"The goal is to become the unique, awesome, never to be repeated human being that we were called to be." -Patricia Deegan

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Macchiato Pace

Inov-8s at 3,200 mtrs, enjoying the view of Eiger before the 8 day run!
Runners have lots of ways to describe their various paces...marathon pace, LSD pace, "5k" pace, threshold pace, fat burning pace, anaerobic pace...but I've got two more now. Cappuccino pace and macchiato pace.

When I was preparing for TNF100 in May, I divulged my race plan to someone, along with the plan for transitions at aid stations to be less than 2 minutes each. I was informed by this particular someone that she had spent 20 minutes the year before at CP4, over a 44 gallon fire drum in the dark, sipping cappuccino. That gave rise to a race done at "cappuccino pace."

Going into the TransAlpine Run with my partner Rolf, we talked consistently about running cappuccino pace. Rolf is new to ultra running. He literally started running when he met me 2.5 years ago. He has finished one official ultra race (46km). His greatest running achievement, he says, is getting a stress fracture of his sacrum (he knows of no one else who has achieved this!).

Altitude training: gondola up Mt Titlis then a run down
As I sat down yesterday to do some rough projections for each day of the event, I saw that most days looked to be 7 hours worth of running. I took this info to Rolf last night for discussion. Whilst trying to be prudent about not breaking his newbie ultra-running body, we also need to be mindful of how much time we spend on our feet each day. Time on the feet is time not lying down with them elevated! (And not time with beer and chocolate in hand for Rolf, too!).

So we decided we needed something slightly faster than cappuccino pace, but not expresso/body-breaking pace.

Macchiato pace. Something just in between. Lots of get-up-and-go, but with just a little cream on top ;)

Taper running - non impact, as long as you stay in the air ;)
If you're interested in following along (there are a few other Aussies and Canadians going, too), the site is here and come race day they should have a live link with updates throughout each day as we pass each checkpoint. There is no Mixed Masters category (darn!), so we're in the (open) Mixed, team #86. This year's event is the longest ever, at 320km in total and 15,000 mtrs. The days are:

Germany to Austria 49k +1663/-1667 mtrs
Austria 35k +1849/-1742 mtrs
Austria 47k +2258/-2147 mtrs
Austria to Italy 43k +1997/-1420 mtrs
Italy 33k +1821/-2403 mtrs (Rolf's downhill day?!?)
Italy 39k +2289/-1966 mtrs
Italy 42k +1950/-2000 mtrs
Italy 33k +1269/-1104 mtrs

Taper week gave a unique opportunity...tobogganing on the top of Mt Titlis!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Ghost Running the Ghost Run

Along the River Ourthe
Wednesday night was the last long run before TransAlps. Enroute from England to Switzerland, I searched for a place about halfway to stop for the night. Somewhere that might have good running, of course! What I came up with was La Roche-en-Ardenne, a village of less than 5,000, on the River Ourthe in the Ardennes forest.

I started a generic search for trail runs in the area, which yielded some info on a few trail races. I found a few ultras with 25k-30k options and wondered if I might find a gpx file online. After some useless searching through Google, I suddenly thought of Garmin Connect's public files. It was the first time I thought to use that tool - it was great! I secured the Trail des Fantomes 25k course. And by superb coincidence, the race had just happened on Sunday, so I was able to get the 2012 file. I figured the course would be newly cleared of any obstacles and I might even find a few markers along the way to help.

This is hill training, but not altitude training!
The race was billed as one of the toughest in Belgium with 2,250 mtr over 50k or 1,245 mtr over 25k. The 50k scores 1 point for UTMB.

With the ferry over the English Channel, drive, and time change of one hour, we arrived about 5 PM. The file I had was for someone who finished in 4h19m. Long story, but I somehow got it in my head that we could run this at an easy training pace in about 3hr (thinking incorrectly that the fastest 50k time was 3hr5!).

I really loved the course - and as it was just after the event, they obviously hadn't swept the course yet. The flour arrows were still there, so between those and the map on the Garmin, it was easy nav. Until it got dark, that is!

The course had everything. Wonderful smelling Himalayan balsam flowers to pretty up the fire trails and heaps of single track with lots of technical bits with rocks and roots. The course went up - very steeply most times - from the River Ourthe, then along the top for views of the surrounding forests and valleys and back down to the river again. Multiple times. Rollercoaster-like.

We went through an ancient Celtic archaeological site and past a few random pretty little cafes in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. There were short, steep scrambles and even a section with chain for climbing. We had a river crossing about halfway.

Not a bad climb in the dry, but in the wet....!
While the chosen name with its emphasis on ghosts (fantomes) was a bit of a mystery to me, there was certainly a ghostly feel to running the course just 3 days after hundreds of others. I thought of their adventures, the ones smashing out a great day and the ones having a bad day, those who were undoubtedly running further than ever in their lives, and those gunning for the cash prize at the front of the pack.

I was really glad for my last minute decision to throw my headlamp in the pack, considering our 5.38 PM start. It did look good for us to finish in the light, with 3hr5min on the clock and 3k to go, on open fire trail. It looked like we were headed in for a nice, fast 3k descent to the village. But then we hit a deep forested section on the south edge of town. It went from "dusk" to "dark" once in the trees. With several steep, switchbacking trails all in close proximity, it was hard for Garmin to tell me which one was ours - it's easy for Garmin to go out by 40 mtrs or more at times. We lost a few minutes to a wrong turn (but a nice viewpoint), then found the right trail down. I dug out the headlamp so I could enjoy the last and steep descent.

Then suddenly we were upon the river again. Naturally. If we'd crossed it once, we obviously were going to have to cross it again to get back into town. We came down right by a cable "tightrope-style" bridge (with two handhold cables) over the river. I didn't look closely, but Rolf said it was closed. Our thought was that the RD had everyone cross the river by cable. My track showed us needing to go north-west, but I couldn't be sure which side of the river we should be on...was there a bridge nearby that was used for the race? In the dark it was hard to get bearings on the "natural" way the racers would have gone and we couldn't make out any distant features like bridges.

We lost 20 minutes in this area, trying one option, then another, along the water's edge. When Rolf suggested we run further downstream, as we'd have to get to a car bridge eventually, I said I wanted to have one last look at the cable bridge thing. I was unfamiliar with these, only ever riding in a few cable cars in my life. I needed to confirm for myself there was no way to get across - to see how it was "closed." I didn't doubt that it was somehow closed but my brain was desperate to find an option and I needed to get all the "data" I could.

The first river crossing, while still light.
Sure enough, I saw a locked metal 'door' across the triangle of cables. But then standing there it struck me. I could see the water rippling. Rocks create ripples. It wasn't deep. I told Rolf I was going to try crossing, as with my headlamp, I could clearly see the depth of the water.

Well, THAT was embarrassing! We spent 20 minutes faffing about along the edge of the water, fighting with each other about nav, when all we needed to do (and surely all the competitors did) was run across, calf-deep!

Why? Because we both made a very rookie mistake. We got hungry before the finish and stopped eating. We both made that dreaded mistake: "It's only a few K now, I don't need to eat."

But, when suddenly things go wrong, as they sure can do, even 500 mtrs from the finish, being hypoglycaemic compromises decision-making. We both assumed that just because we saw a cables at the river, it must be deep and there must be no alternative. It was a good lesson going into TransAlps - we cannot risk playing a game of "only-a-few-K-to-go: don't-eat." When there are so many things you can't control in an ultra/trail run, you should most definitely control the ones you can!

3hr21 moving time; 3hr51 total time for our 28k run (start/finish at our hotel, a little further, plus faffing about). Finish times for the 25k were in fact 2hr31 to 6hr28. We're thinking of requesting 1/2 a point for UTMB ;-)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Look, mum, I didn't drown!
I'm swimming again! Well, if 500 metres in 28 minutes is "swimming," then that's what I'm doing. I think I have created my own sport. It's 20 metre sprint interval front crawl at max HR, recovery at end of pool for 20 seconds, and repeat for 25 lengths. Unless you're on the side of the pool with the steps and you can't get right to the end. Then you have to do 2 more lengths as bonus to make up for the lost distance.

Somehow, I remain the most inefficient front crawler in the world. Thus, it's not that I'm TRYING to get my HR to its 172 bpm max, it's that I have no choice. I don't know what I'm doing wrong, but after 20 metres across the pool, I'm completely puffed and my heart is leaping through my chest.

Trail runner training tool in the kids' park!
For now, I don't mind, since it's giving me a good workout during the TransAlpine taper. But one day it would be nice to learn how to real people swim.

I also found a great trail runners' proprioception tool at a local park here in Charing, Kent. I'm sure that's what they put it here for! Getting across the tyres hanging on ropes is particularly fun!

11 days til race day and we get one more "big" run. Today was a flat, fun single track tempo 10k in the woods. Tomorrow we ferry across the channel and drive to Belgium, where I have sourced a lovely little village called La Roche-en-Ardenne. We will base ourselves there for the night and get in a 3 hour run in the Ardennes forest. From there, it's on to Aarau, Switzerland, where we'll base for a few more days and try to find some altitude again.

It's not just my swimming that's driven the 'waterlogged' theme of this blog post. It's also the name of Tim Noakes' new 448 page book all about over-hydration in endurance athletes. He's causing quite a stir, with one apparent assertion in the book that no one should take electrolyte/salt pills - the body will regulate itself. I'm very keen to read his argument on this and other hydration-related issues. I've ordered a copy and will get into it after TransAlps. In the meantime, if you'd like to do a little light "research" of your own, you might enjoy the two-part blog/interview by iRunFar here and here.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Be Prepared...to cut holes in your shoes?

I'm back in Kent, England, after 3 weeks of amazing training in Canada. I shed a few tears on parting with some of my favourite people and a pretty special place in the world.

Now it's taper time. To compensate for the decrease in hills and distance, I'm putting a little speed into my life. All legal, of course! The speed is a nice way to keep burning a decent number of calories whilst running less (I eat non-stop as it is now) and keeps the legs feeling good.

Coming in for a landing!
Last night I went out to a measured UKA 5k race as part of the "Rye Summer Classic Series." The race was about 45 minutes away on the coast. I wasn't expecting too much of myself for the race, considering I'm enjoying my 2 "bonus" kg this season and haven't been able to do any speed work since before the Bib run in November (due to the compartment syndrome after-effects). It was a highly competitive race, perhaps because of it being an evening race and as there are a few good prizes - including a trip to race in France for the Series winners!

I ran a PB! 20:32 was my fastest ever (track) and I ran 20:10! Naturally, track is slightly slower than road since you have to turn more, but it wouldn't make this much difference. The result was very encouraging towards my hopes of going for 50k W40 records in late November (after more speed work and dropping a kg or two, of course).

For now, I'm back to enjoying my TransAlps prep.

I found a few minutes to poke around the research for any gems.

One paper that's just come out suggests you might want to take a pocket knife to your shoes and carve some holes! This just came out in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise (Franz, Wierzbinski & Kram, 2012) and is titled "Metabolic Cost of Running Barefoot versus Shod: Is Lighter Better?" It's been known for a while that every 100g added to shoes increases oxygen uptake during submaximal running by 1%. But there was a question of whether this had anything to do with foot landing/striking patterns - after all, put most people in shoes and they heel strike.

Generally, this might mess with your running speed more than shoe weight!
So, they took "midfoot strikers" (whether shod or not) and compared the power and oxygen costs of running with weight on their feet. The interesting thing was that they made sure all runners were midfoot landers regardless of whether they had shoes on or not and they measured their power and oxygen use when barefoot, when barefoot with lead weights on their feet, and with shoes. They found that there was no advantage in power/oxygen use to being barefoot. In fact, their findings (a 3.3% increase in stride length when shod) suggested that barefooters use shorter, faster strides, which increases oxygen uptake and metabolic power.

They then took their data and worked backwards....at what ideal weight would shoes be (for these 75kg 179cm runners) where the metabolic demand would be lower shod than barefoot? The answer: 129g.

Start trimming!

Be Prepared! Such good advice for an ultra runner.
This got me thinking about other predictors of running performance. So I had a quick scan through some literature on ultrarunners and found several studies looking at predictors for 100mile/24hr-type performance. One study (Knechtle et al, 2009, Br J Sports Med) found that they could not predict runners' distances at the Basel 2007 24hr race by using volume of training, years of running, age, skinfolds, or skeletal muscle mass. The only predictor was marathon time. That's something I was always basically told to discount! Another Knechtle et al study from 2011 (J Strength Cond Res) found that marathon time (sub 3hr 20 noted) and length of longest training run (60km noted) were the two predictors for a 24hr race they analysed. They came up with a lovely equation which I tried using and it was completely inaccurate - on the low side. So much for that.

But I'll stick with my racing flats and speed work, even if I can't get precise predictors. The arrow is wide, but I can see what direction it points ;)

Saturday, August 11, 2012

I'll Have a Double

Atop Crowsnest Mtn, all smiles that we're still alive!
From last Thursday to this Wednesday, I covered 158km in the mountains and foothills, with a total of 5700 mtr of gain. The TransAlps race, 20 days away, is 320km and 20,000 mtr of gain.

So, in a week I did half the mileage but not quite half the elevation. Oh-oh.

It was an incredibly fun and scenic week of training. But exhausting by week's end. The days mostly consisted of the essentials - sleep, drive, run, eat. And an hour or two trying to catch up on email and anything critical in my work and volunteer roles.

The reality for TransAlps is that I'm going to have to fall off the face of the earth for 8 days. I am not even going to attempt to do anything other than run and recover! When I get my body over that finish line each day, it's going to be lay down, feet up, Compressport socks on, Recoverite in one hand, pasta in the other.

This was not an exaggeration for difficulty. No marmots sighted though.

We've had a lot of special adventures here in western Canada. One day it was a "simple" 6km route to the summit of Crowsnest Mountain at about 2800 mtr in height. The sign at the trailhead warned of "killer marmots" and the run/hike/scramble was rated "intense." I think that's like "catastrophic" fire dangers in WA. At "extreme," you're in peril but someone will try to rescue you. In "catastrophic," you're surely going to die and no one is going to try to help. We thought it had to be an exaggeration until we were 3km up, pawing at crumbling shale, shouting "ROCK!" down to warn the person below. It took 3hrs to get to the summit! And the three people who came up behind us had helmets on. Over 1,000 mtrs of climb in 5.5km. The only reason we kept moving forwards was because the thought of going back down the way we came up was too scary...we had to find another way off the summit!

Me crouched low on a tight bit of Northover Ridge. Left: Alberta, Right: BC
Another highlight was a 35km loop called Northover Ridge. It takes you up to nearly 3,000 mtr in height, running for about 3km along a mountain ridge separating British Columbia from Alberta. Fall to your death either side in different provinces. Cool, in a sick way. I ended up with about 44k that day with a bit of route finding difficulty and then some sheepdogging. The trip took over 10hrs. Amongst that time was probably an hour spent collecting and filtering stream water to drink. It takes a while to filter.

Today it's a gentle 14-20km run to some ice caves. With the long summer days here (light past 9 PM), I haven't had to use the headlamp once. This will be the first day to use it! I haven't been in the caves in years. It's an annual Christmas run with my old trail running group.
Attempt at a snow angel, but it's a bit too sticky.

So off we go!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Hello Mountains!

Me, descending from Mt Burke
Ahhh, for one long year I have pined for your root-riddled trails, softly covered with conifer needles. How I have missed shouting "cooooeeee" and "heyyyy hoooooo" to warn away bears, whilst barrelling down single track at a quad-destroying pace. And grunting up steep slopes, looking for glimpses of blue above, which might signal a summit is imminent. Sucking in the thin air whilst gazing far down at the road where my car sits.

From the brambles and flat "downs" of England, where we covered 105k in a week with barely 800 metres of gain, we have hit the Canadian Rockies in all her steep glory, covering 115k in a week - and with 3900 metres of gain!

We have summitted Jewel Pass over the "Prairie View" loop and run the Powderface trail on a Wednesday night, covering 15k with +800 mtr (bonus for me in there with a wee bit of sheepdogging).

Rolf at the old fire lookout (circa 1954 - the lookout, not Rolf!)

This past Sunday we did an all day run - leaving home at 6 AM, we drove 2 hours into the heart of the mountains and did a "3 peak" run. You know you're with the right group of people when you post an all-day 40k 3-peak run with two days' notice and get 8 replies! So 10 of us started from the base of Mt Burke, for the 900 metre climb to the summit at nearly 2540 metres. Until it closed in the 1950s, it was the highest fire lookout in Canada. It's amazing that after another 60 years of weathering blizzards and sun, it still stands.

On our descent from Burke, we run into another ultra runner, Wayne, with two others, doing a day hike up Burke. It's a brief chin wag, sadly, as we must keep moving to bag all three peaks in the day. You never know where you might run into a problem with navigation or otherwise that could slow the group down.

Another peak (Raspberry), another picnic!
One runner left us after Burke and 3 others carried on immediately to peak #3 (Mt Lipsett) to get a head start. That left 6 of us to go up Raspberry Ridge, the site of the new fire lookout for the area. From here, you could clearly see Mt Burke and the old Cameron fire lookout where we'd just been - that was pretty cool! This peak was an insane climb of 600 metres over 5km, in burning sun with little tree cover.

In the cars for a 30 minute drive over to Mt Lipsett, losing one more runner to time constraints on his part. Now we are 5 going the 700 metres up Lipsett, to summit at nearly 2600 metres. On the way up, we meet our other party of 3 coming down. They won't be convinced to come back up with us! They have their eyes firmly on their tailgate treats in the car and a soak for their legs in a stream.

On Mt Lipsett, 5 PM in blazing sun, the last peak!
We linger a full 30 minutes atop Lipsett. It's 5 PM, we're at altitude, and the sun is still hot. Last time we were here, in early September, it was snowing. Two weeks ago, we are told, there were snow patches. We enjoy our descent as best as possible on tired quads. After a tailgate party to fill our bellies, we separate into two groups for the drive home, stopping at a mountain lake for a quick soak.

The next two days stairs are not my friend! This day basically mimicked what we need to do for TransAlps for 8 days straight: average 40k/day with +1800 mtrs. Thank goodness we have another week here to train!