Friday, March 17, 2017

Let me eat cake

I got myself into a bit of trouble over the winter nutritionally, but I'm eating my way back out of it.

In the last few months, I've been trying to cut down on my sugar intake. I don't think anyone can convincingly argue that sugar is really good for you, and it is increasingly suspect as the culprit in numerous health issues. I'd still eat some directly before, during or after a hard workout, but I tried to reduce as much as possible outside those times. I didn't totally cut out other carbohydrate sources - I'd still have a sweet potato with almond butter & cinnamon for breakfast (SO GOOD), pasta for dinner once a week, make pad thai on Mondays, have rice with fish and veggies a couple of times a week - but I kept my portions very moderate in an effort to strip off some of the Christmas pudding. I'd make Tanker a bowl of pasta but eat mine out of a mug; he'd have a dinner plate of pad thai and I'd have a dessert plateful.

I fell into two traps - one external, and one internal. The external one was in listening once again to all the dietary advice out there for both athletes and non-athletes alike to eschew carbohydrates in favour of more protein and fat. Whether you're calling it Paleo, Primal, or just low carb, there has been a huge push in recent years to reduce people's intake of sugars and starches in the name of health and weight loss. Many elite endurance athletes have made successful transitions to a low carbohydrate intake with no loss of performance, so how bad could it be? So, in an effort to curb my voracious appetite, I'd eat bushels of vegetables and a fair bot of meat, adding nuts, coconut and avocado for healthy fat sources.

Roast chicken, zucchini, onion, garlic & mushrooms - a delicious low-carb dinner.

The internal trap that snared me was thinking that winter equates to the off season. I tapered a bit after Christmas for the RUN4RKIDS 8-hour in early January, then had to take a few days off afterward for recovery from both the race and emergency dental surgery. I was rebuilding distance as the Frosty Trail 3-hour came 'round later that month, and didn't even take a single day off post-race because I didn't feel I needed it. I generally figure that it takes me 1 week to recover completely (enough for another hard effort) for every hour of racing, so that would mean I was finally back on my feet from RUN4RKIDS by March 4th - less than 2 weeks ago. 

By that time I'd run over 400km since the 8-hour. As of Wednesday I passed 700km for the year so far, and my average for the last month has been over 75km per week. This actually represents about the largest training block I've ever put in. The idea that I "didn't need" the extra calories a slice or two of bread would provide sounds patently ridiculous when put in that perspective, which I finally gained just a few weeks ago.

Just a few kilometers here and there..

I was tired. So freakin' tired. I had just finished that 72.5km week and was ready to lay down dead, before I even started adding back any cycling or swimming to my training. All I was doing is running, walking a bit, and my usual strength work - I was even getting more sleep than usual, but nothing was helping. I decided I needed a recovery week, so that's where the 66.8km bar fits in - I was just too shagged out to do any more.

Throughout all this, though, my weight was increasing. Despite being hungry around the clock and running more than I have since the build for Dirty Girls last year, my clothes were getting tighter and the scale was moving the wrong way. I was chubby, cranky (I have no idea how Tanker put up with me!), cold, hungry and utterly disheartened.

I really do like carrots, though..

Finally it dawned on me - I was in almost the exact same place I'd been in 2011. Having just figured out that gluten and I couldn't be friends (it's not me - it's definitely you) and hearing all about the wonderful results people were getting with Paleo, I decided to give it a try while training for my first half iron distance triathlon. I had the same result the last time: weight gain, fatigue, irregular hormonal cycles, and utter bafflement as to why this wasn't working the way everyone said it should.

Then I remembered some stuff I had read back then, about how females may actually suppress their thyroid function by reducing carbohydrate intake too much. I did some quick searching for "hypothyroid symptoms" and immediately knew I was on to something. The fatigue; feeling cold all the time; muscle soreness/failure to recover from workouts; weight gain; heavy, painful & irregular menstruation (yeah, TMI - sorry guys!); crappy memory and even worse mood...even the outer third of my eyebrows being nearly non-existent and the weird hoarseness (without having a sniffle to explain it) to which I'd awoken the day after a very long, hard was all there on the list.


Having finally put two and two together, I started adding back carbohydrates and dialing back the fat intake. I started on Monday, February 20th with a couple of simple things - a small bowl of oatmeal, a bit more pad thai for dinner - and by the very next day I felt like a brand new person! Enough that I was able to energetically run on my lunch, ride the trainer after work, then hit the pool before a late dinner.

Since then, I've been able to increase my training again, I'm no longer constantly freezing or starving, and the stubborn pudge is finally starting to fall away. Both the scale and the fit of my clothing are showing definite improvement - as of last night there is much less of me poking out from the edges of my swimsuit - and I have much better energy both during and outside of training. I'm also much, much less miserable to be around! My experience is far from unique: searching will yield numerous pages of other women's stories of failure to thrive on reduced carbohydrate intake, and a few brave scientists are finally publishing material about the effect of your sex (and thus your hormone levels) on your dietary needs. There is also new research being done that indicates the Female Athlete Triad (TL;DR: restricting calories resulting in lack of menstrual cycle & bone loss) - traditionally associated with disordered eating and very low body fat levels - may actually have more to do with the body's perception of energy availability regardless of body composition. Since "fat burns in a carbohydrate flame", my poor body may have felt that I was so severely lacking in calories it needed to halt all non-essential metabolic functions.

Muffins to the rescue!

I still wish to keep my consumption of sugar to a minimal level (contrary to the first pic in this post, and really the title as well..), so simply buying a bag of cookies isn't the way I intend to solve this. I'm still trying to restrict simple sugars to before, during and after training, but I've started baking again - the cranberry orange pumpkin seed muffins seen above were last weekend's fuel, and I'll probably celebrate St. Paddy's Day by baking a loaf of soda bread this evening. You may note that there was a drop in run mileage last week (from 84.4km to 79.5km), but that was due to trail conditions being a sketchy mess of frozen and thawed, claggy mud under the snow that fell last week. I was on the trails moving for just as long; I simply didn't make it as far.

The sunshine was super pretty, even though it was cold as hell.

Lest you think I may have impaired my fat burning abilities (which admittedly are highly valuable for ultrarunning, where you're moving at moderate effort for hours longer than your carbohydrate stores and GI tract can provide), Sunday's run was actually 2h20m of trail running & hiking done on nothing but water - I'd had a bagel with a fried duck egg and peameal bacon for breakfast, all washed down with a cup of coffee about 90mins beforehand, but took in no calories along the way.

The hiking because of stuff like this.

I still had sufficient energy in the last half-hour to run sustained on the paved Downtown Trail and CNR Spurline Trail in Guelph after leaving GORBA, too, so I certainly wasn't bonking. That tells me that a couple of weeks of increased carbohydrate intake haven't ruined my ability to use fat as fuel; it's just giving me my life back!


So the lesson here is that what works for one person may not be what works for you. I'm not interested in being told I was doing Paleo/Primal/low carb "wrong" - there's increasing research being published indicating it's a poor option for endurance athletes, and I am pretty solid in my conviction (having tried reducing CHO twice to highly detrimental effect) that a higher carbohydrate approach is the best approach for me personally. If you'd like to take your own nutrition in another direction, I'm not here to say you're wrong; we're all an experiment of one, and I wish you success in finding the best way to fulfill your own dietary needs! If you're not seeing the results you want from a low carb approach, though - especially if you're female - you owe it to yourself to consider that protein and fat may not be the saviours they're touted to be for you.

One last note about weight loss for athletes: I recently read something that really resonated with me, because I have been known to restrict calories as much as possible while attempting to reach race weight. This is a quote from a fellow who is currently experimenting with a pure "calories in/calories out" approach to weight loss by eating nothing but burgers, pizza, ice cream, cake and doughnuts:

"For weight loss, I used to have the mindset of trying to get away with as few calories as possible. This project has changed my mindset to try and get in as many calories as I can while still losing weight. The difference is remarkable just in terms of daily energy and workout energy" - Rob Gray 

So if you're going hard on the trails all day, maybe give yourself the leeway to do a little hard at the dinner table as well.

Who wants to say no to homemade chocolate chip zucchini bread anyway?

Don't get me wrong - vegetables are still the number one mainstay of my nutrition, with my sweet potato breakfast, morning snack of carrots & cucumbers, daily afternoon salad and copious vegetables with dinner. But, I'm really enjoying having french toast and bagels again for weekend brunches, not to mention my homemade goodies. Speaking of which, I'm going home to do some baking!

Friday, March 10, 2017


A couple of people have asked me recently if I'm on Strava. While I've been aware of it since its inception a few years ago, I've never had the slightest interest in joining. Why? Well, since you asked..

** WARNING - this gets a little messy **

I first heard about Strava through the most predictable of places - the grimy ball pit of type-A peter-measuring known as the Slowtwitch forums. It's right up the typical forum user's alley: using the app to record your ride or run gives you a bunch of data about your workout and posts it to their social network (plus any others on which you choose to splash your training stats, like twitter or facebook), and you get to claim KOM (King of the Mountain, or QOM/Queen of the Mountain) status for any running or cycling route or section on which you've posted the fastest time. Others can offer comments on your training sessions and try to beat your best splits, which is the "social network" aspect. They even developed their own metric called a "suffer score" for each workout, which is basically TSS (Training Stress Score) but with more chest hair and possibly a trucker hat.

None of my training or racing will ever have happened, then.

I'm sure there are nice people on Strava, but all four of them of them are likely to be drowned out by the legions of faster-than-thou jerks whose sole purpose in life is to crush their "competition" in pursuit of a personal validation in the form of a little crown icon beside their name. There are articles published just for people who are desperate to have their name at the top of the leaderboard on a segment. The internet is rife with tales of people cheating the system by doing anything from riding straight through a red light at an intersection on a segment (at least one has died in the attempt) through straight up hopping in their car and driving it in order to claim a KOM.

It doesn't come with the shirt, but maybe it should.

Now, the folks who have asked me if I use the app aren't like that. They're good-natured folks, but they're also very strong runners. Strava is unapologetically geared toward the pointy end of the endurance field, whereas I amble along gracelessly at the blunt end, looking more to enjoy a lovely day on the trail when training than to deliver a message about my (lack of) physical prowess. Nowhere was this more apparent than last Sunday, when I attended the sanctioned Sulphur Springs training run at beautiful Dundas Valley Conservation Area.

There were about 50 people there to run the course, so it seemed like I might have some company along the way instead of my usual solo excursion. Nope - I spent the entire morning basically by myself, way behind the rest of the runners. This was partly because I started a little late (paused to smooch my sweetheart and had to re-start my GPS watch after it decided to time out), and partly due to a lineup at the portajohn in the parking lot near the 3k mark (which lost me about 5mins, but I had no choice about stopping). However, I'd also pause here and there along the way to take photos of the stunning scenery: the -11c/12f air had covered everything in a thick layer of frost and iced up the edges of the winding streams that glinted in the bright morning sunlight. So very different from the overcast, windy and snow flurry-filled afternoon/evening I'd spent there the Saturday beforehand!

Too bad some dork got into one of the photos.

If taking a moment here and there to appreciate a gorgeous place I'm privileged to have so close to home is wrong, I seriously don't want to be right. I'm good with being slow and alone, and still feel fortunate to have the health and ability that allows me to explore most of its beauty in just a couple of hours or so.

I'd also shot myself in the foot if I held any hope of keeping up with some of the speedy folks who came down to Dundas Valley to run that morning. I'd just finished a 3h20m run at Huron Natural Area at 6:30pm - about 13.5hrs before the Sulphur Springs training run began, with a whopping 6hrs of sleep in between. I was exhausted before I'd even taken a step, but that was part of the idea (well, except the lack of sleep): back-to-back longer runs with the second on very tired legs in an effort to prepare me for the 100km I'll be trying to cover at the end of May. I wanted time on my feet and to emphasize some power hiking, because I'll be doing a lot of that in my next couple of races. I also had to take my time through a few sections of frozen mud with deep footprints in them, as I have a damaged ankle that I can't afford to mess up any further by rolling it on the uneven footing.  In the Strava world, none of that matters - my caution, fatigue and specific aims for the workout don't matter, and I'll be directly compared to someone who may be coming off a rest day that was there for a tempo run.


Even assuming I wanted to get sucked into comparing myself to others and competing with them day in and day out, I'd lose almost every damn time. The areas where I live and train are home to many elite-level runners who are faster while ticking along at their easy, long trail run pace than I'll ever be in a stand-alone 5k road race. I'm perfectly capable of denigrating my own performance without having it shoved in my face daily that I'm far from speedy - I have races to do that for me, or (for a Strava-esque experience) I can just look at the Segments page in Garmin Connect. My odds on ever grabbing a QOM anywhere that I run are near zero, with about 100% chance I'd receive an email within 24hrs telling me that I'd lost it to someone who ran it so much faster there would be no point in trying to win it back.


So really, Strava would just be somewhere that people can see my rather mediocre training. Frankly, I think everyone has better things to do than read about the ins and outs of my day to day running. I'm painfully aware that I don't do anything epic - everyone else is running up mountains or having massive Bruce Trail adventures while I run in circles at some little nature tract nearby, mostly because I'm clumsy, weak and scared. It's not even about seeing how fast other people are - it's being shown just how tiny the efforts are that still leave me shattered afterward. Someone else's 60k mad training run with 15,000 feet of elevation change and gorgeous mountain range views? That's freakin' awesome and I'd love to be able to do such a thing, but I can't, let alone run it at their blistering 5min/mile pace. Seeing it just makes me feel even more inadequate as a runner. That's why I try desperately to avoid just rambling about my training in this blog, rather making an effort to write about something a little more meaningful and hopefully useful. I also don't really post my workouts on social media - because I don't honestly believe anyone cares about the details of my paltry training.

This is the closest I generally come.

From time to time someone will make a kind comment on Garmin Connect or Endomondo (which I still use as a backup in case my GPS watch fails, and because I have records there going back to May 2012), but it's just in some people's nature to be generous with their praise, even if it's undeserved. I know Strava has a system that lets users provide encouragement and "kudos" while you're out training, but that's not something I desire; if I'm having fun out there it would just be a distraction, and if I'm having a rough day it'll just feel like I'm being patronized. I know that's my problem and not the system's, but this is about why I choose not to use it.

Also: Strava cat is a jerk.

I don't mean to deride anyone's use of Strava - if you enjoy it, fill your boots! I, however, know it would be bad for my mental health. I already struggle a lot with self-worth and impostor syndrome, and I always feel like the lamest, most awkward runner out there in almost any situation - this article about Anxious Recreation Syndrome might as well have been written about me. I'm not jealous of other people's ability - I just feel rather worthless when I see how poorly I stack up against them. It feels like everyone I know has run at least 1 hundred miler; most many more and longer races, plus badass mountain races that would leave me in a crumpled, broken heap in the first few miles when my clumsy arse fell off the side of some gorgeous, technical trail. Every time I manage to cobble together a bit of confidence or pride in my runing it's almost immediately dashed when I see the amazing feats others are pulling off. My huge back-to-back weekend? I covered a lousy 26km on Saturday and 20km on Sunday. 46 whole kilometers. Most of the people I know are easily capable of running that total on back to back days, but I'm simply not strong enough. Three hours of even our tame, local trails is enough to beat me up a bit and make the next day difficult - sometimes just getting out the damn door is a huge win, or running on my lunch break instead of taking a nap, let alone kicking my arse out for a second run on a Monday evening after those back-to-back "long" runs on the weekend.

I know I should find the strength and talent of others inspiring instead of it sucking away my own self-worth, but that simply isn't how my brain processes the information. I'd change it if I could - believe me when I say the inside of my head is often a place I'd love to escape! I'm not looking for pity or praise, either - just to be left alone to wallow in my own little world, free of any exogenous negativity from comparison with the badass runners I'm lucky enough to call friends. As you can see, my brain supplies more than enough criticism all on its own without having an app shove my mediocrity in my face daily. So, I'll politely leave your Strava feed free of my meagre exploits (and studiously ignore my Garmin Connect and Endomondo streams) while I go and try to enjoy the wee adventures I'm capable of having.

In the loveliest places I can find.

Much as I feel horribly inadequate as a runner, I do love the challenge of ultras, not to mention the time I get to spend in the woods in all sorts of conditions to see the ever-changing natural beauty around me. Strava would only suck some of the fun out of what is usually a wonderfully fulfilling pursuit for me. So, don't ask me about my training, because I know it's not interesting or special in any way...but if you follow me on twitter or facebook I'll share some of the pretty photos I take along the way, ok?

Friday, March 3, 2017

Pooling your resources

I'm here to make a case for swimming as part of training for ultrarunning.

Sick cannonballs into the pool are optional, but recommended.

Because I used to be a triathlete (but I got better..) I used to swim a fair bit - 3 or 4 times a week on average, sometimes pushing up to six days a week if I was in a swim focus. When I made the decision last year to focus exclusively on ultrarunning, I stopped worrying about long bike workouts but still continued to swim a couple of times per week, with the key session being Thursday evening - the last workout before my immutable day off on Friday. Due to circumstances like a 2-week pool closure for annual maintenance, further closures due to the holiday season, dental procedures in January and general exhaustion (laziness?), I hadn't been to the pool much since last year but I've been getting back in the water the last week or two and it's doing me a lot of good.

There are several benefits that ultrarunners - or anyone else - can derive from swimming.

1. Burn Baby Burn

I'm currently carrying some extra insulation that I'd like to be rid of before the race season gets into swing in ERMAGHERD LESS THAN TWO MONTHS *panicked breathing*

Ok, sorry about that. To continue, I'm chubby right now thanks to some less-than-ideal nutritional choices over the last few months. I'd like to be less chubby, but food tastes good and I'm likely to injure myself if I try to pile on any more running mileage than my somewhat carefully planned weekly increases, especially while I'm carrying extra pounds. I can burn some additional calories in the pool without the danger of stress fractures or joint damage, and since swimming uses your whole body, it's a pretty solid way to torch through some of my winter fat stores.

2. It's Not Always Leg Day

Further to swimming's engagement of almost every muscle in your body (particularly if you swim a variety of strokes), it's a great way to build functional fitness for everyday life. Many runners are notoriously bad at doing any sort of cross training, so while they may have legs for days they could be arm-wrestled into submission by your average 7 year old. Swimming requires your upper body, core and lower body to all work in concert, which can even help with your general coordination as well...though I must say that I've put in over 1.6 million metres (over a thousand miles) since January 2009 and I'm still clumsy as hell. There's just no overcoming some handicaps.

3. Go Hard

Swimming is an incredible workout for your heart and lungs. Between the lack of oxygen (particularly if you do flip turns and breathe less frequently than every stroke cycle, as I learned to do in my tri-dork days and continue out of habit) and the sheer volume of muscle groups involved in getting you from one end of the pool to the other, you're making your cardiovascular system work hard. You can accomplish the same thing while running, but an increase in running pace to get yourself really gasping carries an increased risk of injury. In the pool, you can go as hard as your masochistic brain desires and you're unlikely to damage yourself - your shoulders may take a pounding if your technique is poor, but at least that won't put you out of commission for run training like a pulled hamstring.

If you're really down with doing some water-based HIIT (high intensity interval training), learn to swim butterfly and you'll become intimately acquainted with the feeling of your lungs try to punch their way out of your chest, setting fire to every muscle in your body as they make their exit.

"Swim some 'fly" they said.
"It'll be fun" they said.

The thing is, you're really, REALLY not supposed to stop in the middle of the pool, or hold on to the lane ropes. So, swimming can also train you to push through burning muscles and oxygen debt while running as you gasp and flail your way to the wall - your body will become more efficient at flushing waste products from working muscle groups and you'll increase your maximal aerobic capacity (VO2 max), both of which translate to improved running fitness.

4. It's All In Your Head

That bit about pushing through hard intervals counts as mental training, too, which is another benefit swimming can offer ultrarunners. Once you've fought your way through some heart-exploding sets in the pool, you're better prepared to push yourself up and over that nasty hill without dropping to a walk, or to keep on running until that next aid station. Working on technique can assist with proprioception (the personal spatial sense of where parts of your body are and how they move) and coordination, too, which are valuable on the trails where the footing can change at any moment.

Another aspect of mental training that swimming offers that applies specifically to ultrarunning is becoming comfortable with boredom. Depending on the event, you may be running through the same scenery (or lack thereof) for hours or days on end, with little to keep your mind occupied but your own thoughts. This can be detrimental to both your mental health and performance if you allow boredom to get on top of you, but swimming laps with nothing to entertain you but the immutable black line on the bottom of the pool can help inure you to even the dullest of tracks or trails.

Yeah, I really make it sound fun, don't I?

5. Shake It Off

By far the best reason I can offer to incorporate some swimming into training for ultrarunning is the assortment of ways it can help you recover from the incessant pounding of running high volume. The hydrostatic pressure of the water on your legs is like the lightest of massages, loosening up tight, sore muscles with a loving squeeze - almost a softer version of wearing compression tights, or dynamic compression boots. The kicking action of backstroke or front crawl/freestyle gently mimics the action of running, making it ideal for active recovery after a race or hard workout - the light muscular contractions and increased heart rate will flush out waste products and provide a supply of fresh, clean blood to repair damaged tissues, decreasing soreness and making you stronger. If I've done a particularly long, hilly, or otherwise damaging race I will often simply walk and swim for a few days before I return to running a single step.

Once you're done swimming and have your muscles all nicely warmed up, you're primed for some stretching to lengthen tight fascia and promote healthy movement. I've written before about the fact I only ever do any static stretching after a swim, and I know that part of the benefit I've felt from getting back in the pool lately has been from returning to my post-swim stretching habit - particularly for my chronically tight hamstrings. This is also why 

6. Facilities

Many public pools and pool-equipped fitness facilities also have a hot tub and/or sauna. 

Need I say more?

That's also where I choose to do my post-swim stretching - the turbulent water provides a welcome massage as I stretch, leaving me relaxed and feeling like a happy pile of jelly. This is also why I try to make it to the pool after my evening run on Thursday; so I'll have those tired, sore muscles in the best possible shape to recuperate during my rest day on Friday.

I strongly believe that swimming a couple of times a week is an excellent addition to my training for ultras, and suggest that it's at least worth a try for anyone else, too. I don't advocate sacrificing sleep to go swim during the week of a race - many lane swims are early in the morning or (in my case) later at night, so I'll forsake the pool in favour of extra Zs in the few days before a key event - but unless you're literally running every moment outside of work and sleep I'd suggest you could find time for a 30min swim here and there.

If you don't know how to swim, I strongly advise learning - there are classes available for adults who have never dipped so much as a toe in the water, and they'll get you swimming functionally without judgement or ridicule. It's a skill that can save your life (or the life of another, should you come across a person drowning and have the knowledge to safely perform a rescue), and a form of exercise that you can continue throughout your entire existence since it offers resistance and cardiovascular benefits with no damaging impact on fragile bones or joints. Not to mention, it really can be fun and relaxing; we spend the first months of our lives floating weightlessly in our mother's womb, and on a good day an easy swim can let you recapture just a bit of that sub-aquatic tranquility.

Go on - make a splash!

Friday, February 24, 2017

The black hole of ultrarunning.. called an "aid station".


Coming from a triathlon background - where type A dorks in spandex over-analyze every aspect of racing - I had no idea of the kind of smorgasbord that awaited me when I started running ultras. Most triathlons shorter than half iron distance will only offer water and sport drink at intervals on the run course; a half iron may have a bottle hand-up on the bike course and single-serve gels or flat cola on the run, but it's expected that you keep moving as you go through them. I'd always try to keep running through them, or at the very least walk. Even transitioning between sports is done while on the move as much as possible: people practice their T1 (swim-to-bike) and T2 (bike-to-run) in training to ensure that as little time as possible is wasted.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I see competitors at ultras hovering around the aid stations for minutes on end, chatting and partaking of the buffet that the race organizers and volunteers kindly provide. While the variety of foods is certainly one of the perks of ultrarunning, it comes at a cost: time.

"Hmm...what looks good?"

The average 50k will have at least 6 aid stations, so spending just 5 minutes at each will cost you an entire half hour - if there are more aid opportunities or you're racing a longer distance, you stand to lose even more time. While you're stopped, your muscles are stiffening up and making it even more difficult to get moving again. In some circumstances, it can't be helped - if you need to refill a bottle/hydration pack or fix a foot issue, you'll have to stop in order to do so. If you're really hurting and thinking of dropping, a few minutes of positive talk from some aid station volunteers (some of whom are statistically likely to be veteran ultrarunners, because the community is awesome about giving back) can make the difference between a DNF and a finish. If you're using the race as a training day, there's no reason to push the pace. If, however, you're out there racing then it's to your advantage to make every second count. By doing the following, you can maximize your moving time and your chances of seeing something on the clock that makes you smile when you come through the finish. This is literally FREE SPEED, there for the taking!

1) Determine whether or not you really need to stop

Course research and/or knowledge comes into play here. Do you absolutely need a refill of water? Do you need something to eat yet, and can your gut handle it at this time? If the answer to these is "no", just keep moving - you'll survive if you run out of water 5mins before you reach the next opportunity to fill your bottle, and you probably don't really need anything at all if you're 30mins or less from finishing. If you won't be through that aid station again, do say thank you to the volunteers as you pass by, though!

2) Be as self-sufficient as possible

Apart from having been shaped by the "if you want it you better bring it with you" approach to race nutrition that triathlon embraces, I have a stupid number of food allergies/intolerances. Both of these things lead me to carry my own fuel so I don't have to rely on aid stations, except for water. While this has led to missing out on some delicious offerings in the past - apparently there was guacamole on offer at one of the Seaton Soaker aid stations last year! - it also means I am less tempted to stand and browse/stuff my face.

Though I did love their Mexican theme!

Researching the event will often tell you what to expect at the aid stations so you can make decisions about what you'll need to bring - some provide a bare minimum (water and sport drink) so you can avoid disappointment if you were depending on there being salty snacks or solid fuel. I also bring a little more than I think I'll need, in case I end up being out there longer than I expect, or to offer to other racers. It's amazing how friendly the competition becomes when you offer to share your stash of cookies with them!

3) Prepare for a quick entry & exit

If you need a handheld bottle filled, have the lid off by the time you arrive. If your hydration pack bladder needs refilling, you can unclip and start shrugging your way out of it as you run in. If you have a bunch of trash (empty wrappers or bottles) to get rid of, have them out so you don't waste time standing there and rummaging in your pockets for it.

If you're operating out of a drop bag or cooler, try to keep it organized: use a bag with dividers/compartments, or add zip pouches or resealable plastic bags to keep your nutrition separate from your band-aids, body lube and spare clothing. If it's a looped course and you're dropping off empty bottles or flasks, shove them somewhere out of the way so you don't have to dig through empties to find a fresh one.

(Stolen from the site)

4) Enlist help

If you are lucky enough to have someone crewing for you, let them know what you need so they can have it ready for you as quickly as possible. If it's a looped race and you know you'll want a fresh bottle, change of shirt, poles or even a particular bit of fuel on your next trip through, ask your crew to get it out and prepped for a quick hand-off. This is especially important if you want something that will require preparation time, like a hot food or beverage, or poles that need to be unfolded and locked in place. If you can't anticipate, at least try to yell what you need to your crew as you come in so they can get to work as you're arriving - this is what they signed on for, but do still try to ask nicely.

If you're coming to an aid station with volunteers, ask them politely to assist you. If you need a handheld bottle filled that has a strap, ask if they can dump some cups of water in it while it's still on your hand - it's faster than taking the harness off, filling it from a tap or pump, then re-placing it on your hand. If there's something in particular you're looking for (banana chunk, ibuprofen, bandage, ice), ask nicely for it rather than standing there and searching for it when it might be out of view (or you may just be too addled to spot it). Remember to thank the volunteers for their assistance. If they don't have what you're after, say thank you anyway and get out of there!

5) Beware the chair!

If you can possibly avoid it, DO NOT SIT DOWN. Any sense of urgency you may have about reaching the finish will begin to dissolve the moment your bodyweight leaves your feet. Minutes can stretch into hours while your odds of getting back up and at it dwindle. If you need to change footwear, consider crouching to do so. If you must sit, set a deadline (even a timer on your watch) to get moving again. Get volunteers or your crew to yell at you if necessary! Noone ever regretted spending too little time stopped in a race.

After the race, though, anything goes!

Why bother?

One of the worst feelings in racing is missing a time goal or podium spot and realizing you could have made it had you not dawdled while the clock was ticking. The point is not to rush yourself - which may lead to forgetting essential tasks or items - but to move with purpose through the aid stations. With a bit of planning and forethought, you can get everything you need and be back on course in no time!

That said, if you're just out there for a fully supported training day, feel free to stop for a few minutes to chat and really savour the ultra buffet!


Oh, and a smooch from a loved one is always worth it. Definitely stop for those, but get right back out there - I'm sure they'll have an even better one for you at the finish!

Friday, February 17, 2017

It's all downhill from here

My running has really been going downhill lately, but it's helping me to get faster and more resilient.

Everyone knows that running up hills will make you fitter and stronger, but for this particular installment of Seems Like Science I'm going to make a case for focusing some of your training on downhill running - preferably as a point-to-point downhill run.

This was my 10km Wednesday evening run from my office.

Because of some circumstances of where I live and work (and because Tanker the Wonder Sherpa is amazing), I often have the opportunity to do point-to-point runs. I go see Tank on his afternoon break and ditch the car with him, then I'll either run back to my office (small net downhill) or walk to my office and do a longer run after work. Since we visit my Mum (who lives in the town where Tank and I both work) on Wednesday evenings, I've got in the habit of running some or all of the way down to her house from the office on Wednesdays - it's a sizeable elevation drop with some lovely bits of trail along the way.

I'd run this whether I got any training benefit from it or not.

I've also been known to set off from the house or get Tanker to drop me off somewhere, then meet him at another spot - we live on top of a big hill, so almost anywhere in Cambridge will be a net downhill for me, and I frequently used to run from our house to meet him down at the grocery store while he'd go fill the car with gas, just so we could get my run, fuel and groceries done in the least amount of time.

And sometimes he just drops me off so I can run somewhere beautiful

While finishing a run in a different place than I started can serve a few different purposes, there are two main benefits to planning a course with a sizeable elevation drop...and both of them can help with running performance!

1) A Little Eccentric

Running downhill places unique stresses on the leg muscles, as it requires eccentric rather than concentric contractions. If you're unfamiliar with those terms, think of doing a bicep curl: the action that brings the weight upward as you bend your elbow is concentric, and is typically the way a muscle is strongest. The action that lowers the weight, allowing your arm to extend, is the eccentric movement - you control the descent of the weight through an eccentric contraction, during which the muscle is active while lengthening.

A recent French study on downhill running concluded that the damaging effects of a short (4 mile) steep downhill run were almost equivalent to the muscle fatigue observed after much longer events, like the 100 mile Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. Downhills simply trash your quads like nothing else, and since most trail and ultra races combine distance with significant elevation change, your poor legs end up with the worst of both worlds when it comes to muscular fatigue and damage.

We've all had those "I can't face a staircase right now" days..

You can, however, train those eccentric movements just like you do with concentric muscle contractions. By running downhills in training, you'll do a small amount of damage to the muscle fibres, which will stimulate your body to rebuild them stronger. With consistent downhill training, you'll notice much less fatigue and damage to your legs when race day comes around. I have definitely seen the effects of my downhill running in some recent events, even when running up and down a bloody ski hill!

Any guess as to which muscles are contracting here?

2) Speed Demon

When I run the downhill route to my Mum's on Wednesdays, I don't just dawdle along - I push the pace a bit, and have clocked some of my fastest non-racing kilometers along the way. The reason I do this is simple: by using the assistance of the downhill to put in mileage at higher speed, I force my body to become acquainted with the mechanics of moving at that pace, and therefore improve my running economy. A friend of mine (and thoroughly badass ultrarunner) kindly commented after a recent race that I looked much more comfortable moving at higher paces than she'd ever seen me before. I attribute that almost entirely to the time I have spent running downhills at speeds that simply would not be sustainable for me on level ground.

Of course, not everyone has a wonderful chauffeur to enable point-to-point running, but I'd suggest that there are ways to make it work regardless. If you're going running with a friend, you can meet at one spot, drop off one of your vehicles, then carpool to somewhere at higher elevation and run back to where the first vehicle is parked. If you're going solo, perhaps use public transit or ask a friend if they can drop you somewhere uphill from home, then run back, or even call a cab/ride share to take you to your start or back from your finish destination. If you really cannot manage a point-to-point, you can do downhill repeats by simply running up and down a slope, or hiking up and running back down again.

The bonus of all of this is that running downhill is FUN! Not only are you getting an excellent training stimulus, you get to feel like a speedster as you float along with minimal effort!


So, why not give some downhill training a shot? It may help you get faster and stave off crippling muscle fatigue in longer races, but as far as I'm concerned it's worth it even if it just makes it a little easier to get up off the damn toilet the day after a hilly 50k.

Friday, February 10, 2017


Due to a number of different circumstances lately, I've been ruminating about pain and how one deals with it.

There's no mistaking the fact that it's unpleasant, no matter how it comes about. The very nature of pain is such that most people would choose to avoid it entirely. Apart from injury and illness, though, there are some pursuits and pleasures that require you to get up close and personal with pain.

Ultrarunning is one of these, at least for my clumsy, heavy body. As the hours tick past and the pounding takes its toll, it's virtually inevitable that I'll end up hurting.

A seeming majority of people try to alleviate the pain by various means. They'll listen to music, podcasts or audiobooks to distract them, or just try to focus on the scenery instead of acknowledging the discomfort. Some will even go to the extent of taking medication like ibuprofen or other drugs to chemically reduce their suffering, despite the dangers of doing so (TL;DR: taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs before or during a run can mess you up!).

Few people are willing to just sit with pain, getting to know it and learning how to listen to it.

"So, do you have any hobbies..?"

The thing is, I've found there's a lot of value in accepting the suffering that comes with long distance racing, and its rewards stretch far beyond the boundaries of sport. Pain tolerance can be trained like a muscle, and that mental strength can hold you over through some very rough times.

In the last month I've had about a decade's worth of dentistry done to me. Right after New Year's two of my wisdom teeth went south on me, while I was battling a sinus infection. Since swollen sinuses can put pressure on the roots of wisdom teeth (and I had a race coming up), I ended up waiting more than a week to have those teeth pulled. In the interim, due to the nerves being exposed, it often felt as though someone had driven an ice pick into my throat just below the left side of my jaw, up through my left cheek and eye socket, and out through my left temple. It's not an experience I'd recommend to anyone, but I managed to run an 8 hour race during all of this and perform far better than I had expected. 

When I finally went to the dentist, I was asked what kind of pain medication I'd been taking to cope with the torment from my crumbling teeth. The look on my doctor's face when I said "none" was something to behold.

For many years now I've shunned taking painkillers (except in a few rare circumstances) because I believe there's a lot to be learned about yourself that can only be experienced through pain. The trick is to sit with the feeling without judging it, just listening to what your body is telling you. If you are patient and persistent, you'll soon be able to tell if the specific pain you're experiencing is something that needs immediate action (like a broken bone or heart attack), or something you can set aside (like the effects of muscle breakdown and fatigue during a race, or even the bite of a tattoo gun's needles). You keep one ear open in case the pain has something new to tell you, but otherwise just ignore it. I have managed to finish a 6-hour trail race that I started injured just by feeling my way through it, coming out no worse for wear - things actually started to improve afterward.

My dentist and the hygienists who have worked on me in the past month tell me I'm a model patient, as I simply sit still in the chair and let them get on with their work. Same with tattoo artists, and even massage therapists. It's often very uncomfortable, but I know that sooner or later it will end. The suffering I've lived through by my own choice has given me the tools to endure quite a bit of torment from other avenues, raising my quality of life overall.

All of this is to say that maybe the next time you're hurting a bit, why not give yourself the chance to really experience it and learn from it before you go trying to find a way to simply make it go away. You never know what you may find out about yourself.

It only hurts for awhile..

Friday, January 27, 2017

Frosty Trail 3-hour Trail Race - Saturday, January 21st, 2017

This one was a bit of an odd duck, but I certainly can't complain about the outcome.

Woke up at stupid o'clock on Saturday morning to make my bowl of oatmeal with almond butter & maple syrup feeling dreadful - I'd had 4.5hrs of sleep (5 the previous night), my jaw was still unhappy from having a couple of wisdom teeth cracked out of it the week beforehand, and I just wanted to go back to bed. So, after eating my porridge and a small post-race-sammich-related mayonnaise explosion, I did. It clearly wasn't my day.

And really, the day was anything but clear.

Bed was good. Bed was cozy. A little too cozy, because I napped longer than I'd intended, which meant a minor panic to get out the door and up to Camp Heidelberg. I hated it - I despise being rushed on a race morning. We did arrive just a few minutes later than I'd hoped, though, thanks to some rather frenetic driving on the part of Tanker the Wonder Sherpa.

I just tried not to spill coffee all over myself.
The fog was almost as thick in the air as it was in my head, but I was delighted to see so many friendly faces had turned up to run around in the woods for anywhere from one to six hours. I chatted and caught up with many wonderful people as I slowly progressed toward whatever would pass for "readiness", swinging my limbs in ungainly ways in an effort to loosen up and slathering myself shamelessly in anti-chafing goo. I got my straw from Ron Gehl, and with just a few minutes before the start I stripped down to the bare minimum I thought would keep me from getting chilled in the mild (4c/39f) but damp air.

"Bare" being a fairly apt descriptor.

Shoving some nutrition in my pockets and grabbing my hand bottle (plus a spare to keep at the start/finish for hand-offs), I stepped outside and we all gathered 'round for a group photo.

Well, almost all - there are definitely a few faces missing here!

A few instructions, a horn, then around the parking lot and into the woods for the initial conga line. I was partway through the upper woods section and working pretty hard up a hill when I realised I was directly behind Charlotte and just ahead of Catherine - as in, completely out of my effin' league. I tried to let Catherine pass but she said she'd wait for the downhill, where she went flying past as I tried to get some kind of handle on my pace. Little right-left jog to get onto the driveway, then down the muddy slope and back onto the snowpack.

Start of the long way down - emerging from the upper woods

The driveway got very muddy

A huge slush puddle appeared here just before the end of the 3-hour

Past an icy patch (fortunately one of the only ones, as I'd decided to forego my traction aids) and into the main woods - the Frosty Trail course does not go down around the pond that the Horror Trail one does, making it a 2.2km loop instead of 2.5km. This is a rather important distinction.

Slight downhill on ice - wheeeeeee!

Into the trees..

Down a rooty, sketchy bit, then up the big hill in rather mushy snow. How would this hold up to the passage of many feet throughout the morning?

On approach

Not super encouraging seeing an 8" slide mark from someone clearly wearing Yak Trax..

There was a girl in a pink jacket still behind me as I traipsed through the forest, so I dodged off to let her pass as I don't like holding people up. Then it was just me, alone in the mist as she steadily pulled away. I'd apparently ditched some people well behind me, and spent most of the day just seeing other runners in the 2-way traffic on the driveway or as they'd lap me.


On through the first lap and into the second, my legs were feeling pretty stiff and uncooperative and my calves seemed to be threatening to cramp. I just wasn't into it, and I wondered if it was going to be a long day. Suddenly I looked around me and discovered I'd run right past the turn into the woods and was nearly down to the pond - at least a hundred metres downhill that I'd have to climb back up to get on course again. I'd blown it on my second freakin' lap!

Stupid bloody lemming.

So, back up the hill I ran, then down into the woods again. Up the big hill and through the main, mostly flat portion - there were some less-snowy spots further to the West where the coniferous trees were a bit thicker.

Getting churned up even early on

Fortunately it didn't get too muddy.

My left leg was complaining a bit about the unsure footing in the mushy snow, but finally after about 45mins my legs seemed to figure out I wasn't going to give up and finally started to respond a bit. I grabbed the camera from Tanker (who was single-handedly running the aid station by the building, 'cause he's awesome like that) and took most of the photos of the course that you see here during my 3rd loop. Hey, at least it kept me paying attention to where I was going..

Well, mostly.
I was nearly through my 4th lap when the horn sounded to end the 1-hour. As I came past the aid station I remarked to Tanker that I couldn't imagine being done already, since I was only just starting to warm up. As soon as I ran away into the upper woods I regretted my words: there might have been some people coming in from their final lap in the 1-hour race who had just run longer than they ever had before, in tough conditions to boot. I felt like an elitist jerk, though I hadn't meant it in a disparaging way at all - just that I was so accustomed to running for hours on end at this venue, and my legs were finally starting to buy into the morning's activities.

Can I just disappear in here?

Maybe I'll go hide in the tepee..

I finally started taking in a bit of nutrition at 1h5m - a swig of sea salt chocolate Gu Roctane gel diluted 2:1 with water from a flask in my pocket. I had further sips at 1h40m and 2h10m, but that was it for calories for me - about 150cal total, plus 3 hand bottles' worth of water (~60oz).

And all the moisture I could suck out of the air.
This section in the main woods was badly rutted by tire tracks from logging.

Round and round I went, counting my laps as they ticked past and the snow got mushier in the mild air. The sketchy downhill just before you come out of the main woods got badly churned up, and I was convinced every time I came to it that I was going to fall and break my damn fool neck.

This does no justice at all to how petrifying this descent got for my clumsy arse.

Made it through every time, though, thankful to reach flat ground again.

While the conditions were getting more difficult, I was actually surprised by how strong I felt after the initial slow start. One of the things I love about returning to the same course over and over, year after year is the ability to gauge your fitness based on obstacles with which you're intimately familiar. While I never used to be able to run up the driveway to the building past about the 2nd hour at any Camp Heidelberg event, I actually ran it every time on Saturday, despite the energy-sucking mud. I even ran up the steep hill out of the woods to the driveway a few times - mushy snow be damned!

Climbing up as Ron Gehl goes rolling on past.

The fog was relentless

Almost done the lap

I didn't really slow much past the first half-hour or so, just trucking along as the snow turned to mashed potatoes and some sections got stomped into mud.


The sun tried to come out a couple of times, but it would only increase the melting of the snow, so the fog would thicken once more. I lapped a couple of people, and got lapped by some others. I noticed that I ended up passing the girl in the pink jacket when she stopped at the aid station, and she never came past me again. I smiled and offered encouragement to my fellow runners and they kindly did the same. Ron Gehl asked if I'd like to pace him for the other 3 hours after I was done, and I said I'd probably come out for a few loops with him anyway. No matter how tough or weird a day, running with the group of folks who came out to Frosty Trail this year is always fun.

Jonathan and Jeff overtaking me in the parking lot
(a.k.a. the overall winners of the 3-hour & 6-hour respectively)

My left leg started griping at me a bit more after my foot slipped climbing up the hill with the log "stairs" (which were totally invisible under the snow), but coming through the start/finish with 9 laps down and about 38mins left to go I knew I could get at least one more full loop in. As a cold wind started to blow over the snowpack in the field beside the driveway, I started pushing a bit, hoping I wouldn't end up doing my usual: one full lap plus just past the top of the big hill before the horn.

I cannot begin to count the number of times I've heard that horn sound just after reaching the top of this thing.

In my haste I started to get a bit reckless on the trail, tweaking my oft-damaged left ankle nastily in the increasingly mushy snow. I got through my 10th full lap with more than 20mins to go, though, so figured I could probably get another loop completed if I hustled.

Still illin' with minutes to go.

Ditching my bottle to run unencumbered, it was muddy splashing down the driveway and back onto the snow. Suddenly my feet were completely sodden as at least an 8' round slush puddle had appeared out of nowhere! With conditions getting even dicier in the forest and my sore ankle, I decided that I'd be done when the 3 hours was up - the 6-hour folks were welcome to this crap!

Runners emerging from the upper woods

I made it through the start/finish for the 11th time, then continued on as the race director had put out some markers every 200m and would be counting them as checkpoints for partial laps. I managed to make it around the parking lot and into the upper woods once more, just past the first 200m checkpoint before the horn sounded to end the 3-hour. I ended up running down the grassy (snowy) downhill from the upper woods to the building anyway, because gravity.

Finito bandito.

Final distance: 24.4km 
1st woman (of 6?) - 3rd overall (of 8?)
(No official results have been posted yet - see my Garmin Connect data)
It was a bit disappointing that the volunteers who were supposed to be recording laps seemed to have missed 3 for each person in the 3-hour, but enough of us had GPS devices that we were able to verify actual laps completed. I was delighted to discover I'd come in 1st woman overall (just behind the only 2 men in the 3-hour), with a prize of a $10 gift certificate for my favourite local running store - thanks Runner's Choice Waterloo! Even with the tough conditions, I still managed a 50 metre PR for Frosty Trail - my prior best was 24.35km in 2015.

I strangely wasn't that tired or hungry afterward - another sign that I seem to be getting stronger, though that didn't stop me from plowing through some of the delicious post-race chili while I hung around until the end of the 6-hour so Tanker the Wonder Sherpa could finish up his volunteer duties. Rest assured I took him out for a feast afterward at our beloved post-race venue - Taco Farm in uptown Waterloo - though I'm pretty sure I got the best part of that deal!

You'd look like that if you knew how good that porchetta taco was, too.

I am totally pleased with how my day turned out, given that I had no expectations coming so close on the heels of the RUN4RKIDS 8-hour just a fortnight prior. Better yet, my legs were hardly even sore the next day and my ankle was sufficiently recovered to get in a short road run - I ran every day from Sunday to Thursday morning, which I think is another sign I'm getting stronger. So, after 2 more teeth pulled out of my skull last night (it's Friday now - my usual day off), it's time to get myself fully recovered and then start the real work for the spring races I have planned. It's going to take a lot more strength and fitness than I've ever built before to achieve the goals I've set for myself, and I can't wait to get back to my adventures in the woods!