Tag Archives: lessons learned

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.

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

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Cure for a DNF: Water, Shade, and Perspective

One week after the Glacier Ridge 50-miler DNF and feeling much better. Ran Saturday morning with PR Fitness, holding it to 8 miles per Coach’s direction (OK, 8.3 miles, but she wasn’t looking). About halfway out it began to rain. Some people grumbled, but I loved every minute of it. Man, could I have used some of that last week!

This would have been good, too! (From last year's Kona race.)

This would have been good, too! (From last year’s Kona race.)

Not finishing was a bummer, but it’s okay. I’d signed up to find out how ready I was to retry the 100K. By mile 40 I’d learned that I wasn’t, and the main reasons why. Going on would have been a miserable slog with nothing else to learn. And as a bonus, the whole thing was put into perspective very quickly. See below.

My biggest lesson was how much I’d underrated hydration. I’d gotten into the (bad) habit of not drinking anything before a race, because I hate standing in line at the porta-potties right before the gun. I can get away with this for short races, and up to 50K on the trail. Beyond that and the lack of water catches up with me.

I now drink at least 8 ounces of water when I wake up, and will on race days, regardless of the consequences. I also need to drink a lot more during the race, and start drinking earlier, especially on hot days.

My backpack has pockets for two bottles. I just need to use them both. The camera can go elsewhere.

My backpack has pockets for two bottles. I need to use both for that purpose. The camera can go elsewhere.

And I need to protect my head from direct sunlight. I hadn’t counted on such a long stretch of open road and trail late in the race. I should have put a baseball cap in my backpack just in case. I will from now on.

On the plus side, I recovered quickly. Just three days later I ran with the Tuesday night group, stretching a planned two miles to three. Yesterday I felt good enough for my usual 12 miles but didn’t push it. The Dexter-Ann Arbor half is in two weeks, so there’s no sense in doing too much too fast. After that, I’m looking at another 50-miler in late June or early July.

And from the Count Your Blessings news desk: Last week after I accepted the strong hints at the aid station and turned in my chip, I got a ride back to the start from a race staffer named Dan. We got to chatting and I asked if he also ran ultramarathons. “I used to,” he said. “But I can’t anymore.”

A few years ago Dan’s heart became enlarged due to a leaky valve. Surgery corrected the problem but his heart didn’t return to normal size as hoped. Now, he says, running even a short distance leaves him out of breath.

“I was devastated,” he said. “Running was my stress relief. My meditation. I had to come up with an entirely new way of coping with things.” He has, but it was clear how much he missed being able to run.

All that evening I did my best to feel sorry for myself, but the magic just wasn’t there.

For a wicked take on why self-pity is “dangerously comfortable” see this article on Cracked.com.

Note to self: he carried two water bottles. He finished.

Note to self: he carried two water bottles. He finished.

And I want to thank J.R., who ran with me for many miles, and who helped me out when I was sitting on that log at mile 36. He gave up a chance at a faster finish to walk with me to the aid station. His encouragement was a big reason why I was able to get there, and I made sure the race staff knew it. See you next year, my friend.

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Next up: Chatting up the ladies at the Hightail to Ale 5K. (Key to success: be one of the people handing out free beer.) Details to follow!

Running On: Lessons from My Ultra DNF

Runners are funny people. They encourage the efforts of others, and when someone crashes and burns, they always know the right thing to say. Except when it comes to their own performance – then that stuff goes right out the window.

So it came as no surprise to me that everyone – 100% – of people who knew about my DNF at Run Woodstock supported my decision to stop. Some were even grateful. And everyone had something encouraging to say. So how did that make me feel? I think the meme below expresses how runners I know feel about such things.

Meme-FailingNotFailure

That out of the way, I feel better now. And besides, there’s another ultra this Saturday – the Dances with Dirt 50K in Hell, which, being its 20th anniversary, promises to be a lulu (check out the course description here). So instead of moping, I’ve been looking at what went wrong and what I can learn from it. And I’ll want to try the 100K again someday, too.

After some self-analysis, discussions with Coach Marie and a bit of WAGging (*) I’ve identified three main areas for improvement. If any ultrarunners are reading this, you’re welcome to chime in with your own stories and lessons learned. And if any readers are considering an ultra, I hope what’s written here won’t scare you away. An ultra is a blast. Really. I mean it.

So here we are:

The Physical – Aye, There’s the Rub

The biggest contributor to my early exit was the heat exhaustion. I’ve since read that even minor dehydration can play havoc with the body’s ability to regulate temperature. I was drinking a lot of fluids, but also sweating so much in that wet heat that it may not have been enough.

I bought two things for my next effort. First, a forehead thermometer. I can carry it in my pocket or running backpack so if I feel that way again, I can check to see if my core temperature is safe or too high. The other is some chemical cold packs to bring down my temperature if ice is not available, or I’m between aid stations.

Thermometer and Cold Packs

Chafing is another regular problem I have during ultras. Despite applying Body Glide and Vaseline, by my third loop my thighs were raw where my soaked, sweaty shorts rubbed on them. There were also a couple of “hot spots” in my underwear, and I don’t mean the good kind.

Gold Bond Friction DefenseMy coach told me about Gold Bond Friction Defense, a Body Glide-like product that also contains aloe for soothing the skin. I’m going to try it on Saturday.

Finally, there was blistering. From my other ultras I know where the trouble spots on my feet are, and I made sure to tape them carefully. That worked, but blisters are apparently more clever than I thought, and I got a couple where I didn’t tape. On the other hand, rubbing Body Glide all over my feet each loop helped keep them dry and comfortable. With mud and river crossings on the Saturday course, I will be continuing that practice.

Mental Lessons – Lord, Give me Patience – NOW

It’s fairly indisputable that any run of 30-plus miles qualifies as a long run. A 100K (62 miles) might even qualify as a very long run. Not surprisingly, long runs take a long time to complete. Any successful ultraunner, therefore, possesses at least a modicum of patience and mental discipline. But the longer the run, the more is needed, and at some point, most people hit a limit. I think I hit mine.

My plan for mentally managing the 100K was to break it up into manageable segments, like with last year’s 50-miler. Each loop had four, marked by the aid stations, all about four miles apart. But while similar in distance, they were very different in feel. The first leg and third segments were okay, but for some reason the second and fourth legs seemed to stretch on and on.

View from my headlamp during Run Woodstock 2012.

View from my headlamp during Run Woodstock 2012. The bright spot is the next trail marking flag. Or a ghost. I forget which.

On a trail in the dark, distances stretch and the inner clock I’ve relied on to estimate my pace and distance simply doesn’t work. Even known landmarks and milestones seem to take longer to reach. I began to get frustrated and began to tell myself how much worse it would be the next time around. That part of me was quite relieved when I quit.

The key to solving this, I think, is some formal mental training. My coach suggested restoration-style yoga, which includes a focus on meditation. I’m looking into this and will keep you posted.

Attitude – A Different Animal

Perhaps my biggest miscalculation was treating a 100K race like an extended 50K, instead of the very different type of race it is. Setting aside the maxim that for a long ultra, “if you think you’re starting too slowly, go slower still,” I ran at what seemed to be a comfortable pace – my 50K pace. No doubt that plus the heat caught up with me.

Pace too fast 2

Yum, yum!

Yum, yum!

I had the same “50K” attitude toward nutrition – being sure to drink and have salt at the aid stations, but otherwise winging it. For a 100K, I think I’ll have to approach it more systematically, to know more exactly what I need at what time. There are some general guidelines to apply on replenishing electrolytes and how many calories I should replace, what percentage should be simple sugars vs. complex carbs, how much protein, and how much water is needed to process it all. More to come there, too.

So for Saturday’s race, I can apply some lessons already. And I won’t have to worry about heat issues – it’s a morning race and will be much cooler. Should be a good time!

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(*) WAG = Wild-Ass Guess. Not to be confused with SWAG – Scientific Wild-Ass Guess – for which, as I understand, you need a Ph.D.

Run Woodstock Recap: The Good, the Bad, and the OFI

I’VE HEARD THAT FOLLOWING AN ULTRAMARATHON, a runner can experience a letdown. No such problem here. I’m enjoying the recovery period after a summer of long mileage and many hours of training. And this was not a “once per lifetime” event for me, as another 50-mile finisher told me it was for him. Assuming I stay fit and healthy, there will be more ultras to come, and more goals to work toward. For now, however, I’ve basked in a week of relaxation and reflected on how the race went and what I learned.

Music to my eyes!

Music to my eyes!

Biggest lesson learned? I really can run a 50 mile race!  And with two trail ultras now under my belt, I know that I like them better than road marathons. They are easier on the body and the aid stations are much better. Plus the other runners are more friendly. Just about every time I passed people on the trail, I got words of encouragement from them. I even had some conversations, like on group runs.

So I said to her, if we're going to keep meeting like this, we should at least have a photo.

So I said to her, if we’re going to keep meeting like this, we should at least have a photo.

One fellow 50-miler named Carolyn both inspired and confounded me all during the race. I met her a couple of miles in, and learned that she’d run a double marathon earlier in the year. I ran ahead, but she caught up at the aid station and went ahead until near the halfway point where, again, we met at the aid station (see photo). At that point I picked up the pace, and figured I’d seen the last of her. And so it proved – until the final aid station at mile 45. As I walked away, finishing my drink, she motored on past me. “Oh, hi!” she said, before disappearing into the woods.

Huh? How’d she do that? However it happened, it just wouldn’t do. I was tired and sore, and walking felt darn good, but I kicked it in again, and caught up and passed her for the final time with about two miles to go. I didn’t see her at the finish, which was too bad – I wanted to thank her for inspiring me to finish strong.

One other trick helped me stay mentally focused during that long, long race. While running 50 miles seems intimidating, the aid stations were just 4.2 miles apart – a distance less than my normal training run. So I divided the race into 12 stages of 4.2 miles each. Instead of saying to myself, “I’m at mile 35 – 15 to go,” I said, “I’m in stage 9 – just 3 and change to go.”

(Click here to see the map of the race courses, if you’re interested.)

"...And she's buying a stairway to Heaven..."

“…And she’s buying a stairway to Heaven…”

This worked wonderfully until those final few miles, which seem to take forever no matter what race I’m in. The campground music I finally heard was like the choir of the angels. Nice that they sing Led Zeppelin up there.

As for the rest of the race plan, here’s a quick summary of how things worked out – or didn’t work so well, which as a QA professional I have labeled Opportunities for Improvement (OFI).

Training plan:  Success. The “bricks” (long runs followed by long bike rides) gave me the cardio function and leg strength to complete the 50 miles.

Compression Sleeves 2Gear: The running backpack was fantastic. I hardly felt it, and it was handy having the camera in a front pocket. The compression sleeves (pictured here) helped with circulation – no leg swelling – and protected my legs against branches and thorns. They may also have prevented more of whatever rash I ended up with on my thighs.

Fueling and “elimination”: Gratifyingly, I had no problems with either end of my digestive tract. The pre-race carbo-loading must have done the trick, because I had plenty of energy throughout. I also made sure to have some salt at each aid station.

Two big OFI:

Lubrication. I applied Vaseline to certain sensitive areas before the race, but during the final loop I had some pretty bad chafing. Next time I’ll be sure to apply more at regular intervals.

Crossing the finish line is not actually the end of the race plan. I needed to keep walking, eating, and drinking for at least a half hour. Failing to do so meant an experience much like after the Ann Arbor Marathon last year – wooziness followed by a seat in the shade with a bag of ice on my head, being watched over by concerned race organizers. Fortunately, some salted potatoes and lemonade brought me round.

Finally, I know some of you are wondering if I was able to complete the Weekend Challenge again this year, including some “natural miles”. First of all, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Second, I skipped it – too sore. Maybe next year.

This was as close as I got to anything "natural" this year. (And I didn't even drink it.)

This was as close as I got to anything “natural” this year. (And I didn’t even drink it.)

Next on my race calendar are my standard fall short events – Halloween races, turkey trots, and the Holiday Hustle. No sense of urgency like I had last year, since I’ve met my goal of a 5K under 20:00. But that’s okay. Next big decision: whether to stick to my regular schedule of races next spring, or try for a spring ultra. Sure, why not?