Sunday, July 11, 2010

Introduction and Some Tidbits

I'm not big on introduction posts - I think it's better to hit the ground running (bad pun).

 Looking out over Squak and Cougar Mountain from West Tiger #1

I'm in training for the White River 50 on July 31, and the Pine to Palm 100 on September 18. I'm really excited for the Pine to Palm, because this is the inaugural year for the race. Normally, that might raise suspicions about how well it will be run, but Rogue Valley Runners is putting it on; they've done a great job of laying out detailed topographic maps and elevation profiles for each section, and it sounds like the aid stations will be well stocked with SUCCEED! products.

I always like to have an idea of how long a race or long run will take, and since transitioning into trail running over the past year, I've learned quite a bit. My previous long runs were on wide, soft dirt trails with under a few hundred feet of elevation gain. I ran most often at the Redmond Watershed, occasionally heading to Discovery Park. These trails are well-maintained, well-traveled, and mostly free from trail debris. When I decided to take the plunge and start running in the Issaquah Alps, I assumed I would be able to keep up my 8 mph pace, maybe slowing a teensy bit for hilly stretches.

 Near the base of West Tiger #3

Oh, how naive I was. My first foray into "real" trail running was West Tiger Mountain, specifically up the Section Line Trail. I was brought to my knees at the summit, having traversed a 20% grade for well over a mile. On subsequent return trips I continued to extend my runs, first crossing the three West Tiger peaks, then journeying past those to East Tiger, then to Middle Tiger, etc. Through this all, I've learned a few rules of thumb with regard to pace:

-Every 1,000ft of elevation gain adds approximately 12 minutes to the run. This reduces my actual pace considerably on trails with huge gains, like the "twelve summits" Tiger Mountain run, which has a gain of 11,000ft over 34 miles*.
-On trails with downhill sections with under a ~10% grade, I can make up some of the time lost on the ascent. Steep downhills, on the other hand, are a different beast. Heading down the Section Line trail on Tiger, at a 20%+ grade, is very slow, mostly because it's incredibly easy to turn a simple footing mistake into a disaster
-Fatigue from running hills isn't so bad. Fatigue from navigating nasty trails with rocks, roots, and generally poor footing, is worse.

*The White River 50 has a gain of 9,000ft over 50 miles, and the Pine to Palm, 20,000ft over 100. I like to think that training on trails with much more elevation gain per mile is going to make the hills at the end of these ultras less soul-crushing.

Rocky substrate halfway up West Tiger #3

My first few extended runs on steep trails resulted in blown-out quads, but those are far behind me. What really gets to me after about 20 miles is the footing. Some of the trails on these runs are really nasty: rocks of all sizes all over the trails, single-track switchbacks with mounds of tree roots every 20 paces, and lots of fallen trees and debris. This puts a strain on the ankles, knees, and core muscles. As far as form:

-Short, quick steps are absolutely critical. The longer your stride, the harder it is to adjust your footing and avoid obstacles.
-Pick up your feet! I've face-planted more than once late in a run because I didn't pick up my feet and caught a root.
-Use your arms and core to twist into and out of sharp turns and navigate difficult sections. However, it's important not to tense up and remain loose. The more relaxed you are, the more you are able to make emergency adjustments.

Just past the hiker's hut on West Tiger #1, NIER Bypass trail

I should add: I run in Vibram Fivefingers, specifically the Trek model. I found that I have much more control on difficult trails in minimalist shoes than in other conventional shoes, including cross country racing flats. The flexible nature of the sole allows my foot to conform to uneven footing and 'grip' stones and roots. This runs counter to the paradigm that trail shoes need to be more rugged than normal running shoes. I have yet to experience an ankle roll or some similar injury so common to runners with rigid-soled shoes. True, on downhills I have to navigate much more mindfully, but that isn't necessarily a drawback.

 There is a trail that extends through this picture - try to find it!

I've toughened the ligaments and joints in my feet enough that a direct impact on a stone or poor foot placement will not lead to an acute injury. When I used to wear shoes, my foot was bony and all of my tendons were visible. Now that's all covered in a thick layer of muscle and the pad beneath my metatarsophalangeal joints is much thicker.

Scrambling out of the pine forest to the clearing above.

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