Tag Archives: ultrarunning

The Workout of a Lifetime: Would Picasso Have Been Proud?

THE STORY GOES that Pablo Picasso was approached in a café one day by a woman who asked if he would do a drawing on her napkin. He agreed, made a quick sketch on it and said, “The cost will be 20,000 francs,” or some such enormous amount (some versions say $1 million).

“That much!” the lady exclaimed. “But it only took you five minutes!”

“No, my dear,” he replied. “It took me forty years.”

True or not, the story illustrates the lifetime of effort and experience it takes to be able to do something of quality while making it look easy.

Today’s workout at Body Specs brought Picasso’s napkin to mind. While hardly a work of art, completing it required drawing upon what I’ve learned and experienced since I began serious physical training fifteen years ago.

My workouts are assigned and supervised by trainers aware of my goals, and while the sessions range in intensity, occasionally one becomes a real test of what I thought were my limits. So it proved this afternoon.

This is from another session, but you get the idea.

Basically, I was given what the trainers call “supersets” consisting of a set of exercises performed in order, then “doubled” (repeated). For example, station 1 was monkey chin-ups, followed by ab exercises, followed by pushups. Repeat the three, then move on to station 2. I had a circuit of three stations in all, each with a set of doubled exercises. And I was to complete three full circuits.

After my first circuit I was spent. By the end of the second I needed to sit and rest after each exercise. My heart was pounding. I had nothing left. And I still had one to go.

Sure, I could have quit. All I needed to do was tell the trainers, “I’m done,” and head to the shower. It wasn’t a race, just a training session. And yet it had become, for me, more than that.

Because, for whatever reason, I’m an ultrarunner. And I’ve committed to the most aggressive race season ever, with the first race (50 miles) next month. Completing an ultramarathon requires mental and emotional discipline in addition to physical fitness. Patience, persistence, and dogged determination are needed to accept the continual discomfort and push through the inevitable low points. The mental muscles must be exercised, or they will fail you in a race as surely as undertrained legs.

So as I began the third circuit I called upon some principles I’ve learned and applied over the years.

  • From Aikido: breath control. Replace fast, shallow breathing with deep, slower breaths. This also relaxes the body. I did this after each exercise, establishing control before starting the next one.
  • From Aikido and ultrarunning: focus on where you are, not how much you have left. Do each rep with the best form you can. Then do another. “Remember,” Sensei said, “you can always do one more.”
  • From ultrarunning: pace. Take the time you need to complete the exercise. Don’t go too fast to show off. No one cares.

And, finally, I’d been here before, two-thirds through an extreme challenge, physically and emotionally spent, and ready to quit. Namely, the 65-mile mark at last year’s Lighthouse 100 (you can read my recap here). And somehow I’d found the strength to go on, and finish.

I slowly ground my way through the final circuit. One station, one exercise, one rep, at a time. My 30-minute session lasted well over an hour, and my muscles were shaking, but I completed it. Test passed. Until next time, of course.

So how did I reward myself? Like any health-conscious fitness nut would do:

Okay, it was really just the ice cream. (Peppermint Bark Moose Tracks, my new go-to treat.)

I also had a glass of tart cherry juice with my (healthy and nutritious) dinner. It’s supposed to help ease sore muscles. We’ll see if I can get out of bed in the morning. I hope so, cuz I should get a run in.

Publisher’s note: This post is available for sale for $1,000,000.00. Or best offer.

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Do What? I Can’t Imagine. . .

If there’s one thing being a runner is good for (*) it’s getting a sense of perspective.

This morning I was meeting with our company president, an aficionado of the latest and greatest in technology (you can read my “Gadget Man” post here). A message from one of his daughters had appeared on his Apple Watch, and he demonstrated how to finger-scrawl a reply and have it turn into a text message.

Then he looked at me.

“She’s recovering from a slight concussion,” he said. “Her coach told her to go jog an easy mile to see how she feels. That just doesn’t make sense to me. How is a mile an easy jog?”

Before I became a runner I’d have shared his viewpoint. But to me now, I told him, it made perfect sense. An easy mile seemed just right for her purpose. I do exactly that myself as part of my pre-race warmup. But to the non-runner, “one mile” just doesn’t fit with “easy” at any speed.

Fast forward to this afternoon’s workout at Body Specs. Another runner trains at the same time I do, and he said he’d heard that 200-mile races were growing in popularity. He told me someone had interviewed a veteran 100-mile runner about this, whose comment was, “I can’t imagine why anyone would want to run that distance.”

This is where I am on the spectrum. A 100-mile race is the most I’ve ever seen myself doing. Double that distance? What for? (**)

crazy-aunty-acid

And yet for some runners, even 200 miles is just a stepping stone to greater distances. Ultrarunner Dean Karnazes once ran 50 marathons, one in each U.S. state, in 50 consecutive days. And Pete Kostelnick just completed a 42-day, 3,000-mile run across the U.S. from San Francisco to New York, an average of over 72 miles (nearly three marathons) per day. To them, a mile must be like stepping outside to get the mail.

Just going out for a run! Back in a couple months!

Just going out for a run, honey! Back in a couple months!

This kind of perspective comes in handy when I race. I see faster runners pull away, and look at the results of the top finishers, and wish I were more like them. And yet as I’m usually at or near the top of my age group, there must be many other runners wishing they were more like me. And I know people who wish they were able just to run at all. Being aware of this makes it hard to feel sorry for myself when I don’t perform as well as I wanted to.

slow-runners-make-fast-runners-look-good

I know there will always be people faster than I am, stronger, more naturally talented, mentally tougher, more of every quality that makes for a successful runner. No matter how hard I train, or how far I run, I will never match their performance. Well, so what? There are always things to learn and ways to improve, and one can enjoy the experience regardless of the result.

Last Saturday’s Run Vasa 25K was a great example. A cold but beautiful morning on a wide, well-groomed, leaf-strewn trail, with a small group of fellow dirt-loving runners. I was pushing my pace and had blisters on both heels, but there was nowhere else I wanted to be.

About ten miles in, I saw two runners approaching me from ahead. Oh, crap. Was I going the wrong way? “Oh, no,” they said. “We cut the course by accident.” They were basically DQ’d, but both were smiling. Several other people took a wrong turn and ran an extra four miles. No one complained. Stuff happened. They still had fun.

Days like this on trails like this. What it's all about, baby.

Days like this on trails like this. What it’s all about, baby.

Final thought: apart from Pete and Dean, I’m sure every runner has an “I can’t imagine” limit. In 2014 I was part of a webcast featuring Meb Keflezighi, the Olympic marathoner and Boston Marathon winner. When he found out that some in the audience were ultrarunners, he expressed amazement. “I can’t imagine running that kind of distance,” he said, and told us he’d stick to running marathons. Just as well. I don’t need his kind of competition.

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(*) [One thing running is good for] – in addition to health, fitness, being outdoors, a great social activity, and others.

(**) [What would it prove?] On the other hand, I used to think a 50K would be the most I would ever run. Until I ran one, and the little voice in my head said, “You could do more…”

You Gotta Have Heart (Rate)

My first marathon this season is just ahead, and it’s taper time! Cutting back on distance and speedwork a bit allows my body to rest and heal up, so I’ll be at peak form on race day. The nasty cold I’ve just gotten over helped enforce that rest, at least. Not that I appreciated it.

One temptation tapering runners have is to use the extra time and energy to try something new and different. Hey, I could start those judo lessons, or try out the Eskimo Diet (mmmm….seal meat). Well, you’re not supposed to do this. Stick to the familiar. And as a serious runner (well, as someone who takes running seriously), I rigorously follow this advice.

Except when I don’t.

This week I tried something new (gasp) in my running – usually a no-no right before a race. On the other hand, this change just might win the approval of my coach. Because it involved me running slower.

I'll believe it when I see it!

I’ll believe it when I see it!

First, allow me just a little history to set the context.

Last Saturday, I went out for my first group run since I’d caught that cold. Coach put me down for 14 miles at an 8:20 pace. I felt well enough but told her (and myself) I would run easy and only so long as I felt (reasonably) comfortable.

The first seven miles went fine. I felt a bit winded but chalked it up to the hills on the route. I started the route back – and heard three women coming up behind me.

Cue my stupid male instinct. Easy training run? Recovering from an illness? Screw it – no way I was gonna get chicked! So I stepped it up – for a few miles, anyway. At the final water stop I graciously let them go ahead. I’d made my point. Yeah.

Gwen here won the Kalamazoo Marathon last year. I'll let her chick me. Mainly because I have no choice in the matter.

PR Fitness runner Gwen won the Kalamazoo Marathon last year. I’ll let her chick me. Mainly because I have no choice in the matter.

It wasn’t until I checked my splits afterward that I found out what I’d really been doing. 8:20 pace? Not exactly. I’d ended up running mostly under 8:00, and during my push I’d been doing 7:30 – uphill. Well, pushing the pace is fairly routine for me, and I have to admit to taking some perverse pride in it. No harm, right? Doesn’t it show how fit I am?

And yet there are those articles that say runners often do their slow runs too fast. And for five years now Coach has been trying to get this into my thick head. But what, exactly, is “too fast”? And why is a faster pace so bad?

Well, my recent fitness tests, as well as a couple of books I’ve been reading, have finally given me something quantitative to work with. And this means adding a tool to my training that I’ve had for years, but never really figured out how to use.

Heart Rate Chest Strap Monitor

The heart rate monitor.

Heart rate training is popular among elite cyclists, and to some extent among runners. Instead of running at a specific pace, you run at a specific heart rate, or in a heart rate zone. The advantage is that you can tell when you are running aerobically vs. anaerobically. The threshold is known as the Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate, or MAHR.

Why is this important? Because of the differences in how the body produces energy. When running anaerobically (above MAHR), the body uses carbohydrates for fuel, of which there is a limited supply. Eventually, fuel runs low and the runner has to slow down, or bonks.

Running aerobically (at or below MAHR), by contrast, mainly burns fat, of which the body has a much larger supply available. The longer the run, the more important this source of energy is. So ultrarunners (ahem) should really be interested in running aerobically as much as possible.

Dr. Phil Maffetone, one of the pioneers of heart rate-based training, has a method for estimating one’s MAHR. Doing the math, I came up with 131 beats per minute (BPM) as my MAHR. So for me to run aerobically, I need a pace where my heart rate stays at, or just below, 131 BPM.

What is that pace? There was just one way to find out. I strapped on the monitor, set my Garmin to display heart rate, and out I went for a six-mile run. I though I might have trouble holding a particular heart rate, but it turned out to be pretty easy.

Pace too fast 2

I held 131 BPM for two miles, with splits of 9:33 and 9:43. Just for fun, I also ran one mile at 135 BPM, clocking 8:55. People often find their MAHR pace is annoyingly slow at first, but for me it was okay – very comfortable, not snail-like. Maybe over 10 miles or more it will get annoying. Just one way to find out! More to come as I continue to experiment with this.

Going Long, Going Dark, Going Easy

THE BIG EVENT at Run Woodstock is one week away, and I’m gearing up for it by gearing it down a little. Yes, it’s the hardest training period of any distance runner – taper time!

So I will be doing my very best to work out less, rest more, and eat more. I’ll get through it somehow. Actually, I’m looking forward to a little break from Body Specs. Today’s workout at 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity had me streaming sweat, leaving puddles on the mat at each station. But it’s been that kind of summer.

Stop doing this for a whole week? Oh, man!

Stop doing this for a whole week? Oh, man!

I’ve been wondering about a few things that happened to me this past week. Perhaps some of you could provide some insights or similar experiences.

  1. What’s going on with my bike rides? Last month I rode from Ann Arbor to the Crim race in Flint (see my previous post on that experience). Twice during that ride my quads were screaming so badly I pulled over to stretch and massage them. Last weekend I rode to White Lake. It was about the same distance, at the same time of day, but after running 17 miles on the trails in Pinckney, and I felt fine the entire way. Not complaining, but it seems kind of bass-ackward to me.
Maybe this was the difference?

Maybe this was the difference?

BTW, the I-275 Metro Trail from 5 Mile Road to Meadowbrook Road is a handy way to go north on a bike but I wouldn’t recommend it as a pleasure ride. As I was advised by another trail runner, it’s variable in pavement quality and the noise from the freeway is incredible. Perhaps it’s amplified by the retaining walls on the west side. The good news is that multi-purpose paths continue to head north for several more miles.

  1. On that same ride, I took one of several wrong turns and asked a gas station attendant for directions. He printed a map and showed me the road I wanted. I told him I was riding to White Lake.

“That’s a hell of a long way on a bike,” he said.

“Not really,” I said, reflexibly. My destination was about 7 miles away. As the entire ride was over 50 miles, I was pleased I only had that little bit left. But what makes a ride or run “long” depends on one’s point of view, after all. In track and field a 5K is considered a “middle distance” and 10K is “long distance.” By contrast, in the world of ultrarunning the “short run” is the 50K, and no one even talks about shorter races.

What is this "sub-marathon" distance you speak of.

What is this “marathon” distance you speak of.

It reminded me of my trip to Chicago in 2011, where the train station attendants said I might want to take a bus for the “long” 8-block trip to the convention center. When I told them I was there for the marathon, they agreed I “could walk it.” (BTW, the walk inside the convention center to get my race bib was longer than the walk to the center.)

  1. And on the same subject of perception: last night I went out for 6 miles at sunset to get used to running in the dark. The first half still had some daylight in it and passed uneventfully. I returned along the exact same route, but in darkness, and it felt longer – a lot longer. The road ahead of me just seemed to stretch on and on. I half expected Rod Serling to step into view: A man goes out for a run on a dark, deserted road…and ends up in…the Twilight Zone.

Trail - Saturday morning

Why does this happen? I’m guessing it’s due to the reduced field of view. When all you can see is what’s illuminated by your headlamp, even familiar territory can seem like the middle of nowhere. And the noises change, too, from the man-made to the animal. Between the near-total darkness, gnats in my eyes, and crickets and frogs echoing all around, it really did feel like a different world from the same path I’d taken just a half hour earlier.

And just think – a week from now, I get to run all night long. The race begins at 4:00 p.m. Friday, and with luck I will be finishing sometime around sunrise Saturday morning, just as the 50K and 50-milers toe the starting line. (Yeah, those “short distance” guys.)

Stay tuned – I’ll let you know after Labor Day how my weekend “training” went. (Isn’t that kind of ironic, that “Labor Day” is celebrated as a day off?)