Tag Archives: endurance

Lighthouse 100 Recap, Part 1

I ran the first-ever Lighthouse 100 race last weekend. This is not really a race review, but a series of vignettes about my experience. I’ll give my thoughts on the course and race organization in Part 2. Hope you enjoy!

I sprawled in the driver’s seat of a stranger’s car, air conditioning blowing on my flushed face. Laura, the car’s owner, had given me a cold drink which I sipped while wishing the runner she was crewing for would arrive. She’d agreed to drive me to the next aid station as soon as she refilled his bottles and sent him on his way. “He’s just a few minutes away,” she’d told me.

Outside the car it was over 90 degrees in pitiless sunshine, and a 40 mph wind blew grit in the faces of the runners trudging south along Elk Lake Road.

I was at mile 65 of the inaugural Lighthouse 100 race, and, in my mind, done. Toast. Ready to call it a day.

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Oh, what a beautiful morning! Oh, what a beautiful day, etc. – Oklahoma!

THAT DAY HAD BEGUN on a much more positive note.

We set off from Bayfront Park in Petoskey at 6 a.m., following the Little Traverse Wheelway to Charlevoix and southwest from there to Elk Rapids, Traverse City, and then north up the Old Mission Peninsula to the lighthouse at its tip. Seventy runners crossed the starting line, with until noon Sunday (30 hours) to finish.

The morning was cool with a light breeze and the sun eased through the overcast to light up the bay on our right. I felt great, my pace was easy and light, and everyone was upbeat and chatting about the gorgeous view. This was what I’d signed up for, and life was good.

Eventually the pack stretched out and broke up. I settled into a steady pace and passed time with other runners talking about favorite races, nutrition, the usual stuff. The laid-back attitude and camaraderie are characteristic of ultras, and among the reasons I love them.

For the first forty miles all went according to plan. My left IT band oddly flared up at mile six, but stretching at Aid Station 1 (Mile 10) resolved it. In downtown Charlevoix a bearded fellow in a Run Woodstock T-shirt cheered me on. Then onto back roads and rolling hills, with a short stretch on US-31 to Aid Station 4. I was running strong and breathing easy, on pace to finish well under my target of 24 hours.

Things went downhill from there. And not in the good way.

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“There will be times when you’ll want to quit,” Dave Krupski, the race director, had told us at the pre-race meeting the day before. “But do this first; take a long break, 15 minutes or half hour, and drink some electrolyte fluids. If at the end of that time you decide it’s not your day, then okay. But give yourself time to recover and think about it.”

Well, I’d taken that break; several of them. Given myself time. And I’d thought about it. Nope, it wasn’t my day. But it would soon be over. I just had to wait a few more minutes.

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The Road goes ever on and on, Down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, And I must follow, if I can. – Tolkien

The heat and full sun began its work on the US-31 stretch, and I knew there would be more to come, but I wasn’t worried. I’ve run several ultras in hot weather with no problems, and figured I had the process down. Salt tablets every hour. Icewater-soaked cloth under my white sun-reflecting cap. Ease off on pace. Got it.

Naivete, thy name is runner.

Trouble started as I turned (at last) off US-31 back onto country roads, looking forward to cold water at the 45-mile mark. The jug was missing; someone had stolen it. Why, Lord only knows, but obviously he or she had no idea how much it meant to an uncrewed runner on a hot day.

My remaining water was too warm and too little to make it to AS5 (Mile 51), but I’d passed a crew vehicle a half mile back. I retraced and it was fortunately still there. Kevin, the driver, had extra ice and water and was happy to help. Turned out I was not the only other runner he saved that day.

Now the sun began taking its toll, and a nagging stomach issue grew steadily worse. At AS5 I took an extended break to sit, cool off, and re-evaluate. I was #11 overall and it was a bit annoying to watch other runners go by, but I needed the rest and figured I’d catch up. Then a change of shoes, final fluid reload, and back into the fray.

I got to AS6 at mile 60 without trouble, although I was now doing run-walk intervals instead of the steady jog I prefer. And with no interest in food, I didn’t refuel like I should have. Bad move.

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“You are not a bad runner. You are a good runner having a bad moment.” – Pacer to runner, overheard at Run Woodstock during a 100K

I’d pictured Elk Lake Road (miles 60-67) as pretty and meandering, with lots of shade making for an easy stretch. Instead it was straight into a hot south wind, with no shade whatever. I got to mile 65 with just one thought; find that water jug.

Except I didn’t see it. Not where my watch said it should be, nor up ahead.

It was too much. I found a shady swale off the road, lay down, and put my damp cloth over my face. I lay there for a while trying to figure out how I would go on. I did not improve, and eventually I figured if I didn’t get up then, I wouldn’t get up at all. So I staggered to my feet just as another runner came up to me, asking if I was okay.

“I can’t find the water jug,” I said.

He pointed ahead. “It’s right there. Can’t you see it?” I couldn’t. We walked back to the road, and finally I spotted it just over a small rise. Once there I rinsed my face and drank, but I didn’t feel any better.

Then I saw a line of crew vehicles on the other side of the road, I chose one at random and asked the driver if I could sit in her car for a few minutes. She immediately and kindly agreed, and got me an iced cup of Coke to sip. After a few minutes she asked how I was doing.

“I think I’m done,” I said, and asked if she would drive me to AS7 where I could drop. Another 35 miles in these conditions, feeling the way I did, was just not something I could deal with. There was no shame in that. As Dave had said, sometimes it just isn’t your day.

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Get up! Get back on your feet. You’re the one they can’t beat, and you know it. – Styx

Laura’s runner arrived at last. I heard her fill his bottles, say she was proud of him. Then on he went down the road. Laura cleared the front passenger seat for me, then came around to the driver’s side.

I opened the door and stretched out my left leg. It seized up in a calf cramp, which I stretched out only to get a shin cramp. With a grimace and apology, I planted that leg on the ground at last, then the other, emerged from the car, and stood straight. For a moment we just stood there looking at each other.

“You’re going to try to keep going,” she said. She sounded impressed with a strong hint of disbelief.

She was right. Somehow I had recovered just enough to give it one more shot. No way I could run, but I could try to walk it. Heck, every other runner was walking this section of road too.

“I’ll see you at Hawley Road,” she said, indicating it on her map. “That’s two and a half miles.” She mixed some Gatorade and filled one of my bottles with it.

I thanked her, went back out onto the road, turned into that furnace-like wind, and began walking.

How far did I get? What other challenges did I have on my attempt to get through the damn race? What’s all-night running like? All will be revealed in Part 2. Please stay tuned! And thanks for reading!

Peak Experiences

The last few weeks have been peak training time for my spring marathons and ultras. And let’s just say I’m feeling it.

So what does “peak training” mean? Extra miles per week, longer “long runs,” and heavier weights and additional sets at strength training. And with hill-loving Coach Rob setting the routes, PR Fitness group runs make sure my legs and lungs get some good work in.

If you think this is a viable option for long runs, you can stop reading now. You don't get it.

For long runs? Thanks, I’ll take the snow and hills, please.

The extra physical effort is just part of the experience, however. It being late winter in Michigan (*), conditions have varied. This morning I ran 18 miles with a big, enthusiastic PR Fitness group in shorts and single top layer, bright sunshine, and clear, clean roads. It was easy to feel good out there, even with tired legs.

But just a couple of weeks ago, I ran 20 miles by myself on a cold, gray, blustery day on snowy roads. With no one to pace with or keep me motivated, it was hard to remain focused. I had problems with my shoes, I needed several biological breaks (too much coffee), and with sweaty clothes it was a struggle to stay warm.

Along the 20-mile route that day.

Along the 20-mile route that day.

With five miles to go I stopped at a cafe for a snack and water and took stock. I would be on a busy road at rush hour, going uphill, and it was getting dark fast. It would have been easy, perhaps even sensible, to call a cab (**) for a warm ride home. Instead, I took a deep breath, stepped outside, and slogged out those final miles.

Good question.

Good question!

Would missing those five miles hurt my time at my upcoming marathon? Not likely. The 15 miles I’d already run were probably equal to at least 20 miles on a good day. And I might get hurt during the last stretch due to the weather and road conditions. Physically speaking, there was no reason to finish the run.

But Coach Marie understood why I did. She’s had many of those herself. “It makes you mentally stronger,” she said. And when things go wrong, or the unexpected happens, or you “hit the wall” five miles from the finish line, it’s the mental toughness that gets you across it.

Great weather and a happy body are treasured by runners when they occur, but they provide a very limited view of what we’re truly capable of. This morning’s run was wonderful, but the one two weeks ago did more for me. The miles in the snow, or rain, or mud, or 90-degree heat (with precautions, of course) tell me far more about what I’m really capable of, and give me confidence that I can accomplish my goals.

Building character.

Building character.

Not that I want one like that every week.

And “peak training” is nearly over! Soon I will begin tapering – easing back on mileage to recover and be at peak condition on race day. Sounds great, doesn’t it? In fact, extra rest can be as challenging as peak training, in a different way. I think I’ll find a way to get through it.

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(*) Actually, conditions are never predictable in Michigan. It’s part of the appeal of living here.

(**) I don’t really buy into this Uber thing yet. Call me old-fashioned.

Long Runs: Training the Brain

Recently a fellow 40+ runner posted his experience (so far) in training for his first half and full marathon, and asked his readers for advice. For better or worse, I gave him my thoughts. He thought they were pretty good, although I understand his attorney is now trying to contact me. He must be a new runner, too.

Me at Road Ends 2013 finish line

I’m not tired! Really! It’s all in my mind!

Anyway, among his lessons learned in long run training was that it’s as tough mentally as it is physically. Yup. 530,000 marathon finishes per year sounds like a lot, but it’s far less than one percent of the American population. I believe the main reason the other 99 percent will never run one isn’t the physical challenge of running 26.2 miles. Rather, it’s developing the mental stamina needed to get your body to run that distance. I can speak from experience that the brain gets tired of running well before the body gives out.

A recent article in Runner’s World addresses how large a role our brains play in how fast, or how far, we can run. The author, already an excellent runner, attempted to improve his performance through computer-based exercises designed to create mental fatigue – so-called “brain endurance” training. You can read the grisly details here.

So let’s say you’re interested in the challenge of a half marathon, or even a full marathon someday, but you prefer to train more traditionally. How do you develop the mental stamina to get there? I don’t know what will work for you, but here’s how I managed it.

1. Just starting. The good news is that no previous experience is required. Until my mid-forties I wasn’t a runner, and couldn’t think of many things more tedious. I’m not exactly sure what ‘flipped the switch’ but I ran my first 5K race in 2008, and just five years later I’ve run seven half marathons, two full marathons, and two ultramarathons, and log at least 1,000 miles per year.

2. Allowing enough training time. “Couch to 5K” programs are popular and fine, but couch to marathon takes a little longer. When I decided to go for a half marathon, I had never run more than six miles at a time, so I gave myself six months to train. This gave me time to ‘build the base’ without pushing too hard or feeling anxious about how close the race date was.

"Just two loops" or "8 more stages" sounds much more doable than, "33 more miles".

“Just two loops” or “8 more stages” sounds more doable to me than, “33 more miles”.

3. Splitting up the distance. As I mentioned in my recent posts about my Run Woodstock ultra, running 50 miles still seems kind of unreal to me. But dividing the race into 12 stages of 4.2 miles each (the distance between aid stations) made it mentally manageable. Half and full marathons generally have water stops every two miles, which I still use to reset physically and mentally when needed.

4. Running with others. I still remember a Saturday morning 20-miler where I started out with a large group and wound up at the halfway mark in the middle of nowhere by myself. (It was a “taper week” for the other long runners.) Running the return 10 miles solo was really tough. But there was no shortcut on that route, so I had to finish.

Pacing with others is fun, too! (Kona 10K, 2013)

Pacing with others is fun, too! (Kona 10K 52:00 pace group, 2013)

By contrast, earlier this summer I ran 19 miles with two other folks the entire way, and it was far more pleasant. Conversation helps pass the miles, but just having other people there with me helped keep me moving. Research bears out that running with someone can make you run longer and harder than you would by yourself.

5. The idea of “just one more”. As my Aikido instructor has said, “No matter how many breakfalls you’ve done, you can always do one more.” When my long runs get tedious, or body is fatigued during a race, I apply this as, “I can do this for one more mile” or “Just to the next aid station”. It usually works. And of course once I hit the aid station, or finish that one mile – I can still do just one more.

So there you go. If you’re starting to get the feeling that you could do this, and you’d like that feeling to go away, this post from Jilly Bean should do it. You’re welcome.

More: Read some additional motivational tips for distance running.

“Half” Measures

As a competitive runner, there are two main factors I consider when planning a race: speed and endurance. Which one takes precedence depends on the distance. When I run a 5K race (3.1 miles), I don’t worry if I will finish, only how fast. I set a target pace for the first mile, then go all out for the rest. My 10K strategy is only slightly different – a target pace for the first half of the race, then everything I have left for the second half.

For marathon length (26.2 miles) and beyond, by contrast, my main goal is to cross the finish line upright. I set a target pace slower than even many of my “easy pace” training runs. While starting out too fast in a short race could hurt my finish time, doing so in a marathon could mean I don’t finish at all. “Hitting the wall” around the 20-mile mark is a well-known problem that has caused many a runner to DNF.

Unless you’re a world-class runner like Scott Jurek, who regularly wins 100-mile races, there is a particular race distance that represents the balancing point – where speed and endurance must receive equal consideration. For me, this is the half marathon. Perhaps that’s one reason it’s one of my favorite races (at least when I’m not actually running them).

My times in the half have steadily improved each year, and as I start to crack the top tier of my age group, I am naturally interested in running it fast. However, I need to rest properly beforehand, eat carefully to be properly fueled, and not push the pace too hard during the race. If I slip up on any of these, I won’t run my best. The distance guarantees that. So of all my races, this one needs the most careful planning.

For example, here is how I planned out a few races from last year or this year.

Holiday Hustle 5K, December 2012
Time goal: 19:59 or better

Holiday Hustle Starting Line 2012Lead up: 4:00 p.m. start, so sleep in. Light activity during the day.
Pre-race routine: 1 mile easy warmup, followed by light stretching and a few short sprints.
Fuel: Lunch 2 hours before start. One Gu at start. Skip water stop.
Pace plan: 6:20 first mile, run like hell for the rest.
Result: 19:48. Followed plan, but it would have been difficult not to.

Ann Arbor Marathon, June 2012
Time goal: 3:59:59 or better

Mile 19 - State Street - croppedLead up: Easy week before. Get enough sleep.
Pre-race routine: Get out of bed and to the starting line before the 6:30 a.m. start.
Fuel: Eat CliffBar on way to race. At every water station after mile 4, walk and drink. When sick of tepid water and Gatorade (mile 20) drink it anyway. Eat a Gu every 5 miles or so.
Pace plan: All miles around 9:00. Do NOT run faster than 8:30 pace.
Result: 3:54. Kept to planned pace (mostly). Good thing – it was hot and humid, and I probably wouldn’t have finished otherwise.

Martian Invasion of Races, Half Marathon, April 2013
Time goal: Beat previous half marathon PR of 1:36:59

Martian Finish - croppedLead up: No hard running for 3 days before race day. Carbo-load starting two days before. Get enough sleep.
Pre-race routine: 1 mile easy warmup, followed by light stretching and a few short sprints (but not too fast, just enough to get the heart rate up).
Fuel: Banana and Cliff bar 1 hour before start. Don’t drink much because I will only have to use the porta-potty (again). Get water or Gatorade at every second water stop. Have a Gu at miles 6 and 9, and at mile 11 if needed.
Pace plan: First mile 7:30. Second mile 7:15. Miles 3-10 around 7:05. Try to speed up for final 3.1, or hold pace if unable to. Final mile: push up the short steep climb, then go all out to the finish (downhill).
Result: 1:33:48, and so “on plan” it was scary.

And then there was this morning’s (Sunday) Dexter-Ann Arbor half. While it was by no means a disaster, and even was somewhat of a success, it didn’t go according to plan. I’ll share the lessons learned later, after I figure out what they are.