"Never be limited by other people's limited imaginations. If you adopt their attitudes, then the possibility won't exist because you'll have already shut it out." -Mae Jemison, astronaut

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dear India, Thanks for the Uncertainty

Trying to weave a coherent, sequential story out of my 2 weeks in India is like trying to drive a car whilst focused only on the side view mirror. When you're driving, you're in a highly spatial state, doing many things seemingly at once - braking, checking mirrors, talking, listening to the radio, steering.... Similarly, India happens spatially. And if you try to force sequencing on it, well, it's just that. Forced. The result will be some sort of discomfort, if not downright angst or grumpiness. India plays with all things sequential, serial, linear, and ordered like a cat plays with a grasshopper.

So with that in mind, here is my non-sequential story of my 2 week visit to Arunachal Pradesh, a state in remote north-east India, bordering Bhutan, Tibet, and Burma.
The course along the Siang River (called Brahmaputra river further south)

Organic and sustainable. The jungle is alive. And far more than with mosquitoes, leeches, and biting flies, it is alive with wild guava, mandarin oranges, bananas, and other manner of organic jungle food I've no English names for. Seeds are harvested and planted and the cyclical nature of Earth's seasons is at the forefront.

Hanging bridges. An excitement for foreigners, a routine lifeline for villagers.

Borders are for governments. In the furthest north, the currency was still rupee - if I could find a place to spend some - but the Tibetan greetings of Tashi Deleg were common.

Plastic has no place. In the jungle, everything is made naturally. The cups are bamboo, plates are banana leaves, cutlery is fingers. Take away? No problem, banana leaves fold up perfectly into "sandwich bags." Baskets, chairs, fences, gates, and ladders are made of woven, interlaced, and fitted straw and bamboo. When I wanted a "foam roller," one was fashioned out of a large, smooth piece of bamboo in minutes. One becomes acutely aware of any plastic wrappings in a place like this. The one thing these people have never had to create in the past is a rubbish bin.
Being served lunch in a home after day 1

Calcutta is not India. Nor is Mumbai or Trivandrum or Dharamsala or Arunachal Pradesh. India is vast and varied.

India is spiritual. You're as likely to be asked your religion as how many children you have. It's the kind of place where your Muslim driver joins you and your Indo-Tibetan Buddhist guide on a 3-day Buddhist trekking pilgrimage. Where you could utter a prayer at a meal to Ganesh, Allah, Jesus, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or recite a Buddhist mantra, and no one would bat an eye. Where you can hold a ceremony to put up Tibetan prayer flags and a Hindu family helps.

Tea. I've had the best cups of tea of my life - and some surprising ones - on this trip (Ginger tea is made with milk??) I also came to learn that tea is a luxury in the jungle. You don't gulp it out of giant mugs, looking for the caffeine hit, but savour it like a piece of dark chocolate for dessert.

Everyone's getting along now, but come night time it can get noisy!
Rice. There are more flavours to "plain white" rice and more ways to cook it than I knew. And there are people who never tire in their whole lives of having rice at every meal - breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Offer them a roti or chapati for a change and they'll turn for the rice.

10,000 hours. The adage is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. The 21 (mostly college-age local) men who ran the inaugural 3 day 100 km Run Siang trail race had never trail raced in their lives. They weren't "trail runners." One guy had done a 100 metre race once. But these guys have spent their childhoods navigating the trails than link villages - full of rocks, roots, water, vines, and slippery bamboo bridges. Often barefoot or in flip flops. I reckon several could run technical downhills with some of the world elites. They just need some time to develop endurance for distance and climbing.
They're slippery, especially before morning sun gets to them.

Normal is relative. Day 1 driving on jungle roads, I sat in stunned silence. A single "lane" dirt/mud/water track weaving alongside 70 degree steep cliffs hour after hour. Landslides periodically reclaim the road, causing waits whist heavy machinery digs out a new track. I am unnerved with the knowledge that I have to return via this road (there is only one) in some days' time. But when "some day" comes, I find I have developed a new sense of normal. The track's not so bad. And yes, the cliffs are still at 70 degrees, bridge remains are visible over cliffside, and the heavy machinery is still digging out landslides.
Just waiting for a road to be built.

Trail running fosters community. I've seen it in Perth - trail running creates community. And it was no different in Arunachal Pradesh. These people have never heard of trail running. They've never heard of Killian Jornet, Compressport, or Hammer gels. They've never heard of trail marking or drop bags or aid stations or set courses. There are no radios, no internet, no magazines, and no TVs. Yet given the concepts, they created it - the first trail race in NE India, if not in all of India. Villagers manned tables filled with cooked sweet potato, bananas and oranges from the jungle, sugar cane, and their own local version of something similar to a rice krispie square. They opened their homes to us at night so we could sleep in front of their fires. The same fires they'd wake to stoke at 4.30 am, warming tea and race cakes in banana leaf, so that we could head out to run another 5, 6, or 7 hours over hanging bridges and through jungle, bamboo forest, and rice paddies to where we'd be welcomed by another village for the night. Surely, it was a steep learning curve - like when it had to be explained twice that if you lose the course markings, you have to backtrack and can't simply take any trail you know to the village! :)
Aid station, Sissen village. You won't leave without a sweet potato ;)

Sugar cane, rice and sesame balls, oranges, and ricecake wrapped in banana leaf

Eckhart Tolle wrote "If uncertainty is unacceptable to you, it turns into fear. If it is perfectly acceptable, it turns into increased aliveness, alertness, and creativity."

If uncertainty is acceptable to you, India awaits. Run Siang!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Run Siang

In eight minutes I'm out the door.

It's a 3 day 100km running event in remote north-eastern India. The communities along the Siang River in Arunachal Pradesh wish to raise awareness for their area, in order to help preserve it with community-based development that will allow the people to hold onto their culture and heritage.

I'm thrilled to have been invited and to go back to India for the first time in 15 years.

Siang River 100km Trail Run
24 November - 1 December

Hopefully the result of this initiative will see the event staged as an annual race from next year!

With support from and to:

Future Generations- teaches and enables a process for equitable community change that integrates environmental conservation with development. Future Generations believes that community-based change is a proven alternative path to international development.

Donyi-Polo Mission- provides educational and vocational rehabilitation to the poor and disabled children of Arunachal Pradesh so that the less privileged section of the society may come into the mainstream and lead healthy and productive lives.

Siang Peoples Forum-represent the indigenous people of Siang Belt in Arunachal Pradesh and protect the proprietary right over their land, water and air. At present, the forum is spearheading the public movement against the Govt. of Arunachal Pradesh policy to outlet all water resources to private hydro-power developers.

KickStart Property Solutions

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Bibbulmun Recce Lessons

At the end of October, I managed to wring some free time out of Google calendar. The plan was to do a three day fast-packing recce trip on the Bibbulmun Track.

To recce what? Well, I've had it in my head to try to break the fastest known time (FKT) for the self-supported end-to-end of the 1,000km trail here in Western Australia. Many people know that 3 years ago I broke the "supported" (and overall, as one might expect) record, travelling the distance in 15 days 9 hours+ with my partner as crew. My original plan had been to run self-supported. I like being on my own. It's actually easier on my brain most of the time to be alone. But supported was the way that one played out and I'm glad.
How else to cut weight? I can half that towel. Sleep bag liner was surplus.

Thus, the self-supported FKT has been in my head for a long, long time. The overall self-supported record (and still female record) was Nicki Rehn's 19.5 days, from 2009. However, in November 2012, strong, wise, and experienced ultra runner Andy Hewat from eastern Australia brought that benchmark down to 17 days 9 hours and change. That's what I have to surpass now. Basically, the idea with a self-supported FKT is no crew. You can buy supplies in towns, leave food drops in towns, but can't have anyone specifically out there to meet and help you along the way. There's no cosy bed at night, no one to cook meals or help refill a pack. Pack weight goes up from 1-2kg to about 10kg. You're wearing the same clothes for 2 weeks.

I was hoping a couple months ago to have a go at the FKT right now. But by the time I clicked on Google calendar to block out 20-some days (including lead time and recovery time), I was too late. My diary was too booked up. But after doing my recce, I can only say "Thank goodness!" There's no way I would have succeeded without spending some more time doing recce work.

Here's what I learned.

Day 1. Lesson 1. Your head must be in it. Even in a recce.

My brain was loaded down with work and I wasn't in the best of moods. I asked my partner to drop me on Albany Hwy, about 45 minutes south of home. My plan was to run south towards Collie. 40 minutes into the trip, I realised we're on a totally different highway, headed SW, not SE. The 45 minute drive became 2.5 hours. I decided to get dropped off at Harris Dam, north of Collie, and run north instead. As a result of this stuff up, I lost nearly 2 hours of planned running for the day (based on time of darkness/nightfall).

Arrival night 1 - shelter to myself!
I started running and within minutes felt water dripping onto my calves. I hadn't used this pack in a while and had forgotten the right way to seal the bladder. Fortunately I didn't soak the sleeping bag and other gear.

At 3.5km, I reached the first shelter. Looking down, I saw I hadn't yet turned on my Garmin. Nice. Get your head in the game, girl!

Day 1. Lesson 2. All zips to the side.

At dusk, with about 4k to go, I noticed it was awfully noisy behind me. Ignoring it didn't change things. I finally looked back to see my pack had come open and my drybag of clothes was dangling out, banging with each step. The pressure of a full pack, combined with having the zips meeting at the top centre, caused them to come open. All zips were duly noted from then on to be zipped to one side, not the centre.

Day 1. Lesson 3. Keep in touch with the map.

It got dark before camp. That much I was expecting. But the maps don't always match the distances exactly (small realignments over the years) and a Garmin 310 on a windy route isn't going to give an exact distance, either. I started to second-guess whether I could have missed the turn to the shelter. Getting out my map, I had to try to figure out my position in the dark. I had to use bearing (per my gps) and terrain (topo lines on the map) to sort out where I was. It was a little stressful. Would have been better to stay in touch with the map at regular intervals. There were so many intersecting bush tracks in there that I couldn't reliably say, "Oh, I'm just after this or that intersection."

Day 1. Lesson 4. Wash. No matter how tired you are.

Camp set up in the shelter and feet elevated.
I snugged into my awesome new Sea to Summit Spark Sp II sleeping bag (best buy in a sleeping bag ever!) that I picked up from Mainpeak in Perth. The bag lay upon a Thermarest NeoAir with silver foil top. This was the lightest yet most effective system I've ever had for sleeping in the outdoors. To top it off, I had the Sea to Summit Nano mossie net to shield me from all the nasties. Mostly, it's ticks I have to beware of. But spiders, red ants, scorpions, flies, and other little Aussie creatures can ruin a party, too.

I laid down without washing all the sweat, dirt, sunscreen, and 80% deet off my body. And then I spent the rest of the night sticking to myself, wishing I could crawl out of my own skin, but being too incoherent to wake up properly and go wash.

It was a day for lessons. Good thing it wasn't the real thing.

Day 2. Lesson 1. The Bibb is hard.

I didn't sleep much on night 1 because the rain on the tin roof was so loud. I fell asleep close to dawn, but was still back in my sweaty wet clothes and on the trail by 6.45 am. 12 hours and 58km later, I had done a "triple hut" day and arrived before dark. My back and shoulders were aching. My feet were aching. My hip flexors were so stiff I was walking like John Wayne in a cowboy movie. I had fought the voice in my head all day. "This is so hard. Why are you doing this? Are you prepared to do this for SEVENTEEN days?"

Good Morning, Puffy Face!
At bedtime, I couldn't sleep for the restless and very uncomfortable feeling in my legs. It was a problem in 2011, too. It's a problem after every race, but it doesn't matter to be sleepless for one night. Unless you have to get up and race again. And again. I remembered that cruel feeling from 2011 where I would lay down to rest and my legs would go into restless mode, preventing any sleep at all.

Day 2. Lesson 2. Fat sucks. 

Going so "slowly" by running standards (9min/k+ on flat), with over 10kg on my back (6kg gear, 2kg food, 2+kg water), I figured I could digest quite a bit of fat as fuel. And energy-dense fuels take up less space in the pack. Given I was carrying food for 3 days, the idea made sense. But after Day 1, I never wanted to see cacao again. I couldn't eat any nuts allocated to day 2 until evening. If it means more food drops during the FKT, that's what I'll have to do in order to fuel with more carbs than fat. Me, fat, and running just don't agree.

Day 2. Lesson 3. The end of October is too hot for an FKT.

Night 2. Not keen to bunk with giggly teens in shelter, I rig this up!
Though the days are quite variable and there can be downright cold nights (7-9 degrees) into November, there is too much chance for hot days to do an FKT this late in the year. Day 2 was tough for heat. I was developing a heat rash around my hips. November has historically been peak FKT month and it offers more daylight, but I think I'm better off to swap daylight hours for daytime cool. My sleeping bag and Thermarest combo should provide warmth at night. The early morning starts will be harsh...especially that moment when I have to climb out of the bag and put my wet, sweaty running gear back on again.

Day 2. Lesson 4. Cold peach tea is nice.

I needed a luxury item for night time. Something that would feel a bit rewarding at the end of a long day. But something that also weighed next to nothing. After drinking water all day, I thought I might not be so interested in more plain water at night. And I'm not carrying a stove for hot chocolate. So, peach herbal tea bags were in my food kit and they steeped just fine in Bibb tank water. I could "relax with my cuppa" before bed. Mind games! :)

Day 3. Lesson 1. Superfeet give me super blisters.

I know many multi-day runners who swear by the Superfeet insoles. I wasn't sold on the idea - they have a hard plastic bit under the heel and raise the heel correspondingly. I'm a fairly minimal type runner. The insoles' main aim is supposed to be to support the midfoot/arch. But after two days, my heels were sore and on both nights I had to drain and tape blisters on the medial side of both heels. Day 3 I put the normal Inov-8 insoles back in the shoes and it was lovely. Fortunately, Superfeet back up their product with a guarantee and I should be able to ask for a refund. They're not for me, but I appreciated getting to try them out.

Day 3. Lesson 2. The Bibb is beautiful.

Chew on the logic of this one for a few hours!
And it's much easier to see this at a gentle pace.

I realised that I was running north into a "commitment zone". A commitment zone is my term for a long section of the Bibbulmun with no outside vehicle access. This zone is about 60k long and it was 20k in front of me. To do it would mean I'd run another full 60k day on Day 3 into the zone and still have 20k on Day 4 to get out the other side. Adding the extra time to the outing was going to put a lot of work/life pressure on me. I made the call to stop before the zone. That meant a very short Day 3. Thus, I maximized it by slowing down and "zenning out" a bit. At a relaxed pace, I found it easier to pay more attention to and enjoy the curves of the hills and trails. I took photos of flowers. (There won't be a camera on the FKT.) I smiled and took big breaths of clean air.

When I ran the Bibb in 2011, I said near the end, "The Bibb teaches acceptance." Of all the lessons out there, this is still its most powerful.

Will I go through with the FKT attempt? I still ask myself that!

Gear included:
SPOT Tracker
Ultimate Direction Bandita 20ltr pack
Leki Cressida poles
Sea to Summit Spark SpII sleeping bag
Thermarest NeoAir pad
Sea to Summit Nano mosquito net
Steripen
Garmin 310XT (two) - not workable for two weeks though
Icebreaker Aero 120 t-shirt (x2 - one for camp/sleep)
RaceReady shorts (lots of pockets)
Icebreaker Hike Lite socks
Icebreaker thermals
Icebreaker undies
Perth Trail Series tubie
2Toms Sportshield
LED Lenser SEO7 (+ spare batteries)
Montane H2O jacket (would use their heavier model for FKT)
Ryders sunnies
Inov-8 Roclite 305s (an old model) - want to try x-talons next time
cap, quick-dry towel and toiletries

Monday, October 27, 2014

Posers!

A while back I was listening to a fascinating TED Talk on "power poses" by social psychologist Amy Cuddy. Recently, an article on the same thing passed over my desk.

Anton Krupicka DNF's Nolan's 14, 2013. Not a power position.
And then I watched a quite dramatic shift in running strength and stamina in a mate, after making a comment to them during a big hill climb on a run. The mate had confidence issues. Something most of us, including me, have gone through. That defeating self-talk that goes something like this:

This is stupid. Why am I even here? I'm slowing down the group. They don't want me here. I'm so slow.

I watched the mate climbing the hill, adopting a very hunched over posture, head down, arms limp. I sheepdogged back down, as I typically do if there's someone behind on a group run, and spoke from my heart. Before my brain even registered what, if anything, might be the best thing to say. Seeing that body language was like looking into a mirror in my past and the base brain in me fired up. I can't remember exactly what came out but it was something like, "It's fine to walk, but POWER walk! Use those arms! You're not a zombie!"

Over the past two weeks, I've seen this runner's posture completely transform on runs. When I sheepdog (which seems to be happening less, because I swear they're stronger and faster already), I hear a quiet self-talk, "I am not a zombie!" The arms are swinging and boy, oh boy, there's power! Physical and mental power.

The mind influences the body and the body influences the mind. Amy Cuddy's research showed that individuals who adopted "power poses" for just two minutes increased their testosterone levels (measured in their saliva) significantly, whilst decreasing cortisol levels significantly. Testosterone is essentially our power and dominance hormone. (Yes, even girls have some and it's important to.) Cortisol is a major stress hormone. We want low stress but high feelings of power in our lives. Power, for those squirming in their seats, is not a dirty word. It does not mean coercion or cruelty. Power is simply "the ability or capacity to do something or act in a particular way." It is the ability to influence the course of events.

Power poses are simple. Essentially, think silverback gorilla. Expand, make yourself bigger. Arms wide, feet apart, standing or sitting or laying down.

Wide legged, wide arms. I'm confident. Lost Soul 100 Miler, 2013 (new CR)
Amy Cuddy did not "discover" power poses, but she sure highlighted the important relationship they have to self-confidence, risk-taking, and success (e.g., nailing the job interview). She put data to what Buddhists have been saying for over a thousand years. The mind influences the body and conversely, the body influences the mind. It's not a one-way street.

Since I'm a runner, I love to see how and where science can play at improving my performance. Most generally, how it can improve my FUN (which can relate to performance, yes).

I went back to have a look through my photos from start lines to see whether I could spot any relationship between my pre-race posture, my mindset at the time (recalling how I felt in terms of my race confidence), and my resulting performance. I also had a quick look at a few elite start photos from other races, just to see what other anecdotal information I could find. Naturally, I know I probably have a huge selection bias here, but rest assured I'll be keeping an eye on the postures of my fellow competitors on race morning ;) Whatever you do, don't fold your arms over your body (Anton Krupicka fully admitted going into the 2013 Speedgoat 50k with "an undue amount of competitive angst." Look at the photo below - it shows.) And whatever you do, don't touch or hold your neck with your palm. That's the lowest power posture of all and I'll be onto you!
Speedgoat 50k, 2013, elite field, start line. Spot the winner (even his feet are wide!)

Fake it til you make it. It's real. Be a poser. Give it two minutes before the start of your next race, tempo session, or tough long run.

And when you catch yourself at a low moment during that race or run, force a smile, force a laugh, and lift your head as if a string was pulling you up through the spine and crown of the head. Swing your arms!

I'll leave us with a wonderfully appropriate quote, attributed to so many, that I can't reliably name one:


"It's easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting." 
Practice this pose BEFORE your next challenge :)

Sunday, September 7, 2014

So, Where Are We Going? (After the Lost Soul Ultra)

"So, where are we going?" asks Rolf.

It's 11 am Thursday in Crowsnest Pass, Alberta. Tomorrow at 8 am I am toeing the line of the Lost Soul Ultra (LSU) 100k - it will complete my series there, having done the 50k in 2007 and the 100 Miler in 2013. LSU takes place in Lethbridge, Alberta, two hours east, in the prairie coulees of the Oldman River.

I've stalled as long as possible. Checkout time forced us out of the cabin in the mountains near the border of Alberta and British Columbia (BC). To the west of us lie the gorgeous snow capped Rocky Mountains.
A piper sends us off to the coulees at the start

There's been an awkwardness to our normal pre-race vibe these past few days. Normally, I spend time meticulously calculating splits and visualising all manner of good things for race day. Rolf assists as partner/crew by telling me periodically how fast I look and surmising how my competition has surely overtrained, undertrained, or is simply too weak for me to worry about.

But 8 days ago we landed in Calgary off a European flight - with head colds. I appeared to be making a faster recovery, but had spent 4 nights sleeping upright so I could breathe, partially sacrificing my neck in the process. My heart rate was still at least five points high. Snorking into a piece of paper towel, bottle of beetroot juice beside me, my family laughed at my childlike optimism.

I woke Thursday morning, snorked into a papertowel, and headed out for my usual pre-race sprint. Whilst warming up, I was pleased to see my "easy" pace back below 5 min/k. Shortly after, I horked up a big phlegm ball and tried to ignore that bit of negative information on the state of my health. I also tried to ignore the rapid pace drift. Easy pace went from 4.40 to 4.50 over a kilometre and felt like that trend would continue if I kept running.

Back at the cabin, we packed up, carefully ignoring the topic of the race, now 21 hours away.

So there we were, at the stop sign, poised to turn right towards the race or left to go exploring BC's mountains. I looked in the rearview mirror to see no one was waiting behind me. And then Rolf asked that very practical question. So where are we going?

I answered based on the Principle of No Regret, a principle that has helped me through countless decisions for over a decade now. I imagined the outcome going west, enjoying the Rockies at my own pace. But the principle said, "If you wake up Friday morning and feel fantastic (or even just trick yourself into thinking you do), you'll regret that you didn't try." Going east, I imagined racing poorly or having to withdraw midrace. Much as I tried to shut it out, I imagined the voices of others, criticising me either way.
A "here-goes-nothing" face? Relaxed and ready to have a go.


Thursday night in Lethbridge, instead of a "You look so fast," I got, "Have you packed enough papertowel?" It was meant to be funny - and it was - looking at the irony of the situation I was in. Rolf is my greatest ally, but as he said, he really didn't want to watch an unfair fight.

I ran to feel for the first 7k section and came in right on my projected split time. Alissa St Laurent, female course record holder (11hr49) was just in front. I'd written a plan projecting just over 11 hours. I was quite sure Alissa, unless harbouring injury, was capable of running similar. The next (8k) section had me come in 4 minutes behind projections, but a new hill with extra distance had been added to the course since last year. I was still feeling all right, dancing along the tight and half-times overgrown single track, enjoying it.

The 9.5k third section was where my cold started to catch up with me. Additionally, my shoes were too loose. I try to pick a perfect tension that is tight enough for the start, but loose enough to allow for swelling feet later. However, LSU trails tend towards (short but) brutally steep. My loose shoes aggravated a spot under my left foot that was prone to blistering last year but hadn't bothered me all of 2014. I felt the blister form. During section 4 (16.4k), it popped. For 2k, I fought my brain's desire to run on the left outside of my heel, avoiding contact with the ground. My experience told me that 6k of this - the distance to the aid station - would put me at good risk of a tibialis anterior strain. I had to fight the pain and force myself to land more flat footed. But the blister wasn't my primary problem. I knew I'd get a Compeed on it and it would go silent. The real problem was that my ears were plugged and my throat was full of phlegm. It was like my cold of 4 days ago. Sustainable pace dropped by the kilometre. No one passed me, but I knew my pace wasn't to plan anymore. I knew I had to let it go. The data from the experiment was in. My body wasn't ready to race 100k. Yes, the coach in me had pretty much known the writing was on the wall last week, but the athlete and scientist in me had to get the data.
Looking good...from a distance ;)

At the 40k aid station, I put a Compeed on my foot. I knew I needed to quit. My body was stuffed and when I spoke, I could hear the cold in my voice. I wasn't even on my 100 Mile pace anymore!

My Canadian massage therapist (and a skilled ultrarunner as well), Dave Proctor, came up and suggested I try running a couple more sections, just to be sure. I decided right then I would - but only one more, just to come to terms with it. I wanted to run out my disappointment and my frustration and the tears I felt just under the surface. I wanted to find happiness again - in another way - just being in the moment, fortunate to be running on a beautiful day. I headed out in solitude on the trails, at an "easy head cold" pace. It felt great. For about 2.5k. Then it felt like a heavy duvet blanket was thrown on top of me. I felt how exhausted my virus-fighting body was. I stopped at a bench along the river and sat. I really wanted to be okay with this. A runner came by and I wished him well. It would be other people's day to achieve race goals, but not mine. If I had my phone, I would have called Rolf to come get me. But instead, I had 4.5k to run and walk out. I reached inside and found my inner child. Together, we took on the next 4.5k, stopping to read trail signs, marvel at the river, be chased by dogs, sulk for moments, then weave back and forth across the trail, jumping logs. Rolf met me 400 metres before the aid station, wonderfully ready with my other pack, in case I'd changed my mind. We walked it in and I handed in my timing chips.

Unfortunately, that last bit of time on the trail hadn't quelled my disappointment and frustration. I went out that evening to volunteer for first aid at the HQ transition point, but they were well staffed until 2 am. I was superfluous. Nowhere to assuage my emotions there. At 2.50 am, I woke, dressed, and went out to HQ again. I didn't save anyone's race, I was no one's hero. But I tried to help until 6 am when more vollies came.
Yikes! And I thought I was still feeling good here!

Over the past 18 hours, I have ravenously read Kilian Jornet's "Run or Die." And in there, I found something that explains my unease. Talking about "winning" or "victory," he writes

...the real victory, is what...we can't believe will ever happen despite all the training and will on our part,....[despite] all the thinking and brandishing of calculators, after so many hours of preparation, after so many days of training, of telling ourselves that we can win - or simply finish the race - it is as if something in our subconscious is constantly telling us that it is impossible, that it would be too wonderful, too brilliant, too incredible for it to become a reality. That what we want to achieve is only a dream....Winning...is about overcoming yourself. Overcoming your body, your limitations, and your fears. Winning means surpassing yourself and turning your dreams into reality.

Time for another dream.

So, where are we going?

Monday, August 18, 2014

In it to (Not) Win it

I am a Mountain Man. Though this year, being such a wet one in Europe, I became a Mountain Mud Man. Probably more accurately, a Mountain-Mud Cow-Pie Man. Definitely hard core ;)

View of Mountainman finish line on Pilatus & switchback climb up.
For the first time in Europe, this season I focused not on races, but on running the amazing assortment of mountains at easy pace as I liked. And with a camera! I ran in Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary (okay, mountains are tough to find there, but it's not their fault), and Croatia.

I picked one race. The Swiss "Mountainman." 80k +/- 5000m. I harboured no delusions of winning this "short" race that also doubled as the Swiss national trail running championships (Admittedly, I thought it would be a fun twist to win, but I knew the competition should be young and deep.) But the race suited my time line, was on trails I haven't run, and organised by a company I have never raced with. As an RD of trail events, that last item made it more interesting, as I'm always looking to see how others organise events and for more tips for improving my own events.

Though I've raced a fair number of trails, this one gave me some new experiences, too. I was electrocuted twice. Not bad, considering I must have crossed over 20 fences. I was chased by a calf-biting, barking, snarling farm dog for 500 metres (that's a long time on muddy trail!) I had to take a cable car up Mt Titlis to get to the start of the event. They open it early for runners, before sun-up. It was pretty special being alone in the car, riding up and looking down at the sleeping Swiss village of Engelberg. The race ends on the top of a mountain (Pilatus), so I had to take a 45 minute ride down the world's steepest cog train (45°) after the finish. It was my first race that started with fireworks (Okay, that just startled me... I don't like loud, unexpected noises.)

Jochpass, a few km from the start. Still shiny clean!
I ran through Switzerland's largest moorlands. And being that it has barely stopped raining here this year, I got some VERY authentic moorland running in the Glaubenberg moorlands! The definition of a moor, in case you were wondering how it differed from a marsh? A moor is a "tract of open, peaty, wasteland, often overgrown with heath, common ... where (soil) drainage is poor. " Essentially, there were km's of bogs with some boardwalk sections made mostly of half metre logs plonked on the ground side by side. Sometimes completely submerged. Always wet and with various amounts of mud on them. Cows don't seem to mind moorlands. I ran through so much cow poo my shoes must be bio hazards. I was up to my knees a few times in the unique Swiss poo-mud. Naturally, the one time I dropped a pole, the handle landed in a cow pie. Another time, taking an oozing step that sucked the shoe off my heel for the 34th time, a blob of poo-mud hit my face. I could only laugh. (A stifled, closed mouth laugh, in the interests of health and safety, of course.)

My "race" was over within the first 5k. Still, I know I couldn't have caught the lead women. The pecking order was sorted very quickly, with three Swiss girls out front. I sat in fourth for the next 75k. In the last 5k + 900m climb to Pilatus, I was passed by the former Coast to Kosci record holder, 42 year old Swiss ultra runner Julia Fatton. I didn't have enough left in the legs or carb stores to take her on, but I kept the gap to three minutes over the 100 minutes it took us to climb Pilatus :) She was the only person who passed me in the last 20k. Go Julia!

Quarantined!
When I say my "race was over" early, what happened was I quickly had confirmed to me that my watering eye problem is no better since my surgery in March. The tear ducts that were enlarged are still too tiny. My eyes watered non stop in the cold, worsened by wind (as when running downhill). So I had constant blurry vision until after lunch time except for the few seconds each time I dabbed them with my "tubie" (aka buff). I lost so much time on the descents, particularly. I only fell once, though, which isn't bad given the muckfest :)

I'll be heading back for a second surgery. I need functional eyes. My eyes "cry" even at home in Perth on cold mornings. Though surgery won't happen in time for the Lost Soul Ultra in Canada next month. Anyone ever run with swimming goggles?

Things I did wrong: Too much salty food the day before, which I know causes me to guzzle and retain water. A mistake I haven't made for four years. This was the result of complacence due to racing away from home with no ability to buy my usual foods or to cook. It made me feel bloated and messed up my carb intake. Mistake 2: forgetting my little Perpetuem mix bottle to make multi-hour bottles, so I only had 2 Perpetuem Solid containers and 7 Hammer gels in my overseas fuel stash. I was vastly under-fueled for quality stuff and had to resort to aid station food. Boo. High sugary sweet gluten yuck that had me up and down in energy levels (Bananas were okay, though it started to feel like I was eating my weight in them.) Still making mistakes after all these years. Tsk tsk.
Closing in on the finish with "Nearer and Further," my trusty poles.

Things I did well: Fixomul on the toes with Sport Shield roll-on over the feet and anti-blister powder in the socks. My second race with not the tiniest toe/foot issue. A winning combo. Another winner was my little gaiters (I wasn't dumping my shoes out like others.) And Inov-8 x-talons are in their element in mud bogs and wet grass! I also "wowwed" at the scenery... Though the race was in the category of Brutal-Fun, I made sure to look up and look around lots, watching for peaks to appear between the clouds and watching farmers move their docile Swiss-bell-laden cattle. Surely off to poo some more on the trails.

Having my mum there was icing on the Swiss mud cake.

Time to go to Canada, where the poo is bears' and the bells are on the hikers.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Fast Packing the Dolomites: A Blogumentary

Preface

I left Perth at the beginning of July and over the first three weeks of the month, was fortunate to run an amazing assortment of mountains. These included:

The highest peak in Slovenia (Triglav, 2864m) and the highest peak in Hungary (Kekes, 1014m).
Descending Triglav (Slovenia)

I got to the highest point possible for unaided runners/hikers on Austria's highest mountain (Grossglockner, 3798m), reaching Oberwalder hut, 2973m.

I ran the highest peak in the Gorski Kotar range of Croatia (Risnjak, 1528m). Crotia should be known for friendly people, but not high mountains. Same for Hungary :)

In Slovakia, I ran one of the two highest peaks possible unaided - Mt Krivan, 2495m, supposedly something every Slovak should do once in their lifetime. (The highest peak in Slovakia requires a guide and is Gerlachovsky stit, 2654m).

In between, I ran several other mountains, enjoying some awesome views and the unpredictable weather that mountains bring, to help prepare me for the five day adventure that would be fast-packing the dolomiti.

The Fast Pack Story

In some ways, this little 5 day trip was two years in the making. In August 2012, I ran the 320 km 8 day TransAlpine Run as a team with my partner, Rolf. The last two days went through the Dolomites. I said, "I have to come back here and race!" Then I realised I didn't want to race - I wanted to savour the running. I wanted to take photos and enjoy the mountains in a different way from racing.

The well-used, sometimes accurate map

It was an adventure I wanted to share. I just had to wait for the right match of person(s) to think a self-sufficient, live-in-your-own-sweaty-clothes, multi-day run was a good idea! They came in the form of a Danish mate, an Italian mate, and an Aussie mate (transplanted from the UK many moons ago). Two ended up with work issues and cancelled. But happily, my partner decided it sounded like fun after all. That made us a group of three.

With a plan of 20 - 25 km/day (+2000m), Aussie mate John and I stared down a 1:20,000 topo map and a walker's book, and devised a loop. I suggested we cut the original 7 day idea down to 5, as I didn't want either of my running partners (with less years of running in their legs) to get injured. I figured if everyone felt that good after 5 days, we could easily add some day trips.

Rifugios, alpine huts Italian style, were booked in advance. They hold them until 6pm each day - after that, if they give out your room, you'll at least get a spot on the dining room floor. It's a refuge, after all :) And on Day 3, we experienced the true meaning of refuge! (Ummm, and again on Day 4!)

Snow running - yay!
Rolf snuck in with an 8 ltr UltrAspire Omega and John had field tested his 11 ltr Ultimate Direction pack. I decided I wanted the comfort of a few more things - some "emergency" fuel that I know my stomach likes, a SPOT emerg tracker/beacon, compression bandage, flint, spare Garmin.... I used the 14 ltr UltrAspire Titan. It was modified to add zips to the front pockets, as my field testing revealed stuff would fall out of the front magnet-latched pockets.

We all opted for Inov-8 shoes. My favs continue to be the x-talon 212s and they didn't let me down. As a former hiking-boot owner who was under the spell of "boots are best," I firmly believe now that boots are not best in many cases. I had excellent grip/traction on all surfaces - snow, mud, wet and dry rock, and via ferrata. Our shoes were whispered about, pointed at, photographed, and even video recorded by some!

In five days, we saw no other fast packers. Only full-pack hikers.

The very rough daily plan was to run ~10 km to lunch at a rifugio. This usually took 2 - 2.5 hrs, as there was often 1000m of gain and technical terrain involved. Lunch took 50-60 minutes and we'd try to pick carb-rich and lower fat meals that would sustain us without causing nausea when we donned our 5kg packs to start running again. We'd get started between 8.30 - 9.30 am each day (often closer to 9.30).

Typical night. Airing the wet clothes, rugged up in a doona.
In the afternoon, we had 10-15 km to get to our destination rifugio. Afternoons tended to bring about unplanned excitement. The weather was pretty average for our trip - lots of rain, snow whenever we got to 3,000 metres, and thunderstorms in the afternoons (thunderstorms are not a good thing when you're hanging onto metal cable on a via ferrata at 2,500m!) Our arrivals at rifugios tended to be between 4 - 5 pm. Then we'd spend the evening eating, showering, eating some more, washing our few items of clothes, trying to dry our few items of clothes, and eating some more.

The Drama

Every good story needs a little drama, and luckily we had so much that I don't even need to make things up! :) Here are the most dramatic of the stories.

There was "trail #15" to Para Dai Giai on Day 2 that just seemed to vanish at the summit, requiring us to navigate cross-country in a thunderstorm NW rather than SW as we had wanted, in order to get onto a "real" trail again. Bonus k's! But this was nothing compared to what we would get tomorrow!

The cross on Para Dai Giai, within a panorama
Day 3 we ran into clouds within a few km of the start, climbing from 2100m at Rif. Frara to the 2800-3100m Gruppo Del Sella mountains. The cold rain at this altitude required us to keep moving to stay warm. We departed Rif. Boe at 2871m after lunch (enjoyed in our wet clothes) into an approaching thunderstorm. Whilst everyone else sat tucked into the hut drinking grappa, we headed for Piz Boe summit (3152m). It was less than 2km and had a hut on top; we decided to make a break for it. If we got turned back, it wouldn't be far - either way. At Piz Boe (Rif. Cap na Fassa), it was snowing and visibility was down to 150 metres. We had a hot drink and a chocolate bar. The calories get the metabolism going, which is warming. And we were burning the calories, just trying to stay warm! Leaving the hut into the snow, we had about 2.5k down to our night's accommodation at Rif Forcella Pordoi. It was going to be the "short" day, to give us a little extra recovery for the legs. Ha! Mother Nature showed us for going out in a snowstorm at 3,000 metres!
Making the best of the weather - happy to arrive at the 3152m hut.

Out of the hut I tried to turn right, looking for the trail on the other side of the helicopter landing pad. Rolf noticed the #638 trail going left. I thought it must just veer down and around the landing pad. However, as we started running, I forgot all about the fact that we should make a right and also forgot - for the first time - to check my bearing with my Garmin. In a couple km, we knew something was up. My Garmin was telling me we were going NE, but Rolf suggested it was gapping due to tight valleys and poor weather. We didn't find the junction we expected. Things weren't making sense. We tried to find a sheltered place to pull out the map, where it wouldn't be instantly soaked, but Rolf has Raynaud's Syndrome and stopping in the cold is very bad news for him. We came to "The Rope Descent of Death" as I think John called it. Down about 200m of steep snow, with a climbing rope as a handhold. It was soaked with 3 degree water, which soaked the gloved hand, but we had no choice but to hold on. John spoke aloud what also didn't make sense to me - why were we descending more? Our hut was at 2,829m. We were sure we were on the wrong trail, but decided the necessary thing was to head for the closest rifugio - in front of us. Bonus hut. Here was "refuge" coming to its full and deepest meaning. We arrived at Rif Franz Kostner (2,500m) and had another hot drink. I pulled out the map and confirmed our error - we had indeed gone the opposite direction on the #638. Caused by rash thinking in extreme conditions. Not a rookie mistake, simply a stupid one.

The "entrance" to Rif. Forcella Pordoi after a big climb to the saddle
The day ended with a bit of magic though - the new route we took to Rif Forcella Pordoi took us on a 6km traverse below a beautiful ridge and then we had an amazing switchback climb to the hut that has featured in a Skyrunning race. John and I got to "secret race" a man coming up with poles (and beat him, yay!). And the arrival at the hut on the saddle (Forcella means fork or saddle) was second-to-none. A tunnel dug through the snow led to the hut entrance! To top it off, we were the only three people to stay there that night. Very special. That evening, the clouds rose, and I spotted Piz Boe with its hut in the distance - in good conditions, we could have seen between the two!

Day 4 we got to appreciate "refuge" one more time. Again, after lunch. We headed out from Rif. Vicenza (aka Langkofelhutte) for our last mountain climb - up and over Sasso Piatto on a via ferrata, and down to Rif. Sasso Piatto. The route was a dashed line on the map, with about 5 crosses in the middle, near the summit. Dashed lines are better than dotted lines. And crosses indicated via ferrata. The whole thing appeared straightforward and we'd done what had been a lot more intense looking via ferrata. This one didn't even have the dotted lines that indicate a lesser-marked trail. And it didn't have the image of a mountain climber on the map - a sign that meant climbing equipment was essential. There was no warning sign as we started the ascent - as we'd seen on a few other sections. Nothing said "You're out of your league, kids; turn back now." The ground was steep, scree-like, and wet. Going was slow. There were some snow traverses and then a "via ferrata without the ferrata" - we were climbing hand-over-hand. After 80m of that, the metal aids appeared.
Via ferrata without the ferrata

Hooray! We thought things would get better. But the going was slow - it was technical and wet and John was most definitely NOT in his comfort zone. In fact, it was in this section of trail (if I could call it that), that John respectfully demanded that I stop calling him by the nickname I'd developed (PJ, for Pommie John, as we already had an Irish John in our group and I was trying to differentiate) and that I call him John. After a couple hours of slow climbing, we were stopped by a bent ladder and a traverse across a rockface that appeared to have been taken out by a landslide. We could see red dots on the other side of the slide. There was a saddle there and we wondered if that marked the point of descent. I went across - a series of slow, careful movements to keep the scree from racing out from under me and washing me off the vertical ledge 10 metres away. I still have trouble processing how dangerous it probably was - likely to keep myself from losing the plot with the memory of it. What I saw on the other side was more cable and rungs, continuing up. We had to make the call - with more unknown, a dangerous crossing on the steep scree, inclement conditions, and new-to-ferrata John, it was the best decision for us. Back at Rif. Vicenza, we got three beds, albeit without hot shower, but there was terra firma and all the food we could buy.
My solo traverse of the landslide to get to the other saddle. 

Epilogue

Two days after the dolomites, I was feeling lost. John put it well in an email back to me after I sent him a quick message expressing this. He said, "That's because we were out there long enough that it felt like a vocation, not a vacation." So I went out on a solo 26k run through the French alps north of Mont Blanc, two maps in hand, to find myself. To remember my vocation. It worked. I built up more of the invisible calluses that come with labours of love.

My only lingering angst is over John. His name, that is. PJ might not have sounded serious enough or manly enough, but it had a spirit in it for me. John isn't even short for Jonathan in his case. It's just John. And that's not enough. He's not just John.

Credits (The Gear)

Wearing most of the gear here! Luckily not activating SPOT
Besides a couple awesome blokes, I will credit some gear for adding to the happiness factor. My essentials included UltrAspire Titan pack, Mammut gloves (more hard-wearing and thicker than the Icebreaker ones I have - better for climbing/via ferrata), Inov-8 x-talon 212s, Dirty Girl gaiters,  and Icebreaker s/s top (the BEST! I easily wore it 4 days in a row unwashed and should have just made it 5). Compressport arm warmers (invaluable in the variable weather we had - up/down is so easy for regulating temperature). Icebreaker long medium weight socks and Injinji medium weight socks - both awesome. My Perth Trail Series "tubie" (aka 'Buff'). Cash (most rifugios don't work with cards). Montane LiteSpeed H2O jacket (Rolf loves his similar Montane Minimus). Icebreaker 200 weight thermal top and 150 weight bottoms. Tabacco 1:20,000 topo - keeping in mind there may be errors! Garmin 310XT x 2. Emergency Hammer gels. Phone (charged and off - only for emergency use). Camera and spare battery, though I never needed the spare. Maglite Solitaire (mini-torch) - perfect for lighting the way to the loo at the rifugios. Ryders sunnies. Sports tape - for my lax tib-fib joint and for the lax map seams! I used half a roll on that map, I think. SPOT tracker. Lip balm.

What I Would Do Differently
To infinity and beyond....

Have two identical maps, cut into practical A4 size in advance, laid out double-sided and layered in "contact" to waterproof them. Carrying my map in a Ziploc was fine, but when I had to take it out repeatedly in the rain, it suffered badly. Plus every "re-folding" wore out the seams more.

Take less sunscreen and no bug spray.

Take one less s/s shirt - Icebreaker to run in and one for the hut is enough.

Go longer.

Conclusion

115k + 8800m. Memories enough to fill a rifugio. And 10 yet-to-be-used Tabacco maps. Hmmmm.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Research Musings: Acidic Blood, The 80:20 Rule, and Heat Acclimation Tactics

Here are three I was reading up on lately.

(1) The Alkaline Forming Diet/Alkaline vs Acidic Food Claims

Admittedly, I didn't do too much research on this one, because I did research and blog it here at the end of 2012. But it reared its head again with some YouTube and Facebook posts, so I went out to check whether there had been any changes to the science on this one.
The pH of gastric acid (which includes hydrochloric acid): 1.5 - 3.5

Nope. As I wrote in 2012, your pH is tightly regulated by your body. The pH of your urine can vary, but this has nothing to do with the pH of your body. In fact, changes in your urine are totally normal, as the body does its normal job of filtering through your lungs, kidneys, and liver, and no matter how acidic or alkaline your food is, "it is not going to get near your bloodstream in anything like its original chemical form." If you skip out on so-called acidic foods, which include meat, dairy, and grains (a pretty big part of a human diet), you could miss out on important nutrients and essential fatty acids your body needs.

(2) The 80:20 Rule

In 2010, after a couple good race results, a few very wise elite runners gave me some advice - without my even asking :) There I was, enjoying my successes and feeling pretty happy and there they were saying, "Yeah, you've done all right, but if you really want to be the best you can be, you should be doing speed work."

Speed work?!? That's for 10k runners. Maybe even marathon runners. Not an ultra runner!

I started doing that dreadful speed stuff, adjusting my training programs accordingly. And the results, of course, have proven them right.

But how much speed work and when? Well, I definitely ascribe to the "hard day/easy day" philosophy. Never two hard days in a row, as that increases injury risk due to lack of recovery. In many ways, we get stronger during our recovery time. No recovery time, no improvements - injury awaits. This means I wouldn't run two really long runs back-to-back, either, as a long run (say 5-8 hours for me), edges into a "hard" day, even though it's not a speed day. I learned this one rather the hard way, trying to follow those crazy generic online programs that have us running 3 and 4 hour back-to-back sessions, week after week. My body couldn't take that kind of load. (But guess what? Dropping back the mileage to what my body could tolerate, I could still do all those races!)

I also don't do speed work when I'm building volume. Another running philosophy with merit, I think: Don't do two things at once. Building volume and speed at the same time doesn't allow for sufficient recovery - therefore putting us at increased injury risk. That song by The Byrds comes to mind:

To everything, turn turn turn
There is a season, turn turn turn
And a time for every purpose under heaven
A time to build up, A time to break down...
A time to gain, A time to lose...
Business loves the 80:20 Rule, too. Human nature to create even numbers & rules!

Recently, a runner asked me about the 80:20 Rule - being that one should do 80% of runs at less than 75% of max HR, leaving 20% of runs as speed work (tempo/interval).

I had to admit that I hadn't really heard of this. In my head, I had jumped long ago onto programs advocating closer to a 90:10 mix. But once I started looking, I found there was quite a body of stuff out there on this "80:20" concept. But it's looking to me that this "rule" has been applied to endurance athletes as a whole. That is, they are lumping together runners, swimmers, cyclists, and cross-country skiers. Seiler (and Seiler and Tonnessen) found that most "highly trained athletes" were doing about 2 speed sessions per week. However, those athletes are also doing 10-13 sessions per week. For elite male runners, typically doing 160km/week or more at a 4 min/k average, that would equate to 10-12 or more hours per week of total running. The time spent in two speed sessions might total 1.5 hours (say an interval session one day and a tempo another day). That yields something like 1.5/10-12hrs (or more), which is 12.5 - 15%. Even if we look at it on a mileage basis, we're talking about a max of 20km of speed out of 160km or more of total running, which is 12.5%.

Indeed, the authors above noted that the few elite runners they specifically questioned were doing 85% of their runs at easy pace.

So, the 80:20 "Rule" sounds like it's being applied erroneously to runners. Humans like nice, neat packages and catchy phrases. But when I do the maths for runners and read the data on runners in these studies, I'm reading 85:15 Rule or 87.5:12.5 Rule. But those ratios don't roll off the tongue so nicely ;)
But for runners, the 80:20 Rule could cause this ratio, too!

The authors note that running "imposes severe ballistic loading stress that is not present in cycling or swimming..." and that there is a "strong inverse relationship between tolerated training volume and degree of eccentric or ballistic stress of the sport." This seems to back up the reason why runners AREN'T doing 20% speed work.

And let's remember that this 80:20 Rule, which in reality appears to be an 85:15 or 87.5:12.5 Rule, applies to WELL TRAINED endurance athletes. So, before going off to race around the track a couple times each week, consider where you're at in your own running development. Are you at the "well trained" level yet? I truly believe that if I'd hit speed work much earlier than I did, the extra stresses on my body would have likely broken me - unless I'd really dropped some volume, at least.

(3) Heat Acclimation or Acclimatisation

I didn't want to get too caught up in terminology here, but whilst some writers seem to use either term to mean the same thing, I understand acclimatisation to mean our natural adjustment to our natural surroundings, whereas "acclimation" is a forced (i.e., "un"natural) way of trying to achieve acclimatisation. Thus, going outside on a hot day and running is a natural way of "acclimatising" yourself to heat, but piling on layers of clothes and getting into a sauna is an "acclimation" technique for acclimatising. Right. Moving on.

It's perhaps the wrong time of year in Australia to be talking about heat acclimatisation, but for those in the northern hemisphere, just coming out of a long winter, or those in the south who might be travelling to race, the topic would be timely. And it just happens this is the first time I've made time to blog it :)

Running in heat stresses us, as our bodies are already dealing with expelling the extra heat produced by exercise. A muscle at rest is 33-35 degrees C. When at rest, we lose heat in 4 ways - about 60% via radiation (heat just radiates out of us), 25% by evaporation (water in sweat/breath), and 15% via convection (air flowing over our skin carries away heat). There's a nominal amount that we lose by conduction (whatever we touch - like sitting on a cold bench or standing on cold ground).

When we exercise, the energy produced for the muscles produces a by-product - heat - that needs to get released from the body. Evaporation (sweat and breath) goes into the top position now for heat loss - perhaps 55% of our heat is lost this way. Convection (the breeze blowing on us) also goes up - say 35%. Radiation drops to about 10%. When the air temperature goes over 36 degrees C (remember the temperature of our resting muscles?), our bodies GAIN heat through convection and radiation. So evaporation really becomes our only way of countering this on the extreme heat days. And keep in mind that when the weather is very humid, evaporation is weaker because the water released as sweat on the skin doesn't evaporate as readily.
Easy to feel like a baking lizard on Australian summer runs!

I read a very encouraging study just before Australian summer (that is, back in Dec 2013) by Costa and colleagues who found runners showed signs of acclimation to heat within 2 exposures of 2 hours of easy running (just 60% of VO2max) at 30 degrees C. Acclimation was measured by two key changes:

(1) Cardiovascular. You can think of that as heart-blood changes. What it meant is that blood plasma volume increased. This "hypervolaemia" results in a greater stroke volume with each pump of the heart muscle. That means heart rate goes down. Lower heart rate is a good thing when running!

(2) Thermoregulatory. Temperature regulation. Sweat sensitivity increased, sweating started earlier, and sweat rate went up. (Keep in mind this means that earlier sweat rate means a heat acclimatised runner will need more fluids, not less.)

Even better, Wendt et al (2007) reported in their literature review that you only need to exercise above 50% of max (enough to sweat, essentially), that 90-100 minutes was enough to achieve change, and that you don't have to do all your training in heat, as long as you have more time. Every day for 10 days or every third day for a month yield the same physiological changes.

So, how to use this information to our advantage?
Could it just be this easy?

First, mentally, we can know that after a couple runs in hot weather, our bodies have made the major changes necessary to adapt already. There's a mental aspect that needs extra time, but I think we can augment the mental adaptation by knowing that we have physically adapted. Costa and co noted that the runners in their study did not adapt their comfort rating in the heat (finding heat more bearable), until they were exposed to more easy running and higher temperatures (35 degrees C). The authors felt "thermal comfort" took longer to develop due to changes necessary in the metabolic system (the work of the hypothalamus to connect the nervous system to the endocrine system). The hypothalamus controls things like thirst, body temperature, and circadian rhythms.

Second, when going to race somewhere hot from somewhere cold, we needn't fret excessively about spending weeks in saunas or running in layers upon layers of parkas. A couple 2hr sessions create change. However, we need to keep in mind that these adaptations will decay. Just like adaptations made when we go to altitude. Whilst short term changes to plasma volume may be gone in 72 hours, if you have acclimated over 10 days or more, you should have at least 7 days (but likely less than 14 days) before significant decay occurs. The fitter you are, the longer your acclimatisation benefits should last.

So, whilst you can "cram" before a hot race with a couple sessions of heat running, you probably can't do it a week beforehand, as the effects will decay. Either you need to acclimate longer or you need to get time in the heat at >50% VO2max right before race day. Of course, who does a 2hr taper run two days before race day? With this in mind, you might have to consider something like acclimating and then keeping up your blood thickening by doing a couple "easy" workouts in a sauna (dry-heat acclimatisation is better retained than humid-heat). Don't dehydrate yourself, though! Researchers also found that "euhydration [normal levels of hydration] is a prerequisite for optimal heal acclimation to occur." In fact, dehydration abolished the advantages of acclimatisation.

Third, you might use heat acclimation techniques to improve performance even at a cool weather race. The adaptations made by the body, including cooler core temperature, greater blood plasma, lower heart rate, and increased sweat sensitivity and sweat rate, will positively affect your race, no matter the ambient temperature.

Bikram Choudhury, the founder of the Bikram method
What about Bikram yoga as an acclimation technique? That's the hot yoga, conducted at 35-41 degrees C, involving 26 poses over a 90 minute class. I've not done one myself, as it sounds pretty yucky to me. :) There's not much research yet, but what I found suggested it won't do the trick. One study noted that HR was 57% of max during Bikram (56% of max during regular yoga). Thus, it's not really a surprise then that Tracy & Hart's 2013 study of young, healthy individuals put on an 8 week Bikram program (3 x 90 min sessions/wk) showed that Bikram did not induce cardiovascular or metabolic changes. As we learned above, exercise intensities for heat acclimation have been at 50-60% of VO2max. This is closer to 65-70% of max HR. Your "long slow distance" running pace. Abel and colleagues (2012) also found no changes in "resting hemodynamics, pulmonary function or aerobic fitness" in their study of novice versus long-standing Bikram practitioners.

But I'm sure there are other good reasons for sweating profusely in a crowded room with strangers.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

2014's Long Running Meditation #3: The Sri Chinmoy 12 Hour Race

Conditions were excellent for the Sri Chinmoy 24hr race. The problem was, I wasn't doing the 24hr race. Not anymore. After the big switcheroo, where I did my 24 in April, it was the 12 hour event I was geared up for. So why weren't the conditions so good for the 12hr event, run at the very same venue?

Well, to start, there's the small matter of it being a night race. Yup, it started at 10pm. Physically, considering circadian rhythms, we diurnal human beings are best suited to run mid/late afternoon. Starting at 10pm was a great boost for the 24hr racers on the track, as we brought fresh energy out there. But running through the night, despite the fact that I don't suffer sleep monsters at all, surely cannot result in my best performance.
Looking towards the start line with scoring team and aid station

Then, there's the matter of temperature. For the 24hr race, it was pretty good overall - no hotter than 18 degrees, with limited sun. By 10pm, temps were down to 10 degrees and continued dropping to a chilly 6 degrees. My crew was wearing all her mountaineering clothes! I didn't need to rug right up, but I still needed to wear arm warmers and gloves throughout. Fortunately, I kept moving well to avoid getting a chill. More clothes means more weight to lug around the track! The cold also meant more toilet stops as the blood retreated to my core to try to keep me alive.

Third, the crowds. I always knew that joining 34 half-spent runners on a 400 metre track was going to pose a challenge. There were 14 other 12hr runners, too. That meant that until anyone quit or had a little snooze in their tent, there could be 49 people on the track, mostly vying for lane one. The race became a bit of a video game, dodging around people and between talking people travelling side-by-side. By my rough calculations, veering out into lane 2 (sometimes lane 3) 15 times per lap could cost 5 metres. No biggie, though 5 metres x 333 laps = about 1.5km. So that kinda sucks.

Another unique challenge created by the start time was that I normally do an "alt" carb-loading program that requires a sprint the morning before the race, then fueling up on carbs, whilst limiting fats and fibre, of course. But I had 36 hours. That was a lot of eating. I'll just say that the result was too much bulk! Next time, I'd sprint at night to stick with the 24hr loading timeframe.
Food on top, mine (Perp, water). Food below, crew (including the Coke!)

Having all day of race day free presented a HUGE mental challenge. I had all day to chill. All day to hang out, not wanting to spend time on my feet in adventures. I'm not a tv person, so that left a whole lot of time for my monkey mind to play at me.

Boy, my right QL feels tight. Why are you doing this? This is stupid. It's going to be so hard. You can't do it. Should I take my beetroot juice yet? Ahhh, my neck. The pillows in hotels are terrible. My neck hurts. Where's my tennis ball? Is it too late to roll my QL? I'm thirsty. Should I drink more? But I don't want to have to pee a lot during the race. But I don't want to start dehydrated. How am I going to stay warm before the start? Did I pick the right shoes? I've never raced with my Compressport full socks before. What if I have to change socks during the race? There go the splits!

Given all this, why on earth would I actually sign up for this 12 hour race, then? Well, despite knowing that it wasn't quite exactly perfect conditions in some ways, there were so many positives that made up for it.

The Sri Chinmoy team put on an excellent event. They are a passionate, lovely, caring team of runners who cheer endlessly for everyone. They make us all feel like superstars. There was one volunteer who shouted, "Go Bernadette Go!" such that I felt it right to my bones! The vollies come right out onto the track with cups of hot soup, mashed potatoes, and such. They even take orders for hot drinks whilst you're running! Although I just stick to my Hammer Perpetuem (seriously, 6, 12, or 24 hours, with pears as well, that's my thing!), it's lovely to see the caring and attention to detail brought by the team.
Wonderful volunteer offering takeaway!

I was also looking forward to sharing the track with people running 24 hours, because it's just darn inspiring! I love the camaraderie of a track race. Though I'm a "no talker" during races, and in fact enjoy the opportunity to try to not think for hours at a time (a running meditation), I enjoy watching the spirit of the event unfold. Runners band together to encourage each other. Going past people, I'd get snippets of conversations where people were talking about their goals, their revised goals, and their challenges, and getting support from others who, in fact, were their competition! What other kind of race is like this?? Runners were heard on their phones walking, talking to partners and friends about their progress, saying goodnight to friends and family. 

"Don't you get bored at a track race?" people ask. If you're bored at one of these events, you're not paying attention.

So round and round I went, staying on target for the first four hours, running 12k/hr. Though from hour 2, I was struggling. The heart rate was fine, but I developed...dare I say...pre-menstrual cramps and low back ache. (That was like whispering, hee hee!) I then developed neuromuscular spasms down my right leg. Related or not, I'm not sure. I had to focus intently on maintaining my gait. At pace, my right leg started wanting to do the boogaloo. I worked really hard to try to stay on pace, but every time I brought it up to where it was supposed to be...Boogaloo! Leg doing its own thing! So I settled into a slower pace where I could manage to keep getting enough signals between my brain and leg at the right timing that I could run smoothly. I waged a mental battle against quitting. Just get to the marathon mark. Just get to the six hour mark. Your crew came all this way and gave up her weekend and is staying up all night for you.

Hours 4 and 5 saw 11.2k each, and then I yielded more to this "boogaloo struggle" and settled into a more workable speed that allowed for the faulty wiring. The pace dropped to 10.4k/hr. And that's essentially where I stayed from hours 7 through 12. There was no slowing. I could run that pace and keep system malfunctions at bay :)

The "A goal" for distance disappeared by hour 6. I held steady, though, and when the clock hit 11.5 hours, I decided what the B goal would be. I yelled out to my crew. "Push me! I want 133k!" Although the A goal was gone, and the Australian record to break was 131.3k, I wanted to know I had left the track having given it my best. I felt 5k in the last 30 minutes was achievable and went for it. And we did it! 

Given the cards I was dealt on the day, I have no regrets and feel I achieved the best I could. I may target another 12 hour in a year or so. But we'll see what other exciting challenges I find to compete with that idea :) 

It's been an incredible 4 months of racing for me. In this race, I managed to break the Canadian W45 6hr record  with 70.288km and the Canadian and Australian W45 100km records at 8hr 47min 54sec (all to be ratified). When the gun sounded, I set new Open Canadian and Australian 12 hour benchmarks with my 133.535km total.

Once the new records are ratified, I will hold the Open Canadian 6hr, 12hr, 24hr, and 100 Mile records and the Open Australian 12hr, 24hr, 100 Mile, and 200km records. Plus many age group records. It remains surreal what I have achieved. I don't rant on and on about my sponsors - at least I don't think I do - but I respect these products and their support and I want to extend my gratitude here for what has without a doubt helped me achieve what I couldn't have even dreamed two years ago. This is my version of a virtual handshake. Maybe even a hug where appropriate.

Hammer Nutrition - my favs include Perpetuem, Espresso, Chocolate, and Peanut Butter Gels, Endurolytes, and Recoverite.

NTP Health Products/Flora - my fav daily good fats anti-inflammatory dose is Udo's Oil on my cereal!

Compressport - holding my muscles together, my favs at different times for different reasons include the full socks, full legs, trail shorts, trail shirt, arm warmers...oh, heck, all of it! :)

RaceReady - pocket shorts rock. Where else do you carry your pear? And the breathability of the shirts is second to none. 
Night turns to day and we spin the other direction!

UpBeat - go vasodilating rocket fuel! A pre-race loading must.

Mainpeak - the family owned and operated outdoor store with amazing, quality gear for adventures and cool staff who know adventuring. My favs from them include Icebreaker gear (at the 12hr I was wearing Icebreaker gloves and undies!), Montane jackets and pants, my Leki poles. As I head into trail season in the northern hemisphere, I'll be cramming a lot of Mainpeak gear into the suitcase!

Langer Chiropractic - sports chiro Jon Tan has had a key role in keeping me in good form and as an athlete himself, he gets it. The sad part about going overseas for me every year is that I lose the skills
of people like Jon to keep me tuned up.

In addition to these supportive sponsors, I am grateful to my supportive running mates, who keep me honest, bring laughter and challenge to our adventures, crew for me, and help in myriads of other ways so that I can keep doing the training I do. My massage therapist is a demon in all the best ways and I truly miss him when I compete away from home, too. My family gives me great sarcastic encouragement, including my mum who recently asked me what it's like to be an alien. My partner, well, I just won't even try to find words there to do justice to my gratitude.
333 laps. Ultra runners like 'even' numbers ;)