Lessons from Half a Brick

ONE GREAT THING about my fitness activities are the things I learn while doing them. And the great thing about having a blog is that I can share what I learn, and pretend that someone out there might actually read it. (It’s a nice fantasy.)

Well, last weekend’s “brick” (bike ride and Crim race) provided several good lessons. So without further ado, here they are.

The first lesson about biking from Ann Arbor to Flint is: don’t bike from Ann Arbor to Flint. It didn’t take long after leaving home to realize that I am spoiled rotten.

Living in Ann Arbor, where new bike paths and complete streets are popping up everywhere, one can get the idea that they might also exist in the real world. (*) But in most of Michigan the roads remain the exclusive purview of motor vehicles, and lowlifes like cyclists are encouraged to stay the hell out of their way.

Google Maps - Linden Rd north of Linden

Guess I should have looked at Street View before the ride.

But Google Maps provided a bike route, and like a fool I trusted it. Whitmore Lake Road and old US-23? Yeah, they’re a bit dicey, but I hoped Linden Road would be like many other back roads I’ve biked on; decently paved with little traffic. Nope. When it wasn’t rutted dirt or beat-up pavement, it was 55 MPH with no shoulder, and every pickup truck in Michigan was taking it. I made it in one piece, but called off the return trip. I felt I’d pushed my luck enough.

The good news is that in Washtenaw County, work on the Border-to-Border Trail continues, including a new stretch on a busy road near my house. It includes a wood boardwalk over a wetland, with an observation cutout. It opened last week, and last night I ran on it for the first time. (I also watched a deer sacrifice itself to the SUV god, but I won’t go into details.)

Now this is more like it!

Now this is more like it!

Lesson 2: If you bike from Ann Arbor to Flint, and have a race the next morning, don’t stay at a budget hotel with uncomfortable pillows and noisy residents. I got about two hours of sleep. Technically it wasn’t the motel’s fault that outside my door was a popular conversation point, or that someone turned on a stereo full blast at 3:00 a.m. Bed and breakfast next time, somewhere in a nice boring suburb.

Michael and me after Crim 2015

Popsicles: my favorite post-race fruit!

Yet to my surprise, I ran a good race. The plan all along was to test my ability to run while fatigued, and I sure had a perfect setup. In the end I finished the 10 miles only two minutes off my PR. Not bad!

Lesson 3: I really do have readers! At the post-race party, one of my PR Fitness friends told me he enjoys reading my blog. Over the years (4+ to date) I continue to be pleasantly surprised by people mentioning this blog when I thought they didn’t even know I had one. So to all my readers – thanks again for reading. You keep me writing! (And you wouldn’t hurt my feelings by leaving the occasional comment.)

The big race at Run Woodstock is just over two weeks away! One final brick this weekend – a 16 mile tune-up run on the trails, followed by a bike ride to White Lake. This time, however, much of the route is actual bike trail. Sure would be a nice change to relax and enjoy the ride!

Downtown Linden

Bonus lesson: Don’t ask the locals. They didn’t know of a cafe/sandwich shop in Linden. Found out later there was one right in my sights! The black car is parked at the Bridge Cafe & Market.


(*) You may have heard this description of Ann Arbor: Six square miles surrounded by reality.

Doing a Brick, Tastes Like a Brick, Iron Lady, Iron Legs

ALL SET FOR THE CRIM this weekend! Outfit and gear selected and packed, maps printed, and bike cleaned and lubed, checked and ready to go. Friday afternoon I ride the 60 miles or so to Flint, pick up my race packet, then head to my hotel. Saturday morning I bike to the start, run the 10-miler, then get back on the bike and head back home. (Okay, maybe a bite to eat first.)

I’ve done many “bricks” before (run & bike combinations), but this marks the first time I’ve incorporated an actual race into one. Should be an interesting experience.

Crim 2013 - PR Fitness team photo

2013 Crim PR Fitness runners. (We have fun.)

Why do this? Well, I could say it’s good training for my Run Woodstock 100K, where I expect to be on my feet for 14 hours or so, and that it’s a good test of persevering while fatigued. But the real reason is that the PR Fitness bus leaves Ann Arbor at 5:30 a.m. Saturday, and I just hate getting up that early. This way, I don’t have to get up until 6:30. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Chris - Itchi-Bon Bakery - CloseupOne part of my cunning plan won’t be happening, however. The route will take me near Durand, which I’d visited on a weekend bike trip in 2013. I’d hoped to revisit the Itchi-Bon Bakery and its sweetheart of an owner, who restored my soul on a cold, wet morning. But sad news – after over 25 years in business, she closed the bakery last year. Now where am I going to find red velvet doughnuts?

On a positive note, super kudos to my friend and fellow PR Fitness runner Tracy, who came back from an injury this year to finish Ironman Boulder, knocking two hours off her best time despite two flat tires.

Tracy and me at last year's Dances with Dirt Green Swamp. (She's the good-looking one.)

Tracy and me at last year’s Dances with Dirt Green Swamp. (She’s the good-looking one.)

Also kudos to fellow run blogger Kevin, who just finished his first-ever 50-miler on a really tough course. Check out this elevation profile!

IronLegs 50-mile elevation profile

And finally, a cautionary tale. I was browsing the obesity-inducing counter at Whole Foods – the desserts where you gain weight just looking at them. I was trying to choose between the half-pound chocolate mousse cake and its vegan equivalent when I came across this – a faux chocolate pudding made with chia seeds and almond milk. Way too healthy, but I was intrigued, so I gave it a try.

Yeah, tastes about as good as it looks.

Yeah, tastes about as good as it looks.

Frankly, it was pretty disgusting at first, but after a few bites I realized it just needed a couple of tweaks to improve it significantly:

Chia Seed Pudding - Improved

Much better!

The moral of this story: Life is short. Eat real desserts.

Yooper Humor

My trip back from the Minnesota Voyageur ultra took me through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a drive I haven’t made in quite some time. All I remember from my previous trip was a lot of trees and not much else along US-2.

My drive from the Duluth area to St. Ignace, then over the Mackinac Bridge and along M-22 to our campground in Empire, was pleasant and more relaxed than I’d expected. Traffic got heavier and more aggressive south of the bridge, but it sure beat hell out of going through Chicago.

It turns out that the U.P. actually has some people in it – and most of them don’t even dress like lumberjacks (*). Here are a few pictures of offbeat and/or amusing things I found along the way.

Honestly? Up here you have to tell people not to bring guns into a coffee shop? (This is actually in Duluth, but it's close enough.)

Honestly? Up here you have to tell people not to bring guns into a coffee shop? (This is actually in Duluth, but it’s close enough.)

Somebody pasted this on to make it look like "200 miles". Not true, as it turned out.

Somebody pasted this on to make it look like “200 miles”. Not true, as it turned out.

They have a sense of humor in Wakefield.

They have a sense of humor in Wakefield.

Also in Wakefield - Peter Toth's "Leading Mna" carving - from a single log.

Also in Wakefield – Peter Toth’s “Leading Man” carving – from a single log.

I'm not sure this is the kind of welcome message Michigan has in mind.

I’m not sure this is the kind of welcome message Michigan has in mind.

Escanaba (not in da moonlight). Much bigger city than I expected.

Escanaba (not in da moonlight). Much bigger city than I expected.

And finally, they even have their own chocolate! Not too bad.

And finally, they even have their own chocolate! Not too bad.


(*) – You might be aware that the Upper and Lower Peninsulas (Peninsulae?) have a friendly little rivalry going. For example, their name for us is “trolls” because we live “under the bridge”. For a humorous take on the differences between Yoopers and trolls, click here.

How to Survive an Ultramarathon: One Runner’s Strategy

Today was the kind I dream about all winter – where you can just slip on a few clothes and onto the bike for a quick 12-mile evening ride. My post-Voyageur recovery is going so well, it’s hard to keep from overdoing it. But my next event – the Crim 10 miler – is just two weeks away, followed by Run Woodstock and my biggest race of the year. Plenty of sweat ahead!

Speaking of copious sweating, my revised strategy for the Voyageur did the trick, as I finished it without any of the nausea or disorientation I felt at my last two 50+ mile attempts. Following are the main changes I made.

First, here’s an idea of what a trail ultrarunner “goes to battle with” as one of my friends puts it. Some goes into my drop bag, along with extra clothes, but most of this I wear or carry.

Gear for Voyageur Trail Ultra

Gear-wise, I used triathlon shorts to minimize chafing, and compression calf sleeves (left of shoes), which save my legs from thorny bushes. The long-overdue change was adding a cap, which kept the sun off my head and could secure a wet towel or ice while running. It also has some UPF (sunblock) built in. I got this one at REI; it’s pricey ($25), but I will never run a summer race without one again.

logo_scaps_300I also believe a salt-water imbalance contributed to my earlier problems. Salted potatoes at the aid stations help, but time and amount are irregular. Salt tablets at regular intervals were the answer. After some research I estimated that two S-Caps (642 mg of sodium) per hour of running would meet my needs. I did supplement with ice-cold Powerade later in the race; it just tasted too damn good.

Hydration was about 20 ounces of water (one full bottle) per hour. Much more than that and it just sits in my stomach. A “fluids check” about every 12 miles showed that while I was getting dehydrated, it was manageable. And needing to do it was another good sign.

Crossing the Jay Cooke Swinging Bridge.

Crossing the Jay Cooke Swinging Bridge.

For food, I avoided the aid station offerings except for cold grapes and pickles, and relied on the energy bars and Gu in my pack. I did this to keep my stomach settled with familiar foods and to make use of complex carbs rather than simple sugars (candy and soda). One Clif Builder bar is around 300 calories (about what my body can process per hour while running) and also provides some protein to help prevent muscle breakdown.

Voyageur - Aid Station

While the results were everything I’d hoped for, there are still a few issues to deal with before I run the 100K next month. Feet, for one – I changed socks and shoes at the 25-mile mark and retaped my toes, but still had some blistering and pain at the end. More taping should help, and perhaps some Body Glide, but I welcome any other suggestions.

Taping for an Ultra

Mentally, I expect some challenges too. Not only is the 100K my longest distance attempt yet, most of it will be in the dark. I don’t run with music or radio, so it will be a long time (I estimate around 14 hours) of me alone with my thoughts. Fortunately, the aid stations are lively and the other runners are great.

So there you have my recipe for a successful 50-mile trail run. That, plus lots and lots of training. Fortunately, most of that is enjoyable, especially on an evening like tonight!

Feeling the Power! Voyageur Trail Ultra 50 Recap


Two months after my crash-and-burn DNF at Glacier Ridge, I successfully completed the Voyageur Trail Ultra in Carlton, Minnesota, a little 50-mile jaunt to Duluth and back along a picturesque, and often treacherous, set of trails.

The Voyageur was a dress rehearsal for my upcoming 100K attempt at Run Woodstock, and I ran it with just two goals: 1) finish the damn thing, and 2) have fun doing it. And I did! I ran the entire race on an even keel, and though my feet and legs were plenty sore, I had energy in reserve. I’ll sure need it for those 12 extra miles in September!

That doesn’t mean the race was easy – far from it. In some ways it was the toughest ultra I’ve run to date.  Here’s a recap of this memorable race. I will let the pictures do most of the talking. Enjoy!

Me at the start, all geared up. The field was about 250 - their largest ever. 211 finished.

Me at the start, all geared up. Details on the gear and hydration strategy changes I made in an upcoming post.

Early on - the trail gets tricky.

The trail gets tricky early on. Yes, you would really have a bad time if you slipped. And this was just a warmup.

Gorgeous views throughout.

Gorgeous views throughout.

Some of the course isn’t so much a trail as a suggestion of one. The official name of this part is the Carlton Trail, but I prefer what the Chippewa call it: Crazy-Paleface-Break-Ankle. (*)

Voyageur - Treacherous Trail

The ropes in this section are NOT optional. You won’t get up (or back down) without them.

Voyageur - Ropes

The good news here is, you’re out of the woods. But you’ve entered the infamous Power Lines. There were about five of these ravines to deal with – muddy on the way out, broiling hot on the way back. And don’t slip.

What goes down...

What goes way down…

Must come way up - on hands and knees.

Must come way up – on hands and knees. But don’t worry, there are handy thorn bushes to grab onto. (Ask me how I know.)

Creek dancing - the new craze.

Creek dancing – the new craze.

Duluth at last! Hey, we could use a lift right now.

Duluth at last! Hey, how about a lift? We won’t tell.

Turnaround! Dry socks and fresh shoes! Woohoo! Now run the entire thing in reverse.

Voyageur - Turnaround Station 2

Another spectacular view.

Another spectacular view.

Did I mention there were gorgeous views throughout?

Did I mention there was gorgeous scenery throughout?

Finished! Mission accomplished!

Voyageur 2015 - Finish Line

And a big shout-out to this guy (Joe) who was running his first-ever 50-miler, and supporting the Noah’s Hope Foundation. “Sure is a big difference from a 5K,” he told me. Wait – for real? Yep, he’d run nothing in between. And he finished!

Voyageur - Joe - Run for Noah

Next up: The changes that made all the difference.


(*) Okay, maybe the Chippewa don’t really call it that, but I’m sure any of them would agree with it.

Congratulations! And Here’s Your Citation, Sir

“Did you hear about Scott Jurek?” someone asked me recently during a Saturday group run.

“Yeah,” I said. “He set a record for running the Appalachian Trail.” The ultrarunning legend had completed the 2,200 mile trail in just over 46 days. One 50-mile run is a real challenge for me; Jurek averaged 50 miles a day.

“When he finished he got a littering citation,” my friend added, “for spilling champagne on the trail.”

"You can see for yourselves the damage that can be wrought by an inferior brand of bubbly."

“You can see for yourselves the damage that can be wrought by an inferior brand of bubbly.”

That sounded like one of the ludicrous but true stories in the This Is True newsletter (which I subscribe to, and recommend). But I suspected there was more to it than Prohibitionist park officials. And as an Outside magazine subscriber, I received an email linking to their story on the subject. If you’re at all interested in our National Parks, you should read it (click here).

Jurek had finished on Mount Katahdin in Maine’s Baxter State Park, and the park’s director decided to set a public and highly visible example. The champagne wasn’t the real issue; rather, it was the commercial aspect of his finish, which hadn’t been authorized by the park. There were also far more people there than park rules allowed.

It’s ironic that efforts to get people exercising outside, and to experience our wilderness areas, can lead to overstressing the wilderness. We entrust park officials to preserve and protect the parks but also to permit public access to them. It’s a fine line to walk.

The story remains controversial. (For another perspective, read the Runner’s World article here.) But perhaps that’s the point. Hopefully it will bring abuse of park property into focus and help educate people how to enjoy wilderness while preserving it for others.

In an upcoming post I will address my disgust with another controversial “athletic” activity taking place in our National Parks. While “following your passion” sounds great and fulfilling on the surface, it can wreak havoc with other people who don’t deserve to have to clean up when things go wrong.

In the meantime, I’d welcome your thoughts on whether the Baxter State Park director acted appropriately or went overboard with Mr. Jurek.

How Not to Taper

“We have to go light today,” I told Mark, my Body Specs trainer, on Thursday afternoon. “I’ve been feeling sore all week, and I have a long trail run Saturday morning.”

Monday’s workout, while not like the previous two weeks (shall we say, “Bru-tall”), had still been fairly intense, and I was not up for another one like that. Besides, I’m in the taper period before my July 25 race.

“What did you do after Monday’s session?” he asked.

Well, the usual – Aikido Monday night, then a Tuesday evening run with PR Fitness that had somehow or other turned into a tempo run. On hills. On Wednesday I’d volunteered at the Pterodactyl Triathlon, which hadn’t involved anything strenuous, but I’d been on my feet for over five hours doing this and that.

Mark looked at me. “So what you’re telling me is that you didn’t take a day off on your own taper week.” He shook his head. “I’d be sore, too!”

Guilty as charged, sir.

In my relatively short marathon and ultramarathon career, I’ve found the taper period to be, at times, more difficult than the training. Not in exertion, but the lack thereof. It takes discipline to cut back, to not run as far or as hard, before a race.

Pace too fast 2

What makes taking it easy so hard?

I know the reasons for tapering. Rest and recovery are needed to be at peak form before a race. And gains from strength training, or long running, take about three weeks to be manifested. So hard training the two weeks before a race provides zero benefit and could easily mess me up. Overworked muscles and injury, for example.

And there’s the ol’ competitive nature to deal with. Like with Tuesday’s run. I’d planned to go easy, but the group started off fast and I didn’t feel like being left in the dust. Then we hit the uphill repeats, and what was I supposed to do? Let people pass me?

Never met a hill I didn't want to charge up. (Channeling T.R.?)

Never met a hill I didn’t want to charge up. (Channeling T.R.?)

Ah, the ego. Despite ten years of Aikido it remains stubbornly unconquered. Or, as we say in my profession, “always further opportunities for improvement.”

Fortunately, I have another week to get my act together. Saturday’s 16-miler will be a dress rehearsal for the Voyageur Trail Ultra, with a fully stocked drop bag and trail backpack. I will also be trying out a revised strategy for hydration (carry more water, drink more water), electrolytes (salt tablets), and heat protection (a cap with UV blocker). Then everything short and easy next week.

And I promised myself to take it easy until Saturday morning. (With the exception of a stretching clinic yesterday evening. It was brief. And Skip from Body Specs was teaching it. How could he be mad at me for going?)