Friday, September 24, 2010


One week after the IT band pain train and I'm feeling noticeably better. I went to see a sports doctor on Monday who set me up with a referral to the physical therapist that helped me overcome my inflamed synovium in my left knee last year. He's very focused on proper form, stretching, and strengthening, which is exactly what I need (he actually coached me on sitting and standing posture, too).

The sports doctor gave me a few pages of things to do, so I've been doing standing thera-band exercises, exercises like the classic IT band scissor technique, a number of different stretches for the IT band and related muscles. I've also been doing the foam roller throughout the day and, oh dear, has the IT band softened up. It was incredibly tense just a few days ago, full of scar tissue, and the muscles surrounding it were fulls of knots. I've started doing it on the right IT band too, and it isn't much better.

I'll be taking a stroll out either this afternoon or tomorrow morning to test it out and see how it's feeling. I think this is going to be resolved by the end of October.

My tentative schedule of races I want to run is below. I will not make it to all of them, but I'd rather have a nice spread of options than try to focus too much on a few races.

 Pinhoti 100
November 6-7 in Sylacauga, Alabama

North Face Endurance Challenge 50
December 4 in San Francisco, California

Bridle Trails Winter 50K
January 1 in Kirkland, Washington

Rocky Raccoon 100
February 5 in Huntsville, Texas
Chuckanut Mountain 50k
March 19 in Bellingham, Washington

Capitol Peak 50
April 25 in Olympia, Washington

Sunflower Relay and Iron
May 7 in Twisp/Mazama, Washington

Western States 100
June 25 in Auburn, California

WS has a lottery entry with a ~20% chance of getting in, so I need an alternate race, which would be...

Making a return would be a nice consolation for not getting into Western States
Mountains to Sound 100
June 26 in North Bend/Seattle 

White River 50
July 31 in Crystal Mountain, Washington

Leadville 100
August 20 in Leadville, Colorado

Doubtful I can sneak in to this, like WS it is very difficult to get in.

Pine to Palm 100
September 18 in Ashland, Oregon

Monday, September 20, 2010

Maturing at Pine to Palm

It took a lot of courage for me to approach the Seattle Bar aid station captain and say, "I'm calling it, I need to DNF, please cut my wristband." I had done everything right, I was on pace for a sub-24 hour finish, I was in 33rd and feeling fresh...with the exception of a left IT band that, 15 miles before, had blown up.

Drifting around a corner at Pine to Palm.

The day before we had arrived at our hotel in scenic Grants Pass overlooking the Rogue River. The Siskiyous are a sight to behold: rugged peaks carpeted by dense evergreens with golden field grass meadows and rock-strewn valleys. We drove to the Williams Grange for our pre-race briefing, registration, and dinner. There were a few hiccups (only two medical check-ins for all the runners), but as always it was a great opportunity to survey the field and meet a few new people.

I woke up at 4:00 to empty my system and get in a couple of Clif Bars and a banana. Arriving at the starting line at dark, most of the runners, myself included, slipped on a headlamp in case we arrived at the trails before sunrise (first six miles were run on paved and gravel roads). Like most of the other runners, I chose not to use my lamp and instead spent the first hour of the run in darkness. Within a mile, the pack had thinned out. I was behind a group that included the women's race winner-to-be Amy Sproston and ahead of a few individuals. Running relatively alone in the serene darkness across rolling hills through misty farmland was serene and relaxing. Fog hugged the ground while low stratus settled along the hillsides, the early-morning sky obscured by decks of high clouds. Smoke rose out of a few chimneys and some farmers were already beginning their day. I can't imagine a better first hour in an ultra. However, I felt my IT band pulling on my knee and hoped it would loosen up before the trail.

At the first aid station I topped off my bottle with water and descended two hundred feet into a meadow before reaching thicker trees and the first climb, a staggering scramble up to 7,500 ft with no aid station for over 11 miles. Right on schedule it started to drizzle at 7:00, though the trees protected us for the most part. I hitched onto the back of a train of relatively experienced runners, passing several folks who were already breathing heavily early into the climb. As we climbed above 3,000 ft, the leaves covering the trail thinned as we entered evergreen territory. By about 6,000 ft the underbrush had disappeared, with sparse poison oak and a few other ground-dwellers blanketing the mossy dirt between tall pines. The wind howled through the trunks, and at this point on the windward side of the mountain, we were above the clouds. Gazing over mammoth boulders and blown-down trees to the cloud and fog-shrouded valleys below was breathtaking. My breaths lost some strength from the subtle effects of the altitude. Suddenly the trees disappeared and a rocky crag came into view - the top of the first climb.

 I use rocket boosters on the downhill to eke out some extra speed.

Another runner and I were buffeted by strong winds and driving rain as we slid down a muddy and rocky scree to to the mountaintop meadow. As we reentered the forest we caught up to another pack of runners and slipped past them on the switchbacks. The ride down to the bottom was exhilarating with multiple stream crossings and twisty switchbacks. There were a few hair-raising moments as we skirted the steep slopes and rock screes on the single-track trail, which appeared to have given way at a few locations during stronger rainstorms and contributed to the piles of debris down slope. We kept expecting the aid station, but were instead greeted with trails peppered with fist-sized rocks, roots, and 20%+ inclines, the latter of which resulted in a lot of sliding on heels and more or less ricocheting off of tree trunks. I could feel my IT band pulling below my knee, but I figured that I could tighten the compression strap at the aid station and manage it for the rest of the race.

We caught up to another pack of runners, choosing to cruise with them into the station rather than try to overtake them. We were less than a mile out as we ran down stream gullies loaded with boulders and rocks. Without warning, a runner in front of me ground to a near stop and I piled into him, tumbling over his back and slamming my knee - my bad knee - into the broadside of a boulder, hitting the sore spot on the outside where the IT band attaches. I hobbled into the aid station with the other runners and we all hit the dirt and gravel road for a long 13 mile slog to Seattle Bar in the refreshing light rain.

 This illustration details the pain train that hit my IT band.

I quickly realized several things: my IT band below my knee was burning, it had started to feel stiff at my hip, and I could no longer kick my left leg back and had to adjust my stride to more of a shuffle. The latter was what worried me the most. I have a mid-foot strike and tend to pull my leg up and back with my hamstring, rather than bound and stretch it forward which would result in a heel-strike. That backward-pulling action very quickly became intensely painful, so I was no longer moving forward with the same strength as I normally would.

By the third aid station, I was not feeling good. I considered dropping, but the aid station folks said that it was fairly flat for the next seven miles to Seattle Bar and my IT band may loosen up and feel better. Four miles later, I my hip stiffness had turned into a mild pain and I could feel the tendon popping over both my hip and knee joints. The race took a turn onto a trail with two miles to the aid station. It was riddled with short but intensely steep hills, and I could barely get down the 50 foot descents without wincing. I pulled into Seattle Bar at just after noon, right on target for a 19:45 finish - that included the limping and the futile attempts to adjust my compression strap. While I talked with some people at the aid station, I realized that this was my race, and only I could make a decision about whether to drop or continue. I had spent the last three hours coming to grips with this reality, but it was still difficult.

Aid station volunteers are there to help you refill your bottles, but they are also there for psychological support. It just lifts your spirits to round a corner to cheers and happy folks doing everything they can to get you to the finish. But when the medical volunteers and other runners listen to you weigh your options and tell you, "it's better to cut your losses and have a two-week, rather than two-month recovery", you realize that it just isn't worth ruining your body. If this had occurred at mile 83, I would have had no problem saying "screw it" and just slugging it out for another several hours. However, I was not even a third of the way to the finish, had three nasty hills left, and already could barely stand running on the flats. If I managed to make it to the finish I would incur degeneration in my tendons and damage my bursae so much that recovery would take many months. Not only that, but the race would be miserable. Sure, you can say that ultras are all about misery and overcoming the pain, but the sore muscles and the psychological battles are transient and a different sort of suffering than a musculoskeletal injury. This was an expensive DNF, but in hindsight now, I recognize that my health is worth more than the entry fee.

Minus the injury, I had been doing everything right up until the moment I dropped out. Unlike the nutrition fiasco at White River, where I had only managed to consume 800 calories by mile 26, I packed in a whopping 2000 calories by mile 31, more than doubling my calories per mile and leaving only a minor calorie deficit. That worked out to an average intake between 300-350 calories per hour, certainly the upper limit for someone of my size - anymore and it would not be digested.

I ate early and ate regularly, throwing down Gu packets, Oreos slathered in peanut butter, fig newtons, and pretzels, along with a Clif bar at mile 14. All without stomach issues. Hammer Perpetuem, even at full strength, is much easier to down and less-cloying than CLIP2, despite supplying twice the calories and much more fat. I attribute my nutrition success to the Perpetuem, as I imagine the fats really helped to calm my stomach from the start and prime it for the 24-hour eating contest that would have been. It has no aftertaste and washes out the sweet aftertaste of the standard ultra faire. While I had dropped some weight, I am unconcerned, as the water weight tied up with carbo-loading can equate to 3+ pounds of weight loss. Minor weight loss is easily remedied with extra fluids and salt.

I'll also add that beer at the pasta dinner is the way to go. Hear me out, because I have heard a lot of people complain about dehydration from the alcohol. Yes, it is a much stronger diuretic than caffeine, but drinking adequate water between the dinner and the race can more than make up for it. It's a great way to get in zero-residue carbohydrates and it relaxes pre-race nerves. I mean, listen, the Tarahumara get smashed on corn liquor before their big races, this is only a pint of porter.

Further, despite climbing the longest and highest peak in my running career and passing a swathe of runners on the downhill, my quads were not trashed at the bottom like they were at White River. And this was all in Vibrams over technical trails much worse than I've trained on. The Five Fingers are by no means a handicap and I feel as though I'm starting to master the art of downhill running with minimal protection - 4mm of midsole and 4mm of compressive outsole with no support of any kind. No, my arches are not sore. I'm at the point where I am subconsciously adapting weight distribution on my foot during foot-strike - I can hit some pretty rough rocks and debris without pain, instead letting my foot relax and conform to the obstacles. I still need to get comfortable with putting my hips forward and need to engage my core a bit more - "controlled falling" versus leaning back and breaking.

I will rebuild myself. I am taking a week off of all exercise, at least, and will work with the awesome folks at my university to speed up my IT-band's recovery and strengthen the deficient muscles responsible for this injury. My sports physician and therapist believe that if I have the dedication, I may well get over this well within a month. As the pain has all but subsided now, they are fairly certain that there is no serious damage.

I think the North Face Endurance Challenge in San Francisco would be a good avenue back into racing. The 50 miler is less strenuous than these recent races, with short and numerous climbs rather than staggering mountain ascents. I will make my 100 return at Rocky Raccoon in Huntsville, Texas this February. The 5-loop course had 6,000 ft of gain over the entire distance and is one of the more famous ultras. Plus, I've never been in Texas outside of the airports and I would love to race in some snow, which I hear is common that time of year. However, if my recovery speeds along, there is the Pinhoti 100 down in Alabama and the Ozark 100 in Missouri, both early in November.

With the exception of my IT band, I finished feeling good. That I was racing so well made it all the harder to approach the aid station captain and take the DNF. Now, however, it feels reassuring, because I had handled my nutrition so well and I was having a good time, savoring the scenery and the camaraderie much more than at White River. That tells me that, barring injury, I am prepared for a 100.

Bring it.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

In which I am twice my age

" is probably written by a male somewhere between 36-50 years old. The writing style is personal and happy most of the time." 

Well it's good to know I'm happy, I suppose.


Pie chart that shows the Age, 13-17 3%, 18-25 8%, 26-35 11%, 36-50 30%, 51-65 26%, 66-100 21%


Pie chart that shows the Tonality, academic 9%, personal 91% 

Monday, September 6, 2010

"No, no, no!"

That's the response of my left it-band after my last trail run. I believe I jumped back into training too fast after my 50 mile race by doing a 40-mile long run on the Pacific Crest Trail just a week afterward (hey, it was the weekend with free parking and wilderness permits!) My brain was itching for another adventure and a hefty dose of endorphins, so I wasn't quite thinking straight.

Things took a bad turn several days later as I went to Cougar Mountain for the 14-mile "grand tour" loop. On the way up to Wilderness Peak, I felt some odd twinges in my left glute. Within a minute, I was unable to lift my left leg. Literally, I couldn't do it. My sciatic nerve was getting pinched and was letting me know it. I turned back and gingerly made my way back down the mountain. I took the next week off running and spent a couple of hours per day stretching, rolling my hip on a foam roller and my butt over a tennis ball, and doing some self-massage. On my first day back I was happy to be rid of that pinched nerve, but a new and much more insidious issue started to crop up after a few runs - the dreaded it-band syndrome.

My hip joint was sore to the touch. Okay, I thought, this is an upper it-band issue. I just need to work on stretching the psoas, glutes, and tensor fascia, strengthening my hip adductors, and icing my hip, and this will resolve. I set up a sports massage with my go-to massage clinic, as well. Fast forward another week or so, and as I expected, the hip problems are on their way out (and completely gone right now). That's good news, so let's go back to Cougar!

I had no problems going uphill, in fact all of the extra stretching really loosened me up and it felt like the climb took less effort. Midway through my descent on the steep switchbacks down to Wilderness Creek, I started to feel a tightness in an odd spot: the outside of my left knee. By the bottom that tightness had evolved into a dull pain. Within a few hours after the run, the pain disappeared, but I know it's going to be there the next time I go down a big hill.

I have two weeks to get this issue wrapped up as well as I can. I am grateful that the hip and upper it-band issues have been resolved. They caused me pain during the day that flared up during runs and made it impossible to maintain good form. This outside knee pain, which is clearly at the insertion point of the it-band, is much more mild and more of a dull ache than anything, but it's still worrisome. Because in two weeks I'm running the Pine to Palm 100 which has 20,000+ ft of gain. That's a lot of downhill to cover, and as anyone who runs ultras knows, small issues can blow up in a hurry after a few hours on the trails.

So what's my plan? Go to war with this thing. Redouble my self-guided therapy, which now consists of five different it-band stretches, three strengthening exercises to target both hip adductors and abductors, icing, massage, and myofascial release with my tennis ball and roller. I have a deep history with chronic injuries, and if I've learned anything, it's that persistance and attention from the onset of pain is critical to avoid as much degeneration as possible and return to full mileage.

If I still have the pain, will I slug it through the 100? Probably. I'm young and can get away with a lot right now.

And Now, for Something Completely Different...

It's been a good year since I've done a speed workout or raced anything shorter than 50 miles. That's unfortunate though, because while I live for long distances, a race that doesn't require the good part of a day and continuous refueling is a welcome respite. And a little nostalgic. Running cross country in high school was probably the most fun and rewarding experience in my life and shaped who I am today.

 The Stanford Invite was the first big meet outside of Washington that we went to - and it was humbling, running with the best teams on the West Coast (I'm 2180, by the way).

So it was with excitement that I went over on Saturday to Lower Woodland for the Seattle Prep Fr. Sullivan Alumni Run. It's a labor day tradition where the cross country team runs their first time trial of the season with any able and willing alumni on the 2-mile Lower Woodland course. I got to catch up with my former coaches and some former teammates, though I was sadly the only one from my class in attendance (lame, because a lot of friends I ran cross country with still live in the area).

And holy crap, the size of the cross country team. There were about 150 kids on the team, almost as large as my graduating class. That's got to be about one-fifth of the school. As I toed the starting line, the other alumni and I were swallowed up by a mass of freshmen, though I can't be sure because to me they all look like kids. The race starts wide on a soccer field and narrows within 100m to a gravel path. If I was going to have a good race, I needed to get through the gap early (this was my strategy in high school, as well).

About to pass someone (Andrew Walker's brother?) on the way up the first hill.

The gun went off and I jolted up to the gap in eighth place. The pace through the first 400m as we rounded the dirt track was spot on given the fast start. By the bottom of the first hill, a pack of front runners had developed, with about 10 or 11 guys within ten seconds of the leader. I passed a Prep runner on the way up to the top of the hill and latched onto the heels of another on way down. I was getting some ridiculous speed down the path and almost lost it at the corner at the bottom, skidding around a tree on some loose gravel.

Cruising down the straightaway. Seriously, I hate this part. It's like running down a long hallway.

I believe that the worst part of both the two mile and 5K Lower Woodland course is the long, flat, gravel straightaway. People always looked at me sideways when I mention that, especially since the 5K course includes "widowmaker", a short but agonizingly steep scramble up to the start of the camel humps, three undulating hills that progressively whittle weaker runners down. But I loved hills in cross country, because I knew that other runners feared them. I liked to turn terrain into a psychological weapon, powering up each hill. While other runners would slow down and limp over the crest, I would continue to push the pace so that I was already running at top speed only a few strides into the downhill. Imagine how crushing it feels to watch as someone blazes past you, seemingly oblivious to the hill both of you just climbed.

On the straightaway, the name of the game is steady pacing. There is no variation of terrain, no curves to cut through or hills to master - just you and the other runners. The repetitive strides turn into monotony and it's easy to lose your focus. Not only that, but the unrelenting pace starts to take its toll, and you realize, shit, it's still another mile, and I have to pass through this thing again.

As we passed through the grass field and the skate park a second time, I started to make my move with a little over half a mile to go. I caught up to another runner on the way up the hill and blew past him just after the crest, catching up to an alumnus who had previously been leading the race. The front runners had put some distance on us, but we were still a coherent train. The second straightaway was over in a flash as everyone shifted into fifth, settling into their positions before the final sprint. I am positive that we were all just a tick under redlining at this point.

The sprint was not eventful, as we all kicked on the afterburners on the final turn and held our respective positions. Moments after crossing the finish line I was getting my breath back and...6th place, 3rd for the alumni. Hey, not bad for an ultra runner in a 2 miler.

 Six years ago at Lower Woodland in the 2 mile time trial. My desire to keep running short races is not to relive high school, but to experience that same rush that only a short race can bring.

I think that next season I'll be incorporating shorter races - 5K's and such - into my schedule between ultramarathons to break the regularity of my pace in training and include some fast running to keep my running form in check and my mind fresh. There's the nostalgia, too, but also the race strategy and experience of it all. There is time to make a mistake in your execution. Positioning becomes important, as does your path through the course, because taking the turns and the terrain efficiently can make all the difference in the world, but it's really about going balls to the wall for 3 miles. But even with all of that, I find that my mind is surprisingly calm and free during these races, as if the body is shunting calories from the brain into the muscles. It's unlike the end of an ultra, where it becomes a psychological battle with your brain as it does all it can to convince you to stop.

There's a moment of zen in a 5K, right around 2-2.4 miles. The middle mile, always the worst, was a struggle to remain focused, but suddenly, everything becomes crystal clear. Your mind empties, thoughts and ideas drift away, and all that remains is instinct. At that moment, I lose my sense of self as I am enveloped in the fabric of the race, and I awaken two steps after the finish. Waking up from a dream, it's difficult to remember what happened, but if you leave all of yourself on the course, it will become ingrained in your memory forever.