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. 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!


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!

Friday, January 20, 2017

Slush fund

There's a big thing going on today. I'm ignoring it, because what's happening tomorrow is way more up my alley.

It's Frosty Trail time!


It is not in actual fact looking all that frosty.

Though I think I'd rather have frost than rain..

It appears there will, however, be an abundance of rotted ice and mushy snow. A friend went and walked the 2.0km loop at Camp Heidelberg today, and...well..

Credit for all 3 photos goes to Steven Parke

So it looks like the name of the game will be "try to stay upright and not get stuck in a quagmire of slushy mud".

Not that I'd know anything about mud at Camp Heidelberg..

From, say, Horror Trail in 2012 and 2013..

Fortunately this one is just for kicks - no performance goals at all, as I wouldn't really call myself "recovered" from the RUN4RKIDS 8-hour a fortnight ago, not to mention:

  • not tapering (I've actually started re-building distance this week)
  • lack of sleep the last couple of if that's anything new.
  • having 2 wisdom teeth pulled last Tuesday
  • finally having got rid of a lingering sinus infection this week
  • being (almost) fully mobile again after my back locked up on my last Saturday, likely as a result of some interpretive dance moves to stay upright on an icy trail run.

So, traction devices will be packed and fingers shall be crossed!

It's only 3 hours, right? How bad could it be..?