (cloud covered) peaks.

Some fine trail running.
09/14 (Wes): PM 12 miles, Peak 9 & 10 summit (after being driven up 300 vertical feet below the Peak 10 summit), descent through Breckenridge and back to the house, with Matt and Brian.
09/15 (Thurs): AM 8 miles, 1hr:04, Flume Trails with Matt, Breckenridge, CO; PM 4+ miles, around Boulder, CO with Matt and Cassie.
09/16 (Fri): AM 8 miles, 1,100' ascent, some Ranch outside of Boulder with Cassie and Matt.
09/17 (Sat) - 09/18 (Sun): PM/AM 32 miles, 2,900' ascent, 8hrs, pacing fellow RaceReady athlete Terry Sentinella at the Leadville Trail 100. One hell of a great experience. Congrats to Terry on now having finished the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning!

3rd full week of August: 84 miles, at least 8,200' ascent:

09/19 (Mon): PM 12 miles, 1hr:24, South Boulder Creek Trail, solo.
09/20 (Tues): AM/PM 11+ miles, 4,000' ascent, 2hrs:35, Green-Bear double summit, solo, Boulder, CO.
09/21 (Wed): PM 6 miles, :55, 1,400' ascent, Colorado Trail, solo, Breckenridge, CO; PM 4 miles, :30, bike path in Breckenridge, solo.
09/22 (Thurs): off
09/23 (Fri): AM 15 miles, 2,000' ascent, 2hrs:11, solo, Breckenridge, Peak 8; PM 8 miles, Boulder bike paths, solo.
09/24 (Sat): AM/PM 18 miles, 800' ascent, Boulder Reservoir, solo.; PM 5 miles, Boulder bike paths, solo.
09/25 (Sun): PM 5 miles, :45, Columbia, MO. A few easy miles with my friend Alex Kriegshauser on the way back to Illinois for a final week of work on the lake.

Since Colorado, it's been easy going as I'm resting myself up for the TNFEC-Wisconsin 50 mile race. Soon after that race, I'll be back to higher intensity training for 4-5 weeks before the final races of the season approach in late October and November.