Cardiac Kid

Last month’s North Country Trail 50K was a reversal in my usual race routine: I ran an ultra as a fun break in my regular training.

This year I’m working on getting faster, and frankly it’s been a struggle after three years of training to “go long” so I looked forward to this 50K as a diverting return to familiar territory. No pressure to put the hammer down; quite the opposite, in fact.

Rarin’ to go at 6:30 a.m.

For this was the first race I ran entirely by heart rate instead of pace.

Why? To see how I would perform by staying “aerobic” which means maintaining a pace where the body is receiving enough oxygen to keep the muscles fueled. At a certain level of effort you go “anaerobic” where the body is using up oxygen faster than it comes in. This condition is standard for sprinters, but bad for distance runners if it happens too soon.

The key number to know is your Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate (MAHR). Go above that, and you’re running on borrowed time. It can be precisely determined in a medical lab, but there are ways to estimate it based on general assumptions on age and fitness level.

Physical age, that is, not emotional maturity. (Well, THE SIGN SAYS “Howling”!

Using the popular “Maffetone method” I estimated my MAHR to be around 130 beats per minute (BPM). I decided I could go slightly over that for a 50K and set my target average heart rate for 135 BPM, slowing down if it hit 140 or more. After twenty miles I felt strong enough to step it up, so I ran the final 11 miles at a target BPM of 145.

The result was one of the smoothest 50K I have ever run. I felt good throughout, and by focusing on BPM I could ignore my competitive instincts when other runners passed me or I saw one up ahead. I’d hoped for a finish under six hours and somewhere in the top half of the field, but got a surprise: a time of 5:36 (near my best) and a top 10 finish, too!

And a finisher’s medal that would send a horse to the chiropractor!

One more smart move was staying hydrated, learning from my digestive issues at the Potawatomi Trail 50. As it was a cool day I drank “ahead of my thirst” to make sure I was getting enough, and had no problems.

Now in the spirit of balance, here’s something I screwed up.

The race was on a Sunday, and Monday is a Body Specs gym day. Naturally I gave myself the day off, right? Umm….not quite.

Okay, I’ll admit I was partly motivated by wanting to show off the humungous finisher’s medal. But I was also feeling good enough to go. A nice, light recovery workout would be great, right? And so it seemed to go, until my legs tightened up later, and for the next two days I had to press on my quads just to sit down. (At least it was good power hike training.)

So I suppose you could say my heart was in the right place, but the effort was in vein.

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No Sugar Tonight: Two Very Different Experiences

IT BEGAN WITH A STOMACHACHE.

I was working at a recent race, managing the Zero Waste program as usual. This is a very active job – lifting, moving things around and such, but mainly a lot of walking from place to place. And as typically happens at such races, I got hungry, early and often.

The food provided to the athletes is available to race workers, but I don’t want to rely on it or overdo it. So I brought along a large bowl of oatmeal with pecans, hoping it would sustain me a while. It did, until the cooking table started up and I was offered “taste tests” of the breakfast burrito. And a pancake. And boxes of cookies lay in plain sight, begging to be consumed. And ice cream, and so on. All par for the course, except on a warm day I was washing everything down with coffee instead of water.

Things did not end well.

So I lost my water bottle at mile 15 and it was a cupless race, you see…

By early afternoon my digestive system was in full revolt, and with cleanup and takedown left to do, there was nothing to do but gut it out. (I’ll stop with the puns now, as I’m guessing you don’t have the stomach for it.) Things settled down that evening, but the next day I ate very simply and drank only water. And again the next day. I stuck to basic foods, with nothing processed.

I felt fine, not even feeling any cravings, so I wondered if I could go an entire week this way. That’s right – no pastries, no chocolate, nothing with added sugar. And I did. I even made it through my weekly D&D game and Saturday long run this way, breaking my sugar-fast on Sunday in style with part of a whiskey-chocolate fig from Grocer’s Daughter.

From their Facebook page. The photo does not do it justice.

This brief foray into a sugarless diet was far different from the first time I tried it several years ago. I’d accepted a “challenge” by a fellow blogger who wondered if his readers could go a month without any sugary foods. I’d tried, but after only a few days I’d given it up, explaining that “I missed my chocolate.” I accepted his ridicule because, well, I had my chocolate to console me. This time all went smoothly.

I WON’T give up chocolate! You can’t MAKE ME!

What made the difference? I think mainly the source of the challenge. The first had been for a month, not a week, but I’d quit so fast I’m not sure that mattered. Rather, it was its external nature. The motivation was extrinsic – sugar is bad, so stop eating it at all – an attitude that didn’t resonate with me anyway. I had no incentive to stick it out, other than the praise of someone I didn’t even know.

This time the challenge was internal. No one put me up to it, or even suggested it. From just wanting to recover from my digestive fiasco, it turned into an experiment to find out how I could fare without my usual junk foods. It was a personal test, similar to how many pushups I can do or how far I can run. Instead of a burden, it was interesting and fun.

I also noticed that week that I didn’t miss the sugar itself. Rather, I missed the habit of eating it. Mid-morning coffee didn’t feel the same without a piece of chocolate or sugary snack to go with it. Fruit or savory snacks proved acceptable substitutes, or even going without. How about that?

And yet, with that week over, I’m back to eating the things I enjoy, whether or not they contain sugar. As a small part of an otherwise balanced and healthy diet. It’s nice to know, however, that I am not addicted to sugar or dependent upon it.

Although I refuse to give up chocolate.

Yes, I’m Aware that I’m Not Aware

Years ago, I was out on a Saturday morning club run. Among the runners that day was my instructor from the Running 101 class I’d taken the previous year. That class got me into running regularly, and resulted in my first half marathon. She looked at me as I passed.

“You’re doing great!” she said. “Drop those shoulders.”

Sure enough, they were riding up. I knew I was prone to this under stress, such as while running or in a tough Aikido class, but it’s not something I readily recognize. Since then I’ve worked on being more self-aware during long runs, and to consciously remind myself to relax.

Learning and applying self-awareness has several benefits. For one, it forces me into the moment – “how am I really feeling right now” – and takes my mind away from how much time or distance I have remaining. And once in the moment, it’s easier to remain there, to appreciate that I’m doing something I love, and how beautiful a day it is, or how beautiful the trail is. For me, at least, an ultra is a great thing to have finished, but the memories are more important. I have distinct memories from every one of my 22 (so far) ultras, and replaying them, good or bad, is very much like being there all over again.

Feeling good at the 2014 Dances with Dirt – Hell 50K.

It’s also good to be honest with yourself when others are not. Race staff, volunteers, and spectators don’t want to discourage runners. So what comes out of their mouths are things like, “You’re looking strong!” whether I’m bounding along or shuffling like a zombie and they’re texting the county coroner to stand by. So the times when they’ve been honest with me really stand out, like the guy who told me my nose was bleeding halfway through a 50K, or the aid station captain who gently hinted that maybe I should turn in my chip because I looked pale and wasn’t sweating. All this means I have to be conscious enough of my condition to make good decisions – or to specifically ask for an honest assessment from someone else..

Here are a few things I do at times during a long run or race:

  • Check my breathing. If I’ve picked up the pace, or run hard for a while, my breaths can get shallow and less productive. No matter how fast I’m going, I switch to several deliberate deep breaths. Not so much to get extra oxygen into my lungs, but to get the excess carbon dioxide out. So breathe out to empty the lungs, then breathe in normally.

Relax! Breathe deep!

  • Check posture. Am I upright, back straight, leaning from the ankles, or starting to hunch over?
  • General body check. How is everything feeling? Is there pain anywhere I’m not paying attention to? Am I favoring one side over the other? Do I need water or salt? You may wonder that I have to consciously do this, but when you’re focused on a particular goal or milestone, such as getting over this last ridge to the aid station, you can lose touch with how your body is doing.

Then, of course, there are times it’s obvious how my body is doing.

Having run ultras for years now, it’s mostly second nature. Or so I’d like to think. And yet, this very morning I was out on a club run, cruising through Nichols Arboretum, and we passed a couple of people on the trail. I was the last one in the pack, and shortly after I passed them I heard the older man’s voice behind me: “Relax the shoulders!”

One of these days, I’ll learn. Maybe.

It’s Sad, and So Damn Pointless

Running is usually such a positive and uplifting sport that the occasional sad story gets, I think, an unusual amount of attention. Not just in the running community, but even in the national news.

In the “sad” category I include runners who die during an event, or leave us too early due to disease (R.I.P., Gabriele Grunewald), and also those who are disqualified or banned due to cheating. I include cheating because while it’s a human failing as opposed to a physical one, it’s just as pointless in the end.

The most recent example is Dr. Frank Meza, who was disqualified from this year’s Los Angeles Marathon after evidence surfaced that he’d cut the course. The story is doubly tragic because shortly after his disqualification, he was found dead in the Los Angeles River. The cause is not official as I write this, but it may have been a suicide.

This story baffles me. Dr. Meza was 70 years old, a lifelong runner, former high school track coach, and mentor of Latino students. People who knew him speak of the positive effects he’d had on them and the community. In his sixties he began to run marathons in under three hours – a mark of prestige at any age – and at the 2019 LA Marathon he finished in 2 hours 53 minutes, a record time for his age group. By all accounts, a real “feel good” story, right?

Except he may have faked it. And not just at this marathon. His 2015 finishing time was also under investigation, and the California International Marathon disqualified him twice, then banned him. He denied all allegations of cheating, and agreed to run a future marathon with an official monitor. But his death ends any chance to clear his name.

I don’t know if Dr. Meza cheated, or if he did, at how many races. But the preponderance of evidence suggests he was not as fast as his finishing times indicated. If so, I have a simple question that we may never know the answer to:

Why?

Cheating is as old as competition. I get that. The prestige that comes from winning can tempt people to reach for it any way they can. But Dr. Meza wasn’t attempting to win the marathon, qualify for the Olympics, or get sponsored. We’re talking about an age group award, which comes with nothing other than a hearty handshake and maybe a paperweight or similar tchotchke. Even setting an apparent record age group time wouldn’t have meant lasting fame or fortune.

Some of my more notable age group awards. (Yes, that is a roll of toilet paper on the right.)

Was it worth exposing himself to the scrutiny that would inevitably follow a record time? Was a fleeting mention buried somewhere in the LA Times worth risking his lifetime reputation of community service and inspiration to others? Was his ego that fragile that he couldn’t accept being anything but a champion?

For an amateur runner like Dr. Meza, or me, I find cheating to be especially pointless. For the real competition is not against others, but ourselves. Even with the support of crew, coaches, or other runners, in the end your performance is based on your own training, ability, and desire. It’s wanting to know how good we can be, or to break through what we thought our limits were, that keeps us going.

Sure, cheating hurts others if you take away an award or recognition that rightfully belongs to someone else. But mainly you cheat yourself. Even professionals do. Does Lance Armstrong ever wonder how good he could have been if he’d raced clean? I bet he does. But no one, including him, will ever know. And that’s a shame.

Perhaps Dr. Meza’s wife, even if inadvertently, summed it up best. “Running was very important to my husband,” she said, “and now unfortunately he won’t run marathons anymore.”

And that’s sad.