"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

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Metaphysics of VK's and Grand Pianos

Last weekend I fulfilled a little dream. I ran a European International Skyrunning Federation (ISF) "vertical kilometre" (VK) event. The basic criteria for an ISF VK is that the route must gain 1000 metres over "variable terrain with a substantial incline, not exceeding five kilometres in length." I chose my race mostly on convenience - the timing meant that I was in Europe, near enough to the Italian dolomites, that I could do the Dolomites Vertical Kilometer. This race gives hill-loving athletes their +1000m in just 2.4 kilometres!
View from hotel room to the peak I'll run.

Other than my track sessions with the WA Masters group, I've never done a race as a "training race" or "B race/C race"* before. My goals were:

(1) experience a European VK
(2) get a solid, hard uphill training session in for UTMB, which is my A goal race later in August
(2a) find out (hopefully) my legs are super strong and I'm still able to run mountains for the rest of the weekend
(3) test drive and practice with my new Leki Trailstick poles

I'm happy to report that all goals were achieved.

The event itself was a little disorganised before the start. They moved the race briefing, which was already hard to find if you weren't a local. There was a handwritten note on the door of the building directing us to go to "Belvedere" instead. No map. Great...now just to find out what and where "Belvedere" was and get there within 5 minutes! The initial Google search via our phones on international roaming found a place 55 minutes away. A little more searching and we found a closer one :)

Briefing done, we found where to get my bib and then found dinner. That night, I found something else. I found myself getting nervous and agitated. It was the pressure to perform. And yet I had no performance goals for myself, other than to find out if my legs post-race were as rock solid as I hoped they would be. But I felt the pressure of the invisible audience, expecting me to smash it up. I knew I was going to smash it up, but it was going to be the version of smashing-it-up that comes from a 46 year old woman in peak mileage, doing 150 k's of mountain running per week.

Race morning dawned and I enjoyed a more relaxed feeling that comes with doing a "C race" (a new thing for me!) and with a very civilised 9.50 am start (VK'ers go in waves of 20 people every 4-5 minutes). But I had to arrive by 9 am to get my finish line bag to the helicopter. Yes, indeed, there was a giant bag being filled with runners' bags, which was carried up dangling from a helicopter to the summit at about 2500m.

I stood around watching and waiting and the more I stood, the more I felt the pangs of nerves again. Even though I had the compression gear, fancy poles, and distinct lack of body fat like all the others around me, I felt out of place. I felt like those newbie trail runners at Perth Trail Series events who would contact me when I was RD and say, "I'm just a regular runner. Can I do your events? Are they just for elites and other really fast people? If I do your event, will I be last?" And then they would rock up - and almost surely wouldn't be last - but would stand there feeling all the internal jitters as their eyes fixated on all the fit, lycra'd, hydration-packed "athletes" around them.

Standing at the VK, I felt all this. All this rubbish nonsense in my head. All over a silly little 2.5km run up a mountain on a beautiful summer day.

The cool start chute, organisers calling each starter.
They called my name and number (in Italian) and I ran through the start chute, over the cool little ramp that makes you feel like an F1 racing car! That was awesome and everyone should get to do that sometime. I made little rumbling idling and revving noises in my head :) Vroom Vroom!

Some modern dance music came on loud before they counted us down. It was perfect. I closed my eyes and did a little dance to the beat. I remembered myself. I'm just a little girl who loves running.

And so I ran (and power hiked, yes, it's steep!) to the top of that mountain. And then did something else I've never done. I toasted my "win" against the voices in my head with a bit of prosecco at the top. (I've never seen prosecco at the finish line of a race - distinctly Italian and apropos, it seemed.)

I watched other runners come in for about 30 minutes, then ran the 2k to the cable car, which was taking us to the foot of the mountain (it's forbidden to run down the route, even if you were silly enough to want to run something that steep down.)

Timing chip returned, we had lunch and Rolf and I headed off to Marmolada, the queen of the dolomites, just around the corner. I enjoyed a 5k + 700m hike/climb up to her glacier, the only glacier in the dolomites.

The following day, I backed up with a 22k + 2200m run in the dolomites, fastpacking with 8kg on my back, to stay in a rifugio for the night. The next morning, after a brekkie of muesli, yoghurt and chia (yes, I carried my own chia up the mountain; it was lighter than the bottle of Udo's Oil!), we ran out to the car, 8k away. The legs were finally getting tired :)

The smile was genuine. Hard work, but I was loving it!
And so, how did I do in the VK, many will want to know. All goals achieved, as above.

My placing? About mid-pack. For those of you shocked, let's bring the giant grand piano of reality crashing down onto the scene.

My VO2max is over the 90th percentile, I know that much. But that's based on sex and age. I'm not in my 20s. Age is against me in a sprint. The Dolomite VK results don't take age into consideration or provide DOB's or ages beside names. I saw two women I would have guessed as old or older than me. Pretty much everyone seemed 15-20 years my junior. But that could have been selective attention on my part :)

In another context, let's say I could run a 3hr12 marathon on a very good day. Just a guess, but a maths-based one. If I ran a marathon in Western Australia, I might win it. Depends who comes out, but it's at least possible. Top 3 even more likely. However, if I took my same great race to the Boston Marathon, my 3:12 would have netted me 493rd position amongst women this year. 493rd.

Be your best. And keep dodging grand pianos :)


*A race/B race/C race definitions: These are my own interpretations.... An A race is your major goal event that might require several months of preparation. The B race would be one aligned with the A race goal and thus supports it. The B race would likely have a performance-related goal (e.g., run a half marathon at your marathon pace, if you were preparing for your first marathon). The C race would probably also be aligned with the A race...but at least shouldn't be counter to it! There isn't really a performance goal, but there's some other goal for doing the event (e.g., test fueling/gear).

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Ups and Downs

There have been a few ups and downs in my world since my last post - already a whirlwind 6 weeks ago!
A monkey. And the shadow of the volcano over Bali, created by the sunrise

Keeping with my penchant for silly post-race recovery adventures (read "recovery" with a healthy dose of scepticism), I headed off the day after the Kep Ultra for 5 days in Indonesia. And thus it was, two nights after the race, I found myself pulling an all-nighter in Bali. Whilst there are many Aussies who can claim to have done all-nighters on Bali, fewer claim theirs as an all night hike up a live volcano to witness sunrise at the summit. Gunung (Mt) Agung at ~3000 metres is Bali's highest point. Whilst I thought the all-night approach was more about the sunrise and beating the heat, I found out that the clouds tend to come in before noon each day, obscuring views for those who might prefer to keep to their diurnal habits. Our nocturnal adventure was a very fortunate one, as the rain gave way to clear skies and a full moon meant we climbed without using our headlamps. Truly magical. As were the pancakes made by our (mandatory) guide at the summit!
Hot pancakes at 3000 metres! It's like a Euro rifugio without the hut :)

After the mental "up" of the Kep Ultra and the physical "up" of the volcano climb, the subsequent "down" was physically if not mentally rather taxing! The next couple days were spent with more normal active recovery gentle walks, including as few wince-inducing stairs as possible :)

The Kep recovery phase came to an end two weeks after the event and was marked by a 25k trail run. I heard the trumpets sound and the town crier call, "Let the training games begin anew!"

So the following week was marked with the "up" of increasing mileage along with the "down" of intermittent fasting to shed 2kg of fat. I created my own form of torture via a few solo slogging fat-burning long runs.

Four days down in WA's Stirling Range did wonders for getting my weight back to where I wanted it. Three days spent adventuring and eating well (and sleeping cold?? Shivering increases metabolism, after all!) were magic for my body and soul. Taking two mates in tow on day 1, we tackled the (normally 3 day) Ridge Top Walk (5 min video link). This approximately 23km traverse (+6km access via fire trail) goes up and down over the main range from Bluff Knoll (aka Mt James) to Ellen Peak and provides about 2800-3000 metres of climbing. I'd done the traverse once before with others who knew the route. That time, I'd completed the full 46k loop. For this adventure, given it was winter (less daylight) and having no one with me who had done the route before, I decided to focus only on the traverse. The loop isn't really sexy, anyway. It's bitumen road and fire trail.
Early in the day - the majority of peaks behind me still to do.

My thought was to recce the route for setting an FKT post on the proboard site that others could then use for their own personal challenge. But after seeing the current state of the "trail," I said, "FKT? NOT ME!" It was so overgrown for about half of it that it reminded me of those times rogaining where I've chosen a really crap route to find a control and had to claw, stumble, and crawl my way through razor-sharp Aussie bush. I banged my right shin so many times on small, immovable thick bush/shrubs that I finished with a swollen ankle I couldn't bend without pain. Someone can FKT it, but at this point, it won't be me. I'll stick with "enjoying" the challenge of trying to navigate the traverse in daylight hours. Winter also provided an extra challenge in the form of wet rock, reeds, and clay, but also meant the daytime temperatures were more mild and hydration needs weren't as demanding (I still carried 4.5 litres, but came home with 1.5). High quality rain pants (mine were Patagonia) were a blessing, given all the wet and sharp bushes. The Montane rain/wind jacket was also requisite, given very strong winds that had me doubting we could do the cliff-edge climbing sections safely later in the day. I was being literally blown over at times in the open sections.

From 5 am to 6.30 pm, we traversed the range, starting and finishing in the dark, but managing to do all the tricky summit stuff in daylight. I wouldn't want to try to navigate up there in the dark! The following day, with the help of my full compression socks worn overnight, I was able to do my Bluff Knoll hill repeats. And the day after, I took myself on a 5 hour firetrail adventure (banging my poor shin again on a trippy-stick and setting back my ankle recovery, argh).

Thus ended a 150k + 5200m training week over 29-30 hours of training time.

And then I launched straight into the next week, taking on some new "ups" in the form of a steeplechase track race! It wasn't pretty, but it was fun! And challenging. I highly recommend it. I jumped the hurdles like logs on a trail, one hand on the "log." And whilst I didn't get quite as soaked as the girl in this photo, I was soaked to my waist from the five "river crossings" I had to do over the 2k event. The end of the week saw me leading a trail technique course for the Perth Trail Series and then doing a marvellous 70km/8.5 hour point-to-point run on the Bibbulmun Track. The next morning I was off to Switzerland!

So up in the air I went and down I landed in Zurich, followed by a train to my base in Aarau. It's low-lying, so it takes a bit of extra focus to get the elevation I want out of some runs. To emulate the UTMB course, I need +600m over each 10k. One of my key sessions included a 30k on the slopes of Mt Titlis, where I easily (well, not so easily, but let's say readily) bagged +2000m in the first 18k! And got a little time in at elevation, too, reaching 2500 metres above sea level. Another key session included 3 x 2k hard descents (bomb proofing the quads and tib ants). Switzerland's heat wave is not making it pleasant, but I'm trying to remember to be grateful for this running opportunity. Sweat-in-the-eyes and all :)

On the slopes of Titlis. Finger points to Jochpass, where I was 2hrs before
I expect all these training ups and downs have my max heart rate (HR) back down, too. I threw my heart rate monitor on for several runs in June and was surprised to see my max HR a full 10 points higher than is theoretically possible (based on previous VO2max testing). In fact, I ran a 1500m race at 104% of my max HR :) I was excited to think I was defying age and getting younger, but quickly came to the understanding that detraining after the Kep Ultra resulted in blood plasma changes that meant my heart had to pump more blood per minute to get the requisite oxygen to the muscles. Now that I'm fit again, I expect less pumps needed by the ol' ticker to get the same amount of oxygen circulating. What hit home here was that given the 3-7% shifts in max HR that can occur with training/detraining, one must be wary of using percentage of max HR for training zones. Anyway, I left the HR monitor in Perth. It's easier ;)