Sunday, October 30, 2011

Pondering the Stone Cat, and 'Frozen Dessert' at Maudslay State Park

Six days to the Stone Cat Trail 50 Miler for me and as the saying goes, the hay is in the barn.

Actually, I think after running the TARC 50k a few weeks ago, that was when the hay was really baled and loaded into the loft, but following my run this past weekend, I feel a sense of completion, as well as the slight sense of promise, since I am basically on the way to the start line at the Doyon School in Ipswich next weekend for the first time in three attempts (note... this is my first attempt at the 50, the previous two years I intended to run the marathon edition of Stone Cat... or the JV race as the ultra runners call it.). 

I am comforted by good health and fresh legs.  I ventured out to Maudsley State Park in Newburyport yesterday and cranked out about 13.5 miles at a nice pace and felt strong enough at the end to really pick up the pace over the last 5 to 6 kilometers.  The conditions were also less than ideal, as the second I got out of the car for what I had hoped would be a nice easy two hours, the cold rain and wind from the approaching nor’easter stung my face.

All things considered, the weather was not too much of a factor.   I knew what I was getting myself into and planned accordingly, bringing a rain jacket and layering up.  I still got back to the car soaked and shivering, but that was mostly a product of the rain changing to snow at about an hour and fifteen minutes. 

I was also encouraged because Maudslay is a really unique place to run trails.  If I had to rate it on a scale of one to five regarding the technicality of the terrain, I’d give it about 2 ”rocks’n’roots”.  What makes Maudslay tougher is the amount of undulating terrain.  There are definitely flat sections, and some of the gradual descents can be really fun, fast scooting, but if you make sure you turn around and make these sections ascents as well, it all adds up when you spend a few hours in the park.  My Garmin said I got about 1,000 ft. or gain/loss over the duration of my run, which was a little surprising, but definitely encouraging.

Here are some of the scenes from Maudslay:

Maudslay State Park - Newburyport, MA

Vista looking west across the Merrimack River

Classic New England Autumn scene

Newburyport H.S. uses Maudsley as their home XC course...

Some rocks and roots, but pleasant sections of pine needles and WOOD CHIPS!

Tried taking a nice shot of the church across the river, but the rain changing to snow and the gusty wind from the Nor'easter was having none of that!
Basically all I can do now is prepare, pack, and mentally focus for Saturday.  I look at the training page I have hanging on my wall and I have doubts that I have collectively done too little, but I know that I have really focused on time on feet, and made sure that the limited amount of miles I have run are either quality speed training, or runs of multiple hours - where the focus is time on feet and mileage.  It certainly hasn't been the best training plan in the world, and is really about as minimalist as one should be doing for such a long race… maybe too little?  There are definitely things I should have done better – like dropping weight and doing more back-to-back long runs, but, as I alluded to above, I am healthy, and happy that I am not injured because I felt obligated to get some prescribed weekly mileage through junk miles.  This has always been a recipe for disaster for me since starting my life over as a runner.

The bottom line is that I will be there, and I can’t wait to see my trail running friends, AND I hope and pray that I share many of the 50 Stone Cat miles with them!

Next weekend will be yet another adventure into the crucible, where I try to find out what I am really made of.  It is also another opportunity to once again prove to myself that anything is possible.  I have also heard from those that have done it, that it is a distance that begins to change your outlook on life.  Not quite the same as 100 miles, but certainly one that reveals more than 50k.
As just a final thought, this morning I received a timely and needed boost from fellow ultra & trail runner, Brenda Morris.  I congratulated her on a great finish at today's Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. and I asked her how she felt about her race.  She replied, "I'm always happy with my runs, fast or slow I'm very fortunate to be able to run for those who are unable".

Saturday I definitely run to prove it to myself, but I also run because I can, and these last few months have been filled with reminders that we are never guaranteed anything in this life, and each day should be a moment to live!

Happy trails my friends!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

SHOE REVIEWS: Brooks Cascadia 6, New Balance MT 101, and New Balance 690

As a college runner I had my 'go to' shoes that were amazingly reliable.  I knew what worked for me, and typically when a shoe was discontinued, I was able to find the next model, which typically was a basic update of the previous version.  I didn't jump from brand to brand.  Then again, my success with shoes may be because I weighed 35 pounds less than I do now, and I was much faster, which means less force on every foot strike and less contact with the ground.

Since resuming life as a runner, I feel like I have yet to find that same comfort and peace with a single brand or model.  My intent is not to launch into a diatribe on the changes to the running shoe industry over the last 10 to 15 years, but I do feel compelled to use this space to share a little of my experience with some of the models and brands I have been wear testing on my own dime.

Below are brief overviews of the three pairs of shoes that I plan on logging the most mileage with over the next few months.

Brooks Cascadia 6
MSRP: $110
Current Mileage:  111

I purchased the Brooks Cascadias after doing some research online and talking with a few friends who were proponents of the brand and model after years of reliable running in these trail shoes.  My goal was to find a shoe that had a similar feeling to the minimalist style of footwear that seem to be working for me lately, but also contain a fair amount of cushion and protection, primarily since my focus for training this Fall has been for ultramarathon trail races of 50k to 50 miles.

Almost all of the mileage on these shoes so far have been on trails over varying types of terrain.  I have also logged a few multi-hour, 20+ mile training runs with these. 

Of all that I was looking for in these shoes, one my first thoughts have to do with how well these shoes handle water crossings!

I was very impressed with how the shoes seemed to drain quickly, and tended to breath enough to let my damp socks dry during a run where we had to cross a few sections of trail where the water was ankle deep for about 200 meters.  Out of the impromptu foot soak, I found the tech socks I was wearing were not inhibited from wicking away the moisture - other trail shoes I have owned have held in the water and basted my feet for the remaining miles - and after a couple of miles my feet still felt a little damp, but certainly not soaked.

The 12mm heel-to-toe drop was definitely one of the selling points for me, and I am stoked that the ride I get from the Brooks Cascadia 6's have felt very similar to other minimalist trail models I have used.  I will definitely agree that I don't 'feel' the trail as well as I do in slimmer, faster models, but I do feel like I am able to maintain a mid-foot strike consistently through long runs with the Cascadias.

The only trouble I have had to date has been some nasty blistering issues during a 50k I recently ran.  Around 23 miles I felt hot spots developing around my heel on the outside of each foot, where the hard plastic heel cup had been causing some serious friction and, subsequently, large blisters.  It got so bad that I decided to swap the Cascadias for another shoe to finish the race.  I am not sure if it was the shoe or the socks I was wearing on the day, but I am going to keep an eye on this during the 50 miler.

Overall, I am happy with the Cascadias, and hope they hold up for the long run... literally.

New Balance MT 101
MSRP:  $75.00
Mileage:  75

I have owned the MT 101's for months now, and even though these have been out for some time, I feel it is necessary to bring up these because they have been a great shoe for me.  They have been my "happy-medium" shoe when it comes to wanting to go barefoot, but wanting to have some semblance of protection out on the trail.

I have used these primarily for shorter, faster trail runs and races, but have found that I can take them out for longer runs when my calves have been properly acclimated to handle more of a naturally fore and mid-foot strike over greater distance.  The minimalist vibe is definitely still alive with these, as they have a very basic upper, with a 10 mm heel-toe drop.

Upon my first run in these, I clearly felt the differences with the 101's when compared to the 100's, and wasn't sure I'd like them as much as I loved their forerunners.   After more mileage with these, I have come to appreciate these differences.  I  especially love the extra room in the toe box when I take these out for longer runs, as it accommodates any foot swell that might happen over the miles.   

What stayed the same was also appreciated, as the thin upper and the seemingly perfect amount of cushioning, with the Rock-Stop plate in the forefront allow for a fair amount of protection from rocks and roots, but also have allowed me to feel the trail a great deal more as was my experience with the 100's. 

Very simply these are light and fast.  This translates to a feeling of more responsiveness with the trail, and this makes it easier to find strategic foot strikes around trail debris, instead of crashing through it, which I had been prone to do with clunkier shoes - especially when running on tired legs.  With this said, certainly the lack of toe protection with the 101's require a trail runner be more vigilant in that sense!

Back to the minimalist composition of these shoes - these were the shoes I used for the last 10k of the 50k mentioned above when I was having blister issues.  As I had hoped, the lack of a solid plastic heel cup was heaven, and I was definitely able to finish the race because of the gentle cradle of the EVA foam in the area of my blisters.

Ideally I'd like to get strong enough to wear these for an entire ultramarathon.   Being a firm believer that one should train in the gear they intend to race with, I worry, though, that the volume of mileage I'd need to put on the shoes in training would overwhelm the prescribed mileage per pair.  I am not entirely sure these could handle upwards of 400 or 500 miles in training, and I just don't have the means right now to be dropping cash on shoes twice as often as I might in another pair.

All things considered, these shoes have been great for me and I definitely recommend these for trail runs on all sorts of terrain.  They are perfect as a trail racing flat, but I have had success completing runs up to about 20 miles in these.  I have also found they aren't too bad on the roads, too, if you are a couple miles away from the trailhead.

New Balance 690
MSRP: $75
Mileage: 13

I recently bought these shoes as a replacement road training shoe and had a few initial thoughts following the first run in these.

I took these out for a half marathon distance run last night and found they were good on the roads.  They seemed to provide the right amount of cushioning, and, as you can see from the bottom of the shoe, provide nothing incredibly fancy with motion control devices or anything of that nature. 

They were really responsive and I felt like when I needed to pick up the pace, even when I was tired, the light weight of these shoes (about 10 or 11 ozs.) made this a little easier.

Though the MSRP is around $75, These were really affordable pick ups for me as they were on sale at a local department store, which is typically not a place I find good training shoes, yet I hope the 690's turn out to provide some decent mileage for the value.

I haven't been able to find much information on the heel-toe offset on this shoe, but it looks roughly in the 15 to 20 mm range, and I am definitely going to keep this in mind as I log more miles.  It'll be interesting to see how these compare to my brief experience with the Saucony Kinvara model.

More to come on these, as well as the others above, as I go tumbling toward the Stone Cat Trail 50 Miler in only 16 days!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

This is Why 'Ultra' is Different

A note... I wrote this race report over three days, and didn't realize I was going to broach 4,000 words!  Be forewarned, this post is long, like the race!

Shortly after completing the second marathon of my life, I wondered what would be next.  I sat in my seat on the flight back to Boston, and I quickly realized that running another road marathon was not something I'd be interested in.  I am not about to say that all marathon experiences are the same, and the challenge and accomplishment of completing a marathon are still very inspiring to me, but as I looked at my medal from the Marine Corps Marathon, and looked over the clouds, set aflame in crimson and pink hues by the sunset, I knew that the next challenge for me would be the first true distance rung of the ultramarathon ladder - 50 kilometers.

So I committed my 2011 running campaign to the ultramarathon, and found my shivering self standing on the start line of the GAC Fat Ass 50k just eight days into the new year.  The goal was to complete 50k, but I did not make the cut off to start my final 10k loop (not sure I would have done another) and in the end I finished the day having completed a very tough marathon distance over trails covered in ice and snow.  It was a bittersweet event, but given the tough conditions, a couple tactical errors, and some physical issues, I was satisfied with the result.

Three months later I found myself standing on the soggy start line of the TARC Spring Classic 50k.  Though the conditions were a challenge, I jovially crossed the finish line having finally completed that first 'true' ultra distance.  It was a challenge, and I spent the next few days wondering if I'd ever do another 50k, and how 50 miles seemed over the horizon of possibilities. 

Having completed one 50k, I came into this past weekend's TARC Fall Classic 50k with a more calm sense of what was about to unfold.  In addition to knowing what the distance 'feels' like, I had a handful of long, multiple hour training runs logged in recent weeks in preparation for the Stone Cat 50 Miler, so I felt comfortable thinking about spending at least 6 hours of time on my feet as well.

I snagged a ride to the start with Breakheart Dan, who decided to take on the challenge, even though he was feeling a little wary of his lack of training over the last few weeks.  Nevertheless, Dan is a seasoned ultra runner who embodies the 'show up and see what happens' attitude that so many other trail and ultra runners live by.

We arrived at the Estabrook Elementary School in Lexington, MA about 45 minutes before the start, and like most other ultras, had to be careful not to do too much socializing instead of making sure all gear and food and bags were squared away before we were sent off on the course.  That is definitely part of the allure of the trail and ultra community.  The more deeply you get entrenched in the community, the more faces and names you learn.   

There is almost always none of the 'fast people staring content' that happens between many road races.  You know, at the start line, all the alpha dogs doing intense striders and staring down the others on the line as to say, "This is my race!"  Instead, the start of an ultra is like a hundred people showing up to some random location in an open field or trailhead, doing fist bumps and passing along greetings, wandering around looking like they are wondering when the keg is going to arrive, just as much as when the race is going to start.  It's great!

Eventually I got my gear squared away, and the biggest challenge was wondering how long I'd need my long sleeves and gloves, as the high temperature for the day was forecast in the high 70's, yet the early hours of the morning were clad with a classic New England autumn chill. 

I made my way over to the start and found Dan chatting with our friend Karen.  We were waiting at the back of the pack, where we figured we should be, out of the way of all the 10k, half marathon, and marathon runners in the group.  The TARC Trail Animal began approaching me, and Dan mentioned I might know the identity of the Trail Animal - who knew I would be placed in the TARC's version of trying to identify the Mummer!

Josh Katzman gave a great race briefing, we all collectively gave our best animal calls, and the race was on!

Loop One - Discovery!

The course for the TARC Fall Classic was a 10k loop beginning and ending at the Estabrook Elementary School in Lexington, MA, but most of the course was in Burlington's Landlocked Forest.  After departing the school we followed the playing fields to the a short section of single track in Lexington's Paint Mine Area, and on to the trails beneath a string of power lines that led to the Landlocked Forest.  The start was a bit congested with many runners approaching the same bottle neck at the trail head, but most of us at the back of the pack didn't mind - just an early opportunity to add a little walking!

The power line trail brought an opening ascent, which was not terribly tough or technical, but it was a harbinger of things to come on the rest of the loop. 

I stuck with Karen, Dan, and Pam, a friend of Dan's and Karen's that I hadn't met before.  I would later learn that Pam is a fellow trail running blogger, check out her adventures at run home pam.  We rolled along at a comfortable pace through the first mile with a conga line of other runners.  Quickly some of the other runners in the shorter races came along the trail after completing their shorter loops on the playing fields to get them square with the distances they'd be racing for the day.  This made things a bit more interesting, and eventually Karen and I lost contact with Dan and Pam.  We were both in no hurry to catch up, as we both knew we had long days ahead of us.

A view of Route 3 from the trail.
Once in the Landlocked Forest, we found lots of single track, not terribly complicated, but ever-undulating.  Though I'd agree the terrain was not technical, there were enough rocks and roots to warrant special attention to each foot placement.  The woodland landscape was interesting, with lots of rock escarpments and boulders deposited by receding glaciers from millions of years ago.  Another quirk of the course was that it ran adjacent to Route 3, and, in some places we found ourselves running single track trails literally feet from the highway guard rail. 

As we moved along the first loop I began to wonder how not wearing my Garmin would effect me during the race.  I was a little concerned because, like most trail races, there are no mile markers, and part of the mental game during the middle and end of a longer race is having landmarks to help with motivation and staying positive.  Fortunately, about halfway through the first loop I was running with another person who had a Garmin, and he informed me that we were at 3.1 miles, which was really all I needed for the rest of the day!

This was about the same time I came up on another trail friend, Michelle, carrying her log on her shoulder.  She carries the log for many different reasons, and as a visually impaired runner, I really appreciate the log, because it helps me know that it is indeed her!  We chatted for a little while, and she totally saved me on a second of the course that was a labyrinth of shadowy switch back that were quite tough for me the first time around to visually navigate.  The Beatles were right, I did get by with a little (lot!) of help from my friends!

After the labyrinth, the loop featured one of the lone flat and easy sections of trail, featuring some really nice boardwalks.  From the boardwalks we got back to the roller coaster of undulating terrain, which eventually led back to the power lines, and back to the school.

When I arrived back from the first 10k loop, I grabbed a turkey sandwich and refilled my bottles with GU Brew.  Dan and Pam were getting ready to head back out, and it was nice knowing I wasn't too far behind from them.  I took a little more time in the aid station taking off my long sleeve shirt and grabbing a few other items from my drop bag.  Unfortunately I also grabbed a Dunkin Donuts Munchkin from the aid table as well, which was not a good choice as I tasted it for the next twelve miles!

Loop 1 - plus some transition time - 1:20:15

Loop Two - The Crowd Thins; Catching Up (with) to More Friends

The beginning of the second loop was a little easier to navigate as many of the runners in the short races were well into their second loop.  I did a little status check of all systems and felt decent and plodded along.  I had grabbed my iPod and headphones from the drop bag, and was considering throwing on some tunes, but it seemed way too early in the day to do that, so I tucked both in the front pocket of my RaceReady shorts.

Things went along fairly uneventful for the next couple of miles, and I started feeling a bit zen as I glided along the trail, until before I knew it I felt my body become airborne and briefly suspended in mid-air, realizing I was about to land hard on face!

It has been a while since I have fallen during a trail race, and some might argue it has been too long, but there I was, stunned, covered in debris - thankfully not bleeding, and in a little shock.  I had rolled both ankles during the first loop, and Karen mentioned she should probably stay behind me, just in case!  Thankfully, when I fell I was alone, so no one was brought down with the ship, nor was I trampled by a herd of half marathoners.

I got up, laughed, and realized that I fell on the same side as the pocket where my iPod was stored, talk about thinking about the important things first!  Hell, I am not worried about my femur sticking out over there; I can't listen to 'Little Red Riding Hood' by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs later on!

All in all, I was fine, very lucky actually that it wasn't worse with all the rocks and roots on the forest floor, ready to apply a little blunt force trauma.

Not too much longer up the trail, I came across a conga line of runners, clearly re-entering the course after taking the scenic route for a little while.  I then noticed that part of that lost conga line were Dan and Pam!  I was pumped to see the both of them, and was able to tag along for the labyrinth section of the course that had completely befuddled me earlier in the day.  We also met up with Trail Pixie, who was kicking some serious butt on the second loop, powering to a nice half marathon finish on a sneaky tough course.

It is always awesome running with Em, totally makes the miles go by quickly.  I got to play the role of 'Pixie's Pusher' during the race, as she was looking for S-Caps, and like some weird trail side drug deal, little white capsules were passed with a nod, and the deal was done.  Must have been the S-Caps, because Pixie blew us all away, and sped on down the trail to her finish line for the day.

Dan, Pam and I ran together for the rest of the loop, and ran three-wide as we coasted into the transition area.  Two down, three to go... it was getting warm!

In the aid station, I snagged a couple turkey sandwich quarters, and a couple PB&J quarters, along with refilling my bottles.  I will say, I thought I was over-doing it by bring the awkward 'handteen' I had received at a race as a raffle prize last year, but the extra 12 ounces of fluid were essential to get me through this one!

Dan and Pam were off on loop three before I knew it, but I needed to replenish my supply of S-Caps for the rest of the day and spent a little extra time going through my drop bag to get a few more.

In a jiffy, I was back on my way!

Loop 2 - plus all transition time - 1:24:41 [2:44:56]

Loop Three - Somewhere in the Middle

I basically gave up on catching Pam and Dan at the beginning of the loop, as I decided to walk the first section and eat my sandwiches.  It was really interesting seeing pedestrians with their kids and dogs looking at this crazy person with a half of turkey sandwiches hanging out of my mouths, while I adjusted my sunglasses and unzipped my jersey for a little more ventilation... I was praying the race number pinned to my shorts would provide the slightest bit of ethos!

The third loop was cool because I was able to meet a few new people.  One guy I came up on, let's call him 'Green Shirt Guy', was having a hard time.  We chatted for a little while, and I made sure he didn't need anything I might have to help his race day.  He mentioned this was his first 50k, and he didn't care how long it took, he was going to finish.  He then added he had done a 24 hour race before, and that convinced me he'd be fine!  Again, not too many races where your gut reaction when you come across a hurting runner is to ask if there is anything you can do to help.

A little farther up the trail I was coming up one of the short, steep ascents that led to a narrow crossing between two culverts via an esker.  I secretly named the steep ascent the esker-lator during loop four, when I really started going bat-shit crazy.  Yep, geological humor... that is where it's at.

Anyway, at the top of the esker-lator, I saw two runners going in the wrong direction, and I was able to get them back on the right path.  Shortly thereafter, I found myself hopeless lost in the labyrinth section of the course, and after a few minutes of wandering I found myself back at the beginning of the labyrith, meeting the runners I had helped earlier.  We completely the labyrinth section together, I was grateful!

As it turns out, they were both also planning on running the Stone Cat 50 in a few weeks as well, and we had a nice time chatting about training and how unexpectedly tough the day had been so far.  After a little time together, I wished them luck, and picked up the pace a little.

As I came back into the section of trail that led back to the school, I saw Pam heading out for her fourth loop, but didn't see Dan, and wondered if he was calling it a day.  Sure enough, as I came into the aid station area, Dan was hanging out, and let me know his IT Band was acting up, and he was done for the day.  Nevertheless, I think it was awesome.  Dan wasn't even sure he was racing, yet he showed and snagged 30k!

As I turned my attention back to the aid station, the volunteers hooked me up with some more turkey sandwich quarters and topped off bottles of GU brew... volunteers are no doubt the oil that keeps the engine of an ultra marathon running, and without these awesome people, these events are just not possible!

I started feeling like trash a little here, but never thought for one second about dropping at 30k and headed out for loop 4.

Loop 3 - 1:27:49 [4:12:45]

Loop Four - Hello Crapulence!

I figured I'd walk as I ate my sandwiches, and I took a shot of pure maple syrup - a little trick I was trying out for the first time, which I have borrowed from Steve 'The Bard' Latour.  I will say, I think it was successful, but after a while the sweetness was a little too much to bear, and I early on in the race I realized my flask of syrup was nicely shaken into a froth of mapley foam... no, I am not complaining!

After I finished my food, I still felt like walking... then I walked some more... and then a little more.  In fact, the first mile I basically had no interest in running whatsoever.  This was tough, because my brain was going into DNF drop mode, but my heart was scrambling for ways to get the rationale part of my brain drunk and delusional.  It was sort of like that scene from Animal House where Chip Diller (Kevin Bacon's character) is screaming, "All is well!  Remain Calm!"

Snugly in survival mode for the first three miles, I just let it all go, and accepted the fact that muscles were sore, and I was not in a pleasant place.  Once I made it to the halfway point, I found some energy, and started playing a little mental game I learned that definitely helps both mental and physical states, and will definitely been needed for Stone Cat!  I saw a few other runners out there, but we were all quiet and just focused on the task at hand.

On the bright side, I finished the labyrinth section all by myself, and felt like I was on the home stretch.  Unfortunately, just about this time, I felt the hot spot on the side of my heel actually pop, which was a blister opening on it's own, which shot needles of pain up my leg.  This had a chain reaction, because it was like a cold shower for rationale brain - awakening it from it's stupor, and the last couple of miles I was entertaining, "I will drop at 40k if..." and "I will only start a 5th loop if I do this..." thoughts.

As I descended the power line hills back to the school, I felt every step with the blister, and thought I might have one option to switch out my socks and shoes.  Then there was the fact that I had no desire to eat another sandwich, but knew I needed calories.  I also realized from my cotton-like spit, and the more obvious deeper yellow hue of my pee, that I was dehydrated, and didn't have much left, but was pretty sure another 10k could be completed.

Back in the aid area, the volunteers, including Josh Katzman, Dima Feinhaus and a very nice woman whose name I never got, but was really supportive, helped get me moving forward and not dwelling on dropping out.  I ate a little ginger candy, which helped the stomach, and get as much GU brew as I could.  I also drank a cup of mountain dew, which was seriously as close to nectar of the gods as I have ever been!

I then attempted to switch out socks and shoes, but the second I sat down, muscles were cramping, and I needed to figure out how the hell to put my socks on that wouldn't completely immobilize me.  Amid, cat call from Dima: 'This is a running race!  The course doesn't start there!", I got my Cascadia's off and my New Balance MT 101s on, with a fresh pair of socks, and didn't even think about the other doubts and headed off to go get that 50k.

Loop 4 - 1:37:41 (full transition with shoe change and heckling) [5:50:26]  

Loop Five - Just One More.

The last 10k loop actually felt a lot better than I had anticipated.  The little mental game I had devised for my run-walk strategy worked well early on in the loop, and I was feeling confident.  I also was able to look at each little section of the course in the light of this being the LAST time I had to deal with that particular terrain, especially sweet finishing the labyrinth section in that respect!

I ran this loop almost entirely alone, save a short section where I was able to chat with one of the barefoot runners in the race that was also running his fifth and final loop of the day.  It was just amazing hearing him talk about his experience running a course with so many roots and rocks, and without any protection on foot.  He actually said the worst part of the course were the sections of gravel on the power line trail, which to us shod folks were some of more forgiving sections.

I moved along the course I had become so familiar with over the duration of the day, and reflected less and less on the pain, or my watch, or anything formal, and simply thought about how the forest had changed distinctly as the sun moved across the sky.  The 'labyrinth' section of trails was now completely covered in dull light, without shadows like the other laps, and it was much easier for me to navigate.  It was probably only 2:45 in the afternoon, but it seemed a lot later with the fading light in that section of the course.

As a neared the last boardwalk of the course, which signaled the final ascent to the power line trails, I was surprised that I felt the urge to make a trail side pit stop.  I took care of business, and as I was 'putting things back together' two walkers came around the corner.  Again, I was hoping a dirt and salt caked face with a number on my shorts boosted my ethos as I tied the drawstring of my shorts as I walked up the trail, and they seemed unfazed and said 'Great job!' - 'For peeing?', I thought. 'I do that every day!'.

As I made it back down to the school I was psyched that I made it through so much doubt and discomfort after realizing I was going to be out on the course for over 7 hours, which was a huge wall for me.  I sprinted to the finish and crossed the line, a repeat offender for 50k!

Loop 5 - 1:32:53 [7:23:19, unofficially]

First, I ran a lot of this race alone, but I could not have done it without the support of my trail friends.  I feel so fortunate to have friends out there that are so supportive and eclectic and interesting!  We all come to these races from our different worlds, carrying out different challenges, running for so many different reasons. 

Second, I learned a lot out there this weekend.  I learned a couple different strategies to mentally deal with those low moments that will inevitably come on during an endurance race.  I never felt 'good' at any point during the course of the race.  Even after a couple miles I felt sluggish, partly due to lack of sleep the night before and partly due to the events of the week that drained me on many levels.  50 Miles at Stone Cat still seems like a long way off beyond what I am capable of accomplishing, but if it seemed easy it wouldn't be much of an accomplishment.

Above all, I am beginning to dream a little bigger than I had been, and really can't wait for Stone Cat to make a whole-hearted to become a 50 mile finisher.  I think I can do it, and I know that when I arrive at the start I'll have plenty of friends in toe to help me get there!

Happy Trails!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Weekend Warrior...

 There was an old beer slogan that said, "The weekend was made for Michelob", and similarly I had a few people ask me today if I was drunk when they found out how many miles I ran this weekend and what I was doing it for.  I have to admit, I am fairly well acclimated to the looks I get when people catch me in a spot where I have to admit that I am hobbling because of what I decided to choose to do over the weekend, and then, of course, the questions of why, and the amazed reply that they don't even like to drive that far in their car.  The fact is, I wouldn't do it, if I didn't love it, or have a really good reason to be doing it.
Follow the feet!

Fortunately, I got to spend the weekend enjoying my insane pursuit of finishing a 50 miler with ultra-marathoners, and fellow members of The Ultra Gang, Wild Bill and Breakheart Dan.

Upon a last minute email on Friday, I was able to recruit both Dan and Bill to help me along on what was to be about three hours on the trails at ultra marathon pace.  We met in Ipswich and headed out for some miles in Willowdale State Forest, choosing to run the Bay Circuit Trail out toward the Hood Pond section of Willowdale and Cleveland Farm State Forest.

Even camels will take a drink or two!
It became quite apparent that the pleasantly warm temps would be nothing compared to the increasing humidity.  It was certainly not a hot day, but the humidity was up enough that sips from hydration packs and water bottles was mandatory.  In fact, Dan ran out of fluid about two hours in, and I thought I was over-doing it with 85 ounces in my hydration pack, but sucked it dry just about the time we were finishing the run.  Dan and I were both convinced that Bill must be part camel, as he only had about 60 ounces of fluid with him, and as we stretched out afterward Bill found he barely drank half of his supply!

Dan doing his best to smile amid the conditions.
Humidity aside, it was great to spend the morning on the trails with a couple great friends.  Lots of laughs, and I totally appreciated some of the training nuggets that both Dan and Bill were willing to share.  In total we covered about 15 miles in a little over three hours, and it was exactly the pace I was hoping to do for my long run this weekend.  The only downside was that the humidity left me feeling wiped out for the rest of the day and didn't inspire a whole lot of confidence in the big picture of my training and racing goals.  All things considered, next weekend I get to spend more time on feet on the trails with Dan, Bill, and many others from T.U.G. at the TARC 12 Hour Ultra, and should have plenty of opportunities to learn more from my experienced ultra friends.

Sunday rolled around with lots of rain and more humidity, and I was happily thinking about how much I was going to enjoy my rest day.  Then something happened.

I had been reading some advice on 50 miler training in Ultra Running Magazine, and part of the article explained that it was important to learn how to run on tired and taxed legs.  The original idea was to do a couple hours of running and walking on the roads, and then I resolved that I was training for a TRAIL race, and should make the mileage happen on trails.  Unfortunately for my tired legs the closest trails are at the Prospect Hill section of the Bay Circuit trail, which features a hill about a fifth of a mile long, which provides about 150 ft. of elevation gain per ascent.  Not much compared to other locations, but all of the above, plus lots of rocks and roots is enough to destroy lots of muscle groups.

No, I am not having fun, yet.
I used a 4 min. run / 2 min. walk strategy getting over to the hill, and then spent the better part of 75 minutes going up and down the hill.

I am not sure exact what the grade is on this hill, but it seems damn steep.  Plus the bottom section is fairly runnable, but the middle and later two-thirds of the hill show how lightly traveled this section of the Bay Circuit Trail really is.  I actually stopped my watch and did some impromptu trail maintenance on a couple of sections where the grass was nearly knee high.  I figured it would be helpful when descending the tricky terrain.

For the second straight day the air was saturated with juice, and the vast greenery between the trees in this section of woods was laced with mist, and the quiet trail was a little spooky in an Arnold - Predator - kind of way.  I was on the look out for red dots, and no exaggeration, once down the hill I slipped and fell on my backside, and a squirrel in an adjacent tree fell from a limb to the forest floor and scattered back up the tree.

I got up and went along my merry way, because just like Jessie Ventura, "I ain't got time to bleed".

In total, I got about 2,000 feet of elevation gain on this run, and added a few miles after the hills to get a nice even 10 miles in about 2 hours, and 15 minutes.

All things considered, I was happy to have accumulated 25 miles and about 5 1/2 hours of time on feet over the course of the weekend.  It was all at a relaxed pace, but I did get the added challenge of some hill climbing on tired legs.  It hurts today, and was probably not a great idea the week before a race, but I am sure after a few days of recovery I'll be ready to roll this weekend at TARC Summer.

Hokas are coming this week, and I hope to log a few miles in them before trying them out over the long haul at TARC.

Happy Trails! 

Friday, August 5, 2011

Shoes, Shoes, Shoes!!!

Perhaps I am just at the age that I do not have enough experience to have seen trends come and go, and maybe I am just the right age that the shoe companies target when the newest fad comes out, but after looking into my newly organized gear closet at our new place, I realize I have a ton of different shoes!

I am starting to realize that shoes are really like relationships we have in our lives.  Some pairs are simply bliss, while others are fraught with pain, discomfort and bitterness.

You buy shoes new, and they are fresh and clean and full of promise.  I am not one for foot fetishes, but there is something sexy about a new pair of shoes!

There seems to always be a honeymoon period with the shoe, where everything feels great, you and your new mate are clicking and just effortlessly rattling off the miles.  Then there is the middle of the relationship where things just keep going on like they always have...or the problems begin to arise, and then there is an end, where the old friend is retired after miles of reliable service, or a short and prompt divorce occurs and the relationship is mercifully over.

I am thinking about all this now because for as many shoes as I have been through over the last few years of resuming my life as a runner, I have yet to find that 'reliable' shoe.  I am not sure if it is because of the types of running I do, or is a product of the fads I have bought into, but at this point I am standing here looking for a shoe that will be able to handle lots of miles and function on both the trails and the roads... is that too much to ask?

I don't even think I am asking for suggestions here, I am just lamenting that I have found myself really happy with certain shoes for certain situations, but I am increasingly finding less and less in my bank account for footwear, and just need something reliable and versatile.  Does that exist?  Or am I like that tradesman that feels like he needs a work bench that includes every tool for every job, when I hammer and some duct tape will do just fine!

Just like old girlfriends, I don't want to sit here rating all the old shoe relationships I have had, because it is easy to romanticize about the old days and the shoes that just always worked for me when I was a speed demon in college... I seriously switched my brand trainers and racers ONCE throughout college!

I have found great options for certain situations lately, but haven't found THAT shoe.  I have been thinking about minimalist / barefoot running, and see both sides of the story on that front, but definitely feel like, for me, I need cushioning for the mileage I plan on logging in preparation for a 50 miler this Fall.

Enter my new 'mail order bride'...

I am going to try a pair of Hoka Stinson B / Combo XT's.  It is a big risk and I will have the return box ready at hand, but for what I am seeking - versatility(roads and trails) and high mileage - it is a chance I am willing to take. 

More on show reviews later, though, because thankfully I have been injury free for multiple months now, and have been using many different brands / models, and have LOTS of thoughts and opinions on footwear with my accumulated years of experience.

Hoppy trails!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Marathon Training Plan? What Marathon Training Plan?

I was reading a profile of an ultra-marathoner in Ultrarunning Magazine a couple of months ago, where the athlete mentioned that she would compensate for the inability to race in a number of official races by creating her own events.  She would set a distance and select a course and have at it.  As she mused, she won quite a few of those events, because, after all, she was the only runner in the race!

Taking a page out of this runner’s book, I was recently thinking about doing a long run over the last couple of weeks, and this past weekend, decided to create my own event.

I had been thinking about my progress as an ultra runner a lot lately because my goal for this Fall, as well as my 100 mile aspirations for 2012.  I have been trying to get advice from a lot of people that have done a 100, or really any event beyond my personal accomplishments, which at this point is roughly 32.5 miles, and 6 ½ hours of time on feet.  Most of the advice has been grouped around the thought that one needs to pay their dues before they take on the immense challenge of a 50 or a 100 mile run.  This is definitely something I can appreciate, because ever since I started my journey back to running from weight gain and sedentary life, everything has been about paying my dues for each distance.

There were 10 mile runs a few years back where I needed to walk early and often.  Where I would force myself to run at a certain pace, and cover the distance, often times I would end up hurt having stress my body too much.  Then there was the half marathon distance run I did during the middle of the winter because I wanted to see if I really could do it.  A run where the final 2 to 2.5 miles were marked with lots of walking and lots of pain.  That was also a moment where I created a ‘fake’ event to push myself beyond ‘normal’.  That was a run where I sat in immense pain, thinking the marathon was impossible.  Then there have been more recent training runs where I have been absolutely crushed by distances from 15 to 20 miles.  Then, of course, there was my experience with the TARC Spring Classic this past April, where I accomplished my goal of finishing a 50k, but was haunted with the thought that 50 miles was so far away from my current fitness and capabilities.

The silver lining to all of the above is that now I can go out and run 10 or 13.1 miles without having to stop and walk, and consider them distances I can run at any time.  A definite mark of progress!  I can’t help but think that the other distances will follow suit in due time.

With all this in mind, I have been thinking about the marathon distance a lot lately.  One of my ultra running friends mentioned her progression was to run a bunch of marathons, and then a bunch of 50ks, then a bunch of 50 milers, and now she’s up to a couple 100ks, with her trajectory, no doubt, for a 100 miler.  To date I have completed five races where the distance was marathon or greater, and I have operated under the impression that one stays away from ‘marathon’ distance when training for like distances.  Over the last couple of weekends I have been thinking that I want to break free of that thought.  Enter my training Saturday evening.

I decided to head out prepared for 3 to 4 hours on my feet, with all the intentions of incorporating walking breaks, and running at much more relaxed pace.  I left with about 85 ounce of fluid in my Platypus hydration pack, a couple gels, a PB&J sandwich, and a couple packages of Peanut Butter crackers.  It was still warm and sunny, and I know that is usually my Achilles heel when it comes to conditions, but I was out there to go slow, after all!  My decision was to run south out of Rowley, through downtown Ipswich, and on to Essex, MA.  I knew I could get a good three hours on this route, which I had never done before.  I also knew of a couple areas where I could duck in and add a couple trail miles to break the monotony of the road miles.

I wasn’t entirely sure what break out I would use for my running and walking breaks, but after the first little while, I decided 10 run, 2 walk would be fine for the time being.

The first half hour drifted by and I arrived at the Dow Brook Reservation trails, which has to be highlighted by this bridge that made me impulsively stop and take a photograph because ‘The Bard’ would have wanted me to do so, I am quite sure. 

The miles on the Dow Brook trails was nice because it offered some shade from the sun, and a nice place to dispose of some fluid, that one just cannot do on a busy state highway!

This does bring up a good point about running long on trails.  Sure there are bugs and the isolation can be a little creepy at time, but at least if you are properly hydrating, you can actively participate in the water cycle without obviously breaking a few laws.  This was something that did bother during this run, because it was warm, and I should have been drinking way more, but more on that later.

The minutes seemed to click by, and before I knew it I was through and out of downtown Ipswich, and on the road toward the Essex border.  This is a long, open stretch of pavement that clearly provide some ample body blows to me during these middle rounds of this training run.  I arrived at the Essex border in about 80 or 90 minutes, and had been doing a good job sticking with my run-walk breaks.  I also was happy that the first package of crackers went down easy and provided a nice little boost into the second hour.

From here the road seemed to go on forever, and I started to feel a little aching in my legs as I ambled by salt marshes and pasture lands, stopping by one of the few ‘shady’ spots to take a picture while I took care of some other business.  This was probably the longest section of the entire run that made the mind wander, but I had been feeling good.  Eventually the pasture lands started to blend into houses, marinas, and clam shacks… welcome to downtown Essex!

Essex was particularly hopping at this point in the evening, with lines out the doors of the famous fried clam restaurants, Woodman’s and Farnham’s.  I am not much for the fried clam, but the views across the Great Salt Marsh were enough to satisfy my hungry soul.

At about this point I was at about 2 hours, and was close to 12 miles, and decided to roll the dice.  Run another 1.1 miles, and then I’ll have to run 13.1 home for the complete marathon.  Amazingly, as I was getting ready to make the turn around I noticed I had arrived at the Essex-Gloucester border!  That was the first real reality check!

At the turn I noticed my knee soreness had abated completely, but my lower abs were a little sore, which was not a good sign.  Nevertheless, it was back past the crowds at the clam shacks, as the sun began to sink ever further toward the horizon.  As I approached the completion of the third hour I felt pretty good, deeply entrenched in the long stretch of lonely road from Essex to Ipswich.  I was coaxed to stop and take a photo as Trail Pixie subconsciously lobbied that I MUST get a creature photo or the run would not be complete!

Why the long face?
From there, there started to be less and less horsing around.  I took in a quarter of my PB&J sandwich which began as a work of art from the still life collections, only to now become something more ‘modern’ or ‘post-modern’ in appearance.  Fortunately it tasted great!  Just about the time I arrived back in Ipswich, I realized I was out of fluid in the Platypus with about 45 minutes left to go.  Not a good feeling, and this was about the same point that I realized I needed my head lamp because it was dark.  Talk about low points.

Running had been much less frequent, and I knew I was fully entrenched in survival mode.  I didn’t pay much attention to the watch, just ran for as long as I could, and then walked for a couple minutes.  I finally arrived at the place where I needed a drink, even a couple miles from home; I decided to stop at a convenience store with my one dollar trying to quench my thirst.  Evidently buying a drink for a dollar is no longer possible, but the kind clerk spotted me the tax and I sipped powerade as my legs screamed for an end.

I arrived home, 26.4 miles and 4 hours, 27 minutes more experienced than I had been hours before, and the next 20 to 30 minutes following the run were about as close to being a zombie as I ever want to be.  Walking was definitely an issue, as everything resembling a muscle in my lower legs was cramping.  My wife had one hand on the phone to call 9-1-1, as I assured her I was fine.

With a couple days between me and the run, I feel fantastic, and am almost positive that dehydration was the key to the amount of pain I was in following the run.

The only issue remaining today is slightly sore abs, but otherwise I feel like I could run - much different than my other ‘post marathon’ experiences.

Nevertheless, I feel like I have a lot of work to do, but today marked the opening day to sign up for the Stone Cat Trail Races, and I wasted no time to join many of the other Ultra Gang crew for the 50.  I am cautiously excited, and know I will have lots of support on the course between Gilly’s crew, and TUG.

This is definitely the next step, and it is a trip to feel like I am to the point where I can fake my way through a marathon if I had to!  That is definitely something that I should not take for granted!

Happy trails!

Run stats:
-          105 ounces of fluid, 85 powerade/water mix, 20 ounces powerade
-          2 packages of PB crackers
-          ¼ PB&J sandwich
-          S-Cap at 1 h , 45 m
-          NO gels.
-          Mostly roads, some trails
-          85 degrees, sunny, to start, 75, night, to finish.