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

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Improving Your Downhills: Five Little Things They Never Mention

There have been some awesome write-ups on how to improve your downhill techniques, written by better downhill runners than me, including this recent one by Joe Uhan. It's common to read things about quick feet and maintaining a forward lean to let gravity help.

Recently, whilst solo running in a lovely Swiss forest, on a downhill rep session of my own, I was all focus. It was a focus on the big things, just like the articles always say - leaning just the right amount, using quick light steps, looking ahead to pick my line.... My face was tight, brows furrowed. But I didn't realise that part UNTIL... another runner approached me coming uphill. I automatically smiled. To be polite, of course.

Selfie confirms it - I'm smiling!
And my smile changed everything. I realised that with my uber-focus on the big details, I certainly wasn't having fun. I immediately started pretending I had a mate with me and we were on any one of a million training runs, having a blast. I pretended I was really awesome at downhill running and really loved it (those are relative statements with more or less veracity depending on the day.) I "yippeed" and "yahood" in my head. I kept smiling. I pretended I was in a race and there were cameras around every corner, ready to capture me not looking stressed!

I got to the bottom of the hill faster than the last two reps and feeling much more relaxed about the whole thing. "Fake it til you make it" had provided me yet another life example!

On the way back up the hill for rep #4, I thought, "What other little things do I do that might help someone who is struggling with downhill skill improvement?" It wasn't hard to think of four more things I do to set myself up for success. So, here they are.... Start with these 5 little things and use them along with all the big things you get from the other posts on downhill technique. These aren't tips for the pros. These are tips for people who aren't comfortable with descents, who find themselves approaching a descent nervously, who lean back and brake.

1. As above, SMILE. Yippee and Yahoo. Pretend you're with a friend, you're being filmed, whatever it takes to help you smile. Smiling relaxes your face more than frowning or furrowing your brows and sends signals to your brain that everything's good in the world. It will change your mental attitude and your body will follow.

2. Before you start your descent/downhill rep, TIGHTEN YOUR LACES. It's worth the 15 seconds. Wobbly feet moving around in your shoes won't improve your confidence. Consider using a lace lock, if you don't (don't tighten as hard as the bloke in that video, though, that's silly and will hurt over time, especially if you have a lot of uphill later.)

3. Before you start your descent, TIGHTEN YOUR PACK. Cinch up the straps so it doesn't bounce around - that throws off your balance. AND REMOVE ANY EXCESS AIR in your hydration pack bladder. Not only is the "mixing margaritas" noise annoying, the moving water/air mixture will also throw off your balance. Tip your pack upside down (putting the air at the top, where the tube now is). Suck through the bite valve until you get past the water in the tube to the air. Keep sucking all the air out until you have water again. Turn your pack back up. Now the air is gone forever! (Unless you have a leaking bite valve that lets air back through.)

4. TAKE THE SWITCHBACKS, not the direct line. If there's a choice, where someone has short-cutted a direct line along a switchback, stick with the switchback. It's much easier on your body to keep a flowing movement on a gentler grade. I've run many times with others in mountains where they chose the direct line down, feeling it should be faster, but the extra braking required to negotiate a steeper decline negated any "win" in time.
One deserves to enjoy a great descent after the climb to get there!

5. DO REPEATS to build confidence. Go back to the same hill and do it again and again - something in the range of a 3 minute descent is good (thus, maybe 6 minutes to climb). Three minutes is a fairly long time to stay focussed, but not so long your brain will overload and fry! :) Getting some of the rocks and roots and holes memorized on a descent will allow you to start taking it a bit faster, instilling confidence. Do at least 3 reps of the same hill, power walking back up at a pretty easy pace, so you aren't starting your down all puffed out.

See you at the bottom!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Ultra Titanic Mountain Binge Week

Yesterday I posted my photos of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) 4 day running camp. I hadn't written "Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc" anywhere. Just "UTMB." My mum was unaware of my upcoming race. UTMB is a 170km + 10,000m anti-clockwise loop trail race around Mont Blanc/Monte Bianco, from France to Italy to Switzerland and back to France. It starts Friday night August 28th.
The UTMB race roughly follows the "TMB" hiking route

So my mum looked at my photos and asked, "Why did you do this Ultra Titanic Mountain Binge over 4 days?" And I thought that was just a perfect summary of my last 8 days of training!

The camp was run by a French company and most documentation was in French, though they did provide things to me in English, including a description of the course/camp itself and what was included. They promised I would be given a "reconnaissance of the UTMB route, physical preparation and nutrition advice, recommendations regarding material and equipment, mental training, technique coaching, race management, talks by trail runners about their experiences, etc." I figure I'm fairly advanced in most of the general nutrition and mental stuff, but I was looking forward to any tips I could glean, particularly from someone with specific UTMB experience. Turned out that although the guide was a very good runner, he has never done UTMB. And his English was not fluent to allow for complex conversations. But I did get one tip on tweaking my pole-technique, by listening carefully to the French, and that was worth a lot!

Morning clouds burning off. Mountains playing peekaboo.
There were 6 French blokes on the course (at least three from Paris and one from Toulouse) plus the guide. Most are planning to do UTMB, but a few have other race plans somewhat similar and thought the camp would be good training. They had great attitudes and were good people to spend 4 days with (as generally all trail runners seem to be). I certainly missed a lot of the conversation, due to the speed and complexity of their French compared to mine, but overall I'm very happy in my own head, so didn't mind that I wasn't in on all the laughs. Mountains and rivers and clouds make great conversational partners for me :)

Our days looked something like this:

5.50 am: wake up
6 am: breakfast in rifugio/refuge/hutte
6.30 - 7 am: finish dressing, packing, lubing bits and pieces (my Montane merino tech-t became my shirt of choice for multi-day running, due to its no-stink properties...wish the blokes had some merino wool!)
7 am - 6 pm: run. This typically included a one hour lunch stop, which I was not in favour of. It's too long. One is just encouraged to sit around eating too much, which makes it harder to get up and run again...invariably up another mountain. The guys also had a lot of sit-down stops and walk breaks - again more than I would have liked, but I'm in the freak category, I know.
6 pm - 7 pm: check in to refuge, queue for showers, unpack
Happy with the gear! (And another mountain climb, yippee!)
7 pm - 8 pm: mass dinner in dining area of refuge (as a preferred gluten-free, sugar-free, vego type, I had brought some emergency food with me, which I was very glad for! I also brought chia seeds to try to keep up some anti-inflammatory omega fatty acids and poured olive oil on my salads. Glad to be "home" now to my Udo's Oil!)
8 - 9 pm: espresso for me (most blokes were off to bed right after dinner). Then foam rolling, tennis ball rolling, and a quick charge to Garmin and phone if I could find a socket.
9 pm'ish: bed, avec earplugs (dormitory living)

By the end of day 3, the mileage and elevation were accumulating rapidly because I was sheepdogging the whole time (running to junctions/summits, then back to the back of the pack). I saw that I was headed for over 200km and over 12,000m gain in 4 days. I had to listen very carefully to my body for any sign that "training" had become "breaking." I developed a nasty knot in one calf on day 4, but I could massage it out and run easily for another hour until it would tighten again. I think a few years ago I would have had no idea to try massaging it out and would have just assumed I had to keep running (limping) with the knot...which could have easily become a tear, I bet.

Day 4, approaching the top of the final climb, Mont Blanc comes into view
In terms of the UTMB route itself, the "toughest" parts will be different for many, but I expect the 5 passes between La Balme and Courmayeur (roughly 40k point to 80k point) represent one of the toughest. This will all be in the dark for me and I'm happy enough with that, as there are plenty of more beautiful parts of the course to enjoy after Courmayeur :) There are a few very nasty steep descents, which I'm glad to know about, as they can be soul-destroying (due to their brutal nature on toenails and quads). I'm glad to have a sense of the terrain and the placement of aid stations. I also got a good sense of my pace up particular climbs. I ran 3 of the 4 days with poles (putting them away on day 4, just to slow myself down). My pole technique really improved after the guide's tip (should have had that for the dolomites VK!).

So, after 212km + 13,000m for the week, I was theoretically off to binge on another massif along the Swiss-Italian border - Monte Rosa. I had signed up for a 50km + 4000m "training race" with an Italian mate. However, at the time I signed up, I misread the UTMB training camp info and thought it ended Monday (it ended Tuesday night). That gave me just 3 days to recover before a very steep, technical race. And I hadn't realised I'd have done all the extra sheepdogging miles. It seemed I had now done all the training I needed in regards to fuel, poles, weather, and muscle-building during the UTMB camp. I couldn't find a smart reason to run the Monte Rosa Walser 50k.
Gabiet 'hotel', day before Monte Rosa race. Couldn't see 100mtr on race day!

The day before Monte Rosa Ultra was beautiful and we did some hiking up over 3,000m to join the local ibex with the views to the amazing glaciated peak at over 4,600m. I saw some of the race course trails. Steep, narrow, and rocky. The weather was forecast to include heavy rain and 12 degrees all day. I mentally confirmed that running the race in treacherous conditions was a risk I didn't need to take. However, I now had a reason to at least toe the start line - wet weather gear testing! My Italian mate had piked, given the bad weather. But it was just what I needed! (And truth be told, I was tired of training every day in the European heatwave this year.)

Thus, at 5.50 am, I stood at the start line in the dawn light, fully clad in my new Raidlight Extreme rain gear (sadly, Montane gear just isn't to be found in local shops) and very expensive Mammut waterproof overmitts (essentially a thin waterproof outer mitt to go over normal gloves). I certainly got a few looks from other runners! My Italian mate, who decided to pike on the all-day run in the rain, also gave me the look. When I said I was UTMB gear testing, he said, "Okay, but the gloves...really, they are too much!" I disagreed :)
Uber light and I can run in it. "Waterproof" only goes so far, though!

As planned, I ran at easy pace for the first 23km + 2300m of the race. There wasn't a mountain view to be had. It was all clouds and mist and rain, but it was gorgeous. We crossed rivers and my x-talons enjoyed the muddy sections. I got to figure out how waterproof my new gear is, how hot vs breathable it is, how to best layer underneath it, how my pack moves more readily with a slippery jacket on, and so much more.

When I arrived at the 23k aid station, I handed in my bib, thanked the vollies working in the rain, and decided to run the 13km downhill on the small mountain road to my hotel. From my hotel room window later, I could watch everyone coming in to the finish, including all those I had played leap-frog with all morning (I'd typically pass uphill and then some blokes would pass me again on the descents - I wouldn't play the slip-on-your-butt game like them, as it wasn't my A race.)
Shame I couldn't see the whole course, but greedy-greedy never gets!

From the safety and comfort of my hotel room window ledge, I played the "shoulda/coulda/woulda" game. It appeared to be a less competitive race for the females this year and it seemed that I "coulda" finished in 3rd place at my training pace. My ego liked that. Dangerous and annoying thing, that ego. The other thing that coulda happened was a slip in the mud due to fatigued legs, followed by a tendon tear. Pick a tendon, any tendon. I'm sure I have plenty of tired ones right now. And I'm about to add more speedwork. Get ready, tendons! :)