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Trails, Races, and (no more) Injuries...

...Oh my!

1. Trails. Every ultrarunner I know loves the trails, and I'm certainly no exception. Madison is a tough place to live when it comes to running trails, primarily because they are covered in white precipitation for almost half the year! For this reason, I try to start my racing season on the pavement and then move to trail races later in the season; that transition began, in part, with American River (half trails), then with Ice Age (all trails), and will continue with TNF-DC (all trails). Then the real fun begins: six weeks of nothing but trail running from mid-July to late August! I'll head West around July 15th, training in Flagstaff through the beginning of August, before traveling to Breckenridge, where I'll continue training through the end of August. In both places, the situation is grand: I'll stay with my Aunt and Uncle in Flagstaff, where an extensive trail system, consisting of hundreds of miles and high elevations, sits just ten feet from their property; in Breckenridge, I'll stay at my dad's house, which sits in the middle of loads of trails, many of which are within running distance, and some of which require a short drive. Bring on the trails!

Last week (05/20 - 05/26) I ran a total of 70 miles, a nice return from the lingering injury (more on that below); 58 of those miles were on the trails in Kettle Moraine State Park. Here are some pictures from those days of camping and running:

Enjoying Ottawa Lake.

The campsite. 

Enjoying the sun after a run.

A pleasant way to finish the day.

Switchbacks on the Ice Age Trail.

Some of the 5,000' of ascent during the week.

A picturesque sunset. 

2. Races. I'm stoked about the remainder of my races this year. Next up, in a short two days, is the TNF-DC 50 mile race. My expectations for this race are quite tame, given the limited training recently and the forecasted temperatures (start temp: 72 (at 5am!); daily high: 92; humidity: 55%). Things rarely go as planned in a 50 mile race, especially in certain weather conditions (like hot temperatures), so I'll just have to feel this one out as I go. In September, I'll then run TNF-Madison 50 mile, a course that I'm familiar with, having run it before and having spent time training on the course. I'll be looking to lower my 50 my PR at this one. I'm then thinking of a marathon in October (as of yet undecided), before a few 50k's: Surf the Murph 50k in late October and the USA trail 50km championships in Nevada in early November, the Bootlegger 50k (the field is already super competitive (see here), so I'm very much looking forward to this one). I'll then end the season with the JFK 50 mile, which is a perennially competitive race. Lots to look forward to in the fall!

3. Injuries (errrr, lack of!). In my last post, I hoped to have a sixth good thing to report: injury free. It appears that that hope has come to fruition! No pain, no discomfort, no problems. After the 58 miles in Kettle Moraine over three days, I had some swelling and discomfort in my knee, but, partly because I have taken it easy since then (only about 35 miles in a week's time), and partly because I have been doing things to improve my strength in areas that, because they were weak, led to the injury, all has been well. I think I'm officially healed (the 50 mile effort this weekend will be the final test).

Of course, there is always this:

The joys of ultrarunning.

But black toenails are par for the course in this sport. My next post will be a race recap on TNF-DC 50 mile. Hopefully it'll involve pictures from the podium :)


All things good

Some good things have been happening. I'll discuss them in turn.

The first good thing: my injury seems to be under control. Not gone, not healed, not pain free, but under control, i.e. I can run, a good amount with low intensity, without much pain, and without many negative side effects thereafter. Following the Ice Age Trail 50 (that is, 26 miles of it), the pain and soreness was present in my knee for two days. But, almost as quickly as it had come about, it was again gone. Which leads me to my second good thing: I have a much better understanding of my injury, how to treat it, and how to avoid it in the future, thanks largely to Matt Flaherty and his book recommendation: Anatomy for Runners by Jay Dicharry. If you are reading this blog, and have ever dealt with an injury, stop reading this blog and go buy the book (then read it!). I think it's that useful. This leads to the third good thing: since getting the injury under wraps, I've put in lots of easy, low intensity miles:

05/13 - 05/19: 58 miles (5/13 and 5/14 off), ~7 hours.
05/20 - 05/22: 58 miles (four runs: 16 miles, 11 miles, 8 miles, 23 miles), 7hrs:30.

Now onto the fourth good thing: I spent 05/20 - 05/22 camping in Kettle Moraine State Park (more on this in a later post), so all 58 miles to start this week were on the trails: sometimes muddy, usually undulating, always a blast! Over four runs and 58 miles, I had about 5,000' ascent and 5,000' decent. This was good, since one clear weakness in my trail running, which I'm keen on improving, is on the inclines and declines. I've recently been thinking and reading lots about uphill/downhill running technique, and I was able to put some new strategies to the test (here's one, on downhill running, from Ian Sharman.). I feel much more comfortable, and confident, on hilly terrain from my three day trial in Kettle Moraine.

Especially since I started running in a new trail shoe, and the fifth good thing worth mentioning in this post: the Salomon Sense Mantras. Go buy them, go buy them now. I have run in a variety of different shoes on the trails: Saucony Peregrine 2s, Montrail Rogue Flys, Montrail Bajadas, Brooks Cascadias, Brooks Pure Grit 2s, New Balance 1400s, and surely others. The Sense Mantras have been, on a variety of terrain from roads to rocks to roots to mud, far and above the best shoes on the trail that I have ever run in. I could talk at length about these shoes, but I'll leave it to the expert, Salomon runner Matt Flaherty, who has promised to write a review of the shoe forthcoming (the review is now available HERE).

Those are the good things (running related) as of lately. Here's hoping that I'll have a sixth good thing to discuss in my next blogpost: the injury subsiding completely before my next 50 mile effort on June 1st!


Reflections on Ultrarunning

According to a Greek writer, the following aphorism was inscribed at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: “know thyself.” The maxim is often interpreted as an epistemic norm of sorts: one should not claim to know more than what one does, in fact, know. The point seems to be that things – dispositions, beliefs, and so forth – about oneself are that which are most knowable; and while things about oneself are knowable, things of the world are far less knowable, since the epistemic bridge between oneself and the world is vast and difficult to traverse.

But how can one come to know oneself?

French existentialist, Albert Camus, provides insight into this question – how can one know oneself – in The Myth of Sisyphus. The myth is this:

The Gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labour.

As for this myth, one sees merely the whole effort of a body straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it and push it up a slope a hundred times over; one sees the face screwed up, the cheek tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay-covered mass, the foot wedging it, the fresh start with arms outstretched, the wholly human security of two earth-clotted hands. At the very end of his long effort measured by skyless space and time without depth, the purpose is achieved. Then Sisyphus watches the stone rush down in a few moments towards that lower world whence he will have to push it up again towards the summit. He goes back down to the plain.

Setting aside the details of what Sisyphus has done to deserve such a condemnation, consider part of Camus’s analysis of this condemned man:

It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me… I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step towards the torment of which he will never know the end… at each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks towards the lairs… he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock… if the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy.

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again… the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Sisyphus is the master of his fate: he determines, and finds out, who he is each time he ascends toward the summit, with the rock upon his shoulder, his face in the dirt, and his feet in the sand. He finds out who he is with each arduous step. Camus is interested in Sisyphus, as he watches the rock barrel down the mountain from the summit, for a reason: Sisyphus has a choice that defines who he is. Sisyphus cannot dictate his circumstances, he can only respond to them. His response can take one of two forms: Sisyphus can endure, be passionate and determined, or he can be weak, distraught, and angered; he can choose to become greater than his fate, or he can choose to succumb to it; he can embrace his suffering with no end, his toil and pain, or he can be destroyed by his circumstances, crushed by his rock. It is the latter that the Gods expect of him in each case.

I’m also interested in Sisyphus, but for slightly different reasons. Sisyphus is stripped of any and all superlatives: he has neither socks nor shoes; neither a watch nor a phone; neither sunglasses nor sunscreen. Sisyphus has nothing but his bare self, his dispositions, and his ability; he can do nothing but make a choice, act, and be disposed to believe certain things. It is in this situation that Sisyphus comes to know himself: in a state of torment, in the face of unparalleled and seemingly never ending difficultly, without a sip of water to quench his thirst or a piece of bread to appease his hunger. Sisyphus has no distractions: isolated from the world, condemned to a monotonous and enduring task, absent any external communication, he is left to contemplate his circumstances, assess his dispositions, and perform his task. It is here that Sisyphus discovers his abilities and determines who he is; it is here that Sisyphus begins to know himself.

Ultrarunners are like Sisyphus. We too stand at the foot of the mountain, with a chance to discover our capabilities, and are left with a choice: we can choose to endure, to suffer, to struggle toward the heights in triumph, or we can choose to do so in sorrow; we can welcome the struggle and suffering, embrace the painstaking task, and return to the foot of the mountain with joy, or we can fight against the difficultly, complain about the challenge, and laboriously raise the rock in anger. With every short training run, every painful track repeat, every tiring multi-hour race, we are faced with this choice. In this way, we continuously find out who we are and who we can be; what we can do and what we are capable of. Like philosophers, we discover what is possible and what could be possible. We seek answers to questions about ourselves by removing the superlatives, eliminating distractions, and engaging in a monotonous, challenging activity; it is here that we come to know ourselves, and it is here that the world, and our place in it, becomes clearer.

When you find yourself in the middle of the woods, several hours into a run, with no one around for guidance or help, when you can do nothing but continue moving forward, digging your feet into the sand, ascending toward the heights, you discover answers to difficult questions. When you find yourself at the foot of the mountain after a very long, hard effort, only to turn back to face the sun and the seemingly insurmountable heights; when you continue to endure in the face of uncertainty and strife, you might even uncover answers to questions that you never thought to ask.

… the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. Yes, because it is during that struggle that Sisyphus discovers who he truly is, just like we ultrarunners, as we struggle against distance and time, discover who we truly are. When excesses are stripped away and one is left only with oneself and the formidable task ahead, one finds out, truthfully, who one really is; each triumph and each sorrow is attributable only to oneself and ones true character is revealed most reliably.

Race Report: Ice Age Trail 50

Result: DNF (dropped at 26.2 mile aid station)

It's easy to misidentify what is most important. Running is a very big part of my life, and I'm often tempted to identify it as something most important. So, when I was able to run only intermittently, and not very far at that, over the past four weeks, due to a nagging injury, I was, in a very real sense, devastated. I could not train seriously, I could not enjoy a run without pain or worry, I could not improve my fitness. I take these things to be rather important.

But, as I said, it's easy to lose sight of what is important. This was made clear earlier this week when I learned that a good friend of mine has a cancerous tumor in his pelvis. At present, he is unable to walk without assistance, he cannot work due to immobility, and he is back at his parents house while undergoing extensive testing. Meanwhile, I've been heartbroken because I cannot run as much as I'd like, or as hard as I'd like, or as easily as I'd like. This put things into perspective: running, and racing, , really aren't that important. These thoughts, anyway, eased my disappointment when I arrived at the 26.2 mile aid station: I was grateful to have been running at all.

I was grateful, too, because I probably shouldn't have started the race. Just 7 days before the race, while trying to run on the Ice Age trail without the nagging IT/knee injury flaring up, I was hardly able to walk when the pain started shooting down my left leg after a mile and a half. To think that I could start the race was optimistic; to think that I could finish, run strong, and finish well, was even more optimistic still. But I'm a competitor. I love to compete, especially against top competition. This race had some top competition: David Riddle (former record holder at the JFK 50, among many accolades), Matt Flaherty (5:30something 50 mile PR), Zach Bitter (5:26(ish) 50 mile PR), Jeff Browning (4th fastest time ever at the Wasatch Front 100 in 2012), Josh Brimhall (too many races and notable finishes to list), Scott Breeden (lots of races, lots of wins), Mike Bialick (5:58 50 mile PR), and, the dark horse, Brian Condon (2:30 marathoner, fellow Madisonian). Then, of course, there was Cassie Scallon to be worried about (she ended up in the top-10 with a CR of 6:46(?) -- a ridiculously fast time). There were still other competitive runners that almost routinely win or place well at local and regional ultras (Mark Thompson (Iowa), Matt Urbanski (Seattle, Washington), Henry Southgate (Madison), to name a few.).

How could I pass this race up? As long as I could drive for an hour, get out of my car, and walk 100 feet to the start line, I was going to at least give it a go. Fortunately, I was in better condition than what was minimally required to start, since my injury seemed (mostly) subsided by the Friday before the race.

We were off on the first 10.5 miles of rolling cross country ski trails in cool, damp 40 degree weather at 6am. Bitter and Brimhall were immediately at the front, followed by Flaherty, Condon, Breeden, Urbanski, and myself. Lurking behind was Bialick, Riddle, Browning, and others. I eased up after a few miles and settled into low 7 minute/mile pace with Urbanski. After around 9 miles, I caught back up with Flaherty, Condon, and Breeden. The four of us cruised through the next five miles, in 3rd - 6th place, with Bitter in sight and David Riddle just behind us. When we proceeded out of the aid station at mile 17.4, David Riddle moved to the front of the pack, which made 5 of us now. The injury hadn't presented itself too seriously to this point, but that soon changed as we crossed highway 12 and began moving through some more technical, hilly terrain: sure enough, the familiar, sharp pain returned, though only intermittently at first. So I continued. Flaherty dropped off from the pack for a pit stop and I joined him around mile 19 and into the next aid station. But as we continued toward the first turnaround at around mile 21.5, the climbs too continued, and the knee pain increased. The pain was especially acute during the climbs, as I lifted my knee, and so I mostly hiked, losing sight of Flaherty in the process. I was about 4 minutes back of Brimhall at the turnaround, and anywhere from 30 seconds to 3:30 of the others in 2nd through 6th. The knee difficulties continued as I labored back toward highway 12, and it was during this section of the course that I knew my day was done: I couldn't climb with any pace, and the pain was returning more frequently.

So, after 3 hour and 9 minutes, my day ended at 26.2 miles when I arrived at the aid station in 7th place (I at least made a marathon out of it!). I got back to my car, changed, and returned to the course at around mile 48 to see how the end of the race would unfold. David Riddle seemingly cruised to a 5:57 1st place finish -- one hell of a time, and a really well run race. Zach Bitter came through mile 48 in 2nd, about 11:20 behind Riddle, followed by Brian Condon in 3rd, trailing by just a minute; I then saw Matt Flaherty come through in 4th, 13:20 behind Riddle, 2:20 behind Zach, and 1:20 behind Condon. When the dust settled, Riddle won, Condon, amazingly, out kicked Zach to finish 2nd, and Flaherty rounded out the top four with a really solid 6:10. Congrats to these guys and all the finishers! And many thanks to all the volunteers on course: they made the atmosphere pleasant on a dreary day and were super helpful in keeping runners on course and providing aid.

The rest of the day was spent eating, drinking, and hanging out. I had a really great time getting to know Josh, Jeff, and Zach more; I had an equally good time having a beer (or several) with Brian and Matt as the day ended. Good times! With the challenging course, the fierce competition, and the lively atmosphere, this will certainly be a race I return to (and, with any help, will run and finish pain free). In the meantime, I'll try not to forget how fortunate I am to run and race, injury free or not, and how important, or unimportant, this activity really is.

05/06 - 05/12

No need to go into detail on this one:

Weekly Totals: 40 miles, ~5 hours. A couple easy runs -- 8 miles and 6 miles -- on Wednesday and Thursday, and then the marathon distance on Saturday. See my Race Report: Ice Age Trail 50 for details about the shortened effort on Saturday.

Back to trying to figure out this injury before getting myself together for the TNF-DC 50 mile on June 1st. 


04/29 - 05/05

It was an up-and-down week with my knee but it ended on a more positive note and so I'm almost certain that I'll be on the start line on Saturday at the Ice Age Trail 50. Here goes:

Monday (Apr. 29): off
Tuesday (Apr. 30): AM 6 miles, :43, 7:10/mile, out-and-back on Cap City Trail. Some pain, but mostly ok as I tested out the knee for the first time this week. AM/PM 1600m swim.
Wednesday (May 1): AM 6.5+ miles, :48, 7:18/mile, out-and-back along Lake Monona to Turville Park. I was reduced to the ground after 3 miles of easy running when severe pain began shooting down my leg. I couldn't have been more pissed off. Not good at all, and very frustrating. AM/PM 1600m swim. The best news of the day: I talked with my friend Hank Southgate and he gave me some tips on mending the injury -- this made me feel much more confident in a possible recovery before Ice Age.
Thursday (May 2): AM 35 minutes stationary bike, strength/core workout.
Friday (May 3): AM 55 minutes stationary bike, strength/core workout.
Saturday (May 4): AM 7 miles, 1hr:10, 10:00/mile, Kettle Moraine Park. Went with Brian Condon and ran (ehem, ran, walked, then ran again) the Ice Age Trail from highway 12 toward Rice lake. My knee felt ok the first 1.5 miles, followed by shooting pain and difficulty walking for 2.5 miles, then, after massaging my upper IT band for a few minutes, ending with 3 miles of running pain free at a good pace. This is the most bizarre injury I have ever had, and I don't like it!
Sunday (May 5): PM 9.5 miles, 1hr:09, 7:22/mile, Kettle Moraine Park. Finally, a pain free run! We ran from highway 12 toward highway H on this one and ascended about 1,250' feet. Parts of this section are supposed to be some of the more technical portions of the course and, based on what I saw, I was pleasantly surprised with the level of technicality (I didn't find it very technical).

When I was able to run at Kettle Moraine this week, I felt really strong. I've focused quite a lot on strength/core work this year, which includes some plyometrics, dynamic stretches, and balance work, and I think this will pay big dividends on race day. Although I managed less hill work than I might have liked, my winter/spring was staked with speed work, and I think that the benefits will carry over nicely to the trail on Saturday. I am seeing a physical therapist in Milwaukee on Tuesday and a sports massage therapist in Wednesday and, so long as I can get to the start line, and so long as my hip/knee/IT band/whatever the problem is, can hold up, I'm very confident in my ability to perform well this weekend. Excited to race a competitive field here in Wisconsin!

Weekly Totals: 29 miles, 3hrs:30, plus a few miles of swimming, some miles biking, and more strength/core work.
April Totals: 265 miles, ~32 hours. Much reduced volume in April due, largely, to two races and an injury.