Tag Archives: challenges

Perspective Regained: Hills are Hard, But . . .

“I want you to push yourself on the hills,” my Saturday running assignment read. “Dig deep and crest the hill before you let off the gas.”

Saturday’s route would be a 14-miler that included several of the more punishing hills in the Ann Arbor area. In particular, the climb up to the Barton Hills Country Club is a soul-sucking slog even on good days. And after a week of stepped-up training I was feeling less than 100 percent from the start.

Coach Rob Morgan

This man (Coach Rob) was responsible for today’s route. He’s also married to Coach Marie. I sense a conspiracy here.

It was my own fault, of course. I was dumb enough to tell Skip, my Body Specs trainer, and Coach Marie that I wanted to work on getting stronger and faster over the winter. They have taken on the task with alacrity; on Thursday I actually heard an evil cackle from Skip as I groaned my way through one particular torture involving hand dumbbells.

And the Saturday long run? Normally I look forward to it. But this one was more like a trip to the dentist; you know it’s in your best interest, but it ain’t gonna be no fun. I was fretting too much about it, so I went to bed early and read a chapter about the Battle of The Bulge from Killing Patton, which my father-in-law loaned me over the holidays.

And those few pages were enough to restore my sense of perspective.

In December 1944 the men of the 99th Infantry Division faced a surprise onslaught from the German army, digging foxholes and defending themselves in freezing weather without winter clothing, waterproof boots, or sufficient weaponry.

American infantrymen of the 290th Regiment near Amonines, Belgium. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

American infantrymen of the 290th Regiment near Amonines, Belgium. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

They suffered intensely and took heavy casualties. But they blunted the attack and played a key role in preventing the Germans from reaching the key port of Antwerp. And they did it because it was their job, and it had to be done.

And me? I was going to have a challenging run the next morning, but it would be done with warm clothes, good shoes, and plenty of sleep beforehand. And I could stop early, or even not run at all, if I chose.

So long, worry and self-pity. Which was a good thing. (*)

The run went about as I expected. Per instructions I ran the level parts at a steady 8:15 to 8:30 pace. Then when a hill came up, I took off hard and tried to sustain the effort until after I crested the top.  I didn’t always make it, and many were the times I was bent over gasping for a bit. But a funny thing happened. Despite very tired legs I kept up a solid pace the entire way, and I even repeated a hill on the way back to see how my time differed from early in the route.

Coach Marie was at the studio when I returned. “You look good,” she said. So much for any attempt to complain that it was too much for me. This spells trouble for next week. I can’t wait.

=========================

(*) I have more thoughts about the contrast between that generation and ours that I will save for a future post.

Run Woodstock Part Deux: Shutting the Brain Off

Ninety percent of this game is mental, and the other half is physical. – Yogi Berra

Training for my first marathon four years ago, I ran 16 miles along the back roads from Honor, Michigan to Beulah and Benzonia, then back. It was a pretty route, but by mile 13 I was sick and tired of running it. Not physically exhausted, but mentally.

Three miles still to go, the little voice in my head said. That’s practically forever.

There was no shortcut back to my car, so I had to stick it out. It helped that I’d strategically parked at an ice cream shop. But I was pretty discouraged. In two months I have to run this and ten more, the voice said. Given this run, how am I gonna do that?

Shirt-Running Sucks - 2

The answer was to do more long runs to get the mind used to that distance. And after making some basic adjustments, such as conceptually breaking up long runs into manageable segments, I had no more trouble with self-doubts.

First 2 miles in. Just 30 more of those to go!

First 2 miles in. Just 30 more of those to go!

With that level of mental discipline I got through my first marathon, first 50K ultra in 2012, and first 50-miler in 2013, so I figured I would be okay for the 100K in 2014. Instead, I hit several mental challenges that I was unable to overcome:

Empty Tank of PatienceDistance stretching. Four miles (the distances between aid stations at Woodstock) are short hops on the road, but on singletrack that same distance seems doubled. Distances also stretch out in the dark, so trail running at night called for a full tank of patience. Instead, it was one of the first things I ran short on.

The worst was the section leading to the second aid station. During my second loop it seemed like I would never get there. When I finally did, all I could think about was having to do it twice more. My attitude had soured, and I was no longer having fun – a bad sign on an ultra run.

I thought so!

I thought so!

Pain management. Sore feet and chafing got worse as the night wore on. By the third loop the Body Glide wasn’t working and I was constantly adjusting my shorts, without much relief. More pain came from tripping on roots and rocks, and from branches in the trail that stung my ankles. I dealt with this increasing discomfort by getting more and more frustrated.

Bonking. When inadequate hydration and electrolyte management caught up with me, I didn’t have the focus to work through the nausea and correct the imbalances, and allow myself to recover. Despite having plenty of time to rest and still finish the race, I dropped out at the 56K mark, done in by a combination of things, but above all, insufficient mental discipline.

Yeah, that pretty much covers it.

Yeah, those tabs pretty much covered it.

Over the subsequent year I fixed the bonking problem, but as Woodstock 2015 approached I still worried that I needed a way to handle the mental challenge of those loops in the dark. Help came from an unexpected and last-minute source.

The night before the race I went to a local runner’s clinic on handling long runs. Most of the advice I’d heard before, but one comment stood out: the need to shut the brain off.

Not completely, naturally; a trail run requires being alert to the course and your physical condition at all times. What needs shutting off is the mental chatter – the continuous stream of trivial thoughts, especially the negative self talk and worries. So I would work on getting into a “zone” – a disciplined, quiet mind, at peace with itself and living entirely in the moment. Here’s how I applied it.

One flag at a time.

How do you finish 100K? One flag at a time.

– I created a mantra for myself: Focus on the trail in front of you. The milestones will come. Every time I began to fret about how much distance I had left, I silently repeated this mantra and I would settle back into the zone.

– During the stretches when the aid station seemed light-years away, I would remind myself, It’s really not that far. It just seems longer. I even used it when I passed a runner on that interminable second segment. “Man, they must have moved the aid station,” he said. I assured him out loud what I’d been telling myself silently.

– When I tripped over roots or rocks I told myself firmly that it was over and in the past. Then I’d forget about it. If that didn’t work I would stop and walk until I returned to the zone. Running is a happy activity for me; I would not run angry.

– When pain came in my feet, legs, or shoulder, I did not fight it. I acknowledged it was there, embraced it as part of the experience, and let it go.

– Staying hydrated and salted kept me on an even keel. I had no nausea or swings of equilibrium to deal with. But just in case, I was prepared this time to deal with it. As I overheard one pacer telling his runner, “You’re not having a bad race. You’re having a bad moment. You will get through it.”

marathon-sticker

The results exceeded my highest expectations. I stayed in a steady, positive mental state throughout the race. And one week later I’m still on that high. Maybe I should do this more often?

Make More Mistakes

Wonder Woman and Ultra Man

SUPERHEROES LIVE AMONG US, particularly in the running community. They aren’t usually noticed because they don’t get (or seek) a lot of publicity. The challenges they undertake are generally personal, and it’s easy to mistake them for ordinary mortals.

Mission accomplished! 50K completed, Sept. 2012

Mission accomplished! 50K completed, Sept. 2012

When I’d planned my 2012 year-long celebration of turning 50, with its associated events and challenges, I’d assumed (rather naively) that it was, if not unique, at least uncommon. But when I talk to fellow runners, amazing stories pop up everywhere.

For example, here are two people I met at recent races who have either completed, or in the middle of, some pretty awesome stuff.

Sharry

Shamrock ‘n’ Roll 10K, March 17

SharryI happened across “Irish Wonder Woman” after the race and just had to know what motivated her to run on a cold morning in this costume. “I’m turning 40 this year,” she said, “and I’m going to run 40 races to celebrate.” The Shamrock ‘n’ Roll 10K was race number eight since January 1.

Running three or four races per month is far from easy. In addition to the expense (entry fees range from $25 to over $100, plus travel), she’ll have to avoid serious injury and maintain the mental focus to run her best throughout the year. (The 20 races I ran last year were quite enough for me.)

Looks like we will meet again at the Martian Invasion of Races in April (me, half marathon, her, 10K) and Dexter-Ann Arbor in June. Her races range from 5K to half marathons, and at least one virtual race, something I will write about in more detail shortly.

To find out more about her, see her blog, “Sharry Runs 40 in 2013“. (Anyone who gives me a nice shout-out in her blog sure gets a plug from me!)

Ron

No Frills All Thrills 8K Trail Race, March 23

RonSay it’s your 50th birthday and you want to run an ultramarathon to celebrate, but there aren’t any nearby races that day. What to do? Create your own race, of course. That’s what this guy did, setting up and completing a 50-mile run on the Island Lake trails. He had a support vehicle and several friends ran part of the route with him, but otherwise did it by himself, with no water stops or spectators. Not even a fancy finisher’s medal.

So how did it go?

“Well,” he said, “At mile seven I got run over by some mountain bikers.”

Literally. They came around a corner and knocked him flat. “But I was unhurt, so I carried on.” Then around mile 18 his IT band flared up – bad enough that, “I wouldn’t normally have run on it.” But that day, “I swallowed a few ibuprofen, put some KT tape on my leg, and a few miles later, it was fine.” Other than that, it was uneventful.

Ron and Me - Age Group Winners

We took first and second in the 50-54 age group. Not exactly Olympic medals, but this was the “no frills” race.

Oh, and he biked over 2,500 miles last year, and ran for about 1,500. How I managed to finish ahead of him in the trail run I’m not really sure. But he says he’s going to come after me next year. Bring it on!