Saturday, August 17, 2013

Tangled Up In Blue...and White...and Red...and...

"50% of running is half mental more than 90% of the time" - Charlie Engle

As I've been alluding to frequently in my RWA blogs, I'm currently in the middle of Birmingham's Southeastern Trail Race Series. This is the brainchild of Race Director David Tosch and involves running (give or take) 7 trail races in 7 months. Now, David's idea is that these races get progressively harder and longer as you get sucked in. I've completed 3 of the first 4 races (out of town for the Memorial day race) and I've developed a clear understanding that training definitely is advantageous to doing these. Although I'm slow as molasses in Alaska in December, I do love running on the trails and am trying to get out there at least once a week to run on the course of whatever race is next on the schedule. But, this morning's run had a different twist or two.

As I said above, the Race Series has 7 races, but one race is actually 3 races - the 3-Stage, 3-Mountain Race the end of September. I can wrap my head around going a long way in a single day, but this will be 3 races on 3 different days on 3 different trails (Moss Rock - 16 miles, Red Mt - 15 miles, Oak Mt - 22 miles). Now, this will be interesting. So, David decided to throw AN ADDITIONAL race into the 7 month fray with the Birmingham Track Club Trail Race on September 7th, the day before race #5 of the SETRS (a 21 miler). The BTC race is free to BTC members and has 3 distances, 4-8-14.5 miles, so what better way to train for the 3 -stage race than to do a 2-stager, so I signed up for the long option (sounds easy sitting at your desk). And that's where I went this morning.

I won't go into a big description of the course, but with 2000' of elevation gain in the 14.5 miles, it does have some uphill grinders. There is a pull up to a place called Eagle's Nest at about 11 miles that rises 200' in less than 1/4 mile (yes, a 25% grade does sap your legs) and several other climbs of >20% grade. Took a little over 4 hours. Whew! I must say though that I was as occupied with staying on course as I was to physically finishing before the sun went down. I decided to memorize the course instead of taking a map. I've been running Oak Mt for many, many years, but this series of races have shown me trails I've never seen. Today I went Yellow - Yellow/White Connector - White - Red - Green - Green/White Connector - White - Blue - Blue/Red Connector - Red - White - Yellow. And I got back to the car!!! Woo-Hoo. The memory of an ultrarunning elephant!

Now, last week I did one loop of what will be the 2-loop 21 miler the next day. That race will have >3000' of elevation gain. So, as I said, training has it's benefits, but it was about 15 degrees hotter last Saturday and I ran out of water at about 8 miles (I usually carry 2 bottles when there's no water on the route). So, with a little help from my BUTS (Birmingham Ultra Trail Society) friends, this week I got a Sawyer Squeeze Filtration System (Amazon - $34). It has a 32 oz. collapsible bottle that you fill up with water that might have some microbial critters in it (like at the bottom of Peavine Falls), screw on the filtration cartridge, and then squeeze the filtered water into your water bottle. It takes a little ingenuity to figure out how to carry it, but it worked perfect with my Fuelbelt. Now, 5 hours after my run, I haven't had to make any "pants-on-fire" runs to the bathroom, so I guess it worked!

Before I close I want to wish my friend, Eric Strand and fellow BTC members Owen Bradley and the aforementioned David Tosch good luck as they tackle the famous Leadville (Co.) 100 mile Trail Race today (and tomorrow). I'm crying about 2000' elevation gain in 14 miles and these guys are doing 14,000' of elevation gain in 100 miles...all at 9000'-13,000' above sea level! Just quit whining Al. 

OK guys, that's about it for this week. Hope this cool weather continues, but I know better. This is Alabama. This is August. I'll just take one day at a time and one mile at a time. I'll see you all on the roads - Al   

"One child lost is too many...One child saved can change the world"

Sunday, August 11, 2013

What is a Running Paradigm and Where is it Shifting?

“We are products of our past, but we don't have to be prisoners of it.” 
― Rick Warren

I've probably looked up the definition a dozen times, asked my wife, asked my son, asked my priest, my Rabbi, tried hard to understand, but never got it. What I never got was the proper meaning of the word paradigm, as in a Paradigm Shift. I'm not going to write the definition in the dictionary here, mainly because Webster was apparently also confused by it's meaning. The best I can determine is that it's a way of thinking that something is viewed as the norm and not "the fringe". Now, that's my definition and probably doesn't clear it up for you, but it's my blog and I'll try to clear up where all this came from. This is what occupied much of my 3+hour, water deprived run on the trails yesterday morning! 

 When I began running back in the 70's...I know, before many of you were alive, but no, I didn't have to run to catch tonight's dinner...I used to be part of a fringe. Running was beginning to Boom fueled by Frank Shorter's gold medal in the 1972 Olympic Marathon and Jim Fixx's excellent, influential, and best-selling book, The Complete Book of Running. However, my impetus was a growing waistline due to working next to a McDonald's and thinking occasionally that two Big Mac's was better than one. I wasn't huge, but my mom's description of "big-boned" didn't work at 30 years old like it did when I was a chubby 10 year old. Anyway, I began to pull myself around the UAB track a few times and the weight began to fall off. This track running soon became longer and longer distances until "MARATHON" entered my mind. Our running nerd heroes included Boston Billy, The Great Greta, Joannie, and Dr. Sheehan, our own philosopher! Sure, we were running nerds, but we didn't care. We were a happy fringe. We ran marathons, did 60-70 miles per week, and were a happy group. But, the paradigm of running was the beginning Boom of 10K runners (even before 5K's were popular). Marathoners were on the outside of this box, and I was part of that fringe.

Running faded a bit during the 1980s. Big races, like 10k's managed to hold fast, but the new Boom was beginning to be marathons.  Blame Oprah.  Blame Lance and P Diddy , George Bush, Al Gore, or blame Runner’s World. Blame the mainstream press too, as they began to perpetuate the idea that running a marathon should be accepted almost universally as some kind of lifetime achievement, bucket list item, or rite of passage. Whatever the reason, what was the fringe now was fast becoming the new paradigm shift. Running meant doing a half or full marathon. We "hard core" runners hung in there by doing MORE marathons than the masses, but the distance was no longer the challenge. Instead of "I don't know how you run a marathon", it became "I don't know how you run 6 marathons in a year". Some tried to take up running, but for one reason or another, it didn't float their boat and quit, and many of these folks took up the new sport of triathlon and it began it's own Booming. But, we runners were still a happy fringe, 80's style. We, in the happy fringe now found ultrarunning! Yes, we were doing 50 mile runs, 100 mile runs, and 24-hour events. Marathons for us were used as training runs and we still maintained our out-of-the-box status.

The 90's really brought on the "Marathon Boom". Many celebrities were doing it, so it gained the publicity regular runners couldn't generate and now many of the masses wanted to prove they could do the marathon too. But, doing a marathon does take a lot of training and dedication and more of the masses wanted to be runners, but the new paradigm for them was a runner-lite and so, the result was the explosion of a plethora of fund-raising 5k fun runs, which squeezed out a lot of the older (and longer and tougher) small-town races. In addition, it seemed that there was suddenly a marathon in every state on every weekend of the year. But, there were still these new folks that wanted to try the marathon distance, but needed a less-serious approach. Enter Jeff Galloway who wrote tirelessly about strategies for mixing running and walking during races, or completing marathons with a MINIMUM amount of training and mileage (to we "hard core"  guys, the mere thought that you would approach a race as serious as a marathon with the intention of doing the minimum amount of training or WALKING was simply absurd). Then, there was the birth of the Penguin movement.  This was a self-proclaimed and proud group of plodders who even found their own guru, John Bingham. Suddenly, runners weren't such a fringe anymore ... anyone could be a runner. The influx  watered things down a bit. I became a Run Coach for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and we (the Society) were training thousands of runners to do a marathon without much of a base of all..."You can do 26.2" was the Battle-Cry. This was heresy a decade before! And so, running 26.2 miles (in addition to running the growing 5k's) became the new running paradigm. These weren't hard-core anymore, but became a social event with longer and longer times to complete the race. We added many new runners to the general pool, but the whole thought process had shifted towards long distance. And along with this, slowly, the masses, like an unrelenting glacier, began to infiltrate the ultrarunning scene. It wasn't easy, but more runners wanted to spread their wings. So, the out-of -the boxers began to feel squeezed and had to find a new field. 

In 1997, I ran my first trail ultra - a 50k in California, and a new fringe was found. I, and many of many fellow veteran runners, slowly began to enter into these trail runs. But, we were also racing our several road marathons and our road ultras while the masses continued growing, doing giant, social marathons and it's very popular, rapidly growing sister, the Half-marathon. The first decade of the 21st Century saw Big Box marathoning being the paradigm of running. From soccer-moms to High School Cross Country runners, it seemed like everyone was doing marathons. You had the Marathon Maniacs to the 50-States Club, and  you had groups seeing how many of the Rock 'n' Roll series they could do. I have read that statistically there are four times as many race participants as there were in the 1980s. But, rather than focusing on competition, today’s runners (women and men alike) seem more interested in spending time together. This was definitely not a bad thing. Running groups are springing up all over. They train and even run races in groups, keeping their pace in sync with the slowest of their tribe, instead of pushing themselves to their limits. Our sport has become so much more social (contrast that with the famous "loneliness of the long distance runner"). It seems like this is another running boom and it might potentially mean a more healthy populace. Of all potential exercise regimens, running/jogging/walking certainly has the lowest barrier to entry...low clothing costs, no initiation fees, flexible scheduling. Anything that would help this country get in better shape has got to be good. 

If you've read this far, you may still be wondering where I'm going with all this. Well, you see, over the past several years, my fringe has been shifting from platform to platform and now it seems to be trail running. Not many folks did it. It was challenging, the pace was slower than the road, it was way low-key, and info was hard to find. A run in the woods was still "out-there" in the minority of running. It still is, BUT lately the lava flow of the masses is coming aboard. We now have new runner's groups meeting regularly to run weekly on the trails, trail gear being sold in most running and sports shops, and several trail races popping up to give competition to the local Saturday 5k's. Here, in Birmingham, we have BUTS (the Birmingham Ultra Trail Society) and we have a very tough 7-race Southeastern Trail Race Series, and although it's not busting at the seams, there are runners doing this that had never tread on trails until less than a year ago. I think the ever-shifting paradigm of running may well be including trail running in another year or two. In other words, it'll be more common place, more accepted, more main-stream. It'll be accepted as a new view of running. That certainly has to be good for the sport. But I have to admit that I miss being part of a happy fringe. I think I've run out of new fringes. I've traveled down some pretty cool roads along the way, but I think I'll park the bus here for a while. But, when on the trail for 3 hours, out of water, by myself, it seems somewhat familiar and I have to reflect...Ah, yes, the good old days.

Friends, I'm glad we're taking this journey together. I'll see you on the roads or trails - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

Friday, August 2, 2013

A View From The Back Of The Pack...The Very Back!

"Change is inevitable. Change is constant" - Benjamin Disraeli

Those of you that read my blog know that a few years ago, my ailing ankles were barking so bad, I could hardly go a couple of slow miles without having walk or sit down. My love of long distance runs was literally shot down the toilet and I was pretty depressed about it. Slowly, through some diligent ankle stretching, running agonizingly slow on pancake flat surfaces, and mostly switching to Hoka shoes, I was able to build back to (for me) a fairly respectable distance. I literally made a deal with God that if I could run, I wouldn't kick and scream complain about the pace. Well, it seems that he is having a ball with me by testing me more and more. My early morning runs push 12 minutes/mile and we won't even mention what happens when I hit a hill! My ankles are still sore, but that ache just lies North of allowing me to try races that I used to think nothing of in my more formidable days. I see these races online when I'm at work and think "I can do that". Yeah, I can do it. BUT, although I'm still moving, I'm moving so much slower than everybody else. But, that was the deal I made with God, wasn't it? Last Saturday, I ran the Hotter 'N Hell 18 mile Trail Race here in Birmingham. Now, I don't mind finishing last, but I was "1962 New York Mets last". If you're not a baseball fan, just take my word for it, they were WAY behind!! And so was I!!
I've been doing ultras since 1981 when I did the 3rd Strolling Jim Race up in Tennessee. Been pretty hooked in mind and body since. As the years pass, it gets to be more mind than body, but I'll keep doing them till I can't I guess. Back in around the late 70's, before I started running, I used to go to the UAB gym every lunchtime to play racquetball and after showering one day, this guy comes into the locker room just after running. He sits down, completely whipped, sweating like a drenched pig. I asked him "Why do you run?", and he says perfectly seriously "Because it feels so good when I stop!". At the time I thought that's about the stupidest thing I ever heard, but I quickly learned the truth of his meaning.
Feels so good when you finish. That's true, but I do just like to run, and, I like to run long. Left foot, right foot and repeat several thousand times. There's a lot of us around. We run long. And, our version of long is sometimes very, very long. They are the runs you take two bottles on, where you take a bunch of Gu, they are the runs where you walk a bit up the hills, and then walk a bit on the flats, and then walk a bit on the downhills. They are the runs where you run out of stuff and they are the runs where you run into stuff. You run down gorges and wonder how you'll get out, but you know you have to because...well, you have to. They are long and hard and sweaty and deep and, in the end, they are the kind of runs that make a difference in who you are and who you want to be. Yes, I love to run, but last Saturday, it sure felt mighty good when I finished.

Although this is Alabama, and it is July, and the name of the race was Hotter 'N Hell, it was actually a cool, cloudy day for most of it, so excuse #1 was down the tubes. But, this course, although "only" 18 miles, has plenty of God-awful hills, some 25-30% grade that somehow got steeper the 2nd loop. At about the 5-mile mark of each loop you have to descend (climb) down into the gorge of Peavine falls, go under the falls, and immediately climb up the opposite cliff. During my 4 training runs on this course, I never could exactly find the correct trail to navigate this imitation of mountain climbing, and during the race, following the flagging, I was completely surprised to see there was a 5th way! There are a couple of other killer hills, but despite this, the 1st 9-mile loop went fairly well. Unfortunately, the 10 runners behind me were only doing the one-loop 9-mile race and I was bumped to last in an instant (well, a figurative instant).

The 2nd loop is when things went completely kaput. The long grinds just took it completely out of my legs. Ok, I knew I would have to walk on some of these long pulls, but what really bothered me was when I got to the top of these, my legs just decided to go on strike a while instead of picking it up on the more friendly grade. I mean they were just sapped. My buddy, Moha, surprised me by joining me on the 2nd loop or I might still be out there! I felt I was moving, but was I really going THAT slow? Yeah, I guess I was. I know my best running days are behind me, but, doggone it, I want to be UP THERE where I can at least see some of those folks ahead of me, not BACK HERE. This is not meant to be a sorry race report, or a epitaph of poor, poor pitiful me, but rather trying to figure it out and after a week, I think I have some answers. 

1) Not enough calories. I think in terms of miles instead of time, so my plan for Gu was one every 3 miles. Well, that's fine for a road run, but if it's going to take me 45-50 minutes (or more) on the hilly trail for 3 miles instead of 30 minutes, well, you can see how you can fall behind. I took only 5 Gu's in 5 1/2 hours of running. That's about 100 calories/hour instead of the recommended 250!  Uh-oh!

2) I usually drink energy drink along the way, at least at the aid stations, but decided to forego that and use Nuun tablets in my water. These are purely for electrolyte replacement, and I think they work great, but have no calories. Uh-oh #2

3) Specificity of training. All my weekday runs are basically flat (less than 75'/mile) with no leg sapping hills. Specificity used to be the icing on the it's the cake itself!! I try to hit the hilly trails at least once a week, but that's not really stretching the envelope, is it?

Sometimes, you just get bummed out and that's where I found myself after my humbling race Saturday. But, after a week of mulling it over, I guess it's alright. I what if I was dead-last...30 minutes behind next-to-last. Yeah, my running seems to be in a bit of a tailspin. Smoke is coming from the engine.  I am a Physical Therapist, and I know with aging there comes a decline in muscle power (yeah, tell me about it!). Also, there is a big decrease in recovery and healing rates, so after a run, it takes a little while more to feel tip-top. Don't get me wrong, I am glad and thankful that I can still run a decent amount of miles each week and I can line up on these crazy starting lines, but I'm a little slow to adjust to the present "me". Sort of an ego adjustment in addition to the physical adjustments.

OK, my Southeastern Trail Series Races take a little break till September and then it goes full-bore. I'll train, I'll line up, and I'll do my best. With each race, I get to know the evolving "me" better. I may not be crazy about it, but I'll learn to co-exist with the situation. Hey, it's my choice and I choose to be there. So, as my buddy Ken says, "Shut the hell up and get to the finish line".

Now, I've gotta go and get my stuff together for my training run on the trails tomorrow morning. The clock keeps ticking! Gonna be great, gonna tear it up, gonna charge the hills...oh wait, that's the ol' Al. How 'bout I aim to get from Point A to Point B and be happy I can still do that. Yeah, now that's a plan.

I'll see you all on the roads (or trail) - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"