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!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Coming Back From the Dead

Well, Blog Fans, it has been quite a while since I posted here. The Lake Sonoma 50M passed without even a 140 character race update on Twitter let alone a full on blog post. I could tell you I've been busy - travel, work, garden season and two kids in multiple activities - and it would be true, but that wouldn't be the real story. For the truth is, I am sick of writing race reports about crappy races or races where I feel like I didn't live up to my potential. For a while I could come up with good reasons - I was tired from WS and/or AC, I took too much time off, I didn't do speed workouts, I didn't get enough trail training - but finally the excuses ran out and I had to face the depressing reality that it has been almost a year since I really felt like I rocked a race (June 1, 2014 - Beacon Rock 25k).

Lake Sonoma started off just fine. I didn't feel great on the road but nothing really worrisome and I was right about where I expected to be in  the ladies' race. But the constant up and downs on the trail just tuckered me out so fast and by mile 12 (yes, 12!) my legs felt like they were at the end of a 100. But my mental state was worse - over the next two miles I traveled through a deep, dark pit of mental despair: "I am not even any good any more. I am such a fraud to be here as an elite. I don't even think I want to be an elite; why do I want to kill myself in every single race? I am a total has been. And why the fuck are women doing a trail race with full eye make-up on?!? It's a trail race, not a fucking fashion show! Ugh - I am such a loser; I can't even put mascara on for work. I do not belong here: I am not elite and I didn't even match my shirt to my shorts."

(Dear Mascara-wearing racers - I am sorry for this. I was not being rational at the time. You should wear whatever you feel comfortable in at races and I know it has no effect on me. But can you please explain what is the rational of being fully made up on race day? Is this kind of like the running skirt - a way to preserve a bit of femininity in a dirty, sweaty sport? And what brand do you use that stays so firmly put through 50 miles??!)
Orange socks, pink shorts, blue shirt, tattered hat and a terry cloth wrist band under my Garmin...seriously, no amount of mascara can help that! (photo: Gary Wang)
Anyway, I suffered through to the finish, thanks largely in part to Jimmy Dean Freeman who stopped to walk a mile with me and let me blubber on his shoulder while getting me to commit to finishing. But just because I got to the finish didn't mean I was in better spirits. Frankly, I couldn't come up with one good reason why I should get up a couple days later and go for a run. So I didn't - for FOUR WHOLE WEEKS! - right at the key time for Western States training! But it didn't matter, my body felt off, my mind felt off and I needed the time off. Besides, I had already decided that I would NOT be doing Western States this year so the training didn't matter.

Well, good thing my pacer Dennis knows me well and didn't believe me when I tried to fire him!
Jimmy Dean gives me a pep talk and makes me promise I'll finish.
photo: Chihping Fu
I started back to running two weeks before the Western States training camp on Memorial Day weekend and had about 75 miles on my legs before taking on 72 miles in three days! I ran all three days with Mac at a very conservative pace and had a great time. I was sore and tired but in a good way, not a run down way. I remembered how much I love the trails and the people and just getting out there and knew I wanted to be part of the Western States race this year even if I was not at my best. I figured I still had a good shot at 22 hours and even if I missed that I couldn't get much worse than the 29 hour finish in 2012 (which I consider a positive experience). Yes, it is awesome to win or do well, and winning Western States was probably the most exciting thing in my running career, but honestly, I just want to enjoy running and the experience of moving through the land under my power, and finally, I was feeling that way again. It was so nice to be in a "happy place" while running that I knew I would be fine letting go of aspirations to battle at the front.
Enjoying Western States training camp with Mac and Dennis, my  fabulous crew and pacer.
Photo: Joe McCladdie
And so I ran Western States. And I had a great time. No, my race wasn't great. But it wasn't even my lack of fitness that did me in. I started very conservatively and was only 4 minutes faster to Duncan Canyon than what I reported to my crew as "worst case scenario (4:40)". I felt amazing climbing to Robinson, and on the sun exposed switch backs I even said aloud, "I fucking love this climb!". Out of Robinson I had the honor of running with Nikki Kimball for five or so miles. And by Dusty Corners, I was catching people and had moved into the top ten for the ladies. Things were going great, the legs felt good and I was having fun. And then my stomach gave out.
"The hills are alive with the sound of music..." The wildflowers were amazing this year!
(Ph: Bob Hearn)
Being more laid back about this year's race meant I didn't have a regimented fueling plan. I have a plan that works, but sometimes it feels like some kind of torture trying to get down powdered drinks and sticky gels and that didn't seem to fit with the "fun" goal. Unfortunately, eating whatever I wanted at aid stations also did not lead to fun. A few too many Oreos, PayDay segments and a greedy two Popsicles at Devil's Thumb had my stomach in knots by the time I was climbing to Michigan Bluff. I arrived there only to start heaving at Mac's feet and I wasn't able to get much down. Nikki, Sally McRae, Joelle and I all grouped for the run down Volcano Canyon and I had a great time with them and enjoyed our soak in the river until Nikki announced, "All right, it's time to get going." I was able to get a little food in running with them and felt strong on the climb to Bath Road, but a little extra effort there once again found me dry heaving at my crew's feet at Foresthill and not taking much in. From there on out I couldn't get much in and my energy levels dropped similar to the trail dropping to the river. I got down a few cantaloupe chunks and two pieces of black licorice which lead to the most Goth looking puke ever on the climb to Green Gate. Unfortunately, puking was not the "control-alt-delete" reset my stomach needed and I still couldn't take much in. I ended up walking most of the way to Hwy 49.
Feeling like shit, but still joking around (ph:Bob Hearn)
But I was still in good spirits and the only point which was a bit disheartening was the stretch when 4 ladies passed me in about 5 minutes. I didn't have my heart set on top 10 this year but still it sucked to go from 9th to 13th in a matter of minutes! I took several minutes at Hwy 49 and got in about 8 ounces of orange soda. Once it kicked in, I was able to run again and had a decent (though not exactly fast) push to the finish: 22:46 - my slowest sub-24 by a long shot (70 minutes slower than my rookie year!) but still light years better than 29 hours! In the end I was very glad to have gone and I am proud to have my 6th Western States finish. There were challenges but I never felt defeated, which makes me think my head is back in the right place.

In the weeks after the race, I got more and more pissed about the race, especially why I - an anal retentive over planner - decided to "wing it" on the food and why I didn't do more to try to correct it at Foresthill and especially why I didn't even try to stay with any of the ladies that passed at mile 87. But I think being pissed is a good sign, too: it makes me think I am hungry again and ready to push myself to do better. 

I've run a couple times in the last week and I feel great. Right now that is the most important thing for me as I think I may still need some time to fall back in love with all of the grueling aspects of this sport. But I am very excited for some trail adventures this summer (Trinity Alps backpacking and Leadville pacing!). Plus, 100k Worlds are only two months away (!) and being part of Team USA always gets me fired up. Hopefully those adventures get the running stoke factor back to high in the next few months! 
Pre-race veteran's panel. This was a lot of fun and I like to think I gave some good advice, but I still have plenty to learn myself! (ph: Mark Tanaka)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Ultra Mindset by Travis Macy

Today is the official release day of Travis Macy's book, The Ultra Mindset, and I encourage you to check it out (available at Amazon). Travis was kind enough to ask me to write a blurb corresponding to one of the principle's in his book. Some of what I wrote got cut (I am too wordy!) and some got edited to better fit the theme of the book, but here is my original transcript:

As a mom, I think ultrarunning models many of the life skills I hope to teach my two kids - things like determination, perseverance, goal setting, pushing your boundaries, and working hard. I also hope they see the joy and the passion that I have for being active and getting outside. Yes, I run because I love it, but ultimately, I hope my running influences my kids to think big and to pursue their dreams, too. And knowing my kids are proud of me (at least until they hit their teenage years!) feels great.

In 2010, I lost sight of the impact my running has on my kids during the Angeles Crest 100 mile race. The day was hot, I was tired, and my knee started hurting. I got to a point where I didn’t care any more and I dropped. Certainly there are good reasons not to finish a race, but that night when my five year old daughter Megan asked, “Mommy, why did you drop?”, I didn’t have one. The next morning when she looked at me with her big eyes and said, “Mommy, you should have finished the race,” it felt like a dagger to the heart. I vowed to give my best efforts to get to the finish line from then on.

In 2012, I had a chance to truly test my resolve when things spiraled downhill at the Western States Endurance Run. Instead of the normally hot conditions, the competitors battled through thirty miles of freezing rain, sleet and snow, before dropping to lower elevations and milder conditions. Unprepared for such weather, I became hypothermic. The cold triggered my asthma and my frozen hands were unable to work my pocket zippers, leaving me without any food for several hours.

But the real issue came at 2 o'clock in the morning when I got to mile 85. My weight was up seven pounds and the medical team forced me to stop. I sat for two and a half hours, but was unable to urinate enough for my weight to get back down to a point where the medical team would let me continue. As the cutoff time approached, I knew I needed to get going or I would be cut from the race. The medical team was concerned I might be hyponatremic but I knew I had been drinking large volumes of broth to get warm and was fairly confident that I was not in serious danger.  I signed a waiver of liability and left against medical advice, determined to get to the finish. I was stiff and cold from sitting for so long, but I trudged through the remaining miles to get to the finish. My time was more than eight hours slower than the previous year and I finished fourth from the bottom, but I was so glad I finished. I knew it was a great example for my kids. I was able to tell them sometimes things don’t go your way or the path gets difficult, but you can still do your best and not give up.

Though I was proud of that finish, I certainly didn’t want a repeat of that experience for the Western States Endurance Run in 2013. I took that experience and the mistakes I made to motivate me. I trained harder than ever, I became very regimented with my nutrition, and I picked apart every little detail to have a rock solid race plan. All of these elements came together for a magical race and I ended up winning by more than 40 minutes. My daughter Megan (now 8), joined me for the final 250 meters on the track. Sharing that finish with her was one of the proudest and most memorable moments of my life. It was a triumph after adversity, and I hope the memory and the lesson stay with her for a lifetime, too.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The "Fool" Proof Formula For Predicting The Western States Winner

Who will take home the cougar this year?
Well, Gorge Waterfalls has come and gone meaning only Lake Sonoma remains before the elite entrants' field at Western States is complete. Which means it is almost time for ultra-fans to start furiously speculating on who is going to be taking home cougars this year.

Historically, fans have favored those with quick marathon times in the pre-race hype. If Runner A is ten minutes faster than Runner B at 26.2 miles, then simple math says Runner A should be nearly 40 minutes ahead of Runner B at the finish of 100 miles. But this is folly! Anyone who has run a 100 miler knows simple math enters the Twilight Zone about two-thirds of the way through the race: a place where simple addition and subtraction can confuse Mensa members, where the distances between aid stations are warped and don't seem to be represented by rational numbers, and where paces are no longer predictable. A place where lightning fast marathoners can get beat by middle-aged plodders (and routinely do!).

Sure runners with impressively fast legs will continue to captivate us, but when it comes to the 100 mile distance, leg speed is not enough. A runner must possess the right combination of leg speed, gastro-intestinal fortitude, and mental strength. But how can you weight these things to figure out which runner will come out on top?? This is where my very scientific formula comes into play. Just assign numbers to each category and add up the score. The highest scoring runner in the field is guaranteed to be hoisting the Robie Cup at this year's Western States award ceremony. (small print: results not guaranteed)

1) Marathon time: Ok, running 100 miles requires a lot more than just leg speed, but there is no denying that being fast is a benefit at any distance. Sub-2:45(M)/3:00(F) = 5 pts; Sub-2:35(M)/2:50(F) = 7 pts; Sub-2:28(M)/2:43(F) = 9 pts. No additional points for being faster than that because if you are, you are probably better trained for the marathon than 100 miles!

2) Ultra Sign Up Score: We all know when it comes to running ultras, your Ultra-Signup score is the be-all, end all representation of your ultra-potential. One point for every percentage over 90.

3) Strava Crowns: If you are the best over lots of little sections than surely you will be great over one big section. And we all know that after your Ultra Sign-up score, Strava crowns are the most meaningful proof that you are a badass. One point for every crown. Not on Strava?? Minus 2 points.

4) GI fortitude: GI woes can derail even the speediest of runners in a 100 miler. How well does your stomach hold up? Minus 3 points for every race that has suffered due to GI issues.

5) Gag reflex: Will you be able to choke down a gel at mile 85 or will you start gagging on that sticky sweet wad of goo. 5 points if you have ever swallowed a live goldfish; 4 points if you can eat organ meats, tripe, or haggis; 2 points if you like sushi.

6) Nutritional product sponsor: If you have a nutritional product sponsor, you obviously have the benefit of the most awesome product on the market. We know this because you tell us every other day on Facebook. 5 points for each nutritional product sponsor.

7) Game strategy - Running 100 miles doesn't require intelligence per se, but it does require a certain mental focus and an ability to strategize. 5 points if you can complete a 'Hard' sudoku, 5 points if you like strategy board games, and 5 points if you can read a scientific paper without falling asleep AND you understand what you just read.

8) Experience: When it comes to 100 milers, experience counts. 1 point for every previous 100 miler. Of course, there are several people who have won Western States as their first 100 miler, but almost all of these people were experienced ultra-runners at the 50 mile and 100km distance. So 1 point for every three 50M or 100km races you have completed (Sorry, running a 50k has NOTHING to do with running 100 miles, so they don't earn you any points here. But hopefully they make your Ultra Signup Score look good.)

9) Toughness: Are you tough enough to stick with it through the rough patches? Minus 3 points for every DNF.

There you have it. A very simple formula that weighs in the need for strong legs, a strong stomach and a strong head for success at Western States and other 100 milers. Just calculate out the Holy Trifecta score for each competitor and you'll be the first to know who is going to win Western States!

Monday, March 2, 2015

My Sh*t Show at the Phoenix Marathon

As the saying goes: The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

I had all the best intentions when deciding to run the BMO Phoenix marathon this December: get back into a training routine after 6 months of just surviving through every run, emulate my very successful 2013 when I started the year by focusing on road speed, see what I could do at the marathon after a 3 year hiatus, and even spend some quality time with my brother who decided to run the half.  Ah, yes, they are all such good intentions, which is probably why I found myself in Hell at mile 16!

The intentions were good, but the downfall was the plan. I had done AC100, World 100s and two 50k’s in the previous few months so I had great confidence in my endurance and figured I just needed to hone my speed. Starting January 2 (I took the 1st off to recover from the Recover from the Holidays 50k. That’s right, I needed to recover from my recovery event), I began training, giving me six solid weeks plus two weeks to taper. No problem!

Well, there was a big problem. It took me a couple weeks to readjust to everyday training and to “buy in” to the whole concept of marathon training. I mean, I couldn’t do any speed work or a long run the week after a 50k race, right? And the following week, I got paged out of my long run after 7 miles. I mean, a liver transplant is more important than my training, right? I did a 10k the next weekend, which served as a good training run, but it was a weekend light on mileage. And the last weekend in January when we were down in California, I opted to run with Katie DeSplinter and Dom Grossman on the PCT from Wrightwood, rather than do a marathon pace long run by myself. I mean, beautiful trails with friends I don’t get to see that often trumps a boring scheduled long run, right?
Run cut short to evaluate a liver for transplant. At least I had enough time for a selfie!
A beautiful day on the PCT
Finally, by February I was ready to buckle down and do the scheduled work, but I had basically squandered half of my allotted training time. Still I was optimistic: I ran a half marathon at about the same pace as that January 10k, my tempo times were getting faster, I was doing the full Monday morning track workouts routinely. Well, I was in much better shape; unfortunately, I was really only in shape for 16 miles when I scheduled a 26.2 mile run! 
My bro and I ready to board the buses. Only we parked right next to the half marathon shuttles and I had to hike nearly a mile to get to my buses!
The BMO (pronounced Bee-Moe I learned) Phoenix marathon starts in the scenic, cactus dotted foothills outside of Mesa, though the predawn start made it hard to appreciate the views. It was a fast start due to 300’ of elevation loss in the first 4.5 miles, so I wasn’t concerned that my 6:25’s were faster than planned as I wasn’t even mouth breathing. Mile 4.5-6 was uphill but I backed way off almost to 7:00 pace knowing that I was still keeping to a sub 6:40 average. When the course turned back downhill, it once again felt so easy. We got into the flatter town roads on the way to the half marathon mark and I hit several miles right under 6:40, getting to the half at 1:26:34. The legs had those little twinges of fatigue, but I’ve been there many, many times and it didn’t seem too concerning. My breathing wasn’t out of control. Even if I ran the second half three minutes slower, I would still PR and I’d be happy with that.

And then we turned south into a solid wall of wind. The official weather stats were 12 mph winds with gusts to 23 mph. That sounds kind of wimpy especially after reading Geoff Roes tales of Alaskan blasts, but as a marathon runner with absolutely no education or relevant knowledge on wind, it felt really strong! ;) 6:41, 6:46- I was struggling to hit my pace. I tried to “draft”, I ate a gel, but in those two miles my legs went from feeling little twinges of fatigue to full cement seizure. Welcome to Hell! A very pathetic and very painful next ten miles resulted in a ten minute positive split and a disappointing 3:03:05 finish. The day of the race, I told people I thought I had blown quads, but based on my soreness (mild) and strength climbing stairs (fine) afterwards, I don’t think this was the case. Instead, I think the proverbial Wall claimed another victim.

The most prevalent theory on the Wall involves lactic acid production, with poor utilization and accumulation, which prevents muscle contraction and can lead to cramping.  Similar to how many ultra runners try to maximize fat utilization, marathoners can improve lactic acid utilization through training. Increased fitness can also raise the lactate threshold, or the pace at which a runner begins to produce lactic acid. In these ways, runners can train to avoid the Wall.

I spent much of the last 6 months running at low heart rate and following many of the guidelines in the Maffetone method. I will confidently tell you that Maffetone saved me. I was so broken at the end of the year and low HR/MAF training allowed me to not only keep running when I was so fatigued, but also to get through 100km Worlds fairly respectably and more importantly, it allowed me to fully recover. Plus, it is great "fat-burning" training.

But Maffetone has a fatal flaw: it only addresses one system of fitness. Maffetone claims that his method optimizes aerobic fitness and I will not dispute this claim. But fitness is a combination of aerobic abilities, anaerobic abilities, muscle strength and power, VO2max, lactic acid threshold, etc. And while MAF training may optimize aerobic fitness, all of those other systems go to shit. And that was my starting point for this round of training. The 4 weeks of truly dedicated marathon training was just not sufficient to develop all my systems or convert from being a “fat-burner” to being a “lactic acid burner.” I think the extra effort to maintain pace with the headwind (it was HUGE, I am telling you!), was enough to push me past my lactic acid threshold and my body wasn’t able to deal with it. CRASH! - I hit the Wall.

While it may have been a little arrogant to think I could get in shape for a marathon in 6-8 weeks when just about every respectable marathon training plan is 12-18 weeks, I still believe that a marathon at 6:30-6:40 pace is not an unreasonable goal for me. But in the future, I know I need to have a lot more consistency with marathon pace and tempo runs. I have spent the last three years turning myself into a 100 mile runner; I am going to need more than 6 weeks to transform myself into a marathon runner!

Still there are lots of positives from this whole event. I ran 16 miles at 6:38 average pace, which has got to be close to 16 mile PR (haha!). I enjoyed spending time with my brother, who PR’d in the half marathon and I got to see one of my cousins. I feel like this did jump start my fitness for the spring and I am excited to be back to the “heavy” training routine. And I am someone who gets super motivated by failure: When I dropped to a shorter distance in my first 50 miler, I signed up for a 100 miler. When I DNF’d Angeles Crest, I had it in my mind that I would go back for the course record (done!), and when I bombed at Western States, I came back so focused that I won the whole thing. So this is just one more thing to use for motivation and I am already thinking about when another marathon might fit in (late fall, using the base from 100km Worlds??). 

AND - I won the master’s prize! My brother told me at the finish that one “pretty old chick” finished ahead of me, but it turns out she was only 39, and so not officially old like me! While $300 is not much money and it certainly doesn’t change my finances, there is something very consoling about being handed a check! I treated my brother and cousin to lunch at Sweet Tomatoes, because the money was just burning a hole in my pocket and we needed to live it up! ;) Plus, all-you-can-eat salad and ice cream sounded like Heaven after my ten miles of Hell.
Going crazy at Sweet Tomatoes! Just after this my cousin lost his glasses in the lake due to his uncontrolled laughter as I entertained them both with hilarious stories of fecal transplant in the hospital (it's a real thing, seriously! You can Google it!). I always know the appropriate things to talk about at meal time!
Spending "quality time" with my brother. He napped for three and a half hours which is twice as long as it took him to run his race. That boy knows how to recover! 
 Next up: Lake Sonoma in six weeks! Hmmm, that really doesn’t sound like enough time!
Podium! This other woman wanted to break 3:00 and ran a 3:16. We were laughing that we both got paid for having missing our goals by so much. As they say,"Half the battle is just showing up!" I hope to do more than just show up next time I run a marathon!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

On Sponsorships - Part 2

(This has been festering in my Draft file for almost a month. I started it soon after my first Sponsorship post, and kept meaning to edit it or add more - perfectionism can be so paralyzing! - but I lost my enthusiasm and it never happened. Still, I liked all the discussion from the first post, and felt like I had more to say on the subject. So here is my "raw" part 2 on how sponsored athletes influence sales.)

Recently Montrail and Pearl Izumi essentially disbanded their ultra-teams despite having several top level runners on their teams such as Ellie Greenwood, Max King, Amy Sproston and Kaci Lickteig. This change in marketing strategy by these companies begs the question: Do sponsored athletes improve sales?

In response to a previous post, Gretchen Brugman admits that after seeing Ellie Greenwood on her blog in a black puffy jacket, she immediately ordered one for herself. I do think elite athletes can influence impulse purchases, because impulse purchases aren't based on logic or need, they are based on wants and emotions. Having one top level athlete in agreement with the product you desire may be all the reason you need to go ahead and buy that item you have been longing for. 

Impulse purchases aren't necessarily bad - Gretchen says she loves her jacket and has no regrets - but when it comes to products that typically cost upwards of a hundred dollars (shoes, jackets, hydration vests, sunglasses, etc.), how often do we buy these things on impulse alone? More often than not, people do at least a little internet research before shelling out their cash. When making an educated purchase consumers may compare price, manufacturer's specifications and online reviews. But I'd be surprised if anyone weighs which top athletes are wearing the products they are considering.

Of course, for someone to consider purchasing a product, they have to be aware that product exists. And sponsored athletes may bring that attention to a product. But do sponsored athletes really increase sales?

Ken Michal noted in his recent URP interview that he thought it was cool that Dave Mackey wore the same shoes as he did, but as a back-of-the-pack guy what he really cares about is if the shoes work for other back-of-the-packers, not if they work for fast guys like Dave Mackey. I know when I got into this sport the three goddesses of ultrarunning were Nikki Kimball, Lizzie Hawker and Kami Semick, all sponsored by The North Face at the time. Those three were my heroes and I wanted to be just like them, yet I have never bought a single item of The North Face gear. To me, being like them meant training hard, performing well in big races and having lots of amazing running experiences; it didn't mean dressing like them.

I think most consumers recognize the success of the elites is due primarily to their hard work, natural talent, and gritty racing tactics and very little to do with the equipment they wear. We continuously watch elite athletes switch sponsors with virtually no change in their level of performance. And I don't think one has to be too cynical to think the reason athletes change sponsors has more to do with money than the products themselves. As I heard from one elite last year, "I really loved working with [company X], but the deal from [company Y] was too good to pass up." Similarly, as Montrail announced a cut in funds to athletes, most of their athletes quickly abandoned (sponsor)ship.

And it is hard to take recommendations from sponsored athletes at face value due to the inherent biases they have from being sponsored. Don't get me wrong, I am sure most sponsored athletes are with companies they believe in and are using products they really like, but would you ever expect them to recommend a brand other than the one they are running for? For example a Western States rookie runner recently asked me, Amy Sproston and Denise Bourassa for hydration pack recommendations and we all three recommended packs from companies that sponsor us. I know we are all quite happy with our packs and the responses were not disingenuous, but being sponsored means we may not have the same breadth of pack experience as someone who has had to go into a store a try out multiple packs before picking one, or even if we had two packs we liked, we might not mention one from a competitor brand. (For the record, I paid full price for my Ultimate Direction AK vest long before I was sponsored. Then again, I am probably telling you this to promote my sponsor. ;)

A Forbes study from 2012 showed that recommendations from friends or family had the greatest weight in determining what people purchase. Other promotions can influence sales as well. For example, Garnier beauty products got a bigger boost in social media buzz and sales after a coupon promotion than after announcing Tina Fey as their celebrity endorsement (but indeed there was a significant boost with that endorsement). Ace Metrix, a company devoted to television and video analytics, studied 2,600 commercials and found those with celebrity endorsements were no more influential (and in some cases even slightly worse) than those without celebrities. A study in the Journal of Advertising Research concluded professional athlete endorsement equated to a 4% boost in sales if that athlete was performing well. There was a lesser boost from retired or "non-winning" athletes. 

Ultrarunning is different than a lot of sports because it is such a "niche" endeavor. Even the best in our sport are largely unknown to those outside of the sport. But I think participants in ultrarunning feel more connected to the elites than the fans do in other sports. Because ultrarunning is so low-key, the elites remain approachable and relate-able. On race day, everyone lines up together and deals with the same hardships of the course, creating a sense of shared experience between the front runners and the rest of the field. The elites hang out post-race and eat the same post-race meal. And because sponsorship dollars remain fairly low, most elites still have day jobs and other obligations like the non-elites. Those that are able to subsist on running alone certainly aren't multi-millionaires living a life of opulence. And because ultrarunning is low key, most pre- and post-race interviews resemble an amicable conversation, rather than a formal press conference. For all of these reasons, I think many of the elites remain approachable and in some ways feel like "friends" with trustworthy opinions.

Because sales is about exposure and word of mouth, I do think the amount of commercial money coming into this sport will increase, especially as the sport continues to grow. BUT, I think this is going to be in the form of sponsors casting a much broader net with sponsorship opportunities trickling down to "sub-elites", frequent racers, and other visible but non-elite athletes. While sponsorship money for top athletes is  increasing, I think true "professionalism" in our sport will remain elusive. Due to the demanding nature of ultramarathons, a single athlete can only run a handful of races in top form every year. Add to that the fairly high risk of injury/burnout and it makes sense why companies would want to invest multiple small amounts of money in many different runners than a large sum in a single high profile runner. So while many were surprised and dismayed by the dissolution of of the Pearl Izumi team, their "grassroots" ambassador program is not without merit or business sense. Those athletes who are trying to make a living will likely need an entire list of sponsors to make it work.

There's a lot more money coming into the sport these days compared to when I was getting started. That's a good thing for promising runners looking to get some free gear or even subsidize their racing, especially for those who are willing to work for it and have high visibility amongst the fans. But I don't see runners getting rich off of sponsorship anytime soon, which means my job will continue to be my biggest "sponsor". ;)

So how do sponsored athletes influence your purchases? Do you ever think top ultra-runners will be able to "go pro" and earn enough to own a home or support a family? 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Roaring Run Half Marathon

A good number of ultra-runners don't run marathons. They say they are too boring, or they aren't inspired, or they want to challenge themselves by doing longer distances. I think those excuses just sound better than the truth: marathons are really frickin' scary!!

When I decided to train for a marathon, I thought eight weeks would be plenty of time considering that I already had the endurance for the distance. But it has been more than four weeks and I am still coming around mentally to take on this challenge. You see, in training for an ultra, every day feels like a positive step getting me to the fitness level I want. But marathon training is a series of bitch slaps constantly reminding me that I am nowhere close to where I want to be. I go out for a hard effort that leaves me gasping for breath, only to see my cute 4 M tempo run didn't even hit marathon goal pace. It doesn't exactly instill confidence.

Which is likely the reason I was full of dread for the Roaring Run Half marathon on Saturday. It doesn't help that I ran my half PR (1:21:15) here two years ago so I had a very concrete historical data point for comparison. But I needed the workout if I ever plan to get where I want.
The race goes through the Larwood Covered Bridge over the Roaring River (actual river name) at mile 12.5 and had high school drummers pounding out an inspirational beat

The lead woman started at sub-6 pace (and held on for a 1:18 finish!), which is out of my league on my best days, so I was free to run my own race without getting swept into the competition. There was fatigue and slowing, but also a bit of mental ease. After gutting something out like the last 30 miles of 100km Worlds, running hard for a hour doesn't seem that bad. So mostly I just played little games in my head to pass the time and then it was over. But not watching the time did leave me rolling my eyes a bit at my finish time of 1:26:01. Oh well, not going to dwell on how lame that 0-1 looks right now.

Like the 10k two weeks ago, this is way off my best, but actually a bit better than I expected. And my 10k split was faster than the Cascade 10k. So I am going to call this a step in the right direction rather than a bitch slap reminding me that I am just a shadow of my prime self. Well, it it was both, but let's focus on the positive; I'll never make it another four weeks of marathon training if I don't!
2nd female, 1st old lady!

Post race celebration was a slumber party for Megan with fondue. I am also pretending that cheese and chocolate are excellent recovery foods!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Cascade 10k

As of this week, I am officially training for a marathon! But all the tempo runs, lactate threshold runs and marathon pace runs scare me so I am racing myself into marathon shape instead (well, and doing some of those other things, too). I've got a half marathon lined up in two weeks.

The Cascade 10k is kind of a special race because I ran it in 2008 two days after deciding I was done breast feeding and I was ready to get serious about running again after having my kids. Two days is not very much time to train and it took all my effort to achieve a 55 minute finish. But I've come a long way since then! So no better place than to jump into training once again than the Cascade 10k seven years later.

Not much to say about a 10k except they are hard. Like by mile 2, I was ready to slow down. But I didn't! Well, not until the turnaround at mile three, when the wind hit us all straight in the face along with pouring rain. I did manage to cross the line before any other women, but mostly because the fast ladies did the half marathon. My time of 39:36 is light years off of my PR (37:20) and reminds me that I have A LOT of work to do, but it's a lot better than starting from a 55 minute 10k time.

So the win doesn't exactly make me feel all warm and fuzzy but this week of training does. While I did three weeks with higher mileage than this week before Worlds, it was all slow miles. This was the first week in 6 months that I got in all my planned workouts including track, tempo, one day of weights (normally I like two, but I was scared with the race and my first week back), and a yoga session: 81 miles with no significant long run (I'm not worried about being able to finish 26 miles!). But mostly I am so happy just to enjoy running again and pushing my body hard without feeling destroyed afterwards.

Megan and Liam came out to race, too, only in the 2 miler. No racing for Mac- he's got a new coach who has him doing base miles only right now- but he volunteered. The course was incredibly straight forward for the two miler - run straight down a road for a mile and turn around at the cone - and with so many other people out, we figured this would be a good time to let the kids run a race by themselves, instead of jogging alongside them as we have done in previous 5k's.

Megan is just like me: no speed but a lot of heart. She wasn't racing for any podium spots, but she was about 5 seconds behind this girl as they came up the school driveway, and Megan gave it her all to edge her at the finish (for 6th place female) for an official time of 18:26 (Clock is off 15 minutes due to the half marathon early start and chip timing knocked off a couple seconds). She was all smiles at the finish. Afterwards she told me, "Mom, I was trying to run so hard I couldn't feel my legs at the end. It was like I was numb from the waist down!"

Things were a little different for Liam. He's never liked the cold and when it started raining right after the gun went off his happy attitude melted quicker than the Wicked Witch. He told me he had to walk because he was too cold to run. I tried to explain that that didn't make sense, but he was adamant that being cold meant he couldn't run. When I asked him if the race made him cry he told me, "Well, I wasn't crying but I had tears in my eyes." Let's just say, it wasn't his best race, but he finished (because he had no choice - he had to get back to the gym if he wanted a ride home!) I do feel sorry for him, but I also know he can be a big whiner. We took him home and got him all warmed up in our bath and then he was all smiles, too. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sponsorship Post Follow-up

Thank you everyone for the comments and positive feedback on the sponsorship post. The post got more than 5,000 views which is about 10 times the usual traffic on my small-time blog. And some of the comments were the nicest things anybody has ever said to me, so thank you. As Sarah, Liza and Scott said (all three awesome 40+ parent ultra-runners themselves, BTW), we relate best to people we find similar to ourselves. I hope to be an example to others that 40 isn't old (despite how many jokes I make about it!); that having kids is a reason to keep pursuing your dreams, not a reason to give them up; and that you can train even with kids and a full time job.

Sponsorship and professionalism are in their infancy in this sport and I think it makes sense that we as a community are talking about it and that we have a general understanding of it. Glad I could help start a conversation. And I do want to make it clear that in no way did I ever say 40 year olds aren't attractive! 

As I mentioned in the previous post, I have a few other points of discussion on sponsorship that I'd like to cover as well as another little blog "series" I'd like to do. Of course, I'll still do all the personal race and family posts, too, but I really like the idea of "blog journalism." I enjoy the writing and I like the interaction. There's just not much to discuss after a race report and there are a million other ones already out there! I do apologize for not being able to respond to all the comments: firewalls at work prevent me from using FB or blogger during the day and my early bedtime means I don't always get around to it at night. Just know I appreciate all the comments.

Happy Trails (or roads, I am an equal opportunity runner)! -Pam