Monday, July 20, 2009

Your Favorite Running Area

My Garmin GPS wrist computer's data on my PC screen provides all I need to explain why, as I try to hobble my way down the stairs this morning, my back is so sore, my achilles tendons are taut like steel cables and my arches are tender. Afton's 25K course, and my few off-track wrong turns, provide more gnarly hills per linear mile than most any other place I frequent (barring the north shore). That's terrific, since I love hills. Granted, to make the full 16 miles I walked most each and every one of them except all but the tamest. Afton has tremendous single-track, beautiful, diverse plant communities to run through (ranging from floodplain forest, through hardwoods forest and into the high and dry savana) and several stream courses to follow and cross in its web of trail options. The views of the St. Croix from several vistas are magnificent and the trails never seem overly busy. The real treat is that all of this beauty makes the challenging running all worth while. It propels me to push and meet, or even surpass, what I think I can do in a way similar to the mountains or a paticularly aestheic rock or ice climb. This time it meant finishing 16 miles of its trails in 2:58:13, 11:08 min/mile with 3500 ft of elevation gain...peanuts for accomplished runners, but this pace is faster than what my 3 mile, paved and flat urban running pace was last January, so I'm lovin' life right now...I doubt that my pace would have been as fast in any other trail I run with lesser beauty.
So here's a call out to all you trail runners: let's hear about your favorite trail runs and why they are so special.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Ultimate Cross-Training Weekend

There comes a time in every wannabe athelete's carrier where it all comes together. The penultimate point in space and time where all of sports academia meets execution. This weekend was no such marriage.

The following outlines a highly designed, researched and effective method for cross-training as peformed by one amatuer, not to mention any names, this past weekend. Optimal target goals for maltodextrin, fructose, electrolyte, amino acids and maximum water uptake were calculated versus the execution of three forms of exercise prescribed over specific durations and intensity. The expected outcome for the participant's body was expected to be complete draw-down, without the experience of too much pain, suffering and otherwise unglamorous, outward physical, and apprently mental, appearance.

Day One: Start the day off right with a nice fried agg and cheese sandwich, washing down the wholesome goodness with a latte, as any urbanite would do on any given day. Follow this with a nice quart of water to rehydrate and prepare for the day ahead. Next, shovel out 1.25 yards (1.75 tons) of soil in your backyard and spread across new tiered landscaped area nearby. Be sure to stay on a steady, moderately-paced effort with no breaks. Next, trim an overgrown Lilac hedgerow, remove all of the existing landscaping and plants in the new yard area and load all the biomass into a truck and unload it at a local compost/mulch yard. Follow this, with no more than a 10 minute rest (best taken in-transit) by getting 1.25 yards of sand loaded into the truck. Bring truck back to the house. Next, build, in 2 hours or less, a cedar sand-box permimeter around the previously excavated hole. Quickly ingest a sandwich, 2-3 cookies and more water being sure not to rest for more than 15 minutes. Next, transfer the entire 1.25 yards (1.75 tons) of sand from the truck, via two 5-gallon buckets (60 lbs each) each trip, into the sandbox. Be sure to not move the pallet of new landscaping materials that are in your way, making the 25 foot distance awkward and mentally-challenging. The entire day should take about 10 hours with two quick breaks that should simulate an Ultramarathon's aid station maximum time commitment. Congratulations, you are now ready for a quick shower, dinner and sleep.

Day Two: Sleep in, you desreve it. Casually saunter to your local sport climbing crag alone and hook up with friends for a short day of intense climbing. Start out by leading an 11a for warmup. Then move on to an 11d...feel free to fall once. After completing the route, lower to the ground, belay a friend on it, then Red Point the route on what should be your 3rd try overall. Cool down on a 10b and eat a banana, some gel and finish off your quart of water. Mix a new quart of water with Electrolyte sports drink and drink this while driving home. Get home, eat one small piece of frozen pizza (cooking it is optional) and head out for a 14 mile run with 2 quarts of water in your backpack. Never mind the fact that your legs are so stiff and tired from the earth moving portion of your workout that you have a hard time getting out of the car. Make it to the 7 mile turnaround point and put your head down and keep moving. Get to mile 10 and start counting down by half miles to keep yourself motivated. Get to 2 miles from the finish and listen for someone groaning behind you...NOTE: you may come to realize its actually you. Get to the end being sure to leave yourself 1.5 miles short of your 14 mile goal. This will be the mental coping training portion of your weekend. Turn around and head 0.75 miles back up the trail again and turn around and head back to the finish. At this point you may want to count down in 0.10 mile increments to keep your legs moving. Be sure to have a few windfallen trees to try and get over as your legs will appreciate the extra effort of having to be lifted, by hand, over them.

Complete your weekend's efforts with a quart of recovery drink followed by popcorn or anything else your body will actually accept at this point.

NOTE: It is recommended that you take the day off from work the following day.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Interstitial Spaces

My back bent, thighs screamed and mind faltered as I trudged my 60 lb, external frame Kelty backpack up the seemingly never-ending switchbacks. My footfalls were carefully selected to avoid the jutting rocks and loose soil to avoid any turned ankles or trip-ups. The trail rose in switchbacks between false summits that made the ice fields I sought to spend the night out on elusive. It was only going to be 3 miles, or so, but the mountain slopes rising from the Ocean rose abruptly and unforgiving. The Alaskan coast also enabled thick temperate rainforest vegetation to grow rampant and wild. It clawed at the damned exposed backpack frame, threatening to toss me ass-over-tea-kettle down the trail, or worse yet, off the trail and down the glacier. I vowed to buy one of those new, sleek internal frame jobbies when I got back home. When I was a child, my parents called me their “little mountain goat” due to my uncanny ability to bound over 3rd class terrain (talus and boulders) with ease and confidence. What happened? My protesting knees, aching from another backpacking excursion earlier in the trip, were beginning to question all of this damned abuse, so I stopped for a rest over my trekking poles. I envisioned looking something like a Salvador Dali figure at this point; a thin, transparent, damned apparition being help upright by grotesque crutches. It was at this point a thunderous report of kinetic energy rushed down from above. Being bear (read: enormous) country, I was immediately panicked, but to my surprise and bewilderment it wasn’t a Brown Bear rushing me. Instead something far more absurd seemed to fly down the trail. Three young men free falling—no, running—down the mountain, while laughing, blazed past me completely unencumbered. They had run up the Exit Glacier trail I was crawling up, turned around, and then headed back down for home. Running this trail seemed completely out of the realm of possibility to my close-minded 1980’s backpacking mindset. It was the era of heavy, slow and over-armored clothing and heavy boots, not “light is right.” At least not for the contemporary backpacking world. I set my ridiculous backpack down and began re-evaluating my approach to movement in the mountains right there.

Setting out to run a 13.3-mile section of the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) is really no big deal for accomplished trail runners. Apparently, I’m not accomplished, yet. I have set my feet down on the majority of its segments, some sections several times, so am much acquainted with its rigorous nature. Its vertical relief isn’t as impressive as the Coastal Ranges, the Rockies, the Alaskan Range or even the Appalachians. That is, if you were to look at it via a coarsely-scaled topo map. Its verticality is measured, as far as the hiker or trail runner is concerned, in a finer scale of nearly continuous, repeated, steep, ups and downs. Most of its single-track is littered with uneven footing; the result of a tremendous amount of rocks and roots jutting through the soil. My hiking experiences on trails throughout North America, especially the SHT, taught me how to move effortlessly through this sort of terrain at around 3 mph throughout the day. I was about to learn that none of this mattered when the hiking shoes are replaced by running shoes. Neither was my level of fitness and confidence related to the urban trails and paved runs of the Twin Cities.

I had a tremendous few weeks leading up to this weekend. Trail runs at Afton SP, Fort Snelling SP and my road runs were getting faster and easier by the run. In fact, my 10-mile pace at the demandingly hilly Afton were breaking 10 minutes (I felt great for a beginner like me) and my hills and speed workouts on the pavement were really improving. My urban exploits were tough efforts and very productive. Since I was planning on going to spend time with my Father, Step Mother and family at the cabin on the North Shore, I was excited test my fitness on the familiar, challenging ground of the SHT. Of course, I have heard from other trail runners that the SHT is a monster and considered to be very technical and physical, but hey, it’s an old friend of mine and I was feeling pretty good about my progress.

Shit! I left that extra 20 oz’s of Electrolyte/Carb/Amino Acid drink mix in dad’s truck and he’s already pulled off through the woods leaving me at the trail head with my measly 12 oz’s of mix, 3 shots of Hammer Gel and 2 liter water bladder. OK. It’ll be tougher in this 80+ heat, but it’s training, so this extra suffering will serve well at some point. Some nervous, token stretching, some excited pacing and then I’m off down the nearly hidden trail towards the Temperance river 13+ miles distant. That first 1.5 miles is always a little tough for me as my body slowly relaxes and softens up to the effort. This time, however, the heart rate doesn’t seem to want to taper back down to its distance pace after the “warm up.” Probably due to needing to concentrate my whole body on preparing for each chuck and jive around the roots and rocks I’m encountering. Man, this section’s track is really narrow. The sedges and grasses sometimes completely cover my view of the running surface…gotta slow down a bit, no, a lot or I’m taking a header, for sure. Running on this terrain is NOTHING like hiking. The trail is a completely new animal now. I dug deeply for that little mountain goat deep inside me as I focused my attention to reacting within a split second to the consistently variable running surface (no, that’s not an oxymoron).

I picked this section of the SHT because it supposedly started out high, eased over some terrain, crossed the Cross River Valley, then rose up and over the ridge down into the Temperance River Gorge. It was supposed to be relatively casual for SHT, but I must have forgotten about how convoluted this trail is. It was designed to bring you through terrifically varied terrain and up to as many vistas of the landscapes as seen from high as possible. That frequently means a whole lot of up and down action and I was being reminded of this fact over and over again. Ah yes, training. Find those spaces between the obstacles and avoid tripping up. Get over the fact that it’s too damned hot to be doing this and the electrolyte levels in your blood stream are too low to help you assimilate water that you need to run the Kreb’s cyle that will enable you to get to the end of the run. Ignore the burning thighs and calves on the steep uphills…oh yeah…I should be walking these! Try to will your rubbery legs to support your controlled falling on the downhill runs. Drink, Gel, drink, gel….there goes the last of the electrolyte mix. There goes mile 10 and finally the Cross River. Now suck it up and work up the slopes of the gorge to get to the top of the next ridge overlook. How the hell did a friend of mine just do the entire 205 miles in a little over 4 days? That’s an average of 50 miles/day for 4 days over this horrendously rocky, rooty, narrow and steep up and down brutality! She must be superhuman. But I’ve seen her fail at things just like us mortals…either way, superhuman or just really gifted and fit, I’m blown away by what she’s done on this track.

I'm suffering now and it’s not an unusually long run for me. It is, however, the hardest run I’ve ever done. I remind myself to enjoy scenery and to relax by trying out some mantras on in and out breaths. I try to say out loud “focus on the fun, not the negative” knowing well that this part of my training is likely 200% more important that the physical side. In doing so, I’m avoiding the pitfalls of mental rocks and roots poised in my path to topple me or hut me down. I need to find that firm, welcoming footing between the mental obstacles. It’s working again and my body physically rewards me with a little more energy and less intense revolts from dehydration; although the water deficit is becoming almost alarmingly apparent. I am reminded of my first trip the Tetons where a slower partner set our summit day at 24 hours of effort resulting in severe dehydration by the time I got back to the climbers ranch the next morning. Shit, I don’t want that to happen again…get a move on and get over this ridge so you can get down the slopes to the Temperance and the van.

Now the long, steep, loose descent to the Temperance was even demanding. I hoped for things to ease off a bit as I was about to run out of water and I wasn’t feeling so well, but this was one long descent on rubber legs. I watched my Garmin report the news like an ongoing news flash. My 10 minute pace, long gone, was slipping past 12. Crap! I haven’t been this slow in over a year. Now it’s approaching 13 min/mile…is there anything I can do to salvage my pace? Nope. By the time I reach the Temperance I’ve slowed to 13.3 min’s/mile and it’s all I can do to run the bedrock trail downstream to the van. I run past sun bathers and swimmers along the river. Tourists and families, out for a beautiful day hike off Highway 61 up to the deeply cut channel of the Temperance, either nervously smile or reluctantly step aside as I make a desperate attempt at salvaging my pace and composure. I was really salty. I wondered about my face and how wretched it must have appeared.

I resolved myself to picking my tired body up and shouldered that damned heavy load up and over the last bluff leading to the ocean of ice that formed the ice fields hanging above Seward, Alaska. I worked a ways out onto its expanse and marveled at the surrounding peaks whose summits rose out of the sea of ice. I drove 12-inch barn nails into the ice and cracks in the rock so I could fasten tarps over my crappy little tent as I expected some unstable weather ahead. For the next twelve hours, I held that tent together in a storm that ravaged with near hurricane-force winds and sleet. I came here for the experience. I prepared for it. Perhaps a bit naïve, but seasoned enough to withstand the demands of the situation. I had to force my mind to look for those places where there was firm footing and to focus on the experience without attaching good or bad connotation in order to see clearly and persevere.

It seems that the most important accomplishments are not those measured by the obvious trophy (e.g., the summit, the finish line, the big contract), but, rather, those little moments of pure clarity where the footsteps and efforts fall with precision when they could have either led to falling or were simply not taken at all due to the arduous effort. Choosing to do something then finding those choice footfalls between the dangerous obstacles may lead to a seemingly big goal, but each of those instants is the real reward. The SHT redefined what “hard” running is and adjusted my reference for what effort really means. I’m grateful the experience came at this phase of my training as everything from this point on will be measured against it and be that much easier, or drive me to push that much harder.