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..