Saturday, December 26, 2015

2015 Year in Review

The Ultra-Running Year in Review: 2015

Well, my year of running had nothing notable enough that I want to toot my own horn and rehash anything in some kind of long winded year in review. In a nutshell: I was mediocre or worse at every race this year until I finally got so frustrated with poor workouts, that I dropped off of the 100km National Team because I didn’t feel I could live up to my own expectations. 

But there is a silver lining: less time training and racing gave me a lot more time to be a fan (and a cynic!) of the sport. I’ll leave the assessment of individual athletes up to the Ultrarunning Magazine panel and instead, let me tell you what you where I think ultrarunning went in 2015.

1)  You NEED a coach. If you haven't run an ultra yet, well, then you can't possibly know anything about the sport and you will most definitely need a coach to guide you through such complex activities like putting one foot in front of the other, eating gels and drinking water. And if you have run a few ultras, well then you are ready to get better and you will definitely need a coach to show you how to improve. And don't think you will out grow the need for a coach even when you have run a whole pile of ultras with success. Because then you are probably on the brink of burnout and you desperately need a coach to keep you from overtraining. In 2015, you absolutely cannot train for an ultra without a coach.

1a) After you hire a coach, you must fall madly in love with that coach. Or at least it will seem that way on social media when you talk about your coach more than your loved ones. Despite the fact that you may be paying said coach upwards of $400 a month, you feel compelled to do a bunch a free advertising for your coach, babbling on and on about how wonderful they are, as if they had invented the very sport itself. This is perfectly logical, because we both know there is no possible way you ever could have made it through your last ultra without a coach. You gave them a quarter of your take home salary, but they gave you your worth as a runner. Surely, that is worth a whole lot of social media love.

2) Become a coach. If you have finished at least one ultra, then you are ready to become a coach! Do you know how fast this sport is exploding?! Think of all the wanna-be ultra runners who have yet to run their first 50k; after one race, you will know light years more then they do, so why not make a little money on the side by coaching those poor, ignorant saps who are so desperately in need of guidance if they are ever going to survive the harsh world that exists beyond 26.2 miles. Just remember, no matter how good you are as a coach, you are never, ever, ever, qualified to coach yourself. See #1 above. Sure you can coach other people, but you my friend, are still utterly incapable of writing your own training plan.

2a) Once you become a coach, make sure you let everyone know that any time any one of your clients has a good race, it is really you who deserves all the credit for their success. I mean, we have already gone over how most people could barely even complete an ultra if left to their own devices, let alone be successful. Of course, if you do this by congratulating your athlete on social media, I am sure no one will figure out that you are just using your client to pat yourself on the back. And if one of your athletes has a bad day?? Well, you better fucking ghost that client, at least in your social media relationship, because you would not want that associated with your reputation. Obviously, that athlete was uncoachable.

3) The Ultra Beard loses its hipster status. I am not exactly sure what the origins of the ultra beard are, but I am assuming a lot of it has to do with Rob Krar. Ultra running had some inklings of facial fuzz before Rob Krar, and certainly the Boston Red Sox brought the bushy beard into sports way before it caught on in ultra-running, but in 2013, Rob Krar exploded onto the ultra scene and he did it all while wearing a marmot on his face! In fact, his facial hair has so much personality, it even has its own Twitter account! Soon after, it seems like beards became an ultra-running fashion trend. But these days if you head to any ultra in the Pacific Northwest, you would think a big beard and a flannel shirt were required gear for men. Indeed, even my husband Mac has been sporting a beard since March and my husband does not go out of the box. In fact, he doesn’t even like to go near the walls of said box but rather likes to keep his feet planted firmly in the center. This makes him very dependable and agreeable, but I assure you, it does not make him a hipster. In similar fashion, I have two friends that had barely crossed the finish lines of their first 50k’s when they started growing ultra-beards. The ultra-beard may not be going out of style, but it has definitely lost its hipster, cutting edge status. Now it seems everybody and their mother, er, I mean, father has a beard.

4) Finish Line Celebrations need to start carding. This past year there were a lot of big performances by underaged runners. Ford Smith took the title at Black Canyon, Andrew Miller set the Bighorn course record and won the Georgia Death Race, Jared Hanzen raced Lake Sonoma and Western States like a grizzled vet and Ashley Erba had a stellar run at Lake Sonoma. When I was their age, I spent most of my free time shopping and making mix tapes. I guess Amazon and MP3s have freed up a lot of time for ultra training. As more and more “kids” get into ultra-running, race directors may have to monitor the distribution of finish line beverages a bit more closely. But that should be easy least for the men: just look for the few runners without beards!

5) On the flip side, 50 doesn’t even count as old. You are doing ultras in your 50’s?? Big whoop-de-do! 50 year olds are still tearing it up. Anita Ortiz, Connie Gardner, Joe Fejes, Jean Pommier, Meghan Arbogast, and Bev Anderson-Abs are just a few examples of quinquagenarians still kicking butt. How about 60 year old Mark Richtman throwing down 3:34 50k at Desert Solstice; the extremely emotional and inspirational finish of 71 year old Gunhild Swanson at Western States; or 80 year old Bill Dodson crawling across the finish line at Caumsett 50k? To those guys, 50 year olds are still young whipper-snappers. iRunFar  estimates 20% of ultra runners are now over age 50, meaning it is hardly an anomaly any more. In fact, it makes 50 seem like it isn't so old at all - which sounds really good, as it is getting ever closer for me!

6) The more things change the more things stay the same. Ultra running has exploded in popularity, there’s more money in the sport, and races are getting more coverage and more hype. Yes, there are growing pains - like what to do about drug testing and convicted cheats - but at the core, ultrarunning still remains a group of likeminded people out to enjoy the beauty of nature and to test their limits in endurance.

Ok, so what other trends were there for 2015?

Hope you had a great year and have lots of great adventures planned for 2016!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Hope Springs Eternal

Hello? Hellooo?? Anybody still out there? I know it has been a long silence here.

On the running front, it's been a rough year. Despite all my best efforts, I just seemed to be circling closer and closer to the drain. One bad race after another where I just seemed completely spent, overly winded and lifeless in the legs. Sadly, training wasn't much better. Even slow paces had me huffing and puffing and my legs didn't seem to work right. Worse yet, they just ached and ached and ached sometimes so badly that I woke up in the middle of the night.

Something was very wrong - I just knew it. Running wasn't fun at all anymore and I was upset and frustrated. I tried to explain all this to my primary care doctor (a marathoner herself) last April and ended up in tears in her office. Crying, muscle aches, trouble sleeping, a feeling of doom, lack of energy, loss of enthusiasm for previously joyous activities...Well, she put it all together and diagnosed me with "moderate depression" (I skipped right over mild!) and she put me on Cymbalta, which along with treating depression is approved for muscle aches. But she did refer me to a neurologist because I kept telling her my legs just weren't working right.

The neurologist practically laughed at me because I had no trouble with any of his tests. As to my complaint of weakness, he told me I was stronger than any other patient he had seen all week. He assured me that I did not have a neurologic problem. And then he changed my anti-depressant prescription.

I was willing enough to give the anti-depression meds a try, but I don't think I ever bought into it. I don't have hang-ups about mental illness or feel ashamed by it, but it just didn't seem to fit. I stopped the meds two weeks before Western States; I didn't feel like they were giving me any benefit and I didn't want to be on any unnecessary drugs for such a physically demanding event.

I knew I wasn't trained as well as I wanted for WS, but I still expected better than I did. By Forest Hill, I was spent. I had been working way harder than I should have been and once again my legs felt so weak. What did I expect?? I had done less than half the mileage I had done for WS the three years prior. I tried to put on a happy face- hey, it was still a silver buckle as Western States; how bad could it be? But inside, I was even more worried.

That was right around the time all the articles came out on over-training and they just seemed to confirm my worst fears: I was just another one of the washed up over trained ultra-runners with flash-in-the-pan success before running themselves completely into the ground. Several periods of rest would make me feel marginally better, but I would be back in the toilet after any moderately hard run. I was obviously in the deepest stages of overtraining. The clincher was trying to pace Liza Howard at Leadville. I had felt miserable for the ten days prior while we were in Colorado, and I kept warning her that I wouldn't be able to keep up with her, but even I was aghast when I got dropped after three miles. Three fucking miles! Yeah, Liza is super speedy, but I'd like to think if I am fresh and she has 50 miles on her legs, I'd have the advantage! As soon as we were climbing Hope Pass, I just could not get enough air, my legs were so weak and I kept getting so dizzy. Altitude sickness, everyone assured me, but I knew it wasn't right, and when I got back to Oregon and good old sea level, I was still wasted. Though it practically killed me, I resigned from the US 100km team; I was in no shape to run 62 miles three weeks later.

I sought out a new primary care doctor, this one an experienced triathlete with an ultra marathon on his resume to boot. He agreed I was probably overtrained noting that I had put my body through a lot the last few years and I started back on anti-depressants.  He sent me to a cardiologists just to make sure, you know, since I am over 40 and all now. My heart rate soared on a stress echo - it escalated way faster than it should have and I was breathing so hard. My legs ached, but I had no problem completing the test. The cardiologist said that it was odd but I had the max heart rate of a 28 year old and my ejection fraction (heart strength) was way above normal, so from a cardiac standpoint, I was fit as a fiddle. The primary care doc said I was just "deconditioned."

All during this time, I had lots of labs and they all came back perfectly normal - hormones, electrolytes, and nutrition all totally awesome. The new doc recommended three months off with nothing but yoga. Oh, and double the dose of Cymbalta for depression.

I stopped the meds all together two days later and started looking for a new doctor. Thankfully, doctor #5 was a godsend! Dr. Yates is a multi-time Kona Ironman finisher and one time Masters Ironman world record holder who served as the Portland Winter Hawks (minor league hockey) team doctor for 23 years. His special interest is in medicine for endurance athletes and he is right here in Salem! He listened to me for about 20 minutes and adamantly told me "This is not depression!" and "Of course your heart is fine! You have asthma - this is classic!" I have a history of asthma and have had a few bad attacks, but I was still skeptical; this didn't feel like an attack. "But I don't wheeze and my chest isn't tight," I countered. Though he couldn't entirely explain why, he told me leg pain and weakness are common symptoms of asthma in endurance athletes. Is my HR too high? Do I breathe really hard? Do I cough after workouts? Do colds always end up in my chest? Do I feel like I am not getting enough air even at rest? Is it worse climbing hills or at altitude (places the body needs more oxygen efficiency)? Do I start out feeling ok and then just fall apart? Yes, yes, YES! Well, holy shit, why didn't somebody tell me this 18 months ago and why the hell did I take so much anti-depressant medication?? Plus, he told me three times that I am only 41! Best doctor ever!

Unfortunately, that's not the end of the story. It turns out I also have gastric reflux. Well, how did I get so lucky? Apparently asthma and reflux have a tight correlation: 75% of asthma patients also have reflux. I did not know this and I am a doctor for gads sake! One more thing I didn't know: distance running increases the risk for reflux- all that pounding and increased pressure in the abdomen can weaken the lower esophageal sphincter. And all those crunches and ab workouts...well, they don't help either. So there's your excuse to skip core workouts! It is thought that either refluxing acid gets into the throat and irritates the lungs or that the acid irritation in the esophagus causes nerve irritation that in turn constricts the airways. I am not sure why all this started, but it seems like once it did, things just kept snowballing until they were out of control.

The good news is that I now have an idea of what has been going on and why I have felt so bad for so long. And I am not overtrained! (OMG - I am so woefully undertrained!). I can't say that having a bunch of chronic illnesses makes me happy, but they should be treatable and after just three weeks I see a HUGE difference. Heck, I even won a race last weekend. Ok, it was a small time 5.2 miler but it had 1000 feet of gain and at no point did my legs feel weak. Actually, I felt totally awesome at the end of the race with that post run euphoria that I had been missing for so long. I don't know that I'll ever get back to my 2013 top form, but I don't know that I really need to to be happy. More than anything I have been missing just feeling smooth and easy and finishing a workout thinking "Man, I love to run!" I am building back very slowly with only easy runs and no speedwork yet, but even so these past three weeks I have started to feel "fit" again and I can honestly say, "Man, I love to run!"
Yes! This is what I love! (ph:Nine22 Photography)
So I am cautiously optimistic, but feeling good enough that I am excitedly pouring over race websites and dreaming of big races and adventures for 2016!