Tag Archives: fueling

Martian Recap: The Little Athlete and the Little Monster

Last Saturday was the Martian Invasion of Races, and man, was it a beautiful day. Temperatures started in the forties but warmed up quickly to the sixties, and the sun was out the whole time – a complete contrast from the wet and cold race days the past two years.

As for my race . . . did I mention it was a beautiful day?

Wow. Enough energy at the finish to do a somersault? That's just wrong.

Wow. Enough energy at the finish to do a somersault? That’s just wrong.

Actually, it wasn’t that bad; only 17 seconds off my best half marathon time. But I’d been hoping for better. I started off at an aggressive pace, and held it successfully for the first six miles. The second half was different – six miles of continuous struggle to keep going. I’ve never felt a stronger urge to quit a race before. I didn’t – but it was close. And that worried me.

I talked with Coach Marie about it, and she wasn’t too concerned. “Thirteen miles is a long time to be running hard,” she said. She also noted that the Martian course has a long stretch up one road and back, which I agree is not the most scenic.  “Sometimes the monotony of a race can get to you,” she said.

As it happened, the latest newsletter from TrainingPeaks has an article – The Psychology of Suffering – which addresses the very thing I’d been fighting. Here’s a small excerpt (edited for brevity):

Q: How do I effectively control the voice in my head that’s telling me to slow down? Do I try to turn this off or control it?

A: There are a few things to consider. [It] may be telling you to slow down because your body needs something…Instead of “fighting” the voice, you want to recognize that it’s there and figure out what it’s trying to tell you. [We] all have a little monster on one shoulder and a little athlete on the other and whichever one you feed is the one that’s going to get stronger and grow. Sometimes trying to “turn off” the monster voice takes more energy than it does to accept it and then counter it with your “inner athlete”.

Little Athlete vs. Little Monster

This pretty well describes what was going on with me. Fortunately, the “inner athlete” was a little stronger on Saturday. But the little monster may have been trying to tell me something. For one thing, I’d brought a Gu with me, but never used it. I’d even passed up a free Gu at an aid station. Why hadn’t I fueled myself properly? Pride? Annoyance at my slipping pace? Something to think about – and apply to my next race – which, by the way, is coming up pretty fast. More about that coming up.

I'm not sure roller skis were race legal, but they're way cool.

I’m not sure roller skis were race legal, but they’re way cool.

Fueling Around

My first long race of the year – the Dances with Dirt Green Swamp 50K – is just two weeks away, and I can hardly wait. Not only is it my first-ever spring ultra, it’s in Florida, where I hear the weather is actually above freezing.

What caused these mysterious tracks? Answer at the end of this post.

Winter riddle: What caused these mysterious tracks? Answer at the end of this post.

I’m currently running around 30 miles per week, Saturday’s group run being about half that, with shorter runs and speedwork mixed in. This is actually a bit light; many in our group are running 40-50 miles or more per week training for Boston. But with snow shoveling, Aikido, and my twice-weekly torture sessions added, I think I’m in good shape.

But physical fitness is just part of preparing for a race. There’s also how I plan to eat and drink before, during, and after – what the running world refers to as fueling. And boy, is there a science to it. Food becomes reduced to its constituent elements – protein, fats, and carbohydrates – presented as pills, powders, gels, and bars, while liquid intake is concerned with electrolyte balance and hydration. And, naturally, there are several wonderful companies that have exactly the right products for you to run your next race like Superman.

So good...and so good for you!

So good…and so good for you!

I got some insights at a recent nutrition clinic hosted by the Ann Arbor Triathlon Club. An ultramarathon, like a triathlon, is an endurance event, and the rules for getting the right stuff into your body at the right time are basically the same. So I signed up and drove through a snowstorm to learn all I could. I’ll save the gory details for another time, but here’s some highlights.

  • Don’t try to replace the calories you burn during a race, or even all the water you lose. The human body is designed to operate without food while running, and eating or drinking too much can make you sick. Look to replace no more than 240-280 calories per hour, and drink to your thirst.
  • Don’t overdo the sugar. Glucose is what the body uses for fuel, but the stomach can’t handle too much simple sugars at once. Complex carbs are much easier to handle, and tossing in a little protein helps even more.
  • The first hour after the race is a key time for recovery to begin, so don’t neglect replenishing food and water. I ignored this rule after last year’s 50-miler at Run Woodstock because, well, I wasn’t hungry, and paid the price with a period of nausea and light-headedness. (Salted potatoes and lemonade brought me round.)
Chicago Marathon recovery = cold beer and cold wet towel. Both felt really good!

Chicago Marathon recovery = cold beer and cold wet towel. Both were great!

Just as important as how much to eat and drink is finding out what you can and cannot comfortably consume. So I’ve been experimenting with different foods and amounts during my long training runs. One interesting finding: eating breakfast before the run doesn’t seem to make much difference, as long as I eat properly during it. My marathon nutrition book says a quick bite just before the start can help, and that seems to work okay for me too.

For my two road marathons I subsisted mainly on Gu gels and Gatorade, and by mile 20 I couldn’t stand the sight of either of them. For the trail ultras and long training runs, I’ve had more substantial food with no digestive issues. Bonk Breaker bars and Gu Chomps (not the gels) seem to work particularly well. At 15 degrees it’s challenging to gnaw my way through them, but I get there.

Next up: Florida in March…what will I wear to the race? The short answer is “prepare for anything” but I only have so much space in my luggage.

The culprit - the elusive recyclables bin!

The culprit – the elusive recyclables bin! Yep, the wind was that strong on Saturday.

Countdown to Woodstock: 50 Miles, Ready or Not

ONE WEEK TO RUN WOODSTOCK and my first 50-mile ultramarathon.

This weekend is my final long-mileage prep. Saturday was a 59-mile bike ride at an easy pace, and Sunday will be one more long-ish run of 13 to 15 miles. Then it’s a few days of rest and carbo-loading with just a couple of short, easy runs to tune up.

I feel ready. Fired up. But have I really prepared enough? A summer of long runs and bike rides makes me think so, but only the race itself will tell.

The course will be the same as last year’s 50K, only that it will be three laps on the trail instead of two. That third lap, however, makes all the difference. The strategies for running a marathon don’t work for a near-double marathon. Here are just a few things that require a different approach.

Pace. After the Crim race last week, I was talking to a PR Fitness runner who also does ultras, and has run the Woodstock 50-miler before. His advice on pace: Start slow. Keep it slow. Walk the uphills. My last marathon pace was just under 9:00 per mile. My 50K pace last year: 12:00 per mile. Part of the difference was dry road vs. muddy trail, but the rest was about preserving enough energy to finish.


8:28. Dagnabbit! Too fast!

8:28. Dagnabbit! Too fast!

Fuel. For a marathon, I can get by on water, Gatorade, and fast sugar like Gu or gels. For longer distances, however, regular fueling with real food at regular intervals is necessary. This is not always easy. Running shunts blood away from digestion and can make eating uncomfortable. And too much salt or sugar can make you sick, but so can too little. There’s general guidance out there, but I won’t really know what my body can tolerate during a 50-miler until I run one – another reason not to push too hard on my first.


My best friend during the 50K last year.

My best friend during the 50K last year.

Gear. For most races, one shirt and one pair of shoes is enough. For Woodstock I will pack at least two pairs of shoes, and make sure I have tape, bandages, and ointments. Stuff like chafed nipples, wet socks, and sand/gravel in the shoes are minor irritants in short races; for an ultra they can cause a DNF (*) if not dealt with quickly. The weather from the 6:00 a.m. start to my likely 3:00 p.m. finish can also change quickly, so warmer clothes and dry spare outfits may be needed.

Nathan race vestI’ve been training with my Nathan race vest, which can be used either as a small backpack for running errands, or a hydration pack for long trail runs. Among its handy features are front pockets for cellphone, camera, and running gels. The back compartment can hold a jacket, sunscreen, or other light gear. It’s amazingly light and comfortable. (It’s also designed to be a hydration pack, but there will be aid stations at Woodstock.)

Motivation? Nope – why I’m running 50-miler is the same as why I ran my first 5K. Because I thought it would be fun and a personal challenge. And while I believe the first will be true, the second definitely will be. So bring it on. Rock and roll!


(*) DNF = Did Not Finish. Also sometimes expanded (humorously) as Did Nothing Foolish or Did Nothing Fatal. Regardless of the reason for a DNF (including sensible ones) dedicated runners consider it a personal failure and will do just about anything to get over the finish line.

Improving by “Halves”: Lessons Learned from Dexter-Ann Arbor 2013

ASK ME TO DESCRIBE MY OUTLOOK ON LIFE IN ONE WORD, and I would answer, “Improvement”. New and/or better stuff is fascinating to me, and helping improve things is what I do for a living. Improving myself is certainly part of that. Something didn’t go well? Sure, I get bummed out. But next time will be better.

With that spirit in mind, I had a chat with coach Marie about my performance at the Dexter-Ann Arbor half marathon on June 2. My time of 1:35:48 was over a minute faster than last year’s time, but it was two minutes slower than April’s Martian half marathon time, which I’d hoped to beat. In particular I was worried about my falloff of energy in the second half of the race, making the final few miles a real struggle that included stopping at the water stations to catch my breath.

DXA2 2013 finish lineWe began with a review of the things I did well. My form is good, I’d put in the mileage needed, and my other races this year have been great. But things hadn’t gone according to plan. So was I just not up to the plan for this race, or was the plan itself not the best? We went over everything to find out. Here’s what I learned.

1. Get More Sleep, Get up Earlier

Looks like someone else needed more sleep, too.

Kudos to Team RWB, who raise money to support veterans returning from combat. (But it looks like someone else needed more sleep, too.)

I’d actually planned to go bed around 10 p.m. the night before. But for various reasons I don’t remember now (in other words: avoidable) I didn’t actually get to bed until after 11, and as always before a race, it took a while to wind down enough to sleep. Then I didn’t get out of bed until after 7 a.m. for an 8:30 race. This isn’t necessarily bad, unless it interferes with getting a good breakfast (see below). But why risk it? At Martian I was up at 6:00 so I had enough time to drive to Dearborn. I could have done it here, too.

2. Don’t Skimp on Fuel

It’s not easy for me to eat breakfast until I’ve been awake awhile, and even then I’m not usually hungry. So I often hold off. Not good on race day. By getting up only 90 minutes before the race, I shortened my breakfast window, which I reduced further by deciding to do my warmup run before I ate breakfast. And after all that, I had only a Cliff Bar. By contrast, I was up over two hours before Martian, and had more to eat beforehand. Small wonder I had more sustained energy for that race.

Run's over - back to the important stuff.

Run’s over – back to the important stuff.

I compounded the problem by not fueling enough during the run. The standard rule for race fueling is, “45 and 15” – consume something 45 minutes in, and every 15 minutes after that. This is adjustable to each particular runner, of course, but the basic idea is to keep blood sugar up. This meant I should have fueled with a Gu at about the halfway mark (which I did), then every two miles after that (which I didn’t). Combined with so little to eat before the start, plus a very ambitious pace (see below), a late-race crash was pretty inevitable.

3. Pace: Too Ambitious?

Michael (left) has just come off an injury and was happy to finish. There's another lesson learned.

Michael (left) has just come off an injury and was happy to finish. There’s another lesson learned.

Based on my Martian pace (7:09 average), and that for the past two years I’ve run faster at Dexter-Ann Arbor than at Martian, it seemed reasonable for me to try for a faster cruising pace (around 7:00) and another personal record (PR). This may have been expecting too much. Perhaps with more rest and better fueling I would have done better, but unless things went absolutely perfectly, I was setting myself up for disappointment. It may have been better to start with the Martian plan, then run harder at the end if I had the energy.

So there we have it – three areas to improve on for next time, which looks like the Crim 10 mile race in August. It’s close enough to a half marathon that the strategy will be basically the same. You can be sure I will improve my preparation. We’ll see how it translates into performance.

If I improve enough, maybe someday *I* can be up there next to the aardvark!

If I improve enough, maybe someday *I* can be up there next to the aardvark!