Thursday, September 29, 2016

Ragnar Adirondacks !

193.9 Miles - Saratoga Springs to Lake Placid. An elevation rise of 1,434 feet, 12 guys, two vans.  Start a runner and keep a runner moving day and night until the finish line. That's the definition of a Ragnar event.

I was invited for a second time to join a group of guys who have made running Ragnar Relay events a tradition for 10 years. My first experience with these guys was for Ragnar's Reach the Beach event two years ago. That event was a "WOW" experience for me and worthy of a repeat.

For those of you that aren't familiar with a Ragnar Relay event, it goes something like this:

  • You get 12 running buddies that are comfortable enough with each other to tolerate the close confines of a stinky van for 24+ hours.
  • Divvy up the running assignments into 36 legs according to the segments laid out by Ragnar.
  • Start runner #1 at the appointed time (it's a wave start so that most teams finish around the same time).
  • Runner #2 takes over from runner #1 at a designated transition point, and so on until the last runner crosses the finish line.
  • Each runner will do 3 legs of varying distance (each leg in this particular event ranged from 2 to 9 miles) approximately 8 to 11 hours apart.
  • You run during the day, night, in the rain, fog, hot, cold, whatever, until the team finishes.
  • You rest (kind of) while riding in the van from one transition zone to the next, and if you are lucky, you might be able to grab a couple hours of sleep on the grass somewhere or on a school gym floor.
  • It is a test of endurance, patience, camaraderie, and a very high tolerance to port-a-potties. For what it's worth, the incentive to run fast is that the closer you are to the front of the pack, the cleaner the bathroom facilities are!

So that's the set up... Here's how it went:
Van 1 with 6 guys left our rental house in Lake Placid (near the finish line) at 4:30AM to drive down to Saratoga Springs. They had a 2+ hour drive (in the pouring rain) in order to make a 7:15 AM start for their first runner.

Van 2 (the cool van - but not because I was in it), got to sleep in and left Lake Placid around 8 AM, to transition with Van 1's 6th runner. I took the baton (actually a "wrist baton") from Jon at around 10:30AM somewhere north of Saratoga Springs and took off for a rolly 7.8 miles.

The picture below was taken somewhere near mile 6.5 of my first leg. The photographer was talking to me, but I couldn't hear a word he said, so I just smiled and waved...
The one thing about Ragnar events is that they are not like other road races where the streets are closed off and there are cops on the corners of busy intersections - oh no....  Ragnar puts out some signs to point runners the way, and you are left to run on the shoulder of the road dodging cars, trucks, and buses. In some cases there are some traffic cones, or even a trail or sidewalk to run on, but for the most part it's a run on the shoulder of rural roads. If running through a town and you get to a traffic light, you have to follow the light. It's also not like a standard road race where there are masses of runners all together. In a Ragnar event, runners are very much spread out and rarely will you ever have an occasion to run with another runner. You might catch up and pass another runner (the coveted "kill", or you might be passed yourself (yeah, I got passed some - but only by runners at least 30 years younger than me... and I'm ok with that.).

Ironman Dan about to clobber a young buck
Speaking of "kills", this is a great picture of Dan, aka "Ironman Dan", one of our old bucks, setting his sights on a young buck that he is about to "kill" (pass). That poor kid probably never even knew what hit him. I think it's a great picture!

And so on we went until we arrived at Lake George, where we transitioned the running
Back Street BBQ 
responsibilities back to Van 1, then went in search of some food and fell into a place called "the Back Street BBQ". One of the reviews said "family staying at a nearby hotel, we walked to the restaurant, but the place looked so scary we kept on walking..." and that sealed the deal for us - we're in. Does this picture of the place look that scary? Basically, it is a biker bar with BBQ on the side, a crusty bartender, and a very interesting bathroom. The BBQ was "ok"... Bartender had this story that he used to offer free condoms to his customers, but his method was unique: he'd pin the package to the wall in the bathroom, but the kicker was that he'd put the pin through the center of the package. He wondered how many kids in town were "Back Street BBQ kids"...  Interesting sense of humor that guy. There's more to tell, but...

After dinner we took off to the next Van Exchange Point (where Van 1 would hand off to us) and stopped at a Walmart along the way for supplies (water, gatorade, peanut butter, bread, junk food, pillows and sleeping bags). Oh - and Tums... one of our guys was brave enough to have the baked bean soup stewed in pork rind back at Back Street BBQ, and he was not feeling so good.... no wonder. But he survived. We then found a spot at the school that was being used as Van Exchange Point to lay out in the dew covered grass for a bit of rest before our next shift. I was up next for the first night run of our shift.

Speaking of vans, some teams rent large 15 passenger vans with lots of room. Our team rents mini-vans (easier to drive and to maneuver around these country roads), but somewhat cramped for space. This is a pic of the back cargo area where we would store a cooler and bags for 6 guys. And of course every time you needed to get something from your bag (dry or warmer clothes) your bag was ALWAYS the bag on the bottom... The inside was just as cramped, although we usually "just" had 5 guys in there (one runner running...), and you can see that the designated stinky seat has the obligatory towel. What you can't see is all the crap and garbage that is strewn throughout the van... :-) The downside to the mini vans is that there is absolutely no way to stretch your legs out (think of cramps) without putting your feet into someone...  But it is an adventure!

Regarding night time runs, Ragnar required us to have reflective vests, a headlamp, a blinky light in front and one on our back. I don't believe that was enough given some of the traffic that runners had to deal with. On some roads there was not much of a shoulder to run on and on curves cars and trucks would come roaring by. I didn't hear that any bad things happened, but I know that there were close calls. I think that the next time I run a Ragnar at night I'll be lit up like a Christmas Tree.

On another little side note, the routes were marked "ok" by Ragnar, but they could have been better marked, especially at night considering that the route was literally in the woods and there is nothing for miles... and I do mean nothing. One of the guys in Van 1 mentioned that he became concerned at one point as he couldn't see any runners ahead or behind him and began to worry that he had missed a turn. Only when he happened to come across an unattended water table with Ragnar symbols did he feel confident that he wasn't blazing his own trail. This situation is actually made worse by the lack of cell signal across a lot of the course - if you get lost you can't call for help! Our van had to guide a runner back to the route after she got confused about a turn - it's dark, no street lights, few cars - who knows where she would have wound up. But remember again, this is supposed to be an adventure.

By the time our (Van 2's) rotation was over, it was around 2AM and cold (low 50's/high 40's?) and we headed straight to the next Van Exchange Point (again a school). This time, 4 of us opted to see if we could nap inside the school itself instead of battling the wet and cold grass or trying to sleep in the van. It turned out that $3 each got us a spot of the gym floor. Bargain! We walk into the darkened gym and there are perhaps 10 or 15 people spread out along the wall. We pick a spot under the volleyball nets in the middle. Lay down, set an alarm for 5AM, and I'm asleep almost instantly. At the appointed hour my phone is buzzing and I look around to find myself surrounded by other runners - the gym is packed. So packed that I have to carefully thread my way in between the sleeping bodies that are literally inches apart to get to the door.

One of the complications/challenges that we had was that as we made our way through the Adirondacks was that cell service was minimal at best. And we needed a cell signal in order to communicate with each van so that runners would be ready at the designated transition point. During our short nap time, Van 1 was in the "dead zone". But from previous messages we were aware that they were running early (we were beating our anticipated times like crazy) and we had a reasonable guess as to when Jon, the guy I would take over from, would come running into the transition zone.

My last leg of 5 miles or so was along the Algonquin River. I lucked out with being able to run as the sun started to rise and it was awesome. This is kind of a crappy picture, but hey hopefully you get the drift (I took it while running...). The sun was just starting to burn through the fog and mist and the view was spectacular. You can just see a guy in front of me that I was catching up to. With that run complete, I was done, I had run 3 legs for a total of 15.1 miles and it felt great! I could have done more, but grateful at the same time that I didn't have to.

The next 5 legs that Van 2 had were all brutal - all hilly, all going up. Bruce had an almost 400 ft consistent vertical climb over less than a 2 mile stretch right out of the gate, a rolly couple of miles, finishing with another ridiculous climb. In Van 1, Daniel had a 700 ft climb in 2 miles that was so tough that runners for that leg received a special medal! By the way, after reaching the peak, Daniel had a 700 ft drop in a bit over half a mile - that would have destroyed my quads. Tough guys, they are. Richard finished the race off for us with a 7.6 anchor leg that was super hilly and going up all the time (remember we're making our way to Lake Placid... ski country, so it's all up, not much down). You can see from the elevation chart just how challenging this thing was.

The awesome news is that we finished in 28 hrs, 6 min 12 seconds, putting us 52nd in a field of 277. From the group picture at the finish line you can tell how thrilled we were to be done! The winning team finished in 21:58:06, a blistering average pace of 6:48 min/mile. In addition, since we were mostly a gang of over 50 year-olds, we were 2nd in the Masters division. We missed first place in the Masters by a team called The Fast, the Slow, and the Ugly by 4 hrs and 26 minutes. Oh well.

But the even more awesome news is what this group of guys does for fund raising. Since they started running relay events 10 years ago, they have been fund raising for the American Cancer Society. This year this group raised over $60,000. Over the last 10 years, the group has surpassed $500,000 for the ACS. Totally awesome.

Once again, this was an incredible experience, so different than the road races that I am more accustomed to. It required a lot of organization, mostly on the part of our team captain Jerry, who did a monumental and stellar job getting us into the event, filling all the slots, ensuring that we had a place to sleep, the van's, pre-race dinner reservations, and coordinated getting everyone's arrival and departures. This is a great group of guys and I hope to be invited to participate with them again! It was a blast. Many thanks to them.

Next up: Ft DeSoto HM Oct 30.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Running is hard, but is it fun?

What is it about running that we do it? We run endless miles, we sweat, we exhaust and injure ourselves, and yet we keep doing it. Why?

There was an article in the July, 2016 issue of Runners World by Jonathan Beverly titled "Pleasure and Pain" (I can't find a link to it - I'll add it when I finally find one) where he explored to concept of whether or not running was supposed to be fun or something else. The article starts out with a co-worker, having learned that he had recently run a 10K event, asked him if he had had fun. And that's where it starts. Are we having fun running?

I like running, but does that make it "fun". The word "fun" doesn't sound like the right description - I think perhaps "rewarding" might better describe it.

When I think of "fun", I'm conjuring up something that won't hurt me or exhaust me. Maybe even make me laugh. Do we have fun when we go to the gym and push a bunch of weights around? Kind of the same thing, isn't it? It's not "fun", but yet it feels good. But maybe feeling good is what "fun" is...

When my non-runner friends ask me why I run, I feel that I have to justify my activity. They aren't runners mostly because it requires a level of effort that they aren't prepared to make - they may have tried it in the past and discovered that it wasn't "fun" in a traditional sense, but never persevered to the point of feeling the "reward" for having done so.

So I wind up having a variety of explanations:
- It's an excellent cardio/vascular exercise
- It helps me unwind
- It helps me manage my blood pressure
- It helps me manage my blood sugar levels
- It's "me" time
- and so on...  and not once do I mention that "it a fun thing to do...".

I run because I enjoy the effort and the motion of running, but probably my favorite part is the feeling afterwards. I love that flush feeling that results from the recovery from being exhausted. It's like an internal glow.

And perhaps all runners need to confess that running is, at least a little bit, masochistic. I quite frankly have no other way to explain why I would run a bunch of miles in hot, humid weather and then look forward to doing it again the next day.

Jonathan Beverly mentions runner Mark Rowlands in his article and a hill that Rowlands liked to run, if for no other reason than to prove to himself that he still could. Do to do so was a sense of accomplishment, while realizing that one day, the hill would win. Accomplishing that feat (beating the hill) made it "fun" for him.

I've never won a race, and while it is likely that I never will, I don't stop trying, if for no other reason than the fact that I believe that I could win. As Beverly writes, I will push myself beyond my body's distress signals for no other reason than satisfying my internal determination to try. And for some crazy reason in my head, I like that and repeat this effort time and time again. So because I do it, and because I choose to do it repeatedly, does that make it "fun"?

So I think that the short answer to all this is Yes. Yes, it is fun because we find it rewarding, and in that reward we find pleasure, and so therefore, if we find it pleasurable, ergo, it is "fun".
'Nuff said...

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Fighting a Pre-Diabetic condition - and trying to run

Being a runner and suddenly being diagnosed pre-diabetic posses some interesting challenges, especially since I have sustained my running almost entirely on carbs. Carbs have been my best friend. Yet, six months ago I was informed by my doc that my A1c level over the course of a year had increased to 6.2, firmly making me "pre-diabetic". In consideration that there is a growing population with this issue (rising blood glucose levels), I thought others, and in particular other runners, might be interested in what I’ve learned, what steps I've taken, and the current results.

Summary for the impatient: In the 6 months since that last blood test I’ve been able to lower my A1c from 6.2 to 5.9. I'm still in the "danger zone", but at least I'm only 2% off normal instead of 3% off being full blown diabetic. Progress.

I changed what I ate, how I ate it, exercised like a demon (aerobically and anaerobically), and I took a Vitamin D supplement daily. I don’t know if one thing or a combination of any of them did it, but now my goal is to get it below 5.7 (the magical threshold to being labeled “Normal”). While I am excited to be at 5.9, I also realize that one blood test does not success make… but it is a positive step in the right direction.

My doc informed me in early October 2015 that I was officially "pre-diabetic" with an A1c reading of 6.2. At 6.5 I would be "diabetic" and my doc alluded to various things which didn’t sound attractive to me. Unfortunately, our health care system being what it is, it seems to not allow our primary care providers with the flexibility or the time to discuss the "what now" guidelines. My doc gave me her diagnosis, some very general guidelines, and I was basically left to figure it out.Notwithstanding, the prospect of being diabetic scared me enough that I took my condition seriously.

At the very top of this is the fact that I don't think that I fit the profile of a person who might be prone to diabetes. To begin with, there is no history of diabetes in my family. I'm 5'10, weigh in at around 159 lbs soaking wet, have very little body fat, I do not eat sweets and unhealthy food, and am very active. I don’t sit at a desk, I run anywhere from 20 to 30+ miles per week, I bike, I kayak, I do a lot of physical work…. You get the drift: there isn’t much grass growing under my feet. I just can’t see myself fitting into the profile of a diabetic – I could be all wrong, but that’s my illusion…

Immediately after my docs’ diagnosis I went into "pre-diabetic crisis mode". Without any guidance other than that carbs and sugars were bad, I cut out carbs almost entirely and developed an eagle eye for the sugar content in everything. I love ice cream - no more ice cream. I like my coffee strong and sweet - no more sugar.  I concentrated on proteins, selected fruits and veggies, and any carbs that I ate had to be complex carbs. I avoided anything that was "processed", came in a bag, and read nutritional labels fanatically.

Immediately after starting this new food routine I lost weight (6 lbs, maybe more?) in 8 to 10 days.  And I had no energy. I couldn't run a mile without slowing to a walk.  But it all kind of made sense to me: no carbs, no glucose, no glycogen, no energy.  In my old world, carbs were my best friend: carbs = glycogen = energy and endurance.  I kept pushing my runs, assuming that my body would figure out where to get the necessary fuel to convert to glycogen in order to sustain a run, but was unable to find it or adapt to it.  It was horrible and frustrating. As a result of all this I had to back out of a series of half marathons that I had hoped to run during the Florida winter running season.  If I couldn't run 3 miles, I clearly was not going to make it through three 13.1 mile events. Bye-bye entry fees....

In desperate need of help and full of frustration, I wandered into the offices of the resident nutritionist/dietitian at a nearby Publix supermarket and met Anastasia - and I cried for help. I am certain that Anastasia thought I was a nut case. I explained my predicament, lack of knowledge, my running goals, and so on, and in return she took me through her process of examining my food and fluid habits and activities performed. I explained my running goals and my frustrations in achieving them due to my urgent need to address the pre-diabetes diagnosis. After a couple of consults she came back with two key things: 1) I was not consuming anywhere close to enough calories and carbs to sustain my level of desired activity (duh on me), and 2) she taught me that I could eat carbs (preferably complex carbs) but that for every 18g of carbs that I ate, I had to also have 8g of a protein (more on this below). In other words combine carbs with proteins.

She also gave me heads up (and I confirmed this with my own secondary research) that 10% of the male population that is taking a statin will experience elevated blood glucose levels. That last item threw me for a loop – because I had been on statins for a long time (over 10 years), but had stopped taking them about 4-5 months prior to my last blood test (my doc didn’t advise me to, I just decided to stop taking the statins for a totally separate reason). Perhaps more importantly, I have not found any documentation that discusses that the high blood glucose level caused by statins is reversible by not taking the statins. It turns out that this is a known possible side effect, and part of the balancing act for managing LDL.

Meanwhile, I began to follow the dietary guidelines that Anastasia recommended – and it was pretty simple actually. Carbs are ok as long as I concentrate on complex carbs. For every 18g of carbs, I made sure to also eat at least 8g of protein. Stay away from pre-packaged and over-processed foods. Don’t eat junk food. For example, a meal might include whole wheat pasta or brown rice and almost any protein (beef, chicken, turkey, fish, etc…). I scrutinize labels of any packaged food (i.e. canned or jar foods) for the one’s that have the least amount of added sugars. If the label had ingredients that I couldn’t understand or pronounce I’d toss it and look for another. I found that in the morning  anything works as breakfast, as long as I follow the 18g carb/8g protein rule, i.e. multi-grain or whole wheat toast with hard boiled eggs, cheese, turkey, or peanut butter, etc., works fine. If I ate out (which happens a lot), avoid the crap food, focus on the veggies, fresh fish, and simple entrĂ©e’s. No french fries!

And as would be expected, now that I was ingesting some measure of carbs and more calories, I was able to run again. So that sort of solved that problem, but I was still concerned about lowering my blood sugar. Anastasia assured me that as long as I stayed away from simple carbs, made sure that I balanced out the carbs with a protein, and kept my activity levels up, I would see my blood glucose levels and my A1c readings go down. I have to tell you that I was running on faith.

So, for those of you that don’t know and are curious, I’ll explain what the relationship is between carbs, proteins, and digestion. As a runner, you already understand the difference between a simple and a complex carb. Simple carbs convert to glucose much faster than complex carbs. It’s that simple. And for a guy like me, simple carbs will cause sugar spikes that my system does not manage very well. Complex carbs obviously also convert to glucose, but do so much slower.  And here is where the protein part of the diet fits in. Proteins tend to slow down the entire digestive process, thereby delaying the introduction of any carbs into my intestinal system. Fats slow the process down even more so, which is one reason why peanut butter is a go-to bread topping. So by slowing down the digestive process, I’m smoothing out sugar spikes and (hopefully) allowing my system to process the glucose. [Side bar here: I’m still researching if it makes a difference if I take in the proteins first, at the same time, or after I eat the carbs…]

Ok – one more piece of the puzzle: insulin.  We’ve all heard of it. It is produced by our pancreas. Insulin is the magical hormone that we have to have in order to process and absorb the glucose in our bloodstream into something useful. If our bodies don’t do that, then bad things happen to other organs, so this is important. In my case, my system is a somewhat “insulin resistant”. In other words, my pancreas is producing insulin just fine; it's the rest of my system that is somewhat less than receptive about using the insulin the way it is is supposed to. Ok, that sucks…   More so since apparently my use of statins may have helped bring that about. Wonderful.

But Anastasia gave me another little clue that was interesting: It turns out that low levels Vitamin D play a role in insulin resistance. My most recent Vitamin D level was tested two years ago and it came in at 32 ng/mL, and apparently it should range between 30 and 100 ng/mL, putting me at the low end of the scale. I kind of thought that was odd since I spend a lot of time outside, but I’ve learned that the copious amounts of sunblock that I put on to ward off sun damage can limit the amount of Vitamin D absorbed. Interesting stuff. And so, you guessed it, I started taking a Vitamin D supplement. My doc doesn't put too much credence on the Vitamin D effect, and referred to new studies that put the normal range to somewhere between 20 and 50 ng/mL. Food for thought... I'm going to stay on it through to my next blood test though.

By figuring out what I could eat and how to combine it all together (carbs and proteins), I was able to train up for the last Half Marathon of the FL season (at least one that was near me). I was coming from behind with regards to my endurance training and was simply hoping to cross the finish line vertical and preferably running. As it turns out that event was a Personal Best for me, finishing a full minute faster than my previously best HM. I ran hard and as strong as I dared. But I should also note that it helped that the course was pancake flat and the temperature was in the perfect low 50’s! This was the first time that I’ve ever run a HM in conditions as perfect as these were.

I was concerned about using GU during my runs and trained without it. But Anastasia had assured me that it would be ok to suck down GU’s while running since my body would be begging for easy fuel and would literally want to suck all available glucose out of my blood stream, i.e. any sugar that I took in would be immediately put to use.  So on race day I sucked down one at mile 4.5 and another at mile 9. I have to tell you that the GU made me feel like Superman – it gave me a serious lift. I actually felt that I could have run harder, but was afraid to out-run my conditioning; I simply had not had enough time to train and condition. As it was, my legs were burning when I crossed the finish line.

My focus now is to get my A1c below 5.7 and I'm tuned into what I eat, how I combine those foods, plenty of workouts, and of course, my Vitamin D. To make that happen I am trying to amp up my activity levels while at the same time limit my carb intake. For example, since the HM I’ve been doing my 5 mile runs in the AM without having anything to eat prior – it is hard, really hard - and by the end of the run I am definitely running on fumes, but my illusion, in my head, I am imagining all those little glucose molecules being vacuumed out of my blood stream. I am also trying to be very conscious of the 18g carb/8g protein ratio, and err on the side of protein. This is somewhat easy when we cook at home, but when going out for dinner, it gets a bit more difficult – but doable.

The punch line to all this is that I’m convinced that one or all of the things that I did (what food, how prepared/combined, exercise, and Vitamin D) positively affected my situation. It's all intertwined. As I mentioned earlier, I realize that one good blood test does not a life make, but I am forging on…

My final comment on this is that it has not been hard to eat a specific diet, take a Vitamin D pill, and exercise, but rather that it seemed really, really hard for me to get the right information with regards to what to do, what to eat, what to avoid. With so many people with this kind of condition, this information and steps to take should have been readily available. I'm hoping that this post will provide others in this situation with at least a bit of guidance and encouragement!

Meanwhile, in 6 months I’m looking forward to reporting an A1c level of less than 5.7! Right now my next step is to look for a 10K event to run. Maybe even another Marathon next year!?

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Ft De Soto Half Marathon aka Florida Beach Halfathon

This was a Half Marathon run at the Ft De Soto Park at the most southern tip of Pinellas County, Florida (Tampa Bay area).  The official name for this event is the "Florida Beach Halfathon". The park itself is mostly known for some awesome beaches – they really are spectacular.  The course ran mostly on a cement recreational trail with a little bit through a parking lot, thereby negating the need to close off streets. Best off all, it was pancake flat.

643 runners toed the starting line for the HM.  I managed to finish 190th overall and 9th out of 22 in my gender age group with a 1:57:54 chip time (9:00 min/mile pace).  Given some recent challenges, my goal was mostly to just cross the finish line, but I was realistically hoping for anything less than a 2:11:00 finish (that’s a 10:00 min/mile pace…). 

But I need to back up a bit….  Six months ago my doc labeled me as “pre-diabetic”, i.e. my A1c was 6.2 at my last blood draw, and I put myself on severe carb and sugar restrictions.  This of course totally whacked my ability to run; I wasn’t able to run a mile without stopping to walk. I had no juice. I dropped out of 3 HM’s that I had hoped to run this season – how could I run them if I couldn’t even go 3 miles? Long story short: I met with a nutritionist/dietitian who schooled me on my diet, particularly in consideration of my desired physical activities (I’ll probably discuss all this after my next blood draw and I have some quantifiable data as to the results or effects, if any, of my diet). In addition to my diet issue, I was also working on rehabbing a piriformis muscle pull (see earlier post – good fun!), and while much better, has continued to linger. But with the Florida running season coming to a close, I really wanted to run a HM and this particular event was the last one within a reasonable driving distance. So I signed up realizing that it may not be a memorable run, but at least I would give it a go.

When I first looked at the course I noticed that the first three miles are a loop through a picnic area and then back through the starting area again before shooting out to the extremes of the park – and I kind of grimaced at that…  I was concerned that the first three miles would crowded going through that picnic area and basically repeating parts of the course. But in reality, there was no problem, there was plenty of room to run, and I didn’t pay that much attention to the fact that I was running through the Start area again. I remember one event, the Detroit HM, going over the Ambassador Bridge, where we were so crowded that we were barely jogging 6 or 8 abreast up the bridge with no room to pass anyone. In comparison, this event was a piece of cake.  Once we finished that 3 mile loop it was about a 10 mile out-and-back shot along the very flat recreational trail.

I made an effort to properly prep for this event – I ran as many long runs as I could fit into my schedule topping out at a 14 miler. I was hoping to condition my legs (and my piriformis muscle) to the distance and train my body to run with a lower carb intake. The latter was the hardest. My legs were fine, but my energy levels sucked. As a result, my pace was nothing short of horrible. On my last 14 mile run, I averaged a 10:10min/mile pace… thus my low expectations.

The day before the event, instead of “carb loading” as I have done for previous distance events, I simply substituted fresh baked white bread for a sandwich (I’d been on whole wheat or multi-grain, i.e. complex carbs) and had pita bread with dinner… nothing crazy…  On race day morning, at 4AM I had a hardboiled egg and a peanut butter sandwich on white bread.  I got there early enough to loosen up and stretch. An hour prior to the start I took 3 Speed Legs tablets, and then 30 minutes prior, downed a 5hr Energy shot. I hit the port-a-potty, ran some sprints to warm up, did the usual shoe lace tightening – loosening thing, found a spot in the back of the starting area and sat down to wait for the start. I was ready.

This is a pic pre-start - and you can see that we are all a little chilly. I'm in this picture, but you can't see me because I'm way back plus I'm sitting on the pavement. The sun is just starting to break the horizon and it is a beautiful, clear, day. 

I anticipated that my first mile to be slow, somewhere in the 10min/mile range, but with all the hype and the perfect temperature (it was high 50’s) I ran it in 9:24. Mile 2 was 9:19. The next 10 miles were all sub 9 minute miles (8:41 to 8:57). 

The picture to the right is just before the mile 8 turnaround. Very scenic... the Sunshine Skyway Bridge is to the right, but out of view in this pic...

I think this pic (left) is around mile 10 or 11 - I'm in a good stride and feeling pretty strong. I did Gu at around mile 4.5 and again around mile 9. I tried to time it so that I could chase it with some water at an upcoming aid station, and that worked out really well. I considered sucking down another Gu around mile 11, but I was getting too much of a sugar-belly and I didn’t want more discomfort than necessary. However, at mile 12 I started to feel the twinges of a leg cramp, probably due to the fact that I should have run more miles in training (i.e. lack of conditioning) And having learned my lessons the hard way, I backed off, breathed deep, altered my gait, and loped in at a 9:something pace. I so did not want to have to come to a halt due to a debilitating leg cramp, not only because it would have cost me a bunch of time, but because it really hurts!  So I nursed myself in, even being ok with the fact that I got passed in the last few feet of the race (something I hate to have happen…), simply because I was thrilled to have run this HM much better than I ever expected. I crossed the finish line under 2:00 hrs. Totally thrilled! Legs were burning as a result of the effort, but thrilled!

Immediately after finishing I made my way to the beach (about 100 yards from the finish line), lost my shoes and socks, and walked into the cold Gulf of Mexico. What an awesome feeling!  My legs , ankles, and feet loved it! It was probably the best thing that I could have done. I don’t think that even a massage would have felt better.

Ok – that that was fun and it was great…  What’s next? With Florida summer soon upon us, distance events are rare. We have some 10K’s and I’d like to sign up for some. More importantly, I am anxiously waiting for my blood test results to see if my diet efforts have had an effect on my blood sugar levels. That is really what is next….

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Piriformis is a pain

Image from Sports and Spine Rehab
Piriformis Syndrome is literally a pain in the ass. Really.

There is a muscle that runs kind of sideways and crossways across our hips that helps control the swing and general action of our hips. And apparently if you aggravate it, it can cause all kinds of discomfort. To make matters worse, it runs very close to the sciatic nerve and can make that very unhappy too, leading to a lot of general unhappiness all the way around.

I didn't even know what it was but the effects of "Piriformis Syndrome" started bugging me over two years ago (2013). I noticed it mostly when driving - my right butt/hip would ache. If I had to drive a long distance I would become very uncomfortable and I'd have to stop regularly to stretch. It didn't bother me during my MCM marathon training, but it was there. Then, about a year later it started to affect my sciatic nerve, and I just thought it was a leg issue. I learned a few stretches that helped, and for the most part tried to ignore it.

Late this summer, August of 2015, along with an ankle issue, my pain-in-the-butt thing got worse - really uncomfortably so. It was a sharp, focused pain deep in my butt cheek whenever I tried to do speed work. And I still didn't know what it was. It was only by accident that I finally stumbled on what my issue was by reading a lot of posts on the forum.

That started the process of getting myself rehabilitated and repaired (or is it repaired and rehabilitated?). And it's a long process before full happiness ensues...

I've learned that Piriformis Syndrome can be brought about by either too much sitting or too much running (on hard surfaces). Well, I don't sit very much, and while I run a lot, I don't think that I qualify for "running too much". So what else? It turns out that weak glutes and/or ankle issues can also contribute to Piriformis Syndrome - and while I didn't think that I had weak glutes, it is certainly a possibility. And I certainly have ankle issues (seems to be a recurring issue for me).

So with that in mind, I've begun doing exercises to strengthen my glutes and have some new orthotics for my feet. And I'm experiencing positive results. Lots of lunges. Lots of deep knee bends. I also learned about the "Myrtl Routine", basically a series of exercises that focus on your hips. The Myrtl Routine runs through clams, lateral leg raises, donkey kicks, and so on. Do an internet search for it. Good stuff.

With regards to running, I had to cut down my miles substantially, partly because it hurt, but also because I did not want to cause further damage. My initial focus was two-fold: relieve the discomfort, and to strengthen my glutes and legs.

My morning routine involves a lot of easy stretching, all of them are yoga positions that I've been taught - I'd list the names, but I haven't got a clue. I know that one is called "Pigeon"...?  Deep knee bends, some on toes, some flat footed. More lunges. Donkey kicks and what I call "Kraut walking" (high steps). I also run through a Myrtl Routine.

Unfortunately, as I get older, I loose endurance quickly, so I wind up having to re-build my miles, starting with 2 and 3 mile runs for a while before graduating to 4 & 5 and ultimately 10 and 15 miles. I also lost any element of speed (not that I had a lot...). With a faster pace comes longer strides, which means that I'm stretching out my hamstring, and by connection, the piriformis muscle. I'm having to re-train those muscles to accept the stretch and the muscle turnover tempo.

At this stage, I am still in the 3 mile run stage, and I'm wanting to feel confident and strong before running further and faster. This is running season in FL and the weather is awesome. It is a shame to not be able to take advantage of it! But I I want to run when I'm 88, I better take care of my body while I'm 58.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Mind over matter

At what point are you really tired? Our bodies seem to always be able to do and go just a little bit further, so how can we tell when we're really "done"?

The answer to that is part physical and part mental. Yes, there is the necessary endurance and stamina that comes from training and running many, many miles, but it's the mental part that I think really does it.

We train our bodies to be able to endure many miles and to run at a pace that we want to hit. But physically, things begin to happen, things begin to hurt and get tired. As we chug our way through the miles and as we stress muscles and bones, at least two things start to happen: 1) we start to feel "tired", and 2) something somewhere will start to hurt or ache.

And this is where mind over matter comes in. We start to feel fatigue as a result of the release of lactic acid from our muscles (which is a natural result of the energy release from muscle action). Lactic acid works as a basic signal to the brain to back off the level of exertion. In extreme cases, lactic acid build up will create a sense of nausea, which pretty much forces the body to ease up on the level of exercise intensity.

So the trick here is to recognize that muscles are releasing lactic acid, thus the indications of fatigue, but know that there is still muscle endurance left. It's almost like "ignore that flashing red warning light - full speed ahead!"....  The fine line to consider is being able to recognize when you are truly red-lining your capability and it's time to back off. And where ever that point is, it is different and unique for everyone.

The same holds true with aches and pains that develop during a run. Which ache is normal and which one needs to be tended to RIGHT NOW?  After running a bunch of miles, it's only natural for different parts of your body to start to complain. You can run through most of them, but you've got to be conscious that there are some that you shouldn't run through. And again, there is no one answer since everyone is unique.

For me, sharp pains are usually not good. Ditto knee discomfort. Knee discomfort at any level is usually a big DO NOT RUN sign for me. But general aches and soreness I can, and will, run through, and oddly enough, they often dissipate before my run is over - sometimes only to bite me in the ass later in the day or the day after... but that's a different story.

For me the key is to focus on whatever my goal is for that day's run. I won't pick a distance that I haven't been adequately or properly been training for; for example if my long runs have been 10-15 miles I won't suddenly decide to do 40 or 50 miles on a given day, but I might do 20... With that goal in mind, I just start grinding through the miles, and as I've probably mentioned in other posts, mile by mile they click off until I'm done. At some point during a long run, something in my body will start to complain and I'll do a kind of "how bad is it" analysis, maybe adjust my stride, slow down, or something, but I'll try to keep running. I used to hate stopping for any reason (hey, the clock is ticking... can't stop for nothing...) -like, I would put up with a loose shoestring or a pebble in my shoe for a long time before I'd force myself to stop to take care of it - really stupid of me...  But I've grown up now (58) and I'll take the time to stop to take care of things so that I can have a better and more productive run.

But as the miles accumulate I find that I have to concentrate harder on maintaining pace and form. As I get tired, my posture can get sloppy, and as it gets sloppy, I'm not running as efficiently as I could. The better my posture, the less likely it is that I'll hurt something else. And this can take a lot of mental effort.

It's hard for me to remember exactly what is going on in my head, but I know that I'm trying hard not to think of how many more miles I have left, but rather focus on running smooth. Of course, I've also gone through runs where I'm thinking "5 more miles... "x" more minutes (depending on my pace that day)... if I run faster I'll be done sooner", which can make the end of the run very hard...  To focus on running smooth, I have this mantra that I think I picked up from Arya in Game of Thrones: "light as a feather, quiet as a millpond"... and I try to translate that into my footfalls, as in "land softly, land gently"...  and not let my feet just "plop" because I'm getting tired and/or my legs/feet hurt.

If I'm really getting uncomfortable, I'll start going through the routine of telling myself that the discomfort that I am currently feeling is temporary and expected, and that it will be over as soon as I cross my designated finish line.

But probably the mental thought that gets me to the end of my run when I'm getting tired and I'm hurting is the thought that I've not yet completed the goal that I set for myself that day. And only when I hit that mile number, whatever it may be for that day, do I feel like I can stop to lick my wounds.

I do find it interesting that we as humans can develop our muscles to do amazing things, but it takes that grey mush between our ears to bring it all together... It's pretty amazing!

Friday, May 29, 2015

That long run

As a beginning runner six short years ago, I was very intimidated by the thought of the “long run”. Anything over 3 miles was “long” to me. And it turns out that I was not alone. The punch line here is that my intimidation was only because I knew nothing about endurance training and had absolutely no appreciation for what the human body can accomplish when properly trained and conditioned.

But without a doubt, the mere thought of doing a 10 mile run was daunting to me, never mind doing a 20 miler in prep for a marathon. I might as well have been contemplating a trip to Jupiter. It wasn’t going to happen. How is it that anybody could run that far?  Ultra-marathoners were some kind of super-freakazoids to me. How could I ever possibly run 10, 20 or 26.2 miles, particularly given my very late start to my running career? I was convinced that you had to have been born with a special gene that enabled you to run far and survive it. I was in awe of marathon runners.

It all kind of came together for me after running my second Half Marathon. I finally realized that it was all about the training. I also noticed the numbers of runners that participated in these HM’s – and they came in all different shapes, sizes, and abilities. They weren’t all “super-athletes” – they were normal guys and girls living ordinary lives. Some were older than me (a helpful omen), most were younger, some were heavier than me, and so on… and for the most part, they all were able to go the distance, albeit some faster than others. It seemed possible for mere sub-mortals like me to run distance.

However, having said all that, I was only slightly prepared to accept the necessary training plan for my first marathon. As I reviewed my plan and realized the reality of how many miles I was going to have to run to build up my endurance, my reaction was: “I’m going to do what??!!”  No way. It’s not possible.

As it turns out, it’s not really so bad. Those long runs turn out to be (almost) a piece of cake, and I actually look forward to them.  Three reasons:

First of all, I didn’t have to jump from running 3 miles to doing 12 or 18 miles -  
The training plan edged me up mile by mile – there was no surprise and I had slowly built up the endurance to do so. So when the day came for me to do longer and longer runs, I actually had the ability to do it. Three miles became 6, became 9, became 14, and so on. This of course, was the point of the training plan. Improve endurance, get stronger, build stamina, run further ….  Amazing how that works, eh?

Secondly, I found that the miles just click by.  I get myself into a groove and just chug. It literally involves getting myself into a mental state of accepting the fact that I am going to run “x” miles today – that’s my mission, that’s my goal, and I’m going to accomplish that goal. Period. Having arrived at that “mental state”, I just go, and yes, the miles just click by… And I like it!

Thirdly, that feeling that I get after completing that long run is awesome –
Really - it is a feeling of tremendous satisfaction. I may not have the opportunity to tell anyone that I just ran some silly distance, but inwardly and to myself I’m wearing a sly self-satisfying grin. And there is no better feeling. This is something that only another runner would understand.

I do, however, have a few requirements for my long runs:
a)      The route needs to be interesting or at least attractive (no highways or traffic),
b)      If I’m running solo (which I usually do when going long) I need to have good music or a good podcast,
c)       It’s important that I anticipate my fuel and hydration needs and prepare for handling them accordingly. Most of the time I carry everything I need, which can be a pain, but it’s also amazing how good it feels to be self-sufficient.

I’ve done most of my long runs as early in the morning as I can get myself up for, as close to first light and sunrise as possible. In fact the best time is before dawn, when there is barely a hint of the sun coming up. I do this mostly just because I like the freshness of dawn and the fact that there are so few people out and about at that time of day. It’s calm and quiet, and the day is new. But I do it early also so that I have time to recover afterwards and still be able to do things later in the day with my family.

The first half mile is always the hardest for me, probably because I’m not 20 years old anymore and so it takes a little while for me to get loosened up. And then once I get past the first mile I get myself into a zone and I am able to just chug, and the next thing I know I’m at mile 10 or something. 

For my long runs my preference is to pick a circular route. Ideally, I have never run that route before which makes it a bit of an adventure. Alternatively, and actually more realistic, are out-and-back routes… in other words run a bunch of miles out, turn around and run back. The tough and good part about out-and-backs is that once I get to the turn-around spot, the only way to get home is to run all the way back to my truck… so there is a pretty good incentive to get it done. Then finally, there is the multiple loop routine, which fortunately I’ve only done a few times. While prepping for the 2013 Marine Corp Marathon I did a 6 mile loop 3 times so that I could get 18 miles in, and it really fell into the category of “work” – it was no fun and I got no pleasure out of doing it.

I do find that I negotiate with myself about the distance, like for example I’ll tell myself that in 3 miles I can suck down a GU or a banana, or in another mile I can turn around and head back, or I’ve only got 5 more miles to go, so if I run faster I’ll be done sooner, and so on! I never think about the time, i.e. how long I’ve been running, only the distance. The amount of time that I’ve spent on my feet doesn’t register with me until later, which helps me explain away why my feet might hurt. I do remember situations where I’ll promise myself a extra long Epson-salt foot soak, or (ever since my wife introduced me to it) promise to take myself to get a pedicure. [Side note here: my first time was after a particularly hard 19 mile run my wife encouraged me to go with her for a pedicure and I absolutely loved it – it was the best thing that I could have done for myself and I highly recommend it!]

The only caveat I have with long runs, particularly in prep for a marathon, is that I’m convinced that running for longer than 3 hours, or at the max 3:30 hours, is not beneficial.  I’ve done several 4hour runs because I was sure that I needed to be “able” to do it, but the truth is that those runs just beat the crap out of me. Recovery was tough, and I’m not sure that I actually helped myself or improved by conditioning.

The punch line here is that you shouldn’t be intimidated by that long run. It’s an adventure that you’ve been preparing for and now you are going to prove to yourself that you are good for it. The feeling afterwards is very satisfying and confidence building. When someone asks what you did this weekend you can say that, yeah you mowed the lawn, went to a party/dinner, and oh yeah by the way, also ran 15 miles…