Friday, April 29, 2016

Pump up the volume

No, I'm not going to start blasting 80's techno, nor will this serve as the intro for a Christian Slater flick.

I am, as usual, prattling on about running. Specifically, running more.

With a thoroughly ridiculous race now on my schedule for July (seriously - why did I ever think this was a reasonable idea?), I've needed to make some adjustments not only to how I run but also to how much I run.

The "where I run" has been an added bonus of adjusting the "how".

The thing is, you can't cram for an ultra. After dealing with a nasty injury last summer that held me to some of my lowest mileage in years, I tried to do a fast build in time for a fall 50k while mediating the ramp up in order not to aggravate the injury.

The result was not pretty. I barely managed to limp in a personal worst, and then 2 weeks later did so again.

Despite having a couple of shorter (25k) trail races between now and July that don't require nearly the same sort of build, I'm actually running some of the highest, most consistent mileage of my life right now. The key here is to realise that endurance adaptation takes the longest out of any sort of fitness to achieve, and the work I do now and next month is really what are going to make or break my durability come July.

When things will be much greener, though they're coming along now.

My highest mileage month ever was March of 2014, during which I ran 257.8km as part of my Waterloo Marathon campaign. I ran well (probably the best race of my life) at the Sulphur Springs 50k last May after my second-highest volume month in March 2015 (252.3km). My third biggest running month - September of 2015, with 250.3km - came too late to get me properly conditioned for the Vulture Bait 50k in mid-October.

Adaptation takes time and consistency, and I did not have it last year.

This year, I haven't actually run less than 200km in a month - as of last night the full tally is 925.6km for 2016, and I've already laid down 254.2km for the month of April alone. While tonight is my night off, I do my long runs on Saturdays, which means I should be able to add another 20+km to that on the last day of this month, heartily smashing my previous best total.

The only problem with all this is that I'm probably the worst runner ever at recovering. I don't sleep enough (ever), and I'm still a solid few pounds over race weight. That leaves me in the precarious position of trying desperately to avoid hurting myself simply by being heavy and pounding on my poor, overworked joints. As much as I would love to run on soft surfaces all the time, my work schedule pretty much means that 4 out of my 6 weekly runs will be on city streets, which will certainly toughen me up for the trails...if I can emerge from all this mileage unscathed.


So I'm attempting to pay a little more attention to recovery, and trying to be reasonable about increasing the time I spend on my feet each week. I actually felt stronger during last Saturday's 2h48m run with 453m of elevation gain than I did during the previous week's 2h30m run with only 259m of climbing, but then I've been pretty wiped out since Sunday. I'm hoping it's just an effect of the cold that I came down with and seem to have finally beaten into submission (knock wood!), because the exhaustion levels have been pretty bad.

I've managed to struggle on through and put in 34.5km from Monday to Thursday - including my first-ever lunch run from the office, just to sneak in 6.5k before going out to dinner on Wednesday to celebrate Tanker the Wonder Sherpa's birthday - but it's been tough to kick my arse out the door when I can hear my bed calling to me.

All stick - no carrot in sight yet.

I can only hope this will all pay off later, in the form of things sucking slightly less when I try to push myself far beyond any challenge I've attempted before.

Only time will tell.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Why even tri?

I have a confession to make.

I have almost no excite for the 2016 triathlon season.

Sure, I'm still going to the pool a few times a week and even getting out on a bike here and there (now that the weather is finally starting to cooperate), but it's mostly just swimming to recover from running and some commuter cycling. For the last couple of years I've really been prioritizing running, and this year that focus has ratcheted up a notch or two.

Really, I think I may be falling out of love with tri.

Did...did I just say that out loud?
I do have my reasons, which I've spent some time thinking about recently. Namely:

1. Cost

Triathlon isn't cheap. I mean, neither is ultrarunning, but when you look at a dollars-per-hour-of entertainment (yeah, we'll go with that as a description instead of "hours-of-suffering") it's hardly even a contest. Tri might win out on distance, because you can cover quite a bit on the bike course, but in a price/time comparison ultra definitely has an edge. I understand it's because triathlon involves a great deal more overhead to produce a safe race - swim buoys need to be set out (which requires at least one boat), lifeguards must be brought in to supervise the swimmers, swim caps need to be provided, bike courses should be patrolled, there are tons of extra timing mats to procure, and the permits alone for producing a race are much more complex than just getting in touch with a conservation area or trail association and having a bunch of people show up to trot around in the woods. Hell, a lot of ultras don't even bother with chip timing because it's really not that difficult to write down the time that a runner comes past a line, but it's pretty much essential with the absurd number of split times (swim, bike, run plus two transitions) that tri races generate. I get it, and I don't grudge triathlon race directors charging more to cover their costs (or even turning a bit of a profit). That doesn't, however, mean I really want to pay for it.

2. Complexity

Racing a tri is a logistical nightmare, really. From packing up and trying to make sure you've got the yard-long list of gear you'll need to sport along just in order to get through the race - lord help you if you forget your cycling shoes at home! - through the setting up of transition, and then the actual's just so much faffing. Showing up 90mins before race time to stuff myself into a rubber sausage casing and wallow around in the water a bit to try to loosen up and get my heart ready to nearly burst from my chest. Try not to drown while negotiating my way through a gauntlet of flailing limbs and turn buoys. Endeavour not to fall on my face while attempting to remove a wetsuit, cap and goggles while running (or at least staggering)...only to arrive in transition completely out of breath and having to try to get the order of helmet-cycling shoes-number belt-pull bike from rack and run straight.

Even if I make it through all that, I'm only a third of the way done. I've still got another transition and the run left to go.

Somehow I need to get from here to there..

When I compare that to the easy-going nature of ultrarunning, it hardly seems like a fair contest. Show up at least half an hour beforehand to get my number on and use the restroom facilities. Meander up to the starting area, staying well toward the back 'cause I know my damn place. Sooner or later someone will say "go" or make a loud noise that I may or may not hear - when everyone in front of me starts heading into the woods I follow like a good little lemming. 

Pick up foot. Put down in front of other foot. Repeat until finished, too injured to continue, or dead.

That second condition can be rather relative, too.

As a bonus, the scenery tends to be much prettier, too. There are precious few off-road triathlons in this area (and history has proven that I attempt them at my peril), most taking place on country roads in rural areas. This means that pavement quality on the bike course can be bloody awful, and while rolling vistas of cornfields may be wonderful for feeding humanity they tend not to be sufficiently interesting to distract me from the horrible things the combination of uneven tarmac and the aero position is doing to my saddlery regions. 

Most of the ultras take place on trails, many of which are positively stunning in their rocky, rooty, mossy glory. I may fall on my face, but I'll generally be grinning while I do so because it's so very pretty.

It just feels...pure. I've often referred to racing an ultra as "going for a bit of a wander in the woods", because even on the worst day of ultrarunning there's going to be some point at which I simply lose myself in the glory of the trail.

I may not know where I am, but I'm right where I want to be.

3. Challenge

I originally started thinking about racing a triathlon back in the winter of 2008/2009. I had just begun running after spending about 8 months getting myself from "holy crap I've been attacked by the fat monster and can't ride a bike 2km up to the coffee shop without needing to stop repeatedly to catch my breath" into fairly decent shape, and thought that triathlon presented the ultimate challenge. Could I really swim, ride a bike and then run? Would I make it through a 750m - 30km - 7km sprint? I started hitting the pool regularly in January of 2009, added in cycling as spring rolled in, bought a triathlon bike (the same one I still ride - occasionally - to this day), and went about preparing myself in the dorkiest ways possible. I decided to race a 375m - 10km - 2.5km super sprint tri in June as a dress rehearsal, and then went to the race site and did my own swim-bike-run brick workout as a dry run before that.

I joined a tri forum or two, geeked out on details, and generally took myself far too seriously.

Which tends not to be the case at ultras.

I did ok in the super sprint despite it pouring rain for my very first race, and then made it through the sprint in September as well. I went a little nuts in 2010, racing 4 solo triathlons, a relay tri, a duathlon, plus a few other single-sport things, including my very first ultra at Horror Hill in October 2010. In total I have racked up 30 multisport races since June of 2009, all the way from super sprints through two half-iron (2k swim, 90km bike, 21.1km run) distance triathlons.

I've learned that not only can I finish a tri, I can do so while undertrained (see most of my race reports), with a broken wrist, or even a broken heart.

While I know there are longer triathlons out there, the available training hours I have limit my ability to put in the sheer volume of cycling required to race comfortably at anything above the half-iron distance. More importantly, though, I don't really have any desire to complete a full iron-distance race - I've done a century on my cyclocross bike once and the idea of spending an additional 20km learning to hate my bike in between a 3.8km swim and a full road marathon (which is a thing that sucks all on its own anyway) holds approximately zero draw for me. I may be masochistic, but I try to be marginally kinder than that to my soft bits.

The idea of spending increasingly long times frolicking in the woods, though?

I am convinced that it's only a matter of time before I attempt a 100 mile running race. I know it will require that I run an absurd amount of mileage per week, and I stand a very strong chance of not finishing my first attempt...or even my tenth.

I think that's really part of the appeal. It's both simple and incredibly difficult at the same time - as easy as putting one foot in front of the other, but as hard as walking across live coals with broken legs...which is pretty much exactly how I feel by the end of most ultras, yet with a deep sense of fulfillment.

I'm not completely giving up on triathlon yet - I do have plans to race a short one in September - but for the most part this year will be dedicated to one of the most ancient forms of human locomotion in all of its simplicity and purity.

I'm going to go out and run.


Friday, April 15, 2016


Went for a lovely run last Saturday at Huron Natural Area in Kitchener, eventually meeting up with some others to celebrate an ultrarunner friend's birthday by getting muddy, smelly and out of breath while trashing my legs on innumerable hills and trying not to slip on the ice and snow.

Yes, still plenty of snow out there.

I don't really know how far I went, as all I had to track mileage was Endomondo running on my phone. There is a set of mapped loops in the park, but until I met up with the group of runners and followed them I had just been playing "ooh, this bit of unmapped single track looks interesting - let's run that."

Because occasionally even the mapped loops were a poor choice.

It was a fun way to spend around two and a quarter hours of a cold and windy but sunny day, though I ended up having to do some hiking in order to get up some of the steeper hills. This isn't something I usually do in training, despite it being an integral part of pretty much every single trail race I've ever run.

Because this qualifies as "mostly flat & runnable" in the ultra world.

I also tend to stick to less technical trails, mostly because I'm a dork about running for a set distance and most of the stuff that is more challenging than rail trail isn't mapped out. While I do have Endomondo on my phone (and always carry my phone with me on long runs in case of emergency), it's not the most reliable thing in the world. Apart from knowing for sure that it tracks at least 2% short, it occasionally just loses its damn mind.

I'm not certain, but I don't think I reached 32kph and flew over the river several times during that walk around the block.

Knowing that my upcoming races this year range from semi-technical to full-blown rocky, rooty ridiculousness, I've come to the conclusion that I need to train more like I race. So, perhaps it was finally time for me to break down and get even dorkier than I already am. I've run for so long with just a stopwatch and a web-based mapping tool, resisting spending any money on the toys that so many runners seem unable to live without..

However, after registering Sunday afternoon for something I have absolutely no idea why I decided to attempt (I'll let you look at my 2016 schedule and figure out for yourself what that might be), it became even more apparent that I'm going to need to put in rather more serious ultra training than I've ever done before. Thus, Monday morning I started looking for a GPS running watch.

Because all this crap isn't nearly enough gear, apparently.

After trying to find something fairly basic and experiencing some sticker shock, I noticed that's Deal of the Day was a GPS watch that seemed to combine the battery life and features of the ultra-dorky Garmin Forerunner 910XT (favoured by data junkie triathletes everywhere, at least until the release of the 920XT) with some outdoors-oriented aspects like a barometer, altimeter, digital compass, and data about sunrise/sunset. It also promised Live Tracking, which means that Tanker the Wonder Sherpa might have a little more peace of mind when I go disappearing into the woods for hours on end. The watch was on sale for $200 - discounted from $520 - so I decided to ignore some of the negative reviews and take the plunge on a Garmin Fenix 2.

Pictured here positively dwarfing my regular day watch.

It came in yesterday, and I spent some time getting it more or less set up. I took it out for a test walk, managed to get it to talk to my phone (despite having to run an Android app on my Blackberry in order to do so), and then ran with it last night. Hell, I even wore it in the pool, and discovered that it really does record quite well...when I manage to hit the correct button to pause and restart between intervals.


That 5.81km run? Endomondo said it was only 5.65km, and that's just running loops around my neighbourhood - nothing finicky like a switchbacked hill or tight turns in tree cover. So, I'm feeling pretty good about getting some better data out of this thing, and if it motivates me to suck it up and go do some running that will challenge me and make me stronger, then it'll be worth every penny.

Off I'll head tomorrow - in what is supposed to be absolutely gorgeous weather for a change - to see if I can't get lost in the woods for a couple of hours, and in doing so maybe find some of the fitness and strength that I'll so desperately need come summer. 

The Fenix should help with the "train heavy - race light" ideology..

Less than a month until my first race of the season, so it's time to get crackin' now that I've got something to do the trackin'!

Oh, and out of curiosity I decided to check back the next to see what had listed as the Deal of the Day - I had to know just how much of a coincidence it was that they happened to be offering almost exactly what I would want in a GPS watch for a ridiculous discount on the very day I started looking for one.

Tuesday's Deal of the Day? The box set of Dr. Quinn - Medicine Woman on DVD.

You can't make this stuff up, folks.

Friday, April 8, 2016

And here I am..

..listening to the weather forecast these days.

Because this should not be a thing in April.

Let alone 20km of it.

That was my long run last Saturday. While the snow is almost all gone now, the forecast for this weekend is still pretty cringe-worthy.


Spring really is coming, right?


Friday, April 1, 2016


With very rare exceptions, every single photo you'll ever see of me running has one thing in common.

Ok, my ugly mug with a "kill me now" expression is probably in there.

Or something even dorkier.

But no matter what the weather, I'm always wearing a hat with a brim.

Even when it's buried under 3 layers because it's -28c out.

I see people running bare-headed or wearing a headband, visor or tube-type thing (like this) and wonder if they know what they're missing.

For starters, unless it's coming down sideways, it'll keep rain or snow off your face. I was out running last night in a torrential thunderstorm with 50+kph winds, but my face was almost completely dry when I got home. The rest of me may have been dripping - I mean I was forming puddles just trying to get my shoes off - but my face was protected. More importantly, my eyes were kept safe from the deluge of rain that would have robbed me of my ability to see properly as I ran through the tempest. I've run in freezing rain, hail (ow), ice pellets and snow, and in every case I've been happy to have that peak on my hat keeping all of that stuff out of my face.

Well, happier than I would have been otherwise.

Depending on the hat, it may just help keep the rest of your head warmer and drier, too. In rainy conditions under 10c/50f, I use a Saucony Velocity running cap I won as 1st woman in the Open Kilted Division at the Cambridge Highland Games Kilted 8k back in 2011. It's made of a windproof woven polyester fabric with a DWR coating to make it water resistant, and while that's far from waterproof it does shed light rain quite well. It's breathable, but has no mesh or ventilation holes so it does help trap some body heat in cooler weather without making you overheat.

If I need additional warmth, I'll usually add an earband, winter hat, tube thing worn as a hood, or some combination of these over the base of the peaked cap. 

Sometimes "All of the above"

Because I have a tiny head, the brim of the cap keeps the front of any additional headwear from falling down over my face with forseeably unpleasant consequences.

That brim comes in handy in heavy winds, too - if I'm running into something particularly awful, I can drop my head to keep my eyes from tearing up (also helps with sideways rain/sleet/snow/ice pellets). I don't recommend running with your head down for too long, but it's always an option if you've got that big old beak there for you.

It's not like I'm aerodynamic anyway.

In nicer weather, the hat still serves several functions. Having done experiments going hatless in hot weather, I find the wicking action of a good running hat helps keep my head cooler and drier than relying on air circulation to keep sweat at bay. I like Brooks HVAC mesh running hats for anything warmer than 10c/50f - they're lightweight and wick moisture incredibly well. I've been using one since at least spring of 2010, and it's still going strong. It also - and this is a big deal - is sufficiently adjustable via the velcro strap to fit my tiny, tiny little head yet has enough length to accommodate quite a large skull as well.

This one, pictured just a few weeks ago on a training run along the Grand River.

Not only does all that sweat not hang around in my hair, it's not dripping down into my eyes, either. That is probably one of the best reasons to make sure you wear something on your head while running, and the internal sweatband of a hat looks a heck of a lot less dorky than a sweatband across your melon. For those who protest that a tube-type head wrap does the same thing, I very rarely see them worn low enough on your forehead to stop the sweat that beads there from rolling down into your eyes.

These are not appealing alternatives.

The other rather important thing that brim will keep out of your eyes is the sun. My eyes are pretty sun-sensitive, but I learned long ago that I don't much like wearing sunglasses to run: they fog up, slide down your nose, make you even sweatier than you would be already, and seem to trap humid, stagnant air against my eyes. With a peaked cap, unless the sun is very low in the sky, I get the benefit of some shade without any of those issues.

Seems like a good deal to me.

You can even move the brim if the sun is coming in from the side, as long as you don't mind looking like a bit of a knob.

Another advantage that a cap has over a headband or even a visor is that it prevents sunburn on the top of your head. Even those of us with full, luxurious heads of hair have probably experienced a burn on the top of their skull at a part line at some point, to say nothing of those who may be thinning a bit on top. It's one place we almost never think to apply sunblock, but can result in a painful burn or worse consequences with long-term repeated exposure.

This is not by any means limited to running.

Though I do have different hats for the backcountry.

For that matter, I'm pretty bad at remembering to apply sunblock at all, so having a bit of extra shade on my face is a good deal, too. In a triathlon, I've often either swum or sweated off any sunscreen I did manage to apply (since "waterproof and sweatproof" are often relative terms), so it makes sense to wear a hat on the run course to protect myself from what is often mid-day sun - I leave it with my running shoes in transition and pop it on my head while running, so it doesn't really take any additional time.

The last advantage to wearing a hat is that it can literally save your life by increasing your visibility when you're out running. One of my all-time favourite warm-weather hats is the one pictured below, also made by Brooks:

Doing a lovely job of shading my eyes.

It really has everything. Being white, it reflects a lot of the sun's heat, and it's made of sweat-wicking materials that help keep me dry. Huge mesh panels on the sides allow me to dump heat, but the very top is a woven fabric that will shed a bit of rain. The brim has big holes punched out of the internal stiffening plastic to make it light weight, and it's covered in large patches of fluorescent yellow and retroreflective fabric. It's highly visible during both the day and night while being very comfortable to wear - I hardly even notice it's there.

One last note on visbility: if I'm feeling extra cautious and running in low light or poor weather, a hat gives me a perfect spot to clip on a flashing light. It's higher up, so can be seen at a greater distance than shoe lights or something on a belt, and I never have to worry about chafing from clipping it to my shirt or waistband, or having it on a strap of some kind. That Saucony hat I talked about above? It actually comes with a USB-rechargeable LED light that clips on to a purpose-built sleeve on the hat.

The reflective strip around the brim helps, too.

You can, of course, use the light on other stuff, too...or you can just clip a different light (I like the RoadID Supernova) onto any hat you happen to like.

So that's why, with a few rare exceptions in which I either stupidly forget or simply elect to wear a headband instead (generally regretting it within minutes), whenever you see me out trotting down a trail or puffing my way along a road, the smile I'll be giving you will be peering out from under a brim.

No need to keep that under your hat.