Monday, May 2, 2016

Fellowship of the rocks: TNF ECS Bear Mountain 50 mile, April 30th, 2016

It ain’t trickin if you got it.
~Lil Wayne

Andy’s right foot came down on another rock, firm and steady, and he skipped forward.  I’d been following his smooth stride for 7 hours, for, quite literally, 70,000 steps.  My goal was simple; match Andy's steps.  Earlier in the day I told him that I’d given myself a lobotomy for the race, that my only plan was to follow his plan.  I’d given up the control and the decision making, given up the pacing duties and all the choices about effort.  Andy said that his goal was to get me back to Bear Mountain in under 9 hours.  His job was to lead.  My job was to follow, keep pace, and be a good companion.

A year ago in the 2015 Bear Mountain 50 miler I’d done none of these things.  I’d gone out that day to race alone.  I’d run recklessly, melted down, and relied on competitors with nothing to offer in return.  Even my recovery in the last few miles, the one thing I could be proud of, was streaked through with shades of self-flagellation.  All through the months that followed a singular thought burned in the undercurrent of my mind; I have serious unfinished business with this race.

In more rational moments that undercurrent would form itself into the loose outline of a plan.  All I wanted was to come back to Bear Mountain and race well.  I didn't care about time or place, I just wanted to put forth an effort that I could be proud of.  That sort of goal is the antithesis of a corporate SMART objective, but it is exactly the kind of goal that can lead to actual success.  It is the kind of goal that focuses on the process over of the outcome, on the controllable variables toward the aspiration instead of the aspiration itself. 

As a process, racing well for 50 miles essentially boils down to putting in a hard but conservative effort for the first 40 miles, then running yourself into the ground for the last 10.  The first 40 are about staying sustainably uncomfortable, right at the edge but not quite over it.  The last 10 are about taking every risk your body can absorb, building the pain to an intolerable level, sprinting to the finish, and collapsing.  If you choose to walk during the race, you’ve fallen short.  If you’re able to walk afterward, you’ve left something on the table as well.[i] 

In that process it’s easy to think that the hard part is the last 10 miles of intense effort, but it’s not.  The hard part is being honest with yourself for the first 40 miles.  The hard part is running on the razor’s edge between being, as Scott Douglass would say, an idiot and a wimp.  The hard part is making all the tiny choices between giving in to ego and giving in to weakness.  This is the part that I’d failed in 2015.  This was the part I’d given to Andy for today.

And it worked beautifully.  We kept calm and relaxed in the dark through the early rush to Anthony Wayne.  We stayed strong and steady over the broken terrain of the Long Path.  We talked about everything and anything and kept positive and happy.  We held back when others were foolishly aggressive.  We kept pushing when others succumbed to the pain.  On the long descent from Tiorati I saw runners ahead and told Andy “I smell blood”, but he replied “Keep it cool, Jaws.”  After that, as a joke, I sang the Jaws theme every time we approached a competitor – dnn nunt, dnn nunt, dnn nunt dnn nunt DNN NUNT DNN NUNT!  But Andy kept me in check.  By the time we reached the downhill back to Anthony Wayne we were flying, whooping and yelling “DYNAMITE” and “THIS IS AWESOME”. 

But now, after 7 hours of running with my friend, the plan was finally breaking down.  Steve joined us at Anthony Wayne for wisdom and guidance and moral support, but for the first time all day Andy slowed.  It was finally time to give in to temptation, to become the hunter, but his steady stride was faltering.  The ultra is a brutal thing.[ii]  I stayed with him for a few minutes.  Then I thanked him for leading me all day, and I told him what an incredible human being he is.  He was the superior athlete, and he’d keep me sane for so long, but now it was time for me to push hard.  Now I wanted blood.

As hoped, the last 10 miles were the easy part, all reckless effort and intense pain but no need for self-control.  To borrow from Lil Wayne, many of the runners in front of me were trickin – they didn’t have it.  I did.  I overtook Nick, then Ryan, then the Shirtless Wonder, then women’s leader Heather Hoescht.  She’d passed us on the road at mile 33, but now she was struggling with the technical descents.  I yelled as I approached “You’re not gonna win this race walking downhill!” ala Dusty Olson.  I’m sure it wasn’t the nicest thing to say, but after she’d finished – and won – she assured me it was exactly what she needed to hear in that moment.  I caught more runners, fought my way over Timp Pass, chased down Pole Guy, and entered the chaos of the overlapping 50K, marathon, and marathon relay courses.  Suddenly there were runners everywhere, going all different directions.  I struggled to keep pace on the uphills, screaming out loud “come on, legs, COME ON, LEGS!” then flew by everyone on the descents.  Downhill running is a skill to be learned, and very few runners have learned it.  I came to the finish line in 8:43:52, a 15 minute 50 mile PR and 45 minutes faster than my previous debacle here.  I walked through the tents to the open grass with my family, then collapsed on the ground, sobbing.  I wasn’t hurt, or sad, or angry, or anything negative – it was just part of the plan.  If you really give everything you have in a race, you’re body and mind will let you have it afterward.  They were letting me have it now.

A few minutes later Andy crossed the line too.  I jumped up and whooped, cheering him across.  We collected ourselves and celebrated the day’s work.  We saw Tim Olson walking through the crowd.  I ran to grab my little guy, our icebreaker for meeting Tim.  Jacob has been in awe of Tim ever since the North Face Curiosity video came out, and he’s fond of telling me things like “I hope Timmy Olson wins and you come in second.”  He told Tim “You’re my favorite runner!” and we chatted and got a picture.  We talked about training through the winter and running on the rocks, then Jacob and Tim exploded some high knuckles.  It was an awesome highlight to an awesome day.

Postscript:  lessons learned
It’s incredibly valuable to run with a friend, particularly when that friend is a strong and consistent runner who’s willing to maintain a pace just faster than you’d be able to sustain on your own.  Andy is exactly that kind of runner for me. Following Andy I was able to turn my mind off and just run, not to mention enjoy the day.  This made me a stronger and faster racer and a much happier runner.

Running Andy’s pace also gave me a wildly unexpected set of data for my evolving understanding of effort and sustainability.  Given my experiences of the last year I’d been planning to run from the start to the second pass through Anthony Wayne with a heart rate target of 140 – 150 (for me that’s roughly zone 2 or MAF to MAF+10).   Following Andy’s pace kept me between 150 and 165 for the first 7 hours.  Even having done that I was able to push hard over the last 100 minutes and chase down quite a few competitors.  I think wisdom would have kept me out of the 160’s, but the data say that 150 – 160 is a reasonable target for an 8 – 10 hour event, which encompasses most 50 mile and 100 K races.  Working backward, I should be able to run the majority of most 50 K races in the high 150’s and low 160’s, much the same target I would use for a marathon. 

Of course the early part of a race should be a slightly lower heart rate, since the body isn’t yet fatigued, and the late miles should be at higher heart rate as a finishing kick.  But if we take the data above as a guide for the middle 80% of a race and put it in table form, we get the following:

Example race
Heart rate (me)
Heart rate zone (everyone)
16 – 30 hours
100 mile, 24 hour
135 – 145
Zone 1/2 aka MAF-5 to MAF+5 aka easy
6 – 12  hours
50 mile, 100K, 12 hour
150 – 160
Zone 3, MAF+10 to +20, light to moderate tempo
3 – 6 hours
50K, marathon
155 – 165
Zone 3/4, MAF+15 to +25, hard tempo to just below lactate threshold
1 – 2 hours
Half marathon
165 – 175
Zone 4/5, MAF+25 to +35, threshold
Less than 1 hour
5K, 10K
Zone 5a/5b (I don’t race these, so take this with a grain of salt!)

Any coaches out there, I’d love to get your take on this.  The basis for my personal targets and zone translations are the heart rate data from this race, the 2016 ECSDC 50K, and the 2015 Run Rabbit Run 100 mile (all public on strava), my MAF of 142, and my lactate threshold estimate of 170 based on a Friel-style 30 min time trial.

Obligatory pre-race flat Eric

Following Andy through Anthony Wayne, mile 41.

Done!  And still sporting those shit-eating grins!

Chillin’ with little man’s favorite runner (All pics thanks to Steven Pack).

[i] By “walk” in this case I mean consciously moving much more slowly than you could.  Trail races routinely present terrain or footing where walking (termed “power hiking” by the ashamed) is the fastest method for traversing the ground.
[ii] One of my favorite phrases, borrowed from Scott Jurek’s book ‘Eat and Run’.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

B racing: TNF ECS DC 50K, April 9th, 2016

Last weekend I ran the 50K North Face Endurance Challenge race in Algonkian park outside Washington, DC.  I’m not going to wax philosophically about anything here, but I am going to record a few thoughts for consideration later.

I tried to run “B” races a few times last summer with mostly disastrous results for the A races that followed.  I just couldn’t help getting stupid and competitive and overrunning the B races, leaving myself with way too much recovery time when I should have been training.  With the Bear Mountain 50 mile on tap in a few weeks, I very much wanted to run the DC 50K as a real B race, specifically to stick to the goal of running it as prep for Bear Mountain.  I didn’t have a terribly rigorous plan for accomplishing that goal, but essentially I wanted to stick to 50 mile race pace/effort at least up to the marathon mark, practice nutrition and aid station efficiency, let loose and have some fun over the last few miles, and not hurt myself.  The smooth, mostly flat course profile and support from being close to my sister’s family would be a perfect format with one huge caveat; the flats along the Potomac are ideal soil for generating mud bogs even on dry years, and it was dumping rain the week before the race.  Early forecasts had it raining all day on race day and even dropping snow.  Ugg, so much for easy.

Luckily the forecasts turned out to be a bit too dire.  It was certainly cold and wet at the start, and we did see a few snowflakes in the air around halfway, but the rain had mostly died down before the 50K start at 7 AM (but pity the 50 milers who ran the first 90 minutes in rain and darkness!).  The mud, on the other hand, more than lived up to its billing.  The runner conversation along the route basically went as a combination of ‘muddy enough for ya?’ and ‘this sucks’ and ‘I wish I were wearing football cleats/ice skates/snow shoes/cross country skis’ (no one could quite decide what would work.  I voted for a canoe).  The result was a 4:45 finish (12th place though) despite pushing into 50K pace a bit earlier than planned.

Regardless, a few things I’m proud of:
1) Pacing.  The heart rate profile reads like a textbook:  About 10 miles of zone 1, another 10 of zone 2, a good chunk of zone 3 on the return, a few miles of zone 4 closing, and a zone 5 finishing kick.  Hard to argue with that.
2) Throwing down a 6:24 split for mile 31.  And passing a few competitors in the midst of that.
3) Nutrition.  The ‘eat every 30 minutes’ paradigm (stinger honey stuff I brought, cliff shots and random bars from the aid stations) with a half bottle of tailwind a few glasses of coke in the second half kept me out of energy lows all day.  The ~200 calories per hour is a good sign for metabolic efficiency as well.
4) A few comments that made my day:  Early on in the mud another runner burst out with “you’re so graceful” as I hopped around a particularly nasty bog.  Even better, at one point in the Great Falls Park section the course dropped down a short -30o slope on wet, jagged rocks.  I looped around another runner on the berm at the top and skipped down to a “damn, that was awesome” from the race official at the bottom.  Then, from his partner up top “yeah, I was gonna tell him to be careful, but I guess…”  Easy guys.  You’re making my ego hard to carry ;)

And a few things I’ve learned (or relearned!):
1)  For Bear, stay out of the 150’s for heart rate.  Anything in the 140’s felt all-day sustainable, but the stretches in the150’s gave me the sense that I’d need to drop pace for recovery.  150’s are roughly mid-marathon effort for me, so it makes sense to keep out of them for the first 40 or so of a 50 mile.
2)  For maybe the first time in an ultra I skipped aid stations, and it worked out just fine.  It’s a good reminder that the stations are there if I need something, but the only thing I have to do on the way through is thank the volunteers.  And I can do that at full speed.
3)  No competing in the first half!  I’m not going to win anything this year, and even if I were, no one wins an ultra in the first half.  When I start conservatively and focus on sustainable effort I get to pass people all day long, and that’s pretty fun.
4)  Laura Kline is 10 minutes faster than me at 50K.  In my first ultra race at the Blues Cruise 50K in 2013 I finished 13th, about 9:30 after the women’s winner Laura Kline.  Around mile 25 last weekend I passed a woman and asked if she was leading.  She said no, that there was some super fast girl up there who she hadn’t seen all day.  I got to the finish, looked at the leader board, and who finished 10 minutes ahead of me? Laura Kline!  I’m so pacing off her if we ever start another race together.

Early on, hair's not even messy yet!

Closing kick, rarr!

Okay, maybe that did hurt a bit.  They have a beer tent, right?
(All photos courtesy of TNF and Ultra Race Photos, LLC)